Bahamas Log: How Things Worked
Contributing Editor Scott Rosenthal reports on some necessities and niceties installed for a family cruise.
We all want to make sure that the gear we buy is the best for our needs. To assure ourselves that we’re getting the best for the money, we subscribe to publications such as this, talk to other sailors at our marinas, and do research on the Internet. Then we make a decision, plunk down our cash, install the gear, and hold our breath.
The real world is a tough proving ground for boating gear. Not only must the widget work correctly, it has to fit in with the rest of your boat systems, fit in with your way of sailing, and not fail for a reasonable period of time.
Recently, we upgraded our 1980 Bristol 40 yawl Willow for a family cruise from Baltimore, Maryland to the Bahamas. The goals were very simple – upgrade Willow for this cruise and future ambitious cruises, and include some kid-requested “necessities." However, we also had to keep in mind that we weren't setting out on a world cruise, and that most of our sailing would be in the Chesapeake Bay, with the annual adventure.
One thing that the cruise allowed us to do was to test, in a real-world situation, how well these upgrades/changes performed compared to our expectations. After all, this is the true test of any product. Too often, product reviews don’t tell the whole story; for example there are installation issues, issues of interferencing with other equipment, and the long-term ease-of-use/frustration factors.
As might be expected, we had a range of success and failures with the upgrades we made on Willow. Sometimes a product exceeded our expectations; other times, a product didn’t live up to our expectations.
The prices listed below are what we paid, not always the list price.
When we first started sailing, there were cassette tapes. Every 45 minutes or so, you’d have to go below and change the tape. Then CDs came out and the music time increased. Even so, after a sail last year from Baltimore to Antigua on a friend’s boat, with the same Fleetwood Mac CD playing in the background of all the videos, we decided to expand our musical empire with a CD changer on Willow.
After evaluating the costs and tradeoffs of a marinized CD changer versus a car CD changer, we decided to go with the automobile variety. That, together with an extended warranty from the local Best Buy store, insured that we would get three years of life from the CD changer.
We purchased and installed a Sony CDX-636 10-disc CD changer ($229.99). This unit connected directly to our Sony receiver. We then purchased a second 10-CD cartridge. Now, the parents have a cartridge and the kids have a cartridge.
The CD changer has worked extremely well. We mounted it in a very dry location, under an overhang in the V-berth, with a gap above it to keep water from dripping into the unit. The internal shock mounting of the mechanism is very good and we only experienced skipping problems once or twice on the trip while in short, steep seas. However, no matter how nice it is to have maybe 10 hours of music available, we still have the same problem–no one changes the CDs in the cartridges, so we listen to the same songs over and over.
For our sailing needs, we wanted an autopilot that would work equally well on the ICW and on offshore legs. We frequently sail shorthanded and a reliable autopilot is mandatory to our sailing fun.
We bit the bullet and went with a belowdecks autopilot. Previously, we had tried a wheel-mounted Navico Wheelpilot WP300CX, but we could never get the unit to steer Willow’s 18,000 lbs. properly. So this year we bought and had installed a Cetrek autopilot system: a hydraulic linear drive, the model 609 Pilot computer, and the model 730 Pilot control.
The Cetrek system has been bittersweet. The autopilot does work, at least the majority of the time, but it also has some weak links and peculiarities, which we've discovered in day-to-day use.
On our sea trial after installation, four issues quickly came to the surface. The first issue involved programming the parameters that the autopilot required: we found that we needed to “adjust” the autopilot settings for different conditions as we were sailing. Many of these adjustments affected other functions, which the manual did not explain. These interactions and adjustments have made it so that only the captain can “tune” the autopilot.
The second issue had to do with the noise from the hydraulic pump. The installers mounted the pump on a 4' shelf in the cockpit locker. Every time the pump ran, the entire 4' shelf became a resonator and the resulting noise was horrendous. We remounted the pump on rubber grommets, which helped the problem, but the noise the pump makes is obnoxious and ruins the peace of sailing in light winds. On our list for this coming year is to isolate the mounting even better and maybe install a sound-absorbing cover over the pump.
The third issue was the viewing angle of the LCD display on the 730 Pilot. We had not anticipated how much the control of the Cetrek autopilot relied on watching the LCD screen. Before noticing this, our first inclination was to mount the control on the aft bulkhead of the cockpit. Thankfully, we tried this out first with duct tape and saw the problem before cutting the hole. Instead, we installed a display pod from Edson and mounted the 730 Pilot control in it. However, to view the display both sitting and standing in the cramped area behind the wheel on our yawl, we had to design and install a 35° bevel under the pod to put the display at an acceptable viewing angle.
