BERTHA 1982-2008

BEAUTIFUL BERTHA

 

It's been no secret that Bertha and I've been living together since '82. We've just celebrated anniversary number 18. Though our relationship has had its ups and downs, which at times got me really!! frazzled, in retrospect I was mostly to blame for the bumps in the road. She has been faithful to a sin, taken all sorts of abuse, and has seldom let me down. As a matter of fact, when I most needed her, she pulled me through many of my toughest straits. Most of the pickles we got into were of my making. On second thought, all were, though my sons did help.

Most of the time, she just sat there, obediently waiting for my signal, ever yearning for more attention, but resigned to whatever time she could get. Like the time I was up the river, and I mean waaaay up, like 2000 kilometers up. Ever hear of Bratislava in Slovakia. Don't ever ever consider going there. It's a monument to the worst in Russian planning and architecture. Even worse than Belgrade. And we were there. New Chance’s mast rested secured on deck. Bertha, and only Bertha, had to get us out of there and lead us back to civilization. There were no other options. And she pulled the gig off. Her purr puts me to sleep. The last time it did, it cost me over $75,000. And she almost drowned. For the fourth time. Let me tell you how we met.

Bertha was born in the UK  as a Perkins 4.108 diesel engine and came to the USA for finishing. Thanks to a very good friend who helped make the installation possible, she became part of Siboney during April 1982. A buddy from my teenage days in Havana, McCoy, surprised me one day with Bertha.. When I first saw her in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April 1982,  she was all dolled up in sky blue, feet extended, ready for her new home aboard Siboney. She caused nary a stir as she slipped into her spot aboard, right next to the skip's bunk, made herself at home, and went to work. This is her story, and her travels around the world, from the Golden Horn to Cape Horn, across five oceans, 40,000 miles of blue water and 4000 kilometers of inland canals. This is the story of our life together.

Bertha started out as a Perkins 4.108, 40 HP diesel engine. In the States she was dressed up and changed into a Westerbeke 40, though her heart and vitals all remained English.. One click of the button and she purred. A day later she took us down the New River and into the Atlantic Ocean for the trip down to Miami.

She felt just at home gunkholing in the Bahamas or punching across the Gulf Stream. All she ever asked for was clean air and fuel. With no more, she would run forever. And run she did until my young son Joe, 17, with Bertha just under a year, tried to drown her. He had taken Siboney out for a sail in Biscayne Bay, off of Miami, with a bunch of high school buddies. When they returned, Joe pumped the bilge but failed to close the shutoff valve. With the bilge pump outlet under the water level, Siboney slowly sank to the bottom.

Not noticed until morning, the skylight, at low tide, remained about a foot underwater. A rental outfit provided two, two-inch pumps and with Jim, Joe and several other culprits, I ventured into the art of salvage. The pumps kept trying to suck up all the loose stuff in the bilge as Jim dove through the diesel to collect and clear the debris. Two hours later it was obvious the two-inch pumps weren't going to do it and were replaced by two three inch pumps.

As the pumps shot bilge water into the air, Joe and Jim plugged with towels and sheets all external crevices, which would admit water. A half hour passed with no results. Forty-five minutes. Then, all of a sudden, Siboney shook like a shaggy sodden dog, wiggled her stern, and popped out of the water. Pumped dry, I removed the starter and alternator and tossed both into the swimming pool. With the oil plug removed, the salt water drained into the bilge. Through the injector openings, we filled her with diesel fuel. I shackled son Joe to Bertha and ordered him to keep her turning her over manually.

Batteries exploded and had to be replaced, as did many of the electrics. Thanks to the hot Florida sun, the boat dried out, as did the starter and alternator. Once replaced, Bertha came back to life, now happier working out of a jerry jug instead of dirty fuel tanks.

A year later Joe did it again, same place, same way. Up it came as before, upchucked all the bad stuff that had collected inside, bitched a little, and roared back to life, only to land, six months later, hard aground off Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. Bill Jr. this time had taken the boat with a dozen friends, boys and girls, out for a picnic at Crandon. Other kids came by car but Bill and his crew had all the food. Entering at night, it was easy for Bill Jr. to go aground. As the tide dropped, the girls' screams intensified until they all abandoned ship and headed for the real party.

