September 1, 2006
Isla Providencia , Colombia
13º 22.812 North
081º 22.445 West

Mr. Bing And The Water Pump

By Douglas Bernon

Over time, the spoils of war have made this gentle little island the property of several nations, but since the 19 th century it’s been a far-off post of Colombia, even though its closest neighbor is Nicaragua, just 120 miles away. Colombia is almost four times as far. Bernadette and I love Providencia. This is our third stop here; we have friends we love to hang out with, and each time we’ve come here, Providencia opens up to us in refreshing and generous ways.

Carmeni Correa and Bernadette became friends on our first visit to Providencia five years ago, remain in touch, and the friendship has become one of the happiest aspects of revisiting the island for us.

Our 280 mile sail up from the San Blas was easy. Our course was 326º True; we had steady north to north-northeast winds between 17 and 23 knots and no seas bigger than six feet. Flying a reefed main, reefed genoa and our staysail, we were close-hauled much of the way, turned a bit on our ear, but there were no storms, plenty of sparkly, night-time bio-luminescence, few ships, a bit of moon after midnight, and few clouds to hide the stars. We made great time.

Having the Southern Cross behind us meant we were heading north, and there was some genuine sadness in that, but the trip itself was, until our landfall, essentially uneventful. We only used the motor for about 15 minutes to work our way out of the reefy anchorage at Chichime in the San Blas, and then once for about an hour during the passage, just to add some juice to our batteries. Our trusty Yanmar purred like a kitten. Until she didn’t.

Impellers are tiny but crucial.

Between partners on a sailboat, and between motor and mechanic, there are few secrets. Sounds and smells that are private on land are totally public. When Bernadette is upset, I know. Likewise, when I’m at odds she knows the sounds and signs. It’s no different with a diesel. If a smell or hum is different, if a drone is slightly too high pitched, if there’s a chug or a clank or a whir that’s unfamiliar, both Bernadette and I perk up our ears, one of us quickly saying, “I don’t like that sound.”

I was below reading and Bernadette was on watch, sitting in the cockpit reading, and keeping an eye on things. Homer, our wind vane was driving, and the engine had been charging for about 15 minutes. Suddenly, Bernadette yelled down to me, “The engine stopped spitting water!” and I heard her promptly turning off the diesel. Her vigilance saved us some far greater grief. If a diesel isn’t spitting water out the exhaust, it’s not getting cooled by seawater, and if it’s not getting cooled by seawater the engine will soon overheat and cause all kinds of serious trouble. If it overheats for long enough, the little beast can essentially seize up, and kill itself in the process.

Bernadette with Carmenis husband Barrington, left, and son Bruce, on the deck of their home overlooking the turquoise reefs on the east side of the island. Bruce goes to culinary college in Bogota. Barrington built the familys house, and is in the process of building studio apartments for short-term holiday rentals.

The most common cause of an engine not spitting water is that an inexpensive part, a rubber impeller -- essentially a cheerio-shaped component, with half a dozen flat, octopus like arms sticking out of it -- inside the water pump is not turning, scooping water, and pushing it into the engine where it can start its cooling rounds before being spit out the exhaust and returning to the sea. Sometimes the little rubber arms wear out, break off, and jam, turning an impeller into an impeder. That’s the second thing I knew I’d have to check.

Bernadette spilled most of our wind to flatten out the boat; Ithaka slowed down, and I got out the tools and opened the engine compartment. We started the engine one more time so I could quickly check and see if the pulley on the water pump was turning -- the first diagnostic question. If it had not been going around, the impeller, regardless of its condition, would not be turning.

Carmeni is an artist who specializes in whimsical papier mach figures. Her studio is at home, at The Bluff, reached by hopping onto any collectivo truck. Theres one road on the small island, and the collectivos just go round and round. Any one will do.

Sure enough the pulley was spinning just fine. Bernadette turned off the engine and I started to disassemble the water pump so I could check and see if the rubber octopus had all its arms. It was intact, looking supple and dandy. The pulley was turning and the impeller was solid, so I was already stumped and figured maybe there was a problem hidden inside the pump assembly. We have a spare water pump, so I swapped them, and within an hour, after tightening everything up and putting the engine compartment back together, we were spitting water again. This led me to conclude, erroneously, that our problem was a defective water pump.

Pride in one’s limited mechanical skills is always dangerous, and no sooner had I congratulated myself than the engine sensed my hubris and quit spitting water again. Clearly, the problem was not the water pump. We decided that all this time wallowing at sea trying to fix the problem was wasting valuable hours that we could be using to make it to Providencia during daylight the next day. We trimmed the sails, and got Ithaka back up to speed. Once we were safely anchored, we reasoned, we could work on the problem more easily.

From Providencia town, a colorful bridge connects the big island with the sleepy little island of Santa Catalina.

The entrance to Providencia is well marked with buoys and relatively straightforward. Stay within the lines, and the reefs on either side present no immediate dangers. Fortunately, too, Bernadette is expert at the helm. In light airs or heavy seas she holds a course with brilliant precision, neither over-steering nor moving too quickly. In any demanding situation where competence at the wheel is a requirement, Ithaka is far better off in her hands than mine. I’m more useful being the muscle on other tasks as needed.

Frustratingly, even though the wind died to nothing as we arrived at the sea buoy, making progress difficult, Bernadette tacked us up the channel, past Captain Morgan’s rock (the old pirate used to hide out here), short-tacked and wove us between the anchored sailboats (all anchored boats keep a close eye on anybody threading a needle through an anchorage under sail alone), and we found a well-protected spot in which to drop our hook.

