20. October 2023

On the hard I

For more than four months, from August to early December 2023, Guatemala is our chosen home. This is where we spend the hurricane season and where we get our Mabul ready for the upcoming sailing legs. There is a lot to do, the list is long and never stops growing. I put many projects on hold for weeks and months, “You can do it all in Guatemala during the sailboat refit”, I said to myself. At the time I was still thinking that three months should be enough if you just get down to work… I still had no idea how exhausting and chaotic everything would become.

Just three days after our arrival in Guatemala, Mabul is hanging in the slings of the travel lift and is hauled out of the water. It had to be done quickly, as Karin is soon flying to Switzerland for a month and was taking the long-term patient Propeller with her in her suitcase. From there, she will send it to my mother in Germany, who will send it on to the manufacturer in England, where it will be overhauled. This is still the simplest of all the tasks that await us in the coming months…

Mabul on the way to the dry dock

As I don’t speak a word of Spanish at this point, apart from cerveza, baño and gracias, we get all the workers on board Mabul before Karin’s departure so that Karin can explain what needs to be done and, above all, how. Everyone nods and all we hear is “no hay problema”, no problem at all. They say…

One day later, Karin is on the plane and I am confronted with the harsh reality. The humidity is probably 99%, the temperature during the day is above 30°C and the heat below deck is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Instead of swimming in cool water, Mabul stands on a gigantic concrete surface that makes me sweat as early as eight o’clock in the morning.

For the first few days, I’m completely overwhelmed by the seemingly endless list of tasks and every time I want to start a small project, I break out in a sweat and don’t know how I’m going to manage it all. The fact that all the workers around me only speak Spanish doesn’t make my life any easier either.

The first thru-hull is removed to make room for new plastic ones

But this is not unexpected and I have already found another cruiser, Pablo, to teach me the language in record time. Fortunately, it’s not the first time he’s done this and I get on well with his approach. So I start every day of my first month in Guatemala with two hours of Spanish lessons, one on one, as they say. But of course that’s not enough and so I sit in our rented jungle bungalow for at least another two hours every evening, poring over vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

In the time in between, I work on Mabul alone at the boat yard, as the price negotiations for the work are still ongoing, and I try to find vegetarian food. I start tearing everything apart, the start of all projects. So I cut out all the 35-year-old bronze thru-hulls from Mabul’s hull with the angle grinder, dispose of a complete electric toilet, which I will later replace with a manual one, and dismantle everything that needs to go.

Orderly chaos below deck

After two weeks, I have acclimatized to some extent and I can work below deck for more than ten minutes at a time. Now I can finally see the first signs of progress in my work. The chaos on board is almost unmanageable. There are tools and materials everywhere, the floorboards are open and a film of fiberglass dust is slowly but surely covering the entire interior.

The genoa is now with Nery, who is going to sew a new UV protection onto it, as the old one is tearing everywhere. Nery is also working on a few other projects for Mabul, our bimini is to be fitted with side panels to provide better protection from the sun and rain. The lazybag, i.e. the sun protection in which the mainsail lies on the boom, is to be completely rebuilt – the old one is getting old. And last but not least, we need new mosquito screens for the hatches, companionway and our cabin, as well as replacements for some ceiling panels where the white artificial leather is falling off.

Nery with the first cut of our new lazybag

I spend most of my evenings with Martin & Rikki from SV Arancanga, who live just a stone’s throw from me in another bungalow. I chat with Martin until late into the night about boat problems with our two boats, possible solutions and everything else to do with boat gear. We often come up with good ideas together, which we can both successfully implement in the boatyards the next day. If things don’t work out, it’s off to the next round of discussions until the issue is resolved. And Rikki provides us with good food every day, which keeps morale high. Thank you both so much, I don’t know if I would have made it without you!

After work by the pool with Martin, Rikki and Thomas from SV Irmi

Then, after two weeks, the fixed price deal for the work with the marina is finally in place and we get started. Joel and Kevin, our two workers, are already stripping the old teak deck when I arrive at Mabul in the morning. The noise is horrific and it breaks my heart to see the splinters of wood flying… But what does it matter. Before things can get nice again, demolition is on the agenda.

The two of them will end up working on Mabul for over 12 weeks at a time, but I only realize the extent of their work as time goes on. My Spanish has now matured to such an extent that I can speak my first simple sentences and so I start to communicate with Joel and Kevin. In the beginning, with a lot of help from a translation app on my cell phone, as my vocabulary is still far too small. But it’s this fumbling around with the two of them that gets my Spanish into a routine and I notice how it improves much faster than before. Joel teaches me the most important words for the boat work and so we can work hand in hand as we dismantle all the deck fittings together.

Joel and Kevin tear down the old teak deck

After work, we continue with side projects on the other side of the Rio Dulce at the bungalows. Arancanga has the same watermaker on board as Mabul, and Martin has to do the complete service because it is leaking somewhere. So we spend the evening disassembling his watermaker into its basic components and replacing all the seals and oil seals. As soon as the first watermaker is ready for operation again, it’s Mabul’s turn. Now we know and understand the inner life and are both impressed by the manufacturer’s outstanding engineering work. The construction is simple and yet extremely durable, which creates trust and confidence that both devices will now do their job for a few seasons without further affection.

