Features March 2002 Issue

Offshore Log: The Best of the Best

Thousands of components go into the construction of any boat. For a serious cruising boat, which may operate for months or years away from easy or inexpensive sources of supply or repair, reliability is the most important characteristic of any piece of equipment.

Quality usually comes at a price. As in most aspects of life, if you pay less, you get less when it comes to buying gear for your boat. 

Robertson AP300X Autopilot

How do you select the pieces of equipment which have contributed most to a successful voyage? The biggest items are easiest to pick out, but how do you rank things that do their job day in and day out, but which are so prosaic that they are almost invisible? How do you rank hose clamps that don't rust, hose that holds up, seacocks that operate over years with zero maintenance? The failure of any of these items can sink your boat, but where do they fit in the hierarchy of importance?

Calypso is a complex boat compared to most production boats, but is no more complicated than the majority of high-end, long-range cruising boats. She is, in many ways, the antithesis of the "keep it simple, stupid" philosophy. Unfortunately, a high degree of comfort often entails a large degree of complexity, and aboard Calypso we are definitely oriented towards comfort.

Complexity is often derided by the KISS crowd for its potential for failure. This is a valid criticism, unless the complex systems are chosen for their reliability, installed with serviceability in mind, and conscientiously maintained.

At the same time, keeping things simple is no guarantee of success. We know one boat—which shall remain unnamed—which has no furling headsails, no autopilot, no watermaker, a manual anchor windlass, and no refrigeration. Yet even without these complex systems, the boat always seems to have problems and breakdowns. It's not a matter of simplicity versus complexity: it's a matter of choosing quality equipment, installing it properly, and maintaining it.

As a cruiser, you will spend more time maintaining your boat than you will on passagemaking, touring, or any other of the glamourous components of long-term sailing to faraway places. More often than not, maintenance involves little more than examining things for wear or corrosion, cleaning and lubricating anything that moves, and replacing key expendable items (halyards and engine V-belts fall into this category) before they fail.

In the five years since her launch, almost 32,000 miles have passed under Calypso's keel. All things considered, we have had very few failures of any type to this point. Over that time, we have spent approximately 750 hours per year maintaining the boat. This excludes basic housekeeping, but includes exterior washing and cleaning, as well as the tasks normally associated with maintenance. (We should have spent about another 150 hours per year maintaining the brightwork properly, but that's another story.)

After a lot of thought, and a lot of "what would we least like to do without?" we decided to come up with a list of the top items of equipment that have contributed to the success of Calypso's circumnavigation. Here are a some of them, not listed in any specific ranking. We consider each of them the best of the best.


Robertson AP300X Autopilot
More cruising boats experience problems with self-steering than any other single piece of equipment. For the cruising couple, self-steering is more than a convenience: it can be a lifesaver.

For the first two years of our cruise, we used our Monitor windvane for self-steering. A windvane is an essential piece of gear for most boats, even if an electric autopilot is the primary steering device, as it is now aboard Calypso.

Friends of ours without a windvane backup suffered a lightning strike that wiped out all their electronics—including the autopilot—and were forced into a grueling hand-steering regime for many days in gale-force conditions. Another boat we know lost its autopilot a few days out of the Galapagos on the way to French Polynesia, and hand steered downwind for 19 days. If that sounds like fun to you, you're welcome to try it. We'll pass, thank you.

If you're going to use a windvane as a backup, rather than as primary self-steering, make sure it's ready to go at all times. This also means that you must maintain the windvane, and be familiar with how it works. In the middle of a gale when you've just been struck by lightning is no time to be reading the instruction manual for any windvane, as they all have a bit of a learning curve to operate efficiently.

The Monitor is a simple, reliable windvane, and we would choose one again in a minute. However, once we installed our Robertson AP300X, we used the autopilot exclusively for self-steering, relegating the Monitor to a backup role.

Autopilots have a notoriously high failure rate, higher than any other single piece of equipment on cruising boats. Often, these failures are the result of undersizing the pilot in an attempt to save money. Sometimes, the undersizing is the result of the manufacturer's overly optimistic views of the capabilities of a specific unit. Undersizing can also result from an owner's unrealistic estimate of a boat's true displacement in cruising trim. A 40-footer with a nominal displacement of 20,000 pounds can easily displace 25,000 pounds when fully loaded for cruising. An autopilot sized for 20,000 pounds will be seriously undersized for such a boat. When in doubt, go bigger.

Since completing the installation of our autopilot in December, 1998, our Robertson AP300X has steered more than 25,000 miles without a single failure. We hand steer when entering or leaving anchorages and when reefing, when quick changes in course may be necessary. "Bob" steers the rest of the time.

