Sea Savvy - The right way to cruise in comfort - Soundings Online

Sea Savvy - The right way to cruise in comfort

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With the correct gear, cruising can be downright civilized, whether you’ll be out for two weeks or two years

With the correct gear, cruising can be downright civilized, whether you’ll be out for two weeks or two years

When I first started cruising I had no way to take a shower, and I didn’t care. If I’d gotten lost they could have found me by following the smell upwind. And you could always tell where I’d been wading along the beach by the oil slick I left behind. My bilge was also my “floor,” so my feet were always covered with gas and oil. And that’s what they smelled like, which was probably a good thing.

The boat was a semirotten open wooden skiff with a tattered tent that I pitched over the bow when I wanted to sleep with a “roof” over my head. This wasn’t often, because it didn’t matter whether I got wet from rain or spurts of water coming up between the planks in the bottom.

That was back in the 1950s. I had fun then. I also have fun today, but I wouldn’t think of living like that. The great thing about cruising now is that you can do it with all the comforts of home but free from red lights, smog warnings and shopping lines. However, you need the right stuff.

Splurge parameters

Before you start spending money on cruising equipment, consider that what you need should relate to the size and type of your boat and the duration and area of your cruise. You don’t need a huge yacht to be comfortable, but your boat’s weight-carrying capability, hull type and equipment space are important.

For example, a fast-planing hull probably will carry less water because at 8.3 pounds a gallon, water is heavy. This type of boat also will have less room for equipment and gear because of the space consumed by the engines. On the other hand, a 9- or 10-knot trawler typically will be capable of carrying more weight, with more room for equipment. A sailboat falls somewhere in between. And you’ll obviously need more and different equipment for a two-year cruise to the Bahamas and Caribbean than for a two-week cruise around Long Island Sound, where you can reprovision every few days and get parts easily.

A watershed example

A watermaker demonstrates all of the above points. We got our first reverse osmosis watermaker around 1987, and it’s been indispensable for our many winters in the Bahamas. The ability to take showers whenever you want or need to (my wife tells me I fall into the latter category), to do things such as hose salt spray off your windows when you come in to anchor (so you can watch the people without watermakers bathe in the ocean), and to have reliable and safe drinking water (so I won’t have to keep pouring all that bourbon in to kill the bugs) makes a great difference in comfort and pleasure.

But not all cruisers need a watermaker. In the States good water usually is readily available. However, in the Bahamas you might pay 50 cents or more per gallon for that water you’re washing your deck with, and its potability might be in question.

The typical cost of a watermaker large enough to keep up with daily use — with several hours of running time — normally ranges from around a couple thousand to several thousand dollars, and they don’t take much space if mounted modularly (as I feel is preferable). Installing one for a two-week cruise to the Bahamas wouldn’t be cost effective. However, if you have a fast boat with small tankage, it could greatly increase your pleasure and convenience and, thus, be worth the bucks. It wouldn’t require much space or add much weight, and you’d have all the water you want. But if you go over for two weeks in a trawler, you may be able to take enough for the trip when you pull away from the dock in the States. If you don’t mind being dirty, you can go for a month.

We love our watermaker and have used it in many areas. When we began cruising the Bahamas, we showered when it rained. We soon learned that it only did this at 2 a.m. during cold fronts, leaving us dancing around naked on the deck in chilly rain in the dark. With our watermaker and a SHURflo SmartSensor pump for our pressure water, we now shower just like people do in a house, and I no longer have to sit downwind when I visit other boats for cocktails.

110-volt man

When I first started cruising the only electricity I had came from the D-cell batteries in my flashlight. Now it’s easy to have the comforts and conveniences of electrical power while cruising.

I’m sure you’re accustomed to the concept of 12-volt DC current on board. Your alternator supplies it, your batteries store it, and a host of 12-volt gadgets use it, from lights to chart plotters. But you can also enjoy 110-volt AC on your boat, which lets you use many of the same AC appliances that you might use at home (make sure they’re safe for your boat), such as a microwave, power tools, home entertainment system, even a desktop computer, as I use.

AC equipment often works better. For example, an AC-powered drill usually develops more torque than a DC drill. Further, because the general population uses AC equipment, there is a wider choice, and it generally is less expensive than DC equipment. The money we save by using a desktop on board instead of a laptop goes a long way toward paying for the equipment we have to give us AC power.

There are two ways cruising boats typically get AC at sea. The most common is with an AC generator. Usually these are stand-alone units, powered by a gas or diesel engine. Our diesel genset, running around four hours a day, gives us all the water we need, takes care of our refrigerator and freezer, and charges our batteries. We can stay out for months at a time without going to a marina. But we don’t like to run it all the time. The generator adds to the noise on board, consumes fuel, suffers from wear and tear, and I don’t think it’s safe to run when we’re sleeping.

