Offshore Log: How Simple Is Simple?
An informal survey of cruisers met since leaving the US finds most fall somewhere between engineless purists and techno cruisers fitted out with complex gadgetry.
Almost inevitably, cruising sailboats are complex creations. At the same time, cruising sailors are obsessed by simplicity. The constant maintenance requirements of the typical cruising boat lead to cries of “keep it simple!” But how simple, really, is “simple,” and does it really make sense?
Simplicity is a moving target. Yes, there are purists who have achieved as close to simplicity as may be humanly possible. The Pardeys, with their engineless, system-free series of boats, are one example. But even their boats have copious amounts of varnish, which is as un-simple as anything can be. Perhaps Tim and Pauline Carr come closer, with their engineless, varnish-free gaff cutter. But living on the fringes of Antarctica, feeding a solid-fuel stove to stay warm, and lugging water in all kinds of weather, is a form of simplicity most of us can do without. The Pardeys and the Carrs are unique, far tougher—whether consciously or not—than the average cruiser cares to be. Their boats are small, seaworthy, tiller-steered, and traditional in design.
One American cruising couple we know idolizes the simple cruising lifestyle to the point of having made some rather unusual changes to their otherwise ordinary 37-foot cruising boat. To eliminate a risk of through-hull failure, and to avoid a potential maintenance headache, they have done away with the toilet on their boat. They use a bucket instead.
They have designed and fabricated their own vane steerer, saving thousands of dollars. Yet they carry four autopilots, and it isn’t clear whether the autopilot or the vane does most of the work. They have no headsail furling system, and so carry a variety of sails, which must, of course, be stored somewhere, and put up, and taken down. We are still waiting for them to toss the engine over the side.
Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, some wag once said that the cruising lifestyle was the chance to live as your grandparents did, with the additional risk of being drowned. Our grandparents may have had a less complex lifestyle, but do you want to relive it?
My paternal grandfather was a farmer who never took a day off in his life. He could build anything, he could fix anything. When he needed a new house for his growing family, he and my father—then 13 years old—built it themselves, between farm chores.
My grandfather’s idea of a holiday was going to church Sunday morning, followed by the luxury of a big dinner and a Sunday afternoon nap. One day, at 83, he came in early from the fields feeling a little poorly. Two days later he was dead.
I would not call his a simple life.
At the other end of the scale are the group of sailors who may be called techno-cruisers. Their gurus are Steve and Linda Dashew, the prophets of big, fast, complex boats loaded with the cutting edge of cruising technology in electronics, sails, rigs, hardware and hull design.
Few of these cruisers can afford boats like the Dashews’ 78-footer, but they have adopted many of the complexities of the modern techno-cruising boat: multiple modes of self-steering, powered winches, complex electrical systems with several charging sources, sophisticated electronics packages, satellite communications, and sails for all occasions.
Most cruisers—ourselves included—fall somewhere in between the extremes. We have adopted many of the cruising “mod cons,” while being wary of relying on them completely. We neither aspire to simplicity nor eschew complexity. We try to filet the best of modern technology, and meld it with a lifestyle that seeks independence, if not simplicity.
The argument against the pure techno-cruiser is that it saps independence by making you rely on the unreliable. Virtually no cruising sailor is capable of trouble-shooting and repairing an autopilot, radar, or any other piece of sophisticated electrical or electronic gear. Yet a windvane steerer backs up—or even replaces—an autopilot, your eyes and a pair of good binoculars are a fair substitute for a radar in many situations, and a handheld GPS (or even a sextant, if you remember how to use it) will work even if your main electrics or electronics fail. If the watermaker goes on strike, you still have jerry jugs.
The primary systems of the simple cruising boat are the back-up systems of the techno-cruiser.
In almost four years of cruising we have not seen everything, and we do not pretend to know everything. But we have been on dozens of boats of all nationalities, boats ranging from the frighteningly complex to the uncomfortably masochistic.
