Three decades of self-sufficient cruising

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Providing a reliable, efficient refrigeration system aboard a cruising boat can be a challenge.

When we started out, my family was content with the services of a 25-pound block of ice, but recently I decided to take on the upgrade to solar-power — and working refrigeration.

Don and the family aboard White Cap in its pre-solar panel days.

In 1971 my wife, Nancy, and I bought a 1928 Richardson 28-foot sedan cruiser named Sandstorm. A single 1937 Kermath 6-cylinder engine propelled the oak-framed, cedar-planked hull with a mahogany cabin at about 7 knots on a good day. It had a separate head with a sink forward, a settee arrangement that converted to four bunks in the trunk cabin, a galley with a small propane stove, and a sink with gravity-fed running water from a tank in the bow.

Another fold-out arrangement in the cockpit provided a couple of more bunks. The ice box had been removed, leaving only the mahogany countertop with the top-loading door still intact. With three growing kids and having moved up from a 19-foot outboard runabout, Sandstorm seemed like a luxurious, spacious yacht.

The missing ice box was more boon than problem; now I had the opportunity to build a new box with ample foam insulation, and a polyethylene liner. I retained the top-loading design using the original countertop. The box would quite efficiently accommodate a 25-pound block of ice.

Whate Cap's solar panels

Later, I added a state-of-the-art (at the time) 12-volt thermoelectric cooling unit to the side of the box. This helped prolong the life of the ice, but it could drain the house battery overnight during hot weather.

We live in Newfield, N.Y., and when we’re not traveling, the boat is usually docked in Ithaca, N.Y. However, after a couple of seasons cruising the waters of upstate New York, Lake Ontario and Canada’s Rideau Canal with tolerable results, we decided to give the system a real test on a cruise down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida.

The cruise with Sandstorm went well except for the cooling fan on the electronic unit, which began to work only intermittently and then quit altogether. There were a few times between ice stops when the day’s menu consisted of the contents of the ice box before it spoiled.

I think it was here that we decided: We were not willing to go without refrigeration, and our next boat would have a reliable system.

In spring 1977, we bought another Richardson, White Cap, a 1940 33-foot sedan cruiser. It had a good-sized side-loading ice box with a 1950s 110-volt refrigeration setup driven by a big GE compressor. It must have weighed 40 pounds.

It worked great at the dock, but as folks who spend most of their boating time cruising or at anchor it was back to ice for us. A generator would have solved the problem, but we had spent too many nights in an otherwise quiet anchorage listening to someone else’s. We put a lot of miles on the old girl and bought a lot of ice. Then, in 1986, we began plans for extended cruising.

I installed a 70-hp Westerbeke diesel in place of the original 96-hp Gray Marine engine along with a homemade engine-driven refrigeration system. This last consisted of an air conditioner compressor from a junk car, and a salvaged heat exchanger and evaporator from a 1950 Chris-Craft.

Two inches of polyurethane foam insulation and a new liner were installed in the ice box. Two 5-liter box wine bladders filled with a water/antifreeze eutectic mix that froze at about 20 F were stuffed into the evaporator, which occupied a freezer compartment at the top of the box to create “poor man’s cold plates.”

White Cap's solar power controller

This arrangement worked for almost 20 years; of course, it was necessary to run the engine to keep things frozen. In spring 2006 we decided to upgrade.

Our daughter, Karen, had recently bought a 25-foot Albin trawler and promptly set about replacing the small 12-volt refrigerator with a built-in box, a modern, efficient 12-volt keel-cooled system and solar panels to run the whole thing. Her efforts inspired us to make the switch to solar power.

I removed the ancient GE shore power compressor and the homemade engine-driven system was removed and replaced with a new Frigoboat 12-volt compressor, a keel-cooled condenser and a new evaporator in the ice box.

The advantage of keel cooling is there is no need for a seawater pump or fan to cool the refrigerator heat exchanger. This means one less energy-drawing component to maintain. I also installed an optional “Smart Control” to regulate compressor speed for efficient operation.

We replaced our old 4D house battery with four 6-volt, deep-cycle golf cart batteries with a total capacity of more than 400 ampere hours. The old 4D battery was rated for about 200 ampere hours when new. Normally, if traveling for a few hours or so every day, the 55-amp engine alternator would be able to maintain the battery charge to support the refrigerator along with any other house requirements. But we wanted the option to remain at anchor or a mooring for days, even weeks at a time, without depending on the engine for battery charging.

To meet this need, I installed three Siemens 50-watt RV solar panels on the cabin top along with a Solar Boost 2000E charge controller from Blue Sky Energy, Inc. to provide an additional charging capability. The solar panels provide enough current to maintain the batteries even on overcast days. There is plenty of power to run not only the refrigeration, but lights, stereo, water pumps, two VHF radios, GPS, depth sounder and a small inverter for the computer and printer.

Of course, the only item in constant use is the refrigerator.

So far, during two seasons of liveaboard use on the lakes, rivers and canals of New York, there has been no need for shore power or running the engine to charge batteries. The only downside is the solar panels now occupy cabintop space where the dinghy used to be carried; a small price to pay for the ability to make a little ice instead of buying it.

Don Pakkala has cruised for more than 30 years, and has logged more than 25,000 miles. When not cruising, he works with classic and antique restorations, system design and installations.

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters section of the July 2009 issue.