Sunday, September 29, 2013

Butane Bound - Keeping the Cooking Going

Mark and I have one propane bottle on Irie. It is an American-style bottle, the horizontal version (which adds to the filling difficulties), because a vertical tank didn’t fit anywhere on the boat. We also have a couple of small, green camping gas bottles as a spare, in case we run out of propane in a remote area. For years in the Caribbean, it was never a problem to only have one cooking gas bottle or to have it filled onshore. With our special adapter, everywhere we turned the bottle in, it came back full, for a reasonable price. Our 20 pound tank would last between four and five months of normal use, meaning one cooked meal a day (dinner), some bread baking and once a week or so a cheap meal ashore. Not drinking tea or coffee conserves gas, but being in nice anchorages with not much going on, led to lots of baking and producing special meals. Now that we have to be even more self-sufficient and eating ashore is unaffordable, it is safe to say that we can live at least three months off a full propane tank, or better, butane tank, since that is what is used in these areas.

In the San Blas islands, we learned firsthand about the gravity fill method for our tank. It was extremely slow and we had to come up with a way to make it work for our difficult tank, to keep the pin pushed in while the gas ran from a local tank into ours, without having enough pressure from the usual filling station. But, it worked. Every time. We made it to the Galapagos islands with our last fill from there and then in Santa Cruz, the main town of that marvelous island group in the Pacific, we had our propane tank filled up again. Before arriving in French Polynesia, we ordered our own equipment (hose, fitting for the American tank) to gravity fill the tank ourselves in the future. All we still needed was a small fitting to attach to the local French Polynesian tanks…

Once we arrived in the Gambier islands and two months into our available cooking gas, we immediately inquired about the fitting we needed, only to find out that nobody sold – or even had – anything like that in Rikitea, the only real town. They had regulators, but that would not do the trick. Hmmm…  Not yet desperate, we cooked along for another month and when an opportunity arose to split some expensive butane gas with two other cruisers, we returned to Rikitea to join the gravity fill party. With the help of our American fitting and hose and a borrowed “French” fitting, three sailboats had gas again. The whole ordeal took about three hours and our tank was only about ¾ full after we finished.

The chase for our own local fitting continued – unsuccessfully – in Fatu Hiva, the Marquesas. Luckily, we had enough butane to make it to Atuona, the “capital” of the southern Marquesas, where we expected to find what we needed. Nope! The hardware store was “out of” them, but they “could be” on the next cargo ship into town, the Aranui III, three days later - make it four to get everything stocked in the stores… That was the reason Mark and I stayed over a week in the murky waters of the inconveniently located bay around a peninsula from Atuona, struggling with two anchors and rainy weather. The Aranui arrived… without gas bottle fittings. Over two months into this ¾ (we thought) filled bottle, a solution needed to come up soon.

The (temporary) solution arrived in the form of cruising friends who were in Tahiti and asked us whether we needed anything from the big city. After seven months of leaving Panama City, provisioning and marine store “headquarters”, we could use a whole lot of things by now, but what we really needed – you guessed it - was one of those French fittings.  Surely, they would have them in Pape’ete, the country’s bustling capital! Instead, our friends sent us their self-assembled gas bottle hose, which we could borrow until they joined us in the Marquesas. Luckily for us, the package showed up after only ten days, and we managed to pick it up in Atuona shortly after. Exactly five days later, back in an uninhabited bay in Tahuata, we ran out of cooking gas. Our tank was totally empty.

One night, Ursula cooked for us and we had a wonderful dinner on SV Kril; the following night, we used one of our spare gas bottles and then it was time to move anchorages. We sailed to Hanatefau, a quiet bay close to the village of Hapatoni, where we expected to find a butane tank to fill ours. A quick chat with our neighbors revealed that there was no butane and not much of anything in Hapatoni. Darn! In the past, we had visited Vaitahu by dinghy, where we had seen racks of butane bottles in front of the two grocery stores.  This town was located between our recent and our previous anchorage, a distance doable by dinghy. We decided to go for it, rechecking a few times whether we packed all the tools and materials necessary for a gravity fill on shore and braving the ocean for 1,5 miles.

It was Friday afternoon, almost weekend, a little bit of a risky time to do what we had set out for. The biggest supermarket was open. I asked about the butane tanks, and how much the gas cost. Mark started to set up our tank and the fittings. Then, the woman – who was smoking – yelled over… they did not have any butane anymore. All the tanks in the rack were empty. Our only other chance was the second little store in town. It was closed. It was 2pm already. It would open soon… Half an hour later, the proprietor decided to return after an elongated lunch break.  But, she was out of butane as well. As a matter of fact, there was no butane to be found in the whole village, or the whole island. That’s when we learned that the locals reserve their tanks for whenever the cargo ship – the Taporo - arrived.

We really did not want to motor back to Atuona. We had a problem… We returned to the first store (maybe the woman wasn’t sure she was out of butane bottles?) and I pleaded with her, explaining our predicament and hoping for a solution. That’s when she went into the bakery section of the store and unhooked her own butane bottle from a stove. She didn’t know how much gas was left in it, but we were welcome to transport the contents into our own bottle. Worried about any danger so close to her store, she urged a customer to drop us off at the jetty with all our tanks and equipment. On some steps in the shade, we installed the two tanks and ourselves and started the excruciatingly slow and tedious process of filling our stubborn tank. After a few tries we had the gas flowing at a gracious speed of a few drops per minute. While being eaten alive by mosquitoes and nonos, we waited and waited, hoping that the store would not close before we were done. Two and a half hours later, the local tank was empty and our tank felt about half full….

Upon returning her bottle to the store and wanting to give her money for the gas, the friendly owner refused any payment. I made sure to buy some over-priced items before joining Mark back at our dinghy. With a little sense of accomplishment – trying not to think about having to go through this whole ordeal again in less than two months – we slowly motored back to Irie, while the sun was setting at the horizon. How enjoyable it was to cook, and especially eat, a super tasty meal – using all three burners – that evening!

Tahuata's south coast at sunset

On the way back home with half a butane tank

Sunset from Hanatefau - Home before dark!


Mike Boyd said...

Glad you guys didn't have to resort to rubbing two sticks together on the beach to cook dinner. :-)

Learned something new today...didn't realize that propane and butane were mostly interchangeable. Did you have to make any modifications to get butane to work (change in burners/regulators)?

The Houston Family said...

Nice story, well told. Our Butane story is boring compared to yours! Good on you for taking the time to do French Poly right.

Liesbet said...

Thanks, guys!

We actually met a St. Maarten boat with youngsters on it who ran out of propane. Because there is no way to fill tanks in Atuona, they resorted to finding wood on shore and using it to cook on their grill, until they would reach Nuku Hiva, where there is supposed to be someone who can fill gas tanks.

If your boat has a propane system, you can use it for butane without making any changes. This does not work the other way around. If we were to go back to colder climes (freezing temperatures), we would have to switch back to propane, since butane can freeze. Also, butane burns quicker and at lower heat than propane, so we go through our tanks a bit faster, but nothing too inconvenient, though.

We wouldn't mind making a fire on the beach, but we would mind all the bugs that come with beach locations! :-) Thanks for the support!