Sailing happened to me. It was never something I was inclined to, not even interested. My first love has always been the mountains.
In Italy sailing is thought to be an activity for rich people. It is of course a prejudice, as there are ways to make it more affordable, but on average the costs are pretty high. I too fell into the power of generalization and thought that sailing was an activity exclusive to a group of snobby rich obnoxious people. Of course I was not part of this group and I preferred the cheap and harsh alpine terrain, where I hiked and sometimes skied.
The first time I step on a sailing boat it was ten years ago, aboard Bicho, a Beneteau 51 designed by German Frers, that a friend of mine recently purchased to run charters in Venezuela. Bicho was big, comfortable, elegant, and she was waiting for us on a dock in Higuerote, to take us on a cruise of Los Roques. The owner invited me and other friends to celebrate the recent purchase and the beginning of the charter activities.
We had an overnight sail offshore in the Caribbean Sea, which during peak season of the trade winds has some serious waves, and you feel them all when they hit you on your beam.
I slept in the forward cabin, rolling left and right and sometimes finding myself in midair. Because I was not sick as other of the passengers, I had to keep the helm for a little bit, after receiving vague instructions on how to steer a course following the compass.
Once in the protection of the islands we enjoyed a week of island hopping, sailing through flat and crystal clear waters powered by a steady breeze, and surrounded by a wonderful scenario. Sitting on the rail on the windward side of the boat I let my legs dangle off the side while keeping my sight on the liquid horizon, enjoying a sensation of peace that I grew accustomed to during these years, and yet still so hard to describe.
Back to Good Old Europe, in the gray and busy Pianura Padana, I resumed my job of building and delivering courses for employees and manager of various companies, helping them navigate through the treacherous waters of corporate life.
A year passed by, and I enjoyed the mountains more than the ocean. I realized my dream to take a solo trip to India and explore the Himalayan regions of Kashmir and Ladakh. I also decided to move from Milan to Turin and that put me even closer to the Alps.
Until one day, serendipitously, I left it all behind and moved to sea level, again in Los Roques, where I started a new professional path that I had never thought could be suited for me.
It was only after months there that I realized how those islands were nothing but a series of very high submarine mountains, with their peaks piercing the surface of the ocean, providing beautiful beaches and habitat for marine life and humans engaged in tourism. Once again I could feel that my attraction to mountain peaks
And yet in my mind I was no sailor. I still thought of myself as a manager running a business, until one day during a period of shipyard refit for Bicho in Curaçao, I met a person that challenged this view and planted a seed that would change my life.
I was living on a gutted charter boat in the Tropical heat. Only one cabin, where I slept and kept my belongings, was left untouched. Everything else was dismantled and under reconstruction, covered in dust and grease, and littered with tools and building materials. The project was very ambitious and I was doing my best to keep it underway while the chaos was unraveling around me.
In that shipyard I met a young guy who was doing the same thing, only on a smaller boat. He was fit, fun to be around and hard working, and he was outfitting his own boat to sail across the pacific to Polynesia, where he had a seasonal job as crew of a luxury Motor Yacht.
We were the two youngest people living in the yard and we quickly bonded. He had a temper and was very energetic, I am low key and relaxed, so we found a natural way to coexist. For me he was an encyclopedia of boat work and I couldn’t restrain myself from asking him about anything sailing related and observing his work.
He would also share his sea stories with me, on how he sailed that old leaky wooden racing boat, bought sight unseen, straight from Nova Scotia to Saint Martin during the winter, with a couple of backpackers that had never sailed before, or how once he got dismasted in the Caribbean Sea and decided to decline rescue and instead drifted back from where he started to fix his mast and sail again.
His stories were eye opening for a rookie like me that thought boats only meant business and plummeting bills. He also debunked some myths about sailing that I had taken as axioms, first and more important that you need a big boat to sail across oceans.
I immediately identified with him. He was a young guy enjoying life on a boat on the cheap, and this was a revolutionary idea for me. Beside his long sailing experience, we were not so different.
After few months of hard work in the yard and long night talks he set off solo from Curaçao, to his destiny across the ocean, but before leaving, he gave me a suggestion. He told me that Back in Los Roques there was a good old boat, perfect for me. It was a Rival 32 that his friend was selling for 10.000$. When I got back to Los Roques I quickly found the boat. It was in need of a bit of TLC but that was not so important as visions of a new life afloat were flooding my daydreaming.
There was another option, which I also took from his personal example, that had a similar price tag: to take a professional license and make sailing my new career.
I chose the second option, because I knew that eventually another boat would show up at the right time and in the right place, and I would be better prepared to take on the challenge.
Despite the complicated jargon and the many moving parts involved in sailing, it’s no rocket science, as some may say, and with enough practice and dedication it is possible to quickly become competent in using the wind to move through water, to navigate across oceans and near shore and to keep your vessel in good working order. However very few people seem to be out there enjoying the cruising lifestyle. That stands true even if today we benefit from a lower knowledge barrier than 30 or more years ago.
“Se fosse facile, lo farebbero tutti” says Max, a good friend of mine,talking about sailing and cruising. In English it sounds more or less like this: “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it”. I have been working on sailboats for 8 years now, but only after three years sailing on my own boat I am starting to realize what Max’s words really mean.
Despite what people who push their books, websites and youtube channels tell you, it is not for everybody. Like anything else, sailing and cruising has a cost. What I didn’t know is that is not merely a financial one. It is more complicated than that.
Sailing per se is easy. I say that because, in my humble opinion and personal experience, there is nothing too difficult about it. Despite the complicated jargon and the many moving parts involved in sailing, it’s no rocket science, as some may say, and with enough practice and dedication it is possible to quickly become competent in using the wind to move through water, to navigate across oceans and near shore and to keep your vessel in good working order
However very few people seem to be out there enjoying the cruising lifestyle. That stands true even if today we benefit from a lower knowledge barrier than 30 or more years ago, thanks to the GPS, reliable auxiliary propulsion, step-to-step DIY resources like youtube, to name some technological improvements that make sailing more accessible. It takes effort and dedication to learn how to sail, but that’s the easy, even fun part.
The costs of sailing
A recent article by Fiona McGlynn on BoatUS magazine takes a wide look into this subject while trying to answer the question why the so-called Millenials don’t own sailboats as much as the same age group did in the past. This arbitrary label apparently is stretching its ends and now I fall in this group too.
Like many times when you focus on age groups there is the tendency to fall into stereotypes and prejudice (see ageism), but I think the author did a good job collecting different voices on the matter, drawing a comprehensive picture of the phenomenon, and leaving open questions.
According to the article, the main reason for fewer young boat owners is a financial one. Despite this economical barriers we meet young people on the water that get away with the costs of ownerships adopting a shoestring approach.
This was definitely what we did when we bought Tranquility. We bought the boat that we could afford at the moment, cash, and we slowly put her and ourselves in the water, instead of taking a loan or waiting to save a huge cruising budget.
However there are also other dimensions that are easily overlooked, and those constitute nonetheless a cost that can be as limiting as the financial ones.
The workplace is becoming more and more competitive as the adult population increases and work longer in life, while the need for workforce declines. Having a good job today could be a good enough reason to stick with it. Successful careers entice people with status, income and a sense of a higher purpose. Workers without access to good jobs live with the expectation of finally landing one and focus obsessively on their career path and skill set. It makes it unthinkable to “lose ground” joining a more time consuming sailing lifestyle, like cruising your own boat on a sabbatical. The time we pass in school to develop these skills also extended, and an activity like sailing can be hard to justify in the overall picture, especially at a younger age.
The Fear Of Missing Out while cruising means much more than losing the last trend or gossip on websites and Social Media because of limited internet access. It means fear of missing the joyful and sad events of one’s closest family and friends. Cruising distant destinations puts more obstacles between family visits, that require expensive airfare and logistic hassles. I sometimes regret not being able to participate to a group vacation, celebrate births, being close to beloved ones in face of deaths or personal needs, attending family celebrations like Thanksgiving or Christmas, or simply reaching out to a friend for a chat and a bite of food. While traveling it is always possible to meet and enjoy the company of interesting like-minded people, but the disconnection from family and friends is definitely an emotional costs of this lifestyle.
The assumption that you are able to keep your car, your apartment, health or dental insurance, retirement savings and also take off for a long distance cruise is an illusion for most. Bills ands cruising are mutually exclusive. There is definitely who is able to go sailing and take care of assets as well as a safety net back home, but most of the people we meet cruising don’t have such luxury, and have to risk and sacrifice their security for an endeavor that could end in a hole in the water.
On one side this situation is a gift, because it could bring a reboot of the system, and open up space in life for new and interesting projects. On the other side there is the risk that the “economy of staying afloat” could prevent any future move for lack of funding.
There are good reasons why human beings evolved in the direction of living indoor and on land. Excessive heat or cold, light or dark, avoidance of bugs and parasites and bothersome if not dangerous wildlife, impacts from severe weather are some of the nuisances of outdoor life in general, and cruising in the specific. As you learn cruising, this is still an inescapable reality for many people on earth, and you could learn from their example how to deal with it.
One clear example is the simple act of bathing. What we perform everyday in our home bathrooms mutates when on a boat becoming more similar to what I learned from my grandmother’s stories. From the expectation of having pressurized heated water, you are happy when you find clean, spring water to fill your jugs.
Even if this experience can be eye-opening about the insane consumption typical of our developed societies, you find yourself thinking a lot of times about the long hot shower you can’t have, an air-conditioned room or the full collection of snacks and leftovers in a refrigerator.
CONSTANT PROBLEM SOLVING
Problems are the salt of life, but self-reliance on a boat that visits remote areas means being able to cope with a various number of problems. I learned it the hard way myself, as I watched my hands change look when I started to use them for manual hard work, instead of just for typing on a keyboard and playing basketball. It was a painful process like most of changes in life.
On a positive note, I discovered how rewarding solving problems can be, especially if you have to find creative ways and have limited resources. It enhances self-perceived efficacy and pride. As a downside, the feeling that reality constantly put you under test and challenges generates stress that could provoke avoidance of the problem in the first place and high doses of frustration and procrastination. A boat not able to perform can be a haunting entity and diminish the pleasures of cruising. While you grow in resourcefulness and competence, you definitely go through moments of feeling stuck and unable to progress, as it appears that there is always something unexpected that has to be taken care of.
