Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Boat Prep

Preparing your Boat for voyaging

It is impossible to have the perfect boat before you leave to go cruising since it is hard to anticipate everything. You have to just call it good enough and set off sailing at some point. Experience will teach you about your boat and your needs. Our nearly 2 month long shakedown cruise revealed many issues that we addressed before really leaving the conveniences of home. You may find it helpful to visit the section where we discuss the modificationswe made to our boat before departing. Keep in mind that people have different priorities and each boat comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, so someone else's advice may not work for you. Our philosophy was to go small and simple so we could go sooner.

Decisions about how to best prepare a boat for voyaging depend significantly upon individual lifestyle choices. We postponed several decisions about buying expensive items and have since added some and decided others were not necessary based on the way we live. Our list of modifications is always evolving. We've found that planning stops once every year or year and a half in places where we can do a major boat overhaul helps us manage many problems until we can properly address our needs and helps keep maintenance from overwhelming us. (For example, we left with a brand new mainsail, but old jibs and staysails, since we weren’t really sure which we’d use. Once we got to New Zealand, we had a very good idea of what we needed and found good quality workmanship at lower prices than the U.S. Had we purchased sails before departing, we'd have made inappropriate choices).

Power generation

All the electricity you need for daily living must be generated somehow. You need to become completely self sufficient without shore power since it isn't really feasible to rely on it over the long term once you leave your home marina. Estimating your power needs will be is challenging in advance, but we'd suggest you overestimate your needs and set up a variety of methods for generating that power. Reducing your power use minimizes the power one needs to generate. At one time, all of the four methods we had of generating power: Alternator, solar panels, trolling generator and wind generator didn’t work for various reasons. In general, we were glad to have the redundancy so that when once system had a problem or the weather wasn’t suitable (cloudy or calm), we could rely on another. Most people use a combination of the various means of generating power, along with running the engine or a generator two hours each day. Fuel is much more expensive outside the U.S. A book called “Alternative Power Sources” can be useful for making decisions about meeting power needs, although the book is not written specifically for boats. We've connected all our power generating sources to one regulator, a flex charge 25 and this diverts power if we are topped up. Again, the lower your needs are for power, the less need there is for generating it.

We don’t use our alternator for much of our power generation, but it makes sense to have a high tech alternator/regulator to maximize the output and an alternator that will take the stress and heat of operating at maximum output. We have a 50 amp alternator and it generates 35amps at the speeds we run it at high idle. We have a Next Step regulator which works fine. A monitor that allows you to keep track of your power generation helps you figure out how much power each item draws and your current state of battery charge. We like our new Link 10, but for a long while we were using the voltage meter to establish our state of battery charge after our original monitor died. We used to have a monitor that interfaced with our alternator regulator and the system worked well until we had a voltage spike and both were destroyed simultaneously. A general suggestion would be to insure that all systems can work independently if needed.

Solar panels
A quarter of their watt rating equals the number of amp hours per day that solar panels generate on average. Solar panels seem to lose some output over time. The rigid solar panels do better in cooler climates and need air flow beneath them for better power generation. Finding a safe, secure and unobtrusive way to mount rigid panels can be a challenge. Many people mount them to rigid horizontal lifeline poles so they can be tilted, but the edges are sharp and can present the potential for injury when getting in or out of the dinghy in their vicinity and lines can catch on them. They add windage to the boat which can be scary in high wind conditions. Others mount them onto radar arches and still others on pivoting brackets attached to verticle pole mounted aft of the cockpit. Flexible solar panels can offer an option if rigid panel mounting isn’t feasible. They can be stored under settee seats and are more tolerant of shadows (hard to avoid on a boat) than the rigid ones. Flexible solar panels can kink if they are not tied well in windy conditions and williwas can come up at night without warning; Damage to our flexible panels has reduced their output. Solar panels of both types need to be cleaned periodically to keep power generation at top levels. In addition, electrical fittings can corrode over time. We think the ideal solar panel would be the Solara since it could be glued to the deck (and could be walked on), and we would choose this next time, mounted on top of a hard dodger or cabin top.

