Contadora, Las Perlas (2nd time), 19 June 2011 (08:38.1N 79:02.1W)

Vries Peter Pons
Tue 28 Jun 2011 05:42
On 19 June 2011 we finally, finally leave Las Brisas de Amador in the bay of
Panama City for the last time to start our Pacific journey after a delay of
some three months and three very costly brand new AND blown up course
computers, only for our, note this, "backup" autopilot. What happened?

Skip this part if you are bored with stories about bad and good products,
and about bad and good service when products are bad (after all, who really
needs service when products are good?).
To have a second autopilot when crossing the Pacific with the two of us is
essential to us. During the 20-day Atlantic crossing, which we did with
Hein, we may have steered some 12 hours max, and only for the fun of it. The
control unit of the Simrad backup system broke down in the San Blas, and the
whole system was so old that everything needed to be replaced, except for
the drive unit (hydraulic pump and rams). Since the system was a predecessor
of Simrad and Simrad comes highly recommended for autopilots, we decided to
replace it with the technologically advanced Simrad control unit and course
computer, the brains of the autopilot.
Early April I installed the new system in a couple of days, most time was
spent on rewiring the boat from bow to stern. When testing the system, it
indicated there was a problem with the drive unit, which seemed to be
insufficient pressure or oil. With some expert advice from Simrad USA and
the local dealer I did another test the next day: no more fault messages,
but the course computer shorted and that was the end of it. The local dealer
came over to have a look, but already warned that installing such equipment
yourself may invalidate the warranty. They could find nothing to explain the
shorting, so they ordered course computer no. 2, assuming that this was a
typical case of electronic infant mortality.
They insisted to install this one themselves, which they did some two weeks
later, and the dockside tests went more or less smoothly. The day afterwards
we went out for the seatrial and boom, the second course computer shorted.
This time all experts were convinced it had to do with the electric
installation on board Aquamante, something was terribly wrong. Although
opinions differed, Simrad USA, having delivered the goods, concluded it had
to be the drive unit. The hydraulic pump and rods were dismantled and
revised at the shop, and Simrad USA initially insisted to have the whole
drive unit replaced, which is the most expensive part of the whole system.
Since the whole hydraulic installation was revised, they reluctantly
accepted to only have the electric motor of the drive unit replaced, still a
quite costly part. We agreed immediately just to get moving, as meanwhile
another two weeks had passed, and then they told us that delivery time of
the motor is three weeks. They do have a whole unit in stock, including
pump, which costs more than twice as much and which we do not need. They
can't take the pump off, and wait themselves for a new electric motor to
reassemble upon receipt, as this is against company policy! Really upset
now, we contact a Simrad dealer in the Netherlands to locate an electric
motor in stock somewhere in the worldwide Simrad network. As it is against
company policy to deliver outside the country, he cannot help, but points us
in the right direction, whom to contact for help. We end up writing an email
with the whole story to the person supposedly in charge worldwide of the
service organization of Simrad. As appears later, she is responsible for
credit control, has nothing to do with the service organization, but
forwards our desperate mail to a brilliant Dutch Business Development
Analyst of Simrad EMEA called Durk, who locates the part we need in
Australia and gets it to us in 5 days. Two days later we install the
complete drive unit and the course computer, meanwhile a piece of cake after
all that practice, the dockside trial goes well, and off we go, with the
local technician on board for the seatrial. Just when I push the AUTO button
to activate the autopilot, not even having started the seatrial, course
computer 3 shorts. Daph sits down on deck near the bow, where she had just
lifted the anchor, not looking happy at all, and weirdly enough, I almost
laugh, so crazy I think it is. The technician is convinced the fault lies
with the construction of the course computer, which have often caused
problems on boats with 24V systems, something less common in this area of
the world, but very common in Simrad's biggest market Europe. In hindsight,
when course computers 2 and 3 exploded we were running the engine,
increasing the voltage to some 28V, perfectly normal by the way, and when
no. 1 blew, we might have been running the generator, also increasing the
system voltage. But the bloody things are supposed to be able to handle up
to 32V according to the manufacturer. Nonetheless he suggests to switch to
Raymarine, which would work with the Simrad drive unit and nicely fit in
with the other equipment we have on board, which is all Raymarine already.
Still in a state of shock and despair we let the message sink in, we drop
the technician off at the dock and go straight for Taboga, the island off
the coast of Panama City, for the weekend, where we can run the watermaker,
and get at least a bit of a feel of being away from Panama City.
After another talk to Durk, our Dutch Simrad hero, immediately after the
weekend, he consults the most knowledgeable expert in Norway, where these
computers are designed, and after numerous emails back and forth the latter
concludes it is a complete mystery to him, but he hopes we'll give it
another try. Needless to say, we refuse, and Durk fully agrees, saying it
makes no sense if we do not know the cause of the shorting problem. Even
though he has no formal responsibility, Durk ensures through Simrad USA that
all costs, both equipment and labour of the local dealer, are refunded,
which does not make up for the loss in time, but limits further aggravation.
On 10 June a Raymarine course computer is installed, linked to the accessory
equipment of our main autopilot, also Raymarine, as a test, and everything
works fine. In the next few days I take out all the Simrad equipment and
wiring I had so neatly put in place two months before, replace it with
Raymarine stuff, and realize we would meanwhile have been in the Marquesas,
if we had decided on Raymarine from the beginning. And still, up to now I
have a hard time either believing that we are the only boat where this has
happened or understanding that Simrad puts a product in the market, which
simply is not suitable for boats that run a 24V system. They would analyze
the shorted systems in Norway and let me know, and if I do indeed get any
feedback, I'll share it on our blog.