Son Joe, who pumped gas at a local marina, got a call at 7 a.m. from one of his buddies that Siboney was aground off Key Biscayne. Joe called me and off I sped to scan the 5-mile beach in hopes the news was not true. Sure enough, there was Siboney, high, dry and abandoned. Wading out, I found Bertha under water, the anchor straight down from the bow, just where the kids had dropped it. I reset the anchor, proceeded to bucket the water out and wait for the tide to turn. Bertha got back home, a bit bedraggled, but ready, after a little TLC to get back to work.

Bertha saw most of the Bahamas, from Walker and Green Turtle Cays in the Abacos to Georgetown in the Exumas, and loved it. By 1989, now 6 years old, and with a 4 year 'round the world cruise in the making, she was replaced with a new Perkins 4.108. When no one sprung for Bertha, she ended up in a small dark, dank, closet where she rested serenely until 1993.

The next chapter is history. Siboney, with its brand new Perkins sailed into the sunset, through the Panama Canal and 1200 miles West until it met a bunch of pilot whales. These, four hours later, uptight about this big object in their midst, obviously a large whale ready to molest their young, attacked. The new Perkins went to the bottom, nearly 13,000 feet down. When I returned to Miami after my 66 day small boat cruise, all of son Joe's buddies were pissed. "Gee, Mr. Butler”, they chorused, “Joe sank the boat, but in 10 feet of water. You went and sank our boat in 10,000 feet. That wasn't very smart, Mr. Butler." Joe's rat pack had a valid point.

I visited Bertha often in 1990 and 1991 in her small cage like closet near the Miami airport. Never heard her grumble, but I could tell she wasn't happy. She leaked oil on the floor. I tried to sell her, but got no takers. The truth is, I didn't try all that hard.

In 1992 I bought New Chance and sailed out of Miami just a couple of weeks before Andrew plowed through South Dade County. All boats on either side of where New Chance moored at Dinner Key sank or were blown to some other part of the Grove. We were in the Azores, with engine problems (what else is new), when we heard about the disaster. The Volkswagen diesel aboard my new boat and I weren't getting along worth a damn. The bloody thing wouldn't run. A mechanic in the Azores got her going and we took off for Spain. Ten miles out a loud clank clunk announced the demise of Volksy. So, being a sailboat, we sailed on. I abandoned ship as soon as we arrived in Puerto Cherry and left Joe (in eternal debt to me) with the job of making it work. Which he did. For a while. Just as soon as we cleared the Canary Islands she quit for good, which made little difference since we were in a sailboat race. By the time we got back to Miami, I was through with Volksy. We just didn't speak the same language. I yanked it out and sold it. Prices for a new engine were ridiculous and most people I talked to agreed that the Perkins 4.108 was still the best engine ever built. So I sent it up to West Palm Beach for a full overhaul then slipped it into New Chance early in 1993, just in time for the trip to San Juan.

Bertha loved her new surroundings. They were roomier than on Siboney, and the skip still bunked nearby. She was all primed and ready to go when we sailed in mid 1994 for the Panama Canal, into the Pacific Ocean and headed for Cape Horn. Golly, did she sop up the fuel. Like the stink potters, our biggest job turned into figuring out where to find a fuel stop.

Bertha chugged along just fine when the breeze died, which was often. She took us through 1500 miles of Chile's inland canals, down Magellan, into the Beagle Strait and off to Cape Horn. At nine p.m., when we were 6 miles from Cape Horn, the West wind turned into a full gale. Tucked behind three islands, we struggled to reach a sheltered anchorage, 2 miles distant. With almost no sail flying, it was up to Bertha to get us there. With one mile to go, Bertha coughed and stopped. Chuck and I bled the air out of Bertha and after two dozen cranks, she came back to life. Four more times Bertha stopped. Each time, as we bled fuel, some of it would spray on the cabin sole to produce a surface as slick as ice. Enough of this. I got a fuel jug, changed the fuel line to draw out of the jug, and solved the problem. Later we found one of the rubber hoses had developed a pinhole allowing air in. That bugger Murphy will do it every time.

