Swell and the Bridge of the Americas

On my way down the coast, my list of to-do’s and to-buy’s in Panama City had mutated to intimidating lengths. Not only were repairs and projects sprouting like weeds aboard Swell, but I had been convinced that this was my last chance to get anything I needed for the next few months. Seasoned South Pacific cruisers warned of exorbitant food prices and limited boating supplies as I headed west. So not only was it necessary that I fix up Swell for its upcoming thousands of miles at sea, but I also had to purchase everything I thought I could possibly need. “What if all my pens run out of ink?” I worried and tossed a pack of twelve in my basket. Thus, the lists got divided and prioritized and Swell re-entered “project mode.” Cushions and comforts for guests were stuffed away as she was transformed into a floating tool/repair/provisions barge.

Liz shops in Panama
Liz Clark

At the top of the list was installing extra water storage in the form of a water “bladder” underneath my bunk in the forward cabin. This would allow me to store an extra 20 gallons of emergency water for my 30 days across the Pacific. I dove into the project with optimism, installed the bladder, and then set to running the hoses that would connect it to my main water tank. With a trip to the hardware store for hoses and fittings, the project seemed nearly complete. Then, fishing the hose under the sink in the head, I made a disturbing discovery.

There had been water leaking into the bilge from somewhere in the head for over a week. I had blamed it on the leaky manual pump for the toilet that was begging for new o-rings, but that project seemed less exciting than the water bladder and got relegated to second on the list. While I ran the hose under the sink it became obvious that the leak had a different source. Around the thru-hull – where the toilet sucks in water from the ocean for flushing – a trickle of seawater flowed into Swell.

This finding immediately halted the bladder installation. I spent half a day getting extra intimate with the space under the sink in hopes of determining the leak’s exact source. First, I would try tightening all the fittings and reclamping the hose to the barb. The 1′ by 1′ opening to the cupboard was just big enough to squeeze my upper body into, so as to get enough leverage to pull, twist, or yank on the fittings and hoses. Sometimes it wasn’t that a project was all that complicated, it was more that reaching the project required extremely awkward contortions of the body. By the afternoon I had retaped and retightened every fitting junction and connected the hose again with an extra clamp. I then turned the lever of the valve with anticipation. What I received for my ministrations was the drip, drip, drip of leaking water. I sighed – not consoled by the ambivalent scattered soap bars and toilet paper rolls with which I shared my dark hole. The leak resumed more aggressively than before.

Checklist competed
Liz Clark

I’d eliminated everything except for the valve and the thru-hull itself. If it was the thru-hull, it could have meant Swell had to be pulled out of the water. I shuddered at the thought. I returned to the bathroom cavern and again took apart everything that I had just so carefully reassembled. The whole area around the thru-hull was wet, so I couldn’t figure out where the water was coming in. I inched deeper into the cave and managed to reach my fingers around the valve and felt a sliver of a crack on the opposite side. Ah ha! After carefully turning the valve with my vice grips, I saw the source of our sinking. The cheap plastic valve – which should have been replaced – had cracked.

And so the sea crept into Swell for the next two days while I tracked down a replacement valve. Steve from Soulmate offered up a spare when I asked on the morning net if anyone had an extra. Steve wouldn’t take a penny for it, and threw in the latest Latitude 38 too.

Replacing the old valve would mean I had to plug the opening from the outside so that the entire ocean wouldn’t come right in when I made the switch. I’d always been intimidated to mess with thru-hull problems, so I skirted around the project for most of the day. Finally, I shoved earplugs deep in both ears and jumped into the murky, polluted Playita water, strapped with a hammer and a wooden plug. After pounding the plug into the hole from the outside, I pulled off the cracked valve and screwed on Steve’s properly constructed bronze ball valve.

At this point I could hear “Chariots of Fire” playing in the back of my head as the project neared completion. I had fixed it without hauling-out – and with only a small amount of advice. I gloated to myself as I strode toward the project’s finish line. “I did it by myself. I don’t need anybody’s help!” I sang to myself, doing a little victory dance as I boiled up some hot water, which would help get the stiff old hose onto the new fitting. I reentered the bathroom cave – for what I thought would be the final time – with a mug of scalding hot water balanced in my right hand. I dipped the hose into the water for a minute, and then swabbed it with grease, hoping it would slide right on. As I put every last drop of my strength into fighting the stubborn, old hose onto the barb “Chariots of Fire” faded away. After two more rounds of hot water wrestling, I accepted defeat. I’d celebrated too soon. The sun was setting. I was exhausted. My tough, self-sufficient outlook deteriorated and my dad’s famous words rung through my head; “Sometimes there’s no replacement for brute strength,” he’d always say. But who could I get to crawl in that hole and help me?

Then it dawned on me. I had been sitting at the dinghy dock two days prior, waiting for a ride out to Swell with a pile of grocery bags. I’d stayed the night in Heather’s hotel room and had left my dinghy and motor locked to Swell. After waiting nearly half an hour I asked a group headed out to a charter boat for a ride. I knew there wasn’t enough room for my cargo and me, but I was impatient to get started on my projects, so I asked anyway. The woman in charge said that she’d drop off her clients and return for me. Instead, she sent her co-captain, Marcos Villegas, who delivered me to Swell and told me how to find him if I ever needed any help. His offer now echoed in my mind as I climbed in the dinghy to see if I could track him down. I wanted badly to need no one, but at this point it was stupid not to utilize help if it was willing and able. I approached the ironically-named Plan B – the boat that Marcos had pointed out to be the home of his mother, Mabis, and her husband, Gary. Mabis greeted me with a wide smile and bursting enthusiasm. They invited me in for dinner as I waited for Marcos to arrive. When he did, we headed over to Swell and – with a combination of his brute strength and a little creativity – Marcos bullied the hose onto the barb.

Marcos helps with outboard
Liz Clark

While I gave him a tour of Swell, he explained that he was from Colombia, had captained a boat in the San Blas Islands for five years, but now lived in Panama City and worked on various charter boats in the area. As we climbed back into the dinghy, heading to Plan B for dinner, he asked about the little Nissan outboard that had clung to Swell’s stern rail for nearly four thousand miles without a single use. It needed some work and I had planned to sell it while I was there.

“How much do you want for the outboard?” he asked in amazingly clear, self-taught English. If there was one thing I definitely am NOT, it’s a saleswoman. But the long list of projects danced in my head.

“How about you help me with a few more repairs and the outboard’s yours.”

“Deal,” he smiled.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.