If you believe in fate, this delay was a godsend strangely enough. Why? In
this same period I received really bad news from home: my mother had
suffered a minor stroke, fortunately without the loss of any functions. But
whilst in the hospital, she caught pneumonia, which can be lethal,
especially at an advanced age. Due to the delay I was able to book a flight
home and visit her, which would have been near impossible from the middle of
the Pacific. She was released from hospital some three weeks after being
hospitalized, went to a revalidation centre for some 6 weeks to regain her
strength and has since returned home to my dad, to our relief not noticeably
changed from before her stroke. Love you, mum!
It was also great to see my dad and to spend time with him after he had been
chasing and racing around the place to get things organized for my mother.
Luckily, he's in great shape, but it certainly was not easy on him either.
And I had time to catch up with my sister and nephew, so there is the
positive side to the whole story.

BTW, some 6 hours before I was scheduled to fly to the Netherlands, the salt
water circulation pump of the freezer and fridge starts to leak. We've
stocked them with tons of food for the Pacific crossing, and losing all of
that would have been our worst nightmare. Not only for the costs involved,
but all the more so for the time and effort it took Daph to stock and it
would take her to restock, if at all available. The spare pump and two
emergency repairs don't work, departure time is getting closer and closer,
and on top of it all a squall hits the bay for the first time we've anchored
here, which causes a neighboring boat without crew on board to drag anchor
and almost hit us. By motoring away, whilst still at anchor, we manage to
avoid her, but then her anchor gets tangled in our anchor chain. We call for
assistance on our mobile VHF (had just uninstalled our fixed one for a
software update!) from other cruisers in the bay to get this boat off our
chain, three cruisers quickly show up and an hour later, soaking wet, with
pump spare parts and my luggage all over the place, we are free again. We
check whether our anchor still holds, which it does, and continue with our
pump project, with max 2 hours to go before I really have to leave. Daph
jumps in the dinghy to check with the ship chandlers in the area for similar
pumps and I wreck my brain for alternatives, which, in view of the time
constraints, becomes more difficult by the second. After desperate calls
from Daph, running from one place to the next and no suitable pump in sight,
the only viable alternative seems to ask friends in Panama City, if we can
store some of our frozen stuff in their freezer, until we have repaired
ours. I feel awful to leave Daph alone to sort out the mess. With less than
an hour to go before I need to leave, I find another pump on board, which is
not essential and may work for some time, if rewired. When Daph gets back,
the new pump is on and running. Daph drops me off at the dinghy dock, we
kiss goodbye, and after a wildman's race in a taxi through rush hour of
Panama City I arrive some 40 minutes before departure time, rather tight for
an intercontinental flight. I call Daph to tell her I am in time, she tells
me everything is fine on board, the pump is still working (which it still
was after I came back a week later), and finally we can both relax a bit
after having experienced a prime example of Murphy's Law.

The day before we leave for Las Perlas for the second and hopefully last
time, I go out for a last minute spare parts and tool buying spree, and in
the evening we have dinner with the archetypical, bearded single-handed
sailor Timo of S/V Pipedream, who has been a great source of wonderful info
on our trip ahead. The next morning we fuel up at Flamenco Marina, including
four jerry cans of some 80L in total, which we bought at the last minute to
be able to transport fuel in the remote places we're heading off to, no fuel
docks there. Slightly discomforting to know that we need to carry and dinghy
four jerry cans back and forth from wherever the fuel station will be to the
boat some 14 times before we will have filled up the diesel tanks. And off
we go with the same eerie feeling as always when leaving a place we've spent
so much time and met so many people for the last time. For me it adds to the
uncomfortable sensation, built up over the last couple of months, that the
boat is not yet ready, and that everything will break down. Everything will
break down (eventually), and the boat will never be ready, which is common
wisdom amongst sailors, but I decide to follow the advice of a wise boatyard
owner: being ready is not a state, it is a choice. And thus we go.

This rather awkward premonition is almost immediately answered, when I check
the engine room after an hour motoring or so in little winds and notice that
cooling liquid is happily spraying all over the place. Luckily I find the
evildoer quickly, and manage to fix it properly in some 10 minutes, even
without a need to improvise an emergency repair.

A lovely lunch follows, and then we decide to try our luck in fishing with
some supposedly great new Rapala lures we've bought. And great they are: I
release the line from the reel, try to guide the lure past the dinghy we're
trolling for the short distance to Las Perlas, and whilst doing so, almost
lose my fingers because the lure pulls harder, much harder than expected.
Not even ten seconds after I had put the lure in the water, at less than 5m
distance from the boat I find out it was not the lure, but a 4kg bluefin
tuna, which desperately wants to end up sashimi. Daph quite upset, she had
not prepared at all yet for cleaning a catch. We anchor in a protected bay
off the west coast of Contadora, the most developed island of Las Perlas, a
lovely tuna dinner follows and at last we have the feeling we're underway