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by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Seventy-Nine

Today was a typical day in Bocas del Toro, or for that matter a typical day anywhere on the boat in that we had some maintenance to do. Specifically, we had a water pump failure on the port side. The 12-volt electric pump that supplies water from the 72-gallon tank on the port side to the port galley and head simply stopped working. We can always use our foot pumps to provide water, but the electric pump is a pleasant luxury. The pump has a pressure switch that senses a drop in pressure when the tap is opened and it then begins pumping water - when it works correctly. After a half hour of trouble shooting the problem, which entailed ascertaining proper voltage to the switch, testing the connections and, of course, tapping the pump with a hammer, I determined that the pressure switch was bad. Fortunately, I had a spare, which solved the problem. But it reminded me of the maintenance that we have conducted during our stay in the Bocas. We have repaired a leak in the dinghy, overhauled a wench on the mast, replaced a windshield wiper, overhauled a ventilation fan, replaced two bilge pump switches and removed and re-bedded the tower for the all-wave receiving antenna on the stern. If all of this sounds excessive to the non-cruiser, let me assure you it is not unusual at all. Systems on a boat receive a lot of use and some, such as electric switches are simply not made to sustain heavy use in a saltwater environment. Once again, we were reminded how important it is to have tools, spare parts and some know-how if one is going to go cruising. So as not to leave the impression that everything on boats has a short life, I hasten to state that we are using sheet blocks (pulleys) that were installed when the boat was built 20 years ago and our original stainless standing rigging was replaced at 19 years and may have lasted much longer. It just seems that some pieces of equipment, especially anything electrical in nature just isn't up to the job. But again, there are exceptions. Our VHF radio, SSB radio and radar are still working well and they are all over 10 years old. So, it's a mixed bag and one can only look for and install, the best "affordable" quality available at the time.

Another reminder we have experienced twice while here is the importance of proper lights and vigilance while traversing the areas between islands at night. Twice, friends have been hit by Panamanians, who were operating 23-foot fiberglass "water taxis" at high speed, without lights. These "taxis" use outboard motors that are powerful enough to move them along at a respectable speed, but not powerful enough for the boat to "plane." As a consequence, the bow of the taxi is always high in the air, blocking the forward view of the operator. The first accident occurred just after we arrived, when a taxi hit a friend, who was alone in his small inflatable dinghy. He had a flashlight that he was pointing forward at the time. The impact threw him out and punctured one of the air chambers of his dinghy. He was unhurt, but his outboard was flooded. Fortunately, he took it apart, cleaned it and got it running the next day. Two weeks later four of our friends in an inflatable dinghy were run over from behind. The taxi crushed their outboard and threw two of them in the water. Fortunately, no one was hurt in either of these accidents. Obviously, the taxies were negligent in both instances, but very little can be done about such situations other than repair your own damages and chalk it up to experience. The legal system in this area of the world is not like that in the U.S. This is readily apparent when observing law offices, which are, for the most part, very modest to say the least. The legal profession around here is obviously not very lucrative. Plus, the courts and other bureaucracies are overwhelmed with work and under funded.

We recently talked to an American owner of some water front property, who purchased his land about 10 years ago. He came back to look at it seven years ago and a Panamanian had built a house on it. He has been in court ever since trying to evict the trespasser and has won every legal round so far, but still has not succeeded in taking possession of his land. His opinion is that the judges and bureaucrats are so incompetent that he may not live long enough to use his land. In the case of civil servants everywhere, you get what you pay for. I guess we should all remember that the next time we vote to approve salaries for those who are supposed to serve and protect us.

On a happier note, the weather is wonderful and we are enjoying the area very much. Yesterday we took a water taxi to the mainland town of Changuinola, which is much larger than Bocas and therefore has more to offer in the way of shopping. The ride cost us $5 each, each way. The boat held 20 passengers sitting four to a bench seat with five benches. It was powered by a 150 horsepower outboard and moved along at a respectable 15 plus knots. We first traversed about 10 miles of protected bay water and then another 10 miles up a canal that was built years ago by one of the banana companies. In many areas the canal, which averaged about 50 feet wide was choked with water hyacinth, but the taxi just roared right through it. A small park was located at the end of the canal and there we caught a pickup truck "taxi" into town for another dollar. Changuinola is rather like a frontier town in that it consists mainly of one long street with hotels, restaurants and stores lining both sides. We didn't buy much, but it was a nice outing and we had the opportunity to see what was available.

One note of interest in Panama, as well as Venezuela, is the abundance of hard woods. Tables, chairs, boardwalks, piers and even siding are most likely composed of thick, wide planks of very hard wood that is noticeably free of knots. Veneer is unheard of. Even the bench seat in the shower at the marina is made of one solid piece of hardwood that is six feet long three inches thick and three feet wide, without a single knot or blemish. And that is not unusual. Many chairs at restaurants are so heavy, it takes both hands to move one. A friend, who owns an island installed a pier and used some unnamed wood for planks. The wood was so hard, he had to pre-drill holes in order to sink nails. And then, he had to use a three-pound hammer. Pine is used here less frequently than hardwood is used in the states. The upside is that the wood lasts a long, long time, even unpainted. The downside is that it doesn't float and wears out saw blades very fast. Handsaws are almost never used. Electric circular saws with carbide tipped blades are used for most jobs. But for small jobs a razor sharp machete is used. Machetes and scabbards are sold everywhere and it is not at all uncommon to see men walking around town with a large machete hanging from a belt. Machetes are the all-purpose tool and are used for clearing weeds from gardens, harvesting bananas and felling small trees. Stay tuned.

Dates: ,
Locations: Bocas del Toro, Changuinola

The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.