It’s easy to talk about keeping things simple on board, but I’ll take electricity and a hot shower any day
It’s easy to talk about keeping things simple on board, but I’ll take electricity and a hot shower any day
I used to sit and listen to the guys at the bar near the marina brag about how, “When I go cruising, I’m going to keep it simple.” The catch phrase was, and is, KISS — or Keep It Simple, Stupid! It sounded pretty good. But I couldn’t help noticing that these guys were always drinking cold beers. Cold beers in paradise usually means refrigeration, and refrigeration has always been one of the many things that the KISS crusaders consider to be in violation of the sacred principle.
Over the years my boats have grown less and less simple, but I’ve been learning that “simple” is in the mind of the beholder. My first boat was pretty simple, but that wasn’t my fault. It was a 12-foot rowboat. My father had it built for me by Uncle Ernest when I was 9, despite grave misgivings from my mother, who thought water was for baptisms, drinking and drowning. The compromise was that I couldn’t untie the rope from the piling ashore until I’d learned to row, which they decided would take the entire summer. Of course, I also had to wear a life jacket, which in those days was designed more for summer suffocation than for safety at sea.
The moral issues presented by this arrangement would have been very simply resolved if it wasn’t for Mrs. Cox. She lived on the shore overlooking the little harbor of my tethered voyages, and there was no doubt in my mind as to what she’d do if I sinned a bit and cut loose the boat. She’d pick up the phone and tell the operator, “Get June on the phone right now. Tommy’s untied the knot.” So I learned a simple way to go cruising. I scrounged up long lengths of rope and added them to the leash. That summer I learned to tie knots as fast as I learned to row.
Things have gotten more complicated since then, but I’m not convinced that’s worse. The KISS principle still works occasionally but more frequently life afloat has been better if I store that principle back there in my brain with all of the other truisms of bar-bound cruisers and bring it out only when it works (and if I can remember where I put it).
The very first day I put my very first boat in the water, I learned that there was a very simple, very basic, never-ending task: It’s called bailing. When they first brought the little skiff to the river in the pickup truck, they told me she’d “have to swell up first before you can use her.” But I couldn’t wait. It seemed easy enough; all it took was a bucket. We only had the metal kind then, and I bailed so hard that I scratched all the new paint off the floor. This proved to be a disappointment because the boat sank overnight anyway as she continued to “swell up first.” As she slowly swelled, I graduated from buckets to coffee cans and even rags and sponges on hot, sunny days, when evaporation kicked in to help. I stuck with this simple methodology through many boats, all of which were wooden. With each boat you could tell how much I’d been bailing, not so much by how dry the bilge was but by how thin the planks had been scraped down by the buckets and cans.
As I began to worry about stepping right through the bottom one day, I bought a galvanized piston pump. It was one of those contraptions with which you bail by putting the bottom of the pipe into the water in your boat, and pull and push on the handle at the top. A leather-gasketed wooden piston drew the water up, and all you had to do was keep the leather wet and hope the cow hadn’t had pimples. As simple as this arrangement was, it presented two problems. One was that you had to stand on one side of the boat or in the bow so that all the water would run there to be sucked up easily. My problem was that usually standing on the side or in the bow made so much water flow there that I was in peril of capsizing. The other problem was that by the time I was scared enough to muster up the energy it took to pump the thing, I was much better off using that energy to start swimming.
Much later in life I began to get fiberglass boats with bilges instead of flat floors, and the complexities of the bilge pump began to multiply like flies in a fish market. Now, on my motorsailer, I’ve got three electric ones with automatic switches, and two manual pumps (not to mention three buckets and a mask with a snorkel if all else fails). In the old days you could tell whether you were sinking simply by whether the water was up to your knees. With my modern pumps I’ve got two fancy bilge alarms that will let me know I’m sinking before my feet are wet. There’s not much simplicity here, except in one respect: I’ve got all these pumps and switches and alarms … and my boat doesn’t leak.
The KISS people always brag about the simple, good life of wooden ships and iron men. (For the sake of decency, I’m going to leave out the part about iron men in this discussion.) But even though the techie articles try to make it seem a very complicated subject, I’ve found that fiberglass has actually done much to simplify things. Even I can fix a hole these days.
