“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Boat Thoughts 10 Months Into Cruising

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A blog follower recently asked us to give some updated thoughts on our boat and outfitting choices.  We have also been asked similar things by friends on Facebook and others who are thinking about sailing on a smaller than average boat.

In ten months of full time cruising we have put over 3,000 nautical miles under our keel.  For full time cruisers this puts us on the lower end but we have been enjoying ourselves on this slow pace that has allowed us to enjoy places like the Bahamas much more than other cruisers who pass through these places in a month or two. 

Our confidence in our boat and our abilities has grown exponentially in these ten months. We have been through good and bad and come out the other side more competent sailors who know where to push our boat and where not too.  Recently we left South Caicos for a 110 mile passage to Luperon, Dominican Republic in conditions that typically would have kept us at the dock back in Hingham. The experience has been more than I can put into words and we have no thoughts on turning back.  We just need to figure out how to make some money to keep it going.

Also, I firmly sit in the camp of it’s the sailor, not the boat.  Almost any boat out there is capable of putting up with more seas and winds then her crew.

The Boat: Size, Make, etc.

“It’s a production boat with a fin keel and spade rudder, you’re going to die if you take that off shore!”

“Your boat is too small and will go too slow for any buddy boating.”

“You won’t be able to carry enough provisions.”

These are some of the things we heard from internet forums, Facebook groups, and drunken sailors at bars and beaches during sundowners. The reality is that the majority of boats we see out cruising are production boats: Catalinas, Hunters, Jenneaus, Beneteaus, etc. In terms of numbers we see more Beneteaus than anything, with Catalinas coming in second and Hunters and Jenneaus about the same in number. The further south we go it seems like the more we see. 

It funny, the people in these lower end production boats seem to have gone further and cruised longer than many of the people in expensive semi-custom boats.  Every time we run into someone in a nice Cabo Rico or Caliber their idea of cruising is going from Florida to George Town, Bahamas and back every year. But that’s what makes this lifestyle great; everyone can do it their own way on their own boat.

The bottom line for us on boat make is you sail what you like.  If the interior layout and function of a Beneteau is what speaks to you then go with it.  If you like the feel of a big full keel boat under sail then that is the boat for you.  But don’t be dogmatic about it.  Don’t try to force your opinion on other sailors. Most of all, don’t suffer from confirmation bias by only listening to those who think and act the same as you.

I spent a lot of time reading and researching boat design, construction techniques, construction materials and hull shapes to come to my opinions.  I understand the advantages and disadvantages of a modern broad beam hull versus a traditional, narrow beam heavy displacement hull.  I also understand the differences in how you handle these boats under sail and how you weather a storm in them. You can’t substitute this research and you can’t outsource it.  If you plan to make a life at sea you need to put in the time. 

The age we live in is the best time in human history to do this research.  Take Robert Perry for instance.  He is one of the most prolific boat designers of any age of pleasure yacht building.  He has brought us beauties like the Valiant 40, Tayana 37, several Pacific Seacrafts and many others.  He writes books, he blogs and he posts on Facebook about his newest design, the carbon fiber cutter project. The access to information is so great.  Yet I will often hear or read people bragging about a feature on their boat as a safety design while a quick search will have you read in Bob’s own words that it was for marketing and ascetics. But people like to repeat their “old salt” opinion even when it has no basis in fact.  There are stickers in the local bar here in Luperon that read “barstool sailor”.  That best describes many of these opinions to me.  They like to brag about their knowledge or experience when most of it has little basis in fact.

On the size, this one is a little more complicated.  We have been on boats from 22 feet to 60 feet and they all have a different feel.  While we love cruising our Catalina 310, we could never fathom cruising a Catalina 320 despite it have over a foot of waterline on us.  The layout, the feel, even things like the displacement to sail area or the length to beam are completely different even though they came out of the same factory at the same time.  One example of this is that on many of the Catalina 320 wing keels the rudder extends to the bottom of the keel or just below.  With the Catalina 310 the rudder is about six inches shorter than the keel.  I consider this an important safety feature.  If/when you run aground its the keel that takes the blow not the rudder.  But I digress since this has more to do with design then size. My point being that it is very difficult to compare sizes of different makes and manufacturers.