The fourth issue with the autopilot system was the alarm mode. It turned out that the model 609 Pilot computer can detect some alarm conditions with the system, but cannot signal an off-course alarm, and has no provisions for an external alarm. We didn’t know about the alarm tradeoffs before our purchase, nor did the folks who sold us the autopilot and installed it. We consider it mandatory to have an audible alarm for an off-course or other serious condition, especially when short-handed sailing. Note that the more expensive Cetrek models do have more alarm options.
After we learned the Cetrek autopilot system, the system did steer Willow in almost all conditions. However, after traveling with it for 2,500 miles, we did find some other issues. The most pressing issue we still have to resolve is the amount of electricity the system uses. On our offshore legs, the autopilot was averaging almost 6 amps. We talked with Calvin Dunegan of Cetrek and he felt that the power usage was probably too high by a factor of two. He suggested changing some of our programmed parameters. After experimenting with the settings, we’re still not able to reduce the power consumption.
Another issue we have with the Cetrek autopilot is its susceptibility to interference from radio emission sources. For example, when we key the SSB transmitter, the LCD segments on the Pilot 730 start scrambling. Then, the model 730 acts as if the buttons on the front are being pushed, thereby leading to course changes, switching from auto to standby or vice versa, or even changes to programmed parameters. We also saw that our engine alarm mechanical buzzer affected the model 730 LCD segments. We again talked with Calvin Dunegan of Cetrek and he was not aware of anyone else having this problem.
To make a more repeatable test to find the weakness in the system, we placed the handheld VHF antenna next to the jacket of the cable going to the Model 730. When we keyed the VHF on low power (1 watt), the LCDs scrambled. Moving the transmitter slowly away from the cable, we were able to slow the LCD segment changing and noticed that it wasn’t just the segments changing, but it also lookedlike button presses were changing the operating modes.
Again, back to Cetrek for them to try the same test, but their system didn’t demonstrate the same problem. We contacted Cetrek headquarters in Poole, Dorset, UK and talked with the designer of the autopilot. It was an enlightening discussion. Again, he hadn’t heard of this problem with other boats, but he had heard about the autopilot creating interference with other onboard equipment. We discussed the serial interface link between the Model 609 Pilot computer and the Model 730 Pilot controller. He offered that if extra energy were coupled through the shield and into the cable, it could change which LCD segments were on and also simulate button presses.
We borrowed from Calvin another Model 730 Pilot control together with another cable. Further testing showed that the Model 730 wasn’t the problem, but that our original cable was more susceptible to the problem. With the new cable and a few ferrite beads, the system is somewhat better, but the SSB and engine alarm still affect the autopilot.
There are two other “ankle biters” involving the Cetrek autopilot. Occasionally, the autopilot will decide not to steer properly for 15 minutes or so. This doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, all we can do is wait it out. The other ankle biter is the dodge control. You have your choice of a few different functions to perform when you press the dodge buttons. However, unlike all the other parameters in the system, the dodge parameter is “forgotten” when you turn off the autopilot. We like setting the dodge to a 10° course change with each button push; unfortunately the autopilot’s default is to dodge for however long the button is held down, so we have to change the dodge setting every time we power up.
Overall, the Cetrek autopilot does steer the boat, but the issues we’ve discussed here have been serious enough to leave us a little miffed, considering the amount of money we spent.
We need our music. And with three kids, we sometimes don’t want their music. Previously, we had our audio system in the cabin with two bulkhead-mounted speakers. This was fine in the cabin, but to hear music on deck meant challenging the diesel for the loudest sounds on the boat.
Reluctant to drill yet more holes through Willow, we stole an idea from our friends on a Tayana 37 and installed inexpensive speakers under the dodger. The thought was to get some cheap “weatherproof” speakers and replace them when they failed. Normally we have more reverence for boating gear, but expensive outdoor speakers, meant to survive in all conditions, seemed problematic.
We purchased a set of KLH 970A indoor/outdoor 3-way speakers ($19.99/pair). We mounted the 7-3/8” H x 4-5/8”W x 4-3/8”D speakers to the dodger frame with hose clamps and led the wire down into the cabin. These speakers have survived and sound as good now as when we installed them.
We were looking for a chart light with a long gooseneck and a red bulb or filter. Too often, we’ve burned our hands reaching for the halogen chart light, so we were also looking for a “cool-to-the-touch” lamp housing.
The Hella Maplight model 87141 ($36) met and exceeded our expectations. The light comes with a white filter lens (installed) and a red lens. Using a knife or a small screwdriver, it was very easy to switch between the two different filters. For our needs, we put the red filter into the light and buried the white lens in the nav station.
The 87141 has a 19" gooseneck that allowed us to position the light over most of a 22" x 17" chart. The light stayed in each position we moved it to, without drooping or springing back. The 5W bulb wattage was low enough that we didn’t burn our hand moving the light into position, yet it was bright enough to allow us to aim the light across the cabin to read the barometer at night (next time we move the barometer closer).
Throughout repeated flexing, kinking, and generally rough kid-stuff, the Hella Maplight has been a wonderful addition to Willow.
