Doing Boat Projects in Exotic Places

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When they say, “Cruising is doing boat projects in exotic places,” I know they are talking about us, and most cruisers who venture outside the United States. Since 2004 we have traveled more than 30,000 miles through Canada, Alaska, Latin America, and the Caribbean on our 1977 Egg Harbor Sportfisher, Panchita.

 We upgraded all systems before we left on our trip. While cruising we have completed a variety of projects including replacing the battery bank, repairing and then rebuilding the dinghy chock, rebuilding alternators, fixing and replacing three refrigerators, installing solar panels, balancing the propellers, and straightening one of the rudders. We have been able to find the proper oil to do oil changes on the engines and generators. We have purchased over 11,400 gallons of diesel fuel in 31 different ports in Latin America and the Caribbean, and all of the fuel has been clean. We have had work done in boatyards in Cartagena, Colombia, The Rio Dulce, Guatemala, and Chaguaramas, Trinidad.

Old boats, new world class cruising power boats and sail boats all have one thing in common: everyone has boat projects to do. Don’t postpone your departure until everything is perfect—that day will never come. You also don’t need to take a spare for every system on your boat.

While labor rates are less in the United States, parts are usually more expensive because they need to be purchased and shipped. Shipping large or heavy parts can be a two-step process requiring that you contract with one carrier within the United States and another carrier to deliver it internationally to your location. Many nations allow parts to be brought in duty-free for “yachts in transit.” However, you will most likely be required to pay a local agent to get your parts out of customs.

Tackling projects in exotic places is a rich opportunity to become immersed in the local culture as you locate and meet craftsmen. Most of the time there is a positive outcome, but be aware of subtle meanings of some common phrases. “Sí” may mean “yes,” but often times it is an acknowledgement that you were heard, not an agreement as to what was said. “Mañana” does not always mean tomorrow. “Tomorrow” may not mean the day after today but some time in the future. “I am on my way” doesn’t necessarily mean they are in a vehicle in transit to your location but does usually mean they will be there some time that day. And if you are having a problem with a contractor then “No problem, mon” is a definite red flag.


The most challenging project we have tackled is getting a face-lift for the hull of the boat. We heard that in Cartagena, Colombia they were re-gel-coating entire hulls of boats. We were surprised as gel coat is designed to be used in the mold, not applied afterwards. As we continued to travel south we saw more and more boats that had been re-gel-coated and they were looking good. Cartagena is one of those exotic places beset with horror stories of drug traffic and theft. However, we were enticed with tales regarding the beauty of the city, the wonderful people and the great cruising community. We ventured to Cartagena, enjoyed the area, got the work done and Panchita looked like a cover girl for about one month. Then the “ugly” happened—the color started to streak and become blotchy. First one section of the hull then another; within six months the entire hull looked awful! Panchita’s face lift was the marine equivalent of a botched Botox job.

We have discussed this problem and considered different theories: Perhaps it was inferior or old materials. Maybe the styrene leached through to the surface. It was suggested we sand the surface but that didn’t help. Maybe it was too hot on the days the gel coat was sprayed. Maybe it rained too soon after the gel coat was sprayed. Maybe it was because we had bananas on the boat or it was a Friday.

After agonizing we have come to believe the root cause of the problem was associated with the color. Pre-mixed colors were not available. To a 20 gallon batch of white gel coat our guys’ added spoonfuls of color. Then they took a big stick and stirred it like a witches brew. They were trying to match the color of our captain’s chairs. We were apprehensive about this process but we didn’t have any other ideas or tools available to incorporate the color. This technique might work for color matching for repairs but it doesn’t work for the entire hull. In all the areas we have visited since Colombia we have not heard of an entire boat being re-gel-coated in a color. All have been the natural white gel coat and very few have had problems.

In Rio Dulce, Guatemala RAM Boatyard removed the gel coat and painted the hull with AwlGrip. We were reluctant to have a painted hull because we didn’t feel we could keep up with the repairs and maintenance, especially while we were cruising. But, we really wanted a color on the hull. The gel coating process we discussed with the yards in Guatemala was not significantly different from Cartagena, although RAM would use an electric mixer. After discussing various paint options we selected AwlGrip. They did a great job, Panchita’sface lift worked and she once again was a good looking woman.

