Monday, April 21, 2014


Sunday morning was a flurry of activity as we prepared to leave El Salvador.  We had checked out with the port captain on Saturday, but had to check out with immigration, pay our marina bill, and stow everything in preparation for heading out to sea.  The pilot was going to take four boats over the bar at 1:00.  At noon, Scott turned the key to start the boat, thinking we would go buy fuel before departing, and nothing happened.  The brand new solenoid that we had bought in Chiapas had broken into three pieces.  We weren’t going anywhere.  It was Sunday and the marine store was closed.  The other cruisers on the dock dug through their spare parts, but no one had the right sized solenoid.  Bill went somewhere to look, but couldn't find one either.  Someone would have to go to Zacatecoluca or San Salvador to buy one and it couldn’t be us because we had checked out of the country and were now illegal aliens.  If we left the area and got into any trouble, Miguel (the immigration officer) would lose his job.  Bill and Jean offered to go the next day when the stores were open.

Suddenly, we had another couple of days to kill in El Salvador.  I spent the afternoon working on the extension for the mosquito tent while Scott and Ingemar went down to the beach for beer and pupusas.  I had barbecued steaks the night before, thinking we would be at sea where we couldn’t barbecue.  I made a salad and Ingemar boiled some yucca root to have with the steaks.  I had never had yucca root before.  It really tasted just like a potato, although it was tougher, took longer to cook, and had a stringy bit down the center that needed to be removed.  I wondered whether or not yucca roots were Paleo, but suspected not.

Cayuco Crossing the Estero at Dawn
I got up very early on Monday because the wakes from passing pangas made it impossible to sleep past 5 am.  I was out running by 6:00.  There was a lot of activity on the street at that hour between the bread vendors, housewives and merchants sweeping their driveways, and people waiting for busses to take them into the city.  I saw my first Salvadoran runner.  He was running back and forth between two kilometer marks and we passed a few times.  When I started traveling to Mexico twenty years ago, no one exercised.  Now, the Mexican government is pushing people to live healthier lifestyles in an attempt to reverse the trend towards diabetes.  I saw a lot of people walking and running in the morning and the government offered free Zumba classes in many places.  This trend did not seem to have reached El Salvador yet.

This week is Semana Santa (Holy Week), which translates to spring break in Latin America.  Everyone heads to the beach.  Here in Bahia del Sol, it’s party time for affluent Salvadorans.  A room in this hotel costs $99/night, all inclusive.  The employees working at the hotel earn $120 every two weeks.  The guests are clearly not of this class, although most are Salvadorans.  Concentration of wealth is certainly not just an American problem.

Bill came back with our solenoid about 2:30, but the connector on the end of the piston was incompatible with our starter.  Scott tried to switch it for the piston from the old solenoid, but the cylinder was ever so slightly too small.  We needed to find a machine shop to shave it down for us.  I was spending the afternoon sewing an extension to the bottom of our mosquito net, so Ingemar went with Scott as translator.  It was great to be relieved of that responsibility for once.  There was no machine shop in the immediate area, but one of the engineering staff from the hotel agreed to take it to a machine shop in town and promised to have it back by 11:00 the next morning.

Mar y Sol Restaurant
To save our provisions for our passage, we decided to go out for dinner.  We wanted to go down the coast to a waterfront restaurant called Mar y Sol (Sea and Sun.)  Ingemar invited one of our neighbors from the dock, Venus, to come with us.  She had a little motorboat, so we all went in that.  Venus was from Mexico City and lived alone on a 32’ sailboat.  She seemed to be very competent around boats, had a lot of local knowledge about Central America, was very current on local politics and spoke several languages.  She was very interesting company.  We had a lovely dinner of pupusas, ceviche, breaded fish and grilled beef, washed down with local beer, of course.  The restaurant was located on a pier jutting out into the bay.  They had a dinghy dock where customers could tie up.  Our visit there was an extremely pleasant, relaxing interlude.