In the very early days I’d use Git-Rot as my first and last line of defense. It would make the rotten wood hard, and for a while I wouldn’t have to fill the hole that I knew was coming. Then came MarineTex. This added the complication of giving me something to put into holes, so I’d have to get a knife and dig out the rotten wood. That was for the little holes. For the bigger ones (and the most prevalent) I’d use one of my mother’s soup spoons. Then I’d stick my finger in to try to scoop out the very last of the soft wood with my fingernail, usually stopping only when the outer mushy borders approached the waterline. I’d treat the edges of decay with Git-Rot and fill up the cavities with MarineTex. My Git-Rot/MarineTex hulls may have looked like boats with the pox, but they took me through many a storm. I could always tell whether the seas were growing too large and the boat working too much by whether the chunks of MarineTex just slid down the side into the bilge or whether they popped out, flew across the boat, and knocked a hole in the other side.
Today, with fiberglass, I don’t even get holes except the ones I make docking. When I do, people like the Gougeon Brothers have made fixing them as simple as baking a Betty Crocker cake. The good folks in the boatyards want us to believe it’s as complicated as baking a soufflé from scratch when they send us the bill. But I’ve learned that when I do it myself, I can easily make the boat stronger than new (if not anywhere near as pretty).
Fundamental to the KISS theory is that as boats become more complex, repairs become far more difficult. As we’ve seen, the issue of wooden vs. fiberglass boat repairs puts the lie to that, but it’s only the beginning.
Consider the art of fixing a busted pipe. There weren’t many pipes to bust in the old days, but there are plenty on most of the more complex boats today. Some you can fix with JB Weld. Some you can fix with pipe clamps that you can buy at the hardware store. Others still you can fix by putting a bucket under the leak. But my favorite way of fixing busted pipes has to do with what I consider to be the evolutionary development of the beer can.
When I started drinking beer (yes, it was very long ago and, no, my parents didn’t know) about the only thing we ever used was beer bottles. The better beer was homemade (I never saw any; I was just told about it and, yes, I’ve forgotten who told me) and it was always in glass bottles. This was simple. This was pure. You’d never consider drinking beer in a can; cans were something beans came in. But today the stores are full of cans of beer. Boats are full of cans of beer too, because the cans don’t break like glass bottles break when you hit the dock.
While I haven’t made a scientific study of the fact, it seems to me that the construction and design of beer cans has advanced over the years. As many of us know (at least those of us who used to impress our dates by stomping beer cans to flatten them into tiny plates on which we could cook beans) modern beer cans are easier to flatten yet less likely to tear. I’m not digressing; this does relate to fixing pipes.
You start with a leaking pipe, usually not too difficult to find on a modern boat. You cut a piece of inner tube to broadly cover the leaking area; several layers usually are better. You pull out a can of beer and drink it. (If it’s a really big leak you might drink a second.) You put on your shoes and stomp on the beer can, unless you have some more precise or more modern way of flattening it. You bend it into a form-fitting shape to fit the pipe. Apply the inner tube layers over the leak, apply the now-rounded beer can over that, secure, and tighten with three or more hose clamps. Now, in case you still think that the old ways of KISS were better, consider trying that with a glass beer bottle.
Keeping clean has been the basis for many KISS discussions. I remember reading cruising guru books in which the gurus bragged about bathing from a teapot; some even did it from a teacup. I tried it several times but finally came to the reluctant conclusion that these must have been exceptionally short people.
It was around this time that I found if I simply jumped into the muddy river and didn’t bathe at all, I had fewer problems with mosquitoes. Since my boat was a skiff with a tent rigged on the bow for sleeping — and I’d never heard of mosquito netting — this simple solution was quite welcome. And I didn’t have the complication of sneaking my mother’s china out of the house and getting it back intact.
But my boats got bigger and bigger until finally I had a Tartan 27 sailboat. Some time around then someone invented those shower bags that you hang in the sun for warming. The theory was that at the end of the day you could have a brief but warm shower from the little spray spout on the hose. Because of the limited water supply, moderate dirtiness was a key feature to the success of this system. I was never very good at moderate dirtiness and couldn’t afford those fancy bags anyway. Besides, I often cruised on days without sun or much other warmth, so I came up with a more complex, albeit cheaper, system.
