October 15, 2006
Underway from Guanaja
17 ° 31.274 North
85 ° 33.024 West

Mailbag: Underway Toward America

By Bernadette and Douglas Bernon

Ithaka soars along northward, toward whatever life has to offer next.

We set sail yesterday from Honduras with excitement for the journey ahead. Our weather window looks good – southeast winds of 15 to 20 knots for the next few days. We’re excited, as we always are before an offshore voyage. But we’re melancholy, too. This is a momentous voyage for us, because we’re headed home to the United States, away from the islands and seclusions of the southwest Caribbean, and toward the hustle and bustle of what life holds in store for us next. We’re energized, but filled with uncertainty, too. This journey of a few days will give Douglas and me a chance to transition between the two worlds, to talk about the future, to write, to ponder, to enjoy the passing seascape.

We’ve collected a few of your emails and letters, and this voyage seems a perfect time for us to think about your questions, and to answer a few of them. We’ve also received some sage technical advice, and share that with you here as well. As always, thanks for staying in touch, and for letting us know what you think about our column. We look forward to hearing more of your questions, and to seeing you soon!

From A Budding Cruiser

A woman named Emily wrote to us in Cartagena telling us that she and her husband have decided to go cruising, and that they hope to find work along the way – perhaps doing sail repair, computer and electronics repair, diesel engine work, bartending, or making jewelry. She asked how difficult this is in the places Douglas and I have traveled.

Earning money along the way while youre cruising, especially in the Third World, is a taxing challenge.

FROM BERNADETTE: Unfortunately, Emily, it’s pretty difficult to earn enough money out here to pay for your cruising expenses. In the western Caribbean, you’ll be cruising in countries where local people earn a fraction of what US citizens earn at home.

Bartending could work here and there, depending on where you go, but most countries will require a work permit. Diesel engine repair work is a great option, as is computer and electronics repair, if you are an experienced professional in those fields. Sail repair and canvas work are great skills; of course you’ll have to bring your own industrial machine, as well as all the needed supplies. Normally, I think you're looking at about $20 an hour for that. Perhaps $35 an hour for engine or electronics work.

Some cruisers, with a gift for sewing, can make a nice side income from sail repair. But you need to have all your own equipment and many supplies aboard.

No work permits are needed for this cruiser-to-cruiser work. There may indeed be some steady work in those three technical areas, especially if you’re spending time in one of the places cruisers congregate during hurricane season, such as Cartagena, or the Rio Dulce. That said, out “in the field,” most people do their own repairs, or help each other out free of charge.

Making beaded jewelry doesn't work as a high-profit cottage industry. Many local people make beaded jewelry in all these countries, and you can't compete against their prices; plus, many cruising women do beading as a creative hobby.

Beading in more a hobby than a way to earn money while youre cruising.

The bottom line on earning money while you’re out cruising is this: Before you leave, you should have enough saved up to cover yourself living modestly for the time you plan to be out. Then, if opportunity presents itself, stop cruising for a while in an interesting place and work for six months or so, and build up your savings again. If you set out without enough money to cover your expenses (you can live on $1,000 a month, but that’s AFTER your boat is paid for, AFTER you’ve stocked it with enough spare parts for every system), AFTER you’ve paid for boat and health insurance, AFTER you’ve purchased any air tickets for visits home. To cruise on that thin a margin means you’ll be under constant pressure to watch every penny. It can be done, and we know people who are keeping their costs that low, but it remains a taxing challenge, with little room for contingencies.


Ron L., from Port Aransas, Texas, wrote to us asking about whether we use electronic or paper charts for the San Blas, and which guidebooks we recommend.

FROM DOUGLAS: The paper charts for the San Blas (26065 and 26063) are good. The electronic charts from Maxsea seem to be the best. The ones that Maptech and Nobeltec provide for this area are mediocre at best. Several times with the charts up on the screen we’ve “seen ourselves” tacking over major islands. To rely on electronic charts, especially at night, is a recipe for disaster. We’ve seen too many hulls on too many reefs, and we don’t think it’s wise to take such chances.

The guidebook that most people have relied on in the San Blas, with confidence and pleasure, is The Panama Guide by Nancy Schwalbe Zydler and Tom Zydler. In addition to spot-on drawings, superb directions, and precise instructions, this is a rare specimen, a genuinely soulful guidebook that respects the local traditions and yet understands the wants and needs of cruisers. Thoughtfully written, I’d follow the Zydlers anywhere. In fact, we have. If Tom and Nancy suggest you steer a course of 226 Degrees true, it’s likely not going to be 222 or 229. These people know their stuff and for years cruised the San Blas in their engineless-sailboat. The one shortcoming is that this book doesn’t have a carefully laced lat-long grid over the hand-drawn chartlets. We’d all like that, but no one complains much because the information is so precise.

The Zydlers cruising guide to Panama is indispensable.

