After yet another week of painstaking mechanical problems and another blown differential, we're ditching the Dolphin. We bought our old girl because she was built upon nothing but a Toyota pickup. With this knowledge we knew as long as there were never any problems with the rear differential, the only part not shared in common with an average Toyota pickup, we’d be able to fix her with ease. But, Murphy’s Law struck and we are simply incapable of buying the parts necessary to fix the Dolphin in this country.Read More
So Jacqui and I are sitting in a familiar place yet again. Several times we’ve returned, and each time seems a little more dramatic than the last. On this occasion we arrived riding on the tailgate of our friends’ truck to spend yet another Dolphin-less night at Tres Amigos. Shall we rewind a bit?Read More
During the past five weeks Jacqui and I have soldiered on each day with our occasional, and understandable, ups and downs. As the Dolphin project finally dwindled to mere touch ups and packing, it seemed the magnitude and stress of it all had finally caught up with us. What should very well have been the easiest part of this entire project, had become the most difficult.
From the day we started on the Dolphin till completion we worked seven days a week to get our home back, the one day we didn't work on construction, we spent the entirety of it shopping for parts. I think it's safe to say, when move-in time finally hit, Jacqui and I were burnt out. For the last few days of work, which should have taken mere hours, our belongings were half in the Dolphin, half scattered around us. No matter how hard we searched for inner motivation to finish the dwindling tasks, our feet were dragging and we were in snappy moods. It's one of those moments in life where anything and everything suddenly becomes far more interesting than the task at hand.
BUT!....The Dolphin is complete and tomorrow morning is the big day of departure! We’re hoping our first stop, North of Puerto Vallarta, will gift us with good wind for a long overdue kiteboarding session. But before we hit the road, a few before and after pictures of the Dolphin.
Finally departing is a bittersweet feeling. Isla de la Piedra (Stone Island) has definitely become a home to us. We have friends, locals and within the RV park, that we recognize daily. We have favorite spots to hang, know the best food around and have gotten to know the lay of the land. This will always be a place that we remember fondly. So Jacqui and I would like to offer an ode to our home from the past month and a half.
The day after arriving Dolphin-less at Tres Amigos, Jacqui and I woke to the air of uncertainty. We still had no price quote from our mechanic, and very little information due to our poor Spanish skills.
Knowing that the solid metal differential was bent in our Dolphin, I was unsure what these mechanics were going to be able to do. In my old place of employment, Engine Works, we would sublet out most heavy differential work to our crazy Australian Pete of Pete’s Gear Shop. This left me with a lack of experience in this area of repair, and wondering how on earth they could straighten this thing. I was half expecting the mechanic to call and say it wasn’t possible.
This became one of those moments in life that requires a little self-reflection. I definitely like to have control over a situation, and I work hard to help eliminate unknowns in my life. However, this was a time when I had to let Jacqui tell me to stop stressing since there was nothing I could do. So on the advice of our Tres Amigos neighbor, we decided we should drop by the mechanic at midday for a little information and progress report. At least in person, pointing and gestures could assist our poor Spanish skills.
On a beautiful sunny day we made our way to the tiny local dock to catch a water taxi (panga) into Mazatlan. With everyone loaded up, the boat took off to make its first stop at the second Stone Island pickup area. It was here that things once again took a drastic change for Jacqui and I. There’s really no way to make sense of how these things come together. To review…
Our major car accident had absolutely no injuries. Our vehicle was hit in the “perfect spot,” not causing more serious or flammable damage. After the accident, people we hardly knew offered us a place to stay while we figured out what to do with our Dolphin. When we decided to repair the Dolphin, there just happened to be a retired carpenter in the RV Park who was unbelievably happy to help us. Now, stepping onto the very same boat as us…was Dani.
I won’t say either Jacqui or myself particularly knew this Dani fellow. Dani is a local who does carpentry work, and owns a piece of property on Stone Island where a friend of his does mechanic work. Dani had previously referred me to the welder that did work on the Dolphin, and had offered to let me use a few of his tools before disappearing for weeks. I had all but forgotten of his existence, but there he was standing in front of us.
