I have often thought that retirement should be a period of time, maybe in your thirties, when you are young enough to more easily do some of the things you long for. As it is, retirement has, until more recently, been a time in your 60s. Just before we let loose of the dock and headed out on our boat for Mexico, a comment was made by a seasoned sailor that they could not believe there were people in their sixties or older heading offshore. Well, that age would certainly include us. But for many, such as ourselves, this is the age at which the opportunity finally presented itself. Better to go later than never.
Dreaming and Prepping
It isn’t that we weren’t planning and dreaming for years before this, it just somehow was never the “right” time earlier. I cannot say exactly when we knew this was something we had to do, but can say that for several years we searched for “the” boat. We had two sailboats prior to our current boat; both served their purposes well but they were definitely not our idea of offshore material. In 2010, we were asked to accompany someone from Pender Harbour to Maple Bay on their sailboat. The boat was going to be hauled out for maintenance, including bottom painting. We enthusiastically took the offer. Participating in the maintenance was far more pleasure than it was work. The weather was fair and the trip was overall very relaxing. The owner of the boat wanted to sell and over the next year or so we did purchase it.
The boat was moored in Pender Harbour. Although we were still a considerable time from ready to head offshore, we used every trip to the boat (we were still living in Nelson) to expand our knowledge and move ourselves forward. We experimented with different canned and dried foods to develop a provisioning list. We worked on the boat and sailed as time away from our business allowed. We practiced our navigation skills and learned new ones. Despite being a lovely spot, Pender Harbour is not a great place to be if you are trying to work on the boat. We put our name on a waiting list to have live aboard status at a marina in Nanaimo. In 2014 things started to fall into place and we were offered live aboard moorage. At Easter in 2014 we relocated the boat to Nanaimo and over the next year we commenced living aboard. David was by this time working for a local company; I was pretty much retired.
Living aboard has its benefits and its challenges. Being on the boat allows you to work on upgrades and do maintenance. When you set off on a cruising trip you have your home with you. You need only to dock the boat upon return and you are home. No unloading of gear and food and returning to a land base. Being amidst the turmoil caused by constant change and task completion on a boat can be challenging.
Tackling Unfamiliar Jobs
As I was no longer employed, I started to take on tasks I may not otherwise have tried on my own. The two winches on the mast did not function properly. I took the attitude that I could not do harm to items that were broken. The task of fixing the winches took several days as they had a serious build up of the wrong lube. It took hours of spraying penetrating oil to soften the gunk and experimentation and purchase of a set of little picks and other tools to complete the job. Good thing it was only a few blocks walk to a very well stocked tool store. With some help as requested with parts of the job I could not quite manage on my own, the winches were removed. Maintenance parts were purchased and installed – this time with proper winch lube. Upon completion of reassembling and placement of the winches, they worked like new.
Encouraged by the positive outcome with the winches, I moved on to other projects. One of the most difficult tasks was replacement of the engine pencil zincs, which our previous boats did not have. Like many things, they had been left too long between maintenance. The old pencil zincs had softened as they should to protect from electrolysis, but of course had then hardened into a non-removable mass inside their respective spots in the engine and transmission cooling systems. It took a number of trips to hardware stores to acquire softening agents such as All Out or Iron Out, along with the trusty picks from the winch job and my own device (made from black malleable nipples smaller than the threaded engine ports).
I used the nipples to “thread” in and out of the softened zinc. Placing a vice grip on the nipple allowed me to turn it. This process slowly crumbled away the old zinc. After many days of stubborn resolve, I was able to remove the dissolved zinc without damaging the threads in the engine. I believe the worst part of this job was the tight space in which it had to be done. You really have to remember to get up from those cramped spots and move around, straightening yourself before you are permanently bent from the process! I was both pleased and amused that, due to all those years of running our hardware store, threading pipe and ordering and selling all kinds of fittings, I had a good resource in my head of what might help with these projects.
Getting Help When Needed
For some of the upgrades to the boat, we hired people. We had a larger alternator installed, along with an upgrade to the charging system in the boat. The house batteries were replaced and a watering system for the harder-to-access batteries was added. We had new, taller stanchions built and new lifelines made based on our own measurements. When we showed up with the measurements and handed them to the technician, he couldn’t believe we had downloaded a form from the Internet and followed the instructions on it to measure and fill out the form.
The electronics upgrade was done by ourselves, although not without a lot of necessary advice from the supplier of the instruments and cables. David certainly has far more expertise in electronics than I do and he also possesses more of the strength needed for some of these tasks. However, he is also a larger person and does not fit in some of the small places where things had to be installed. I therefore was very much involved in the placement of much of the instrumentation and the required wires.
Another project was adding an autopilot. Because we have hydraulic steering and two helms, this required cutting into the existing copper lines and teeing off to allow installation of a new pump for the autohelm. We did the tee portion ourselves (cut and flared the pipes) but had the hoses custom made to allow easier installation of the pump. It took some fiddling for a while after installation to purge all of the air from the pump and lines. The autohelm was definitely one of the nicest upgrades to the boat for the trip south from BC to Mexico. Although it is somewhat of a power glutton, it worked flawlessly at keeping us on course.
We had our rigging professionally upgraded. All of the standing rigging, with the exception of the mast and boom, were replaced. We added moveable running backs and a furler for the Genoa – wow, nice improvement from the former hank on sail! The mast and boom had been painted years ago and the paint was in rough shape. It took us days to remove the paint and polish up the mast and boom. Again, the result was well worth the effort. Our boat design does not lend itself to a manufactured boom brake, so we had a manual gybe preventer made. It is a little fiddly but seems to function as we wanted.
