I started writing Letters from Kate as a weekly newsletter to family and friends in 2008 when we bought the boat. They went out as emails and when I got organized appeared on a page of the website. Last year I changed format and started using a more modern blog platform to share our “Letters”, thus removing the newsletter page from the website. I thought I would start sharing some of our past adventures with you in a Throwback Thursday series. This is a two part storie, I hope you enjoy! H
I spend the rest of the morning provisioning, keeping my mind occupied by navigating the confusion of the grocery store on a Saturday morning. I let the busyness of the city envelop me, feeling buoyed by the company of so many strangers. I stock up with fresh meat and vegetables, and treat myself to a couple bottles of nice wine and some chocolate. With the diesel tanks full and the water tanks topped up I am hoping to have enough supplies to last a few weeks. There is not much on the shelves in the little store at our anchorage in Boca Chica and the city of David is an over hour’s drive away by bus.
Back on board, when everything is packed away and tidied, I am lost. It has been so long since I have spent more than a few hours alone. I try and read but I get up with every creak and splash to stick my head out of the companion way. After an hour I realize I am still on the same page, reading the same words over and over again. Every time I pass by the phone I check, like a teenage girl for a message from Steve, knowing there isn’t one waiting for me. By the time darkness falls I am pacing our small main cabin like a caged animal. With each little wind and current shift I stand in the cockpit configuring our position relative to every pinprick of light on shore and the few anchor lights in the bay, trying to determine if we have dragged anchor or just pulled back on the chain.
Finally at eight o’clock I turn off the propane, make a final note of our position, check the phone for the hundredth time and head to bed. In the silent darkness of my bunk I listen for the muffled breath and soft snoring noises that I know won’t be there. I sleep fitfully, tossing and turning, all night long looking for my absent bed mate.
The first days I am upbeat and productive. I am up with the sun, a mug of coffee and a list of little projects. Fiddley jobs that are perfectly suited to being alone, the boat being still and having time to spend on the details. The work suits me. I listen to music, sit in the sun and do things like polishing stainless, clean the teak and removing stains on the deck. I am enthusiastic about getting things done and taking care of the boat.
But that enthusiasm soon gets washed away. The rainy season, that began while we were in Costa Rica, strikes in earnest one grey afternoon. It changes from its usual short, torrential downpour to a steady staccato rhythm on the cabin top. There are hopefully breaks in the dark sky, it lets up enough to fool me into opening the hatches. Then the mist thickens and the droplets group together and clouds draw their long heavy curtains of gray and the sharp applause of rain begins again.
I collect water by placing a couple buckets under the streams of rain peeling off the bimini. I quickly have enough to fill the tanks and every bucket and container I can find. It sits in the cockpit taunting me. Since I am running the engine to keep the batteries charged I have hot water and I could take a long, luxurious shower, not concerned about using too much water or how I am going to replace it. But my towel smells like a wet dog and my hair still isn’t dry from the day before. I can’t be bothered.
Our three cylinder diesel under the galley counter heats up the cabin and fills the boat with mind numbing noise for hours at a time so I can charge the batteries. To try and cut down on power usage I stop watching movies on my laptop to escape reality and I stop turning the lights on to read at night. After the last muted shafts of light disappear I give in and crawl into my clammy bed, not because I am tired but because there is nothing else to do. As I drift off to sleep I wonder if Steve will return to find I have drowned in my own soggy boredom.
The next morning a depressive shroud covers me, smothering me until I can’t recognize its effects. The simple act of eating alone becomes mundane, the idea of waking up by myself utterly depressing. The main cabin starts feeling a cave, everything is slightly soggy and dank. The days and nights and rain all run together in a damp grey blur. I am caught in melancholy haze that I can’t see through.
Finally after what seems like endless days of rain there is a bright, sun filled sky. I can almost hear Vivaldi’s “Spring” playing as I throw open every hatch and port onboard. I take down the canvas in the middle of the bimini, put on a bikini and bask in the warm morning sunshine while sipping coffee. I start up the engine to charge the batteries, again, and blast the stereo as I use my collected rain water to hand wash and hang out to dry almost every article of clothing, bed linen and towel onboard. It feels like the first warm day of spring after a long cold winter, the sun a balm for my body and my spirit.