Jacqui and I were happy to see a familiar face and exchanged greetings with Dani. He informed us he’d been away for the past few weeks, and then asked how things were going with the Dolphin. After a quick rundown of our situation, Dani insisted on personally driving us to the mechanic. He wanted to talk with them, and translate for us. He was concerned that because of our poor Spanish, the shop might try to rip us off, and if we needed a new differential, he had connections to help us find one.
Just like that everything changed again. Five minutes earlier the future was foreboding. Unknown costs, unknown solutions, unknown outcome. Suddenly we had a local on our side, and what an amazing person Dani, barely more than a stranger, turned out to be.
We hopped in Dani’s old beat up Nissan, his wife and one year old daughter sitting in front, and began experiencing what it was like to drive with a true local. As we drove with no one wearing a seat belt, and the baby in mom’s lap, Dani darted in and out of traffic only slowing to honk and wave at all the people he recognized in the street. After cutting off a bus, darting through a gas station parking lot and blasting by a cop, a taxi in front of us stopped suddenly. Dani locked up the brakes and barely dodged the collision. This was met with absolutely no emotional response from anyone; just as normal as a right turn here I guess. After tagging along for some time while Dani ran errands, we finally arrived at the mechanic shop that had our Dolphin.
Dani really chopped it up with the shop for us. He asked the questions that were needed, assured Jacqui and I we had picked an excellent shop, and was talking strategy with the guys in the office to get us a good price. He told the shop that we have been coming to Mazatlan for five years, and that we were his good friends. He also informed the owner of the shop we have lots of tourist friends in our RV Park who are always looking for a good mechanic, so if they take good care of us, they’d get more business.
The shop was still unable to give us a price at the time, due to subletting out part of the work, but we left with big smiles and confidence that things were now going our way. We spent a couple more hours with Dani running errands and getting some delicious Mexican seafood cocktails. I certainly can’t tell you everything that was in the cocktails, but at least octopus and shrimp were identifiable. Finally we hopped aboard a Panga again to head back to Stone Island.
Two days later, full of excitement, we finally returned to pick up our home. The mechanic asked me to hop in the pit, then gave me a tour of all the work he completed. Despite the language barrier, I got the distinct impression he was excited to show what he’d done to someone who could understand and appreciate. Jacqui and I gave lots of handshakes and thanks to not only the mechanic, but the rest of the staff who had helped us. I took our Dolphin for a brief test drive and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face that she was cruising straight as an arrow.
With the enthusiasm running through my veins, conversational caution was thrown to the wind. For the first time it felt like I had a real Spanish conversation with someone. I got to know that the mechanic lived on Stone Island, told him our travel plans, places we want to see and why on earth we’d want to try to drive to Chile. We showed him pictures of the crash, and he asked me if I had done all the work myself. In the excitement of the conversation I answered yes. Luckily Jacqui was kind enough to show me my mistake by swatting me and saying, “Y yo!” (And me!)
This of course reminded me to tell our mechanic that Jacqui is a good woman, pero muy peligrosa (but very dangerous).
Perhaps those Pimsler Spanish tapes are finally paying off for Jacqui and I. Perhaps we’ve learned far more Spanish than we thought, and just needed to stop being timid about conversations. Maybe it’s just as simple as the immersion we’ve put ourselves in, is filling us with Spanish like osmosis. Whatever the reason, it was an amazing feeling. Jacqui and I have wanted to learn Spanish for the sole reason of conversing with locals. After all, that is where the true richness of this adventure will come.
So when all was said and done, we paid a grand total of 4300 pesos (about $330USD). For the amount of work that was done, unbelievable! I can proudly say that, despite the exterior battle scar and not being completely finished, the Dolphin feels mechanically and structurally upgraded from the day we began this journey. If I’m not mistaken, some of the suspension work done has even left the back end of the old girl sitting a bit higher. Woohoo! Ground clearance! The thing our old girl lacks more than anything else!
For the first time in nearly 5 weeks, Jacqui and I are parked on the beach at Tres Amigos, in our very own Dolphin.
After going out to breakfast with our tres amigos from Tres Amigos, it was finally time to take the Dolphin on her post-construction maiden voyage. The plan was to find a mechanic shop to perform an alignment in Mazatlan. Despite the suspension work already completed, the Dolphin was ‘dog tracking.' In other words, driving diagonally while moving straight. However, the Dolphin isn’t a typical vehicle, and not any shop can perform an alignment on her. Having dual rear wheels already means she’d need to go to go on a truck alignment machine, and being extremely narrow for a car with dual wheels meant she wasn’t going to fit onto just any alignment machine.