The woodwork is also slowly gaining momentum. Leo, the young head of the carpentry workshop, is restoring our cockpit table, refurbishing the wooden surrounds of the deck hatches and removing all kinds of water stains in the interior. At first, however, this means more dirt and sanding dust on Mabul, but that doesn’t really matter now. The work on deck and in the cockpit will only be tackled once the deck project is complete.

Leo in his workshop with our table

While Joel and Kevin are on deck sealing all the old holes of the teak deck and laminating a layer of fiberglass with polyester resin, I install the new manual toilet and connect the black water tank to our electric one. We’ll need that if we sail to the Galapagos. So plumbing at its best once again. But the toilets are not enough. The watermaker gets a so-called bubble box so that it can also run under sail without sucking in air. I also move the fine filter into a box – again a lot of work with stubborn hoses and clamps.

A good four weeks have now passed and I am finishing my Spanish lessons with Pablo. I realize that I get more out of talking to Joel and Kevin at the shipyard than delving further into the depths of grammar. For the time being, I get to grips with the present, past and simple future tenses. Then Karin comes back from Switzerland and takes over the translation work again. Finally, the last few weeks alone have been a struggle. More than a few times she could have easily helped me out with her excellent Spanish or with the various price negotiations. But then I probably wouldn’t have learned anything, so I had to speak, albeit mostly incorrectly…

Then comes the first bad news from Joel. They have accidentally cut a cable of the dinghy arc. I pointed out several times that there are a lot of cables running through the tube of the arc, but oh well. The shipyard boasted at the beginning that they have insurance and take very good care of their workers’ rights. So it shouldn’t be a big deal. However, it turns out that three cables are defective, namely from the active radar reflector and both replacement VHF/AIS antennas. I quickly dispose of the replacement VHF antenna and use its cable to finally pull the Starlink cable properly below deck. That was the good news. The old AIS antenna doesn’t have a connector, but a molded cable, so a replacement is needed. In the end, it will be a combined VHF/AIS antenna (the frequencies are close together), which we should receive from the shipyard. Better than before, free of charge and easy to replace.

This is what happened: both tubes of the dinghy arc are full to bursting with cables – and these are cut by the workers

However, the problem starts with the radar reflector without me realizing that there is a problem at the beginning. This radar reflector also has a potted cable. A new one, including import to Guatemala, costs a whopping 1800 USD. Daniel, the shipyard’s technical manager, immediately says “Shit happened, our mistake, I’ll order a new one!”. I think that’s great and leave it alone, as the import will take some time and we’ll be here for weeks, even months, anyway.

I take advantage of all the cable pulling on Mabul and remove dead cables again. The entire antique TV installation is also thrown out, including the UFO antenna attached to the masthead. I can’t believe how many useless cables I remove, it must have been several hundred meters. And I don’t remove everything, as old cables are perfect for pulling new ones through the boat. Who knows when you might need them.

Things are progressing on deck, the teak planking and the fittings are all off, except for the four-metre-long hove point rails for the headsails. While I’m still pondering and developing the wildest ideas with Martin during the evening technical drink, Joel and Kevin start sanding down the paint on the transom (that’s the stern of the boat). We have a few scratches and paint bubbles here, so we want to have this part, and only this part, repainted. When Joel starts the sander, we are all amazed. Instead of fine, toxic epoxy dust, the paint comes off the primer in large sheets almost by itself. Kevin immediately says: “Look Alex, the primer has been sanded far too fine. Of course the paint can’t stick like that.” He runs his experienced hand over the white surface.

It shouldn’t look like this if the paint adheres properly to the primer…

What the two of them don’t seem to know: Mabul was repainted right here, five years ago. So this mistake was made here and now we have the mess. Of course, I immediately think that if this is the case on the transom, there is a very high probability that the rest of the hull is also affected.

As we have now decided to have the waterline repainted too, I have an idea of how to test the rest of the paintwork without causing any major damage. So I make arrangements with Daniel and Karen, who is the general manager of the shipyard and had supervised the work five years ago, to check the waterline to see if the paint can be removed almost by itself. Before that happens, we are once again in renegotiations, as we only need the new partial paint job because the work was not done correctly five years ago. We are offered a complete paint job for USD 6000, which is “only” a good USD 2500 more than for the transom and waterline. We are grateful for the offer and remain thinking about what we actually want and will make a decision by next Monday.

After some back and forth, Karin and I come to the conclusion that it’s not worth the money and we’ll leave it at waterline and mirror. Incidentally, testing the waterline has shown that it really does need sanding, so the paint adheres as it should. So we hope that only the mirror is affected. On Sunday evening, I write an email to both managers with our decision, just to be on the safe side.

The next morning, I take the dinghy across the Rio Dulce, my daily journey to work for almost eight weeks now, and am amazed when I come across Mabul. By now I can only laugh, but I still can’t quite believe my eyes… The workers have already started to remove the paint from Mabul’s hull! And there it comes off again in DIN-A4 sized shreds.

There’s nothing left to save here, the paint is already off…

I don’t know whether I think this is good or bad, but I’m glad that I wrote an e-mail to the shipyard the night before. It said in black and white that we didn’t want all the paintwork…

You’ll find out what happens next in this blog entry.

You can find more photos of the Mabul refit here: Refit Part 1 and Refit Part 2.

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