“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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WiFi Antenna on the Cheap(well cheaper)

Two big thanks on making this post happen.  Travis on s/v Party of Five helped me put together the list of components and the basic installation and setup.  Huge thanks to Jay on s/v Doctor’s Orders, fellow C310 sailor, who purchased these components for us.  The support we have gotten from the C310 owners is unbelievable but Jay took it to a new level.  Thanks again. 

The list of components is as follows:

  • Bullet Titanium (2.4 GHz)
  • iCreatin Passive POE Injector or Gigabit POE Injector (B0135STO2S)
  • Trendnet 8dBi Outdoor Omni or Amped Wireless High Powered Outdoor 8dBi (he said 8 dBi is better than the higher powered ones for this use, so don’t go bigger)
  • TPLink AC1200 wireless router (you can just cut off the power cord at the inverter box and wire direct to the 12 volt system on the boat with a fuse in line)
  • ethernet cable (length depends on install but a 100 foot cord would be fine with all the components)

All can be purchased from Amazon for under $250. 

Assembly is fairly straight forward.  For the Bullet, open the box and only remove the Bullet.  There are other components in there but you will not need them for the assembly as a wifi antenna on a boat.  Attach the antenna to the top of the Bullet.  Next attach the ethernet cable to the bottom of the Bullet using the waterproof housing on the Bullet. You could put up the Bullet and antenna assembly as is or you could add some additional weather proofing.  For instance many boaters will use electrical tape or Rescue tape on their VHF antenna connections to make them more weather proof.  You could do the same here. Personally I like Rescue tape because it doesn’t leave an adhesive residue when you remove it.

Now you have a choice to make: do you fix mount the Bullet and antenna or do you have it go up on a halyard?  Fix mounting has the advantage of being always out and ready to use.  But if you put it on a halyard you can adjust the height.  Travis on s/v Party of Five describes wifi signals like a cone.  So as they progress out from the source they have different heights that will offer the best signal strength.  So being able to adjust the height will give you the best possible signal strength.  I went for the halyard style install but I did run a second ethernet cable to the stern so that I could actually have the ability to install it on the stern rail and then take it down to put on a halyard for a better signal when needed.

The next big install question is 12 volt or 120 volt for the power over ethernet (POE) point and router.  Both the POE point and the router in the list above are actually 12 volt units.  There is a converter in the boxy plug that converts the 120 volt wall outlet power to 12 volt.  You can see that by looking at the writing on the plug.  So if you are only going to use the antenna on the dock you could just plug into an outlet.  But if you want to use it at anchor or you just like having everything on 12 volt like me, you simply cut off the plug end and wire the ends into your 12 volt system.  The tricky part of this approach is knowing which side is the positive and which is the negative.  Luckily the manufacturers of these two pieces made it easy. There are white/gray dashes on one of the lines going into the plug.  That is the positive wire.  There are a couple of ways you can test this to find out which is which but thankfully the manufactures made it easy here.  So I cut off the plugs, added ring terminals to each end and then connected them into a Blue Sea System terminal block.  I often use the terminal blocks to put multiple lines together for one power run to the panel. 

IMG_20160811_151509IMG_20160811_151525

Next I had to find a location to mount the router.  I chose to mount it upside down on the underside of the decks above the port settee.  I used 3M double sided tape to mount the router.  I cleaned the surfaces with isopropanol and let it try for 30-60 minutes before applying the tape.  Then I ran some 12-2 tinned copper wire from the terminal buss to the electrical panel.  The 12-2 wire is actually a bit of an overkill.  The router draws 2 amps and the POE point 1 amp (you can get that info from the plugs that I cut off to make them 12 volt) and the run from the panel is approximately 20 feet so a total of 40 feet of distance there and back.  Using a wire sizing chart, like the Blue Seas Systems one here (large PDF), you only needed 16 gauge wire.  But 12-2 wire is what I had on the boat so I used that.

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Final assembly is to plug the ethernet cable from the Bullet into the POE point, plug the POE point into router and power up the system.  An important thing to note here is that the POE point actually comes with two pieces.  One is for the router end and the other for the Bullet end.  You don’t need the Bullet end, just throw that away. When you plug the POE point into the router, use one of the spots labeled “1-4”.  Don’t use the spot for internet source.  Seems a little wrong but trust me.

