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Tuesday November 5, 2002
Clearing-in to Venezuela and More Boat Trauma

Back to civilization. Back to automobiles, high rises, honking horns and big cities.

Clearing-in to Customs in Venezuela is a different proposition than the islands north. Yes, you can do it yourself if you plan to spend the day taxiing from one government office to another, spending a lot of money, and really straining your Spanish language muscles. However, most people just hire an agent to take care of it for them. The agent most cruisers choose to clear them in to Margarita is Marina Juan.

Marina Juan, owned by (who else?) Juan, is a full service operation as he will so happily tell you. There is one big long dinghy dock you can tie to, where he employs a guard during daytime hours. As you walk down the dock towards land and his office, you'll find a sign listing all the services he offers: Customs & Immigration representation, Internet, fax, and phone services, a mail drop, wash and fold laundry (drop it off before 9am for next day delivery), island tours, market runs every other day, a book swap… this list goes on and on. If you were to find his office by land, he can be discovered down a barren dirt road where the mangroves begin… about a half a mile past the abandoned high rise that used to be the plush Concorde Hotel. Follow the stray dogs and muscle cars until you see a one room building with a covered cement patio with a handful of taxi drivers drinking cold beers on the little wall next to a cactus in the shade.

I wasn't sure what the actual incarnation of a man offering so many services in Venezuela might look like, but I think in the back of my mind envisioned one of those slimy guys in a back alley wearing dark glasses and trying to sell stolen watches out of the folds of his overcoat. On the contrary, Juan is a handsome Latin man with a warm smile and a firm handshake. His voice is rough- perhaps even grizzly- as you would expect from someone who has smoked for many years. Dressed in army green cargo shorts, hiking boots and a vest over his white tee-shirt the day we saw him, he was busy bustling around his office talking into his handheld VHF while simultaneously photocopying boat papers for another customer and greeting us as we arrived. His dark wavy hair with the appropriate spattering of gray, along with a full beard, complete the expected portrait of an honorable Latin sailor who can get things done for you, without missing a step of debonair flair. Did I mention he speaks French and Portuguese as well?

Juan took care of everything for us. He sifted through our boat papers to find what he needed, and showed us before photocopying everything, including our passports. He gave us a map of the island, explained all his services and said that this list was not complete. If we were to encounter any complications or required any assistance whatsoever, to speak with him and he could most likely help one way or another. We could return that afternoon to pick up our clearance papers. And when we did, it was all wrapped up neatly, in a manilla envelope with Force Five written on the top.

From there, we had planned to take a taxi into the town of Porlamar to get the local currency of Bolivars, and perhaps have lunch. But, as Juan had been preparing our papers, we ran across a gentleman who could perhaps fix Viva's outboard, and he knew of another guy who could perhaps look at our bent engine shaft. Just a stone's throw from Juan's place- we went down the beach in search of an expatriate named Don who can be found at the local watering hole and restaurant, Jak's. We figured it would be better not to wait to get them to have a look.

Jak's (short for Jaki, a little Thai woman we were later to find) was already bustling with life at 9am. Perhaps five or six Venezuelan teenagers were opening things up at their spitfire owner's command. It wasn't clear who's roles were what. One moment a kid would be pouring us coffee, and the next we'd see him banging on someone's outboard motor in back. Before we knew what was happening, it seemed Curt and Steve were escorting the infamous Don and his sidekick Chris, out to our boats to take a gander at our mechanical problems and assess if they might be able to help. Feeling like nothing more than woman folk, Pam and I were left at Jak's for the "brief detour" in our day's plan.

I don't know how, when, or what really happened… literally. Before I knew it, I was back on Force Five with three men and a blow torch. Somehow the plan changed drastically when I wasn't looking. A tropical depression had begun to roll through, and the anchorage was rolling something pretty hefty in the gray drizzle. I sat in the cockpit, feeling somewhat queezy, peering down at our engine with three dudes taking our boat apart. As I understood it, they had to pull the shaft to assess if, and just how much, it was bent. Fair enough. The part I was wary of was the hole this would leave in the bottom of our boat. Their plan was to plug it with a broomstick. "Hell," Don said, "I must've sailed around the world twice with a broomstick plugging up a hole in our hull." This, I suppose, was intended to put this "Skirt's" mind at ease, but it did nothing of the sort.

Yes. I know I'm a chick. But I'm not a dumb one. And I don't think it's unreasonable to want to raise my hand when the boat's rolling all over the place, with two rotty old sailors wielding a blow torch in our home… the plan being to pull stuff out, leaving a hole in the bottom of something that's meant to float on top of the water. Furthermore- this was not even to fix it. This is to see if it needs to be fixed. And if it did, we could plan on hanging out in Porlamar with a broomstick in our boat where the sun don't shine… until the new part arrived. Well- we all know how long we've waited for parts from the States before. But I did my best to keep my lip zipped.

