29th April. Panama City, Panama.
After the shocking news of Rafael’s death, we each decided to take the weekend and use it well. Diana flew to Costa Rica to meet River who had booked to fly into San Jose, anticipating our arrival there.
Stan elected to stay in the city and meet an acquaintance and revisit a bar belonging to the world famous boxing champion, Roberto Duran, where we had first gone with Edison Henriquez.
On that occasion we had met Edison in his capacity as Treasurer of the antique car club of Panama: Autos Antiguos y Deportivos de Panama (ADEPA), he brought with him Enrique, also a member of the club.
Later that day Edison took us to see a part of his car collection, some American 50s cars and some more modern Mercedes. We also went to the bakery Miranda, where his wife Gladys and daughter Ana make, sell and serve in the cafe a wonderful selection of cakes, coffee and other mouthwatering delicacies. We were treated to a kitchen visit, where we tasted that day’s experiment, made on the premises, pasta in a butter and lemon dressing. I taste that one in my dreams. I spent some time talking to Ana about baking sour dough, a favourite occupation of mine at home. She is visiting the UK in September and I hope we can arrange to visit some of the artisan bakeries near Oxford.
Amanda and I accepted Edison’s kind offer to visit their beach house in Playa Coronado. They took us there and left us to enjoy it, which we did, making the most of the opportunity to cook for our selves. Almost since February 5th we have been eating out and the chance to chose ingredients and cook in familiar ways was a great treat. We had the use of a family car while there and returned to Panama for the funeral on Monday morning, collecting Stan from the Hotel Aramo in Panama City on the way.
That evening we arranged to go with Dora and Ricardo to the same restaurant where we had previously taken lunch with Rafael. Diana and River arrived in time to join us and we were eight at table that night. We said our goodbyes at the hotel. Dora and Ricardo had work the following day and end of the month figures to be completed. In one short week we had become tightly enmeshed in a small part of Dora and Ricardo’s life, parting was an emotional affair.
30th April. Panama City, Panama.
On the previous evening, Edison had called at the hotel to collect the loaned car and had insisted on calling for us this morning to take us to Colon, where we were to retrieve the cars. We were all ready at 07.00 but sadly the hotel staff, although pre-warned, had not prepared our bills and we were later leaving than planned.
The journey across the isthmus takes a little over an hour, passing the fringes of Lake Gatun, created as part of the Panama Canal.
The docks at Colon are a noisy, congested and chaotic assembly of old and new, purpose built or reused buildings from the American Canal building times, one hundred years ago. Edison, knew exactly where to begin the quest and soon we were involved in the process. From one office to the next we trudged, producing copies of this, originals of that and always the patient, smiling presence of Edison, kept the job moving on.
The finale was just as we had been prepared for by the internet tales and first hand accounts of the dock procedure. Taken to an unloading area, the runner suggested that the container would be brought within an hour. Fortunately we had some shade in which to stand, amid a vast area of containers of all hues and logos, stacked up to six high and as many as eight wide and twenty long. As each Evergreen container passed on the back of a port lorry,
stacker truck or other device for moving the 40’ containers, our hopes were raised, only to be dashed again. After two hours, we restless owners learned that the container had been located an hour earlier and lifted from its stack, delivered to ground level, but then left to its own devices!!! Now brought to where we could get at it, our runner, Alfredo, borrowed bolt croppers to remove the seals and in a few minutes the cars were wheeled
out into the sunshine from the captivity of their baking steel box. Safe and undamaged, they were, one by one, started up and then driven to the Customs inspection bay. A cursory look-over, a photo opportunity for the many port workers not gainfully employed, and we were out of the gate and free to go. It was two minutes to three and the whole task had taken nearly seven hours.