Trolling generator
Trolling generators that drag behind the boat generate power pretty well when you’re moving, but work best at a hull speed of between 3 and 6 knots. Ours is a homemade 10 amp DC generator fixed to the boat (no gimbal). It has a ring on the end of the shaft to which we tie a 100 feet of 1/2" doublebraid. The line then is spliced to a 3 foot long 5/8" stainless bar, with a ring at one end for attaching the line, and a 6 inch diameter 3 blade outboard prop on the other. The output is run through a 15 amp power diod. It puts out about 4-5 amps at 6 knots of boat speed, but we find at about 8 knots the spinner can jump out of the waves when the swell is large and kink the line, which reduces its effectiveness and creates extra drag. Trolling generators can interfere with radio reception and can be challenging to recover in windy conditions. We’ve found heaving to be the best way to stop the generator from spinning while recovering it. Fishing is incompatible with the trolling generator.

Wind generator
Wind generators can often be quite loud, especially the Air Marine brand (although we hear the blades can be shaved to reduce noise on these). For some generators, it has to be howling in the anchorage to generate much. Our Rutland 910 generates power at lower wind speeds but doesn't generate as much as others at higher speeds. It will generate all the power we need in windy anchorages (above 15 knots) and when sailing to weather. It can increase our stress in windy conditions and sometimes we’ll tie it off for peace of mind, particularly if we don’t need the power. Given a choice, we'd forego the noise and windage and set ourselves up for a higher solar input.

Shore power
Marinas are much more prevalent than they used to be and do offer an option to anchoring for a special treat, for getting projects done (with unlimited power and water if you’re lucky) or leaving the boat for extended periods, but they are expensive. Most marinas typically offer only 220V power except in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. so 110 volt battery chargers as well as many power tools aren’t worth much after leaving those areas. And replacing electrical appliances can be difficult unless you’re traveling home. Installing a 220 volt battery charger will allow you to use foreign power sources. You may need some plugs and receptacles to create your own shore power cable that will plug into your boat. You can always buy the appropriate end fitting for that particular country upon arrival. Some marinas will allow you to use a transformer to convert the power from 110 to 220, but they are expensive, heavy and large, and marinas require an electrical inspection before you can plug in. Dual power transformers are common for many electronic appliances but you might want to have U.S. style plugs on hand to make your own adapters so you can hook into foreign sockets.

Estimating your power needs

Estimating your power needs is hard since you haven't lived aboard offshore before, but perhaps you can learn from our experience. Generally we use less power than most people and we use approxately 20-30 amps per day. Since we do not have pressure water, radar, auto bilge pumps, an electric windless, a satellite phone, or an autopilot, we cannot estimate the draw for those items. We are not using our Adler Barber Coldmachine refridgerator but it was our biggest draw when we did, using 60 amps per day alone. Visit our section on Keeping up with Refridgeration for a more thorough discussion. The following are estimates for items as we might use them on a high usage day. (Usage would be balanced based on charging ability that day and the general state of battery charge):