Enter the inverter. We have a Xantrex ProSine 2.0 inverter/charger (www.xantrex.com) that quickly charges our batteries according to their specifications with up to 100 amps DC output, if needed. It does this when the generator is running or we’re connected to shore power. Without these AC sources, it automatically and seamlessly switches to inverter mode so that we have uninterrupted AC current, even when lying quietly at anchor with no motors running.

Xantrex also has smaller inverters for smaller boats, such as the ProSine 1000 or the Micro 175 Inverter, but these don’t charge batteries. Xantrex says the ProSine inverters produce pure sine waves, like those you supposedly get at home. This is important for some equipment. Less-expensive inverters produce modified sine waves, which probably will power much of your equipment.

The hitch is that inverters create AC from 12-volt batteries. These have to be large enough and charged well enough to yield the power wanted. Improper charging can quickly shorten a battery’s life. For our house bank, we use two heavy-duty deep-cycle modular Rolls 8 D batteries (part No. 12HHG325BS, www.rollsbattery.com).

You can install them one cell at a time, which makes them much easier to use than the very heavy non-modular 8 Ds. Depending upon your boat and your power usage, you may need more or less battery clout, and there are many types and sizes available. We use other batteries for our bow thruster and anchor windlass, and we have a gel cell in our tender. (We’ll soon switch to an AGM in the tender.)

Because of the importance of batteries, we have three charging sources. In addition to the ProSine 2.0, we have a heavy-duty 100-amp alternator with a “smart” three-stage voltage regulator. This keeps the batteries full when the propulsion diesel is running, and we enjoy AC current from the inverter without running the generator.

Our third charging source is the new Xantrex XC charger, which the company says is designed to independently charge three separate banks with up to 50 amps DC, each according to its needs, even though they are of dissimilar type and have dissimilar charging needs. We use this as our primary charging source when using the generator or shore power, and the more powerful ProSine 2.0 when we need faster charging of a single bank. All of this equipment allows us to have the comforts of home without tying up and without constantly running the genset — for months at a time.

We do enjoy going to a marina for a break now and then. But if you cruise far from your home waters, you may find that you can’t plug in because you don’t have an adapter to make your boat’s system compatible with the dock power. In most of the United States this isn’t a problem. However, as you cruise farther — particularly to offshore islands — you may find that you need to adapt, for example, your boat’s 30-amp 110-volt AC shore power cord to a 50-amp 220-volt receptacle, or even an old-fashioned three-prong “stove plug” receptacle.

Various adapters are made by such companies as Charles Industries (www.charlesindustries.com), Hubbell Marine Electrical Products (www.hubbell marine.com), and Marinco (www.marinco.com). They’re expensive, but you’ll be happy you have them when you they’re needed.

Anchoring

Independence from shoreside hassles is one of the nicest aspects of cruising, if even for a week or so. The ability to lie at anchor in a quiet cove for days at a time, self-sustained, with all the comforts you like and without worrying about dragging when you’re asleep or when a storm blows through is a foundation block of the good cruising life.

As with everything else, good anchoring equipment will vary with the size and type of your boat. Research the issue, talk with others who cruise in your type of boat, get the equipment necessary and learn how to use it. We use a Fortress and a CQR (we seldom put more than one down at a time) and lots of chain for Chez Nous, our 53-foot motorsailer. In previous Soundings articles (January 2005, in particular), I’ve discussed some of my equipment and techniques for anchoring, but you should develop what works best for you and your boat. Also, a good heavy-duty windlass (ours is a Lofrans, www.lofrans.it) is an important tool that can help you set, recover and reset your anchor in bad weather without having a cardiac arrest.

Your pickup truck/limo

A practical tender is crucial to living on the hook, exploring, having fun and being independent. Some cruise on boats that are too small for anything more than a little rubber ducky, but these boats are less likely to be at anchor long, and have more versatility in moving around. If you can carry it on board (there are many weather conditions when towing a dinghy is dangerous), take along the largest, toughest dinghy you can, with the largest engine it and you can safely handle. You’ll use it for grocery runs, trips to other boats for dinner and cocktails, exploring places that would be dangerous for larger boats, finding those perfect beaches, and perhaps even for carrying jugs of diesel to that perfect anchorage that you don’t want to leave.

Dinghying distances will be much greater than those during weekend cruises, as well as the likelihood of encountering rough water and strong currents. Dinghy safety equipment — such as a hand-held VHF and a small pack of emergency provisions, in addition to required equipment — is important. If you plan to take your tender into remote areas — for example, to explore that empty beach in the Bahamas — consider taking a higher level of safety items, such as a GPS and a personal locator beacon.

