“Those who know do not speak. Those that speak do not know.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching
The following are approximations of conversations and some episodes from my recent 9 1/2 day stay aboard the SV Stella Maris with Captain Bill Thornton. I wished to share them as soon as possible while my memory is fresh, as I was not taking many notes. It is not all I could report, but no doubt enough. Notes: RJMS is me, CBT is the Captain. M is Crew #2 and B is Crew #3.
Day One March 13, 2017 1830 hours
Aboard SV Stella Maris, Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City, Panama.
I have just arrived from Costa Rica after traveling all day
Captain Bill Thornton: “I want you to be first mate.”
CBT: “I think you will be better at getting the others to do what needs to be done then I will.”
RJMS: “I am not comfortable with that, I wish to talk it over with the other crew once they arrive, as I have by far the least experience with manning a sailboat.” (We never have that conversation, and when CBT fills out the crew list at the Port Captains office prior to our departure, he lists me as First Mate.)
Day Two. Tuesday March 14, 2017 0730 hours
aboard SV Stella Maris, Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City, Panama. Note: In Panama we are on a mooring ball, thus no shore power
Captain Bill Thornton: “We have no electricity. Nothing is working.”
RJMS: “Do you have a voltmeter onboard? What is it reading?”
CBT: “I don’t know.”
RJMS: “There it is, below the 12v breaker panel. It says the batteries are at 7.65 volts, which means they are completely discharged. When was the last time you ran the engine?”
CBT: “3 or 4 days ago.”
RJMS: “What is the amp hour capacity of your battery system?”
CBT: “I don’t know.”
RJMS: “How many amp/hours do you need to replenish each day, i.e. what devices need to be running all the time?”
CBT: “I have no idea what you are talking about. The refrigerator and this little 500w inverter are always on, as is a little fan used to help cool the refrigerator coils that was just recently installed that runs 24/7 and has no switch. I use the inverter to charge my tablet, my phone and my computer. Should I start the engine?”
(The engine fails to start, as the start battery is also dead)
RJMS: “We need to turn everything off so the solar panels can replenish the starter battery. Do you want me to try and trouble shoot the system, I think you may have other things on that are draining the batteries?”
(Many hours later)
RJMS: “I can find nothing else that could explain why the batteries went to full discharge. Tell me the history of them, i.e. how old are they and how long did they sit without being charged?”
(Meanwhile, with everything shut off, by mid-day the solar panels have recharged the batteries enough to enable the engine to be started. Over the course of the next 2 days I continue to diagnose and monitor the system, and it seems everything is ok and there are no ghost loads draining the batteries. So my conclusion is that the Captain, having no knowledge of such things, simply used electrical devices without any regard for the possibility he might drain the batteries.)
Day Two. Tuesday May 14, 2017 1830 hours
aboard SV Stella Maris, Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City, Panama
CBT: “M’s plane is due in at 7:50. I want to take the launch in and wait for him at the restaurant. I want you to go with me.”
In the marina restaurant, appox. 2030 hours.
CBT: “M won’t respond to my phone calls, I don’t know where he is, he should be here by now.”
At approx. 2230 hours, we give up and return to the boat. The Captain later confesses to having been confused, M was not scheduled to arrive until the next day. However, the other crew member arrives later that night, and shows up at the marina the next morning stating he spent the night in the hotel next door to the marina, as he had no idea what else to do.
Day Five, Friday March 17, 2017 1400 hours (approx)
aboard SV Stella Maris, Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City, Panama
Our electrical and other systems’ problems more or less resolved, (we have given up on making the refrigerator work, the coils have a pinhole leak) it is time to motor over to the fuel dock to fill our diesel/water tanks in preparation for a Saturday 5am departure. As we approach the dock the Captain fails to put the motor in reverse in time, and we slam into the dock at speed. At the last second Mike puts a fender in place which prevents damage to the boat where it hits the dock. The marina employees assist us in getting the boat stopped by hauling on our dock lines.
M is holding the water hose and I am manning the faucet. After a long time of feeding water into the midships tank, we question why it is taking so much on. We shut it off, and go below to check on it, only to find the berth soaked where the inside vent hole in the top of the tank is damaged, allowing it to overflow.
Meanwhile, the Captain and B, having filled the onboard diesel tank, begin to fill the 10 5-gallon auxiliary jugs stored on deck. They spray diesel on the deck when the first tank overfills. The marina dock crew shuts down the hose and proceeds to tell them to put the remaining jugs on the concrete dock for filling.