We have never once felt that our boat was too small for the sea conditions.  We have been pooped several times now and find that our open transom is great. The water drains right out and I can never get more than ankle deep water in the cockpit.  We have friends on traditional “blue water” boats with small cockpits that fill up when pooped and they are often standing, or even sitting, in water.

Catalinas do have large cockpits.  We love this at anchor, which is where you spend most of your time.  In heavy seas this is seen as a liability.  We have owned our boat for over 5 years now and know how to move around the cockpit in seas.  I suspect this is the same for every boat, including catamarans.  At the end of passages its not uncommon to compare “boat bites”; those injuries you get from being tossed around in seas or slipping while trying to handle the boat.

The same can be said for the open layout of the salon.  It lakes handholds, places to brace yourself, etc. While this is true to some extent, it can be mitigated. We added a set of drawers for provisions with a table top.  This also expanded our hand holds.  We could even do more to improve on hand holds around the cabin.

Comfort motion is something we also heard would be unbearable in a production boat.  The reality is that when you have a short period and significant height waves combined, it’s not going to be comfortable.  You are going to limit your time below deck and stay immobile in the cockpit as much as possible.  And this holds for all boat types. There will be times that the seas will be uncomfortable.  You mitigate this by picking your weather window as best you can and preparing by having things like drinks and snacks in the cockpit before you set out.

Bottom line is we have discussed if want to get a bigger or different boat several times.  We have looked and can’t seem to find anything else we like better for the cost to purchase, outfit and maintain.  We are very satisfied with Catalina 310 as our cruising/living platform and don’t think we will be changing anytime soon.

Provisioning

For our size we can hold several months of food without trying too hard. We can probably hold less than say a Bristol Channel Cutter 22 despite having several feet of waterline on that boat.  This does come with some sacrifices. Many of the cruisers we met in the Bahamas left the US with 20, 30 even 50 cases of beer on board.  We only had 3 cases of beer.  That meant we bought more beer in the Bahamas where the average price for a case of local beer was $45 a case.  A case of Guinness would cost you $75. You couldn’t even find a good IPA or other craft beer. 

We also ate a lot of canned chicken and pork in the Bahamas.  Our freezer isn’t that big and carrying lots of frozen meat is not possible.  Buying chicken breast (boneless, skinless) in the Bahamas can cost as much as $30 a pound.  You can get a whole chicken at a good cost in some areas but we can’t fit that in our freezer.

If you look at our costs to cruise we spent more on food then a lot of other cruisers we know.  A big part of that is because our boat was smaller so we started with less to begin with when we left the US.  Another big part of it is we provisioned wrong.  We didn’t carry any flour when we left the states.  We hadn’t been eating much bread when we left and thought things like flour tortillas would be easy to find and inexpensive in the Bahamas.  They weren’t.  When you did find them they cost around $5 for 8 tortillas.  So we purchased some flour and started to make our own.  We also make our own bread and rolls too. 

Of course, the easiest way to offset this is to get your protein for free. We hit a good stride in Lee Stocking Island where we could get a protein for a meal pretty much at will.  Mostly that was conch but some snapper and grouper could be had as well.  And fishing offshore is the best.  Even a small mahi-mahi will give you four meals.

In the Bahamas we were price aware but still bought things at a much higher cost then we did in the states.  Our thoughts were we could buy a lot of food for the cost of getting a bigger boat.  We definitely could have been better and have now started to make a bigger effort and are being more frugal with provisioning.  But this is budget driven not space driven.  We could easily hold 6 months of supplies on our boat if we were so inclined.  Cruising the islands it’s very rare that you will go more than a week without being in a harbor with at least a small store to get some provisions.

