Editorial February 1, 2002 Issue

Low-Power, Simple Living

A couple of summers ago I spent two weeks aboard a 30-foot sloop in the British Virgin Islands with my wife, my teenaged son, and my then four-year-old daughter. We were vacationing, but also helping the owners, close friends, get the boat in shape for chartering. The boat had belonged to a resort, where it had been sailed very hard for 11 years and then mussed up in a hurricane. By the time we got there our friends had put the boat in good condition; the easy work remained—we set up the running rigging, screwed in a few loose bits, tried to do no harm, and ended up in a pleasant state of lassitude. The only part that got left out of the fix-it plan was the engine, which lacked a wiring harness and control cables.

The lack of auxiliary power wasn't a transportation problem, since we never had less than about 20 knots of wind (and often a lot more) to move us around. On the one occasion we had to come in to the dock to exchange the lone battery and fill the water tanks, the owner took us alongside his powerboat and laid us neatly on the finger. (With all that breeze we could have come in under sail, of course, but for some reason the guy insisted on helping. What a Nervous Nellie.) We also had an inflatable dinghy, so were able to get ice and provisions easily. We ate ashore with our friends about half the time. We each had two or three full showers at the dock, but usually just rinsed the salt off on board at the end of the day. We were on a mooring in a designated anchorage, so we didn't have to set an anchor light. We had a candle in the main cabin, and we ran electric lights sparingly for dishwashing and reading at night.

It was surprising how little electricity and water we used: In two weeks the four of us drained one and a half 12-volt batteries and maybe 80 gallons of water. I’m convinced we could have done the whole thing on less than one battery, but there were no manual or pedal pumps for fresh water. We took to filling three one-gallon jugs at once so that we could keep the battery completely off most of the time and not keep cycling the pump. (I'm not sure it saves electricity to run a pump steadily for 80 seconds instead of in 20 four-second bursts, but that was my assumption, and in any case it made the boat quieter.)

Aside from the pumps, the only thing we missed was a decent ventilation system for when it rained, which it did about 18 times a night. Each time my wife or I would work our way aft, shutting ports and hatches, suffocating while a 30-knot squall blew by overhead, then work our way forward again a few minutes later to open everything up. This became wearisome. A low-profile Dorade vent or two would have made a big difference in those conditions.

There's also a lot to be said for opening ports with downward-slanting lower rims and scuppers. The flush variety are lightweight, look nice, and cost less, but they need to be opened with a towel held under them. Neglect that detail at your peril if you open one over the face of a four-year-old at 0300.

We were a happy ship, neither mutinous nor mangy. The experience reminded me of how little free-flowing juice we really need afloat, at least near shore. Where we were, a solar panel could have kept the battery topped up, especially if we could have pumped water by human power. On extended cruises, refrigeration may become more important for some, but for daysails, weekends, or short passages ice, as Robert Frost noted, will suffice. True, it's hard to find in marinas these days, but you can make your own block ice at home.

There are some good procedures and habits involved in conservation aboard a small boat. Practiced long enough, they can evolve into a state of mind that serves well both on board and on shore.

-Doug Logan

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