There’s a second guidebook as well, recently published and gaining in popularity: The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus. It has superb lat long. Bauhaus has put together a technically tight, accurate, and very useful book. He writes that he’s crossed the Panama Canal 51 times, knows Panama intimately and suggests some anchorages in the San Blas that we’d never heard of, seen, or read about. Having both these books is well worth the investment. Like the Tin Man, though, what the Bauhaus guide lacks is heart. The discussions of the Kuna at least, for whom I feel a special affection, is superficial. But I sure like his waypoints. It makes good sense to carry both books.


FROM DOUGLAS: Bernadette and I have a friend named Walt who writes to us from time to time with technical advice, based on what he reads in our columns. He’s a totally practical and wildly imaginative man who never saw a technical problem he couldn’t fix. He’s also a talented writer, and his repair strategies are frequently poetic in their creativity. Being responsible for all maintenance at a large, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week factory in the Midwest, he also understands pressure. Walt is kindly in his communications to me, clearly amused as I stumble through the mechanical machinations. Like a gentle grandfather encouraging a four-year-old, he walks me slowly through whatever it is he feels I need to know more about. Walt read what I’d written about using a screwdriver to get enough spark on a solenoid to start our diesel, and responded with lots of useful advice, plus the following comments about solenoids and starter repair. Here was his initial comment: “It’s neat to see how you go about learning something new. I mean the concept of reading a manual before you tear into something is positively radical in the male world.”

FROM WALT, ON STARTERS AND SOLENOIDS: “The starter and solenoid on any engine offer some unique problems. Be really careful when you tighten the wire lugs on the starter, the solenoid or the start relay. Most of these components are now made with an insulating plastic material that is a great insulator but offers little mechanical strength. The plastic will crack if you over-tighten the nut that holds the wire lugs. The bolt is just molded into the plastic body and will spin or move when over-tightened. Many times you don't even know it happened. But that crack allows moisture in and all hell will break loose sometime down the road. I never put my hand on the end of the wrench that is away from the nut when I tighten these puppies. I make sure my index finger is over the bolt so I’m really limited as to how much torque I can apply.

The solenoid attached to Ithakas starter

“You can diagnose a lot of starter and solenoid problems with a small hammer. Yeah, I know. It sounds pretty Neanderthal. But the main thing to know about these components is that because they are basically sealed up tight there’s no place for dirt or contamination to escape. But, you ask, if they’re sealed, where can any dirt or contamination come from? Great question. A solenoid moves back and forth, so eventually something is going to wear out. That dust/dirt has no place to go. A starter has carbon brushes that help convert the electric power into a mechanical rotating force. But the carbon brushes wear out over time. The carbon dust from the brushes has no place to go in a sealed starter.

“Here's where the small hammer comes in. As a solenoid wears out, the mechanical parts can sometimes jam up because of the dirt inside. A tap with a hammer may loosen the component enough that it'll allow the mechanical parts to move and the engine to start.

“A starter is even worse. The carbon dust lies around the carbon brushes. The brushes have a spring that pushes them against the shaft of the starter. When the dust gets in the way the brush can't slide in its holder and contact the shaft anymore. You lose the ability to transfer electricity. Again, a tap with a hammer often will jar the brush enough that it makes contact again. If this ever works for you, consider yourself really lucky and replace the component as soon as possible.

Vista at Tegucigalpa by Joe Antonio Velasquez of Honduras

“The starter brushes are the primary culprits in starter trouble. They can be replaced. It's a pain to do it, but in a big pinch you can tear down the starter and replace the brushes if you have something similar on hand. You can actually buy spare brushes for most starters if you look hard enough. There aren't really that many different brush makers in the world. If you find brushes that fit in the holder you can make them work. But don't be drinking when you’re trying to put it back together. It’s frustrating to rebuild them, and more than one starter has found itself launched in a fit of rage. My personal record is around 38 feet.”

(FROM DOUGLAS: When I whined about broken bolts in one of our “Log Of Ithaka” installments, Walt sent the following useful comments.)

MORE ADVICE FROM WALT: “All standard bolts should have some raised lines on top of the bolt head. If there are no lines you can assume it's a softie. Avoid them for all but the simplest jobs. Never use them in applications where they thread into aluminum, or if they’re exposed to a lot of heat.

Ithaka sets out from Honduras

“The more raised lines on the bolt, the harder the bolt. But here's where it gets stupid. The number of lines on the bolt does not correspond directly to the grade. You would think one line would equal a Grade-1 bolt, and that eight lines would indicate a Grade-8. HAH! I think three lines on the bolt head indicate a Grade-5 bolt and six lines indicate a Grade-8. You may even come across one with 8 or 9 lines -- I think that indicates a Grade-12. Just remember, it's not my system.

“The harder bolts bring several things to the table that the softies can't. One being that with bolts, as well as in the life of any red-blooded male, harder is better. I'll leave it at that.

Aboard Ithaka we have a complete selection of metric and standard wrenches, and we use all of them.

“Harder bolts can take being torqued down tighter -- such as when a seal doesn't fit exactly right. Sometimes squeezing that little sucker just a little bit tighter is needed. Harder bolts have greater shear strength. Really hard bolts can transmit so much torque that, for instance, if your prop was hitting hard on a rock or some other submerged menace, and something has to give, it may not be the bolt. The force could travel further up the assembly to a potentially weaker member.

