Offshore Log: More of the Best

Last month, Nick took a look at five of the top products that helped make Calypso’s circumnavigation a success. This month, we'll continue that list.


For those who have been absent in the last couple of months—and we hope you were out in a boat—Nick Nicholson and Maryann Mecray closed the loop of their circumnavigation aboard Calypso, making a landfall in Antigua after four years and nearly 28,000 miles of sailing. Since then they’ve been making their way gradually to Florida and the US East Coast. Calypso is officially for sale, and Nick reports that they are “finalizing the design of a much larger boat for permanent life afloat and cruising to high latitudes.”

Now, on to the good gear…

Offshore Log: More of the Best

Northstar 941XD GPS
GPS has become the single most important navigation tool for every cruising sailboat. The price of GPS has fallen so dramatically in the last five years that most long-distance cruising boats carry at least two units.

We are no exception. Our primary GPS is a Northstar 941XD 12-channel receiver with built-in differential. As a backup, we carry a handheld Garmin 45XL, which is now several generations old, but still works just fine.

We bought the Northstar for several reasons. First, we had used it aboard several high-end racing yachts. Second, it was the single most popular GPS unit we saw on offshore fishing boats operating out of New England back in 1996. Fishermen are known for wanting two features in their electronics: reliability, and simplicity of operation. The Northstar 941XD has both of these.

That the Northstar 941XD is still made today is an indication of just how advanced it was for its time, with a big, super-bright display, built-in differential, waterproof construction, 12-channel receiver, and built-in tide information for all of North America and as far south and west as the Galapagos Islands. It also features easy interfacing to just about any piece of electronics on board.

This is still probably the best commercial-grade GPS receiver money can buy. The question—and a very legitimate one—is whether or not you need this kind of quality, at this kind of price. The Northstar 941XD costs about $2,200. You can buy a very good differential GPS—with fewer features, mind you—for less than a third of that amount.

During our five years of cruising, we have seen relatively few problems with GPS receivers, even cheap ones. We have seen absolutely no problems with a Northstar GPS.

We still like going on the bridge of megayachts and seeing our Northstar 941XD on 100-plus footers. It sure is expensive. But it sure works well. If we could afford it, we’d take a deep breath and spend the money again.

Contact- Northstar Technologies, 30 Sudbury Rd., Acton, MA 01720; 978/897-6600;


Fujinon Polaris FMTR-SX Binoculars
Since Practical Sailor began testing binoculars some 15 years ago, Fujinon’s flat-field binoculars have always rated very well.

We carried two pairs of F-series Fujinons on our circumnavigation: one with built-in compass, one without. The FMTR-SX binos, without the compass, live outside in the cockpit whenever we’re under way. I’m not talking about living in a nice, protective holder. They literally sit on a cockpit seat, exposed to the weather.

They have endured rain, breaking waves, and being dropped innumerable times. To wash the salt off, we simply stick them under running water in the galley. Contrary to the manufacturer’s instructions, they have been left sitting in the sun. In short, they’ve been abused terribly, and they’re still going strong.

Aside from the astonishing clarity of the optics and their superb low-light images, the flat-field binoculars have almost an inch of eye relief. In bright weather, we actually use them while wearing sunglasses, and are able to see the entire field of view without distortion or black-out spots.

Cosmetically, these binos are getting a little ragged. The protective rubber armor is a bit shiny and loose in spots. The original neck strap gave up the ghost several years ago. Salt tends to cake in the tight-fitting hinge mechanism, which we regularly flush with fresh water and lubricate with a shot of WD-40.

We’ve gone through two sets of eyecups—which are replaceable—as they tend to go a bit gooey from eye grease and sun over time.

We keep two pairs of these binoculars just in case we drop one overboard, and so we can each have a pair when we’re trying to pick our way through reefs into some hairy anchorage, like Khor Shinab on the coast of the Sudan. When we were headed towards the entrance to the Red Sea, we hid one pair of these binoculars so we’d have one left if we got hit by pirates. The only other things we hid were our cash, Maryann’s jewelry, and our watches.

