18th December 2022
Linton Bay, Central Panama – Chichime, San Blas, Panama
Good or bad luck usually strikes in 3, and dodging a bullet is considered to really good luck. As we have spent a brief spell back in civilisation after weeks off the grid, off the beaten track and far from help, we’ve had the good luck to dodge 3 very scary bullets.
The sandy palm tree fringed beaches felt like a long way away as prepared to step ashore into trappings of the modern world. We were about to fill Ruffian with all the lotions and potions that enable us to spend time in far flung places. Our dwindling stocks of petrol, diesel and propane were all about to get filled to the brim and the modern world was also going to allow us to tick off tasks from our ever-expanding jobs list.
The most critical item on the jobs list was replacing Ruffian’s main engine water pump. We’d been nursing the existing one for miles and a new one sat on “Altimate” after some very complicated logistics that involved it being delivered to Germany, flying to Panama, where it then took a taxi ride, before it was handed to us. This pump was precious like gold and as we took off the wrapping it shone like gold.
With pump in hand we opened up the inner workings of the engine, slipped off the old pump, knocked off the pulley* and then simply bolted the new one in place. Water gushed out the back of Ruffian (where is should gush) and we breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the engine wasn’t going to overheat and the pump wasn’t going to slowly fill Ruffian with seawater.
The old pump was looking very sorry for itself with encrusted seawater and corrosion covering every surface and inside things were looking even sadder. Where we’d expect to find an impellor with 6 vanes, we only found 4; and those 2 missing vanes were somewhere inside the engine! Tracing pipes, and taking even more bravery pills, Iain gingerly undid hose clamps**, loosened set screws and then as the heat exchanger cap popped off out fell the offending vanes. We’d missed our first bullet as, if another vane had failed we could have been in a whole world of pain.
Ruffian’s lotions and potions were now overflowing but all her lockers, like Mrs Hubbard’s cupboard, were painfully empty. Right on queue with the sun just peeking over the hills the brightly coloured bus arrived puffing smoke, with homemade interior upholstery and the suspension making it feel like it was a relic of the 1970’s (it was). We bounced our way along the jungle roads with every seat taken and no space left for standing and were finally deposited outside a very modern, very big and very well stocked supermarket. All we had to do now was spend $500 to qualify for a free lift home.
With the first trolley filled to the brim and now as uncontrollable as the bus, we started on our second and with that full and brimming over we queued at the checkout hoping that we’d got to our $500. Unsurprisingly no one joined the checkout queue behind us and items flew over the checkout in record speed each adding to the total. What looked like a lot in the trolley morphed into a food mountain on the other side; and with the final item rung though we’d successfully spent $617 on provisions. We’d secured a lift home, but even poor Brock would be tested with this level of provisioning.
With another day dawning Ruffian’s engine was about to get even more love. The old oil that had lubricated her so valiantly and turned as black as night was replaced with sweet new nectar and filters were swapped out for shiny new ones, but giving the engine love is also about giving it a little caressing. As Iain surveyed every inch of it and felt every pipe his fingers found an unexpected notch and dread filled him.
The usually smooth fuel pipe had been rubbing against another and was nearly worn through. This pipe needed changing and out came all our meters and meters of spare pipe. We needed a mere 60cm of 3/8” reinforced pipe. We had 1/4″, 5/16”, 1/2″, 1”, but nowhere did we have what we needed. This was now a problem.
Seeking local advice, with no hardware store or chandlery nearby, we wandered into the local Chinese supermarket. Inside, with the smell of stewing dim sum in the air, we swerved around rows of crocks and flipflops, aisles of fast food and pasta and shelves stacked high with radioactively coloured drinks. Emerging from all this convenience a counter lined the whole back of the shop and was piled high with everything marine and industrial.
Angle grinders jostled for space with antifoul and sika sat in the company of sandpaper, this was a Chinese supermarket on steroids. At some point in the past, someone had needed some 3/8” braided fuel pipe and from them end of a 100m reel we clipped off the 60cm we needed. In no time the new pipe was fitted, the fuel system bled and then engine purred like a kitten. Once again, we’d missed a bullet as a chafed fuel pipe would have resulted in a bilge full of diesel or a big scary fire with Ruffian on the rocks.
After days of work Ruffian was once again full and fixed. We could leave behind the trappings of modern life, with its roads, street lights and brick houses and head back to the untouched Kuna Yala (San Blas)*** islands where palm trees sway, reefs provide protection and the sea teems with life. Unfortunately, between Ruffian and these islands was a 45 mile beat into a seaway that had 1,000 miles to build and into a current that wanted to push us the wrong way. We prepared for a very unfun day where Iain would grow green and Fiona would potter about without a care in the world.
As the anchor descended through the clear water and settled in sand, and Ruffian swung in a gentle breeze while protected from the incessant trade winds, we felt like we’d missed our final bullet. The seas had not been as high, the winds not as strong and Iain was not as green as we’d feared. We were back in the Kuna Yala, far from civilisation with Ruffian full and fixed and 3 bullets had been luckily dodged.
* Knocking off the pulley, like all these things involved a big vice, a bigger hammer and whole heap of hitting bravery.
** Every day dealing with JCS hose clamps and P-clips is a good day and Ruffian’s engine is covered in them.
*** San Blas is the old colonial name for the islands on the Atlantic side of Panama. The correct name for them is Kuna Yala, which is what the inhabitants of the islands call them.
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