Once we shook hands with the previous owner he gave us the keys to the boat and jumped on a plane, even before the money was exchanged and the sale completed. He took as much as he could carry in two suitcases, and left his tools, art and everything else behind, on the agreement we’d meet him in the BVI’s later on and offload them there.
As soon as he was gone it was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work, A-Team style.
First off was the piss stench. HC had a Raritan Electrscan Waste Treatment System, which basically zaps your number 1’s and 2’s, killing off the nasties before it leaves the boat. Apparently the system ‘just needed a new part, easy fix’, but it and everything around it had stunk to high heaven from the moment we stepped onboard – the stench had soaked permanently into the bilges and even the woodwork, so the system had to go. Trina donned a bin bag and coughed and heaved for a few hours as she sponged out the piss in the toilet, and removed the toilet and Electrscan.
A few days later we spent the warm evening on the hard cleaning them with boric acid. A small hole in Trina’s glove let in some acid and one of her finger nails turned black. 7 weeks on it’s growing out and her nail is still intact.
It doesn’t matter how fancy or how big your boat is, when you’re on the hard you’re pissing into bottles and buckets like everyone else, unless you can be bothered to climb down ladders at 4am to use the marina toilets. The workshop soon became filled with bottles of wee displaying various levels of hydration.
Meanwhile I started cleaning out every single cupboard and storage space, spraying all the surfaces with kitchen cleaner. HC has lots of nooks and crannies so this was a good exercise to get to know her. As I went through the cupboards I started finding dead cockroaches and little poos 🙁
The first night we slept in the quarter berth, which is pretty small for two in the heat. We closed off the forward part of the cabin as the stench was from the toilet was nasty nasty.
We found a Chinese supermarket, and whilst I was deciding between Freesia & Lotus Flower or Splash of Waterlilly air freshners, a sales assistant came along with a plastic case and locked them away in it and handed it back to me. Clearly I had a dodgy look about me. So I went off to find Trina and called the woman over to unlock the box and made her stand there whilst we debated which air freshener would best mask Bob’s whiskey piss. At the counter I noticed nobody else had been subjected to the same routine, so bought a machete from behind the counter in a protest bid.
Trina then went to work on the crack in the hull. When hurricane Irma hit in September 2017, HC was on the hard in Leverick Bay, which was hit hard! HC fell over on her starboard side. The crack was on the aft end of the boat, and Trina grinded it out and built up layers of biaxial cloth like you would do with any fibreglass repair.
On a side note, there was a big hole in the rudder post which had been filled with epoxy. Transpires, when HC was on her side, the previous owner drilled a big hole and slotted in a metal bar so he could drag HC out with a digger from between the other boats that had fallen over. All of these things sound very scary, but we still went ahead, rightly or wrongly with the opinion that old heavy boats like HC can handle a bit of abuse.
Whilst Trina was attending to the crack I made a start on the electrics. I spent days tracing and pulling out wires that went nowhere. I must have pulled out a good 300ft of cabling, talking to myself:
“ok that goes through there, over there, down there and oh oh it stops there, doesn’t go anywhere, great!” followed by a manic laugh.
I found wires joined together with bolts and taped over. I found wires just dangling around, and 110v plug sockets with no backs to them. I took it slow and did what I could to make the boat safe. Sometimes things would stop working and I’d find wires had not been crimped properly, or heatshink connectors not heated up. There’s a lot of magic on this boat (a Jeff Coates saying). Lights dim when you do things like operate the windlass. The hum of fans change pitch as more and more lights are switched on. All in all the boat was wired up to either electrocute or set fire to us.
Each morning we’d go through a to-do list of jobs on a notepad, and at the end of every day we’d slump down and watch Sopranos, anything to take our minds off the enormity of the situation.
On the second day I found mouse or cockroach poos in the pilot berth bed sheets, so that night we slept on the saloon settees.
The next day I called up a pest company and arranged for them to come over the next day. I spent the day emptying the entire boat and bagging up the previous owners belongings. The company came round and I took him through every cupboard and pulled out every drawer for him to spray his snake oil in every nook and cranny. He told us that the cockroaches would start coming out in the day to search for water after coming into contact with the substance he sprayed around the boat, and they’d eventually die. Well, we were a bit suspicious as the stuff he sprayed had no smell and was safe for humans to touch. That evening we sat watching The Sopranos when Trina spotted the biggest fattest cockroach climbing the walls. We took that as a sign the snake oil was starting to work.
Eradicating cockroaches is an emotional rollercoaster. Over the following few weeks we’d find dead cockroaches here and there. In the morning you might find a dead one under the table, hooraay! But then in the evening you might see a live one crawling over the kitchen worktop, boo! The bilges turned into cockroach soup which was pleasing and disgusting in equal measures.