Equipment to launch and retrieve your dinghy and outboard can range from a halyard and sling from a mast and boom to davits and much more elaborate arrangements. It’ll depend upon your boat, dinghy and budget. But you’ll need something that works well for you.

We have a hydraulically operated platform astern that, with the push of a button, lifts our 12-foot tender and 25-hp outboard, nests it, and lowers it down again. It also serves as a swim and dive platform when the tender is off (Marine Lift Technology Inc., www.marinelifttech.com).

Eating

People often look at us strangely when they learn we’ve lived aboard since 1979. Frequently people will ask my wife, Mel, “But how do you eat? Surely you don’t cook aboard?” In fact, we’ve cooked aboard for almost every meal. There’s nothing difficult about it if you’re set up properly. If you eat in restaurants most of the time, you’re going to miss some great destinations, and your cruising cash will shrink as your girth expands.

We’ve used alcohol, propane and electric stoves over the years. Our favorite, as to convenience and quality of cooking, has been propane. However, there is a significant safety issue with propane on boats (the explosive gas can settle to lower areas) if the system isn’t installed and used properly, and if there aren’t adequate alarms and safety devices. Many boats come standard with electric stoves, which is what we now use. These are convenient, but you can seldom use them with inverters because of their power consumption. This means that you have to run the generator or be plugged into shore power.

On Chez Nous, we have several alternate means of cooking that don’t require the generator or dock. We can use our microwave, toaster, electric frying pan, coffee maker or crockpot with the inverter. We don’t have to turn on the generator to cook lunch or fix a cup of java. When under power, the electricity to do these things comes from the inverter using the batteries, which are being kept charged with the alternator. At anchor or under sail with no generator, we have to carefully monitor battery depletion because there is no charging source, but our large deep-cycle banks handle the load.

We also have a single-burner Origo (www.domet ic.com) non-pressurized alcohol stove that we can use for cooking without electricity. In addition, we sometimes use a propane grill mounted on the rail. We’ve found these to be finicky when there’s wind, as is often the case at anchor. We’ve also used charcoal grills mounted over the rail. We contain some of their mess by keeping the bags of charcoal in heavy-duty garbage bags, and we’re very cautious about sparks. Some of these methods may not be suitable for your boat, its power sources or your type of cruising, but as you can see there are plenty of options for good meals on board.

Refrigeration has come a long way since the days when I took a cooler with ice from the fish house, and couldn’t decide whether my hot dogs had finally gone bad or I was smelling the ice. On Chez Nous we have two huge compressors and insulated boxes with huge holding plates containing eutectic solution. Today, you don’t need to go to that extreme. Many smaller units, such as the Frigoboat (www.frigo boat.com), are very efficient and reliable.

Tools

On a cruising boat, tools are better than money in the bank. I’m not a believer in going to a shop and buying a cute, so-called “marine tool kit.” I think it’s best to put together your own assortment of tools tailored to what you may need to work on (i.e., everything in the boat), and what it takes to get to it.

There are some tools that are especially relevant to cruising — so many that we can only scratch the surface here. For example, an infrared heat-sensing gun helps you keep up with temperatures of such components as alternators, engine heat exchangers and transmissions. Knowing that there is a steadily increasing temperature can help you solve a problem before it happens.

A Dremel tool is invaluable because you often have to shape or make parts when you’re in paradise and there aren’t any parts stores around. Once, far out in the Great Bahama Bank, I made a woodruff key for my propulsion engine’s freshwater recirculating pump using a Dremel tool, a piece of steel stock, and more cuss words per minute than ever before in my life.

Parts

The ruination of many cruises is the failure to realize the difference in repair jobs “out there” as compared to repairs in the normal mode of boating. Typically people use their boats on weekends, and if something breaks they get back to the marina or yard with a tow and the nice folks fix it so that they can go and do it again next weekend. It doesn’t work that way while cruising. Even if you’re only out for two weeks, the breakdowns probably won’t begin until you get beyond your radius of familiarity. There will be issues as to which yard to use, whether it’ll have parts, and whether it can even get to the job before you’ve planned to be back at work.

If you find a good yard and they begin right away, you still have the problem that you’re living in the midst of the crime scene, rather than back in the house, during the repair. On longer cruises the problems can be even worse. If you go to the Bahamas or Caribbean, for example, you may have to deal with many overseas calls, international air freight, and customs before you can get that part — which turns out to be wrong because someone transposed a figure while making notes.

Successful cruising relates directly to the number of parts you can bring along, the variety of tools you have to fix things, and the extent of your ability to use them. Your parts selection will depend upon your boat’s equipment, the amount of space you have to store them, the amount of extra weight you can dedicate to that storage, and your budget. With all these variables it wouldn’t make sense to extensively list parts here. Consulting with a good marine mechanic who’s familiar with your boat could be of immeasurable value.