Our newly turned piston arrived at 9:00 on Tuesday morning.  It fit nicely into the cylinder and the solenoid worked, but the starter still didn’t kick in.  Scott discovered that the old piston was concave on the bottom, whereas the new one had been flat.  The piston was not making contact when extended.  Ingemar and Scott set off to try to find someone with a welder to fill the depression.  The hotel maintenance shop had a welder and they let Scott use it to alter the piston.  By 10:30, they were back with the now twice altered solenoid and Scott set about reassembling the starter for the second time.  Still, no happy noises issued from the starter.  Scott disassembled it and discovered that the main power lead had come unsoldered from the stud.  We were not too happy about our Mexican rebuild at this point.  The only good thing I could say was that the Mexican solenoid cost only about $15, while the Salvadoran one cost $43.  We got what we paid for.

The Immigration and Port Captain' Office in Bahia del Sol
Path to Connecting Bus in Arco
It was noon on Tuesday of Semana Santa and we knew that if we didn’t get the starter fixed that day, we could be stuck until the following week.  The trouble was that we were theoretically quarantined at the hotel because we had checked out of the country.  We went to talk to the port captain and immigration.  The port captain said we were fine.  The immigration officer said that, per the letter of the law, we needed to check in again, but he gave us permission to go to Zacatecoluca without having to go through that process and pay all the fees again.  We scurried off to find a bus.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long.  This time, we had the process down.  We took the #495 to Arco, walked through the field, and caught a #512 to Zacatecoluca.  The #512 was beyond packed.  When we first started, Scott wasn’t completely inside the bus and the heavy starter was on my toes.  I was wedged between two men.  When the conductor tried to pass by, I practically had to sit in one man’s lap.  We stood all the way to Zacatecoluca.

Scott with Mechanics at Prado
We got off the bus at Lubricenter Gato where we had previously purchased oil.  I asked them where we might be able to get a starter fixed.  They directed us to a shop called “Prado” around the corner.  At Prado, we were greeted by a quartet of cheerful mechanics who seemed to find our plight very amusing.  They immediately set about repairing the starter and did a very careful and thorough job while we waited.  We waited in the office and chatted with the owner, from whom we bought a set of 14 metric wrenches for a whopping $15.50 and a spare solenoid for the discounted price of $40.90.  Everyone there was very nice and helpful.  It amazed me how a garage that appeared to be a ruin with no serviceable equipment could repair anything, but we had had the same experience time and again, usually with fine results.  They soldered the lead back onto the stud very sturdily and then tested everything thoroughly and adjusted it until the starter purred quite nicely.  They also showed us how to adjust it in case we had trouble later.  The bill for the repair came to $16.95.

Menu at "Biggest"
By this time, it was after 3:00 pm and Scott was hungry.  We crossed the street to “Biggest”, a burger and pupusa fast food place, and got some lunch.  Then we went to the grocery store to buy a little more fresh produce and some cold water for the return ride.  Starting from the bus terminal, we managed to get seats, but the bus was soon packed and my left toes were trod upon repeatedly.  At least we caught a #193 and didn’t need to change buses.  We got back just in time for me to cook the marinated chicken wings I had left out to thaw.  I must say that Salvadoran meat and produce were far superior to their Mexican counterparts, although Salvadoran ceviche was bland in comparison to the Mexican version, despite being made from very nice seafood.

I went for another run on Wednesday morning and Scott got up early to install the starter.  We had an appointment with the port captain at 8:00 am to get our exit paperwork altered to reflect our new departure date.  We had to wait for quite a while and chatted with Scott from the boat, Roller Coaster, whom we hadn’t seen since La Cruz.  Once our paperwork was in order, we went back to the boat because Scott still had one wire to connect.  It was soon connected, but the engine did not start.  Not only did it not start, it hung up, overheated, melted the solder holding the leads together and also melted the battery switch.  Fool’s Castle has an exceptionally heavy duty battery switch to support lots of current because everything on the boat is big.  The local marine store, Marinsa, did not have one that large in stock.  It would take them two weeks to order one because it was Easter week.  That wasn’t going to work.