The purchase of a suitable sewing machine allowed us to make new and alter old covers for the sails, winches, life raft, generator, dinghy outboard motor, and cooler boxes. The machine also let us repair and replace bunk cloths, add lee cloths and improve other valuable items. Our jack lines (webbing) were modified to fit the boat before we installed them, we made up and altered existing tethers, and we also added crotch straps to our life jackets. An additional benefit of the machine is that we could use it to do projects for others as trade for their skills.
Cruising (aka Boat Work in Exotic Locations)
The sewing machine accompanied us to Mexico. The sun cover for the boat was custom fabricated by a local company in Guaymas. It has taken some wear and tear over the summers but, with the machine, we could mend and reinforce the cover. I acquired some extra fabric and made sun covers for the ends of the running backs, the furler, the outboard motor, fuel containers, winches and more, in hopes that they would be better protected from the harsh Mexican summer. I was certainly glad I did, since the pandemic meant we were away from the boat for 20 rather than 6 months!
Working on the Boat in Mexico
One difficulty in working on a boat in Mexico is acquiring products and supplies for projects. Some items are very hard to find and some are simply not available. Throw in a lack of understanding of and ability to speak the language and progress is slow. We brought a lot of what we needed from Canada and the United States. There was a heavy import fee we were assessed upon entry to Mexico, but it seemed the better option than spending countless days searching for these items.
The weather in the Sea of Cortez area is warmer and drier by far than in Canada, and there are advantages for hull work, painting and the like. There are also the challenges of days or parts of them when it is too warm to work, along with the limits of aging bodies that no longer can work at the pace nor the hours they used to. Many of the businesses, including favourite restaurants, did not survive the hardships of the pandemic. Bus service to the area of the yard from the downtown area is sporadic. The roads around Guaymas are riddled with pot holes, speed bumps and rough spots. Traffic can be heavy. Directions to businesses often include, “turn left at the gas station” and “right at the pink building”, rather than actual street addresses.
Food in Mexico
Generally, groceries are less expensive and plentiful with the exception of some foods we are accustomed to having. We did have turkey dinner for Christmas. Our onboard oven is a decent size. Cranberries were one item that had to be altered. We had dried cranberries rather than our favoured fresh cooked ones. Dill pickles I have seen nowhere here. Olives can be found, although the selection seems less than pre-pandemic. I have made pastry using lard purchased here – the crust was almost like shortbread. The lard is, I think, richer and next time I will need to alter the recipe a little. Finding bread yeast was also a little more difficult this year, but I did find it and the bread turned out great. A couple of neighbours were more than happy to accept loaves. The first trip we made here after bringing the boat south was in an old motor home. That certainly was handy for bringing along lots of favourite foods, like peanut butter, cheese, pickles, cranberries, etc. The van used for the second drive south did not have the same amenities, but it was better on fuel and driving was easier.
Ongoing Pandemic Effects
When we arrived in the boatyard in the spring of 2019, we had no idea we would end up here for so long. The work on the hull morphed into a bigger job than we expected (don’t the projects always do that?). The pandemic restricted what we could do here and, like a lot of people, it made return to the boat in the winter of 2020-2021 unrealistic for us. Arriving in Mexico in November of 2021 seemed almost surreal. There were some remaining restrictions due to the pandemic. Mexico did not ask for proof of vaccination for entry, but most stores test temperature before you enter, hand sanitizer is mandatory and masks are required. Many of the stores continue to sanitize carts. It was still great to be there again.
. We have met people this year who were halfway across to French Polynesia and had to turn back to Mexico as boats were not welcome there. Many offshore cruising sailors are in their 60s, 70s and even their 80s. Changes to world conditions has been an end to many sailors’ dreams.
Joys and Pains
For many people, the sailing for days and nights without being on land is a challenge. Some have told us they did not enjoy the experience and would not do it again. I am not among those. I loved the sailing and challenges of night watches. The need to see land at all times is not me either. A couple hundred porpoises swimming about for an hour or more is definitely adequate compensation for the lack of land in sight. I think though, that one of the things most people are never prepared for is the severe wear and tear on the boat from it sitting in the extreme temperatures. The added time many have been absent from their boats during the pandemic has been a costly and often heart wrenching experience. Batteries, paint, woodwork, canvas and stainless show the harsh reality of neglect. Without a doubt, the pandemic altered many plans. We have met people this year who were halfway across to French Polynesia and had to turn back to Mexico as boats were not welcome. Many offshore cruising sailors are in their 60s, 70s and even their 80s. Changes to world conditions has been an end to many sailors’ dreams.
It was, as I said, great to be back working on the boat. However, it was not perfect. Some days it seems the tasks are endless and insurmountable. To keep going, you have to be prepared to constantly remind yourself of progress being made toward being back on the water sailing, anchoring, swimming and enjoying the work you have done to make your dream a reality. You also need to stop now and then to relax and enjoy what is here: warm sunny days and new and old friends.
Doing What You Can
There is a huge sense of accomplishment in learning new skills to maintain and upgrade a boat. I think it is important, though, to pick and choose your projects. Most manufacturers of paint and epoxy products (among others) are very helpful in answering questions about their products, pointing out the better way of doing things at times. Although the advice does not necessarily reduce the amount of actual labour or cost to complete a project, the knowledge they share definitely adds to the overall confidence required for these projects, which is a huge plus. When you add the shared experience of fellow cruisers, it creates another level of knowledge and pleasure to the tasks at hand. I am a firm believer that the more of the work you can do on your boat, the better your chances of noticing when things need maintenance, and of performing that maintenance under less than perfect conditions.