“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


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Smitty Now Has Two Captains!

Sorry again that our blog has had little activity but I can tell you it has been for a reason.  For the past couple of months all of our non-working hours have been consumed with taking classes to get our captain’s licenses.  This past Saturday we passed our final exams and we are both certified as Masters of up to 100 Ton Vessels. We need to submit our applications to become licensed but they are done and it’s just a matter of sending an email to the US Coast Guard with all of the info.


JK Master 100 T STK Master 100TWe are so glad this is done. It took way more time and effort to get this done than we thought it would.  The classes were every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6-9:30.  We also had to do homework almost every off night and on weekends.  Near the end we just wanted the whole thing to be done and over because it felt like it was consuming our whole life!

We initially decided to get our 6-pack captain’s licenses due to a conversation with our insurance company.  They said we would either have to hire a professional crew for our crossings or pay twice the rate.  When we looked at the cost of getting our license vs. the increased cost of insurance it seemed like a no brainer.  The 6-pack allows you to take up to 6 passengers on an uninspected vessel and is actually call the Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV). They are further classified as Near Coastal or Inland based on your boating experience or sea time.  You need 360 days of sea time to qualify for the Inland and 90 of those days must be beyond the “Boundary Line” if you want the Near Coastal.  Luckily the “B” Buoy is the local edge of the Boundary Line and we often sail out beyond this area.  When I added up all of our time on Smitty and Splash we have 464 total days with 153 being beyond the Boundary Line.

Image from here.

Image from here.

Once we started the course it seemed like getting the 6-pack was kind of foolish.  The difference between the 6-pack and the Masters is only 2 and half weeks of class and you have 10 additional questions on one part of the exams.  Also, after talking to a couple of the instructors it looks like it will be relatively easy to pick up some work along the way with the Masters license that will help keep the cruising kitty going.  So we paid the extra $150 to upgrade to the Masters.  Based on our sea time on Smitty (a 7 Gross Ton vessel by USCG standards) we should qualify for a 50 Ton Master’s Inland and OUPV Near Coastal.  This would mean we could deliver private yachts going offshore up and down the coast and work on larger boats like ferries, working boats, launch tenders, etc. inside the Boundary Line.

We both also got the sailing endorsement, which allows us to operate sailboats.  For that we needed 180 days of experience on a sailboat.  That was no problem since all of our days were on a sailboat.

I also decided to get my tow endorsement.  This would allow me to work for an assistance tow company like Tow Boat US or Seatow.

Here is a little outline of the process.

  • 10 weeks of courses Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6-9:30 and you must attend 90% of the classes to sit for the test (school rule)
  • an additional 4 hours of course time for the sailing endorsement
  • an additional 4 hours of course time for the towing endorsement
  • Pass all the exams
    • Rules of the Road – 30 questions, no resources, 90% correct required to pass (hardest test for most)
    • Navigation General – 20 questions, you can use the Pubs and CFRs, 70% correct required to pass
    • Plotting – 10 questions, you can use the Pubs and CFRs, 70% correct required to pass (actual paper chart plotting including taking wind and current drift into account)
    • Deck General – 70 questions, you can use the Pubs and CFRs, 70% correct required to pass (this is only a 60 question test for the OUPV)
    • Sailing Endorsement – 20 questions, no resources, 70% correct required to pass
    • Towing Endorsement – 20 questions, no resources, 70% correct required to pass
  • USCG Physical & Drug Test – This includes some different stuff than your typical physical like a test for being color blind, a functional hearing test and it has to be on their specific forms
  • Get a Transportation Workers Identification Card
  • Get 3 Letters of Reference from non-family members

We could have studied on our own and just went into the USCG office in Boston and took the exams.  Given the info that was on the exams we felt the best option was to take a review course.  We went with New England Maritime; they are out of Hyannis but have a satellite location in Quincy.  I am really glad we went with the course.  We learned a lot of good info that isn’t covered in the exams but we should know.  The main instructor, Charlie, was great and really prepared us well for the exams.