From the time we had arrived in Cartagena until we retrieved the cars, fifteen days had elapsed. The container should have
arrived in Colon after only seven days and we should have been able to resume our journey a week earlier. That this did not happen
is partly shrouded in mystery and partly all too obvious. The first ship that the container was booked to travel on, the Victoria
Straight, developed a technical fault on the morning it should have left Cartagena. We later discovered from a ship-tracking website that it had in fact been swinging at anchor for several days previously near the Colombian port of Baranquilla. The second assigned ship, the
Westerhaven, should have collected the container a few days later but that also developed a technical fault. It too went to Baranquilla before proceeding to Colon
where, according to the tracking website, it entered one of the three container ports (Manzanillo), went back out to sea for fourteen hours and then re-docked at another container port (Colon International) only meters away. This however was not until Saturday morning, too late to be processed before the weekend closure of Customs, so there sat our container until the following Tuesday, owing to a public holiday on the Monday.
The shipping company, Evergreen, was less than concerned or helpful, the agents in Colon and Panama City constantly referring us back to placatory arrival estimate emails from Evergreen. For all of us a frustrating, but also expensive experience. Concerned that we had not been able to collect the printed Bill of Lading for the new vessel, Westerhaven, before flying out of Cartagena, we made a number of calls and emails to Pamela in Panama City to check that there was nothing further we should do before leaving Panama City. She assured us that all the formalities would take place in Colon but, alas, having only an electronic Bill of Lading, we ended up having to pay an additional $50US to have one printed in Colon. The week’s delay in Panama cost River two more flights (via David in Costa Rica to Panama City) as he had intended to rejoin us in San Jose Costa Rica. The rest of us had two hotel rooms for one week in Panama and on the day of collection there was, other than the runner, no help to unstuff the container, no ramp to get the cars out and no tools provided to break the seal or remove the nailed-in chocks. We were of course charged for unstuffing, a task we did without help. The two hours’ delay while waiting for the container to be delivered, was in hot dusty conditions without anywhere to sit, get refreshment or news. At no time did anyone offer any explanation, regret or apology. I was unimpressed by the whole sorry mess. The only saving grace was that our agent in Cartagena had been efficient, truthful and tried his best to get information about the situation: thank you Luis, we appreciated your efforts.
Three o’clock had been our cut-off time, beyond which we were of the opinion it would be best to stay in Colon and leave at 0‘Gor-blimey on the following morning. Now we were faced with the dilemma: should we take our chances with the
anticipated traffic build-up nearing Panama at about 17.00, or stay overnight in Colon? Our minds were made up when Edison, once again, came to the rescue and offered us his beach house as a place to stay that night. The cars
seemed to be fine, the route was simple from Colon and Edison offered to collect River from his temporary office in the Radisson, Colon, and catch us up. We sped off and were soon back in the groove, climbing over the Continental divide towards Panama City. An hour later Edison caught us up and we stopped briefly to plan a stopping place for fuel and refreshment. Apart from a cup of coffee hunted down by Edison at 09.30, we had had neither food nor drink all day.
Edison guided us onto the expressway that would cross the Centenario bridge over the Canal, where we stopped for fuel. Several members of ADEPA, alerted by Edison were there to greet us and we passed half an hour with them, while we enjoyed refreshments, it now being past 17.00. Reluctantly we bade them all farewell and in the case of Edison, adieu. He will be in the UK in September and we have plans to meet.
Amanda and I had covered this road going to and from the beach house over the weekend. The surface we knew was good, the ups and downs minor, so we set a good pace, into the tropical dusk amid the rush hour traffic. By 18.15 it was nearly dark and with ‘Dusty’ sandwiched between ‘Bertie’ and ‘Feisty’, who both have 12-volt lighting, we covered the distance by 20.15. Near the beach house we had previously noted a pizza place and we pulled in after a successful run of 108 miles in total. Beer rarely tastes as good as it did that evening and we also were able to let everyone know we had arrived, using the WiFi in Gourmet Pizza. We tumbled into the house and bed, soon peace reigned. Thank you Edison and Gladys, for the sanctuary of your house, it was the perfect solution that day.
1st May. Coronado, Panama.