“What I really like about hard bolts is their tendency to just snap off cleanly. When things go wrong, soft bolts tend to smear -- there just isn't a better word to describe it. If you over-torque them, they can smear. If they are exposed to heat while under tension, they can smear. If a huge, overloading pull, twist, or vibration occurs, they can smear. The steel has so much flexibility that the bolt can shift around in the female threads when loaded. Bolt threads need a certain amount of clearance to spin and the smearing of the soft bolt takes up all the clearance, making it much more difficult to extract it.

Douglas with the catch of the day, the reward for all that nitty-gritty maintenance work

“When I say hard bolts tend to snap it's because that’s the sound they usually make when they break. These bolts are hard enough that they’ll usually resist whatever load is present until they reach the breaking point. Not much flexing goes on. They just snap off. The thread clearance isn't disturbed and life is much easier when it's time to dig out the broken stub. Of course it doesn’t happen perfectly like I’m describing every time, but more often than not a hard bolt will be easier to remove.

“Grade-8 bolts are common in every bolt supply store and at many of the farm-implement dealers. The selection will be limited at the tractor-supply store but it's a place to try. The absolutely easiest way to get a Grade-8 equal is to buy Allen-head bolts. The marking won't be so easy to understand on Allen bolts but it really isn't that big a deal. These bolts have to be hard because if they aren't the Allen wrench will tear up the head of the bolt. Remember: harder is better.”

Girl Talk

We got an email from Patricia in North Carolina recently. She wrote: “When you’re out cruising, where do you get personal things done, like getting your hair cut, and stuff like that? My fiancé really wants me to go cruising with him, but I’m new at this boating thing, and frankly I can’t imagine living away from modern conveniences.”

FROM BERNADETTE: I’ve received the same question from at least five different women over the past couple of years. Patricia, you won’t believe how easy it is to take care of all your personal needs once you go cruising. First of all, you’ll become more comfortable being a bit more natural. Your hair will be up most of the time, because it’s hot, so you won’t need as many haircuts. If your hair is short, you’ll get it cut when the opportunity presents itself. For instance, you’ll come across another cruising woman, who was a hairdresser in her previous life, and she will cut it for you, and it will be the best haircut you’ve ever had. (Lots of women out here are very good at cutting, highlighting, and all that, and word gets around. Just keep a private stash of your own “materials” on board.)

The outdoor life is not a pampered one, but the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences.

Or, perhaps you’ll arrive in a town, and to your surprise it will have a little one-chair “beauty shop” and the woman will do a great job. Or she won’t do a great job. But so what! It’ll grow out. Or, you’ll arrive in a place like Cartagena, and you’ll go crazy pampering yourself at one of the dozens of terrific salons, all at a small fraction of the cost at home. In short, every month or two, you’ll find a place to take care of business, and you’ll be treated like a queen.

One day, while I was schlepping my bags of precious fresh vegetables through the dusty little town of San Pedro, Belize, I saw a sign in the window of a hardware store that said “I Wax De Leggs.” Stunned, I took a sharp turn and entered, so desperate was I. It would have been a hysterically funny scene, if it had been happening to someone else, but it was happening to me, so it wasn’t that amusing really, except in retrospect. She was a big woman, a very big woman, and she had me sit in wood chair, put my leg in her lap, and she proceeded to slather this wax on, which had been heated in a cooking pan, and then she ripped off the wax, all the while saying in her Belizean accent, “Ohhhhh lady, this one, she’s gonna hurt.” Ohhhhhh, she was right, but we got the job done.

In Guatemala City, I stumbled upon the most incredible salon, and had my hair cut, highlighted, and then blown dry by three Guatemalan women with hairdryers. As they each stretched a great wad of hair out on a round brush, and blew it dry, I watched in the mirror, and realized I looked like a human may pole. They did a terrific job and the whole experience cost about $18. On the island of San Andres, Colombia, at a beautiful spa on one of the main streets, I got a one-and-a-half hour Swedish massage and then a facial. The experience was luxurious, took all afternoon, and cost $20, including a tip.

Douglas gets a haircut at the nearest Sandy Salon.

Mostly, though, the truth is that these experiences are not the norm. In terms of personal grooming, things get a little more… let’s say, basic when you’re cruising. Every month or so I’ll give Douglas a haircut on the beach. When I’m finished, I’ll put my head upside-down, brush my hair out, grab it all in my fist, and cut an inch or so off the end to make a few layers – as instructed by my hairdresser at home. So horrified was she that I would be away from her professional ministrations every six weeks, that she sent me off with a lesson on haircutting so specific and serious that it was as if I were going to perform my own brain surgery.

Douglas says that when all else fails on a boat, there is an ultimate tool with which to persuade.

All the while, as I trim my hair, and go about my personal business on the boat, I’ll think of my months in Cartagena, with its affordable little luxuries, and to a day in the future when I’ll find that next great salon somewhere over the horizon. Once you get out cruising, a transformation occurs. You’ll find that what becomes more important than the securities of modern conveniences and salons and restaurants and the trappings of life at home, are the simpler pleasures of life on the boat, life in a bathing suit, and anchorages all to yourselves.