Elizabeth Earle shares what she learned buying a dismasted vintage Amel in the wake of Hurricane Irma
Boat life is hard. And I’m not talking about the usual chores of a boat. I mean bringing-a-boat-back-to-life kind of hard.
Papageno has been in my life since I bought her in January 2018, sight unseen.
I bought Papageno, a 1969 Amel Euros 41 for a meagre $8,000 and by May we were flying to the Caribbean to start her restoration.
Dismasted by Hurricane Irma and sold off for a pittance, she was still full to the brim of the past owner’s belongings, not to mention with problems both seen and unseen.
There was no doubt we had a huge project on our hands, but the hull was sound so our labour wouldn’t be wasted.
Starting with the hull, the only thing we had to do was to sand and to antifoul it.
The rigging was gone, cut and stolen after the hurricane, which was a huge annoyance to us as it was only two years old, but this would all have to be replaced.
The sails were in good to fair condition, and we’d already accepted that the bright white sails of our dreams were far in the future. These would do.
The engine, however, took a while to get up and running. We had a few things to replace, such as the cambelt, and we had a small oil leak somewhere.
The engine room was a mass of filth that had accumulated over the years.
It was disheartening to look down into the web of disused wires and muck at the heart of Papageno.
It was like she had been created by Frankenstein; the transmission wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and parts had been soldered and adjusted to make her beating heart one of a kind.
It took us a while to fully understand how the engine room worked and what connected to what, as there were so many modifications and no wiring diagrams.
It was a relief when we had a mechanic to come on board and assure us that everything would be ok.
We relied heavily on talking to people at boat yards, fellow sailors and mechanics on advice with our engine troubles.
We preferred talking to people face to face but we also sought advice on boating forums, YouTube and Facebook.
The wisdom of hindsight
If I knew what I knew now, I would make sure to get a boat that didn’t have the wealth of problems that Papageno did.
I would at least go for a boat with masts and a fully operational engine for starters.
When I first came on board, I had assumed the biggest problem was the masts, but these were the easy bit.
It’s the engine – figuring out what the problem is as your body folds and twists over and over, cramming your limbs into a tiny space, your eyes blinking and squinting through the darkness as you try and navigate your head torch to find the complication.
After hours of work, you think you’ve fixed it. Only to have another problem exposed.
Despite all this, we felt lucky.
We arrived at the same time as other cruisers and it seemed a lot of people were either upgrading their systems or buying new boats.
We had a lot of unwanted equipment donated to us from sailors; a radio, lifejackets, kitchen equipment, lines, a wealth of books – even clothes.
In a world where people constantly buy new things, we were happy to accept the unwanted, putting everything we had to good use.
We saved a good deal of money that way, which helped cover the inevitably rising costs of the restoration.
I still had an online job, requiring me to connect to the internet each day, which was often difficult, with only poor wifi available.
At the same time, I was doing logo design, painting commissions, writing, managing our YouTube channel Papageno Diaries (which was part of our plan for funding the adventure), editing episodes and doing all I could for our journey.
We started without any real savings, relying on the monthly paycheque from my job to cover our expenses.
We had spent everything on the purchase of Papageno. It was no way ideal, but there was no other way we would or could have done it.
And yet, somehow, we got her into the water within 11 days. Somehow, after nine months on the hard, she was in just about a fit enough shape to be afloat.
Without masts, heading her south towards Grenada for further restoration was difficult and dangerous and, in hindsight, not the best way to have gone about things.
Without masts, we were relying purely on her engine, which in itself was not that dependable.
We had problems with the head gasket, the water cooling, the gearbox and controls.
During the passage, we had to stop the engine more than once to inspect or fix a problem, with no guarantee that she would fire up again.
Part of me feels sick recalling those moments, even on short passages between islands.
In the end, we never made it to Grenada, settling for Martinique instead, which also has excellent marine facilities.
After sailing with the crew of SV Delos (another YouTube boat) last year from Africa to Brazil, I had wanted to rejoin them in Grenada to show Papageno off in all her glory.
Adversity breeds strength
Having fallen short of that dream, we were still a lot further on than where we started.
I may have spilled much blood and sweat in the process of the restoration, but I have learned along the way, largely because of the hardships and frustrations.
Having some idea of what you’re doing is a good place to start, but as long as you’re willing, everyone can learn.
Despite doing as much ourselves as we could, getting a professional to assist you with engine matters was a sound investment.
We were saved many a time by someone with expertise guiding us through our engine problems.
Talk to other sailors. There’s a special friendship that bonds sailors; it’s a unique community where everyone looks out for each other.
If you’re going to attempt anything like this then prepare to work in all conditions, in any level of filth!
Prepare yourself for the worst and always have several backup plans in place. See each fresh problem as a learning opportunity in order to keep going.
When I started this restoration project, I had imagined sailing straight off into the sunset, rum in hand, sailing sunglasses on.
But the reality is that most of the time, we are covered in oil, frequently nursing a nasty bruise or cut, and although the rum is often in hand, the sunglasses have long since disappeared overboard.
A boat carves your soul into something stronger than the soft hills of land ever could.
I flew back to Papageno in March, along with a handful of crew, and having rigged, serviced and provisioned the boat, we are finally ready to set sail.
1. Stick to your budget
Look at your budget and if you have a monthly income to support the boat.
There’s nothing worse than being stuck in an anchorage and not being able to afford that piece of equipment you need.
Storm-damaged boats need to be worth it in order for you to make the investment.
2. Learn to do things manually
On Papageno everything is manual – the anchor included.
It was a long time before we even have a toilet!
It’s reassuring to know you’re physically capable of hauling up a 30-metre chain, so if your electricity fails there’s no need for you to worry.
3. Believe in yourself
Don’t listen to naysayers. People may tell you you’re crazy for taking on such a project and will try to dissuade you.
Grit your teeth and carry on, learn what you can and listen to those around you who have productive advice.
4. Talk to fellow sailors
Make the effort to chat and get to know other sailors.
If you have problems they may have connections who can help – a great mechanic or electrician who’s just down the road to help you. get to know yard workers
We had several things lent to us by people that worked in the yard – drills and grinders, for example.
People would allow us to use their workshops just because we said good morning to them and smiled.
Respect the workers and they will respect you. You may even make a few friends while you’re at it!
5. Be resourceful
If your boat is dismasted and you are on a budget look at all options. You may not need a brand new mast. Your old mast may have fittings you can reuse, or you can salvage them from parts other boats have scrapped. Ask around.
6. Get social media savvy
Use social media to your advantage. There are online sailing groups for virtually every destination, boat and technical area and they may have contacts or sailing equipment to sell or give away.
7. Enjoy it!
It’s a hard journey, but remind yourself why you’re doing it. If you’re with your partner, remember that it’s going to be hard. Take time for your relationship away from the boat.
8. Have realistic expectations
Remember that it’s not all sunsets and avocado sandwiches. It’s oil, bruises, cuts and a good deal of sweat, followed by a profuse stream of cursing.
It’s a good thing that there are a thousand religions. You may find yourself praying to several gods each night!
Keep going and remember – you can most certainly do this! Setting sail is definitely worth it.