I hope my words don’t sound excessively like a whine or a plead for pity. In this blog I attempt to overcome the solitude of my own thoughts and to help the process of sense making, a process that have to pass necessarily through the difficult parts as well as the good ones.
I can assure you that overall Kate and I are doing great and we feel very fortunate about our decision. I also want to avoid depicting us as martyrs or heroes because we deal with such harsh condition. I feel very privileged for being born in a certain geographical location and family, both of which I did not chose nor I can say that I deserve. I am blessed that because of this special situation I have the opportunity to travel and to gift myself with time and new experiences.
The reason I wrote about the less desirable parts of this lifestyle is because I wanted to be honest about it. There is a tendency to depict the entire thing as an endless vacation, full of awe and unforgettable moments. Worst, there is another assumption that you can only do it if you have the money, but as I hope to have shown in this post there is more than that.
I love sailing, but I would be a liar if I tell that it’s only fun. It is expensive, uncomfortable and demanding. Part of it is fascinating, but another part feels unnecessary and masochistic at times. Everything has a price. The cruising lifestyle has its own way to charge for the experience, but we are happy to pay this price because we really like the rewards. As one of my readers wrote: “once you are hooked, there is nothing like being out there with just the wind and the waves”.
While waiting for a weather window in Great Inagua, we had a full time recap about tropical weather. Metereology is a fascinating discipline, and it’s also very important to know the basics when you live outdoor and your safety depends on good weather conditions.
Along the 750 miles that separate the last island of the Bahamas from Panama lays the Caribbean Sea, an open stretch of ocean surrounded by land and islands on its 4 sides. This alley is crossed by tropical waves, low pressure systems that generates in Africa and travel west across the Atlantic ocean, towards the Caribbean and South America and generally dissolve over Central America.
During the peak season of tropical weather activity (August through October) these tropical waves could very likely generate hurricanes and tropical storms if they encounter conducive conditions on their way. The sad events of this very active hurricane season reminds us how small we are compared to the forces of nature, and that avoidance is always the best strategy.
We held our position in Great Inagua because Bret, the “earliest named storm to develop in the Main Development Region of the Atlantic basin on record”, had just formed from “a low latitude tropical wave that had moved off the coast of Africa on June 12”. As soon as Bret went its own way we resumed to follow closely the tropical waves to find the right moment to sneak in between them.
We knew that we would encounter at least two tropical waves during this leg, because they usually run every 2 to 3 days. Tropical waves could bring stronger winds, higher waves and thunderstorm activity, and each tropical waves seems a little bit different depending on the conditions encounter during their long trip. The closer to the peak of hurricane season, the higher are the chances that those low pressure system develop into a life-threatening storms.
Luckily we were about on time in our schedule, and the water temperature and general conditions were still not too favorable for tropical depression development. Making sure no yellow Xs were anywhere on the Atlantic charts (the yellow X is the symbol for potential tropical depression forming on National Hurricane Center website), we prepared to leave as soon as possible.
During the entire passage we also had the fortune to be in contact with two friends on mainland US, Chip and Elliott, that sent us daily weather updates via Delorme messenger along the way. We are very thankful for the great help and company from these cool dudes.
We pulled the trigger of our “as soon as possible” departure strategy during a day of strong southeasterlies that blew over Inagua and made even the sail in the lee of the island a bit of a challenge. Pulling off the umpteenth false start, we re-anchored a few miles to the south from where we started and decided to wait one more day before trying again.
LOG 1002nm June 23 Departure from Great Inagua
The wind was lighter and on the beam when we set off again. Once we cleared the south point of the island the swell and wind waves from the trades turned on the washing machine motion on Tranquility. We made a full day of steady progress until we found pockets of light winds inside the Windward Passage, in the lee of Hispaniola. It slowed us down a lot, with only 60 miles logged in 24hours which was exactly half of what we did on Day 1.
Those hours were uneventful from a sailing point of view, but Kate had the luck to see a pod of pilot whales during her watch, while sea birds visited us regularly, with boobies, gannets, frigatebirds and white tailed tropicbirds, very elegant looking birds, flying in circles while scouting for fish. The Windward Passage is a corridor open to everybody, from small old fiberglass sailboats to Freighter and tankers, from wildlife to floating garbage.
South of Navassa Island, a steep walled island that used to harbor a US military facility, the wind came back and we finally pointed Tranquility to 240 degrees shooting for Puerto Lindo in Panama. With no land in sight and way less company, our only “obstacles” were two areas of banks East of Jamaica, areas of shallower waters that could potentially generate rough seas. With 90 degrees of apparent wind on the port side, we had enough play to adjust our course and clear the shoals with ample margin.
Shortly after we received the visit from the first tropical wave. The wind increased, 25 to 30kts from ESE bringing haze sky. Luckily we didn’t encounter significant thunderstorm activity nor rain, but the soaking was provided by the tall waves crashing on deck and on the watch keeper.
For the following 5 days we experienced very similar conditions, sustained winds of 25 knots and 7 to 10 ft waves, that translates in permanent use of foul water gear and constant change of clothes. All the hatches and portholes had to stay shut, and the cabin soon turned into a steaming hot sauna, with soaked garments hanging in the hope they could dry.
The persistent moisture was source of discomfort for the crew (and we suppose for Beta too) but at least the progress to destination was steady and fast, with average daily runs well above 100 nautical miles and a peak of 133 on Day 4. We counted three tropical waves passing us during this leg, each one bringing slightly different wind speeds and weather.conditions, but nothing too severe, with almost no squalls.
At a certain moment the shackle of our staysail halyard block, a sort of pulley that hoists our smallest sail, broke dropping the sail on the foredeck. After clearing the area from the tangled halyard and retrieving the block, I started to assess the problem. Our smallest sail is very important in our sail plan, and we made a great use of it during this passage. The staysail helps filling the fore triangle area catching more wind and working together with the jib during most of the point of sail. In the windiest conditions, when our bigger headsail gives us too much power, we prefer to keep it furled and fly the staysail only. After probably half an hour of concern about how to fix the problem, I finally remembered that we have a spare spinnaker halyard ready to use on deck that worked perfectly in hoisting the sail again for the entire duration of the trip.
LOG 1746 nm – July 1st Puerto Lindo, Panama
The vanishing winds dropped us roughly 30 miles to the NE of Puerto Lindo, where we were hoping to land and clear into the country. Panama has two main seasons, dry and wet. From December to April the trades are strong enough to bring constant wind and clear sky over the country, while from May to November winds are light and variable and depend upon weather patterns influenced by the mainland.
Those were the longest 30 miles ever on a boat; the rainy season brought the typical lack of significant wind. On top of that an adverse current pushed us east towards Colombia. It took 24 hours of patience and effort to cover those 30 nautical miles and make landfall, which of course happened around 3AM local time, in pitch dark. Our approach was very slow under electric motor. Luckily our Navionics charts seemed to be accurate enough to pass safely in between three islands and relative reefs before reaching the anchorage. After a brief marital disagreement on where it was safe to drop the hook, we successfully anchored in the unknown dark bay cluttered with other vessels. For the first time after 8 days Kate and I went both to sleep at the same time.
In the morning we called Linton Bay Marina, and proceeded to a dock where we tied up Tranquility. Showers, electrical power, fresh water from the docks and other amenities helped our recovering from the tiring passage. Finally we were in Panama once again. It was 6 years since the last time I was here.
Following the adage “stay North to go East” we crossed the Gulf Stream and sailed across the northern part of the Abacos, to take advantage of the protected waters of the Little Bahama Bank and the Sea of Abaco. Here, even if seas get choppy when winds exceed 15kts there are plenty of places to anchor and rest waiting for the right conditions.
When sailing upwind, we ideally wait for winds between 5 and 15 knots. When it blow less or more than that we prefer to stay put at anchor and find something else to do.
ACROSS THE GULF STREAM
May 11th Leaving Florida, the night trip was comfortable with enough wind from the SE to move, and barely no waves. We adjusted our heading to compensate for the Gulf Stream pushing us north at around 2 knots: for the 12 hours that we estimated to spend in the current, we will be pushed 24 miles to the north.
LOG: 366 nm
May 12th Our calculations were a bit too pessimistic (or too conservative if you wish), and we expected more drift than what we really had. Even if we could have sailed a little more off the wind, in the early morning we were already watching the different tones of blue that brightened gradually as the ocean floor raised to form the Little Bahamas Bank. These sand banks and occasional coral reefs create an incredible spectrum of tones of blue and azure when the light reverberates on them.
Of course, right when we were transiting from the ocean to shallower waters, the wind died, leaving us sailing at about 2knots. I was worried we would not make it to the closest anchorage before dark, and being my first time in this area I didn’t know how much I could trust the charts for night navigation.
The wind picked up later in the afternoon as forecasted: the wind at 15 knots from the SSW sent us flying to Mangrove Cay on a beam reach. We got to the lee of the island just after dusk and while Kate was at the helm I used our spot light to make sure we were dropping the anchor in a spot free of obstructions.
LOG 389 nm
May 13th Early in the morning, with a fresh southerly wind we sailed north under jib alone to Grand Cay, the island where we cleared customs and immigration. The officer didn’t have a proper office, he was just walking around the village with a backpack and came to me when I rowed ashore alone. We ended up filling the paperwork inside a local restaurant.
Officially checked in the country, we took a stroll to see the island. In hindsight I noticed that Grand Cay’s population live a different life compare to other islands in the Bahamas. The remoteness of Grand Cay does not seem to help its inhabitants though, and the sign of a recent Tropical Storm are still visible on buildings.
It looked like the few tourists there were in mainly for game fishing and while we were boarding our dinghy we bummed some scraps of snapper fillet from gringos that were cleaning fish to feed Beta. It turned out that our cat is so addicted to can food that he didn’t even consider eating fresh snapper. That was not a problem for us and we used the scraps for bait.