Another step to leaving the cubicle life behind us!

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Intimidating Conversations

Yesterday was interesting.

I work for a medium sized environmental consulting firm.  They have multiple offices up and down the east coast and about 150 employees.  My little corner of their world is only 16 employees of which I am one of the 4 senior staff members. I have told the people that work in the office that I am leaving but none of the corporate folks were aware.  We have been working on a transition plan for when I leave and it was time we told corporate.

For me this couldn’t have been at a better time.  I have really been hitting a good stride work wise lately.  While I don’t like my job and I don’t want to do it anymore, I like to think I am really good at it.  In the last year, one of my biggest clients from my previous company, the largest school district in the state, brought their work to me over my previous company.  I have also been getting new work all over the place from local colleges, architect and contractors.   This is great because the company has been considered more of a petroleum consulting firm that caters to big oil companies and this work I have been getting greatly diversifies the work.  On top of that, I have been able to get this work at better profit margins than many of our other clients.  I also run the construction and emergency response side for one of our major petroleum companies.  This is a fast moving and stressful part of our portfolio but I have had this side of the work running great. Recently the company put out a report on the state of the company and our office had some of the best numbers in the company and we are setup to have one of the best years in the company’s 22 year history.  I like to think I am a big part of why our office is doing so well.

So we requested the owner and CFO of the company come up from the Long Island headquarters so we could discussion senior staffing.  We told them I was leaving and what our thoughts were on how to replace me.  Overall the conversations went well.  But it was very intimidating to sit down with them and say that I am going to leave the company in several months.  There is always the possibility they tell me to go right there and then.  That could be a big blow to the cruising kitty.

It’s also a little like being present at your own funeral.  You sit there and listen to people breakdown your good and not-so-good attributes as they determine how to replace the work you do.  They ask you questions trying to get into your head and understand how I can balance the work I do.

Of course there was that moment where the owner of the company said he wished he could do this.  Biting my tongue and not yelling at him that he has millions of dollars and could do it if he chose to was the toughest part of the whole day.  We hear these types of response often and I find them very frustrating.

We are not independently wealthy.  We don’t have trust funds or large savings accounts or any other type of cushion.

We have an affordable boat that we love.  We have thoughtfully outfitted her.  But, to steal a recent line from another cruiser/blogger, we have made the choice to live A Life Less Ordinary.  This doesn’t happen by magic or accident.  It has taken enormous thought and dedication to get to this point.  It will take even more to get to the point of cutting the lines.

Interestingly as we near the endpoint in this part of our journey, only 163 days until we cut the lines,  there has been a flood of reaffirming articles making their way around the interwebs.  There was the piece from the Tiny House blog from Jody of Where the Coconuts Grow (linked above).  “Out on the ocean everything is simple. Elizabeth noticed how obvious it became to her that we can always do with less.”  A number of people on Facebook have been sharing the Elle article Why I Gave Up a $95,000 Job to Move To an Island and Scoop Ice Cream. Yup, doing that times two.  Then my Dad shared an article from Fast Company entitled The Science of Why You Should Spend Your Money On Experiences, Not Things.  “Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

 


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Important Dates

Today my Bride and I celebrate our 13th Wedding Anniversary.

6007-anniversary-messages-for-wife

We’ve been together for 21 years.  Not bad for a couple yet to turn 40 🙂

Today crosses another threshold for me.

100 daysof work that is.

The total number of calendar days until I am no longer gamefully employed 151 days.  But when you take away for weekends (44 days), holidays (3 days) and a few vacations days here and there (4 days) I have 100 days of work left.  With our planned departure date of October 14, 2015 (give or take our weather window), I have been planning to work until September 18th.  This will give me 4 weeks to deal with last minute items like selling the car, stocking up on spares and supplies, cleaning out our small storage unit, finishing up those projects that seem to just keep dragging on, etc.  It’s really getting hard to believe it’s this close.