Our friends on Wright Away have a small Engel fridge/freezer.  It’s not a large system but would triple or better our freezer space.  It will use more energy but ultimately allow us to store more fish and conch or bulk buy meat when we find good deals.  So it would likely pay for itself in a short period of time. We are considering something like this for an upgrade in the near future.

Water

The Catalina 310 holds 35 gallons in the tank under the forward berth and 20 gallons in the water heater.  I know, such a large amount in the water heater, why? As near as I can tell it was in response to cruising couples that said they both wanted to be able to shower and have hot water left to do dishes.  This works and we will typically have hot water for 3-4 days after a few hours of motoring.  However, you can’t get the 20 gallons out of the water heater without water in the primary tank.  So this means that the usable volume of water is only 35 gallons.

In addition to the water in the tank and the water heater, we carry two 5 gallon gerry cans on deck for water.  We also have a 5 gallon solar shower that we will often fill and keep as more water supply. 

One thing we should have done was add some additional tankage.  We are in the process of looking into this upgrade and will hopefully accomplish it in Puerto Rico.  The options are to 1) add a bladder or hard tank under the forward berth, 2) get rid of the 20 gallon water heater and install a smaller water heater and an additional tank, 3) find a way to plumb the water heater to allow access to that water without water in the primary tank or 4) some combination of these choices.  We are working this out and will hopefully be making this improvement soon. 

On the subject of water, our small TDS meter is invaluable.  Its a pen like device that lets you read total dissolved solids.  We use it to test any water before we put in our tank.  Around 350 PPM is considered decent drinking water.  We have seen supposed RO (reverse osmosis) water test as high as 1,000 PPM.  That is brackish water and not safe to drink despite what the marina or yacht club tries to tell you. It means their RO system isn’t working right.

Watermaker Debate

We debated long and hard about adding a watermaker.  We could buy a commercially available 12 volt system for $4-6K, a 110 volt system for $3-5K plus the cost of a Honda generator or build our own 12 volt system for around $3K. We couldn’t justify the cost of these units based on the cost of buying water.  You just can’t.  You can buy a lot of water at even $1/gallon before you come close to the cost of a watermaker.

The issue we kept having was unoperational or poor performing watermakers at several of the key ports where we wanted to take on water.  In addition, we had to leave some areas sooner than we would like to get water because we were running out.

So this debate is back at it again. 

Here in Luperon, DR, its a no brainer.  The water in the harbor is too dirty to run a watermaker and good, clean water is readily available and cheap. Yesterday we took on 35 gallons of water that tested out at 24 PPM on our TDS meter.  That’s actually too clean and we might not be getting some minerals we need to be healthy.  Time to up our vitamin intake while we are drinking this water. This water cost us 50 DR pesos for each 5-gallon jug.  That’s about $1 per 5 gallons.  And that cost is delivered to our boat and poured into our tank. 

Supposedly we will have similar experiences in the rest of the Caribbean. 

Right now we think we might try to get a small 12-volt watermaker used.  Our friends on Wright Away just went through the process of evaluating their watermaker.  They have decided to ditch their 12-volt watermaker in favor of a 110-volt system.  So maybe we can buy their used 12-volt.  But read their write on their decision to get a bigger watermaker.  We have discussed this with them a lot and are still on the fence about what we are going to do.  It’s a great post and anyone considering adding a watermaker should read it.

Electricity

I won’t go into our decision to go with Renogy solar panels.  I have posted on that before and let’s just say we are disappointed in how Renogy is handling the quality issue.  But the panels we have are currently performing as expected when we installed them. Weather they stay on the boat or not is a different conversation.

As far as solar goes, we under-planned.  We left with 200 watts of solar.  Back in Hingham this would get us close to 100% state of charge by 2-3PM every day.  On the ICW we did so much motoring it didn’t really matter what the solar was doing.  However, once we were in the Bahamas we were chronically underchargine our batteries.  We found that we were using 25-50 amp hours per day more then we were getting from our solar. 