Now that you have it assembled, the hard part starts: you need to configure the Bullet and the router.  I am going to give this in the easy way, which involves plugging the Bullet directly into your computer first.  I actually couldn’t do this because we have a MacBook Air and those don’t have ethernet ports.  So I did mine through wifi and the router which is harder.  If anyone needs this breakdown I can give that later, just email or PM me. 

The first step is to set you computer to have a Static IP address. This is different than how your computer will be setup for most people.  Here is how to do it on a Mac and here is how to do it on a Windows computer.

Once that is done, connect the POE point to your computer’s ethernet port. Now open up your favorite web browser (I prefer Google Chrome but IE, Firefox, etc. will do).  In the address bar type in “192.168.20.1” and hit enter.  This is the factor address setting for the Bullet.  That will bring you to an address screen that will ask for your username and password.  The factory setting is “ubnt” for both.  Once you enter that in and gain access to the Bullet the first thing you should do is change the username and password.  Click on the “System” tab and change the username and password. 

Program 1

This is the first place you will hit the quirk of working with the Bullet.  After you have changed the username and password you will need to go to bottom of the page and click the “Change” button (bottom arrow above).  Once you hit “Change” a new line will appear at the top of the screen asking if you want to apply the changes. You need to hit “Apply” before moving on to the next step. 

Program 2.png

This will come up often and was a big source of frustration to me when I would forget to hit “Change” then “Apply” after making some programing errors and I couldn’t figure out why my programing wasn’t working.

Next step is to click on the “Network” tab.  There are several changes that need to be made on this tab.

First, under “Network Role” change the “Network Mode” to “Router”.

Second, under “WAN Network Settings” change the IP Address to “DHCP”.  Also, make sure the “NAT” is enabled.

Program 3.png

Now under the “LAN Network Settings” is where things can get a little tricky.  Start by enabling the “DHCP Server” (red box in the middle of the screen shot).  Next go to the “IP Address”.  You need to choose your new IP address for your network.  This could be almost any numbers.  Most networking gear comes with 192.168.1.1, or some small variation on this number, as standard.  I am sure there is a reason for this but I am not a computer guy enough to know why that is.  But you will need to set the number for the Bullet and later the router to similar numbers.  You can see I used 192.168.50.1 while doing this write up.  I did change it after I did all these screen shots.  Someone could conceivably crack into your network if they knew these numbers (not sure how as this is way above my head).  My recommendation is to keep with the 192.168.XX.1 where the “XX” could be any number from 1-99.  This will just make things easier.  The “Netmask” can stay with the default of 255.255.255.0.

Program 4

Next you need to set the “Range Start” and “Range Finish”.  These are the numbers that are available to be assigned to your computer latter when you actually log onto the internet.  It needs to have the same first 3 sets of numbers you used for the IP address above.  Keeping with the numbers I used for this setup that was 192.168.50.  The last sets of numbers actually defines the range.  For ease of programing just use 100 to 200 here.  So the start is 192.168.50.100 and the finish is 192.168.50.200.  Remember to change the 50 to what ever number you choose for the IP address above.

****Now make sure to hit “Change” then “Apply”.

That completes the programing of the Bullet.  Now go back to the beginning and change your computers IP Address from Static back to automatic.

Next step is to program a Static IP address into the router.  You need to give your router a static IP address in the same range as what you gave the Bullet. So using the address of 192.168.50.1 for the Bullet, I used 192.168.50.2 for the router.  For the TP Link here is a link on how to do this programing.

Once you have programmed the router, now you can plug the Bullet into the router.  Remember, you don’t use the “Internet” source ethernet port but any of the ports labeled 1-4.  Doesn’t matter which one. And its the POE point that gets plugged into the router, the Bullet is plugged into the POE point and you have power to the POE Point and the router. Now power up.  Give everything about 5 minutes to startup and get ready for use.

Log into the Bullet by opening a web browser and typing the IP address into the top bar (i.e. 192.168.50.1). Then put in your new username and password. Now click on the “Wireless” tab. This is how you will go to use the WiFi antenna anytime you want to use the internet from your boat.