For a break from the monotony of being alone I take the dinghy across the bay to Hotel Boca Brava, a rundown back packers perched on the top of a hill overlooking the bay, the river and the islands further out to sea. The 92 stairs up from the dinghy dock are a steep path of slippery tiles colourfully lining the hill side. By the time I reach the top with my dry bag and laptop I am winded and suffering slightly from vertigo. The cure comes in form of one dollar beers, free electricity and a WIFI connection. The days that Maria is in the kitchen I order a heaping plate of yucca fries, their fluffy tattered edges fried to perfectly crisp, golden brown, their insides still soft and creamy.
Some afternoons there is a hap hazard gathering here, myself and the few others that have thrown their anchors in the little bay. We commiserate over the usual boat concerns; amp hours and battery life, water consumption and collection, new leaks and old repairs that again need mending. We talk of our plans for future destinations in a loose and casual way that only sailors really understand. We know that the distance between here and there will be littered with problems, setbacks and self-doubt. That time and opportunity are things that we can afford to be generous with and often life on the sea is not dictated by deadlines but by the greater forces of tides and weather and desire.
A few afternoons a couple of the local taxi boat drivers sit at the bar and chat with me. We hold long conversations in broken in English and bad Spanish trying to reach across languages and cultures to understand one another. They are friendly and polite, the conversation often about family and life in general, but I stay guarded. I am still a woman living on a boat alone. And friendly or not they are still strange men.
One morning while listening to the engine run while charging the batteries I notice a slight change in the vibration reverberating through the hull. It is subtle but I immediately know it means trouble. Lifting the floor boards I find the problem, one of the engine mount brackets has cracked letting the engine to dance and shimmy in the engine bed while only attached at three corners. I race to the cockpit to pull the kill switch then sit on the floor, staring into the open hole at the cracked piece of steel and the now sagging engine.
There is no one there to hear me but I let rip a mighty river of profanity. Stringing together words to compound their vulgarities, I curse this inanimate object. My voice rises up an octave and cracks slightly, sounding like I am about to break and let my frustrations win over. With a great sigh I let a silence settle over the boat, feeling cathartic after the verbal release of anger has subsided. It will be dangerous to run the engine without first getting the engine mount fixed. If I take the chance it could mean breaking another mount, which would let the engine fall against the hull and probably damage the oil pan. We have already had to repair the oil pan a few months ago in Costa Rica, so I know there is a weak corner that is delicate and prone to injury. If the pan cracks again it will let the five liters of thick black engine oil drip into the bilge, filling the bowels of the boat with a burned petroleum smell and coating everything it touches in an inky, sticky slick. But without running the engine I am at risk of damaging our three month old batteries, draining them down so far that they no longer charge correctly. I have no choice but to try and get the old engine mount off and repaired.
It takes me most of the morning to undo the few bolts that connects the bracket onto the transmission and the flexible mount itself. The job is awkward and the access limited, this is the kind of thing that would be easily accomplished with two people and the proper equipment to jack the engine up off the engine bed, but I have neither. When it is finally free the engine sags even more, the delicate corner of the oil pan resting gingerly on the bottom of the engine bed. I cross my fingers and hope that it doesn’t crack again.
Over the next few days I consult a couple of the local yachties, find the name of a guy in town who can weld and manage to arrange a lift into town and to his shop, avoiding the inevitably time consuming and infuriating trip in a taxi. But he tells me it will take a couple of days, he is busy with other projects. With no choice but to leave it will him I return home and hope for the best.
For the next few days I use my little remaining power judiciously. Taking my daily afternoon shower becomes a full production. To avoid running the water pressure pump I fill a bottle of with the hand pump at the basin and pour it slowly over my body as I stand in a plastic tub, making sure to catch each drop that slowly trickles down to my feet so that I don’t have to use power to pump it over board. And since it hasn’t rained in a week and the water tanks are low I ration myself to 1.5 litres to soap up, rinse off and wash and condition my hair. I cook sparingly because the safety switch that controls the propane is electric. After sunset, when the light inside the cabin gets too dim to read by, I either use a flashlight or simply close my book. My occasional trips to the hotel become daily outings, with my dry bag stuffed with laptop, MP3 player and rechargeable lights in hopes that unreliable the power on the island will stay on long enough that I will be able to charge all the batteries so that I can have music in the morning and watch half a movie in the evening without sitting in the pitch dark.