We frequented Home Depot and a couple of chandleries and a supermarket called Van Den Tweel on weekly and bi-weekly basis, in a clapped out Mitsubishi saloon. Driving around in the midday sun in this old automatic felt like we were in a game of Grand Theft Auto as Trina called out directions and we dodged oncoming cars turning off crossroads, without any concept of Curacao’s highway code to salsa music blaring out of the tinny stereo.
One day we went to a chandlery to buy some toilet hose. When we got to the counter the woman billed us $120 for a couple of metres of pipe. When we protested, they dropped the price to $70 for what should have been a $30 purchase.
“Sorry we’re not paying $70 for a tiny bit of hose”
“Well we have a problem then, don’t we?” said the manager in a thick Dutch accent.
“No, we dont..”
With that I walked out, then I leant back in and grabbed Trina and pulled her out of the shop. We jumped into our GTA poorly built saloon and sped off. I’ve recalled this story since, and each time it comes off more underwhelming than before. But at the time we felt like Bonny and Clyde. We prayed we’d never need to go back, as from then on we were down to one chandlery on the island. Thankfully we picked up some toilet hose from Home Depot for a sensible price.
Lunchtimes and after work we sometimes frequented a small bar on the estate called Mano’s Snack. The best lunch we had there was oxtail, rice and veg. It’s a little bar with bars on the windows and Latin music playing out on the TV. Small lizards would scuttle under tables, and workmen sat around drinking beer at the end of the day. Our surveyor said it was custom to say hello to everyone before ordering a beer, so each time we went there I’d scan the room and head nod all the way to the bar.They got to know us at the bar, and without uttering a word Trina would get a Amstel Bright, and I’d get 2 regular bottles at the same time. It seemed illogical to just order one beer at a time when I could get two, and it seemed to amuse them. Timmy Two Beers.
X days later we got word from our broker that HC was officially ours. We cracked open a bottle of cheap bubbly and had a mini celebration covered in epoxy, oil and sweat.
Our original plan was to put Excalibur on a cargo ship home and sail HC back. A prospect that quite honestly filled me with dread. I would wake up in the middle of the night, and pace out in my mind what was the minimum number of tasks that would need to be completed before I’d be satisfied we could sail back to the UK safely.
The yard soon realised we weren’t rich kids with money to burn on yard services, when they saw Trina grinding away at the hull with an angle grinder. But there was one job we did need help with, and that was some welding. We needed a new gooseneck fitting and the pushpit modified so we could get a Hydrovane on the back for the trip home.
The whole experience dealing with a welder confirmed what I already knew: that I hate, absolutely hate, letting other people do work on my (our) boat. The process always starts out the same, with hopeful optimism that the chap (mostly a chap) is A) going to do a good job, and B) isn’t going to rip you off. Well this chap was all buddy buddy, I promise to do a good job at a fair price. The reality was he became argumentative when he came up with some bullshit excuse to do a bodge job which wasn’t what we agreed upon, and then charged double what the job should have cost. The gooseneck fitting wasn’t correct and needed more work, and just like someone else we knew, when he wanted to get his way he started having a hissy fit. So much so I had to bring Trina along to quell the situation. The guy had a monopoly on the island. The cheeky git was all smiles the last time we saw him when he had a prospective customer in his workshop. If there’s one skill I’m eager for us to learn now it’s welding. We lost a week in a dump of a marina in Portugal over a minor job, and the stress dealing with this knob jockey was just too much.
I guess it’s a useful life lesson to learn. When someone starts waving their arms around, shouting and playing the victim card it’s a smokescreen. Their objective is to make wish for a quiet life and to accept whatever crap they’re trying to shovel. Next time I’ll try to be just like my reality TV hero Stuart McCracken from Can’t Pay We’ll Take It Away, and let them shout themselves out.
The process of getting HC ready became overwhelming at times. The reality of what we’d done hit home for Trina a few times. Getting Excalibur to where she is now (in terms of prep to sail to the Carib) took a whole lot of money, and a whole lot of time, and took a lot of time away from seeing friends and family. That’s been the sacrifice. Trina spent her 20s restoring her wooden boat, and Excalibur’s taken a piece of our 30s, and now HC will keep us busy for the foreseeable future. We wondered what was wrong with us, and when we look back on our lives, will we have spent our earth hours wisely. Certainly driving back and forth, back and forth to Home Depot, and having lunch in supermarket cafes (like my folks do) was not the dream we expected. Buying HC has committed ourselves to a life of boat jobs, and we ponder what that life is going to prevent us from doing. If you have a boat, is there any point taking 2 weeks off work to go hiking when you have a boat that’s costing you money, you then reason you should probably go sailing. At times, we really debated whether the benefits outweighed the negatives. For the most part we go into automatic drive. The boat needs fixing, making right, and it needs sailing. We like to fix things, whether we enjoy the ups and downs I don’t know, but we definitely need to bring HC up to a serviceable level before we can let our foot off the gas. We’ve vowed that once she’s in London, we’ll make more time for friends and family, and for London.