All night we struggled against wind, rocks, and total darkness. Dawn was never more welcome. At first light we saw Cape Horn, now 4 miles due South. We had come 8500 miles. 4 miles to go. With the crew primed and Bertha ready to go, we headed out from behind the small islands that had been protecting us and into monumental waves. Towers of water washed over the boat, the mast nearly touching the departing monsters. Ten minutes of this and I turned back, scared. In the relative comfort of the lee produced by the islands, I would forge courage and jibe around anew. Three more times we tried and three times we were nearly overwhelmed. To go on would be to gamble all. I gave up and headed home.

Bertha took us up the coast to Buenos Aires, Rio and into the doldrums, where the starter died. For seven days and seven nights Reiner and I drifted, pouring rain shattering our shattered nerves. Bertha just sat there, anxious, ready to pop over. After dissecting, soldering, sanding, drying in the over, and otherwise using the sum total of our mechanical skills on the starter, we ended up just sitting there, collecting water, listening to all 60 gallons of fuel slosh. After 8 long days and nights the East wind slowly built to propel us to Barbados where sons Bill and Joe awaited with a new starter.

1997 was Bertha's biggest test. With Chuck and Mike aboard, she helped us across the doldrums on the 26 day leg from San Juan to Horta. Ten days with in a full gale on the way to the English Channel got the starter wet which forced us to put into Weymouth, England. A few days later in Holland new crew reported aboard and when "New Chance’s" mast came down and was placed upon heavy brackets on deck, Bertha was all we had. She would have to take us the 4000 kilometers on her own to Istanbul. Going up the Rhine against a 4 knot current brought out Bertha's best. She loved it. When her transmission began to lose fluid we stopped at Rhine River fuel barges and bought oil by the 5 gallon pail. The Main and the Main-Donau Canal took us into the Danube, which for a change flowed at 4 to 6 knots with us. Lynz, Vienna and Budapest buzzed right by but just we were passing Bratislava in Slovakia I suddenly sobered up. What in the hell are you doing, Bill Butler. You are asking Bertha to take you 2000 kilometers to the Black Sea across Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria where no one speaks English and much worse, have never heard of an engine remotely like Bertha. And with the current at 5 knots plus, forget about going back. You've really done it now. Bertha dies and we're stuck. We’ll have to pole down like Huck Finn. We're up the bloody river now! Yet, Bertha behaved like the queen she is. Never a whimper. The heavy load was off Bertha's back when we reached Agigae on the Black Sea where with the help of some new found Romanian friends, New Chance was once again converted into a sailing machine. We headed home to San Juan across the Black Sea, Dardanelles, Istambul, Greece, Malta and Sicily.

Near Tunisia, with the water shallowing, the wind light, the current setting us towards shore, Bertha's transmission packed it in. In Mayorca we took the drive unit to a French pirate who dismantled the gear and then said he could not fix it because he could not guarantee the job. Unable to convince him that all I needed was a transmission to yield another 100 hours of service and would never be back to claim a warranty failure, I yielded to his piratical skills and bought the used transmission he wanted to get rid of, stuck it onto Bertha, and off we went.

New Chance sailed well with a following wind as we approached Gibraltar, now less than ten miles away. We’d had Bertha ticking over all afternoon for fear that if we stopped her Murphy would step in to keep her starting and the entrance to Gib requires engine power. Busy piloting, I hadn’t checked the oil level. With a low-pitched clunk, she stopped on her own. My attempts to turn her over were met with a dull thunk. We sailed into the inner yacht harbor and made a crash landing at Her Majesty’s Customs dock where we sold our hard luck story and were allowed to spend the night.

After using all of my diagnostic skills, I told my story to the chief mechanic at Shepherds, hoping he had some kind of magic wand. "Take it out and we'll fix it" didn't cut it. Bertha goes and I may never see her again.