We think there are a couple of reasons for our undersized solar.  First is the fridge.  We had about a 30% run time on our fridge back in Hingham.  Now we seem to be more like 60% run time.  We believe the prime reason for this is the water temperature.  In Hingham harbor the water temp was typically around 68 degrees F.  In the Bahamas and south we are seeing temperatures around 82 degrees F.  Our fridge is located on the exterior of the hull and we think this is causing the fridge to run more. 

Other energy hogs that we didn’t plan correctly for were the laptop, iPad, and iPhones.  Many of these devices were charged on shore, typically at work, when were in Hingham.  And while we didn’t use the battery charger for most of our last 6 months in Mass because of the solar panels, we did have the shore power plugged in and on for charging stuff like the electronic devices. 

This resulted in us running our engine a lot to try and make up the difference in charge.  We were growing frustrated with this approach because it meant someone had to stay on the boat for several hours while it ran.  Sometimes this wasn’t too big of a deal and one of us would stay while the other ran some errands.  But we were using more diesel than we had planned.  We did end up buying a used Honda eu1000 generator off of our friends on Wright Away.  It can run our 40 amp charger and we have to run it for less time than we do the engine to top off the batteries. 

Based on what we have experienced we are a 100-watt panel short of covering our daily use.  On top of that we are considering adding a couple of power hungry devices to the boat (see watermaker and provisioning discussions above).  So we are planning to expand our solar system to 500-watts.  Finding places to put that many panels is tough on a small boat but doable if you think creatively. 

Dingy Management

I left with a dislike for davits.  I felt you couldn’t get them high enough to be safe in seas. They compromised the performance of the boat.  They were difficult to use compared to towing.  So we left with intent to manage the dingy by a combination of towing, storing the dingy on deck and using the Dinghy Sling.

Admittedly, I was wrong.

Towing works fine but can be inconvenient at times.  On the ICW, we would tow with the engine on.  Nothing could be easier.  It took little time to prep or to get in the dingy once anchored.  But when we start to head out into the sounds in the Bahamas or the Atlantic Ocean it took more prep.  Removing the engine and much of the other things stored in the dinghy could take considerable time.  We also had some situations where we would have the dinghy thrown at the stern in following seas.  Towing is doable but it does take more time and effort.  We now tow with two bridles when we head offshore.  It holds the boat behind us better and prevents some of the issues with following seas. 

Our deck is just too small to fit a dingy of any size comfortably.  If we had a little 6 or 7 foot dingy, maybe. But for us that is not a usable dingy.  We like our aluminum RIB Heighfields.  It tows well.  It can handle big seas for a dinghy.  And we are even starting to get up on plan when loaded down.  But putting it on deck involves deflating it and we still have limited access to the bow area with it up there.  This just isn’t an option on a 31 foot boat. 

The Dinghy Sling works great but has two draw backs.  Under the right wind conditions it can funnel the diesel exhaust into the cockpit.  We first experienced this during our gulf stream crossing and it made me get sick.  Second, its a little too complicated to use daily to get the dingy out of the water.  Getting the dingy out of the water for security is a major consideration the further south you go.  It’s a great product and cost effective easy solution for many boaters.  If we weren’t traveling with a dog, which requires us to be in the dinghy far more often than other cruisers, this may have stayed as our solution.

So we are now currently evaluating options to add dinghy davits to our boat.  This has taken a lot of planning and the cost will be considerable.  Most likely in the $2,500 neighborhood.  Of course some of that will be more expensive since we are doing the work in the islands instead of back in the states.

Anchoring System

In the 10 months we have been out, a little over a month combined of that time has been at a dock.  And this includes the 3 weeks we spent at Lady’s Island Marina in a free slip thanks to our friends Tom and Nancy.  We have been at anchor through gales, in rough conditions and in calm.  We have dragged anchor 3 times.  All due to short scope in calm conditions when we anchored in rivers with a deeper bottom and not enough swing room to put out even 5 to 1 scope.  But we knew the risk in these locations and took it anyways to enjoy an area that was otherwise inaccessible. 