Operation 1

Click the “Select” button next to “SSID”.  This will bring up a list of available networks. 

Operation 2.png

The two columns on this page that I pay the most attention to are the “Encryption” and “SSID”.  If you find “None” under “Encryption” that means this is an open network and you can join without a password.  Unfortunately you can see that there are no open networks near Maho Bay on St. John.  This is one of our favorite spots but unfortunately when we are here I have no communication.  No WiFi and no cell signal.  That means very little ability to check weather or hear if I have a new charter coming in that I have to get back to St. Thomas for. But such is the price to pay to swim with hawksbill turtles and catch lobster for dinner along some iconic beaches.

If there where an open network you simply click on the little circle next to the MAC address for the network and then hit “Select” at the bottom of the screen.  You will then go back to the programing screen and need to hit “Change” and “Apply” again like we discussed above. Give the antenna a few seconds and you should be online.

To verify that you are online you can check the “Main” tab.  If you go down near the bottom and click on “DHCP Client” you should have an IP address listed and the status should be connected.  Also there is a “Signal Strength” bar that will tell you how good of a signal you have.  If you opted for the halyard installation you can move the antenna up and down on the halyard and see where you get a getter signal strength.  It will change with height and higher is not always better.

Operation 3.png

Now sometimes you might have a specific network you want to connect to.  This could be your marina or a local bar.  We will sometimes put up the antenna and see what bars have a good signal.  Then we go over to that bar and have a drink and ask them for the network password.  Most of the time they have no problem giving the password to a customer but don’t want an open network.  Some places have caught on to this and will take your phone to put in the password so you can’t log on from a WiFi antenna. Once you have a network name and password you log in a little different.  You go to the “Wireless” tab and hit “Select” next to SSID, but now you are looking for the network name.  Note the security type “WPA” or “WPA2”.  Select the network and connect.  But you have an additional step on the “Wireless” tab before hitting “Change” and “Apply”.  Down at the bottom of the screen you should see a section for “Wireless Security”.

Operation 4.png

In the “Wireless Security” section, select the correct security type and put in the password.  Now hit “Change” and “Apply”. You should be connected and can check it the same as described above.

Now I will have to admit, the programing side of this was a little harder than I expected when we started this project.  The very first time we set up everything I had Travis from s/v Party of Five with me.  But the original Bullet I got from Amazon was defective.  So by the time I got the replacement Bullet, we were in St. Thomas and Party of Five had moved on to Grenada. So I had to spend some time researching how to do all the programing. But once you get through it once the operation becomes pretty simple.

Here is another downside, I have had this post in draft for almost two weeks.  But in the USVI finding an open wifi or even a bar’s wifi that can work for posting pictures was nearly impossible.  Everyone is shutting down their networks and a lot of bars are figuring out ways around making their network available to cruisers.  But in the US you will likely have much better luck.


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Boat Thoughts 10 Months Into Cruising

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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Adding Cleats for Convenience

As full-time cruisers with a dog we get on and off our transom into our dingy many times each day. Add to that having friends come and visit by dingy. The result is that you have to pass a line around the stern rail, and everything we have mounted there, to tie the dingy painter off to the stern cleat.  So I decided to add two new cleats to either side of the walkthrough to allow for easier, quicker tying off and departing.

I found two, stainless steel cleats that are mounted by bolts or machine screws through the top of the cleat at a discount marine store.  From a local hardware store, I picked up some 1/4-inch by two-inch machine screws with a phillips head and an Irwin drill bit and tap set or matching size.

Photo 1 - Drill & Tap

Catalina imbedded an aluminum plate in several locations on the boat for securing hardware to the deck. On the stern, the aluminum plate runs between the two stern rail posts.  I chose to install one cleat on each side just next to the stern rail posts closest to the walkthrough. 

Once I had the locations marked out, I began drilling the holes.  I started using a 1/4-inch drill bit. The drill bit with the tap and drill kit is slightly smaller than 1/4-inch to allow for the tap to cut away material and leave a 1/4-inch threaded hole.  Drilling through the fiberglass you can feel the resistance change when you get to the imbedded aluminum plate.  I partially drilled into the aluminum plate to create a centering point for the tapping drill bit. 