I had stopped to talk to Roller Coaster Scott on the way back from Marinsa.  He was an electrician and seemed to have some good ideas.  I suggested that our Scott go consult with him and then I set about taking the rear plate off the battery switch.  By the time the Scotts came back to the boat, I had the rivets out of it and was able to turn it when it was loose.  Roller Coaster Scott got it apart and whittled away some of the melted plastic until the copper plate sat flat enough that the contacts could once again turn without hanging up where the plastic had buckled.  We would want to buy a new one in Panama, but it would serve until then.  

Next, they set about repairing the bad connections in the starter.  Apparently, the connections were good enough to make the starter work when it wasn’t under load, but not good enough to handle the extra draw when it was attached to the engine.  At that point, the resistance from the bad connections caused things to overheat and solder to melt until it fell apart again.  They replaced a section of bad wire and soldered everything back together again.  At the end of the day, we were back to where we had been at eight in the morning.  Obviously, I had to cancel our rendezvous with the pilot to take us over the bar.  Bill joked that we were cursed when I called him on the radio to update him.

Scott dragged his heels on Thursday morning, not wanting to know what would happen when he tried the starter.  When he finally installed it and turned the key, it did the same thing it had the day before.  It looked like we would need to have the starter completely rebuilt.  Scott took it back out and he and Ingemar headed off to Zacatecoluca on the bus to see if our friends at Prado could rebuild it for us.  I spent the day working on the mosquito tent.  I finished adding a panel around the bottom to lengthen it, but had enough fabric left to add an additional vertical panel that would increase the circumference and give us a sturdier border around the entrance that we could clothespin together without tearing the netting.

Scott and Ingemar returned about 6:00, having managed to get the ever helpful guys at Prado to rebuild the starter while they waited.  The cost was $57.  A holiday bus schedule was in effect and there were no direct busses to Bahia del Sol.  They caught a bus to Arco, hoping to change to a different bus to get home, but that line had stopped running, also.  They ended up riding home in the back of a series of pickup trucks with 25 other people.  It was an adventure.

The buses in El Salvador all appear to have started life as school buses in the United States.  The yellow school bus paint is visible wherever the newer paint is scratched or peeling.  The bodies have been repaired so many times that they are a patchwork of welds.  They have battered bench seats designed for children and no shocks.  I remember when buses in Mexico were the same, but Mexican buses have improved.  I suspect that the Salvadoran buses are the same ones that were operating in Mexico twenty years ago.  El Salvador may be where school buses go to die.

The morning of Good Friday, I got up early to run.  The hotel, and indeed the entire peninsula, had filled up with wealthy Salvadorans.  There was no mistaking them for the local people.  They were taller, lighter skinned, better dressed, and drove private cars.  The only private vehicles driven by the local people were battered pickups used by some of the men in their lines of work.  I ran into a group of four urban Salvadoran men out running.  They cheered me when we passed and cheered even louder when we met again an hour later.  I had been running a bit further each day, but my time was remaining the same.  I was gradually adapting to the heat and humidity, which had really slowed me down when I first started running in El Salvador.

I was curious about the reasons behind the civil war in El Salvador and did some reading.  I was struck by how much the conditions in El Salvador that precipitated the war sounded like current conditions in the United States.  The majority of the wealth in the country (mostly from coffee plantations) was concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 2%.  Much of the rest of the population lived in poverty.  When it looked like the peasants were going to acquire power through a popular election, the elite supported a military coup and took over the government, maintaining power for the next twenty years by terrorizing the common people and killing anyone who opposed them.  After twenty years of violence and something like 75,000 people killed, many of them women and children, a very moderate (some would say co-otped) democratic party took power.  The status quo was maintained, although the military was prohibited from being involved in government.  The disparity between rich and poor has not changed much, if at all.  The whole thing reminded me of the “Occupy” movement if the Koch brothers had decided to buy the military to put it down.  Reading about it sent chills down my back.