As far as we’re concerned, these are the best conventional binoculars money can buy, and we wouldn’t own anything else.

Contact- Fujinon, Inc., 10 High Point Dr., Wayne, NJ 07470; 201/633-5600;


Max-Prop VP Feathering Propeller
At least half our sailing has been in winds of under 15 knots. In light air, the drag of a fixed prop constitutes a significant percentage of a boat’s total resistance. When friends of ours had to replace a damaged feathering prop with a three-bladed fixed prop, they reported that their light-air boatspeed decreased by about half a knot.

Over a long passage, this can add up to a significant additional amount of time at sea.

Calypso has a long keel, with a prop in a large aperture in the rudder and aft end of the keel. With the two-blade fixed prop specified for the boat, other owners reported miserable close-quarters maneuvering, particularly in reverse.

Offshore Log: More of the Best

While the flat blades of our Max-Prop reduce efficiency when motoring ahead, there is a huge gain in reverse efficiency compared to a prop with fixed blades. Calypso will never be as maneuverable under power as a modern, fin-keel boat, but our Max-Prop makes it possible for us to handle the boat in tight spaces with confidence.

Under sail, we really appreciate the reduced drag of the feathering propeller, which is the primary purpose.

The big advantage of the VP model is the ability to change the pitch of the prop without disassembly. We have only done this once, but that one time paid for the additional cost of the VP model. If necessary, we can adjust the pitch underwater in a matter of seconds.

Maintenance has been minimal. Once a year, when we haul out, the prop gets pumped full of fresh grease. For maximum efficiency under power, we don’t paint the prop, but keep it polished. This requires diving on the prop every couple of weeks with wet/dry sandpaper and a scrubbing pad.

Diving on the bottom is good discipline for other reasons. I clean the big bottom zinc, the Dynaplate, the surface of the depthsounder, and the blades of the speedo impeller. It also gives me a chance to check over the bottom, and monitor the state of the bottom paint.

The Max-Prop has been trouble-free, and is a major contributor to our rather amazing light-air performance. We’d recommend it for any boat.

Contact- PYI Inc., 7831 196 St. SW, Edmonds, WA 98026; 425/670-8915;


Hall Spars Carbon Fiber Spinnaker Pole
When we bought our carbon fiber spinnaker pole, we considered it an outrageous extravagance—as did most other people. Our 20′ carbon pole cost about $1,000 more than a comparable aluminum pole. The advantages of the carbon pole quickly became apparent, however.

At just over 20 pounds, our carbon pole is about 18 pounds lighter than an aluminum pole. This means we can stow the pole vertically on the mast with less concern for its impact on the boat’s stability and pitching moment.

The biggest advantage, however, comes when you handle the pole on the foredeck. It’s never fun maneuvering an extra-long pole on a pitching deck, but the difference between a 20-pound pole and a 38-pound pole is enormous to this middle-aged sailor. This is particularly true during heavy-air jibes—and there have been plenty of those.

We have now used the pole for about 7,500 miles, or a bit over 25 percent of the total miles during our circumnavigation. What at first seemed an extravagance now seems like money well spent.

The sole disadvantage of a carbon pole—after its initial high cost—is the need to protect it with finish of some type, either paint or clear-coat. Clear-coating is sexy, but won’t last as long.

We also have a Sunbrella cover for the pole, which is installed when we’re in port to protect it from the sun.

You can buy pre-made carbon poles from Hall or other sparmakers, or you can build one yourself from off-the-shelf carbon tube and standard end fittings. The advantage of a custom pole, over a build-it-yourself model, is that you can specify additional carbon reinforcement at high-load areas such as the inboard end, and additional Kevlar reinforcement at the outboard end, which will undoubtedly bang into the headstay numerous times.