Note on using tools on deck. I learned the hard way to always tie off drills and other tools while working on deck over the water.  I use an elastic tie that has a carabiner on one end and a line that secures around the tool on the other.  The one I purchased came with 3 ends for going around the tool that clip to the elastic tie.  This way I can quickly switch when using multiple tools like a drill and an impact gun.

Photo 2 - Drill

Once the initial hole is drilled, the next step is to drill the hole to prep for the tap. The Irwin bit was decent quality and cut through aluminum plate quickly.  I then cleaned the drilling debris from the area and began the tapping.

For those that haven’t done a lot of tapping, I find that the best process is to slowly advance the tap and after about a half to full turn you begin to feel more resistance.  I then back out the tap a half to full turn to clean the cutting blades on the tap. Once the tap is advanced through the plate I will run it all the way out and back in again to make sure the threads are nice and clean.

Photo 3 -tapping the plate

I prefer to bevel the top of any holes for deck mounted hardware.  This allows the bedding material to make a better seal around the bolt. I use a stainless steel counter sink bit to make the bevel.

Photo 4 - bevel bit

Once the bevel is complete, I cleaned the entire area and wiped down the fiberglass with acetone.  I then prepped the screws by putting them through the cleat and forming butyl tape around the base of the cleat and a cone shape going down the screw.  i also coated the bottom half of the screws with Tef-Gel to help protect for corrosion.

Photo 5 - butyl on screw

Using a cordless impact driver I slowly start the screw.  This helps start the screw without cross threading.  I took a couple hours to let the butyl tape work in but I was doing this in the Bahamas in 85 degree F temperatures. In colder temps butyl tape will take longer to set properly.  I got the screws started and advanced them until the butyl tape starts to squeeze out. Once I see the butyl tape start to squish out I stop and let it sit for 30 minutes.  I will then advance it another half to full turn and stop again.  I continue doing this until I have advanced the screw all the way down.

Photo 6 - Cleatl

The only thing left is to clean up the residual butyl tape and start using the cleat. It makes tying off the dinghy much easier.  We have towed the dinghy using these cleats and it tows great.  You can keep the dingy directly behind your boat in the flat spot your hull has laid down. 


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Renogy Solar Panel Problems

We have written extensively about our solar panels.  We went through all the research we did in choosing them and installing them in previous posts.

We have loved these panels so far.  They get us up to 100% state of charge by near noon time each day.

Over the weekend one of the Facebook cruising groups started with stories of problems with the panels.  There was one reported incident of the panels starting a fire.  That post pointed to the Amazon and Renogy listings now calling the panels “light weight” as opposed to their old description of “semi-flexible”.  In addition, the descriptions now said not to bend the panels and to mount them with a 2-3 inch space between the panels and the surface below. This was a change from all of the previous literature.

Our panels are mounted onto our Sunbrella bimini with velcro.  This was an installation made popular by the Solbian panels.  The Renogy panels, as well as many other of the lesser cost brands, are a take off of the Solbian panels at about a quarter of the cost. One of the advantages of this type of install is that the panels have good air flow below them and that keeps them cool.  This should be an advantage in performance.

This morning I called Renogy and spoke with tech support.  The first tech I spoke with said he had heard of one issue but didn’t think there would be a problem with our install.  I pushed further, asking questions about why they change the literature and were they still recommended for the install like I had.  Eventually he spoke with his supervisor and they said that our panels should be exchanged for their new ones that have an aluminum backing.

Being a full-time cruiser this type of exchange isn’t easy.  The tech support guy said he would email a return label and then ship the new ones when they saw the old ones being return.  This obviously wouldn’t work for us.  I asked to talk to his supervisor.

When I got the supervisor on the phone I again pressed on the change of the description and the new “no bending” recommendation.  At first she said that we install our panels over the bimini supports.  This was an absolutely wrong recommendation and I knew it.  When you do this you create a hard point for the panels to flex over and crack the panel.  Since she told me the fire issue was related to the cells being damaged by bending and that’s what caused the fire. I then hit her with a whole bunch more questions.  Eventually she got their senior tech engineer.  They agreed that installing them over the bimini support was wrong.  They don’t see a problem with the aluminum backed panels being installed on a Sunbrella bimini as long as they don’t bend more than 20-30 degrees (they don’t).  They also don’t think that mounting on the Sunbrella is a problem.  It seems the issue is more mounting them to hard biminis and dodgers or right on the deck.