In general, Americans are perhaps a shade more gadget-happy than cruisers from other countries. We also like to talk about our boats, and we are always willing—to a fault—to offer an opinion. In this look at some of the basic items that take a boat away from simplicity and toward complexity, we focus on gear widely available in the US, and typically seen on American boats.
Cruising without an engine is the ultimate simplicity. We have yet to meet a single cruiser who is prepared—except occasionally, when the beast acts up—to do without an engine. Modern diesels are very reliable. The problems we have seen have been largely associated with poor installations, poor maintenance, and bad fuel.
Regular oil changes, regular fuel filter changes, and straining fuel using a Baja filter will keep the average modern diesel quite happy. Regular use of the engine—and loading it up properly when it is used—makes it last longer. As with most things aboard a boat, idleness is the enemy. An engine that is run regularly generally gives warnings of problems to come.
A boat with an electrical system, but without a reliable engine, is forced to depend on wind power, solar power, or more usually, a combination of both. Our experience has been that both wind and sun are fickle entities, even in the tropics. If you want electrical things, you’re going to need a reliable engine, or an equally reliable diesel generator.
Wind and Solar Power
While they may seem like the perfect “free” solution to electrical power, wind and solar energy are far from it. It is fair to say that the majority of cruising sailboats use a combination of wind power and solar panels as well as diesel-generated electrical power, and that relatively few are able to meet their entire energy budget using alternative methods alone.
A typical example is a well-equipped Valiant 40 moored near us. They have electrical refrigeration, plus the normal array of electronics (radios, radar, several GPS units, performance instruments, autopilot). With two big solar panels and a Fourwinds generator, their engine running time varies from 30 minutes to two hours per day, depending on the amount of wind and sun available.
On the other hand, Star Cruiser, a custom aluminum Tanton 37-with a similar charging setup, but without a big freezer and with seriously disciplined use of electrical goodies, only runs the engine once or twice a week.
In general, the more electrical charging capacity you have, the more electricity you tend to use.
Most cruisers would go with both solar and wind power again. There is some prejudice against wind power—which we share—because it is inevitably noisy, and constitutes at least some risk from high-speed blades. Solar panels just sit there benignly, but unless aimed properly, their actual output is only a small percentage of their nominal capacity.
For the most part, both wind generators and solar panels (people tend to like the brand they have, no matter what it is) get high marks for reliability, but somewhat disappointing marks for meeting total electrical needs.
Well over 90% of the American boats we have been aboard have refrigeration, and the vast majority of these have electric refrigeration. Because most cruising boats are production boats, they were not necessarily built with the most efficient refrigeration systems. While the traditional icebox may be little more than a memory, a disappointing percentage of refrigerator/freezer installations are inadequate, being little more than conversions of equally inadequate iceboxes.
Even the most efficient electric refrigeration system eats power, with consumption of more than 100 amp-hours per day the rule rather than the exception. Conversion systems, such as Grunert’s Polar Mate or Adler/Barbour’s ColdMachine, offer good refrigeration but minimal freezing capacity.
Refrigerator/freezers suitable for long-term cruising utilize either engine-driven or high-capacity electric compressors, and require concomitantly more power in some form.
Our own engine-driven Sea Frost system has been flawless since commissioning almost four years ago.
Because we designed the box for the Sea Frost, and engineered the installation carefully, we keep frozen meat rock-hard for months at a time. We would never consider cruising without refrigeration and a real freezer. It is simply too convenient.
Every cruiser we have talked to with a properly designed refrigeration system, rather than an icebox conversion, shares this opinion. Whether you go with an engine-driven system or a high-capacity electrical system depends on the total energy engineering package on your boat.
The degree of electronics sophistication—or complication, if you wish—varies from boat to boat. Self-contained instruments, such as a depth sounder and knotmeter, have virtually vanished in favor of totally integrated instrument packages with extensive interfacing. This is not necessarily good.
Most of the instrument systems we have seen have been dealer-installed. The result is that owners have, in general, a fairly vague notion of how it all goes together. A failure means that you have to get a servicing technician aboard to put things right. With extensive interfacing, even a technician may spend quite a bit of time sorting out glitches.