Day Six, Saturday March 18, 2017 0600-1000 hours
aboard SV Stella Maris in the Gulf of Panama
The crew is told to prepare to cast off the mooring ball. The Captain starts the engine. A few minutes later he attempts to turn on the Raymarine C80, our all in one electronics pod, which displays our navigation charts, our position on the charts via GPS, our radar, our wind speed and direction, our depth, and also manages our AIS. It fails to turn on. The Captain yells at me above the noise of the engine to tell me to check the circuit breaker, which we both know has already been turned on, and in fact is still on. Beyond that, I have no idea how the systems are tied in to the boats electrical system or to each other. Nonetheless we cast off, and as the boat proceeds to motor out of the Panama Canal main channel and into the Gulf of Panama for the beginning of the voyage I spend the next 4 hours below deck following wires around the engine room (engine running) and looking thru manuals, attempting to find the fault.
I give up finally and tell him I cannot fix it without a proper wiring diagram or being able to access the actual unit, which I cannot do because he does not have the proper tool required to dismount and open it up. He decides to proceed. At that time we ascertain the only other GPS device onboard is an InReach, which will tell us our latitude/longitude. The Captain had purchased the unit some time ago but he never set it up, and never linked it to his phone, on which we would be able to view our position on charts. Also, it was never set up to track our current voyage. I had requested several days ago that B be put in charge of setting it up and being familiar with how it worked, but he stopped once he figured out a few things and never delved very deep into it’s capabilities.
Fortunately, crew member M also has an InReach Explorer, which is Bluetooth linked to his Samsung Galaxy, and with an app is able to provide us with our position on a chart as the Inreach is a satellite based system. He turns it on and gets it going by the late afternoon.
As I was troubleshooting, the crew mounted the Captain’s iPad on the binnacle. It has the same charts loaded on it as the C80. So he can see where he intends to go, but it does not have the capability of displaying where we actually are on the route. Also, he is not really familiar with how to read the data which is displayed on it, which is evident later in the voyage, when, on our second day at sea, we arrive at a waypoint and I ask him to give me the new course, as I am on the helm. He stabs at the waypoint on the iPad, and after staring at it for a minute, walks away without giving me the new heading. I make my best guess, which I confirm with M when he wakes up a bit later. And I later spend some time studying the iPad and the NavX software so I can do it myself next time.
At the Fish Hook Marina in Golfito 3 days later as M is attempting set up the Captain’s InReach so as to provide us with a second system that is identical to M’s. When M tries to enable the Captain’s InReach unit the Captain admits to not knowing much about how his electronic things work or are programmed, e.g. he does not know how to download apps to his phone.
Before departure from Panama, M inquires about where the lee cloths are kept (lee cloths are pieces of fabric tied to the side of a bunk to keep one from falling out when the boat heels). The Captain responds he does not have any.
Day 6, Saturday March 18, 2017 1900 hours approx.
aboard SV Stella Maris in the Pacific Ocean, approx. 40 nm south of Punta Mala, Panama
We have been motoring all day, doing 6-7 knots. Mid-day the mainsail was raised in an attempt to take advantage of a slight north breeze (our heading has been 210 since leaving the Gulf of Panama). The decision was made to proceed further offshore than might be indicated before turning west due to the note on the chart about some possible strong currents off Punta Mala (Bad Point). Shortly after sunset we enter some very disturbed waters. The autopilot ceases working shortly after the seas kick up. M is at the helm. For an hour or so he fights to keep the boat headed as west as possible but the waves are not making that easy and we tend more south than west. He gives me lessons on how to steer in these agitated seas, which he estimates are 4-6 feet, with every 60 seconds or so a big one that has the boat heeling back and forth a fair bit. It is my first time trying to steer this boat. The mainsail is still up at full height. The breeze from the north is still blowing, my estimate is 7-8 knots, just enough to give the sail some shape but not really adding to our speed.
This next memory is very confusing to me, I am unclear in my mind all exactly what happened but I will relate what parts of it I do remember as best I can:
The Captain takes the helm about 2030 hours. M retires to his starboard bunk. B is already asleep in his berth. I sit next to the Captain in the stern.