Estimated Power Draw
At Anchor
Item # of units amps Time Amp hours
Lights: Incandescent 2 1.5 amps 4 hours 12 Amp hours
Lights: Flourescent 2 1.0 amps 5 hours 10 Amp hours
Fans 2 0.3 amps 12 hours 7.2 Amp hours
Shortwave radio 1 0.5 amps 5 hours 2.5 Amp hours
Stereo: radio 1 1.0 amps 1 hour 1 Amp hour
Stereo: CD 1 3.0 amps 1 hour 3 Amp hours
VHF: listening 1 0.5 amps 24 hours 12 Amp hours
VHF: transmitting 1 1.0 amp .5 hours .5 Amp hours
SSB: listening 1 2.0 amps 2 hours 4 Amp hours
SSB: transmitting 1 6.0 amps .5 hour 3 Amp hours
Computer: floating 1 2.0 amps 3 hours 6 Amp hours
Computer: charging and on14.0 amps 1 hour 4 Amp hours
Computer: charging and off11.0 amps .5 hour .5 Amp hours
Digital camera battery charging 1 .5 amps 1 hour .5 Amp hours
Cordless drill charging1 .5 amps 3 hours 1.5 Amp hours
Handheld VHF charging 1 .5 amps 3 hours 1.5 Amp hours
LED Anchor light 1 .1 amps 12 hours 1.2 Amp hours
At Sea
Item # of units amps Time Amp hours
Lights: Incandescent 1 1.5 amps 1 hour 1.5 Amp hours
Lights: Flourescent 1 1.0 amp 1 hour 1 Amp hours
Fans 1 0.5 amp 24 hours 12 Amp hours
GPS 1 0.5 amp 24 hours 12 Amp hours
Instruments 1 0.5 amp 24 hours 12 Amp hours
VHF: listening 1 0.5 amp 24 hours 12 Amp hours
VHF: transmitting 1 1.0 amp .5 hour .5 Amp hours
SSB: listening 1 2.0 amps 2 hours 4 Amp hours
SSB: transmitting 1 6.0 amps .5 hour 3 Amp hours
LED Tri color 1 0.1 amps 12 hours 1.2 Amp hours

Minimizing your power requirements

There are various ways to reduce your power needs. Keeping up with Refridgeration is the biggest challenge. Using LED lights can reduce your demands. When we sit in the cockpit and talk in the early evening, our power usage is significantly lower. And also lower when we read in bed since we share the same light. Computers can draw a lot of power and different laptops draw different amounts. Running the computer off of its own battery and then recharging it is a way to save power.

Keeping up with Refridgeration

It is difficult to keep up with refrigerator power requirements. Since it is so much hotter in the tropics, it takes much more power to keep a refridgerator going than in more temperate climates. You might want to double or treble your power requirement estimates if you plan to rely on a fridge/freezer. Consider adding insulation or at least placing an insulating mat on top of the fridge area or just inside the lid to help keep the cool air inside. Avoid side opening units if you are installing a new one. You might also want to make sure any air cooled unit has adequate ventilation, which ours did not. We decided to turn our fridge off because we were unwilling to run the engine to keep up with its demands. The engine heats up the boat in an already hot climate and we find the noise unpleasant and the time inconvenient. Plus we cannot carry the fuel to power it. The adjustment was hard for us at first, but we live pretty well without it now. We are among the few who live without refrigeration but our power needs are a small fraction as a result. Visit our section on Living without refrigeration to learn how we've adjusted.

LED Lights

We run LED lights for our anchor light and tricolor which draw less than an amp a day. We bought them off the Internet from a company called Deep Creek Design, but they may also be available from West Marine. Deep Creek Design stands behind their products and has been good to deal with. The bulbs fit into a standard tricolor fixture and the anchor light even has a solar cell so it comes on automatically at dusk. While they weren’t cheap, we have been glad to have them so we can be seen even if we are worried about our power consumption. We also use LED flashlights and a cockpit light, which you can find at garden stores and often feature a solar sensor.


We initially bought a Sangean short wave receiver for $200 US from a catalog, and through it we listened to short wave and local radio programs and could hear the SSB nets, and receive weather faxes. After traveling for a while, we decided that we wanted an SSB so we could join radio nets and talk to our friends and add onboard email via Sailmail. In addition to the radio programs that we could listen to on our shortwave radio, which help us keep track of what is going on in the world, when we can transmit on SSB, we can keep in touch with other cruisers and give us another way to call for help if needed. We bought our ICOM 735 used via the Ham Radio Outlet on the Internet for about $600US including a tuner. We installed it with a backstay insulator and a copper strap (painted beforehand to prevent corrosion) stretched along the bilge between the antenna tuner and the keel bolts.