Once we got that settled, Renogy was very accommodating on setting up a return.  We are waiting out some offshore weather in Sandy Hook, NJ.  We had thought about going into a marina for a couple of days to shower, do some laundry and get provisions.  We had found a pretty reasonable one in Great Kills, NY on Staten Island.  So we gave Renogy the address of that marina and they are sending out our new panels 2-day air.  They are going to include the return label in the package.  We can swap them out quick in the marina.

I am putting this out there so anyone else with these panels knows to followup with Renogy.  They seem to be keeping a little quiet but when you press them they acknowledge the issue and setup the return.


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Let the Sewing Begin!

It was not until we shelled out $800 to have the dodger repaired, that I kicked myself and said – “get a sewing machine”!  We have a number of projects and it is not feasible to pay someone else to complete them all.  Obviously, I have a long way to go before I will be as good as a canvas shop or a seamstress – but practice makes perfect, right?

First up:  Buy a sewing machine and figure out how to use.  My mother (aka sewing guru) bought me a Singer Heavy-Duty sewing machine for Christmas. With her help as well as Sailrite, the Facebook group Sewing on Boats, and various You Tube videos, I am building up my knowledge.

Next:  Practice sewing on something that is already pretty wrecked. The weathered pirate flag was perfect for this, as it is normally flying high up the mast (far away from eyes to critique my awful sewing).  By the time I was onto my 7th seam, I had finally gotten one straight.

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Feeling more confident, I began my first big project:  the Bimini – (apparently, I am of the Go Big or Go Home mind set)

  1. Remove & replace ensign glass
  2. Repair the couple of small holes in the Sunbrella material (I used Tear-Aid – that stuff is awesome!)
  3. Solar Panel Project:  create a method to attach the solar panels to the bimini.

The ensign glass project took me almost four hours to remove all the stitches and the old glass from the dodger, measure and cut the new glass, and apply and sew on the Velcro to the new glass.

Cutting the Sunbrella, adding velcro and sewing everything on for the solar panels took much, much longer.  In the end, it came out good and cost substantially less then it would have been to have a pro do it.

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Out with the Old and In with the New

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The Final Product

The Final Product

Dodger – The stitching and zippers on parts of the dodger were starting to come apart from the fabric (even though we shelled out $$ to have the entire dodger restitched two years ago!).  So, down came the dodger and I restitched almost all of the dodger with the good uv-resistant thread.  I also added some material around the dodger frame in order to mitigate the rubbing of the ensign glass.
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Fender covers – I had an old pair of blue sweat pants that were ready for retirement, so instead of tossing them out or donating them I made two fender covers.

IMG_2483Fender CoversCustom-fit Sheet:  I took a flat queen mattress sheet and added elastic all the way around so that we now have another custom-fit mattress sheet to for our odd-shaped mattress.

And then another bimini project…our friends Pam & Chris on Wind Chaser ordered a bimini for their Catalina 30 which required a slight alteration in order to be useable.  Of course the alteration was to split the bimini in 1/2 to add a zipper and, oh yeah, a “cone” to go around the backstay.  This was my first sewing project that was not my own personal item to potentially mess up.  It ended up being a very simple project and I was handsomely rewarded with a handle of Captain Morgan…oh and their happiness! 🙂

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Wind Chaser's New Bimini

Wind Chaser’s New Bimini

The big and scary project (I mean my ultimate sewing goal):  Chaps for the Smitty Ditty II, our Highfield Classic 290.


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The Dinghy Sling

We are always willing to think outside of the box. We don’t take the “old salt” logic at face value and we tend to do a lot of research to make our own opinions.  When it came to how we plan to manage our dinghy we were open to look at any and all options.