Kate is definitely the best fisherman onboard and this time she almost immediately had a big nurse shark on the hand line. Luckily the shark wasn’t really hooked to the line, it had just sucked the bait in without biting and when we got it to the surface it let go of it. That spared us from the trouble of unhooking the unfortunate creature.
May 14th and May15th
Next we moved to Double Breasted Cay, just a couple of miles to the east. Winds were light so the open anchorage was very calm. Here we finally got our snorkeling gear out and went for a celebratory swim. At the beginning it felt awkward, but after few minutes I regained all my aquaticity and I couldn’t stop exploring the coral reef. I also grabbed some dinner along the way: one lobster and two conch. The lobster made a perfect pasta sauce and the conch ended up in a ceviche.
Being a true planktoneer at heart, Kate would shine the spot light at night from the deck to the water underneath the boat to peek at marine night life. We saw a lot of different and colorful fish, until, out of nowhere, a huge loggerhead turtle, the size of a truck wheel, swam under the boat. Kate was extremely excited, as she felt this was a reward for her loyal years spent in “turtle patrol”, making actions that protects the life of turtles, from saving them from crossing Georgia causeways to remove plastic from the ocean.
The weather kept favoring the anchorage conditions and so we stayed for more swimming and we also walked over a low lying limestone island. More marine life visited us in the form of a sting ray and a small shark that followed us in the dinghy.
LOG 426 nm
May 16th After the well deserved celebration it was time to go back to work and to make some miles towards our destination. Sailing on a close-hauled SE course we arrived in Foxtown, not before occasional tacks to avoid shoals and shifting sands, that put us behind schedule with the sunset.
We read that the anchorage was well protected from the easterlies, and with a forecast of winds increasing to 20 kts from the east for few days, we needed a quiet spot to wait for better conditions. Looking closely at the charts I wasn’t convinced Foxtown would be a good place to be during stronger easterlies and so the very next morning we moved further.
LOG 433 nm
May 17th to 20th. Allan’s Cay which was very close looked better, not only for the wide bay protected from E and S, but it also has nicer waters and few trails on the island. We comfortably settled in our temporary neighborhood having a bit of leisure time, catching fish and exploring the island.
May 20th to 22nd As soon as we had an opportunity we set sail E and S heading towards Manjack Cay. The winds were blowing 10-15kts from the ESE, and during this leg we had to deal not only with headwinds but again with islands, reefs, shoals, and occasional traffic on our way. It took us an entire day to cover 25 miles and after so much tacking we entered the bay and dropped the hook under full sail as if it was a joke.
Of the little area we visited in the Abacos, Manjack Cay was our favorite spot. We anchored in the southeast part of the bay, close to the wreck of a freighter, a nice snorkeling point. On the other side of the island, we enjoyed to walk the trails that were maintained by the friendly owners of a private home, which cruisers refers to as “the homestead”.
May 22nd to 24th After focusing our time and attention to the more isolated and natural part of these islands, it was time to seek for civilization to fulfill some needs. After a brief sail in light air we approached Black Sound in Green Turtle Cay, the very next door island.
This island was a favorite spot for pirates during the golden age of piracy. The protected harbors offered good shelter and privacy, the shallow waters helped servicing vessels, and the once thriving population of Green Turtles provided food.
Black sound is a narrow stretch of water with a shallow inlet. Inside there are few marinas and two mooring fields, and it seems to be very popular among cruisers. It is indeed very well protected from any weather. After barely passing the shoal bar at low tide (5 ft or less at MLW), we anchored between two mooring fields with plenty of water. The anchor set very well, and we enjoyedexploring the village of New Plymouth and the vicinity.
After a couple of days and some costs comparisons, we picked Leeward Yacht Club, as a place to dock and perform our marina routine: showers, laundry, washing, filling up water. We also had a couple of day of strong winds with several squalls but Black Sound is a very protected spot so we barely felt it.
The rates of the Marina are high, comparable to the US, so the stop was not very affordable, but considering that we only visit marinas for a couple of days every month the budget is affected only partially. Groceries and supplies were also very expensive in New Plymouth, and there was not a lot to choose from. Before leaving for the Bahamas we did a huge provisioning, so really what’s left for us to buy is bread and fresh fruit and vegetables.
May 26th to 28th After we successfully completed all our chores, we left Black Sound to stave some bucks, but also to be ready to leave whenever the weather looked good. We anchored in the bay just south of the village of New Plymouth, and prepared to sail offshore, but we didn’t have any good weather window for a couple more days.
OFFSHORE TO CAT ISLAND
May 28th to 30th We left the Abacos through the Whale Cay passage and entered the Atlantic Ocean again. At the beginning we had southerly winds. The forecast was for light air so we couldn’t achieve our usual ludicrous speed, but life aboard Tranquility was comfortable and jovial. Only when later the wind turned to the SE and increased we started our upwind tack in a general ESE direction in the open Atlantic, and we were catapulted back to the reality of our home accelerating and decelerating in multiple directions under the influence of wind and waves.
We planned two long tacks, a starboard tack to go East using SE winds and a port tack to go South. Sailing upwind is like following the contour of a wall with your hand. Different boats have different upwind performance, so that imaginary hand can slice a into the imaginary wall or be a little distant. But every boat have a limit she cannot surpass, an invisible wall that can only follow very closely. Tranquility’s limit is perhaps 50 degrees off the True Wind Direction (TWD), and with stronger winds and pounding waves we probably get as much as 55 degrees.
We had picked the best possible conditions to do this trip, with headwinds at about 10 to 15 knots, and as light as 7 knots at a time. The Atlantic swell was big, but somehow more comfortable than the choppy waves of the shallow Abacos. Tranquility would ride some of the more round waves with no much fuss, till she crashed into one or few bigger or steeper ones that would bring her almost to a stop. We spent a couple of days of slow and uncomfortable sailing and with our world heeled 25 to 30 degrees from the horizontal line.
LOG 658 nm
May 30th to June 3rdDuring the last part of the trip the SE wind had backed a little to the ESE and picked up in intensity. We reached cat Island in full daylight and dealt with the strong gusts that were fueled by the interaction between wind and land.
The profile of Cat Island is very hilly, which is uncommon for the low lying islands of the Bahamas. Most of the times the interaction between headlands and ocean waters generates gusty conditions, and we had a couple of stronger gusts sending our rails well below the water line, even with reefed sails.
We chose to anchor near Bennet Harbor, where we stayed by ourselves for few days. It was an incredible treat to be the only boat (and humans) in sight, especially because the water and the beach were incredibly beautiful. Even if we don’t don’t live in very luxurious accommodation we felt like we like VIP as we had the most esclusive beach at our disposal.
We fell into a long restful routine. Kate recovered promptly from the offshore leg and she was excited to explore this new environment. Instead I was feeling a little weak. The sensation was so subtle that at the beginning I thought I was being lazy. But when I noticed that washing dishes in the cockpit was feeling like lifting stones, I realized something was wrong. We soon discovered that I had a strong fever, and when checking my temperature the thermometer read 104F (40 Celsius).
For two days I could barely leave the the bed and suffered from muscle aches and from cold chills and hot flashes that would alternatively come and go. When you are far away from the reach of a doctor, any weird symptom becomes a source of concern.
Thanks to Kate’s good care and to my immune system the fever dissipated quickly. It took a couple more days to feel completely recovered, but we were also in such a nice spot that we couldn’t feel any rush to move on.
June 3rd I am from Italy, where soccer is more important than religion, but I rarely watch a soccer game. This time though, maybe because I am so far from home, and because Juventus (my dad’s team) was playing the Uefa Champions League Final, we tried to find a place to watch the game.
Thanks to the internet we found Yardie’s, a Gas Station/Restaurant owned by a Jamaican woman. Kate called her on the phone and she assured her we could come see the game. We moved the boat closer to Bennett’s harbor, and jumped in the dinghy to get ashore in time for the game. While the game was on we had very tasty Jerk Chicken while drinking Kalik (the Bahamian beer), and chatted with Walter, a 10 year old employee that told us everything about Cat Island.
Juventus lost the game badly, so maybe I should have stayed on the boat.
June 4th The day after I was feeling fully recovered and so we started moving again. We sailed south along Cat Island to New Bight, sailing a slightly longer course in order to avoid a few nasty looking squalls, coming up from the SE . Our intended destination was New Bight, from where it is possible to climb Mt. Alvernia, the highest point in the Bahamas towering at 206ft (63mt.). It is also the best place on the island for provisioning. We arrived to the anchorage later in the afternoon and prepared to have a restful night.
June 5th First thing in the morning Kate tried to turn me in at the local Police Station that was right in from of our boat as we stopped to ask for directions. The officer said she had plenty of space for me in the Police Station, as apparently crime is not very common on the island. After extracting as many information as we could from the kind officer we proceeded to Mount Alvernia,where we visited the hermitage.
Built by sculptor, architect and catholic priest John Hawes (aka Fra Jerome) in 1939, the building is a monument to minimalism and simple living. Dedicated to St.Francis of Assisi and carved from local stones, the hermitage has interesting features, like a wind tunnel for cooling and everything one need to live a simple life: a dormitory, a pantry, an outdoor bathroom, a cistern with a hand pump for rain water, a church with steeple and bell. A short person like myself could almost pass through the small doors without ducking.
After the ascension we went back to sea level and hiked to the grocery store. It was a mile and a half walk but the sun was already high and ferocious. We got few supplies but we were not able to refill our propane bottle, as no recent shipment had come to the island.
Walking back to our dinghy we noticed Tranquility bobbing in the anchorage: with the wind now from the south the anchorage became a little choppy, so we had to leave for a more protected one down south in the bay, closer to Old Bight.
June 7th At this point, with some more food in our pantry, we started to study the weather to decide how our next leg would look like. We were shooting for Great Inagua, which is the doorway to the Windward Passage and the place where we would check out from the Bahamas. We had a lot of options for stops along the way and studying the weather we tried to compute a passage plan, and its possible alternatives.
When we thought we had a reasonable combination of wind angle and intensity to make progress we set out to anchor at the tip of Cat Island. To kill time, and to look for a little pleasure, we walked a mile or so down the beach to Hawk’s Nest Resort, where we visited the bar, used the wifi and sit by the pool. All at no charge.
