Sailing, Philosophizing, and Boat Repairs in Guatemala and Belize

Watch out, Captain Ron, you have Competition

late March to early May, 2013

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Last winter I went to Borneo and then met Dona for explorations of Tazmania and Hawaii. As a result, I didn't get any sailing in.

Dona and I have pretty much established that heat and bugs don't do well by her, and sailing is not her favorite thing. So this year I planned a solo trip, the first one since we got married.

I have wanted to go to Cuba for years, and considered this the year to try. I figured if the weather was nice and all went well, I could sail up, explore the southern islands off the Cuban coast, do some birding inland, visit some friends of friends, and sail back. So I procured charts and a guidebook.

But I wasn't really on top of my packing the way I usually am, and had a bunch of last-minute things I should have bought to take down but didn't. The big day arrived, and she dropped me at the airport with a big orange waterproof bag stuffed full of diving gear and boat stuff, my travel banjo, camera, and a book on boat maintenance.

For those just looking for the "Gary's version of the movie Captain Ron," you can skip the rest of this and just go to Captain Gary's Summary.

I sailed through security at Missoula, then got to Denver with four hours to make my connection to Houston. I hoofed it over to the gate, way early, chose a seat close to the gate / agent desk, and contented myself reading the boat maintenance book. Eventually they listed my flight on the billboard at the gate; I still had an hour to spare. Eventually I heard them call for boarding for all the millionaires. I checked my boarding pass, and saw I was in group 5. Lots of time still, it was a full flight, so I went back to reading.

When I next looked up, the gate was empty. Empty, that is, except for the two agents. The door to the jetway was closed. I jumped up and ran over, told them I was on the flight, and they said "Sorry, the door is closed." I said "The plane is still here! I've been sitting here the whole time!" They re-iterated, "Sorry, the door is closed."

I know it was my fault -- I wasn't listening. The fact that everyone got up around me and trooped over to the line to board without disturbing me is amazing, although not all that surprising, When in college, I had three noisy room-mates, and I trained myself to concentrate through all sorts of disturbances. But I was pissed. Where I come from people try to be accomodating. If someone is sitting all alone in the boarding area engrossed in something and you are missing passengers on a flight, you go over and ask them if they are the missing person. You announce their name on the P.A. system. The airline industry is a service industry, and United Airlines gate agents get a big fat 'F'.

I grabbed my banjo and carry-on and hoofed it down the hall to the service desk. I explained my predicament to the agent and asked if there was another flight to Houston that would make my connection to Guatemala City. The agent checked her watch and said "But the plane hasn't even left yet." I explained about the un-cooperative gate agents. She called the gate and got the same run-around. She rolled her eyes, checked to see that there was another flight, and went on to book me on it.

About this time another passenger came up, also pissed. He had gotten to his gate 15 minutes before the flight left, and they hadn't let him on. Same garbage, only he didn't have another flight and would have to spend the night in Houston.

And then a third couple came up, same story. The only thing I can figure out is that United had way oversold their flights, and the gate agents had given away seats to standby customers early, and didn't want to have to sort it out. In any case, they all get big fat 'F's for grades in customer service. It also turns out that the closing the door ten minutes before a flight and not letting you on is totally an airline rule, and not something required by TSA or national security or anyone else. It's the airline's convenience rule. So they could have easily opened the door and let people on. It's no wonder many seasoned travelers avoid United States based airlines in favor of those from Europe and the Far East.

Fortunately, I made it to Houston with time to spare, got my plane to Guatemala, and spent the night at Las Torres Guest House. The next morning I was up early for the 6:00 bus to Fronteras, a.k.a. Rio Dulce.

The bus from Guatemala City to rio Dulce climbs up over the Andes and then follows the Motagua River Valley. Once you cross the divide, it's a dry climate until you get down to the coastal plain where the tropical jungle takes over.

Motagua RValley Motagua RValley
Motagua RValley Motagua RValley

The bus stops for lunch at the same place all the time, a water park / hotel near the town of El Rancho. I don't know exactly where it is, I just recognize it when we get there. There are outdoor vendors and an ice cream stand as well as a regular cafeteria and other eateries. I always opt for ice-cream!

Lunch Stop
Lunch Stop

By the time we got to Morales the dry had turned to rain, which continued all the way to Fronteras. We got caught in a traffic jam on the bridge over the river, where we waited for half an hour or so. It's the longest and highest bridge in Central America, and people always stop and get out to take pictures. On top of that commercial vehicles unloading in town stop in the middle of the street to unload, and there's no way around them. Once we made it to the actual end of the line, I thought about calling Jennifer to see if she happened to be in town, but decided against it. I should have, as my friend Casey was up there and I could have gotten a ride down to the boat with him. As it was I picked up a Collectivo, a tour boat that runs to Livingston and stops at points in between if you desire.