A few years ago, I remember having a conversation with Tom and he told me the last year would fly by.  Man was he right.  Our original plan was to cut the lines on my 40th birthday in late June.  I feel like we would be totally unprepared if that was still our departure date.

When I think about only have a double digit number of times I need to wake up on a schedule to sit in traffic to go sit in a box to earn freedom chips (thanks for that term Capt. Fatty) it is surreal.  We know we will have to work again someday.  Our savings won’t prolong us forever.  But we don’t intend to return to corporate jobs on a career path basis again.

“I went to the [sea] because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.  And see if i could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau [with a slight edit]


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Planning Our Solar Array

A cold and rainy January morning was a perfect time to finish up my research on our solar system.  In a previous post, Trying to Make Sense of Solar, I laid out some of the options and design considerations.  But just to review and make a clear list of what I plan to add here is a quick summary:

  • Living on the hook I am estimating we will use between 50-125 amp hours per day;
  • We are willing to run our diesel engine up to 1.5 hours a day allowing are alternator to generate about 65 amp hours, plus producing hot water as a by-product;
  • That would mean that we would want to generate about 50 amp hours of solar power a day;
  • Given that we are going in a small boat, efficiency is important, so we would like get the increased 15-20% efficiency you get from an MPPT controller over a PWM controller.
  • We may decide to add a watermaker to our boat and would like the ability to expand our solar array to offset some of that power consumption.  So that would mean we would want to size certain aspects to allow for the easy upgrade in the future;
  • We like the aspect of the semi-flexible panels since they would allow us to disassemble and store the panels more easily in the event of a storm, and;
  • We are NOT independently wealthy and are trying to do this cruise in a very cost effective manner, so we can’t afford to splurge on the best available product for every component.

All that being said, here is what I have come up with for the our solar array:

  • Two (2) 100 watt semi-flexible solar panels mounted on our bimini;
  • A 30 amp MPPT controller with a remote panel, and;
  • An ability to expand the system by added two (2) 100 watt semi-flexible solar panels on the life lines or on deck.

Semi-Flex Solar Panels

My go-to source for electrical, Compass Marine aka Maine Sail, has a great write up on installing semi-flexible solar panels on a bimini.

Photo from Compass Marine

Photo from Compass Marine

The steps involved with this process would include reinforcing the bimini structure, adding velcro, zippers or snaps to connect the panels and probably adding some wear patches to the bimini.  You also have to be careful of the layout.  The panels can’t cross over the bows that hold up the bimini or else you will create a flex point that can crack the panels.  Below is a mockup of how I could layout panels on our bimini. We could actually fit two 100 watt and one 50 watt panels.

SOLAR PANEL LAYOUT- 450 Watts

In the above mockup there are two additional panels on lifeline mounts.  These would be the expansion panels if we choose to add some additional solar.  I got this idea from a Solbian rep at a boat show.  You connect the panels to the lower lifeline with some snap hooks and then use some line to position them.  These could be angled to get a little more efficiency than laying flat if you are on the boat to make the adjustments.

For the lifeline mount I would want to reinforce the panel by mounting it on something light weight.  For that I would go with something like this thin-walled polycarbonate sheet that I heard about from a fellow cruiser (thanks Dani and Tate).

For panels, as much as I would love the Solbians, I can’t justify the added expense.  Instead I have been looking at the less expensive semi-flexible panels.  Based on reviews from others, like Dani and Tate on Sundowner,  I have decided to go with Renogy 100-watt panels.  These panels go for about $220 each on Amazon.  But they have gone on sale for under $200, missed the Black Friday sale at that price.  So I am hoping to get them on sale.  And they are Amazon Prime eligible.  According to the data from Dani and Tate, it appears that 5 amps per panel per hour is a realistic expectation for full sun.