Optmistic about our chances of leaving that afternoon, I went to the local grocery store after I showered and ate breakfast.  The shop was a kilometer or so up the road.  Like the marine store, customers could not enter the store.  We approached the window and asked for what we wanted.  This was difficult, since I had no idea what they carried.  I did manage to buy five pounds each of chicken and beef.  The meat was frozen and packaged in one pound lumps.  The beef actually looked like roast, instead of the wafer-thin cuts we saw everywhere in Mexico.  For $29, I got 10 pounds of meat, two pieces of cheese, three avocadoes and two bunches of the biggest radishes I had ever seen.

Unfortunately, our rebuilt starter did not turn over the engine.  Scott worked on it all day, but was unable to determine exactly why it was not working.  The boat engine was not seized.  He was able to turn it over manually.  It seemed like the starter was either too weak to do the job or there was some electrical problem preventing it from getting enough juice to do the trick.  It appeared we would need to order a new starter from the USA and wait for it to be delivered to us.  Ingemar decided to return home for Easter, since it did not look like we would be sailing any time soon.

We were still illegal aliens in El Salvador. It seemed like I ran into Saul, the immigration officer, everywhere I went.  Rather than skulk about and try to avoid him, I adopted the policy of befriending him.  He turned out to be a rather interesting guy.  He was a former professor of electrical engineering who lived in Zacatecoluca when he was not working out on the point.  He stayed out on the coast during the week when he was working.  He liked to fish and would freeze all the fish he caught and then take it back to Zacatecoluca, when he returned home, to share with families who couldn’t afford enough protein to feed their children.  He was very patient with us.  When Ingemar decided to leave, he had to check back into the country so that he could check out at the airport.  Our friend stamped his passport as having arrived from Honduras by boat.

Venus' Little Boat
Once we determined that we were not leaving any time soon, I went up to the office to drop off a load of laundry and pay for another week of dockage.  On my way back, I spied Jean at the bar and stopped to pick her brain about how to ship parts into the country and what mechanics and electricians were available in the local area.  She was optimistic that we could get whatever we needed if we only waited until after the Easter holiday.  Our friend, Venus, offered to take us to see the mechanic in her boat the next day.  A pig roast was being planned for Easter and I looked forward to attending that.

I was moving slowly on Saturday morning and the internet wasn’t working in our boat.  After my shower, I stopped at the bar to drink a cup of coffee and use the wi-fi.  Eventually, Scott came along and we ate breakfast up there.  I had huevos rancheros with some very tasty reddish refried beans (there must have been chorizo in them) and one of the rolls from the bread vendors who swarm up and down the main road every morning.  I was surprised to discover that the bread was moist and yeasty, unlike the generally dry and tasteless rolls we were always served in Mexico. 

By the time we were done with breakfast, it was 8:00 and time to go see Saul, the immigration officer.  Not knowing how long we would be stuck in El Salvador, we decided it was time to legalize our presence.  Poor Saul was in a quandary as to how to handle our situation.  Our passports had been stamped as leaving the country but, since we never actually left, they were not stamped as having entered anywhere else.  This made it difficult to justify our reentry.  He called people at a number of other offices to ask what to do.  It was early on Saturday and no one was answering.  He had fudged Ingemar’s passport to look like he had gone to Honduras and then come back to El Salvador because he knew that Ingemar’s passport would be scrutinized at the airport.  Since we would be leaving by boat, it wasn’t so important.  We already had a 90 day tourist visa and, for some reason, he didn’t want to charge us another $10 for a new one.  Eventually, he figured out how to cancel our exit in the computer system, although our passports still said that we left a week previously.  Dealing with the port captain was easier.  He just took back our zarpe and told us to come and see him again when we were really going to leave or if we needed to renew our temporary import permit for the boat.