CAT ISLAND TO GREAT INAGUA
June 9th: Departure was set for 12 PM and we commenced the series of tack that would let us clear Cat Island and start sailing East. The first part of this leg saw us following the imaginary yet so real wall of headwinds as we tried our best to make ESE progress.
We were able to pass well south of San Salvador Island (the place where Columbus made landfall in the New World) without the need to tack and we kept sailing ESE until we were north of Samana Cay. At that point we turned south, trying to squeeze in between Acklins Island and Samana Cay.
We had mostly ESE winds so we could sail a little off the wind, but once we reached the passage between Acklins and Samana the wind again turned to the SE and we were tempted to cut the trip a little shorter and find some rest visiting Attwood Harbor, which seemed a well protected anchorage where to catch some rest.
I was on watch while approaching the harbor. As soon as we had some phone reception I was able to catch a little bit of internet connection to check the weather and download some political news about Trump for Kate’s entertainment.
Looking at the weather forecast I realized that if we stopped there we could potentially be stuck for few days as wind would turn east and increase. Considering this new information I steered back east and cleared the shoal of Northeast Point before turning south and head straight to Great Inagua. We had another 80 miles to go but we were expecting the forecasted eastearlies that would put our course on a less strenuous beam reach.
LOG 964 nm
June 11th to 13th: At 8 am, after a fast night sail, I anchored in Man-O-War Bay in Great Inagua. Kate woke up to the sight of a beach with palm trees, crystal clear waters and an old concrete dock. Few people came to relax and to catch a sunday swim, but other than that, we barely saw anybody else for the rest of our stay.
June 12th and 13th It was a beautiful resting time, we completed few minor boat repairs and walked to explore a dismissed surveillance site used by the US Coast Guard and DEA to monitor the waters around the Windward Passage. Around the boat there were nice shallow corals where I practiced some spearfishing, until I spotted a big black tip shark, six feet or so long. At that moment I immediately left the premises. Luckily it was a pretty unsuccessful hunt so I did not have any catch with me.
When spearfishing I use the precaution to tow the dinghy and anchor it close to where I am, so in case I get a fish I can quickly raise it above the water and unload it into the dinghy to avoid any close encounter with sharks. These fantastic creatures are usually pretty shy. In Inagua waters I had two encounters with black tips sharks and in both occasions the shark disappeared not to come back.
June 14th to 18th We moved to Matthew Town for provisioning and to do a final preparation before sailing across the Windward Passage and onto Panama. Our first idea of multiple stops in Haiti and Jamaica changed when we started to analyze the tropical weather. Bret, the first named storm of the 2017 Hurricane Season, was moving west passing to the south of Hispaniola and Cuba, reminding us that lingering in this area longer would inevitably bring to keep a worrisome outlook to any developing weather system.
With all our easting completed, we could now count on the push of reasonable steady trade winds all the way to Panama, which lies at about 750 nautical miles to the the SW of Great Inagua. A trip with stops in Haiti and Jamaica would definitely mean shorter hops and shelter from weather but also dealing with authorities and unknown local conditions.
In Matthew’s Town, we first tried to anchor outside the harbor but the anchorage was extremely rolly because of the surge from the South. There is a small basin with flat waters and good wind shelter in Town. The harbor is under construction, and now used mainly by Haitians sailing vessel that come for trading goods and government ships. Because of the work in progress there is no real place to tie up for a pleasure vessel. However, after a brief dinghy reconnaissance we decided to come in and moor the same way the Haitians do, with a stern anchor and a line to shore from the bow. We then ferried ashore using the dinghy to cover the few feet that separated us from the boulders ashore.
Here I had an opportunity to use good internet signal to participate live to a Radio Show in Italy. I had a phone chat with Matteo Caccia the host of the radio show where we talked a little bit about our trip.
Pascal is one of our favorite Radio Show, and we downloaded many episodes that we enjoyed when we had no internet coverage. They collect stories sent from listeners and read them on air, then they try to call the authors on the phone to learn more about them. For me is a way to stay in contact with my mother tongue, and for Kate to keep learning italian.
I had sent a short story of our trip right when we left, and the staff contacted us while we were in Cat Island to arranged a phone call. Thanks to Great Inagua’s good internet reception, it all went smooth, and Matteo was very funny and entertaining on the phone. If you have some familiarity with italian language you can listen to the podcast on their website.
We spent four days in the dusty noisy and hot basin, but it was worth the discomfort because we could replenish our propane supply, get drinking water, buy cheap fruit and vegetables from the Haitians and get few supplies from the grocery store. People in Matthew Town are very friendly and not used to see cruisers or tourists.
The Island hosts a big Morton Salt Company site, for the production of sea salt. Almost all the inhabitans are employed by the corporation
June 18th to 23rd
When we felt like we were self-sufficient for a three week period, we went to immigration to clear out of the country and sailed back to Man-O-War cay to anchor and set into passage mode. This time we anchored close to the Morton Salt company site, which is a bit more protected from wind shifts.
There we were in the company of other boats. We knew one of those boat because they have a very popular website among people who want to go cruise with their family, and they have a very good social media presence. It’s the Totem Crew, a family of five that have been sailing for 9 years now, and they are planning to end the circumnavigation on the West Coast of the US where they originally departed.
For few days we shared the common destiny of cruisers, which can be summarized by the expression “waiting for the weather”. We often check weather forecast and discussion from different sources before deciding to set sail. Then we analyze our needs and judgments to foresee how a passage would look like, and if it’s going to be reasonably safe and/or comfortable. Then at a certain moment we need to weigh anchor, as perfect conditions may not ever appear.
Nowadays with internet access in most of the places it is definitely easier than in the past, but the reality is that weather patterns are still very little understood by mathematicians and the computer models seems to do a good job only most of the times. The navigator’s judgement is still important, and weather routing is still much like an art.
It took an insane amount of work to get to the starting point. In hindsight everything could have been done with a faster pace, but to be fair we really did the best we could especially considering that we were in Brunswick and not in some inhospitable and hostile place. Around us friends and familiar place pampered us making leaving a heart breaking business.
After 4 years though we had grown very tired of the East Coast of USA and that offered an important motivating factor to get going, and do what we had planned for so long.
As a first step, we relocated from Brunswick Landing Marina, where we made all final preparation, to the Frederica River, in the anchorage close to the Frederica Yacht Club. The yacht club is currently under reconstruction after tropical storm Hermine damaged docks and boats pretty badly in 2016. Tranquility was moored there for over two years while we were making her the boat she is now, and we had a great time in the beautiful marsh with the fantastic people we met during those time.
Before undertaking a longer sailing passage we like to spend the last hours at anchor, to get a little more used to the motion of the boat and the ocean. Usually that’s the time when we stowe everything and get the boat ready. Then we sit on weather watch, waiting for the right wind and the right tide to have a good start.
LOG: 00 nm
April 24th 10:30 AM We departed Frederica River anchorage with very gusty westerlies brought by a cold front. We saw it as a good opportunity to make progress south, because during spring the prevailing winds usually blow from the south-east or south. We were hoping to get past Cape Canaveral before turning to cross the Gulf Stream and make the Bahamas from there.
LOG: 130 nm – April 25th 8:30 PM we pulled into New Smyrna Beach right at sunset dropping anchor just off the ICW exhausted and not feeling well. The gusty westerlies created choppy waves that tested our guts and heads. It’s always trying to go offshore after a period spent in calm waters.
The next morning we moved to what we thought it was a better anchorage, bumped our keel here and there on sand banks till we finally got a decent spot. At least that was what we thought.
The anchorage was really affected by the current and the wind was sometimes blowing strong from the South which make it a bit uncomfortable. Even if we were at the very beginning of our trip we really got some cruising vibes, after all we were in a new place, for no particular reason. After a little bit of self loathing about our poor sailing shape, we regained enthusiasm and started to relax and enjoy visiting the area.
Even if we sailed only a little more than 100 miles our trip had technically begun and we were voyaging.
First we went for a three mile row to town on our dinghy (assisted by the tide). We visited the local library, shopped in a supermarket for fresh provisions and snoop around the downtown area. Then Kate decided to do like the locals, which means enjoy the sandbars that come out at low tide. She brought Beta along for some training.
After the recon we decided to pull in New Smyrna Beach City Marina for two nights, to do some resupply, including water, propane and groceries. We finally learned where Rockhouse anchorage (the good one) was and moved there on weather watch. The westerlies were coming back and we felt ready to give it another try.
May 6th 10 AM: We departed NSB toward the end of the passing front. From the anchorage we couldn’t tell how strong it was blowing and once out of the anchorage we felt all the power of the gusts, but it was just a matter of holding on for few hours before the wind would become more manageable, once out in the ocean the northern component of the westerlies was prevailing and we could sail a more comfortable broad reach.
LOG: 260NM – May 7th The wind gradually decreased and when light air threatened our progress south we used St.Lucie Inlet and the rising tide to tuck in the ICW again.
It’s funny how user generated content on the Internet tend to be extreme and therefore basically useless. On Active Captain (that we use as a research tool among other sources) the inlet is described as following:
“St. Lucie Inlet is dangerous and particularly hazardous to small boats not designed to the open seas. Persons using the inlet should be experienced boatmen and have local knowledge”. Another source states that “The St. Lucie Inlet has a reputation for being one of the most treacherous in Florida.”
We read those type of warning for many inlets all over the East Coast. Move from inland waters to the open ocean could brings risks and can be dangerous under the right circumstances. Precautions and safety should be used every time we are out on the water. However, I find that excessive alarmism does not provide an accurate and informative picture of the situation.
This may be a peculiar character of American culture, that I find found in other circumstances. Author David Sedaris, in his very funny and intelligent book ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, describes it in a very trenchant way:
“At the San Diego Zoo, right near the primates habitats, there’s a display featuring a dozen life-size gorillas made out of bronze. Posted nearby is a sign reading CAUTION: GORILLAS STATUES MAY BE HOT. Everywhere you turn, the obvious is being stated. CANNON MAY BE LOUD. SIDEWALK IS ABOUT TO END. To people who don’t run around suing one another, such signs suggest a crippling lack of intelligence. Place bronze statues beneath the southern California sun, and of course they’re going to get hot. Cannons are supposed to be loud, that’s their claim to fame, and – like it or not – the moving sidewalk is bound to end sooner or later. It’s hard to explain a country whose motto has become you can’t claim I din’t warn you.”