Now imagine that Curt has been instructed (by these two salty dogs we found at the bar), to don his mask and snorkel, hop overboard, and pull this shaft out of the bottom of our boat. "Wait, wait, wait. And then you guys are going to jam the broomstick in this hole from the inside? Isn't water going to be gushing in the boat?" I asked. That was the plan I was told. Curt was already in the water. I could hear him widdling the shaft out of its slot. And of course, don't forget… the boat is still rocking like mad, it's drizzling, and there's a blow torch teetering in our cockpit with each swell. I tried not to lose it. Particularly when seawater started to gush into the boat as if someone had set off a garden hose. Curt's pulling as hard and as fast as he can under water- occasionally coming up to gasp for air, while Tweedle Dee and his partner Dum are attempting to stop the flood with the sawed off broomhandle. Water is sloshing around the floor of the boat. They're yelling instructions to Curt who can't hear them, so I'm in the cockpit (holding down the blow torch from rolling over with the swell) relaying the shouts to Curt in the back. I am thinking, but not saying aloud, "This is unbelievable."

It did nothing to set my mind at ease when Don, as soon as the gushing subsided, was all of a sudden in rush to "be somewhere at 5." About this time Curt has realized that they can't pull the shaft out of the bottom of the boat, because the rudder is in the way. "Didn't someone think of that before you got it half way out?" I ask- not doing such a great job at hiding my irritation at this point. The three guys are staring at each other, in a mildly awkward manner, but trying not to appear so in front of one another.

Don dodges the question. "Well, you ain't gonna git that mother out before sundown tonight anyways. Tell ya what kids, what d'ya say tomorrow morning you come pick up one of my dive tanks, and Curt- you can tryin' push the shaft back in, and then out through the inside of the boat? Does that table come out? If the shaft won't come out through the bottom, then ya gotta pull it out through the inside. And it aint' comin' out through the inside with that table there in the way."

I am staring at Curt as if there is no one else on the boat with us, more or less ignoring Don and his sidekick altogether. "So, does that mean we spend the night with the shaft half way out of the hull and a sawed off broomstick keeping us afloat?"

"It'll be fine babe."

I disappear below, picking up a book and heading for the v-berth. Let these guys figure it out. Obviously I am not part of what's going on in the first place. I still don't even know how we got to this point. There I remain until long after the Tweedles leave. I hear Curt doing, I don't really know what, in the salon and cockpit (afterall- this is only less than three feet away from where I'm curled up reading… this is as far away as I can get from him- a fact that only serves to fuel my simmering temper further). The swells rolling into the bay haven't subsided, and so I am wedged into one corner, trying to talk myself down from my state. As the boat rolls, I can clearly see the shaft in my mind's eye… sticking three and half feet out of the bottom of the boat, swinging like a pendulum with the swells. In my state of mind, I was slightly consoled, if not perhaps sadistically delighted, with the revelation that- if the boat sinks- big deal. We go home once and for all.

When I feel mildly able, I emerge, knowing that now, whether I feel like it or not, we will need to discuss what further damage Curt and the Tweedles plan to do tomorrow. I have already decided I should not be on the boat. I have already decided laying into Curt cannot help the situation and, my seething anger aside, I know he is only trying to what he thinks is best (but I'm still so pissed I can't see straight). When I come out, he is treading so lightly, he's practically speaking in falsetto. "How's your headache? You want me to make something to eat?"

"No thanks. I'm not that hungry. So- can we just talk about what you and your buddies plan to do tomorrow, and maybe you can walk me through it so I don't feel like I'm getting anymore surprises?" My jaw is tight, but I think he knows I really am trying (afterall, not a moment passes when I don't have one eye tuned to the floor in search of seawater). We cautiously enter into a discussion about what our options are. "Do you think you can get the shaft back in the way you pulled it out?" "How can you get leverage underwater to push?" "If you get it back in, there's nothing else- aside from the table- that could prevent you from getting it out?" "If it is bent- how long 'til the new part arrives and will it have to machined once it arrives?" "Does Don have a guy that can do that for us?" "Is this even where we want to do it? Can we make it to Portalacruz and have the boat hauled?" "Do we really trust Don and Chris?" Many questions Curt couldn't answer. But he was forthright about it. And you could see he was trying to gather his thoughts and consider our options as well. He looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and I was softened by the fact he was trying to hide it. Nothing would be solved tonight. He needed to talk to Don again in the morning.

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