Finally freed from officialdom, we were headed back to our boat when who should we spy in the bar but our long lost friends, Ramona and Jan, from Jatimo.  We had not seen them since La Cruz and I had been very disappointed to discover that they were not in Bahia del Sol when we arrived.  Fortunately, it seemed that they had just been travelling in Guatemala.  Their boat was anchored quite a ways up river, so we hadn’t seen it.  We stayed and chatted with them, catching up on all we had done since we last saw each other in December.  Venus had agreed to take us to see the mechanic that day.  She agreed to take Ramona and Jan to their boat on the way.  We made a very jolly party as we set off in Venus’ little boat.  With the sun umbrella up, we must have looked very picturesque.  People kept waving and taking our pictures.  The bay was swarming with pleasure boats and jet skis.  Spring break was in full swing.

Paradise Fishing Lodge & Marina
We dropped Ramona and Jan off at their boat with promises to see them again at the Easter pig roast.  We then continued a few miles up the Rio Lempa to the Paradise Fishing Lodge and Marina where Willy, the mechanic, was located.  The Paradise Lodge really was a little paradise.  They had a nice, shady palapa to hang out in and a cute little pool set in the middle of a pretty lawn and attractive landscaping.  All of the buildings were freshly whitewashed and in good repair.  Everything was very clean.  Willy, who was from Miami, looked like a character out of an action film.  With his buff physique, crew cut, muscle shirt, and sunglasses, he appeared rather fictional.  He seemed certain that they could either fix our problem or get us a starter.  Scott asked to see his junk pile and discovered an old generator that he hoped could be used as parts to repair ours.  Willy agreed to come to our boat that afternoon, but told us that we would need to get clearance from the marina before he could come there.

We got back into Venus’ little boat and motored back to Bahia del Sol against the tide.  Traffic on the estuary was heavy and we kept having to turn to cross power boat wakes.  Venus’ boat was very dry compared to an inflatable dinghy, but we still got spray, which felt delicious but left us covered in salt.  Willy was due to call us at 1:30, so we rushed off to the office as soon as we landed at the marina.  When I arrived at the office, there was a long line.  Check out time was 1:30 and a large portion of the guests were leaving that day to get home in time to celebrate Easter at home with their families.  I waited impatiently.  Just as I reached the head of the line, Scott arrived.  Gustavo, the general manager, who was the person we needed to see, walked in.  We left the line and followed him to his office.  Unfortunately, we discovered that Willy had been banned from working at Marina Bahia del Sol.  His boss, John, was not, but John was in Delaware for the next week or so.  It seemed that we would have to tow our boat to the Paradise Marina if we wanted Willy to work on it.  Clearly, nothing was going to happen before Easter.  I had paid for the slip through Monday night.  We could arrange for the towing on Monday and leave Tuesday.  We were not at all dismayed at the prospect of moving up there.  It was beautiful and several miles closer to the grocery store.  Venus, too, said she wanted to move as soon as her month’s rent was up.

I should have got up to go running on Easter Sunday, but just couldn’t make myself do it.  I wanted to see all the roadside shrines that people had constructed, but I missed them.  Instead, we had a lazy morning and I worked on sewing the last remaining mosquito screen.  At 1:00, a panga arrived to take us all up the river to Lynn and Lou’s house for the pig roast.  Everyone in the marina and most of the people from the anchorage went along.  There were 22 of us packed into the panga.  We were riding pretty low and it took a while to putt up the river.  It was a jolly party, though, and we all joked about sitting on one cheek.  The estuary was much quieter than it had been all week, so we didn’t have to deal with too many wakes.