At about 2115 the boat is hit by a strong gust from off our port beam. It hits the mainsail and sends us off course. I remember seeing the mainsail, which had been filled with the breeze from starboard aft of the beam suddenly now on the starboard side of the boat, filled with the new wind. The captain shouts that he can’t get it back on course. He is turning the wheel further to starboard, which would put us parallel to the waves. M is thrown violently from his bunk to the cabin sole and sprains his foot against the table’s pedestal. I grab hold of the wheel and try to turn us back to port and the new windward. The captain fights me, but eventually allows me to steer for a moment. In all honesty I have no idea which way we should turn, and neither does the captain. It is my thought in the confused moment that we should get back on our course. I shout “all hands on deck”. Or maybe the Captain shouted first. I don’t remember if he did, but I know I did. As M emerges I say we need to drop the mainsail, and he shouts to us to turn the boat into the wind. We gybe a second time as he and B hook up to the jack lines and prepare to go forward. We get turned into the wind somehow, the Captain has the helm back now, and M shouts to me as he gets onto the cabin top to pull in the mainsheet, which I do, to center the boom. Then he and B wrestle the sail down and tie it off. All this time we are still motoring. Once all is secure I take the helm. The next thing I remember is B coming up on deck to relieve me. I ask what time it is, and the Captain who is still in the cockpit with me says “1:15”.
I know why I did not know what to do. I do not have enough experience to react with instinct alone. It bothers me that the Captain does not seem to either.
Day 8 Monday March 20, 2017 1400 hours
aboard SV Stella Maris at Golfito, Puntarenas, Costa Rica
We are approaching the Marina Dock at Golfito. We are told at the last minute that our tie-up is to port. Our fenders are on the starboard side. It is necessary for the boat to go past the slip and turn 180 to enter from the opposite direction of our approach. The Captain’s turn is too tight and he is going too fast. As the boat is about to enter the slip it is at a 45 degree angle to the end of the pier instead of the recommended 25 and it is the wrong way, our stern is to the left side of the slip and the bow pointed to the right. At the last second he manages to throw it in reverse, as the dock hands fend us off. I have been standing by with the stern dockline, M is refixing the fenders, and B has made it up to the bow. There are 4 marina employees on the dock and 2 on the 5 million dollar 60 foot motoryacht which is in the same slip on the starboard side of us as we come in.
As the boat backs off we tell the Captain to try a new approach. There is more than adequate room to circle out and around the slip and come in slow and at the preferred 25 degree angle. There is no current, and no docks to avoid. There are 1 or 2 knots of wind to deal with hitting on the port beam. Instead after backing up a bit he almost immediately places the motor in forward and proceeds to approach at a bit less of an angle but still wrongly oriented for a port tie up. All hands struggle to keep us from hitting the dock but we do hit it nonetheless and hole the hull amidships. The bowline makes it to the dock hands, but it takes me 3 throws to get my shortish dock line to them, as we are not quite in the slip yet. After I do get it to them I rush to the starboard side to attempt to keep us from swinging into the big yacht, and I look up at the astounded hands on that deck several feet above me, as our partially deflated Avon dinghy (another story), hanging from our rear davits, comes within 2 feet of marring the beautiful hull with it’s stern ends.
As we disembark to finish securing the dock lines the Captain walks past everyone and proceeds up the ramp to the marina office, apparently completely unaware of the new hole in his boat. It is about 18 inches above the waterline, so poses no immediate danger. We point it out to him when he returns.
Added note: the Captain instructed me to never pull the throttle all the way down, as that would kill the engine, claiming the cable needed adjustment. Despite my telling him he should fix that before leaving Panama, and again before leaving Golfito, he does not.
We arrived at Costa Rica on Monday at 1415 hours, 56 hours after leaving Balboa Yacht Club. The motor has never been turned off, and we have used about 79 gallons of the 90 gallons of diesel we were carrying on the 420 nm trip. We take the rest of the day off. The captain talks with a local man summoned by the marina manager Jose and announces to us that the hole in the hull will be repaired in the morning. We assume the electronics will also be looked at. We also assume it will take at least a day to fix all items and we will not leave before Wednesday morning.