So Jacqui and I hit the smooth paved roads and glided our way into Mazatlan where everything was fixed and we're living happily ever after. Except for the 10 straight miles of dirt road that rattled and beat the Dolphin only slightly less than our nerves. Nothing like trial running a piece of machinery you're unsure of on Mexican roads. Then of course there's the fact that it's not actually fixed yet, but that's just an ominous foreshadowing of a story that's still unfolding as I write.
Our first stop, recommended by friends, seemed an obvious first choice. We pulled into a very clean, modern looking Michelin dealer where I butchered the Spanish word for alignment. They immediately instructed me to pull my car directly onto the lift. Keep in mind, mechanic shops in the States won't even allow you to walk in the working area due to all the insurance and liability issues. Regardless, we’re in Mexico, and I did what was bid of me. Watching the Dolphin ascending on the lift and seeing a semi being worked on in the adjacent stall, it felt like the air in the room whispered to me, 'you've come to the right place.'
Well, the air lied. The mechanic spent quite a few minutes scratching his head, and I spent several more explaining the work I’d already completed. I showed him pictures, and explained what I wanted done, but I was given the 'no go'. These mechanics were very familiar with changing tires and performing alignments for maintenance, but he was head-scratching clueless on what to do with our post accident Dolphin. On vehicles with solid rear axles such as our Dolphin, you don't normally need to perform any kind of alignment on the rear. The differential or axle assembly is simply bolted to the center of your springs at the factory, and the front wheels are adjusted to match as needed. Maybe moving a rear axle was something he'd never done, maybe he wasn't a very good mechanic, maybe he was telling me some completely other reason he couldn't do it. The language barrier between us only provided one answer, he wasn't going to complete this job. So after asking a recommendation of someone who could, we hit the road again.
Mechanic shop #2 was quite the opposite of the Michelin dealer. Dirty, greasy, used tires scattered and instead of lifts, holes in the ground. After parking over the pit, I crawled under the car to begin my routine of rough Spanish and pantomiming to articulate the history and needs of this vehicle. This mechanic then noticed something I hadn’t; the center bolt used to align the axle assembly was bent. He was confident he could fix our rig in an hour or two for 300 pesos (about $24USD). SOLD! There was only one thing to do, go to the nearby mercado, which was clearly never visited by tourists, to get some lunch.
An hour and 300 pesos later, we hit the road smiling. I immediately noticed, though better than before, the steering wheel was still off-center. So we set out in search of a shop with an actual alignment machine, figuring the Dolphin just needed some fine-tuning. Fortunately, we were in a part of town that had far more than a plethora of mechanic shops. Unfortunately, it would seem every odd number shop we visited was incapable of working on our rig. So after wasting time at another clean shop with lifts, we were recommended to another dirty shops with pits. Perhaps the truly competent mechanics of Mexico simply prefer working in a hole in the ground, or maybe it's only coincidence. Either way this shop contained the most knowledgeable mechanic we'd found so far.
This mechanic wasted no time disassembling, measuring, and adjusting away. I crawled into the pit several times to understand the progress that was being made, and try to learn a thing or two from a mechanic much more experienced than I. After a few minutes the mechanic delivered news I neither expected nor wanted to hear. There was no installing this axle straight...because it was bent.
This is one of those moments that I let out a large exhale immediately followed by silence. Simultaneously my eyelids become heavier, my eyes become incapable of looking any higher than my feet, and my thumb and middle fingers begin instinctually trying to knead the pressure out from my temples.
After rubbing my temples long enough to jump-start my brain, it became obvious how dramatically the tides had changed. Seconds earlier I had a type of knowledge and control over the situation. I needed only to find someone with the equipment to perform the repairs I wanted. Now I had no idea if the axle was repairable or, if it wasn't, where in Mexico I, with my limited geographical and linguistic knowledge, was going to find a new one.
