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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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:
- Some of the flexible solar panels used in the past were unreliable. Best to stick with the rigid panels on the davits
- Synthetic teak is low maintenance, but it gets hotter than natural teak, best avoid it if you are going into the tropics
- 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.
- 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)
- You don’t need a generator if you use lithium batteries and keep your internal loads to a minimum
- 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.
- Stick with mechanical switching instead of digital, less can go wrong and it’s easier to trace problems
- Use opaque plastic tanks for water and diesel so it’s easy to see the fluid levels in case the contents gauge stops working
- 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:
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.