In the Canary Islands we re-lived the Gibraltar scene and sailed on to Puerto Rico, 3000 miles down wind. In San Juan, with the help of my good friend Duke, a master mechanic, we stripped Bertha down to the last nut with all work done aboard New Chance. That's when I picked up my degree in psychology. He started with "you're the only person I can confide in" and while we struggled with Bertha's innards, he told me how he had a wife with four children in the Dominican Republic but is married to a lady in Puerto Rico and has three children with her but is in love with a lady with four daughters, two each from two marriages, and who don't get along with each other. I figure it took us 12 hours to dismantle the engine and about 20 to put it al back together. All the while, covered with grease, I gave advice to the lovelorn; RUN FOR THE HILLS was the best advice I could think up. All back together, Bertha ran like new, which for all practical purposes, she was.

On April 15, 2000, we headed for Norway under a strong East wind. Bertha had refused to start for a week but with the task of provisioning, and forty other items on the critical list, she was left for last. She remained in one of her bitchy spells, which of course follows my paying attention to too many other parts of the boat. With a loud "To hell with you Bertha" we maneuvered out of the slip with muscle power, raised all sail to a 20-knot East wind, and blasted off. Three days later the wind died and Bertha came to life. Off Cape Hatteras, before and after, Bertha would cough and die. Each time, I'd bleed air and start her up. In New Jersey, son Jim found the cause, a leaky fuel lift pump. We changed it and Bertha never ran better.

She purred all the way to Halifax. On June 28 as we sailed away towards Ireland, one of my crew ran New Chance on the shore of Nova Scotia. Ten hours later Bertha was submerged, my sailboat a total wreck. Hanging onto New Chance off the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, pounding surf pummeling her surroundings, Bertha kissed dear Life adieu. Six days of punishment, the first three at 90 degrees, had her gasping for life as she fought the eight-foot tides, which luckily pushed her ever higher up on the beach. There she lay, abandoned by her master who had returned to Puerto Rico, but surrounded by a host of newfound friends. One, Hein “Chain Saw” Rijnbeek, hiked a mile over the rocky coastline to visit Bertha daily. And Bertha had talked to him, pleading to be saved, for a new life… until Hein, alone. freed Bertha of her bond to New Chance, hauled her the 50 feet up the steep, rocky beach, hoisted her up into a cart and dragged her to his home… all 500 pounds of Bertha. Days later, Hein gave Bertha a checkup at an engine repair shop, hit the starter button and Bertha, to every ones surprise, roared.

In October 2000, John Hilpman, a GE buddy who lives in Woolwich, Maine, hopped into his truck and drove/ferried to Halifax, loaded Bertha onto his truck and brought her back to Woolwich together with all that was salvageable from New Chance. Using the heavy-duty bed Hein had prepared, John crated Bertha and all the rest of the stuff, found a truck, which delivered Bertha shipside in Jacksonville. A week or two later, Bertha reposed at Pepe Amadors shop in San Juan.

 

Months passed as Bertha rested patiently in the sun, inside her solid wood crate, surely wondering… what now??

In May, 2001, Pepe kindly lifted Bertha off her high perch, loaded her onto his pickup truck, and delivered it to the Marina. Brute force got Bertha onto a dolly, and with the help of many, pushed alongside Poseidon, owned by Valentin and Julie, a Bulgarian couple I had met in Malta in 1997 and who had built their boat of ferro-cement to escape to the outside world. In 2000 they had dumped their old air cooled Russian engine into the deeps off Grenada. I told them Bertha was theirs.  They accepted. Oh, she was a sight!!! Not at her best. Rusty, dirty, sand all over… but then, she had had a tough trip. Valentin scrubbed, brushed, sanded, washed and primed her until she looked as good as on her first day. On October 5 was to be the official Transfer Ceremonies. Valentin would start the engine in the presence of New Chance crew and the engine was his. Bertha didn’t thing about it twice. Started on the first crank and roared away now ready to take Poseidon to new uncharted waters. 

Bill Butler

October 10. 2001