A few parts we’ve found important to keep on board are raw-water pump impellers for the propulsion engine and generator, freshwater recirculating pump, V belts, an injector and high-pressure fuel lines (for diesels), hoses, head rebuild kit (the head you sit on), potable water supply pump (or at least a rebuild kit), starter and solenoid, and light bulbs for all uses, especially navigation lights. Remember, the one way to guarantee something won’t break on a boat is to purchase a spare for it.

Fun tools

You’ll have more fun in your dinghy if you have fun tools, such as snorkeling equipment (masks, snorkels, flippers and wetsuits); a look-bucket that may allow you to see reefs, fish (and your hopefully well-set anchor) beneath the surface without diving in; and fishing gear. We also have two kayaks on board. We love throwing them over the side and taking off to explore. It’s fun and gives us the exercise we need after a few days of paradise.

If you cruise in waters that have stinging nettles, like Chesapeake Bay during summer, consider a Nettle Net boat pool (www.nettle-net.com). You can inflate it in the water at the stern and have a small, protected swimming area. Swim ladders add to your safety (climbing back if you fall over at anchor), and make taking a swim a lot easier.

Not to worry

The in-vogue thing to say about going out for the weekend is that it’s great not to be bothered by phone calls. But when you’re out for an extended period of time the situation reverses. If you can’t hear from family or check in on them, or if you can’t call your broker, doctor or bank you’ll worry constantly. Over the years we’ve seen people go to amazing extremes to be able to communicate.

Satellite phones and single sideband and ham radios are helpful when you leave our coasts and go afar. These allow voice and data communication, to the extent you can afford it. If cruising along the East Coast, however, you’ll likely find that your cell phone is your primary source of contact with “back home.” But check your plan and geographical coverage area. Many plans are offered on the assumption that most calling will be done in a “home” footprint. With these plans, making and receiving calls can become very expensive when you leave that area.

Data capability with cell phones has vastly improved in the United States. In fact, I filed this story as an e-mail attachment on a Verizon cell phone. I also do Internet research on that same cell while cruising along the Eastern Seaboard. The subject of taking care of business while on board is so important, not only for cruising but for most other types of boating, that I plan to deal with it in much more detail in a future Sea Savvy.

Weather

Reliable weather information is crucial to safety and fun every moment you’re out. This requires the equipment to obtain it as well as a good source. The so-called “boating forecasts” on local television stations often aren’t very helpful, even if you can tune them in.

For coastal cruising we’ve come to rely heavily on several types of equipment. Of course we use the NOAA broadcasts on the VHF, listening to them several times a day. But we also use the national “Local on the 8s” feature of the Weather Channel. This shows a satellite-image loop of current weather systems moving across the country and is very helpful, even out in the Bahamas. It’s pure information, without hype. We get this by satellite TV using the Follow Me TV tracker. Because it tracks satellites only horizontally you have to be in relatively calm waters, but it costs less than $1,000 (www.follow-me-tv.com). You can get more sophisticated and expensive systems, such as KVH TracVision, that track vertically as well, and can be used while you’re rolling around at sea (www.kvh.com).

Our on-board television is powered by the inverter and a Shakespeare SeaWatch external omnidirectional amplified antenna to tune into local weather on the morning and evening news, hoping we find one that delves deeper than “bad hair days.” Away from the coast we also use satellite TV. We get DISH Network (www.dishnetwork.com) U.S. service into the central Bahamas and sometimes beyond.

We also listen to broadcasts on the ham net every morning at 7:45. This requires at least a radio receiver, such as one of the Grundig Yacht Boys, some of which sell for around $170 (www.grundig.com). We use an Icom M710 SSB so that we can also talk on the upper sideband. Helpful locals around the islands will sometimes broadcast weather information on the VHF at established times, but you should have your own source on board.

There also are private weather services to which you can subscribe. Examples include Ocens (www.ocens.com), which offers a variety of sophisticated downloadable weather products, and Marine Weather and Communications LLC (www.mwxc.com), which includes e-mail forecasts relevant to your cruising area, and daily personal consultation on the SSB or other media. E-mail requires an SSB with modem and an e-mail service, or satellite phone when you’re out beyond cell phone range.

The Weather Channel Marine (onboard.weather .com) includes live color NOWrad images of severe weather, animated loops of radar imagery to track a storm’s history and gauge its speed and direction, and live weather reports from any of 1,200 reporting locations, including marine buoys reporting wind, visibility and sea state.

Opportunities for being comfortable while cruising are limitless. I’ve only mentioned a few, and each of these could bear many pages of discussion. The bottom line is that it’s fun out here. Join us on your boat, at least for a long vacation cruise. When you anchor down wind of Chez Nous and get a whiff of bourbon, you’ll know that it’s just because I haven’t been using the watermaker.

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.tom neale.com.