Rio Dulce At Fronteras
Rio Dulce At Fronteras

The collectivo dropped me off at Jennifer's, on the Bahia de Buena Vista (Bay with the Pretty View). Once I got to the boat, I felt like I could relax. I kicked off my hiking boots, opened up the boat, and started putting things back together. Things didn't look too bad for an absence of two years. But looks can be decieving...

I soon learned that not only were there birds nesting at the top of the mast (no big deal), but there was a colony of bees inside the mast (A very big deal). When I hooked up the power, I discovered all of the batteries were fried -- new, expensive batteries I had just purchased a year or two earlier which should have lasted 7 to 15 years. The stern running light had been trashed. The clip that holds the boom on the backstay when we're not sailing to keep it from swinging from side-to-side was broken. Some of this stuff was minor, but some of it was going to be time-consuming and expensive. The bees worried me the most. In short order I went from being in a good mood to being depressed and discouraged.

Jennifer warned me about the bees in the mast, so I used caution and suited up in a makeshift bee-suit -- sweatshirt, long pants, boots, gloves, and a mosquito head net. The topping lift sentinel was "cemented" into the hive, but I was able to pull it loose and ran the topping lift up the mast. Bees came pouring out of the mast and swarmed all around me, and I retreated to Jennifer's launch and drifted away to a distant part of the bay with the wind, methodically killing bees as I went. Jennifer offered, and I accepted, to spend the night on her porch rather than in the boat.

Jennifer sent email to a friend of hers who is a bee expert and he informed us the best / only real solution was to run a rag with poison on it up inside the mast. I like bees and don't have anything in particular against them, but I'm not going to let them take over my boat. Another boat had the requisite poison in a special stash, so I retrieved it and tore a rag into long strips which I then soaked in the stuff. I suited up again really well, putting plastic bags over my socks and hands, and ran the rag up inside the mast. I pulled it too far the first time and it came out at the top, but I had to retreat to the launch and wait for things to calm down. It was pretty strange standing there with angry bees flying all around trying to get at me. After things calmed down I went back and pulled the rag back in. I went back two more times. I got stung five or six times, the first day, and only one or two times with the poison setup. Then I retreated to Jennifer's again.

The bees were a real downer. On top of that, I discovered all of my "cheat sheets," notes for what to do to recommission the boat, etc., had been taken home and I had not printed out new ones to bring down with me. One of those things which was on my list which I didn't get done, as I thought I had the old one still on the boat.

Bahia De Buena Vista
Bahia De Buena Vista

Jennifer makes her living as an artist, so while I was contemplating what to do about the bees I could enjoy some of her latest projects.

Skull Paddles
Skull Paddles

In addition to the bees, there were some Great Kiskadees nesting on top of the mast. At some point I would have to go up there and take it down. It was rather frustrating. At one point I tore out the nest and threw it down, and I hadn't gotten five feet back down the mast and they were rebuilding.

Malakii Bird Nest Mast Bird Nest
Bird Nest on Top of the Mast Bird Nest

Bird Swallow

Gary Bee Suit Gary Bee Suit Gary Bee Suit
Suited up for Bees

Bird Great Kiskadee Bird Great Kiskadee Bird Great Kiskadee
Great Kiskadee up the Mast Great Kiskadee Great Kiskadee

Fishermen Returning
Fishermen Returning Home

So, let's see. Bees in the mast, a bird's nest up the mast, dead batteries... What next? While I was working in the galley, something big, ugly, and scary looking flew in. It was a wasp with a rear end hanging down that looked like a super-tanker refueling plane for the air force. If that thing was filled with venom I sure didn't want to get stung. I managed to kill it, and thought it was the only one. Then another showed up and started messing around in the aft part of the quarter berth, back above and behind the fue tank. I had to crawl back there where I could hardly move but I managed to disable it / knock it down and then kill it too. Now I was nervous. And a dozen more kept showing up over the next few weeks. They would fly in, inspecting the boat for good places to lay eggs I presume. That's all I needed. Every time one flew in I stopped what I was doing and focused on it.

It must have gotten pretty dang hot in the cabin at some point in the last two years. I had a box of latex gloves stored across from the head. The box says store at less than 104 degrees; it had clearly been way over that, as they were all melted together. Maybe that happened before I had the hull repainted cream colored instead of dark blue. In any case, it was discouraging. The thermometer on the cabin wall usually read about 90 degrees.


Amid all these crises, I enjoyed watching the birds coming and going. The cormorants and egrets are an ever present delight, and the sunset is sootheing.