Hellroaring Tech. BIC-75150
Willow has two batteries—one for the ship’s needs and one for starting the engine. Each time we went to start the engine, someone would have to go down into the cabin and throw the battery switch over to battery two for starting. Then, after the engine was started, someone would have to remember (or be reminded) to set the battery switch to charge one or both battery banks, but not switch it through the OFF position. This became a problem for us, especially when we asked our eight-year-old to be the master of the switch.
We decided to look for a non-mechanical battery isolator that we could also use to combine the two batteries in case of a failed engine starting battery. We decided against isolation diodes because of the forward voltage drop and we didn’t want more complexity in the electrical system by trying to adjust voltage regulators to compensate. Instead, we came across the solid-state Hellroaring Technologies’ BIC-75150 battery isolator/combiner ($124.95).
Using power MOSFET technology, the 4.75"x3.0"x2.0" BIC-75150 allows you to eliminate the battery selection switch. When the engine (or any other charging source) is off , the batteries are isolated from each other. When the engine (or another charging source) is on and once the charging voltage reaches 13.4V, the BIC-75150 connects the charging source to the isolated battery. When the voltage drops to 13.2V, the unit disconnects, isolating the battery. The BIC-75150 itself draws a maximum of 0.18 watts.
On Willow, the starting battery is the isolated battery. The engine’s alternator directly charges the house bank. Once the voltage rises above the threshold, the BIC-75150 connects the starting battery up to the alternator, thereby charging the starting battery. Once the engine stops and the battery voltage drops to below 13.2V, the BIC-75150 isolates the starting battery from the rest of the boat’s needs.
The Hellroaring Technologies BIC-75150 has worked flawlessly. Occasionally we would think that it failed when we didn’t see the charging voltage on the starting battery. For example, with a 50% discharged house bank, once the charging voltage rose over the threshold, then the isolator kicked on and connected the two batteries, just like it should. Sometimes, our impatience creates its own problems.
Willow doesn’t have a masthead wind instrument, but sometimes, if only for embellishing our tall tales, we want to know wind speed, temperature, wind chill, misery factors, etc. Instead of springing for an expensive masthead unit, we decided to try the Speedtech Elite ($135) wind and temperature meter.
The Skywatch Elite is an omni-directional windmeter with an electronic temperature sensor built into the unit. The unit runs on one lithium battery and, according to the manufacturer’s information, will work for five years before needing a new battery. The unit will shut itself off after 36 hours if a button on the front is not pressed. According to the company’s literature, the unit is weatherproof. To use the Skywatch Elite, all you have to do is pull the cap off, press a button, and hold the unit in the wind. Or, there are optional mounting kits for backstay and rail mounting. For Willow, we elected to mount the unit on the backstay.
While handheld, the Skywatch Elite worked very nicely. However, when we mounted it on the backstay, we ran into some problems. Our trusty Westerbeke 4-108 diesel sets up a nice vibration on the backstay. The backstay’s motion coupled into the magnetic sensors via the wind cups, so we started getting bizarre readings. We tied a piece of shock cord between the backstay and the mizzen upper shroud. This fixed the problem at all speeds, with the exception of idle speed (max vibration).
It was great to barrel through a nor’easter of 35 knots, with temperatures in the mid 60s, and see that the wind chill factor was in the 40s or 30s. That explained our shivering.
Still, all was not good with the Skywatch Elite. Heading towards the Bahamas, the wind cups started to stick. In the Bahamas, they finally decided not to turn anymore. We tried some dry lube on the axle, but it still wouldn’t free up. Then, the temperature reading froze on 101°F. We pulled the battery out to reset the device, but it still read 101. The unit survived two weeks in the elements.
Upon getting back to the States, we called Speedtech and explained that we bought the Skywatch Elite at West Marine for a boating application. They told us that there was supposed to have been a sticker on the package stating the saltwater disclaimer— but our package didn’t have the sticker. Speedtech agreed to give us a new unit, not because the wind cup axle corroded, but because the temperature readings failed. On the replacement unit is a sticker that says: “Important Message: Do not leave the Elite in salt-water environment for a prolonged period of time. Direct exposure to salt-water can corrode the impeller spindle.”
I guess if we want to know wind speed, we’ll have to spring for the more expensive masthead unit.
Contacts- Cetrek USA, 111 Alderman Dr., Suite 250, Alpharetta, GA30005;877/723-8735. Hella Marine, 201 Kelly Dr., Peachtree City, GA 30269; 800/247-5924. Hellroaring Technologies, inc., PO Box 1521, Polson, MT 59860; 406/883-3801. KLH Audio Systems, 11131 Dora St., Sun Valley, CA 91352; 818/767-2843. Speedtech Instruments, 10413 Deerfoot Dr., Great Falls, VA 22066; 800/760-0004.