The cargo boat Miss Raziman has been coming to Providencia for years, on Thursdays, from mainland Colombia via San Andres, bringing all the islands food and supplies. Friday and Saturday are the best days to provision in Providencia.

On the way into the harbor we had a first-time ever experience. The Port Captain hailed us on the radio, welcoming us in Spanish and then English.

“Sailing vessel entering Providencia, sailing vessel entering Providencia. This is the Port Captain. Welcome to our island. Once you are anchored, we will come to see your papers. After you are rested, please come into our office and drink a cup of coffee with us. We will tell you all about Providencia.”

Dumbfounded by this rare welcome by officialdom, we knew immediately that we were glad to be here. Within an hour, the Customs and Immigration officials arrived on the boat, along with Señor Bernardo Bush, the maritime agent here. When entering any Colombian port one needs an agent, and here there’s only one. Mr. Bush, upon hearing of our mechanical problem, immediately called Mr. Bing, a friend of his who teaches diesel mechanics at the local trade school, and whom we’d met three years ago when our friends, Derek and Beryl on the sailboat Rotuma, needed their generator repaired.

Bing and Sandra Suarez. Mr. Bing helped us fix our engine problems, and would accept no payment for his time and inconvenience. You are a guest on my island, he said, the day we visited him at his home and met his family. Its better that people learn to help each other. Better you should give some money to Mr. Elvis. He has many children.

Mr. Bing (roughly 250 pounds) and his son Bing-cito, which in Spanish means “little Bing” (a even-less-svelte 300-plus pounds) met me at the dinghy dock the following morning, and we managed to motor the dinghy slowly out to Ithaka, where they were to conduct their inspection. As we puttered along, the dinghy almost awash, I remembered Bing Suarez for another reason too. All of his children — Bing Jr., Barnaby, Benjamin, Belinda, and Bernadette — have names that start with “B.”

Although this is an informal island, there’s a formality of address here, a charming politeness between people, so I called him Mr. Bing and he called me Mr. Douglas. It took Mr. Bing no time at all to ascertain the problem from the few facts I’ve already given in this log. Like Sherlock Holmes gently interrogating his somewhat dull-witted companion Watson, Mr. Bing asked me some questions.

Douglas with Mr. Elvis, who spent a day on Ithaka helping with the engine. Mr. Elvis told us proudly of his time in the Colombian military fighting the narco-traffickers, his life as a professional fisherman, and about his family. He became a friend.

“Okay, Mr. Douglas. Your engine, she’s not breathing water and the impeller be good. Is dat right?”

“Yes, Mr. Bing.”

“And de pulley, he is turning and you see him going roun’ an’ roun’, right?”

“Yes, Mr. Bing.”

He put his hands on his hips. “Mr. Douglas, you see de impeller goin’ roun’ inside de water pump?”

It was the rounded hold on the pulley that concealed our problem. Mr. Bing knew where to look. Now, so do we.

“No, of course not, Mr. Bing, because the water pump is closed.”

“Dat’s right, Mr. Douglas.” Now he was just playing with me, setting the hook deeper in my cheek. “So you really doan know if d’impeller is goin’ ‘roun?”

“Uh, no, I guess I don’t.”

“Tell me, Mr. Douglas.” (All smiles now.) Did you check dat little axle coming outta de water pump that goes troo d’pulley? And did you check de size and de shape of de hole in dat pulley?”

While we were anchored in Providencia, a boat named Karma sailed in. Aboard was Karl, a singlehander and retired jet pilot from Vienna, Austria, who we loved getting to know.

“No, Mr. Bing, I didn’t.”

“Dat’s okay, Mr. Douglas. We take him apart again, and we look togedder.”

Sure enough, he nailed the problem without so much as getting a spot of grease on his hands. When I took the water pump off, the little spindle does indeed have a squared off section that fits into what is supposed to

be a squared-off hole on the pulley. But the pulley had wobbled a little over time and the square hole, which is part of what holds the spindle in place and makes sure the impeller inside can revolve, had been worn round, and while the belt turned the pulley, it was merely spinning the pulley and not locking the spindle, nor therefore, turning the impeller.

“Okay, Mr. Douglas, I tink we foun’ de problem. I will have my nephew,

We had two favorite restaurants on Providencia. First, in town, was Enedi’s, where Miss Enedi made the most wonderful fresh fish, and her own hot sauce. Douglas bought four bottles before we left. Our other favorite was Roland’s, on Manzanillo Beach. Roland, pictured here, made awesome fish and vegetables on the grill, and afterward he and his band played music on the beach.

Mr. Elvis, weld a small metal washer onto d’pulley, and den file it away so it makes a hole with sharp edges to hold your water pump. I will take d’water pump and give it to Mr. Elvis so he can get de size correct. Come to d’dinghy dock tomorrow afternoon at tree o’clock to pick it up. I meet you.”

That was, of course, the problem, and it was an easy and inexpensive solution that would have us back in business in no time. Unfortunately, that was not the end of the saga. As I was taking off the water-pump pulley yet again, and Bernadette was quenching the thirst of the Suarez team with copious amounts of lemonade, I noticed at the bottom of the engine pan two-inch long, thick hunks of shredded black rubber. “What the…”

Providencia, one of our favorite places in the world, is a place we’ll be sad to leave astern.

I hate finding surprises in the bilge. I don’t like seeing washers or nuts or bolts, and I especially don’t like seeing mysterious pieces of shredded rubber. I picked them out of the bilge, and showed the Bings a handful.

“Dat’s not good, Mr. Douglas,” Mr. Bing declared. Suddenly, it looked like we were going to be in Providencia a lot longer than we thought.