I bought cheap 5-gallon jugs, painted them black and filled them with water. When I wanted a really warm shower and planned to run the motor a bit, I’d put the jugs up on the cabin top, turn them over, and run a hose from the spout to my Atomic 4 engine, near which I’d lay several coils of the hose. My shower seat in the cockpit over the Atomic 4 was lower than the jugs, so gravity gave me a tad of pressure. Then came the day that the coils slipped onto the exhaust and burnt through. This flooded water onto some of the more intimate areas of the Atomic 4 as I was soaping some of the more intimate parts of me. It was back to the simplicity of jumping into the river again.
On all my boats since then, I’ve had pressure-water pumps. They’re not as simple, but they sure improve life. I began with the old crash-bang Par pulsation pumps. You know them, I’m sure. There’s a motor cocked over a black box with a diaphragm on top and a rocker arm attached to an offset on a belt-driven wheel. I use one of these for a shower sump on my current boat, and it’s more than 30 years old and still working well. If it breaks you just take the broken part off and put another part on. I’ve even fixed them without the parts. For example, I’ve made temporary repairs to the diaphragm by replacing it with a section of inner tube cut to size. I’ve fixed stiffened valve flaps the same way, and I’ve even fixed deformed valve seat gaskets with dabs of silicone glue.
Pressure pumps for boats have come a long way since then. Now you can buy them with several chambers, a smoother mechanism for the transition of power from the turning motor shaft to the back-and-forth motion of the diaphragms, and controls for steadier flow of water. These are even simpler to fix than the old pulsation pumps (if you have the parts), even though they’re more complex. But the important thing is that when you want to take a shower or get a drink of water, you turn on a faucet — just like real people do.
And hot water is no longer a problem. Hot water tanks on boats can be heated by electricity when plugged into shore power or when there’s a generator going. They also can be heated by the boat’s engine, using a much better-designed heat exchanger than my old hose on the manifold trick. This all may sound much more complicated, but it’s a whole lot better than propping a 5-gallon jug on the cabin top, crouching down naked in a cockpit, peeping over the sides to be sure nobody’s watching you try to get rid of all that dirt, then wondering what to do when the water stops coming.
Other basic functions of life are better, if not quite so simple, than in the early days. Like reading. I started out reading with a kerosene lantern under my tent on the bow. I graduated to reading with another kerosene lantern in the little cabin I built on the bow, though the fume density significantly increased in the more airtight cabin. The only good thing I can remember about that was that the fumes kept some of the bugs away. I can’t say that they kept the mosquitoes away; there were so many of them they couldn’t help but be everywhere. Getting rid of mosquitoes was like trying to get rid of air. But it kept big bugs, like horseflies and moths, and probably even a few bats away. You could hear them gagging and splashing outside as they approached the fume bank enveloping my little boat.
Sure, I trimmed the wick from time to time, but this just added further complication to my life. It meant that I had to keep a razor blade aboard without getting cut by it, or that I had to work really hard to sharpen my knife, which meant that when I scraped out rot from the holes in the side I usually went far too far.
I graduated to a pressurized gas lantern with the little white mantles that you had to replace almost daily, and which hissed like a permanently excited snake. This at least allowed me to see the pages through the smudge, until somebody pointed out that using those things for light on a boat was about as bad as speed reading from the burning fuse of a stick of dynamite.
An inherent problem with all this simple light was dry matches. The KISS people would say, “Oh that’s simple. You just keep them in an old mayonnaise jar.” I never could figure out how in the world all my jars leaked. I not only used good mayonnaise jars (Duke’s Homemade Mayonnaise), I even tried Mason pickling jars with the clamp-down, rubber-sealed tops. No matter what I did, the matches got wet. On the rare occasions that I’d pull out a dry one I’d usually get so excited that I’d drop it into the bilge. In those days, my bilge was nothing more than the flat floor of a wooden skiff with an outboard, so it always had at least a little water and gasoline in it, not to mention my bare feet. This meant that I always wanted to drop the match before I struck it — a self-defeating complication of a simple idea.
Then came my Glasspar Seafair Sedan. Not only was it my first fiberglass boat, it was a new boat, and — marvelous to behold — it had a 12- volt electric light bulb at the head of each bunk. All you had to do was turn on a switch and read. It was like a premature admittance into heaven. But this, of course, meant my introduction to the ultimate nemesis of the KISS theory: electricity.