Communications with the outside world
Internet Cafes are usually readily available (throughout the Pacific in the larger towns) and affordably priced, although in a couple of places they were very expensive, like in Bora Bora, Vavau (in the northern islands in Tonga), and the resort areas of Fiji. Again, asking other cruisers and planning ahead can reduce the hardship of expensive email facilities. Other cruisers who have onboard email are often happy to let you send a brief email on occasion to let family know you are safe. Many people complain that Hotmail clogs their inboxes with lots of junk mail and closes the accounts after a month of inactivity. We have often been unable to check email for more than a month when we are in remote areas. We have had good luck with Yahoo and Yahoo includes a photo album which we have found handy for sharing images of our travels easily with a large number of people while we are away.

Onboard email via Sailmail
With a Pactor II/III modem, an SSB and a subscription to sailmail ($200 per year) or using Winlink for those with a Ham license (free), one can stay in touch via email on board. As we traveled to more remote areas, we became more interested in getting a Pactor II/III modem. We added a Pactor II/III modem recently and have found it to be very useful. We bought the Pactor II/III modem from the Offshore Store in Seattle, it easily plugged into our ICOM 735 and we didn't need any extra assistance to get it running.

Shortwave and Local Radio Programs
We can get news and entertainment on the short wave radio and have found we can get local radio stations that otherwise we couldn't receive on our auto scan stereo which is programmed for U.S. frequencies. We’d suggest researching the schedules for Voice of America, BBC, Canadian Broadcasting System, Radio New Zealand and Radio Australia, or doing a general search for Short Wave radio programs. They can be quite interesting and informative.

Communications with other cruisers and SSB Nets
Asking other cruisers is the best way to find out about current SSB radio nets in the area. The nets form a bond within our community. It’s a close-knit community that shares information freely and helps cruisers in need. (Caution: There can be a tendency for people to get overexcited about things that ultimately turn out to be non-issues, such as customs procedures for a specific country or for misinformation to be spread like wildfire on these nets.) Exchanging boat cards with email addresses is a great way to stay in touch over longer distances and over the long term. Lots of cruisers email one another via Sailmail to plan a rendezvous, share information and stay in touch.

Weather information

Weather dictates our lives so it pays to understand weather patterns. We can find out from other cruisers, via nets and often weather maps are posted and many useful sites can be found on the Internet. Weather routers like Commanders Weather out of Vermont is another resource. Being able to retrieve your own weather faxes makes you better prepared. Learn as much as you can about interpreting weather maps. One of the most useful sources of information we have come across is the Metservice Yacht Pack put out by New Zealand’s Metservice weather forecasting service. Steve Dashew's "Mariner's Weather" and "Surviving the Storm" are helpful resources as well.

Weather faxes
To receive weather faxes aboard, we also purchased Weather fax for Windows from a New Zealand company called Xaxero, which we found on the Internet. The program included a demodulator to connect the computer to the short wave radio. Another weatherfax program is JVComm which doesn’t require a demodulator. We generally plug the demodulator into the headphone jack of the radio but since we need to be able to listen to the signal to fine tune to the station for the clearest signal, we need an adapter with 2 outlets making it possible to plug in earphones as well as the demodulator. After we are done tuning, we unplug the headphones and turn up the volume for best results.
We found out what stations to listen for weather from an incredibly valuable booklet called the Metservice Yacht Pack put out by New Zealand’s Metservice weather forecasting service. It includes useful information about weather patterns and specific sources for weather information around the Pacific ($29.95NZ or about $15US). Bob McDavitt, who caters to yacht needs, can be contacted through email: mcdavitt@met.co.nz. Russell Radio is a ship to shore net run out of New Zealand, that provides personalized weather forecasting for one’s current location while underway, and the time and frequency details for this and many other nets around the Pacific are included in the Metservice booklet. Many nets offer weather information and can be accessed easily via short wave radio. Grib files of weather data can be requested via sailmail or Winlink (listed in their online catalogs).