We rose early and had a scratch breakfast in the anticipation of reaching David, Panama. Diana and River left ahead of us to find a WiFi signal and phone cards. River, who had not driven since Buenos Aires, owing to a
suspected stress fracture which required the use of a support boot on his left leg, had been given the all-clear on his recent trip home, and was now sharing the driving with Diana again. Stan, Amanda and I tidied up and after a quick car check, drove away. This morning I was pleased to note that the oil level on Bertie was barely down and I did not need to add any, however the rear offside tyre which had needed a new tube in Cartagena was soft. I pumped it up and checked the valve.
About 1 Km along the road, I leaned across Amanda, who was driving, to check the oil pressure and was alarmed to see the gauge at “0”. A rapid stop on the road and an under-bonnet inspection revealed that the engine bay was covered in oil and an ominous black slick was evident along the road behind us. By the time Stan had turned round and returned, the cause had been identified as the filter having apparently unscrewed. Was this evidence of Vince Leek’s theory that things mysteriously loosen due to the vibration of ships’ engines?
I screwed the filter back tightly and replaced the rather large volume of missing oil. We set off, and within 200 metres the same thing happened again! This time able to select a shady spot, I again cleaned up the mess and unscrewed the filter. Now those that have been paying attention will recall that on the eve of departure, I had found to my horror that the spare filters I had bought, turned out to be metric-threaded rather than 3/4 x 16 TPI BSP and had to be replaced at the 11th hour. The filter now on the car was one that had been supplied to Stan and I had borrowed to fit when in Lima and rebuilding Bertie’s engine. Exactly the same thing happened now and the centre-threaded stud came out with the filter. When separated, the filter thread was not tight on the stud. Lights came on and once the connections had clicked, I understood that a similar thing had happened with Stan’s spares.
I unpacked a spare filter obtained by Javier in Lima on my behalf, which had the correct thread and it was soon installed. I used more of my dwindling supply of oil and we got away again, this time without drama. I must find some more of the correct filters: Stan and I have one spare between us now.
A while later that morning, Diana and River stopped to adjust the load in the chummy, it being difficult to handle, and I took the opportunity to check under our bonnet, only to find that the oil filler cap I had been using, probably a 50s after-market type, had come loose and fallen off. More oil in the engine compartment. Rags and paper towels out, I mopped up yet again. The spares once more got at by taking out all the carefully-packed luggage, I finally laid hands on the spares box containing engine parts and fitted a new oil filler cap. I also pumped up the rear tyre again.
As we passed through Santiago, a friend of Edison’s who lives there had been alerted to our imminent arrival and found us as we were buying lunch in a service station, and gave us news of the road ahead. Apparently, the road to David was in parts poorly surfaced and pot-holes were common. Feisty had been handling strangely and, once stopped, it was noticed that one of the rear tyres was soft. The valve was found to be faulty and a new one was obtained and fitted.
The next part of the day became a long drawn-out affair as the chummy was struggling with any incline and as the day came to a close we were far from our goal. As we waited by the roadside for River to check and clean the plugs, a car stopped and the driver, a Norwegian now living in the north of Panama, told how that he had owned an RP that he had purchased in Scotland when he was still living
in Norway. He enjoyed a few minutes sitting behind the wheel and then we were away again.
Now it was the turn of Dusty to stop, for no apparent reason, just after the heavens opened and we were in danger of not being able to see the road due to the rain. Stan heroically braved a soaking, diagnosing a fuel blockage as the cause and after a bit of
fiddling got the fuel flowing again. It was now dusk and we were still a long way from our destination. The last part of the journey passed after dark and the poor road surface, combined with appalling head-light discipline of other drivers and our tiredness at the end of two long days’ driving, made it very testing for drivers and passengers alike.
River had met the manager of a hotel in David while traveling to Panama and we were now able to use this contact and the business rate River had been offered. We found the hotel, having called ahead to book and were mightely relieved to reach our destination without further incident. After unwinding for a while we met in the restaurant and discussed what to do about ‘Feisty’. It was evident within a few minutes that we had all had similar thoughts about the cause of the problem. A lack of compression, evidence of oil staining around the engine and the cabin filled with oil fumes for most of the day, sounded very like Bertie’s problem in Peru…
Going on to Costa Rica, where we had contacts, or dealing with the problem in Panama was discussed and eventually it was decided to deal with it in David, where at least we had comfortable lodgings and thoughts of Edison’s offer to call him if anything was needed.