The warning from ActiveCaptain made us a little more anxious than necessary as we proceeded to the inlet. We had very good weather conditions, and the transit didn’t pose any hazard to our vessel and our well being. The inlet is wide and well marked and with enough depth even for bigger vessels. The trickiest part was to endure the wakes from insolent powerboaters, which, considering the habits of the population, give legitimacy to the alarmist warning.
After surviving the Inlet, we sailed pushed by a good sea breeze and with a little help from the current. We kept sailing until we found a nice spot to anchor in Peck Lake, right off the ICW just south of Stuart, FL. We found it to be a quiet anchorage with no wake and we had a very restful night.
LOG 268NM – May 8thThe next morning we continued south on the ICW sailing by the millionaires’ mansions. It was just a short trip to a new anchorage called Hell Gate, by the village of Tequesta,FL. The entrance to the anchorage is very shallow (5 ft. at MLW) and about 7 feet in the actual basin, but our small vessel had no trouble sneaking in.
We were the only vessel there and the location was perfect for a quick trip ashore to West Marine (we dropped a winch handle in the drink leaving New Smyrna), Publix, the Post Office, and a very well deserved burger with fries in a local diner. Without refrigeration on board meat is a luxury that we rarely enjoy, and this was a pleasurable exception.
LOG:283 nm – May 9thWe waited for slack low tide to proceed across another dangerous inlet (Jupiter Inlet) without adverse current. Instead of sailing out in the ocean we asked to break a sweat to our electric motor, especially because there was little or no wind. While we waited for the tide to change we rowed across the ICW to Blowing Rock Natural Reserve, the very first place where we started to perceive Caribbean vibes. Here we took advantage of a nice cold shower.
The motor-sailing down the ICW to the Palm Beach area was nothing special, something we did already many times, but the North Palm Beach anchorage was calm and quiet, despite being in the middle of the a very populated area. Beta went to the doctor for a quick check on his tooth that was removed in Brunswick and he was discharged. All good for him to leave.
LOG: 286nm – May 10th and 11th We moved to the starting line, right by West Palm Beach near the inlet. To be honest, a horrible place. If we needed more motivation to leave the US for good, this was the perfect spot to be: crammed with boats at anchor and on moorings, with barges and commercial ships moving in and out, surrounded by a horrible landscape made of condominiums and warehouses, noisy and filled with bad odors.
Luckily we had a nice neighbor, a young diver living aboard his sailboat who filled us up with all the rumors of this crazy place and its politics. Besides the nice chatting we just waited, and napped, with Tranquility ready to leave at any time, whenever the winds picked up and following an ebbing tide.
Finally the moment arrived at 11pm, we weighed anchor and got flushed out of Florida for good.
When you find yourself in the situation of having a fine sailing vessel, equipped and provisioned for long voyages and when you finally severed the ties that bind you to a specific geographical location, you could incur in the trouble of having to decide where to go.
It may sounds a silly “first world problem” but the world is big and there are so many beautiful places to visit. If you have the goal of circumnavigating the planet then at least you know that you will leave from point A to return to point A. The route then becomes a matter of preference in regard of type of sailing (warm vs. cold), budget and geopolitical situation en route.
We never had a circumnavigation as our main goal, so we faced a very open ended problem. Our only requirements were to stay out of the Hurricane tracks and, possibly, not spend too much money.
After long discussions, numerous changes and endless planning Kate and I agreed to point Tranquility towards Panama.
The reasons in favor of the central American country are the following:
This is were we first met six years ago and we haven’t been back since. We still have friends there that we regularly speak to and we want to hug them.
It is outside of hurricanes and tropical storms range.
Panama is a beautiful and very biodiverse country, touched by two oceans, with hills and mountains covered by rain forest, and surrounded by numerous tropical islands. All packed in a small, accessible territory.
Fruit and vegetables taste good, fish and seafood is abundant and not affected by ciguatera.
We have an option to continue towards the Pacific if we decide to, or alternatively, to explore the Caribbean side of Central America
THE WINDWARD PASSAGE ROUTE
Once picked our destination, we had to figure out which way to go. If you know something about sailing you understand that the obstacles involved are not only the visible ones. Weather patterns have a paramount influence over the possible routes, and they have to be taken into account to foresee which type of trip to expect.
The first important call to make was wether passing Cuba to the east or the west. Panama lies due south of Florida and the long and tall island of Cuba sits right in the way. Predominant winds and currents flow E to W fueled by the Atlantic trade winds, making it inevitable to beat upwind: you can either do it earlier, through the Bahamas all the way to the Windward passage, or later, once past the western tip of Cuba; you can face the fierce but steady Atlantic Ocean or try your chances with the capricious Caribbean Sea.
We opted for the Windward Passage route even if the one along the south of Cuba had its attractive and advantages. We thought the Bahamas way could be faster, and considering that it was already the end of April and we were approaching the beginning of Hurricane season time was a factor to take into account.
Over time, we had learned that we prefer to make longer stops and visit places in a relaxed way in between sailing passages, rather than keep moving in small sections. An offshore trip is always proving!
Finally with a destination in mind we started to feel excited about this new chapter. The only thing left was to wrap up the long process that we started one year earlier and sail to the Bahamas.
Tranquility rests in the wide anchorage, dressed in her full cruising gear, hanging from a 22lbs Bruce anchor clawed into the seabed. Bed cushions, laundry and anything that would benefit from the touch of the hot Bahamian sun and the fresh airs are out on deck or hanging from the lifelines. The wind-scoop (a spoon shaped nylon chute) hovers on top the front hatch funneling the breeze into the cabin, while the boom tent increases the shade surface on the deck and shields the cockpit from view.
The wind generator spins happily, replenishing our motor’s battery bank. At its side, the solar panel chugs the photons that hit its surface and sends them down below, where our electronics line up on the chart table to receive the precious juice. Charles Vane, our faithful wind vane self steering apparatus, hangs folded up on the stern. He is off duty, and probably dreams about the times when he was a feared pirate. The white dinghy bobs around in the wavelets just few feet off the stern, secured to the mother ship by a black painter line.
This is a typical scene that recurs every time we reach a new anchorage where we plan to spend few nights. We are in Allen’s Cay (or Allan’s Cay, depending on who you ask), a beautiful island in the Northern Abacos. The reason for our stay, beside the obvious experience of the marvelous nature in this uninhabited island, is a dab of strong easterly winds that are supposed to blow for a couple of days with peaks at 25 knots. Allen’s Cay is well sheltered from all the weather coming from the Eastern quadrant, so it checks both leisure and safety boxes.
We are traveling SE so every time the weather shows its angry face either from the E or the S we have to take a knee. Tranquility is happy to beat upwind. Us not so much, especially when the winds exceed 15 knots. We can handle and endure everything below that but we don’t put ourselves voluntarily into the business of making upwind progress when the breeze is too brisk.
Because of stronger winds we have to stay put for a couple of days and we would have to do the work of snorkeling, forage for conch and fish as well as taking care of never ending repairs and upgrades.
This waiting time is filled with interesting activities. We dug out our entire food supply for inspection, cleaning, inventory and organization purposes. We finally learned what we hoarded in weeks of constant access to groceries store. We are well off for a long time and we just need to get few perishables along the way and harvest the rest ourselves from the ocean.
Kate also caught three small fishes, which I quickly cleaned, scaled and cooked. They appeared to be small Whitebone Porgies and they were delicious. It reminded me of the simplicity of the life I was living in Venezuela and Panama, where most of the commodities where scarce, but where very little was needed at the same time.
For long our plan of sailing exotic destinations has been put under salt for many reasons. Little by little we removed our impediments and finally set our course South.
We departed Brunswick on Monday 24th and made it only as far as New Smyrna Beach, FL, a mere 120 miles away. We transited the Ponce de Leon Inlet right at sunset and dropped anchor in a random shoal just off the ICW.
The reason for such a short hop was health. Both of us felt pretty sick, not only for the crazy motion of our small craft but also for something that we ingested pre departure. I spare you the recounts of symptoms and experiences of this illness, nothing pretty. Without some disappointment we had to make the call to pull over and anchor, to heal and re-gather strength.
We sail a primitive boat, with limited auxiliary power so everything we do has to be timed with favorable weather conditions. Weather is a Master we have to obey.
We had such favorable conditions at the beginning of this week in the form of 15-20 knots blowing from the West allowing us to move South along the Florida coast and reach a favorable hop spot to Bahamas. We could have made it not stop in three days, but we decided nothing good could come from keeping at sea in our sick condition.
Now that we blew this weather window we may have to wait quite a bit. We felt pretty bad about it, as rookies who can barely handle discomfort. It was a tough call, especially knowing what the weather had prepared for us and what is showing for the next days.
Even if our current status is not what our imagination envisioned we are indeed “on the road” in a place we have never intended to visit as often happened before. Our Master will decide how long we will have to stick around and what will be next for us.
Among the many projects we are hurrying to complete there is one that concerns our security while at anchor or when we leave the boat to go ashore.
In our world without air-conditioning, the possibility to lock ourselves in when we go to sleep and still be able to have some airflow from what is the biggest opening we have is a big advantage.
Beta likes to roam on deck when possible and we want him to be able to go in and out of the boat even when we are not onboard. On the other hand, in warm climates it’s good to be able to leave the boat locked while letting air in and out. It makes a more comfortable boat at our return and also it avoids that Beta gets baked in the process.
I followed the concept that James Baldwin’s developed for his boat Atom to design our anti-intrusion bars. Here is a picture of the bars he built from his website.
We made some changes to the design to make it more simple to build and less expensive overall. The bars go in place of two of the three drop boards that locks the companionway. The top drop board sit atop and locks the companionway, and they all slide into solid stainless steel tracks that I installed back when I rebuilt the companionway.