In our case, the drive unit is a quarter-horsepower Whitlock Mamba drive, spline-interfaced with our Whitlock Mamba steering system. This is a big, powerful motor that draws a lot of current.

The average power consumption of this autopilot system is about 5 amps. In a 24-hour period, the autopilot draws 120 amp-hours, or about half our total electrical consumption offshore. If you're going to have a big, powerful autopilot, you'd better have a big, powerful electrical system to back it up.

The Robertson AP300X has now evolved into the Robertson AP20 series, with a new control head. Designed for boats up to about 80 feet, we think this is one of the best autopilots you can buy, and recommend it without hesitation.

Robertson AP300X Autopilot: Simrad, Inc., 19210 33rd Ave. W., Suite A, Lynnwood, WA 98036, 425/778-8821, www.simradusa.com.


Sea Frost Refrigeration System
For some cruisers, refrigeration is a luxury. We consider it a necessity. As I write this, sitting in the Virgin Islands in January, we still have meat in our freezer that was purchased in Gibraltar, four months and 4,000 miles of sailing ago.

We have always bought good-quality meat and other provisions requiring refrigeration or freezing whenever we find them, as you never know when you will see such items again. In Muslim Oman, for example, the one supermarket that caters to foreigners has a separate pork room for infidels, but the goods are both shabby and expensive compared to pork products in Thailand, whose Buddhist population has no prejudice against pig meat.

Before leaving Thailand more than a year ago, we spent over $500 on meat, fish, and chicken from a local high-end restaurant supplier. That lasted all the way to the Mediterranean. In Oman, we bought a few pieces of "chicken chest," as chicken breast was called there, but that was about it. There wasn't a lot of meat available in Eritrea, the Sudan, or Egypt, and what there was couldn't be readily identified.

Our Sea Frost refrigeration system has functioned flawlessly since the day it was commissioned in 1996. We designed and built the refrigerator and freezer boxes with engineering input from Sea Frost. We have approximately five cubic feet of usable freezer space, and the same amount of refrigerator capacity. That may not sound like a lot, but with careful packing, you can put an awful lot of food in a relatively small space.

Having a reliable freezer has freed us from the constant search for perishable food. We have probably eaten far better than we should have, but we're not complaining. We have both gained weight on our trip around the world.

We have two holding plates in the freezer, which spill over into the reefer. There are two sets of coils in each holding plate: one for the engine-driven compressor, the other for the shore power compressor. We depend on the engine-driven system about 95% percent of the time.

We've met relatively few cruising boats with a true freezer system. That's because such systems need to be designed into the boat from day one, with an appropriately insulated box. Very few production boats—or even custom boats, for that matter—have refrigerator and freezer boxes suitable for long-term maintenance of refrigerated or frozen foods.

The absolute reliability of the Sea Frost system means that we can buy large quantities of expensive perishables without fear of losing them when the system breaks down.

We like to eat well wherever we are, and the Sea Frost system has been the key to making that possible. It is simple, bulletproof, and makes ice cubes.

Sea Frost Refrigerator-Freezer System: Sea Frost, 372 Rt. 4, Barrington, NH 03825, 603/868-5720, www.seafrost.com.


Village Marine Little Wonder Watermaker
About half the cruising boats we have met are equipped with watermakers. With the advent of ever-more-efficient low-voltage watermakers, this percentage will continue to rise.

In much of the world, drinking water is a commodity for which you pay dearly. In Thailand, for example, not even the locals drink the water that comes out of the tap. If you want to fill your water tanks with potable water, you buy 20-liter jugs to decant into your tanks. Handling these 44-pound bottles can be pretty hard on middle-aged backs.

Village Marine has significantly upgraded the Little Wonder since our unit was built back in 1997. The primary upgrade has been to improve the electrical efficiency of the machine using a lower-amperage motor.

In four years, we have put about 1,500 hours on our Little Wonder. That translates into a little over 8,000 gallons of water—about half our total "normal" water usage over that period, excluding the large amounts of water we use to wash down the boat after a passage, if water is available. In Israel, for example, we probably used 1,000 gallons of marina water over a four-day period to remove Red Sea sand and dust from the boat. Unfortunately, a big dust storm brought most of it back a few days later.

A watermaker frees you from the perpetual search for potable water. On several occasions, in out-of-the-way places, we have filled other cruisers' tanks from our own since we could replace our water, and they couldn't. We use water carefully, but we don't have to ration it.

Watermakers are actually lower in maintenance the more they are used. If you use a watermaker daily, virtually the only routine maintenance is occasional changing of the pre-filter system, which keeps particulate matter out of the membrane.