Even die-hard KISSers now subscribe to at least a rudimentary reliance on electricity. How else would you run the blender? But they insist on the simple ways. My first simple way was the wind generator. I still think they’re a great idea; it’s just that I’d rather not have more problems to deal with.
The wind generator seems very simple until the wind pipes up too hard and you’re not on your boat to turn it out of the wind and keep it from burning up. I had two that used a rather precisely balanced pivoting mechanism by which wind blowing against a vane mounted perpendicular to the tail overcame the tension on a spring and turned the tail. The tail acted as a rudder and turned the entire wind generator partially out of the wind. Now that’s simplicity for you.
I had two other wind generators that simply used a clutch. As the rotation increased, the centrifugal force of the clutch would overcome the springs holding it closed, and it would open, grinding on the plate, thus slowing down the rotation. Both of these types used different metals, and both required regular disassembly for things like replacing brushes, bearings, springs and clutches. Stainless bolts into aluminum or steel bodies that were regularly coated with salt spray made for many a disastrous repair job. And both of these types of wind generators required diodes in the wiring to prevent the batteries from turning the propellers when the wind stopped. The diodes had to be potted in plastic sealant or mounted where there were no deck leaks, a complication I never overcame on my boats.
So I checked into solar panels and found that even if I’d been able to afford them, I didn’t have sufficient acreage on deck to display enough to do me much good (I use my blender a lot) and I’d still have to deal with diodes and voltage regulators, not to mention seagull poop covering the expensive surfaces. So I finally decided that if I’m going to have all these problems anyway, why not get something really complicated that’ll give me all the electricity I want? Since then I’ve owned five on-board generators. Yes, I’ve had to fix a lot of things, but at least I have cold beer, hot showers, full batteries and even air conditioning when I want it. The underlying principle here is very simple: I like this.
As you’ve seen, once you accept the premise that electricity isn’t all that bad on boats, you’re pretty much a lost cause from the perspective of the KISSers. Not only do you get into all the complications of making the stuff, you get into the complication of liking what it can do for you. For example, you become addicted to refrigeration. The true KISSer won’t even blanch as he sucks down his cold one at the bar, and you point out the apparent contradiction. “It’s the ice, stupid,” he’ll smugly say. “All you have to do is go get some ice every once in a while and put it in your chest.”
For years I tried this as I cruised around Chesapeake Bay in my little skiffs. All I can say is that there was nothing simple about it. First, you’ve got to find block ice. The pretty cubes that you buy in the convenience stores today just won’t last, especially when you keep chunking them into your drinks. While people do sell block ice, it’s getting harder and harder to find. And in those days, there were seldom any convenience stores around the docks. When I found block ice, it was usually at a fish house.
Block ice from fish houses was better than television. You could always entertain yourself by trying to look inside and guessing what all those little frozen things were in there. You always knew that you’d find out as the block melted down, but you weren’t sure that you really wanted to know. It didn’t help that in those days they’d started coming out with the movies about the dinosaurs and woolly mammoths getting frozen in the ice and then getting melted out a couple million years later and eating up Tokyo and New York.
So today they’ve tried to solve this problem with fake block ice. If you go to a store and find a block, it’s usually really shaved ice packed tightly in blocks and refrozen. I think the reason for this is that during the shaving process they figure they’ll have killed whatever creatures were in there. But it’s a fact that shaved block ice melts faster than genuine block ice. It’s also a fact that you can’t see into a block of shaved ice as well as you can see into a genuine block of ice, so you’re less certain as to what’s in there and as to whether it’s the entire creature or just body parts — neither of which is entirely appealing.
Am I making my point? I like refrigeration. I don’t care if it’s less simple. And actually, it’s not a big deal these days. Several years ago I helped install Frigoboat units on two boats, and it was a piece of cake — a quick-mix piece of cake. And most of the other modern units, I understand, also are easy to deal with. The ones I installed are still working today with no muss and no fuss. They’re still making ice cubes, and the people who have them are sitting in their cockpits on warm evenings and enjoying their cold beers. Better still, if they want some really fine entertainment, they can throw a cockroach into an ice tray, freeze it and later plop the cube into a friend’s drink. You couldn’t do this in the old days.
I have a lot of respect for the KISSers but I like my complicated boats — although I’m a bit puzzled as to why I’ve been having so much fun in my kayak lately.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at www.tomneale.com .