March 15, 2006
Cartagena, Colombia
10° 23.35 North
075° 31.54 West

Let's Talk Toxins-Let's Talk Paint

By Douglas Bernon

When you're out cruising, in any given day there's a time for play, and a time for work. And then there comes a time for MAJOR WORK, such as replacement of systems, installation of new gear, and bottom painting. This normally happens once every other year or so. For us, this would happen in Cartagena, and that time was at hand.

Cartagena is a great place to do boat work, and to get work done for you. There are plenty of talented workers. Labor is cheap and, as long as you ride herd on the process, you can get the standard of work you want. When we decided to get Ithaka painted, the first thing we had to do was shop around for a boatyard. Of the three in Cartagena, all of which charge about the same fees, we eliminated Ferrocem, even though they have a small, air-conditioned apartment you can rent while your boat is uninhabitable, a lunch restaurant that serves a hearty "corriente" (beans, rice, fish, and plantains), and the option of bringing in and managing your own crews at whatever rates one could negotiate. Ferrocem does a walloping business sandblasting large commercial boats, and the yard is a gritty, dirty, nightmare. Because of the dirt factor, we moved on.

The two remaining yards, Todomar and Manzanillo, do not allow outside crews, except when you pay a major premium. But both had reputations for decent work, and for standing behind it. We talked to a slew of cruisers who'd done work in both yards, and we inspected the results. In terms of quality, we could go to either place.

Manzanillo proved to be the right yard for us. The work we saw was good, and the cruisers we met who had their boats there for painting were very happy with the process and the result. The yard is closer to town (just a $2 cab ride or a 28-cent bus ride). There's an air-conditioned social room with a computer, refrigerator, and television. There's a new studio apartment you could rent if you needed to move off your boat for a period of time; and there's a laundry. The clincher was that the owner of the yard, Mauricio LeMaitre -- a Cartagenero from an old Spanish family (there's lots of stuff named LeMaitre all over Cartagena) -- has his own 45-foot sailboat, has cruised with his wife and children, speaks English, and has been going out of his way to befriend cruisers and encourage them to use his yard. "We will get it right for you, no matter what it takes," he told us. For questions about boat work in Cartagena you can reach him at If you get in touch with him, please give our best regards.

I never like watching Ithaka lifted up and carried away by a Travellift. It always makes me nervous.

We liked Manzanillo for another reason as well. The security is first rate. A tall concrete wall topped by a chain-link fence surrounds the yard. The entrance is locked and a guard is positioned there to let you in and out. In fact, there's an honor policy there that if a cruiser finds that tools or supplies have gone missing, the cost of replacement is spread among the yard employees, which is to say that nothing gets pilfered by the troops. Drop a screwdriver off your deck and someone hustles quickly to return it to you.

I contrast this with the treatment we got several years back in Rhode Island at the ritzy Newport Shipyard. After our new inflatable dinghy was stolen out from under Ithaka -- even though the yard was guarded, and surrounded by a chain-link fence -- the yard owner refused to offer us any recompense, informing me it was my own fault for not being sufficiently vigilant. Where would you rather haul your boat?

With a coat of primer we imagined how Ithaka would look in light green and decided to stick with our choice of creamy off-white.

We decided to take advantage of Cartagena's great rates and do some cosmetic jobs that we'd often talked about. Ithaka's cockpit gel coat had major divots-assorted injuries from dropped dive weights, winch handles, and life at sea. We had it totally re-gelcoated - a job that would have been prohibitively expensive in the States. Now, not only does it glisten, it actually glows. And, after many soft and hard bangs by wooden ulus and cayucos, we also decided to have our topsides re-painted with two-part polyurethane. Awlgrip is not available in Colombia, so we used the comparable German product. Four coats of a soft cream color has given Ithaka a deep shine she's not known since birth. We also had a new gold cove stripe added, and two new waterline stripes added in deep green and white. We figure the total cost was 25 percent of what we would have paid in the States. Did the process require numerous inspections, frequent comments, and constructive suggestions? Yes. Did the painters accommodate our requests without grief? Every time. Would we do it again? You bet. The guys did a great job.

