Making Repairs and Making Music

Cochino Grande, Cayos Cochinos, Honduras, CA

January 17, 2002

Ithaka is parked tonight in the Cayos Cochinos—the “hog islands”—a stunning little outcropping about 20 miles south of Roatan. We’re in a national park that’s an anchor-free zone, and the government provides four free moorings. Amazingly, in this pristine environment, that’s enough; there’s never much of a crowd, so you just look for the closest set of bleach bottles bobbing off the west shore of Cayo Grande (they mark the moorings), catch the loop, and tie up. Once we did that, I dove the mooring, and found the braids on the loop were frayed. So we bypassed them and tied our own lines to the main mooring line, backed down hard to make sure the in-the-earth section would hold, and slept soundly. In the Cochinos, there’s no protection from the north or west, but in normal trade conditions, other than a bit of roll, this is a fine place to hang out, enjoy the sunsets, and snorkel the reefs.

| | Our sunset view of Baerne at the Cayos Cochinos.* * *|

Being tied up to a mooring meant we didn’t get to use the windlass that Greg, Pieter, and I painstakingly rebuilt at anchor in French Harbor last week. This windlass is less than two years old. Unfortunately, it had been professionally, expensively, and poorly installed in the States. The yard had made too large a hole for the anchor chain, and angled it improperly, which allowed water and mud from the chain to slop directly onto the windlass motor, eventually filling the wooden box it sat in, clogging the drain hole, and miring the little motor in a bank of sediment. Finally the elements penetrated the seal, and in seeped salt, sand, and resentment. Among the many lessons learned in this adventure is: we’d never again buy anything but a sealed, above-deck-mounted windlass that I installed myself and that I could inspect easily. Because the motor housing of our windlass is positioned under the deck, it’s harder to inspect, protect, and service. While it’s working perfectly well now that we rehabbed it, this design wouldn’t be my first choice if we had it to do again.


Apparently this little engine-that-couldn’t was none too pleased with us either. Irked by its regular salt and mud bath, angered that I’d failed to check it more often, harboring its furies for some time, the ornery little bastard got even two weeks ago, and went on strike at Calabash Bight, in the middle of a pitch-black night, as we dragged anchor in a nasty squall. I’d rushed forward, and pushed down on the deck button to raise the dragging anchor as Bernadette motored forward. Nothing. I dashed below and flipped the power switch. It worked for a few seconds. Then nothing again. So I hauled 150 feet of anchor chain and our 45-pound CQR aboard by hand, and we reanchored with our rode and Bruce instead, because rope weighs a whole bunch less than chain.

Even before this incident, something had been bothering me about the windlass. The last couple of times we’d used it, I thought I heard a subtly different sound than normal; I attributed this to undercharged batteries. But now I know I should’ve taken the windlass apart immediately. (Lesson number two.) We get to know so much of our equipment by their familiar songs that off-key sounds are crucial warnings. Next day, when the weather settled after the squall, we took off in company with our friends on Baerne, headed out of Calabash, and spent the next few days anchoring in pretty coves along the eastern end of Roatan. Pieter and I examined the windlass together, cleaned the connections, replaced a corroded deck switch, and still I knew it wasn’t right: I decided when we got to the protection of French Harbor I’d get to the bottom of it.

| | Ithaka on her mooring ball, her solar panels soaking up the rays, at Cayo Grande.* * *| In French Harbor we rode out a sloppy little norther that dumped rain and chilly winds on us for five days. Anchored near us was _Carlin_, with friends Greg and Carol aboard. Greg, a professional mechanic who’d been in charge of BMW service in South Africa, saw me on the foredeck fiddling with the windlass, and dinghied over to see what was up. He watched me check the electric run for the windlass. I found full power at the battery, the solenoid, and the switches but not at the motor itself when I put it under load, so that was the slap-on-the-forehead clue. Greg shook his head. “This is very bad news, man,” he said. “Whatever’s wrong is in the motor.”


On the bright side, we had more wind than rain, and it was possible to work out on the foredeck. Bundled in warm clothes, sitting on the bobbing bow, Greg, Pieter, and I disconnected and disassembled the windlass, which contained as much mud as grease, while Bernadette warmed us with a steady stream of hot coffees and snacks. Inside the motor, whose seal had rotted while sitting in a puddle of salt water, we found crud and corrosion. But once scraped clean and scoured with diesel fuel, the bearings spun freely. The magnets had jarred askew, so we took them out, cleaned them up, and reglued them. Once the gears were sparkling, we lubed them and replaced some wires that were worse for wear from the salt. Then, in tidy order, we put everything back together, grateful not to harvest too many extra parts. I metered the power. All appeared well.