We are and continue to be strong believers in new anchoring technology.  I will never consider having anything but a new generation anchor as my primary until science makes something better.  I am admittedly an anchor snob.  When I see a boat start to anchor near me using a bruce, plow, or CQR I get nervous and uptight.  I stare at them, give them angry glares and hope they will feel uncomfortable enough to move far away from Smitty.  In my opinion the science on this is solid and anyone using an old style anchor doesn’t below on the water.  The cost is so little that it should never justify sticking with the old anchors when it is the primary thing holding you safe at night.

We use a Manson Supreme 35 pounder as our primary.  This is oversized by two from what Manson recommends for our boat.  We love it.  We would also love a quality Rocna or Mantus.  I don’t think you could go wrong with any of these.   

We left to go cruising with only 20 feet of 5/16-inch chain.  We knew this wasn’t enough but were hoping we could find some more chain at a cheap price as we worked our way down the coast.  We picked up another 40 feet in Annapolis and then 90 feet from our friend Andrew on Solace (another Catalina 310 out cruising) in Miami.  We now have 130 feet of chain on our primary anchor.  Ideally I would want 150 feet of continuous chain on my primary (which is what Andrew did and why he had the 90 feet available).  But I will take what I have because I have not paid over $2 a foot for any of it.  Behind that I have 200 feet of 3 strand line. 

We have two Mantus chain hooks on board and love them.  We have the primary one setup on a bridle that I spliced.  We use this every night we anchor.  If heavy winds are predicted we will also put out the second Mantus hook on a chain snubber.  If the bridle were to let go, the snubber would take up before the chain would be pulling hard against the windless/cleat.

Our windless does not have a chain gypsy.  We wish it did, but at over $2K for a new windless it wasn’t in the budget.  So I raise the anchor by hand-hauling with the assistance of the rotating capstan that is our windless.  When I used to just hand-haul the anchor, the chain would smack agains the roller furler.  I didn’t like the damage this was doing and found that using the windless helps keep the chain below the roller furler.

We have several backup anchors too, including a 30-pound danforth, fortress anchor and 50-pound fisherman’s anchor.  If I would find a good deal on a larger fortress anchor or Mantus anchor I would replace the fisherman’s anchor with one of those. 

Navigation

We have been using an iPad as our primary chart plotter for 5 years now.  I wouldn’t change this at all.  The iPad is plenty accurate for a good skipper to use for navigating.  I would say I am no more than 20 feet off the location shown on the iPad.  In that type of space visual piloting is favored over any electronic form of navigation.

We use the Navionics app on the iPad for navigating.  For the most part I love this software.  The one exception is the Bahamas.  The map data was garbage there.  We started out supplementing Navionics with hard explorer charts.  But this involved a lot of putting in waypoints, something that the Navionics app is not strong on.  We ended up downloading the Garmin Bluecharts.  The map data for the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos was much better, but the app itself is lacking. For instance, there is no ETA function. 

So we will run both apps on the iPad.  We always have paper charts up in the cockpit with us too.  In addition, we keep a log of GPS coordinates, heading,  and speed every hour while offshore.  When we can see the coast we generally don’t keep the log. 

AIS

We looked into adding AIS but had a couple of reservations.  The units with remote mics were expensive and it would have required running wires up through the steering pedestal.  I tried to do this once before and found that our pedestal is maxed out with wires.  So this would have been a significant undertaking.  So we opted not to get AIS.

After traveling with several boats with AIS we wish we had it.  At night when we see a cruise ship or large cargo ship we have to try and estimate their location and try to hail them call for “the cruise ship at approximate GPS coordinates XXX”.  Most of the time they don’t answer.  But with AIS you have the name of the ship and they always answer when called by name.  It also helps keep tabs on buddy boats during night crossings.

In hindsight the smart thing would have been to add a second VHF with AIS and a second antenna mounted on the stern rail.  This would have given redundancy and made the installation much easier. 