That being said, we purchased our Highfield inflatable due to its light weight, which we knew would give us many options for transporting as we cruise.  But once we had the dinghy there were so many other questions to consider:  how to transport the dinghy?  How to mitigate theft?  Are we going to keep it in the water at the dock and have to pull it out all the time to clean the bottom or is there another option?  Some of the answers seemed easy enough; but other questions/concerns – not so easy.

Initially we were thinking that we would add traditional dinghy davits.  The primary issue for us is that we really like our walk-through transom and having davits would limit that aspect of the boat. Also, climbing from the dinghy with the davit lifting lines connected would become a problem with our ladder. But the biggest issue is that having an additional 100 – 175 pounds counter-levered off of the back of our 31 foot boat will seriously impact the performance of the boat.  So traditional davits have been ruled out for us.

For longer passages in open water, we can put the dinghy on the bow. Obviously this is not an easy process, as we have to empty out the dinghy entirely and remove the engine. In our opinion, this is really the safest way to carry the dinghy when heading offshore.

But on shorter trips, especially as we hop down the East Coast and go into a new harbor or secluded anchorage each night, what are our dinghy travel and security options really?  We have found that on very short trips, in more protected waters it is easy enough to tow the dinghy. We have a 20 foot painter that is setup with a bridle for towing. This works but has some draw backs. For instance, how do we secure the dinghy at night? In our current situation it’s not a major issue. But as we go further south, dinghy theft becomes an issue. We can lock the dinghy at the stern while at anchor but, ideally, the best way to protect the dinghy from theft and growth is to get it out of the water.

While doing a little internet research on the subject we came across the Dinghy Sling System by Harbormen Marine.  We were quite excited to find this – what a great easy option keep the dinghy out of the water at night and while traveling! We had to know more about this product.  The cool thing is that this company is located in Hingham, MA, less than two miles from our marina.  I met up with Dave, the owner, to talk about using the Dinghy Sling on our Catalina.

Dave is a great guy and is making the dinghy slings with his college-age son. He walked me through how he sources the materials, the improvements he has made to the sling along the way.  We spoke extensively about the strength of the system.  At first glance I was skeptical about the plastic clips used in the system.  But after Dave explained the research he did in sourcing materials and that the rated strength of the clips is 200 pounds, I became more confident in the sling. Dave lent me a sling to try on our Catalina.

To setup the system, you start by floating the sling behind your boat with one side attached to your stern.

You then pull the dingy over the sling and attach the dingy to the sling on the boat side with the straps provided.

Long straps are attached to the far side of the sling and you use those to pull the dinghy vertical.  The straps can be attached to cleats or other fixed points on your boat.

You deploy the dinghy by doing the same in reverse.  The cool thing is that once you drop the dinghy to the water it is still attached to the boat.  You can climb in, put on your engine and then release your dinghy and float away from the sling.

We tried the sling prior to our trip to Provincetown.  Our first attempt didn’t go so well.  To bring the dinghy vertical was tough.  I had read that this was an issue with Snap Davits and similar products.  I could get my side up but my Bride was struggling to hold the weight while we tried to secure it. So we stayed with the towing plan for that trip.

I was telling a friend at the dock about the Dinghy Sling and he was interested in it for his boat.  We tried it out on his boat.  The result this time was much better.  I think having an actual swim platform was a big difference.  It gave a good pivot point that allowed the dinghy to be lifted a little easier.  In fact, once we got the hang of it, one person could lift the boat easily.

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The dinghy sling system is great.  It secured the dinghy to the boat without having to make any permanent changes to the boat.  Best of all, with the dinghy vertical and not counter-levered over the stern it didn’t affect the performance of the boat as much as towing.

With the addition of some blocks and possibly some quick cleats, I think we can easily overcome the weight issue we were having on our first attempt on the sailboat. My only recommendation for a change for the Harbormen Marine is to offer additional straps for sale.  When connecting the dinghy to our friend’s boat we ended up using a couple of dock lines to get a more secure feel for lateral movement.  A couple of additional straps may have been helpful. (Note: after talking to Harbormen Marine they informed me that additional straps are available, as well as custom sized and colored slings.)