Tuesday arrives and we spend the morning clearing in. We are a bit confused as to why the Captain insists we go with him to clear immigration but as normally the crew is not required to show up, only their passports. But we acquiesce and go along. We have to take 2 taxis as we have Dennis and Sue who also arrived yesterday going as well. The Captain and Dennis and Sue get in one and our crew gets in a second one. When we get to the Port Captain’s office we are told we need to first go to immigration and then to customs, both of which are back nearer the marina, so get 2 more taxis and go back. After immigration we tell the Captain he no longer needs us and by mid-day we are back at the Marina. The hole in the boat is already patched and drying, the gelcoat will come later, we surmise. There is no indication anyone has been looking at the electronics. By 3pm, I mention this to the Captain. He says something about “Adam” the general contractor who was supposedly arranging the repairs, and I walk away. Later that day we refuel the boat by taking our diesel jugs to the fuel dock in the marina’s launch, dumping some in the main tank, and then refilling the jugs. By that evening I have not seen anyone come out to look at the electronics. The Captain is not present when M asks me what I think and I say I do not think we should leave until they have been repaired. He agrees. At about 21oo hours that evening M, B, and I engage in a discussion about that and other events and things like the throttle problem. We decide the best thing to do is to request a meeting in the morning with the Captain to air our concerns.
Day 9 Wednesday March 22 0700 hours.
Fish Hook Marina, Golfito
I am at the marina restaurant with my first cup of coffee. B and M are close by. The Captain walks up to us and says he is off to the Port Captain’s office to get us cleared to leave, and he wants us to be ready to go by 1000 hours. Strangely, he does not ask for our passports, which he needs so we can be stamped out of the country (the next landfall was planned for El Salvador).
I proceed to tell him about our meeting the night before and that we are not comfortable with leaving port without working electronics and/or auto pilot. He gets angry with me and asks, among other things, why I did not consult with him. I explain that he was already in his bunk on the boat when we had the discussion and decided to request the meeting in the morning. We had no idea when he was planning on leaving port, he had said nothing.
He is very upset and asks why he was not included in the meeting. It occurred late in the evening and he had gone to the boat about an hour before we began talking. I decide that based upon what he is now saying that I will leave the boat and head back to Samara, and I tell him so. He asks that we do have the crew meeting and I agree and we walk down to the boat to have it in the cockpit rather than the restaurant. We settle into our seats, and he proceeds to tell us why the stuff has not been fixed, which is essentially that Adam never showed up to do it. I point out that I believe he should have told us what was going on, rather than just announcing we would be leaving without the repairs. He again becomes agitated, as do I. He claims it was not done because Adam had not shown up to do so, something I suspected was not altogether true. I repeat my intention to leave the trip and get my stuff out of the cabin, and I leave the boat.
Later that morning the Captain, M, and B came to the table I was sitting at and asked if they could join me. I was waiting for a 1500 hours ferry to take me across the gulf to another town where I could pick up a rental car and drive back to Samara. I said sure, and everyone sat down and proceeded to use their phones and computers as if nothing untoward had happened. I went with the flow and did not ask questions when they started talking about the winds they expected to encounter and the rains that were forecast for the next few days (there being no way to see weather reports while underway).
After an hour or so Adam shows up. I overhear the Captain begin to explain about the electronics and the autopilot, as if for the first time, which I am quite sure it is. Later on another man shows up, goes out to the boat to look at it and returns to announce he needs to go find the tools that will allow him to work on the C80, and he will return in the morning. At 14:30 I head out to hail a taxi to take me to the ferry and begin my journey home.
If I am to spend over 40 days on a 38 ft boat with 3 others there does need to be some compatibility in personalities. I did not relate well enough to any of them to say I would not have gone a bit loony myself. I tend towards less talk and more listening when around talkers, and esp. when I am outdoors in natural surroundings. The Captain is a very nice, very generous man, who happens to talk about himself incessantly. In 9 days I heard the same stories over and over again, each time with dates or details changed. For example, at first telling the stories had him as a friend of Glenn Frye of the Eagles. By the 3rd telling they were very best friends. Sometimes when the story he told me was repeated to others the years had changed, and sometimes the years did not add up. When not talking, he was texting, at times lying in his bunk or sitting in the restaurant, for hours at a time. He is also a diabetic, and I found myself asking him if he needed to eat. He is also a member of AA, and has been sober for some 27 years. He told us he and his wife are both Reiki masters as well. There was more than once that we crew thought he might be using his training in psychology to help allay our concerns.
M, 46 and a very competent sailor, can also be quite the talker, when not working on his laptop, which he also does a lot of. He claims to have ADD and at one point asks if I do. He also snores very loudly. Even when he was in the cockpit and I in the cabin I had trouble falling asleep the first two nights. He told us his wife and he slept in separate rooms as a result. I did not have that option. He and B are both in serious long term relationships with their phones, their camera’s, and their computers and various other devices of an electronic nature. They both came aboard loaded down with “stuff”, lot’s of it. M even brought a drone kit with him, and spent an afternoon onshore in Panama using it. As I was prepping the boat for departure, both in Panama and again in Costa Rica, B and M were in the restaurant their faces buried in their laptops for hour after hour. When it was time to get fuel, M did come down to assist the Captain and the Marina manager. When B came down to help after the first load was done M told him to run back up to the restaurant and watch his stuff which he had left on the table in the restaurant, leaving us to do the chores without his assistance. The Captain says nothing, for once.