The all-important moment arrived. When we pressed the button, either it would work, or it wouldn’t. If it didn’t, there was a good chance the motor was shot. I pressed the button. Nothing happened, save for the same dramatic voltage drop at the windlass. You can imagine the cursing and disappointment. It was the end of the day, and I lacked the energy to take it all apart again.

| | Greg and Carol from Carlin* * *| Evening radio discussions among the trio concluded that there was only one place we could have screwed up in some major way, and that was misaligning the magnets, which require correct orientation to make a motor spin. But what _is_ their correct polarity? The installation manual doesn’t reveal the secret and neither did reference materials on any of our boats. None of us had performed this surgery previously, and we were stumped. So, early the next morning I took everything apart again, loaded the motor in my backpack and, in what had become 25 knots of rainy wind, feeling an unattractive kinship with the frozen motor, I dinghied it into shore in search of the local electric-motor wizard. At this point, we had no windlass and nothing to lose.


French Harbor is skuzzy, raw, and real. I love it. Life’s in full display on the main drag: swaggering teenagers, girls in too-tight jeans, people sleeping, people fighting, drunks against the wall, pigs, chickens, dogs, ducks, and restaurants on card tables in the mud. But the place keeps going, and that meant there had to be at least one resourceful guy who, with chicken wire and bubble gum, manages to keep all the local electric motors whirring.

| | A typical waterfront house in French Harbor, Roatan* * *| I trudged through the rain in a mood that repelled small children and puppies, and found the shop of Señor Jorge Sierra. His large handwritten sign read: “Taller y Suplidora Electrico Sierra,” and his smaller sign in the window read “Ferreteria y venta de repustos electricos, Reparacion de Motores Electricos, Generadores, Alternadores y instalaciones, y electricas de Botes Pesqueros varios.”

Praise be, this heathen had stumbled into Mecca.


Jorge’s shop inspired confidence. Not because it was clean and neat but because it was righteously filthy: crammed and piled in every space were tools, wires, bits of this and that, pumps, parts, motors, windings, religious pictures, girlie posters, and empty whiskey bottles.

With dictionary in hand, in pigeon-techno-Spanish I explained that I thought the problem might be the misalignment of the magnets. He scrunched an unhappy face and in his best English he asked: “You making magneticos outside motore?”

Hanging my head, I had to admit it: “Si.”

He smiled. “No bueno for usted, no bueno for motore. No resposibilidad para mi, si?” The subtext was clear: “You screwed the pooch on this one, dude. So if I break these magnets taking them out, it’s your fault, not mine. Agreed?”

His smile reminded me of our attorney friend Ben who, when he gets a particularly messy case, has been known to comment happily, “It’s even worse than I’d hoped.”

| | Douglas and Pieter* * *| Señor Sierra and I communed for two hours. We removed the magnets, scraped off the glue, and cleaned them up. He rearranged them in different configurations, testing the constellations with a metal beer-bottle opener till he was satisfied the stars were aligned, then we glued them back in. There was nothing left to do till the glue dried, so he pulled the stopper out of a whiskey bottle, took a family photo album off the shelf, and the two of us got serious. I teetered back to _Ithaka_—more hopeful, yet contemplating Plan B. If Jorge didn’t do magic, would my back hold out until we found a solution? In fact, we can use our windlass manually with a winch handle, but that’s yet one more element of crazy design. It makes more sense to buy a windlass that in manual mode lets you stand up and use a long pole with good leverage that doesn’t destroy your lumbar.

When I returned in the afternoon, the wind was still blowing, but the sun was shining, and Jorge was sitting on the cement stoop in front of his shop. He saw me coming, rose to his feet, and raised both thumbs in a victory salute. I paid his modest bill; we chortled a bit, and I about skipped back to the dinghy.

Reprieved, I sped to Ithaka. Hearing the dinghy outboard, Greg popped up out of his forward hatch; I flashed him a grin, and he whooped. Flying by Baerne, I gave Pieter a triumphant yelp. He and Greg fired up their dinghies.

Back aboard Ithaka, giddy that things were looking up, we enlarged and epoxied the drain holes, reassembled the pieces, reshaped the feed hole, fitted in a tight stopper-dam of wood with 5200, bathed the motor in clear silicone, fashioned a rubber apron that fits around it, and cinched tight this new protective skirt at the top with an electric cable tie.

By sunset, that puppy was singing in tune and hauling chain with gusto. Pieter, Greg, and I were liberally toasting ourselves, and as the cold front was giving us its last blasts, we planned our escape from French Harbor to the Cochinos. Below, Bernadette fished out an old CD that fit the sentiment of the day. As often is the case, the Beatles got it right. We get by with a little help from our friends.

| | Landfall Cochinos!* * *|

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