Our 10-year-old B&G Hydra 330 has had its share of problems. Even though I installed the system, trouble-shooting beyond the basics requires a trained technician. We lost the windboard functions in Tonga, regaining partial operation after a system reset. In New Zealand, the B&G dealer, who was swamped with work due to the large number of yachts there for the America’s Cup, traced a fault on the windboard, and replaced a $5 part after a couple of hours of labor. Unfortunately, the system failed again the next day, and we decided to replace the board, a $500 item.
Fortunately, our masthead Windex never lies. This $40 item tells you exactly where the apparent wind is coming from, and if your senses can’t tell you how hard it’s blowing, you probably shouldn’t be out there.
We were also having problems with the depthsounder part of the Hydra, and replaced the transducer, which was only about $150 in New Zealand. This was annoying, since the transducer was just three years old. Ironically, when we started asking other boats with B&G systems about depthsounder problems, we found a disappointingly high percentage with exactly the same problem.
Because a depthsounder is a critical instrument, we now think that a backup stand-alone would be a rational choice. You may argue that an old-fashioned leadline is always reliable, but it is inconvenient for a shorthanded cruiser when threading his way through a tide-scoured pass or a coral-studded anchorage.
GPS is essential and reliable. However, every cruising boat we know carries at least two GPS units, including a handheld backup. Many boats, in fact, use hard-wired handheld units as the primary navigation instrument.
Garmin and Magellan units dominate the market, even on overseas boats. Except for some rollover problems associated with the change of century, reliability approaches 100%.
Our Northstar 941XD, a top-of-the-line model, continues to perform flawlessly. After being walked through the rollover correction process for our handheld Garmin 45XL, it also functions perfectly in the new millennium.
The only real backup to the GPS is a sextant. It’s scary to see how few cruisers know how to use a sextant, and how few keep up-to-date almanacs onboard. (Whoops, I just noticed that the batteries in my old Merlin II celestial computer are dying of old age!)
Hands down, the GPS is the single piece of electronic gear—even including VHF radio—that no cruiser would do without.
Furuno dominates the cruising boat radar market, with over a 90% share of the boats we surveyed in New Zealand. Our own Furuno 1831 has proven to be a mixed bag in terms of reliability. For the last year, we have had intermittent transmission problems.
Three different authorized Furuno technicians worked on the unit in New Zealand, each with a different theory as to what was wrong. The last technician (I took the boat to him, as he was so busy he could not make a half-hour trip to the boat) finally decided it was an autotuning problem, and replaced an EPROM. We now have about another 24 hours of operation on the unit, and it seems to be functioning properly most of the time, although the problem has temporarily repeated itself several times during that period.
We do not rely on the radar. We use it offshore only when the engine is running or we are in areas of heavy traffic. We turn it on during harbor approaches, when it will be obvious if it is working properly.
Our problems seem to be the exception to the rule, as most cruisers have had few radar malfunctions.
No single item causes more headaches for cruisers than self-steering, particularly autopilots. Why we see so many problems isn’t really clear.
Unfortunately, because cruisers install such a wide variety of brands and models, it is impossible to point the finger at a single culprit. In general, we have seen fewer problems with stand-alone autopilots than with those that are interfaced as part of more complex systems.
While our Robertson AP300X is designed for easy interfacing, we let it work all alone, simply dialing in the course we want and correcting it for the cross-track error indicated by the GPS. This control unit, coupled with a powerful spline-interfaced Whitlock motor, has handled our 32,000-pound boat perfectly in every condition imaginable.
A disturbing number of boats rely on a single autopilot, with neither a backup autopilot nor a windvane steerer. When the autopilot fails, it’s back to hand steering. Self-steering capability is critical. Two people who are forced to hand steer watch-and-watch are going to get very tired, perhaps dangerously so, before they arrive at their destination.
While about 80% of cruising boats under 55' have both windvane steering and autopilots, relatively few use their steering vanes. This is primarily laziness in balancing the boat, fine-tuning the windvane, and learning exactly how it works. Unfortunately, if the autopilot breaks down and you haven’t used the vane before, you may be in for a bit of a learning curve.