Bird Cormorant Bird Cormorant
Bird Cormorant Bird Cormorant

Bird Cormorant
Bird Cormorant

The bees vacated the mast ... for a day. Two days later they were back. Then they left again, more or less for good... for the moment. But then I had another problem. The mast smelled like bee hive, if you take away the poison smell. I would need to get the whole honey-comb out, and didn't have a clue how to do that. I couldn't take the cap off the top of the mast because it is welded on. Jennifer called her bee expert again, and his answer was ... ants. Find a colony of ants which like honey, lead them onto the boat, and they will carry the whole thing away. I didn't have time for that; I wanted to go sailing. So I resigned myself to ignore the problem for the moment. I drilled a couple of holes in the bottom of the mast and flushed the inside out with water, which got quite a few dead bees and larve and pieces of honeycomb out. But there was still a lot left up at the top.

When I tried to start the engine I got nothing, not even a click. I spent a whole day working on the battery box, cleaning terminals, ground wires, and rearranging terminal blocks. I checked the electrolyte in the batteries and both of the six volt house batteries looked loucy in all cells. The 12 volt starter battery had five out of six cells bad, with the sixth one in tip-top shape. I relabelled all the cables and put things back together, resigned to buying another battery.

Battery Box
Battery Box

The next day I got the engine started with the help of a spare battery off another boat. When I rechecked my own batteries, the engine starting battery had five perfectly good, top condition cells, and one cell which was totally shot, which made the whole battery shot. That sucks. They used to make batteries where you could change out an individual cell. Apparently Rolles Royce batteries are still that way. I tried charging it with Jennifer's big charger to see if the cell would come back to life but it didn't improve things. Damn. The house batteries looked better, and when I tried the refrigerator it worked ok. I tried starting the engine using the house batteries and it started right up. Since this was going to be a relatively short trip, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the wisdom of trying to squeak by using the old house batteries for both the house and starting the engine, and putting off buying new ones until next year.

I was going up to town with Jennifer the next day to buy some supplies, and in preparation for that I checked out the frig to make sure it was clean. I found a dead bird in there. Not a good omen... I cleaned it out, chloroxed the whole thing, and left it to air out all day.

I looked for a new battery when I was up in town, but couldn't find what I thought was a good dual-purpose one. There were some deep cycle ones which were pretty expensive, but I didn't want that for a starter battery.

Bahia De Buena Vista Sunset Bahia De Buena Vista Sunset
Bahia De Buena Vista Sunset Bahia De Buena Vista Sunset

I went through my tool drawers and got rid of some old glue which had set up, grease I would never use, etc.; a general clean up. Then I got out the jib lead blocks to put on the tracks and discovered one of them was corroded clear through, ready to snap. Ugh. I put it on anyway, with another spinnaker lead as a back-up in case it gave way.

During the heat of the day I would jump in the bay and swim around the boat, scrubbing the hull to remove the growth on it. Not much in the way of barnacles, mostly just leafy brown lettuce-like stuff. I went to take the bags off the propeller which I had put there to retard barnacle growth when I left two years before, but they were gone and the prop looked like a new reef sprouting up. I put on a pair of gloves and grabbed a putty knife and went to work. The barnacles weren't too bad, and came off without too much effort.

The GPS seemed to be pretty much hosed. It fundamentally still works, but it has lots of rows and columns of dead pixels so it's pretty impossible to read the screen. The information is there, but you can't get at it.

I had gotten the dinghy out of storage in Jennifer's boat shed and it was in pretty good shape. But the motor was not so good. Both mounting bolts were frozen; I should have greased them before I put it up, and had Chico rotate them every month or so. I got one of them freed up ok, but the other wouldn't budge. I tried heating it with a torch and got it a little loose, and could work it through about 1/8 of a turn but no more. Eventually I broke the bolt off trying to work it loose. I ended up cutting it off and drilling it out. I mounted it on the dink with the one good bolt; it would do for this trip. I tried to start it but it wouldn't even cough. I checked the carbureator fuel bowl and it was empty. So I took apart the fuel pump and cleaned, greased, and tightened it up. Then the motor started right up; it must have had some air leaks.

I realized I could spend the entire six weeks I had planned for this trip just doing boat maintenance. There are bazillions of projects on a boat, and one is limited only by incentive and funds.

But while I like "messing around with boats," I am an explorer at heart. I wanted to get going. I had originally allotted only a week to get ready, and I'd already burned up two. Cuba was looking out of the question. I decided I should plan on just doing some low-key exploring in Belize, and if things looked perfect, thinking more seriously about the big island to the north. I spent the day cleaning up, checking out a few last things. The auto pilot, wheel, dink davits, and sails. The jib was ok but the hanks were corroded, and should have been cleaned better before putting the sail up. The hanks on the storm jib were badly corroded, and some grommets were corroded through and broken. Ugh. I'm not sure how to repair those.

Belize is expensive compared to Guatemala, and in the past they haven't let me enter with much in the way of produce. I decided to stock up on the canned / boxed stuff here. So one afternoon when the wind was up a bit, I cast off the mooring and sailed out of the bay, heading back up the river to Fronteras.

Local Cayuco
Local Cayuco