Nine months later, as feared, there were dings in the AwlGrip that needed to be repaired. When we got to Chaguaramas, Trinidad we were surprised to learn they use a different AwlGrip product called AwlCraft 2000. After talking with a few contractors we finally found one who thought they could fix our type of AwlGrip paint. It is tricky and we had several conversations with AwlGrip tech support to ascertain the right procedure. Apparently AwlCraft 2000 is easier to repair. Our contractor did fix the dings and once more Panchita was our bathing beauty.

A few months later we discovered an area of the haul with a new problem. A mystery blemish has appeared and we don’t know if it is leaching up from below, or has penetrated the surface from above. No amount of rubbing has been effective. I am thinking of placing a decal over the area and calling it good. Honestly, we cannot mentally or financially handle another re-do of the hull.


  • Keep up-to-date on maintenance and check systems, even those you don’t use, on a regular and frequent basis. As they say: “An ounce of prevention…”
  • Install redundant systems, and if possible use products that share parts. For example: we have two generators and two inverters. These important components seem to have a knack for failing at inconvenient times and places so back-ups avoid emergency repairs.
  • Be careful about “pushing the envelope.” Hi-tech can be nice but quickly become exotic and costly repairs in exotic places. For travel outside of the US basic is best.
  • Ask for advice and references on the local VHF nets, or the regional SSB nets. A word to the powerboaters: most cruisers are sail boaters and may be surprised that you are a cruiser; being involved with the nets is one way to overcome this misconception.
  • Look at for helpful information on cruising locations worldwide.
  • Selecting a contractor is challenging. It is helpful if you have some knowledge about the process or work desired. Perhaps on large jobs contract directly with a boat yard. If you can speak the local language you will not be limited to English speaking contractors or interpreters.
  • In less-developed countries you might need to, or want to, bring in higher quality or lower priced supplies. Sometimes you will be able to barter quality tools for labor.
  • Be actively involved. In most cases you need to be on the job site every day. Be prepared for delays.
  • During the “busy” season, which is usually hurricane season, we fly home to escape the heat, visit family and friends, and restock the boat with parts. Trying to get a quote in advance via email or on the phone has not worked. It is best to arrive at the area a few weeks before you plan to fly home. Have face-to-face conversations and determine which vendors you will use. Put down your deposits, if necessary. Begin the work when you return.
  • Don’t let the contractor have the entire stock of any supplies that you have procured. Give them only what they need for that application, day or until you will be back on the boat.
  • Acquire a local cell phone. You can usually get a disposable cell phone with some minutes included for about 30 U.S. dollars. You need a number where contractors can reach you and you will need to contact them.
  • If possible remain in the area for a while after the work is completed or be close enough to return for repairs.
  • Don’t get your chain re-galvanized. The cost is about half the price of a new chain. Most places don’t properly clean the chain before galvanizing. We experienced this in Cartagena and heard similar stories in Trinidad. Better to invest in new chain.
  • Warranties are usually only honored in the country where the item is purchased and it is your responsibility to get the item back to that country for any warranty work. Some products might be made in one country but when you buy them in another country warranty work has to be done in the country where you purchased the product. For example, the United States made Trojan batteries we bought in Panama are only covered under warranty inside Panama. Check with the manufacturer for details. The United States has better consumer protection policies, practices and tech support than most countries. Buying in the United States and getting it to the boat sometimes works best. Also, save the manuals in all the languages for assistance in non-English speaking countries.


Don’t miss visiting a foreign port even if you have heard of theft or similar stories. Be prudent. Take precautions. Avoid travel to unstable countries like Venezuela. Bad and good things happen everywhere in the world. Hopefully, like most cruisers, you will have more good than bad experiences.

There are several yahoo groups created by cruisers for cruiser that are helpful:

Southbound: focus on the Pacific: Mexico to Galapagos:

Cruisers Network: focus on the Caribbean:

Women Cruisers: because sometimes you need to connect with the girls.