Despite my giving all the guys who worked on Ithaka their own paper masks to wear, I failed utterly in convincing them it was a good idea.

And of course we had the bottom painted too. In the past, since the American prohibition against mixing TBT (tetrabutyl tin) into anti-fouling paint - TBT is hands-down the best of all toxins for keeping growth off your bottom - we've used the green version of Interlux Micron 66, an ablative paint with which we've been really happy. To our disappointment, it wasn't available in Colombia, and we had only one gallon left on board, so we used that to paint numerous coats at the area most vulnerable to fouling and scum, the waterline. Below our 14-inch band of green we used a Dutch paint, Sigma, which to Bernadette's aesthetic dismay, we could get only in red.

We found ourselves wondering what additives we might mix into the Sigma to make it more potent against Cartagena's highly aggressive barnacles. The differing properties of anti-fouling additives are an endless topic of conversation among cruising guys in Cartagena. The barnacles are so tenacious in attacking boat bottoms here that any chance to compare lore, theories, superstitions, and smuggling exploits seizes everyone's attention.

Bernadette applies Ithaka's name with press-on gold-leaf letters she'd ordered through BoatUS's on-line service. She said the instructions that came with the name were easy to follow.

We met folks who were stirring 5 ounces of pulverized haberno dust into every gallon of bottom paint. The pepper-people were almost evangelical in their enthusiasm. We met a guy who'd mixed Desitin baby ointment into his bottom paint. We met others who'd purchased large quantities of veterinary-grade antibiotics - mostly tetracycline - and were dosing each gallon with 250 milliliters and up. They, too, were among the true believers.

Lots of folks were buying an agricultural weed killer called "2,4-D" (a popular herbicide) and mixing it in wildly varying ratios into their paint. Finally, one enterprising man found a way to do business with a paint manufacturer in the States that still manufactures TBT for their paints that are sold in other countries. He imported a case of 8-ounce bottles of The Real McCoy. Selling them individually at $40 a pop, his supply disappeared in a heartbeat. One vial, the thinking is, mixes in 1 gallon, 2 gallons, or 5 gallons, depending at which church you're praying. Had we been able to get some TBT before we'd painted, likely enough we'd have mixed it into our red Sigma paint. But, we were a week late on that deal. So we've ended up with a belly-band of Interlux green and below that, all the way down to the keel, a burgundy red. Now, when Ithaka's heeled, she lifts her skirts to reveal a fetching, multi-color, ribbon effect.

Whenever Cade was ready to lead another hardware hike he'd post a sign at Club Nautico. Sometimes as many as 20 cruisers would follow the hardware pied piper.

No sane person actually likes living in boatyards, inhaling toxins, sleeping in clouds of dust and getting cranky in the heat. Instead of suffering in the yard while we were taped, sanded, gelcoated, re-sanded, gelcoated, re-sanded, painted, re-sanded, and finally buffed and put back together, we rented a single room in a home in Cartagena. John, the manager of the popular cruisers' hang-out, the Club Nautico Marina, (he can be reached at; phone: 011 575 660 4863), who goes out of his way for all cruisers, even folks like Bernadette and me, who are anchoring off instead tying up, connected us with a woman named Soraya who had a sweet third-story room to let. We had a private bathroom, shower, and large balcony overlooking the entire harbor, kitchen privileges, our own keys, cable TV, and an overhead fan that we treasured - all for about $18 a day. If you're considering a vacation in Cartagena, Soraya can be reached at; phone: 011 575 660 7522). She's a generous woman who speaks fluent English, Italian, Spanish, and French. A native Cartagenera, she loves her town, knows it inside and out, and delights in being helpful.