2nd May. David, Panama.
Diana had hardly slept for worrying and we all were apprehensive about what the day would bring. One of the first things it brought was news that our rear tyre, which had needed pumping up a couple of times the day before, was down again. I checked Feisty over and found poor compression on cylinders one and four, of 70psi, two and three being 100psi. Removing the filler cap while the engine was running revealed tell-tale blue smoke chuffing out of the crankcase. A call to David Williams, confirmed the diagnosis and although the repair could have been done with the engine in situ, we decided it would in our circumstances be preferable to remove it and have better access to the bottom end. Through a combination of Edison’s contacts and the help of the hotel manager Diana and River went off in the chummy to a workshop where they were to remove the engine. Meanwhile I rotated the tyres on Bertie and removed the punctured tyre from the rim so that Stan and I could check inside the tyre for the cause of the second puncture.
I missed it, but eagle-eyed Stan found a strand of wire, as if from a wire brush, sticking out of the inside of the tyre. Removed with a pair of pliers, the strand was less than 10mm long and one end was as sharp as a needle. A corresponding small score was found on the inner tube, with at one end a minute hole. Fitting a new tube I hoped to have now found the reason for this second flat on the same wheel.
Stan and I just had time to clean up, the day being so hot we were soaked with perspiration after the exertion of tyre fitting. We had a quick lunch and then were off to the workshop where ‘Feisty’ was now without an engine. The workshop was an open-fronted shed in which sheet metal was worked into gutters, repair sections and fabrication of all sorts. We made space on some large RSJ’s at about knee height and soon had the engine stripped and the two offending pistons released from the crankshaft and pushed up through the top of the block. Number one revealed the top piston ring in many small pieces and the bottom one in three larger pieces. On number four, the top ring was in very small pieces and also split in places in its depth. The bottom ring was intact. All the rings showed a lot of wear on the inside bottom edge, the rings resembling a triangle in profile, with a very sharp lip on the outer bottom edge.
There was however little evidence of scoring to the bores, but they were glazed. We decided to check number three and found that the rings were intact, although of the same profile as one and two. Diana found
amongst her spares that she had five compression rings and a spare piston. We made a good start on cleaning up the component parts and, again soaked with perspiration, dirty and bedraggled we got a taxi back to the hotel, to lick our wounds and make some decisions.
It was apparent that at the minimum, we could replace four compression rings and try to continue, but that if we could obtain new rings we could do more, even parting the block and crankcase as I had done in Lima. We emailed Edison and asked for information on the likely supply of suitable rings and also Javier in Lima in case he could identify the rings we had modified there.
3rd May. David, Panama.
Overnight, Edison had contacted a colleague, Mora, in David, who arrived at the hotel at 08.00. First we visited a machine shop, where they were unable to source the rings but could help modify them if we could find something suitable. Then we trailed round every possible supplier in David without success, Mora being very patient and helpful. By 12.00 we gave up and decided it was time to do what we could or sit there for several days awaiting pistons and rings from the UK. Hugo from Colombia had even offered to send Renault 4 items from Colombia, but with the weekend upon us and not knowing what modifications might be needed we decided to try with what we had.
Back at the workshop, Diana, Stan and I cleaned and prepared all the Parts. The new rings were found to be between 10 to 15 thou undersize already and so were fitted without further work, not ideal but better than what had been removed. By 16.00 the engine was back together and we had lifted it in as River came to help put the front end of the car back together. All was complete by 17.30, just the starter motor had to be removed as something was amiss with the starter dog. After several attempts it started by hand and seemed to be running nicely, with no smoke in the crankcase and ticking over steadily. Diana and River drove it back to the Hotel, Stan and I followed by taxi and we stopped for the day, again wringing wet and exhausted.
In the evening over supper, we decided to deal with the remaining problems in the morning and try to set off by 11.00 or so. Would the rebuilt engine be able to continue, would it smoke, would it actually last? Another sleepless night was in store for Diana at least!