I can’t recall all the jobs on the to-do list, there were a lot. We tried ordering a new autopilot and chartplotter which were necessary for the trip home. But the drawback of being on a small island soon became apparent: we simply wouldn’t get them in time. Trina tried getting one shipped in by WestMarine, who took our money, told us they couldn’t find it, and by that time it was too late, and she had to make 30 phone calls to eventually get our money back.
I spent a few days identifying all the hull fittings, there’s 38 holes in all. We replaced 4 skin fittings and Trina antifouled the hull.
The day came when we were ready to put HC back in the water.
They slipped her in and stupid me I left one of the unconnected skin fittings open. The previous owner plumbed the automatic bilge pump into the cockpit. Clever guy, so when we stepped onboard the cockpit was awash with water.
After lunch it was show time. We needed to get HC in her berth, but we couldn’t start the engine. HC has switches all over the friggin place, some do as labelled, some do more than what’s labelled, some do the opposite of what’s labelled, and other things have no labels. So for instance, to use the cooker, there’s a switch on the switch panel labelled gas switch, put that on, no gas, there’s a switch by the cooker with a light, switch that on, no gas, there’s also a switch by the sink, switch that on and presto you have gas. Turning the engine on is equally as confusing. There’s a blank switch by the nav table that turns the fuel pump on, but that will only work if the water pressure switch (for the taps) is turned on, then there’s a blank switch in the workshop that needs to be switched on, and finally the key up in the cockpit will start the engine, if you haven’t by that point given up and turned to drink.
The boat yard manager stood by to help tow our bow around once we got the engine started. We flitted up and down the companionway trying all the switches under the sun to get the engine working, and eventually got it started. I’ve never been so terrified in my life as when we had to move HC for the first time. The boat is gigantic, to put it in perspective I thought a 40ft boat was long before HC, add another 17ft to that and perhaps my fear was understandable. With two levers at the helm I crunched away to get HC moving. Something seemed to be wrong, and we drifted as the engine made unfamiliar noises. The manager kept us off the pontoons, and shouted out “You’re in neutral”. Turned out I got my gears and accelerator mixed up. The gear lever has 3 positions, forward, middle for neutral and reverse. Once my mistake had been discovered, the tow was released and he stood by as we went out of the marina at a dead slow pace, circled around, and then made for our berth. Slowly we crept around, and with no wind and no bow thruster we slid into the same berth as when we’d come in, which was half the length of HC. We got in with no damage and a wave of relief washed over both of us. With Excalibur I always said that as long as we don’t hit any other boats I don’t mind if she gets a few battle scars while I learn the ropes, but with HC if we hit any other boats, there won’t be any other boats left. How could we be allowed to buy such a big boat?!
One evening at Mano’s a suggestion was made that we put HC on the cargo ship too. In my heart I was skipping for joy that we wouldn’t have to sail all the way home. We waited for a response from Sevenstar as to how much it’d cost. For me it was a great relief when we decided to take the hit and ship HC home. We reasoned that we didn’t know the boat well enough to take on such a trip, and time was fast running out with the hurricane season approaching. If there were any slip ups, then for nine months we’d have a boat totting up mooring fees in the Caribbean while we would be homeless in the UK, hard at work and missing our new boat. The upside of shipping HC home would be that we’d get home earlier so we could start earning while the boats were enroute, and we wouldn’t have to worry about any wear and tear that could crop up as a result of sailing HC thousands of miles back home.
The cost of shipping both boats home was astronomical, but we saw it as part and parcel of buying our dream boat far away from home. We’d have never have found a boat like HC in Europe for the price we paid, so we had to accept that there’d be some downsides. The cost to ship Excalibur (30ft and 5 tonnes) home from St Thomas, USVI’s was £4,500, and HC (57ft and 25 tonnes) cost £15,000. As time passed we both decided that as expensive as it was, it was the right decision. In later blog posts it will become apparent it was most definitely the right decision.
The boatyard was a funny place. The staff were extremely efficient, but neither very friendly or unfriendly, small talk was not on the cards. They spent their days like little boys, demolishing old boats with diggers, and standing around whilst watching their colleagues trying to pick up a coke can with a digger. But it felt like a closed circle.
One of the boat residents would do a BBQ some weekends for $4, we ate more meat than one man needed for a week, accompanied with homemade peanut sauces.
One day the gas ran out, and it was time to say goodbye to the bizarre gas keg barrel that sat next to the engine. I didn’t want to gamble on the fact that it had probably been there for 20 odd years so it should be fine for the trip. It had to go. So like our days on Excalibur when we’d run out of gas, we resorted to a trusty picnic portable gas hob.
The yard dogs soon stopped taking any notice of us, and the dobermans that patrolled another boat yard no longer snarled and barked at us chasing us along the chainmail fence, instead they played with each other running along the perimeter forgetting their duties.
Days passed by, ticking off job after job. We installed new fire extinguishers and had a rig inspection. Replaced a bolt holding up the forestay with a clevis pin, and then we were left with the nice to have jobs left, meaning it was time to go.