One down side to the cheaper panels seems to be consistency.  From reading reviews and recommendations, mainly from Maine Sail, on the sailing forums it appears that the best practice is to do some side by side testing as soon as you get them in.  To do this I will make a 2×4 A frame that I can temporarily mount the panels on.  I will then hook up the each panel separately to the charge controller and a battery.  I will let each panel run for an hour and record the performance to make sure they are in the same ball park.  I plan to record the starting, mid charge and ending volts and amps at the battery and the charge controller.  If the results from each panel are not within the expected range I will send them back until I get a set I am comfortable with.  This is another good reason to go with the Renogy because they are Amazon Prime eligible and that will help if I need to send them back.

Charge Controller

As I stated above, I want to go with an oversized MPPT charge controller.  I looked at the Rogue MPT-3048, MidNite KID, TriStar 30, TriStar 40 and Blue Sky SB3024iL.  This list primarily came from an article on the Compass Marine site about adding a small panel plus some recommendations I got from cruisers.  I briefly considered some lesser brands such as the Renogy but decided that this piece was important enough to not mess around with off-brands.

Some of my key concerns were that I wanted flexibility to change the charge profile, the ability to equalize, a temp sensor and a remote panel.  I plan to mount the controller in the stern compartment near the shore power charger and holding tank.  I am concerned about the heat aspect. I don’t want to mount this unit in the cabin and have it dissipate heat into the cabin while we are in the tropics.  I would also like some secondary ability to know what is going into the batteries besides the our Victron Battery Monitor.

In the end I found that the Rogue MPT-3048 had the best balance of options for the cost.  It comes standard with a temp sensor and voltage sensors.  The cost for adding the remote panel wasn’t bad.  It didn’t hurt that it was among the cheapest.  Still talking over $400 when all is said and done.

Installation & Cost Estimate

Here is my proposed wiring diagram.  Getting a little busy and I might need to find a way to clean it up a little.  I am attaching a PDF as well in case anyone wants to add comments on my wiring.

JK WIRING DIAGRAM_ADDING SOLAR

JK WIRING DIAGRAM_ADDING SOLAR

I plan to mount the charge controller on a piece of starboard next to the shore power charger.

Charger Controller Location

The positive and negative solar busses will be mounted here as well.  This will mean I will have about a 12-foot run from the controller to the batteries.  Not ideal but I think have the heat go into this area will be preferable.  Remembering that you count both the positive and the negative to determine the length of the run so that would mean I need coverage for 24 feet.  According the Blue Sea Systems Sizing Chart (large PDF warning),  4 gauge wire would be sufficient for up to a 30-foot run.  Using the same sizing chart, 4 gauge wire should be protected with a 100-amp ANL fuse when bundled.  As shown on the wire diagram, I plan to use the same 50 amp fuse that protects the ACR in my current setup.

The bimini frame will be reinforced with cross bars on the edges and cross bars replacing the stern straps.  With this configuration we won’t technically need the forward straps but I will probably just keep everything there.

I plan to wire the two panels on the bimini in parallel.  From what I have read, you want to wire solar panels on a boat in parallel as that handles partial shading on a portion of one panel the best.  If they are in series shading would degrees the output of the panels more.  I am going to use the MC4 connectors for the panel wiring.  This seems to give a good connection that can be disconnected easily when needed, yet another good Compass Marine article on this subject.  I also plan to use the Renogy MC4 branch connectors to make the parallel connection at the bimini.  I like how you can choose which side to make the male and which to make the female so you can make it dummy proof so you can’t connect them in reverse polarity.  The Renogy panels come pre-wired this way.

Photo from Amazon

Photo from Amazon

As I said above I plan to only install the two panels at this time.  But I did include the possible expansion panels in my plan so that it will be easier to add these should the time come.  Here is the cost estimate for the installation.

Solar Cost Estimate Solar Cost Estimate

So let us know what you think!