We have primarily used our autopilot for the last 9,000 miles, but have also put more than 3,000 miles on the Monitor wind-vane—the most commonly seen vane steerer on American boats—and are comfortable using it. We would reinstall this windvane and autopilot combination again without reservation.
American cruisers are email-crazy. Unfortunately, the complexity and cost of email offshore is staggering compared to its convenience onshore. The two choices are HF SSB email using, most commonly, a Pactor II modem, or satellite communication.
HF email is in a state of real flux. Low-cost or no-cost options to more traditional providers such as Pin Oak Digital find themselves doing nose-to-nose battle with their commercial counterparts. The courts will almost certainly make the ultimate decision on how and by whom this type of service can be provided.
Our own experience with Pactor II email was disappointing, and we never got our Pin Oak system operating properly, even after months of effort. Other cruisers we know have had no problems at all with the system right out of the box.
The current alternatives are satellite-based systems, generally either Satcom C or Mini-M formats.
Satcom C is a messaging (email) format, and the cost is based on the number of characters sent, leading you to be economical with your prose. Mini M allows voice, fax or data communications, but at staggering operating cost. We have a Nera Mini M, with service provided by Stratos in St. John, Newfoundland. This system has been both a boon and a pain.
Operating costs are astronomical. Data is transmitted at 2400 baud, a pitifully slow rate that dates back to times before the Internet. Time costs are very high—close to $3 per minute. A simple log on, download of four emails of less than 3K each, and log off takes close to six minutes, and costs more than $15. It is not at all unusual for us to have telephone bills, all for email, of more than $500 per month. Unfortunately, this high cost precludes our communicating directly with Practical Sailor readers.
If it were not necessary for us to stay in touch with sources around the world due to our involvement with Practical Sailor, the Volvo Ocean Race, and the America’s Cup, we would not have a Mini M system.
Other cruisers head for Internet cafes—increasingly common even in out-of-the-way locations—and get email when they are in port. This is a hit or miss solution that doesn’t do the job for us.
The promising Iridium satellite telephone system went belly-up with staggering losses earlier this year, a testament to the volatility of the communications market. Shore-based cellular systems serve the needs of about 99% of the communications market in the world, leaving the offshore sailor out in the cold. We are not optimistic about short-term improvement of this situation, and advise you that there is no simple answer to this if you insist in staying in touch by email no matter where you are.
All the above systems add up to a prodigious amount of electrical use, requiring big batteries, big alternators, and a sophisticated regulating system. The Heart Interface Link systems get very high marks from American cruisers, and are almost always coupled with high-output alternators and substantial inverters to supply AC voltage for items such as computers and microwaves.
We have had virtually no reports of problems with Link systems on cruising boats. Our Link 2000R has performed perfectly for almost four years, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that we carry spare regulator modules and wiring harnesses. Some form of sophisticated regulation and monitoring is essential for boats with big electrical demands, and an integrated system such as the Link is both straightforward to install and, so far, reliable.
The Common Thread
Complexity usually means a lot of items that require a lot of electricity. Sometimes you can have too much electricity.
The well-prepared Sundeer 60 Reunion, an archetypal techno-cruiser, was struck by lightning between New Zealand and Fiji in mid-May. Despite a by-the-book grounding system, most of the boat’s electronics were knocked out, and she was hand-steered the last 500 miles of the trip. Electronic backups are of little help in such a situation, and a techno-cruiser can become pretty basic in an instant. Because the Sundeer is a seaworthy, well-thought-out boat, and because the Harrises are competent sailors, the loss of all systems was an inconvenience, rather than a danger.
Unfortunately, a lot of techno-cruisers are less competent, and could be in real trouble in such a situation.
The moral is simple. If you’re going to have a complex boat, be prepared to spend both money and time to keep everything operational. And at the end of the day, don’t lose the basic skills of seamanship and navigation that will allow you to get to a destination safely when, not if, it all turns to custard on you.