Another “It’s great when it works” system

When I first started live-aboard cruising, I was enamored with all the great technology available and how it would make life onboard so easy and stress free. I quickly learned however, that things on boats break, and they break frustratingly often. And the more cool and complex something is, the more likely it seems that it will break, and usually at the worst possible time.

I remember on our last boat, a Catana 471, crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria, which is a notoriously uncomfortable stretch of water on the north coast of Australia. After 3 days of being in washing machine like conditions, we rounded the western cape and sought shelter in a small, rocky anchorage at 3am, in the wind, rain and pitch black night. It was precisely as I was turning into the bay to anchor that our GPS position disappeared from the chart plotter. I could see a chart, but had no idea where we were on the chart! I quickly got my backup system (iPad with iNavX App) and found my way to a safe location to anchor. The problem? The NMEA data interface between our Raymarine plotter and our B&G GPS had failed.

We repeated this same type of issue over the years in many and varied ways. A washing machine that tripped out our inverter when it went on the dry cycle. Our very cool and handy electronic anchor chain counter failed (twice). Turns out when the counter signal is lost, the buttons that raise and lower the anchor are disabled (I’m not kidding) which of course happened as we were trying to anchor in 30 knot winds on the outer fringes of the Great Barrier Reef. Picture Gavin trying to hold our position with the engines while I was hotwiring the windlass relay so we could drop the anchor. Our watermaker, that for reasons that remain a mystery would only run reliably under generator power, and not from the inverter, so a generator failure left us without fresh water for a week! A failed Raymarine fishfinding sonar sensor (why did I think I needed one of those anyway?) that interrupted our chartplotter operation with an alarm screen every 10 seconds until I could disconnect it from the network (of course while trying to anchor at night in a crowded windy anchorage after our starboard throttle cable had suddenly broken). You get the picture.

The point is, that traveling long distances on cruising sailboats tends to be a somewhat complex process, and unpredictable equipment malfunctions are a part of the adventure. Our lessons learned through hard won experience led to our decision to keep things relentlessly simple on Wildling. That’s not to say we won’t have failures, but hopefully we have reduced their occurrence somewhat by eliminating many of the root causes. We also save some cost, weight, have more room onboard, and we have reduced the amount of time we need to spend on maintenance. We may not have an electric dishwasher and washing machine, but we do have the things we really need and a lot less stress over all the potential failures that ensue.

Here are some of the sacrifices we made based on our aforementioned hard won experience:

  1. We have no chain counter on the windlass. Sure, it’s nice to have a digital readout to tell you how much chain is down, but when it quits working it’s a big problem. Instead, we put color coded markers on our chain every 5 meters so we can tell how much is down. Low tech, but works every time.
  2. We have no dishwasher and no clothes washer. They’re heavy, they use a lot of water, they need a generator to run them and they aren’t that useful for a family of 4 people. Instead we hand wash essentials on passage and use the coin laundry services in port. And no large appliances means no need for a generator and no generator repairs and maintenance.
  3. All our electronics are B&G. Having multiple systems from different vendors connected by data interfaces is great in theory but unreliable in practice (see above).
  4. Our watermaker runs directly on DC power. No need for an inverter, and no need for a generator. We can make water using energy directly from either the sun, the water turbine or either of the two engine alternators.

Because our experience was limited to our own cruising adventures, it was important to leverage the knowledge of the Outremer team who have stayed in close contact with all their owners over the years and learned what worked and what didn’t. We spent a lot of time discussing complexity, convenience and reliability tradeoffs, and they saved me from making some mistakes that I didn’t know to avoid.

Here are just a few of the many examples of great advice the Outremer folks gave us that we followed:

  1. Some of the flexible solar panels used in the past were unreliable. Best to stick with the rigid panels on the davits
  2. Synthetic teak is low maintenance, but it gets hotter than natural teak, best avoid it if you are going into the tropics
  3. The hydro-generator is excellent, but the 5X is too fast for the cruising model and can wear out the impeller. Best get the racing version.
  4. If you position your headsail furling electric winch controls so you can activate them with your heel, you can furl and unfurl your headsails single handed (this works great by the way)
  5. You don’t need a generator if you use lithium batteries and keep your internal loads to a minimum
  6. Carbon fiber is good, carbon up high is better, carbon everywhere is not good for ocean cruising because it can’t handle impact as well.
  7. Stick with mechanical switching instead of digital, less can go wrong and it’s easier to trace problems
  8. Use opaque plastic tanks for water and diesel so it’s easy to see the fluid levels in case the contents gauge stops working
  9. Add safety straps on the davits to go under the dinghy and hold it in case one of the lifting lines break in heavy seas

That’s not to say I don’t covet some of the cool gadgets that are becoming available. Like forward scanning sonar for example:

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 9.33.23 PM

But it would have to fit in the category of “a nice luxury when it works”, and I would want to have a disconnect switch to shut it off in case it ever failed and interfered with the operation of our critical systems.