When I get the repaired bracket back I face the arduous task of reinstalling it. Laying on the floor face down with left my arm plunged beneath the floor boards and working partially blind I manage to get the bracket onto the mount. The next step requires me to lever the engine into position so that I can line up the holes for the bolt to go through that will hold the bracket onto the engine itself. I strain and grunt and sweat, making a slippery mess on the floor and catching my arm on unseen sharp protrusions in the bilge. I finally manage to get the first bolt into position, putting a couple of rotations on it to hold it in place so that I can take a break. Next I have to locate the other hole by feel and put the other bolt into position. It is then that I realize that the reinforcements that have been welded diagonally across the sides have decreased the space I have to fit the spanner around the head of the bolts, making it all but impossible to tighten them both down completely. Without the bolts firmly in place I still cannot run the engine. After over an hour of struggling, getting covered in grease and sweat I lay face down and defeated on the cabin sole. All my efforts have been for nothing.
I close my eyes and momentarily ignore the damp smell of the bilge and the pong that is radiating from my underarms. I ignore the sweat that is trickling down my back and stinging in my eyes. I lay perfectly still, breathing calmly, trying to control the flood of tears that I feel is about to bubble up overwhelm me. When I open my eyes and peer into the dusky depths of the engine bay I see an inky puddle growing under the engine. I blink, slowly and deliberately, willing it to be a mirage, knowing that my problems have just been compounded and that the oil pan is cracked. I put an oil absorbent pad below the drip, place the inspection hatches back into position in the floor, pack up my tools and step into the dinghy, still covered in grim and stinking of the mornings work. I need distance, and clarity and a cold beer and a sympathetic ear. I need to figure out what to do next.
I decide that I can run our small and almost useless generator, charging the batteries through the shore power charge controller. With Steve’s instructions I wire everything up, fill the tank with 2 stoke gasoline and pull the starter. The generator roars to life, making more noise than power I have to run it 3-4 hours a day just to keep the batteries above danger levels. I still stand in a bucket to shower and sit in the dark when the sun goes down.
When the repair in the oil pan gives way, letting a torrent of oil leak into the bilge I simple get out the manual pump and empty the remaining oil from the pan. I tell Steve my solution two days later when I remember to add it to an email, it no longer seems like a situation for panic, and I don’t bother wasting any colourful words on it either. When Steve’s contract gets extended for another two weeks I don’t complain. Things might not be the most comfortable on board, but I am in no danger and no longer feel like I adrift in a sea of self-doubt.
When Steve finally returns it is a dark rainy night. His flight is late, the taxi ride from town life threatening and the water taxis long stopped running. He manages to find someone who is willing to wake up one of the boat drivers and negotiates a fare out to the anchorage, to “Heather’s boat”. Our reunion is sweet, both unloading the last six weeks onto each other, all the fears and concerns and happenings that we’ve held back so not to worry the other person. He does a quick inspection of the engine and turns and presents me with a Leatherman.
“For the 2nd Engineer. Good job Honey.” I am touched at the pride in his voice, and the gesture of his gift. As I turn the knife over in my hands, opening and closing all the gadgets I smile. Little does he know how many tools he has given me over the months that allowed me to handle all the trials of my weeks alone.
We spend the next few days catching up and planning our departure. The morning we are to depart I make a final trip to town dump. As I motor back down the river, letting the current push me a long I see a boat taxi waiting in the bay. I slowly motor up to him, knocking the engine out of gear just and letting the dinghy gentle drift beside him.
“Mucho dolor hoy.” He says to me with sadness in his eyes.
“Yes,” I reply with a weak smile, “there is much hurt today, we are leaving. It was so nice to meet you. Thank you for everything.” I don’t really know what to say.
I don’t know the words to explain that stopping is one of the hardest parts about sailing. Making friends you know you’ll leave behind, forging relationships that are destined to fail, falling in love with a place and it’s people only to have your heartbroken when you, evitable, pull up anchor and sail away.
Chino says no more, and with a nod of agreement he starts his engine and motors away.
When I arrive back at Kate Steve has everything stowed and ready to go. When the last check is done and the engine warmed up we meet on the bow. “Ready?” he asks.
“No, but it is time to go.”
We lean into each other for our ritual good luck pre-departure kiss on the bow, then slip back into the familiar routine of hauling the anchor. I give the all clear signal and feel the boat lurch forward and pick up speed as I turn and walk towards the cockpit.
I join Steve behind the wheel, wanting to be close to him, hoping that little of his stoicism will rub off on me. As we round the corner the last of the winding river comes into view and in the distance I glimpse the ocean, pale blue and sparkling in the sun.
We navigate our way through the twists and bends and across shallow delta where the river spills into the sea. The silt brown water soon gives way to the clear ocean, there are no more trees or rocks to clutter our horizon, the constraints and worries of the past few weeks start to lift, our spirits rise without their weight upon us.
We set a course to a small group of islands visible in the distance and we continue on, the only way we know how, never looking back.