Whether you do it yourself or have the hard work done for you, a carbon pole is well worth the investment on any cruising boat over about 35 feet in length.

Our other Hall Spars product—a Quik Vang solid boom vang—was another top performer, which we would choose again in a minute. Hall Rigging, an affiliate company, also supplied all our standing rigging, which has functioned perfectly. The Hall companies are not the cheapest, but they are among the best in the business.

Contact- Hall Spars, Inc., 17 Peckham Dr., Brisol, RI 02809; 401/253-4858;


Harken Deck Hardware
After years of using Harken hardware on racing boats, it was pretty clear from the start that we would use the same stuff on our cruising boat. We have Harken spinnaker halyard blocks, snatch blocks, winch handles, primary genoa track and cars, mainsheet system, and a variety of other blocks, bits, and pieces.

None of it has required any maintenance beyond flushing with fresh water, and an occasional cosmetic touch-up of some of the stainless steel components.

Offshore Log: More of the Best

The only parts of any Harken hardware showing significant wear are the studs on our Speed Grip winch handles. These have begun to corrode significantly because they are always left in the winches when we’re sailing. An aluminum stud sitting in a stainless steel or chrome-plated bronze socket full of salt water is going to corrode no matter what.

You can now buy these handles in chrome-plated bronze, with bronze studs. We prefer the light weight of the aluminum handles, but would rather have the more rugged chrome-plated bronze stud.

Essentially, we haven’t worried about a single piece of Harken gear, and we haven’t needed to. It was the perfect choice five years ago, and it would be the right decision today.

Contact- Harken, Inc., 1251 E. Wisconsin Ave., Pewaukee, WI 53072; 414/691-3320;


Xaxero Weather Fax 2000 Software and Demodulator
A dedicated weatherfax receiver costs about $1,600. If you already have an SSB radio and a laptop computer—and most offshore cruising boats do—you can add virtually all the features of a dedicated weatherfax for about $220.

We have used Xaxero’s products—Weather Fax 2000 and its predecessor, Weather Fax for Windows—since we began cruising five years ago. It’s definitely the best $220 we ever spent on the boat.

Virtually everywhere in the world, we have been able to retrieve weatherfaxes from somewhere. They have not always been clear, and they have not always been good, but they have almost always been useful. The best in the world are from New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and the US.

We have used weatherfax as one of our primary passage-planning aids virtually ever day we have been underway, downloading hundreds of weather maps over the four years of our circumnavigation. Even when you can get a verbal forecast, having a fax in front of you to reconcile what you see with what you hear is important.

We also used the RTTY function of the software to receive text forecasts in the Mediterranean and Europe, where micro-forecasting from small-scale faxes is of limited value.

Xaxero is a quirky company, consisting of two Kiwis working out of a shop in the middle of a cow pasture in the backwoods of New Zealand. But between them, Jonathan Selby and Chris Pettersson have produced some of the lowest-priced, most useful software available anywhere.

Xaxero’s Weather Fax 2000 used to be distributed in the US by Coretex, but no longer. The new distributor is NavCom Digital in Texas. It’s also available through several marine electronics retailers, catalogs, and navigation software websites.

Contact- Navcom Digital, 1500 Marina Bay Dr., Building 47B, Clear Lake Shores, TX 77565; 800/444-2581;

Nick Nicholson
Nick Nicholson is a boatbuilder, racing sailor, and circumnavigator. He began his career at Practical Sailor as an Associate Editor in 1979, and has been Editor-at-Large since he left full-time work in the early 1990s to finish building a 40’ cutter in his backyard, and subsequently sail it more than 40,000 bluewater miles. The voyages of Calypso were chronicled in the Offshore Log section of Practical Sailor during that circumnavigation. He has also raced from the US east coast to Bermuda more than 20 times, winning numerous navigator’s trophies in the process. In recent years, he has primarily worked as a race official and technical rules advisor in the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup. He also chairs the Technical Committee for the Newport Bermuda Race.