10 Comments on “Another “It’s great when it works” system

    • I agree with you completely. I am all about the KISS method. Are you happy with the Litheum battery and the Hydro generator?

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      • Yes, the lithium batteries are excellent. We didn’t miss our generator one bit in a month of living aboard, nor did we have to change our normal routine. In the course of a usual day at sea or at anchor, the solar and hydo keep the batteries topped up, and even with 6 people on board, a quick run of the engines once in a while topped us up very quickly. I haven’t run the hydro generator extensively, but I did run it on a 2 day passage in 2 to 3 meter waves, and it worked really well. It’s very stable, and has no discernible drag on the boat. It’s also very quiet.

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  1. Great to follow your blog! We are expecting our Outremer 45(47) in november, and I have tried to hold back on gadgets on the boat, so it is more in terms with KISS, but is is not easy! We dropped the Watt and Sea due to the yards comment about (wait and see) so we added some extra rigid solar panels on the carbon bimini instead, and hopefully this together with the solar panels on the davits will keep us close to self sufficient, on el-power. The wife insisted on a washing machine though, so we´ll se how much it will be in use, and trouble it will cause. Keep up the good work on the blog. :-))

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  2. Hi Doug, as all your posts, this one has also been very helpful. I have a question though with regard to the air conditioning system. Normally these consume a lot of power and in areas such as the Caribbean you have to use them extensively, at least during the night if you want to sleep comfortably at anchor. I know this is not the case in the Mediterranean and when you are docked at a marina, but will your power system without a generator handle the continuous use of an AC system when you are exploring those remote, exotic, beautiful and very hot islands? Cheers!

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    • Hi George, it’s a good question, and one that I thought about also, particularly after spending several months around the equator in Indonesia and Singapore on our last boat. Our Catana had air conditioning, which we did use somewhat with the generator when it got really bad, but it was a central chilled water system that required a lot of power and quite a long time for the main chiller to refrigerate the water that circulated to fan coil units in the salon and each cabin. It worked OK, but was really only usable at a marina. At sea, even with the generator, it took a lot of fuel and noise to operate.

      On our 5X, I wanted to primarily be able to use the air conditioning at the dock under AC power, but also in the situation you describe, at night in hot and humid locations when there’s no wind, or when the mosquito screens restrict airflow through the boat to a point where it’s just too hot to get comfortable.

      The solution we decided on, was to use multiple, small, self contained air conditioning units that can be run individually according to the available DC power. So if it’s hot at night you can run just the cabins and during the evening you can run just the salon. If power reserves are low, then run just one or two units to make it a bit more comfortable. This is still a compromise versus running everything under a generator, but because we can rapidly charge the lithium batteries in the morning, it’s still an OK solution, at least for me since I was determined to not have a generator on board. We haven’t yet needed to run the A/C at anchor yet, so I can’t say how practical this really is, but I’ll post an update when we have more experience in different situations.

      All that said, ours is the only 5X I know of without a generator, so clearly most owners differ in their weight and complexity vs comfort equation than me, so it comes down to how much you value the extra comfort the generator provides.

      Cheers

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  3. Hi Doug,

    My wife and I are planning to buy an Outremer 51 and we are reading your blog with great interest! this is really helping us before we meet with Outremer. We have a question referring to system power generation: why don’t you use a wind energy system, additional to solar and hydro? Outremer is not offering this energy type in its options list so we wonder why?

    Max and Dorothee

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    • Hi Max and Dorothee,

      I’m not sure why Outremer does not offer a wind generator as an option, I didn’t ask them about this when we purchased our boat, because I wasn’t interested in it myself. I do know that they have formulated their option list based on the experience with owners of their boats. So they will offer things they know have worked well on the water and avoid things that don’t.

      My personal opinion on wind generators is that they can be a good option, but they require a lot of wind in order to produce sufficient power to be worth the investment. The advantage of a wind generator over a hydro generator, is the wind gens work at anchorage and the hydro only works when you are underway. But if you look at the electric power output vs wind speed for the latest generators, they only reach their rated output at around 30+ knots wind speed. That’s a lot of wind, and most cruisers are trying to avoid being in conditions that strong, especially at anchor, so you will be mostly putting out a lot less than the rated output. In the more realistic cruising wind ranges of 10-20 knots, they don’t do so well. They produce around 10% of their rated output at 15 knots wind speed. And while the newest models are quieter than the old ones, they are certainly not silent. “Quiet” means it is possible to carry out a conversation standing nearby the wind generator. With a hydro generator you spend almost all the time above 50% output, they are silent, and you can stow them away when you aren’t using them.

      Rather than install a wind generator, I would rather add additional solar panels, and it’s important to have high output alternators for periods when there is no sun.

      Cheers,
      Doug

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