Finally, I must admit, I made some mistakes in those few days. Once, while still in port, I left the valve in the wrong position and seawater overflowed the toilet. It took me a while to get comfortable with my footing on the boat too, I am sure I looked like a newbie for a while, until I got comfortable with all the handholds. I misplaced some things (the marina shower keys for one) as we all tried to use the little available space onboard to store our stuff. And there were other things. I got angry (briefly, a few words spoken in heat) 3 times in 9 days, which has not happened in a long time. The first time after the 4 hours spent in the very noisy engine room vicinity while trying to find the problem with the C80, the second time when B was sent to babysit M’s equipment instead of helping to prep the boat, and the last time when on the last morning at the meeting Captain Bill was giving us a bullshit story about Adam not showing up to fix things. In end, had I stayed onboard, I could see such episodes happening again, and I did not wish for that to happen, not at all.
I did accomplish a few things. All my reading the last few years about boats and sailing made sense when actually onboard and doing things. I realize just how much I need to go to school if I wish to learn more and be a proper crewperson, to be taught by real teachers. I saw the stars over the ocean at night with only the running lights of the boat to contend with them. I saw a sailfish’s sail glide past us. I watched a seagull keep pace with the boat off the starboard bow for almost an hour in the agitated seas and with a good bit of wind blowing, and 40 miles from land. I saw others peacefully sitting on floating pieces of foam detritus. Of course, the ever present dolphins broaching, herding fish. I saw the sunrise and set on the ocean with no land in sight. And I did find out that I do so love the motion of the boat at sea, and how it is a most natural feeling for me to dance with the motion of the sea. I don’t get seasick. Quite the opposite really. M has a theory that people who have control issues are the ones who get seasick. I think maybe I shot down that theory.
Addendum: I left the boat in Golfito, Cost Rica on Wednesday March 22. The Captain, M, and B cast off on Saturday. Today, Wednesday March 29th, I received this from M via FB Messenger, in response to one I sent last week after I had left, offering to help them with weather reports via text messages:
“Thanks Bob. I just got this message on Tuesday. With the nav pod again not working, autopilot still not working, and everything else, we sailed her out of Papagayo with the jib. Then another blast of air hit us and the jib furler fell apart, had to take down the jib while sailing. Then for Tuesday’s menu, we got within 10 miles of Puerta del Sol and the engine blew and seized. Currently 11:15pm being towed to Puerta. Cheers. Hope all is well.”
3 thoughts on “A Brief Journey Ends”
Thanks for the write up Bob. At least you got back safe and learned more. Things come quickly to a head at seas especially if things don’t work or the weather picks up. Things one might get away with on land won’t work at sea where there is no forgiveness.
Bob, Thanks for sharing your link. I suspect your experience isn’t unique. While there are quite a number cruisers who are accomplished sailors and competent seamen, there are also many quirky, interesting souls out there with an appetite for adventure that is neither supported nor matched with either their experience or abilities. While they may be interesting company in a bar or restaurant, on a small boat off-shore, any charm or entertainment value they may have had is over-shadowed by the reality of the situation. It might have been illuminating to have a synopsis of Bill Thornton’s experience. How long had he been sailing? Any formal training? What did he do professionally before sailing? How long had he owned Stella Maris?
I think your idea of a crew/captains interactive data base, complete with feedback is a good one. There are several crew lists out there, but never having used one, I’m not familiar with how they are managed with respect to feedback. I hope you continue your travel adventures and don’t give up entirely on including sailing as part of that pursuit. If you find yourself in a place where there are opportunities to become involved in sailboat racing, I’d recommend you take advantage of such opportunities. The competition of sailboat racing is often scoffed by a segment of the cruising community, but if you want to quickly learn sail theory and sail handling, as well as the value of team work and the art of helmsmanship, racing is one of the fastest ways of exposing yourself to the sport. Everything you learn can be applied to cruising both safely and competently. Good luck and good sailing. Thanks for sharing!
Bob, we need to talk. I was on the Stella Maris before she went through the canal. I bailed after eight days of the same experience you had. Use my email. Seriously, we need to compare notes.