The dinghy sling seems to be a great alternative to installing davits of any kind permanently on your boat. You don’t have to drill or glue anything onto your boat or dinghy.  And at only $245 it’s a fraction of the cost of other systems. It can get the dinghy out of the water to help prevent growth and mitigate theft.  And when you aren’t using it, it stows in a small backpack out of the way.


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Solar Install

We finished the solar panel install about two months ago.  This is a project that started over a year ago and had me doing tons of research and learning all about solar and charge controllers.  Here are the previous posts on this subject:

Just to review, we went with the Renogy (aka Chinese Knock Offs of Solbian Panels) semi-flexible panels, a Rogue MPT-3048 charge controller (possibly the last one ever purchased since they discontinued the model) with Renogy wires and MC4 connectors.

Panels on the bimini and a write up of attachment system will be coming soon via a post from my Bride.

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Wiring was run inside the bimini bow pocket.  Down the support and into the hull.  I put the positive and negative wires from the panels together with a 16 AWG by 2 wire (for a future LED light install on the bimini) in a 2 inch diameter, non-adhesive heat shrink tube.  The tube was six feet long.  I then heat shrunk the whole tube.  This kept the wires in one bundle and made the install look a little more professional than having multiple wires visible running along the exterior of the boat.

The panels are currently wired in series.  We purchased the set of MC4 parallel branch connectors.  The bimini bow pocket on our factory bimini is large enough to allow us to switch between series wiring or parallel wiring and still have all of the wires in the pocket.  This way we can alternate between series wiring and parallel wiring and use the one that produces the best power on our boat in the given situation (i.e. on anchor vs. at a dock).

The wires pass through the hull using a Blue Sea Systems Cable Clamp.  I didn’t put this hole far enough away from the stanchion.  As a result I had to drill through the metal plate.  Funny story about drilling this hole.  I first drilled it too small for wire bundle.  I had to run off to the local box store and get a 3/4-inch drill bit to allow me to redrill the hole larger.  When I went to try and redrill the hole, the drill bit caught the edge of the existing hole and spun the drill out of my hand.  It landed right in the water! I let out some of the loudest string of foul language most people had ever heard. I was rushing and the cost I paid was a practically brand new Makita 18 volt lithium-ion drill with a brand new $50 drill bit.  Always tie of your tools when working over the water.  When I ordered the new drill off of Amazon, I also got an interchangeable end tool lanyard.  I now will not use my tools on deck without this.

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I installed the Rogue Controller next to the battery charger. I mounted it on a piece of starboard and through bolted the controller.  The bolts are in the lazarette and easy to access.

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Down in the battery compartment I reconfigured my positive buss.  Using a Marinco Pro Installer Link Joiner from Defender I created a positive buss that had inputs for the shore power charger, alternator, charge controller and the positive feed to the battery no. 1 spot on the battery selector switch.  I then linked over to my Blue Sea Systems Automatic Charge Relay (ACR).  The ACR brings charging juice only to the reserve battery.  All of the different lines are protected by appropriately sized ANL fuses.  All of the lines were labeled and then the labels were covered over with clear heat shrink following Maine Sail’s method.

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Rogue recommends you install a breaker in between the panels and the controller.  I used a Blue Sea Systems 60 Amp Circuit Breaker. I used a 65 amp terminal block to make accessing the wiring easier.  By doing this I was able to wire the controller to the terminal block prior to hanging it.  Then run the wires to the terminal block from the panels.  I ran 4 AWG wire from the controller to the positive buss and negative buss at the batteries.

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By the time everything was installed, it was late in the day and I didn’t have very good sun to check the operation.  But at 10 AM the next morning things were looking good.  The panels were producing 34.6 volts of power at 3.9 amps and the controller was delivering 13.5 volts of power at 9.4 amps to the batteries.

IMG_3397It’s now been 8 weeks since we put the panels to work.  I have kept the panels in series during this time.  We have not had to turn on the shore power charger yet.  We are typically back to 100 % SOC by 2-3 PM each day.  This is using cabin lights, fans, a 12 volt TV, refer, etc. each day.  The only thing we use our 120 volt power for is to charge our phones and tablets and run a large box fan on warm nights.  Otherwise we are entirely off the grid.  With the inverter installed we could now be 100 % off the grid and soon will be when we cut the lines in 27 days.