The bars are made of 1/2 inch 316 stainless solid rod bought on Buymetal.com and sent from Pennsylvania, which makes Kate even prouder as she is originally from Steel Country.
The construction took 3 hours and James helped with the welding and the use of his equipment and power tools. I have to say that metal construction is fun, exciting and very useful. I look forward to polish my skills in this subject.
Well, to be precise we are back to one of the places from where we started. Our sailing trajectories often look like orbits and a big point of attraction is Brunswick Georgia.
Brunswick is where we stopped longer than anywhere else so far on our Tranquility tour. Incidentally, Brunswick is also where I lived the longer since I left Italy.
The perfect excuse to come back was the participation to the 1 Day Play, a theatrical event in which we took part two years ago when we were regular residents. We had such fun and gathered so much positive energy in that event that when we heard the call for writers, directors and actors we could not resist.
In the last edition Kate acted and I wrote one of the plays. The leopard does not change his spots, and so we did the same again.
As the name implies the 1 Day Play happens during a 24 hours span: producers, writers, directors and actors all meet Friday evening, bringing random props and costumes with them. The producers Evy and Emmi shared a schedule that would guide the efforts of everybody to be ready on stage at 7 pm on the very next day, having written, directed, rehearsed and produced the six short plays, just 22hours after the first meeting.
At 10pm I joined the group of six writers in the Old City Hall to write a 10 minutes play with three female characters (we had a shortage of male actors). The result was a sci-fi thriller set in a distant solar system where the three characters need to find a way to repair their ship and leave a hostile planet.
I am once again impressed with the magic that I witness in the 1 Day Play. The limited time works like a catalyst in the artistic chain reaction, forcing the writers to a simple and raw script that then get refined by the intervention of directors and actors, who have to do their best with limited time and technical resources. This teaches us an important lesson on how limits become opportunities.
I am thankful to director and actor Betsy who curbed the roughest areas of my dialogues, and Fredi and Jessica for their acting, and to Peggy for coming up with an incredible Jello-Brain!
So as often happen one thing leads to another and after our successful artistic endeavor we found ourself sleeping on our old couches in Susan’s place and varnishing and painting the interior of Tranquility with some nasty paint. We also indulged in eating our favorite food all over town, visiting friends, building safety bars for our boat, and other million entertain
As soon as we got back, we are stuck in a whirpool of maintenance and upgrades, and social life.
This final preparation is important though. We decided we will sail soon away from shore, probably for a long time, and in order to do so we have to build escape velocity to win the pull that this place is exerting on us.
The idea of snorkeling, eating tropical fruit and discovering new places and cultures are equivalent to strong propulsion jets that are helping us knocking out the departure list.
We will reach the point where careful and thorough preparation will become just an exercise of obsessive behavior and resistance to change. That will be the very moment when we will have to push harder and defeat the gravitational pull of comforts, friends and family, and what is known to us and head into something a little different, that we have longed for.
A little more than one week ago we were at anchor in Cumberland Island, enjoying the warm weather and the gentle wind. Mornings are still chilly this time of the year in these Southern lands and seas, but when the sun shows up they climb quickly and make it a wonderful place to be.
We anchored in the north side of Cumberland Island, by the ruins of Cumberland Wharf. Right in front of the stumps left from the old pier the water is deep enough for us to be still floating at low tide. Unfortunately it is a not very protected anchorage and can only be used with wind from the E or the S. That prevented us to stop here in other trips, but this time weather was with us and we had a pleasant day and night on the hook.
Kate wanted to take a stroll in this particular area of Cumberland Island to see the first African Baptist Church, built in this settlement in 1893. A beautiful forest, with many trees down from recent tropical storms, surrounds the Settlement, so thick that it is almost impossible to cross out of the only road that is built in the area. We disturbed peaceful armadillos, looked at wild horses from a safe distance, picked up juniper berries, while walking through the forest.
There is a need for loneliness and remote areas that has a profound effect on me. It must have something to do with my feet, which are my main form of transportation right now. In quiet an unobstructed places early mornings became my treat retreat. No internet connection means freedom from constant feed and social media. It calms my urge to express quick and shallow thoughts.
Places like this have a restorative effect. There is nothing wrong with people, but I don’t particularly like what is built for people. Roads, parking lots, concrete surfaces, they all bring clutter and negative vibes. They all serve a purpose: take you fast and comfortably to a place where you can spend money.
In the morning I usually take some time before making coffee to write whatever comes out of my mind, without a specific aim. Then I make coffee and continue with writing or reading as I wait for Kate to wake up. It is my only private moment aboard Tranquility. Kate usually enjoys the same privilege at night when I crash earlier than her.
There is an article about Tranquility’s refit coming up in the May issue of Good Old Boat Magazine. I’ve been in touch with the editor working on few details of the story and pictures. It makes me feel a little like a professional, the exchange of information back and forth, the check coming into the mail, the editing process. I am trying to read and write better, with more intensity, and focus. I am not sure if I could ever make a living out of it, it should be nice indeed. Writing itself stabilizes my mood. I become cranky and distracted when I don’t do it enough. So you won’t get rid of me so easily.
After Cumberland Island we sailed with a clear blue sky and enough wind to move consistently toward our destination: St.Marys. I am rather pessimistic when it comes to estimate our progress, especially when we have to use our slow motor. It might not be very powerful but is indeed perseverant, and we sailed quicker than expected to destination. There we reunited with our friend Bill and other people we got to know when we were in the boatyard for a month of hard work. We visited and saw their progress, indeed slow but perseverant. If you keep moving you eventually get there.
Saturday the strong Northerlies kept us at anchor. We tried to make it to Fernandina Beach in the afternoon but the effort was not successful, we couldn’t make way in a bend of the river, where the current and the headwind brought us to a dead stop. We retreated a few hundred feet back and dropped the anchor again, then we waited for the next day when the wind dropped, and started to move timing the tides, ebbs and flow, trying to get to the inlets at low tide to use the next flood.
Again, with the use of sails and motor we did remarkably well and we darted through the marshes of Florida’s barrier islands, a journey made of dolphins encounters, birdwatching, fighting the currents and the shoals. My mind that usually see the darker picture, predicted that we would have to stop in Amelia Island and wait for the next tide the following day. Instead, winds, currents and a little help of the motor when needed, put us all the way past the Talbot Islands to a free public dock in Jacksonville, right before the St.John’s River. There we celebrated, with delicious food and with a dose of spy movies to be precise.
With this unexpected progress, we arrived earlier than I thought to Palm Cove Marina, so Kate could go easily to her doctor’s appointment.
Why am I so pessimistic? My mind often wanders about how to build faith. Not in the religious term, or maybe so, but for me faith means a deep motivation and sense of direction. It’s possible that my interest in psychology comes from a desire to know deeper why faith is so volatile, why, basically, the mind gets in the way of your everyday life, with worries, negative thinking and other sort of anxiety-driven doubts.
Every reduction of this problem to a mechanistic view never really answered my questions. What’s the role of bad thoughts, of second guessing, of self pity? Is it something we can dismiss easily as just wrong or unadaptive or something to cure and eliminate? Is being happy and have a positive outlook to be normal?
These are some big philosophical questions, big crevasses that are hard to fill by knowledge. Depression is real, and it is no joke. It affects everybody, but in peculiar individuals, particularly sensitive ones, it takes an enormous toll and becomes a struggle.
I recently read a little more about one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace. He was clinically depressed. And he was one of the most successful writers of his generation. Eventually he could take no more and committed suicide. I am sure he experienced extreme happiness, an perhaps extreme boredom. I can imagine his life was intense and full under many points of view, with vertiginous highs and bottomless lows.
Looking at people with severe clinical depression makes me withdraw from my self pity and negativeness. I don’t consider myself depressed. I have indeed my moment of darkness, boredom, laziness, cowardice and so on. Still, I look to people that show profound faith and hope with a bit of envy, as an example, or maybe as a myth, because we tend to share only our nice part with others. The undesirable thoughts and behavior are hidden by a curtain of shame. Even there, I look for faults. It seems that people obsessed with Positive Thinking go in a downward spiral because it’s so hard to really be positive all the time. Showing just the positive and shiny parts, they hide the dark ones.
Robert M. Pirsig, who also suffered from severe depression, wonderfully put it in words in an article he wrote for Esquire called “Cruising Blues”:
You can be sure that the same mechanism that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable. Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings. The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious plateau.
I found that moving slowly, a little bit like Tranquillity, gets you out of any situation. Keep moving slowly and things will get better.
Another disturbance in these day of rest, is the role of fear and attraction. There is a common saying that you fear what you desire. My current fear is thinking about sailing the northern route across the Atlantic. At the beginning of all this it was like a fun idea that Kate and I created once we started our boat project. The scary part at this point is that we might do it. When you start considering that a thing may happen Fear shows up, and it can be paralyzing.
There is this stretch of ocean between Newfoundland, Canada and Iceland called Irminger Sea. Named after a Danish explorer, this part of ocean that borders the East Coast of Greenland is considered one of the windiest of the planet. It is studied by oceanographer because of its peculiar oceanic currents, that sink and resurface, and play a fundamental role in the nutrient cycle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Is that scary? Yes, but it is also exciting, daring, emotional. It’s a place where not many people go. But somebody did, in many different crafts, with the more diverse crew.
Geronimo St. Martin, an Argentinian physician made it solo in a 20 ft fiberglass production sailboat, named La India. He later made it to Norway, Spitzbergen, and the Arctic circle, before turning around to reach Cape Horn, on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.
A family of 5 who call themselves the Coconuts (two adults, three kids, now four with the last delivered while wintering in Iceland) made it on a racing boat in October, not exactly the “right” time of the year.
These examples don’t mean that this is an easy and comfortable trip. But it’s possible.
So why this fear? Because I am scared I am not disciplined enough to cope with potentially severe conditions? Because I think that my body is not strong enough to endure the trouble? That my mind will resolve to panic in a difficult situation? Because it is a place so remote that emergency responder may not get to? For sure, all the above.