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Trying to Make Sense of Solar Options

I posted about some potential solar options last year.  But after considering the feedback I received it was clear I had more homework to do.  So I have been trying my best to do good due diligence on solar panels.  But I now feel like I have hit a stage of analysis paralysis.  I am hoping someone can help get me past this hump.  Here are the options I have been evaluating.

What type of Panel?

Solbian: With Compass Marine’s help last year I had determined that for the Solbian panels I could fit two (2) of the SL90L or SP112L panels on my bimini.  They have the same foot print but the SP series is the highest efficiency and therefore more money.  I don’t see the SL series listed on Solbian’s website anymore plus I think I would pay the premium for the more efficient panel if I went this route.  So for now I am planning as if I were to use the SP series but I am looking at the SP100L to make sure I get the best fit on my bimini.  Estimated cost without including the solar control (see below) is $2,750.

Rigid Panels: This would obviously mean I would have to build a frame and would have a bigger hassel for dismantling and storage below during a storm.  I would also mean more overall weight.  Neither of these are things we want when cruising in a smaller boat.  But I think I still need to consider this as an option.  So for this setup I looked at two 140 watt Kyocera panels (KD140SX-UFBS).  Estimated cost without including the solar control is $1,800.

Chinese Semi-flexible Panels: I know, I know.  Quality sucks.  You can’t believe the ratings. They are just poor quality knockoffs of the Solbians.  But the biggest thing I want from the Solbians in the mounting and storage ability.  I could possibly be satisfied with the performance of these panels.  And now you can buy them from American companies or on Amazon that might help with warranty issues.  I can’t not include them in my evaluation without later doing the “what if” game.  So I looked at the Go Power! GP-Flex-100.  Estimated cost without including the solar control is $1,350.

Here are the specs from the panels:

Peak Power (watts) Open Circuit Voltage Rated Voltage Short Circuit Current (amps) Rated Current (amps)
Solbian SP100 102 21.8 18 6.1 5.7
Kyocera 140W 140 22.1 17.7 8.68 7.91
GP-Flex-100 100 20.8 17.8 6.10 5.62

What type of Solar Charge Control?

MPPT vs. PWM: So I was starting to put together a review of maximum power point tracing versus pulse width modulation charge controls.  I was going to my typical go-to source for info, Compass Marine AKA Maine Sail, and he just published an evaluation of the two types of charge controllers.  His conclusion is that MPPT Controllers give you approximately 20% more power than PWM.  Seems like a no brainer but let’s see what that money difference is before we decide.

For costs, I looked up a few different options.  Compass Marine has a few brands I have seen him post favorably about when it comes to controllers: Genasun GV-10 MPPT, MorningStar has been given some good words in the past, and I also wanted to look at something bigger and Compass Marine has recommended Rogue in the past.  For PWM, Compass Marine used the MorningStar PS-15, the MorningStar Sunwize Sunsaver Duo and the GoPower! Digital Solar Voltage Regulator.

Here are the specs and costs on these controllers:

Type Amps Stages Cost
Genasun GV-10 MPPT 10 4-Stage $170
MorningStar SS-15L MPPT 15 4-Stage $200
Rogue MPT-2024 MPPT 20 6-Stage $250
Rogue MPT-3048 MPPT 30 6-Stage $350
MorningStar PS-15 PWM 15 4-Stage $85
MorningStar Sunwize Sunsaver PWM 25 4-Stage $170
GoPower! PWM 30 4-Stage $124

So clearly there are differences in quality; I included some lesser quality products like the GoPower!.  But if you look at similar MorningStar products you are going to pay around twice as much for the MPPT as you would for the PWM.  But if we are talking about a 20% increase in efficiency for about $100 it seems worth it.

What do I really need?

I did a power consumption work sheet.