I asked the mechanic what the shop could do. The only proposed solution was to remove the entire assembly and deliver it to a specialist the next day. They assured us it could be repaired in two days, but were unable to give us a cost since they were outsourcing this repair. Entering into an area of unfamiliar mechanical repair with unknown costs is not a great feeling. I'm suddenly forced to sympathize with the masses of normal people trying to find mechanics every day. I have to say, I'm not terribly enjoying my newfound understanding of my fellow humans.
Despite the fear of the unknown, there is some comedy to be found in this situation. Three times we’ve returned to Tres Amigos RV Park, and it would seem each time we do so more broken than the last. We pulled in excited and whole in our beautiful Dolphin the first time. We limped in our broken, door-less Dolphin held together by a rope the second. But tonight, we walked in with our belongings on our back, and a beer in our hands.
Perhaps the world is simply testing our dedication to this adventure.
It’s been nearly three weeks since the car accident outside Tepic. Jacqui and I have been working hard everyday to put our beloved home back together. Today we reached a major milestone! With the installation of all exterior paneling and the door, it's excited to see how close we are to getting back on the road.
We have tried to recycle as much as possible, but have still gone far beyond throwing her back together. I can happily say, even unfinished as she is, the Dolphin is much sturdier than the day we bought her, or the day we embarked on this journey. So now, a bit of review is in order.
When we first started disassembly on the Dolphin, it was very disheartening. The further we tried to remove things damaged by the accident, the more rot and corruption we were finding that had already been there.
Even rolling off the factory floor in 1985, the Dolphin was essentially made of toothpicks and staples (yes, literally staples), which is true of almost all RV’s, even today. They’re naturally flimsy things, and with good reason. The vehicles they are built upon have limitations, and every extra pound puts stress on the suspension, engine and robs fuel mileage. So when your RV gets to…let’s say, 29 years old, there is bound to be a combination of problems that you’d find in poorly constructed homes AND in old cars.
When we finally gutted enough out of the Dolphin to make sure we were going to have a solid foundation to work upon, this is the sight we saw:
This is looking at the passenger side of the vehicle after quite a bit of work. A whole new wheel well arch was cut out of plywood. Rotted beams were replaced and held together with screws instead of flimsy staples. All wood that would be exposed to road conditions received a rubber coating to protect from rot.
This is post construction on the driver's rear corner of the Dolphin. The accident jarred the old girl so hard that this area, which was already weakened by dry rot, split and bulged out. Luckily this area didn't require excessive amounts of work since the rot hadn't spread too far.
This is a good look at how much floor we replaced. The entire structural integrity of the Dolphin depends upon anchoring everything to the floor, so this was a necessity. The bottom of the floor was sealed against water and double layered with plastic to make sure we won't get any rot. Finally, we reinstalled the bathroom wall, you can see its structure in the middle of the floor.
The walls of the Dolphin were dislodged and moved left during the accident. We used a come-along attached to the frame to pull the entire structure into alignment. Once everything was situated where it belonged, our new floor became the anchor point for all the walls. Heavy duty brackets, screws and bolts now make sure everything is as sturdy as can be.
With everything bolted in place, all exposed wood under the vehicle was coated for weatherproofing, then the siding went back on.
Even with the driver's side of the Dolphin looking nice, there was quite a project left just around the corner. The door and its frame were mangled so lot's of hammering and creativity went into straightening the door, siding and trim pieces. At the same time a new entry step was constructed, and the combination dining seat/entry cabinet was reconstructed trying to reuse as much of the original as possible.
All of the exterior siding that could be salvaged was installed. But a few pieces were mangled beyond repair, and some were just outright missing. So we made a trip into Mazatlan to buy raw sheet metal, cut it to shape, and primed it for installation.
The wood around the wheel well was coated with a rubberized spray before the metal was installed. Then our new metal was wrapped around the inside of the wheel well with a little finesse and persuasion from a mallet.
At last the Dolphin takes shape again. While still being far from done, she looks full of promise.
After a hard day's work we got ourselves some Licuados (Mexican milkshakes) to go. Of course in Mexico they have special 'to go' cups.
And an extra special thanks to John. He managed to escape from most photos, but he's been out there every day helping us rebuild the Dolphin. As a retired professional cabinet maker and carpenter, he's brought on a level of professionalism to our Dolphin construction that neither Jacqui or I could have ever done by ourselves.