Human mind assumes it is more likely to face death attempting that route rather than another one. It may be true but calculating the odds could not be that simple or possible at all, and death has very humorous ways to get to you. Fearing the Irminger Sea is both wise and stupid. Wise because it puts you in the face of a very hostile environment. It’s stupid because any Sea or Ocean is worth respect, and we as sailors should pay the same attention, awareness and preparation every time we go out at sea.
But I am also attracted by novelty, and at this point of my life a tropical beach with bar, wi-fi connections, crowded anchorages, fine dining and warm clear waters is not something that intrigues me anymore. Remote and rugged, quiet and isolated are all adjectives that sound more attractive. There is eternal beauty that waits to be discovered. Even cold assumed a new desirable meaning. The only thing I still can’t go over is cold water. I have a natural, visceral fear and avoidance of cold water. In this Kate is much braver than me.
So what am I really fearing? I am fearing the effort, the amount of preparation it takes, the awareness, and the bare thousands of miles in cold water, fog, strong winds? The fear of failure, that comes from the judgements of others?
I can’t make my fear shut up. Fear is energy. Fear is useful. In this case fear is telling me not to underestimate the task and to be prepared for it. And there is only one strategy that doesn’t work with fear. Avoidance. When you avoid fear you bring it with you for the rest of your life.
Today January 27 is dedicated to San Giovanni Crisostomo. I know that because it brings me back to the stories I heard from my Grandmother Imode. San Giovanni Crisostomo is the protector of the town of Asola, where my Grandmother was born. Every year on this very day the silver torso of the Saint is put on display for the people to honor.
My Grandmother was a great storyteller. She was born ten years before WWII started and she lived through the fascist regime of Mussolini. Particularly she had to endure and participate as other school kids at the time to the events of the Fascist youth organization. During these infamous events , she and her companions would mock secretly the pompous chants and ceremonies of fascist indoctrination. I can’t imagine anything less coming from school kids. A child-like mind it’s the best antidote against fascim.
I also learned from other stories how her brother Vigilio refused to enroll in the army, and hid in the country. The women of the family would bring him food in his hiding spot. Imode had not met her husband Giuseppe at that time. My Grandfather was a little older than her and during the War he joined the Partigiani faction (the resistance army who contributed in fighting the Fascist Regime and their Nazi allies). He and other partigiani were taken as hostage by German troops and released in exchange for safe passage during their retreat through a Partigiani controlled territory. Because he safely made through that dangerous situation I am here alive today.
The collection of her stories was not limited to the the serious and harsh times of the War. She had also plenty of funny and incredible stories told in a combination of mantuan dialect and italian. Today I can still understand perfectly the dialect but for some weird brain circuitry if I try to speak it my Spanish gets in the way.
She told me so many times about St.John’s celebration that one time, roughly twenty years ago, I insisted to go. I was in high school at the time and I had to take a couple of days off to do the trip. After all it was a family event, so skipping school was not a big deal. I was also too young to drive and my Granma never learned to, so we took a train from Milan Central Station, and got picked up by relatives in Asola. I remember reading a volume of Father Brown Mysteries from G.K.Chesterton during the train ride and looking out the windows to the farmland of South Lombardy.
That day 20 years ago, I went to mass with my Granma and observed the Priest and the Major opening the shrine where the torso of the Saint is stored, each with his own key. Then we walked through the busy fair and hang out a bit in town, but the spirit of my Grandmother’s tales was gone. Asola had already lost the magical rural character, agriculture got eventually more dependent on machines and peasants had to find other means for sustain themselves. The service industry was about to be created to absorb them. This is the reason why some 50 years ago my grandparents, moved to the north of Milan to seek employment bringing their two young daughters with them. Urban life and job security took place of the magic tales I used to hear.
In the rural culture this moment of the year was crucial. It’s the end of January, days are starting to get longer and the extended daylight time allows for more working hours in the field. It’s time to get ready for spring, ten days earlier bonfires were made in honor of San Antonio. It’s time to go back and clear the fields, make ashes, prepare for the sowing. Winter’s reach is far from gone and the temperature are still low. In fact, according to another legend the three coldest days of the year (28-29-30 of the month) called “Giorni della Merla” are about to come. But somehow the worst is behind and people look at the upcoming Spring with hope and expectations.
Even if the magic was gone, I always like to go back to Asola, visit my relatives and enjoy the culinary treats of the Mantova region. Everywhere in Italy food is amazing, but I have a little suggestion: next time you go there visit the City of Mantova and the adjacent territory. You won’t be disappointed.
Going back to my grandmothers tales about rural life is in real resonance with this period of the year. Similarly to old times rural culture,life on the boat is dependent on seasons and daylight time. Short days mean for us long night watches when sailing, and shorter work days at anchor. In the morning it is dark and cold it’s hard to get out of bed, and when night comes early it prevent us to do much work other than sitting in the cabin and cook meals.
Today January 27th is also new beginning for us. We are not making any bonfire, or honoring relics, but if feels like a new chapter. We came to Jascksonville to get all squared up with Basic Safety Training. Sea Survival, Fire Fighting, First AID, Personal Safety and Social Responsibility, and we succeeded.
We took care of bureaucracy and established a new domicile. Days are longer and temperatures are mild to warm. The steps to get ready seem infinite, but we keep knocking a few off the list. I can’t wait till there will be only excuses on the list. I am trying to make 2017 a NO EXCUSES year. Wish me good luck!
I am crossing my fingers as I am writing this but it seems we almost made it through the ICW. Almost because we post-poned our departure again, 6 hours from the original idea of leaving right at low tide around 6:30 am.
Here is what happened.
We woke up in Morehead City, NC where we spent few days waiting for decent weather to sail offshore and keep sailing in a general south west direction. Everything was ready from the night before, we just needed to leave the docks, raise the sails and go.
It was 5:45am when I ventured outside heading for the restrooms. The sky was dark grey, rainy and windy, the nervous chop of the bay slapping Tranquility loudly. The temperature was 39F. For as much as I wanted to ride the Northerlies and get past Cape Lookout to finally head straight to the above average warmth of Florida, the scenario of this early start was not encouraging. The drizzle in particular was very disheartening.
Back under the blankets and with coffee in our mugs we held a brief crew meeting (Kate, me and Beta) and all agreed to postpone departure to next high tide with the idea of spending the next six hours napping,taking showers and in general being comfortable.
At first I was a little mad at myself. I considered that a “chicken move”. But then I acknowledged the wisdom coming from Kate and Beta. There is no need to make your life more miserable when you already are sailing in winter on a tiny sailboat.
We should still have a good 24hrs or so of Northerlies, enough to cover the 100 miles that will put us past Cape Fear and on a SW course parallel to shore. Then we expect another blow between Thursday and Friday, a cold front passing through and bringing other strong northerlies. This time the forecast indicates that it’s not going to be as long lasting as this past one, and by then we should also be hugging the SC – GA coasts with milder temperatures compared to North Carolina, which by the way, we are very happy to leave behind.
This North Carolina endeavor has been cold and rainy, with a lot of idle time waiting for the weather to behave properly.
It sure is challenging and rewarding to be able to sail inland waters, ditches and all, but it also very labor intensive and slow. It’s something between a chess game and an endurance race, played against a very capricious opponent.
With our electric motor we belong offshore, and that’s where we are heading.
When I think about our journey I like to think we are on a pilgrimage, even when it’s not clear what is the destination. I may not know the destination of the journey, but I know the sense of it, or at least this is what I tell myself. It sounds more or less like this:
Redesign life through interaction with nature and the discipline of sailing.
On this pilgrimage we are currently in Portsmouth VA, where our Columbia 29 MK1 was manufactured in 1965.
According to advertising material of the time Columbia Yacht Corporation opened its eastern plant in 1964 situated on a nine-acre on 2400 Wesley street in Portsmouth,Virginia. Looking at her now, 51 years after leaving the factory, Tranquility is in a very good shape.
We didn’t want to walk for 1 hour under the rain to visit a site which with all probabilities has completely changed. I feel a little proud of our little boat, still sailing. Sometimes I have weird dreams of making her lighter, without an engine and other “extras”, to enhance her sailing abilities, but then I wake up to reality when I think about boatyard time and realize it’s not time to do that. Not yet, at least.
Tranquility is probably happy to be underway again after two weeks in Hampton VA. The family trips went well and we much enjoyed the time together, the request for the removal of the conditions on my permanent residency is in the mail, heading for Vermont, and we hope for a quick response. Now it’s time to go back to sailing.
The first sail after the break was nice and fast. The boat moved at a good pace down the Elizabeth River pushed by northerlies, surrounded by a surreal vulgar display of power. Aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, hospital ships and other less familiar types were docked or under shipyard care while jets, helicopters, and Command and Control aircraft buzzed around.
We reached the free public docks in Portsmouth, VA where we met a bunch of fellow cruisers docked for the night. It’s coldish, and we are not used yet to be with no heater. Temperatures are expected to plunge further in the next days, so we are moving carefully, using the days that are in the low 40s to stay at anchor and save money, and digging in our sailing budget to dock and use shore power when it goes down to 32 as it will.
It’s our second trip southbound, and for one reason or another, it seems that we can’t avoid to run late and face cold weather again. Days are short and we find ourself in bed after dinner at 7pm and up after 7 when the sun finally comes back. Our sleeping bag and each other’s body temperature are our best allies, even our cat limits his night roaming to snuggle with us and find warmth.
The good thing about it is that we can read a lot, write, cook hearty meals, listen to the radio. Kate and I are playing tug of war over a book titled Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a reportage written by Jeremy Scahill about the use of private contractors for security and military operations in war zones. It’s a bit repetitive in its construction, but it’s dense with truly scary information mostly about what happened in Iraq and in other unlucky places on earth.
Weird enough where we are now it’s only few miles away from Academi‘s (the new name for Blackwater) main facility: 7,000 acres (28 km2) in the Dismal Swamp. There is a canal where Tranquility could sail that runs between Chesapeake, Va to South Mills, NC. Unfortunately the canal is closed after hurricane Matthew created some obstructions on the tight ditch. I guess we will have to delay hearing gunfire until we get to Camp Lejeune.
More than marshes, barrier islands and wide sounds, it’s the military presence (with the colorful addition of their competitors in the private sector) that sadly dominates East Coast landscape by sea, a reminder of America’s strength and beliefs, if someone forgot.