Power Consumption worksheet 2

Based on the work sheet I am estimating around 125 Ah per day usage while cruising in the Bahamas and the Caribbean.  My real-world data courtesy of my Victron Battery Monitor puts me closer to 80 Ah per day.  I am continuing to size based on the 125 Ah per day because I do expect to use more power when we hit Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean.  But the hours of good solar energy should go up too.  So I am estimating I have 5 hours of good solar for my estimated power generation.  I don’t expect to get more than 4 while we are still in the Northeast but we will also be at a dock during that time except for weekends and some limited cruising.

So, that’s a long winded way of saying if I assume 85% charging efficiency on the solar panels and I run my engine for 1.5 hours per day, I would generate 115 Ah per day.  So this would mean that I could go with the Go Power! or some other semi-flexible panels and the result would be I would have to run my engine an extra hour on 1 or 2 days during the week to keep near 100% SOC.  Additionally I wouldn’t gain much power generation for the double the cost of the Solbian panels.

So where am I thinking wrong? 

The things that are in my head are as follows:

  • Is 5 hours too high of an estimate for good sun in the tropics?
  • Is 85% of the stated Ah rating too high to use on the panels?
  • Should I be taking temperature into account and, if so, how?

Bottom Line

After thinking about these options it’s clearly the installation method for the Solbians is what got me going in that direction.  While rigid panels offer the best performance for the area, the inconvenience of installation and storage take them off the table.  As far as charge controllers go, the MPPT seem to be the best bang for the buck and worth the small amount of additional money to get better performance.

Next step: research the Chinese made semi-flex panels and MPPT controllers and place an order.  Unless someone talks me out of my plans for solar again.


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Boatsteading

Reading an article on fellow boater’s/blogger’s page on Sprouting by the Seaside by the Red Thread, inspired me to finish a project that has been on my to-do list and my Bride has been asking me to finish.  Some of my friends know that I am a closet “prepper”.  I really like the idea of being as self-sufficient as possible.  When we had a house I would periodically grow some vegetables.  This is something I grew up with as my dad and grandfather both used to regularly keep vegetable gardens.  When we started spending most of our time during the summer on the boat, I couldn’t continue gardening because we were never home to take care of the garden.  The last couple of years we kept a mint plant on board so I could make mojitos with fresh mint, but that is about it for my recent gardening experience.

Last summer while visiting my dad, I saw this system he had for growing tomatoes on his porch.  It was a very cool, self-contained system called the EarthBox.  My dad had been using it for a couple of years and really liked the way it was set up.

After talking about the EarthBox and how well it worked for him, we decided it could work for growing some vegetables and herbs at the dock and possibly on the boat when we leave to go cruising.  My dad bought me one as a Christmas gift last year.

Last week I found a way to mount the box to the dock so that it wouldn’t blow off in a gale but I could remove it if it was going to really blow.  I added some stainless steal handles to the narrow sides of the box with large fender washers to back the screws so they wouldn’t pull through the sides of the plastic box.  I then mounted another set of the same handles to the dock.  I tied the handles on the box to the ones on the dock using some 330 paracord.  I also mounted a small flower pot that my Bride had kept so she could grow some flowers near the boat but not on because flowers on a boat are bad luck. 

On Saturday we went down to the Hingham Farmers Market, which they do right on the beach every Saturday from May through November.  Picked up some of the world’s best pasture raised beef burgers from River Rock Farms and some vegetable seedlings and herb plants.  We then visited the local box store and got some planting media, flowers and pet grass.  Back to the boat to get strange looks while I carried bags of potting soil up the dock and finish the planting project.

IMG_1761

Front row: hot & spicy oregano; chive; mint Back row: jalapeno peppers; sweet yellow peppers

Front row: hot & spicy oregano; chive; mint
Back row: jalapeno peppers; sweet yellow peppers

IMG_1762

The grass is pet grass that would could cut and feed to Summer

And since I took these pictures while cooking dinner last night, here is a little life is good as a live aboard pic.  Cooking fresh caught cod with summer squash while watching the sun set behind Smitty.

IMG_1763