Spares

This is a tough one because you never know what you might need and when.  We probably have too many spare impellers (12 on the boat) for our raw water pump.  But I didn’t have a rebuild kit and had to have Frank bring in two rebuild kits when he came for a visit.  They are short money ($45 each) and I should have had them on board.   We didn’t have a spare alternator and spent twice the cost of the alternator to have it shipped into the Bahamas when we thought we needed it. 

But we didn’t even think of things like spare 12-volt chargers for the laptop or cords for the iPad. Also, since we use the iPad as our primary chart plotter, I would really feel more comfortable with a spare iPad on board. 

You try to think about what you need for spares the best you can but the bottom line is you will always need something you don’t have.  Be prepared to improvise and have the knowledge to fix anything on your boat within reason.

Conclusion

This list of things we want to improve on our boat above represent a substantial cost.  This has made us ask each other many times if we are happy with this boat or if we should get a bigger boat.  The bottom line for us is this boat suites us well.  To get a boat that we like as much we would spend twice as much money on the boat and would probably still have to do all of the things we are thinking about doing to Smitty.  We like our pocket cruiser.  She is nimble, sea worthy, and comfortable for us.  Don’t expect to see Smitty on Yacht World anytime soon.

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11 thoughts on “Boat Thoughts 10 Months Into Cruising

  1. This is such a great post Jesse! It’s great to hear what it’s like to cruise on a smaller boat from people out there actually doing it, as well as get your views on equipment etc.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write such an informative post! As future cruisers on a Catalina 30, it’s great to hear that you’re happy with your boat. We think we’ll be happy too, as most of the upgrades such as AIS, watermaker (not getting for now), etc. have nothing to do with the size.

    We don’t have our main anchor yet, but plan getting something oversized as well. We wanna sleep well! Thanks again for this info.

    We go back and forth about sling vs davits. Perhaps we should get davits while still in the States…

    We’re thinking 300 watts of solar with a Honda generator will be a good start.

    Thanks again for the info! Where did you add the drawers with table? Would love to see a picture. We live the large cockpit and interior layout too!

    Looking forward to reading about your travels further South!

  3. Great Post Jesse & STACY, good teamwork, we continue to follow you via Blog. We also have a Manson Supreme Anchor and would not have anything else. Great for you both !!!!!

  4. Good post Jesse. You covered a lot of the things we have or still are debating. Definitely understand your feeling on anchors having held tight on our Mantus while others dragged by.

  5. Very nice post, a lot to take in.

    The water tester is a great idea and we also are chewing on the watermaker idea.
    Any thoughts on a wind gen for the power issues?

  6. Pingback: A very post. | Every good thing….

  7. very informative. as long as the smitty and the captains/summer stay sea-worthy and safe, I feel better. There are conditions that no one can control but we have faith in you. Safe journeys and love and miss you.

  8. Great post, Jesse, and thanks for the inside information. Nice to know that a smaller boat is more than adequate for Bahamas cruising – confirms what I was sure to be the case. Our Watkins 27 will be our platform when we cruise a season or two down south, so we will be in the same small-boat fleet.

    We take more of a minimalist approach to cruising, knowing that convenience always (ALWAYS) comes at a premium. So we reduce our electricity requirements to bare bones, don’t depend on refrigeration, etc. We will certainly have solar collectors, but won’t need to generate too much power. Your analysis of the decisions and trade-offs are very insightful, and I’ve been packing them away in my memory for future reference.

    I continue to enjoy your blog, and so appreciate your sharing your experiences with us!

    Rick s/v Cay of Sea

  9. Great post.

    Just a note, receive only AIS doesn’t need an additional antenna, it’s only when you get a transponder (receive/transmit) that you need that extra.

    Also i have that Engel fridge/freezer and it’s a marvel. No maintenance, very low power draw.

  10. Great post! You know it’s so hard to figure it all out at the dock. I don’t think it’s really possible, but post like this are like a gold-mine for to-be cruisers. Or, like us, newish cruisers who are also still tweaking our boat and systems. The most important thing you guys got right is the fact that you got out there and are doing IT! Everything else is just details. Till we see you again, Keith and Deborah

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