On a lighter note I spent time focusing on the launch of the new website, Psychology of Sailing. I had the opportunity of interviewing few specialists, both in the Psychology and Sailing fields, about this project. I feel that I am researching the topic widely before I can confidently write about it. I forced myself to a deadline, so time is running and soon I have to break this doubts and publish.
To know better the world of live aboard cruisers I am also conducting a survey with the aim of studying a little more the phenomenon. I you know anybody cruising for more than 6 months please ask them to contact me.
If you want to receive the first post and you are interested in following this new website you can subscribe at Psychology of Sailing here. Help spread the word!
Electric vehicles (EV) are the future of light duty vehicle, with some forecast that put internal combustion engines (ICE) to soon be less competitive when compared to EVs. Other experts are more conservative on how soon this is going to happen, but it seems clear that ICE is fated to become obsolete as EVs are “the rational, economic choice”.
But what is the situation with marine electric propulsion? Can small sailboat be propelled by electric motors?
Over the water, the most common form of auxiliary propulsion for sailboats over 25ft is marine diesel engine. This proven technology benefits from many years of successful use and a well established industry of dealers and technical repairs. It’s easy to say that the diesel ICE dominates the market on sailboats. Before owning a boat with electric propulsion, my only experience was with diesel engines and, less often, gasoline outboards.
THE DIESEL BIAS
Diesel fuel has a couple of good features: a high flash point that allows a relatively safe handling and a good energy density that provides satisfying motoring range with limited storage required. Today new, smaller and more efficient units fit easily in every engine room. Marine diesel give a sailboat an extended range under power and enough horse power to face any difficult situation.
When I first faced electric propulsion it was a quirky novelty, something I was not prepared to deal with. The most important discovery was that we all share a diesel engine bias. The common temptation is to approach the topic trying to ask the question if electric propulsion can replace the diesel engine.
After carefully going through a lot of research, re-doing myself the installation, and using it for more than 2000 nautical miles, I finally have an answer.
No, electric propulsion can’t replace the diesel engine. What it did for me was to change the way I see and use auxiliary propulsion.
A DIFFERENT MINDSET
It is common practice on a sailboat to turn on the engine not only when you need to maneuver around tight docks or anchorages, but also when wind or wave direction shifts to an undesired angle, when the speed drops under a certain threshold, if the battery charge is low or to fight against tides and currents. No matter what is the source of the annoyance, it takes little effort to fix it. Just turn the ignition key on, wait one second and put the throttle in gear and the problem is solved.
Fuel and general consumables are what sit between the choice of motoring or not motoring, and they are usually very easy to find everywhere and reasonably cheap. This mindset implies that power is abundant and available at all times, we can get to destination in less time, going through very little trouble.
Electrical propulsion on the other hand, requires a switch from this mindset, from considering power abundant to scarce. Scarce however doesn’t mean non-existent, it simply means that your reserve has to be cared for and maintained.
ANATOMY OF OUR “LOW COST” SYSTEM
Tranquility, our Columbia 29 built in 1965 is powered by an inboard electric propulsion. The conversion from presumably an Atomic 4, was performed by a former owner who installed an earlier model from the company Electric Yacht. The motor is a simple DC Eltek brushed motor mounted on a 2 to 1 gear, and it works at 36Vdc-65Vdc (48Vdc nominal), with a maximum peak of 130Amps and 100Amps continuous. The power conversion is estimated equal to 6 horse power. It is small and weights a little more than 40 pounds.
Here is a video of Tranquility’s conversion to electric propulsion:
At the time of purchase the boat and the propulsion system needed serious updates, and we were forced to replace the existing battery bank with a new one. We opted for eight 6v Trojan T-125 batteries connected in series for a total capacity of 240ah at 48v. The reasoning behind the choice of a “traditional” lead acid 6v battery is both economical and practical. Lead acid batteries are at least five time cheaper than Lifepo4, and our sailing budget is very limited. Also, in case of a single battery failure it would be easier to replace one “golf cart” battery in different places of the planet, without dealing with expensive shipping and duties.
We use wind, hydro, the grid and fossil fuels to o recharge our batteries. In details, we installed a 48v wind turbine, a 20amp AC to DC battery charger powered by the grid when we are at the dock and by a portable gas generator when at sea, the 12×12 fixed three blade propeller that regenerates power under sail when boat speeds exceed 5 knots.
CRUISING WITH ELECTRIC PROPULSION: THIS IS HOW WE DO IT With our current system we are able to motor in calm conditions at 3 knots while drawing 20 amps for approximately 15miles before we need any recharge. This estimated range is considered an ideal situation and we try to avoid to use our motor for that long. If we have to motor for more than 1 hour for instance, we would use our gas generator on deck to give some power back to the batteries. The motor rarely runs at more than 20 amps, and when it happens my hearth races as if they were taking my blood rather than electrons from the battery plates.
If we are drawing more than 20 amps it’s because we are fighting headwinds, currents in a narrow passage or a maneuver that requires high thrust, situations that should not last long if we plan our sail wisely and that not affect too much our power reserve. We always try to be very conservative with our batteries but at the same time we are happy to know that we can demand more power if conditions arise. How little we can motor became a game for us, and we feel particularly accomplished when we don’t use it at all.
OUR TESTING GROUNDS
Coastal sailing is the most demanding situation for auxiliary propulsion because of narrows, currents, navigational hazards that make sailing hard work and sometimes extremely time consuming. For these reasons, most of our sailing is done offshore where we don’t need auxiliary propulsion. Since we fixed our boat and hooked up the electric propulsion we have been sailing the East Coast of the United States from Massachussets to Georgia round trip with electric propulsion. As we are planning to take on more distance sailing, we considered that a successful test.
Occasionally we useD the ICW, especially on the southbound trip when we went from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC. In that situation, time was a constraint as we were cruising in cold weather and our priority was to get south as fast as we could.
One day for example we needed to sail from Manteo NC, to Hatteras, NC via the Pamlico Sound. The forecast gave us very light wind for the next day, not great sailing conditions. If we waited, we would have to face strong headwinds for the rest of the week and get stuck there. Considering the scenario, We decided to leave early, hooked up our gas generator to motor all the way in a flat Pamlico Sound. Because of the short winter days we arrived at night but once there we had no worries about when to leave for the next leg of the trip that was done under sail.
The rest of the trip we sailed and motor-sailed along “the ditch”. A gentle breeze is sufficient to sail faster than we would motor, and we also tolerate to move slower if that is possible under sail. Carefully timing the tides we can motor faster using less power and so our journey is entirely planned in consideration of weather patterns and current.
THE ART OF COMPROMISE
Kate and I live aboard and cruise full time. So far electric propulsion has never been a concern, nor we live it as a limitation. After some adjustments in our cruising style, we quickly adapted to it. Cruising with an electric inboard propulsion means to compromise. The reduced range limits our possibilities in terms of routes and landing options. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave earlier from places we like to take advantage of a favorable weather window. Sometimes we had to stay longer in places we liked less. More than once a sudden calm, a favorable tide or other “disturbances” led us to places we din’t plan to visit. With this limitations, we learned that it’s not a coincidence that most of the main harbors are built in locations accessible under sail in most conditions, as historically that was the only way to get there.
ELECTRIC PROPULSION MAKES BETTER SAILORS
Electric propulsion forces us to keep sailing even when the boat speed goes below 3 knots. These limits had forced me to work on having a better sailboat. Because of limited power we keep our bottom as clean as possible (I often dive myself or hire a professional when I don’t feel like). Because of our limited power, we purchased better sails for light air and installed a retractable bowsprit to increase our sail area. We spend more time studying landings on the charts, including alternative points of refuge in our planning and always trying to match the tide and the current. Paying closer attention to weather is another consequence of dealing with a limited range. Even if it would not be our first choice sometimes we have to leave at night or arrive with the dark. In other words, our sailing skill and navigation competence have improved thanks to electric propulsion.
What I am doing today is a sort of a beta test, the science fair version of astrophysics. Considering our limited budget and resources, the results are encouraging and what is really exciting is that there are optimistic signs that this technology will be more and more viable for future use and diffusion in the marine industry.
Even if we are being thrifty, we are aware how our battery bank have a relatively short lifespan. Well cared lead-acid batteries can last 7-10 years but the test of electrical propulsion is a harsh one, that’s why we are doubly careful on how we treat how power reserve
With this in mind, I look forward to what may be available in 2020 in terms of batteries and their cost. The electric car industry, Tesla in primis, has shown the world that the technology is already here and that only scale production and policy are the limits to a wider diffusion. The marine industry is opening up to LiFePo4 technology for power storage, and even if today is still very expensive, there is no need for technological breakthroughs, just a more mature industry and a wider market.
I would use Lifepo4 batteries today if I could afford them. This way I would extend my motoring range by 40% at 50% the weight of my actual setup. In this way I would be less concerned to push down harder on the throttle if I feel like, or worry about the time between full recharges, as lead plate sulfation would not be an issue. I this way I would feel more confident and leave behind our gasoline generator. The much decreased weight would give me better sailing and motoring performance in return. In other words, power will still be “scarce” but less so.
A SMALL MINORITY
We rarely encounter other cruisers with electric propulsion (but thanks to the internet we met a guru and now we know some others) and we feel that somehow we are an anomaly, especially when it’s a calm day and other vessels motor at full steam, while we bob around with full sails trying to catch any breeze and spending very long time to cover few miles. Sometimes it’s not fun. We are lucky that our sailing doesn’t have to follow a particularly strict schedule, so it’s not dramatic either.
When we purchased our boat the type of auxiliary propulsion was not among the most important criteria in our selection, and the fact that Tranquility came with electric propulsion was somehow a coincidence. We thought that we could any time switch to a different system if we wanted to, but after trying it we got intrigued and realized that even with its limitations electric propulsion works for us.
Today electric propulsion would be my first choice for a sailboat up to 35ft. Its minimum maintenance, the fact that is quiet, reliable and simple and has no fumes from fuel and oil are the perks that balance the labor that takes to sail more, which coincidently is why we are on the water in the first place.