We would not recommend any watermaker that uses non-standard membranes. Standard parts, such as 21" or 42" membranes, are available in virtually any place that has more than nominal marine services. Proprietary membranes are harder to come by, and a lot more expensive.

The Little Wonder has been worth its weight in gold. Even in the high salinity of the Red Sea, the machine turned out high-quality water without complaint. We usually check the TDS level (total dissolved solids) of "local" water before taking it aboard, and have often found that the water produced by our Little Wonder is better than the shore supply. You can't ask for more than that.

Village Marine Little Wonder Watermaker: Village Marine Tech, 2000 W. 135th St., Gardena, CA 90249, 310/516-9911, www.villagemarine.com.


Heart Interface Link 2000-R
Most cruising boats use a lot of electrical power. Monitoring the state of the electrical system helps keep batteries in good shape, tells you when to charge, and gives a good general idea of the condition of your whole low-voltage system.

The Link 2000-R provides a lot of information in a small package. It controls our Freedom 20 charger/inverter, regulates our Balmar alternators, and monitors the electrical system.

We really didn't know how much to expect from this unit when we installed it, fearing that it might be too complicated and fragile. Installation was tedious, and the myriad of small wires and circuit boards seemed like a recipe for disaster in the marine environment.

In fact, the Link 2000-R has worked perfectly. We carry spare regulator modules and other bits that we thought might not last, but we have never needed any of them.

We micro-manage our electrical consumption and charging to prolong battery life. Without the Link, this would be impossible.

The Link is not without its quirks. It sometimes seems to be too conservative, slightly underestimating the actual condition of the batteries, compared to what the no-load voltage indicates. This is most notable when the batteries are not charged for an extended period of time, as might be the case when we are off traveling. All of these parameters can be fine-tuned by the operator, but we suspect that most people—ourselves included—stick with the default values, except for specifying the size of the battery bank and type of batteries.

The Link was one of the first sophisticated monitoring systems, and is still one of the best. Unfortunately, it only works with Heart Interface inverter/chargers. These are reliable, tough, cost-effective units that do the job well if you don't need a true sine wave inverter. These days, however, true sine wave inverters are rapidly becoming the norm, and if Heart Interface doesn't get on the bandwagon, they may find themselves left behind.

Heart Interface Link 2000-R: Heart Interface, 21440 68th Ave. S., Kent, WA 98032, 253/872-7225, www.heartinterface.com.


Lofrans Falkon Anchor Windlass
Our choice of a Lofrans Falkon anchor windlass was almost a matter of luck. Most aluminum windlasses have paint or powdercoat finishes. Inevitably, after a few years of use in salt water, this finish starts to bubble and peel, and it's all downhill from there.

Lofrans is one of the few manufacturers offering windlasses with a clear anodized finish, which is what originally caught our eye. Fortunately, the Falkon also turned out to be a very, very good windlass.

The Falkon is major overkill for a 40-footer, but we're not complaining. The high current draw of the 1500-watt motor doesn't really matter, as the engine is almost always running when the windlass is in use.

We really like the handwheel brake, which keeps your fingers away from the chain. Likewise, the clutch for the chainwheel is operated by a long, removable handle.

Like most electric windlasses, the Falkon's weakness is mediocre operation in manual mode, but we've never had to use that feature. The only problem we have had is slight oil leakage around the main shaft seals, the result of leaving the chain fully tensioned on the windlass to help hold the anchor in place when passagemaking. It took us a couple of years to realize that this was putting undue strain on the shafts and seals.

This windlass has worked hard, with no complaints, retrieving anchors snagged on rocks and coral, and on one memorable occasion, providing the grunt to help pull us off a reef in the Red Sea. For that one job alone, the Lofrans Falkon would have to go on the list of best products, even if it hadn't already proven itself to be a strong, reliable performer.

The clear anodized finish on the windlass has held up extremely well. When it's not in use, we keep the windlass protected with a simple Sunbrella cover that snaps to the teak base which raises the windlass slightly off the deck. The cover also keeps sheets from fouling on the windlass when sailing.

Of course, the windlass is no better than the other components of the ground tackle system, and our combination of the Falkon, 400 feet of 3/8" high-tensile chain, a 60-pound CQR anchor, and a strong, clever anchor roller fitting has made anchoring a painless and stress-free activity.

The primary ground tackle system, including the heavy stemhead fitting, weighs about 900 pounds. It's been worth every ounce of it.

Lofrans Falkon Anchor Windlass: Imtra Corporation, 30 Samuel Barnet Blvd., New Bedford, MA 02745, 508/995-7000, www.lofrans.it.

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