Lynn and Lou's House
Lynn and Lou’s home was fantastic.  They had a nice covered dock where we tied up the panga and also a boat launch ramp.  A tidy lawn shaded by palm trees stretched from the river to the swimming pool.  They had built a hot tub in a gazebo, but discovered that the pool got very warm in the sun, while the covered spa stayed nice and cool.  It became the cool tub.  Everyone who had been there before and knew to bring a bathing suit immediately got a drink and jumped in the pool.  We had to settle for dangling our feet in the water.
Cold Tub at Lynn & Lou's

Lynn and Lou's Shady Yard

The house was a nice open plan with three bedrooms and three baths.  There was a large covered patio with a bar and several tables where we eventually ate dinner.  Everything had been lovingly constructed and painted with murals by local artists.  They had a family who worked for them, cooking, cleaning and maintaining the property.  Everything was spotless.  This cost them $600 per month.  The couple’s little boy, Eduardo, was a lucky little kid.  Lynn had clearly adopted him as another grandchild.  The women prepared us a nice meal of pork roast, yucca root, salad and rice.  The guests brought the drinks.  We spent the afternoon socializing with friends and lounging in the water until dinner was served.  Then we stuffed ourselves and were treated to exotic desserts like cheesecake and ice cream.  Cheesecake had never tasted so good.  The panga returned to pick us up about 5:30, but no one was in a hurry to leave.

About sunset, we all piled back into the panga and started down the river.  We didn’t get very far before we heard the terrible sound of rending metal and the motor quit.  We had blown a piston and weren’t going anywhere.  We drifted for a bit and then put down the anchor.  Amadeus, our boatman, called someone on his cell phone.  We sat there and passed around a bottle until Rafael showed up with another panga.  Transferring 15 or 16 people from one panga to another at night in the middle of a body of water was an interesting process.  No one seemed to take into consideration that the boats weren’t tremendously stable and needed to have our weight distributed evenly.  Scott and I scrambled around, trying to keep the boat from tipping while people clambered over the gunwhales into the other panga.  Once the majority of us had switched boats, Rafael was able to tow the disabled panga behind us.  We went very slowly, but it was a beautiful, starry night and there were no mosquitoes, so no one minded.  We delivered several couples to their boats and then stopped to let Bill and Jean wade ashore to their home.  At long last, we returned to the marina about 8:30.  It seemed like it should have been midnight.  I went straight to bed.


  1. Hello Scott and Rene,
    Terry and I read your most recent blog regarding the starter motor.

    It sounds like you have a direct short to ground somewhere in the 12V positive circuit cables, or a device in the 12V positive circuit. I also had one several years ago. A battery cable (positive+ wire) caught on fire and one of the battery’s actually melted, very exciting. I found a spot where the positive cable had been rubbing on the engine and the insulation eventually wore through and created a direct short to ground.

    You have probably checked everything out already, but I thought I would share my thoughts; maybe it will help some.

    Check that all battery cable connections, positive cable and ground cable, connections are clean and tight. This includes all battery switch connections as well. When convenient I would replace the existing battery switch that melted, of course.

    Check every foot of the battery cables themselves. Check that the positive cable insulation is intact and not rubbing on something that could cause the positive cable to short to ground.
    Starter motor internal wire connection loose or disconnected. Did vibration cause it to come loose over time, or did it over heat and melt the solder and come loose? Could the direct short to ground be occurring in the starter or solenoid? If the starter overheated, the short to ground may be in the starter or solenoid.

    *** If you have a multimeter open the starter and check that the field windings are not shorted to the starter housing. Also check the condition of the starter brushes and connections.

    You must locate the short to ground before you install the starter. You don’t want to fry the starter.
    Whether you use the old starter or a new one, bench test the starter/solenoid.
    If you plan to buy a new starter be sure to get the correct new solenoid as well.

    I hope this helps,

  2. Thanks for the advice, Kim. You were correct. I also had this problem with another boat and set the battery cables on fire. Not fun. All of our wiring was brand new. We knew there was a short, but couldn't find it. We kept having the starter rebuilt and fixing shorts, but we never got all of them, even after we had all the connections braised instead of soldered. Everything worked fine when we bench tested it, but would fail under load. We did eventually find a new starter and a new starting battery. Scott hasn't installed them yet. I'm holding my breath.