Finding supplies and parts in a foreign city is always an adventure, but made easier in Cartagena by Cade Johnson, on Sand Dollar, who for fun, during their five-month stay here, has led a monthly hardware hike through the industrial section of town, pointing out to new cruising arrivals where to find gaskets, filters, diesel parts, welders, stainless screws, machine shops, and whatever else any boat could want. Once a cruiser has survived Cade's four-hour march, the painted signs that appear on every wall help re-locate the places you need. Whenever shopping for odds and ends, I carried Kathy Parson's book "Spanish for Cruisers, Boat Repairs and Maintenance Phrase Book" (available by contacting the author at; phone: 361-798-4159). With sections on hardware, refrigeration, electrical, engine parts, transmissions, materials, and so on, not only is the book helpful in asking questions of the store clerks, they loved to look through it and see the English words for what they were selling. I wish I'd had 20 copies to leave in favored hardware stores.

When in doubt about what a store offers, there are usually signs to point the way.

Our other little project in Cartagena was canvas repairs. We'd brought with us from the States several large spools of UV-protective thread, because often you can find skilled sewers in out-of-the-way places, but rarely will you find high-tech supplies. Benjamin (pronounced Ben-ha-MEEN) is the sail repair guy in Cartagena. He and his brother Victor (BEEK-tor) and their sons have a shop in the back of their home. As you walk through the house, roosters and chickens flee from under foot. You go beneath an archway where all the parakeet cages are hung, and then through the outdoor kitchen, and finally into the back two rooms where there are four sewing machines, a small work table, two double-bunk beds crushed by dozens of sail bags and canvas scraps. Sitting at the main machine is Senor Benjamin, an enormous, black, smiling Buddha-of-a-man who rules this empire. All jobs involve dramatic negotiations with Benjamin. Agreements are then sealed with a handshake. A bulletin board full of cruisers' boat cards speaks to his popularity and skill.

I think of the antiseptic sail lofts I've tiptoed in - shoeless, of course - in the States, and I marvel that now I'm weaving through piles of chicken scat. But the work is first rate. We had our 135-genoa totally re-stitched. We had a half-dozen reinforcements made on the main. We replaced all the leather where reefing lines go through the main; patched the mainsail cover in a few places. We reinforced the butterfly-hatch cover where the dinghy rests on deck; had a canvas sling-seat made for driving; had the turtle for the staysail re-inforced; and we even had a suitcase cobbled out of an extra sail bag we had around. The entire cost, including the taxi to drop everything off and pick it all up five days later, was $191.

On the hardware hike Doug from Que Linda rejoices in the adulation of so many fans.

Not everything is a bargain in the Third World, especially in a country like Colombia, which levies a formidable tariff on all imports. Many cruisers who know they'll be doing work here stop first at the Duty Free Zone in Panama, buy all their supplies there and carry them to Colombia, where the labor costs are always modest in contrast to everything we're used to in the US and Europe. For those boats who are tied up at either Club Nautico or Club de Pesca, the two marinas, as well as for those anchored out, there's a large group of talented painters, varnishers, woodworkers, Corian-countertop installers, mechanics, divers, and boat cleaners who make the circuit everyday looking for work. To hire workers on a daily or project basis can work well, but requires one's active presence to assure quality control. Ultimately, it's a small price to pay.

Near Manzanillo Marina Club we often passed this luncheon stand but never found anyone there from whom we might order.

Mauricio and his wife Carolina, Bernadette and Douglas
All in all, our time at Manzanillo was painless-that's mighty praise for any yard. We enjoyed working with Mauricio and his crew, and enjoyed getting to know his family. We liked the guys who worked on Ithaka. Thanks to their good work, she's looking pretty spiffy. Our sails are stronger now. Our supply of spares is replenished. We made friends with a wonderful woman named Soraya, who opened her world to us. Now, it's time to put Ithaka's clean bottom in the water again, and that will mean it's almost time to pull ourselves away from the lures of Cartagena, and carry on. Well, maybe not right away.




More Cruising Information about Cartagena

Over the years, various cruisers have contributed to a frequently-updated cruising guide that offers a wealth of information about Cartagena. If you go to Club Nautico's website ( you can review or download it.