One man’s experiment with electric propulsion

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”.

The simple yet powerful setup for Tesla S
The simple yet powerful setup for Tesla S  (photo by Oleg Alexandrov)

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 engine room of a small sailboat
The engine room of a small sailboat (photo by PHGCOM )

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.

Motor sailing on the Intracoastal Waterway
Motor sailing on the Intracoastal Waterway

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.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS
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.

East Coast Northbound: climbing capes

CAPES
The Capes

Sailing in the vicinity of capes is always tricky. Wind, waves, tide and other natural events shaped their appearance and at the same time those forces are influenced by the mass of land they collide with. A vessel rounding a cape is subjected to variable conditions, and for this reason it’s always a good idea to give extra miles when rounding a headland or promontory.

The East Coast of the US has several capes that influenced our route in many ways. Mainly they were obstructing our NE progress.  After Cape Hatteras, we could all of the sudden head almost due North, and get faster to cooler weather. Sometimes to go around the coast feels like climbing mountains, the effort increases close to vertical peaks.

Wrighstville Beach to Lookout Bight, NC 72 NM

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Sunrise in Wrightsville Beach

A group of open water swimmers was taking advantage of the early hours and of the momentary absence of boat traffic to practice. Tranquility was the only boat under way and from the cockpit we watched carefully the colorful swim caps and kept a good distance from them. It must be a popular group in Wrigthsville as we counted at least 50 people taming the inlet at 6 am. The sun was barely up but it was clear it would be another hot day.

We had enough wind to leave the Masonboro inlet and head ENE again, but soon we hit lighter conditions and the boat speed suffered. We were hoping to get there at dusk but the pace was not ideal. The wind picked up later when we were already in sight of the Beaufort inlet and the sunlight was gone. After the last gybe we had all the rolling waves hitting us almost on the beam as we were following the bearing of two red buoys marking the entrance of the bight.

We were trusting our chart plotter that was giving us a depth of 30 ft. It was a lie. Right when we heard the sound of braking waves and realized we could be in trouble, the boat hit the bottom with the keel. A sandy bottom judging from the sound. The long keel of our boat just bumped in a sand bank, we turned immediately to port where we found deeper waters and we adjusted our position to the blinking red buoy.

Lookout Bight
LOOKOUT BIGHT VIEW, NORTH UP

We had approached the entrance with a too tight angle and the Navionics Charts had assured we were in no danger. It was a lucky way to demonstrate how chart plotters are not the solution to navigation problems. Had we listened more carefully to the sound of the sea or took a wider, more conservative angle of approach and we could have avoided that. Good lesson for the future.

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LOOKOUT BIGHT FROM ESE

After the surprising and scary bump we were sailing in flat waters as the land had already cut the swell from the ocean. This time it was upwind as we turned SSW to get in the lee of the sand dunes. It was time to decide where to anchor. We observed the anchor lights at the top of masts, trying to judge the distances from the beach, from other anchored boats and find the good depth to drop our anchor. With a quick look at the horizon it became also obvious that a line of thunderstorms was on our way.

After a little recon we let the anchor sink to the bottom in 17feet of water and I was giving enough chain and rode out to absorb the thunderstorm charging for us. Just as I cleated the anchor rode and positioned the anti chafe gear the squall hit us with some violent wind gusts and blinding rain from the NW. As the anchor had no sufficient time to set, it started to drag away from the beach towards deeper waters.

Luckily we had no obstacles in our path and finally the anchor set bringing our bow to the wind and waves. I calculated that we dragged at least 200 yards before the anchor found a good bite and started to dig into the sand. The thunderstorm raged for few minutes more, before continuing on and leaving a quiet night behind. When visibility improved we noticed we were a little distant from the beach, but we were now trusting the holding of our ground tackle.

LB walk
Walking the dunes
LB dunes
Facing the Atlantic Ocean

We spent few days in the bight. One day we swam ashore and walked all around on the beach. The next day we hiked the beach and the dunes and made it to the other side in the hotter and sunnier day I experienced this summer. We made it, but it was a serious feat. During these hikes, we talked a lot about ideas, a torrent of ideas. Business plans, life plans, travel plans a big collection of our imaginary world had been discussed, analyzed and then dismissed or saved for later discussion. We thought about possible uses of shells, writing ideas, financial investments. Walking enhance our imagination to the point that we could even end up arguing furiously over an imaginary plan that is far from having any foundation.

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Lookout Bight gets busy with any type of craft during weekends

I consider the Lookout Bight one of the nicest place on the East Coast of the US, especially if you have the opportunity ti visit it on a boat. Crowded during weekends, it is remote during weekdays and at night it is absolutely quiet. We swam a lot and I even did my first bottom scrub since we launched the boat. The day we left, when the conditions we were looking for to face the longest and most difficult section of the trip finally came, I noticed a sand shark surfacing and trying to reach my breakfast pot… Even though I am aware how harmless they are, I am glad I went scrubbing the hull without knowing about it!

Lookout bight to Ocean City, MD 289 NM

We expected very light conditions for an extended period of time before venture out of the Bight to round Cape Lookout first, and Hatteras later, and that’s exactly what we got. We had an upwind first part to get around the cape, so light air was actually good, as the flat seas didn’t obstruct too much our progression. Once around, we received a little help from the Gulf Stream that pushed us NE.

I think the best explanation ever of how an ocean current works is from the Disney/Pixar movie Finding Nemo, when Crush the turtle shows it to Marlin <<You’re riding it, dude. Check it out!>>

It was a very nice ride indeed. The Gulf stream current flows close to the Outer Banks Coast. We were sailing downwind about twenty miles offshore in light winds and still we had a steady progress of 4kts even 5kts at times. On a calm ocean we slipped into our watch routine mile after mile and had no visits from thunderstorms. The depth sounder took a peak of what’s outside the Continental Shelf and settled to 385 feet (apparently its maximum reading), but according to the charts we were in an area of 1600ft of depth. Kate shivered trying to imagine such an ocean depth. Here the water was really blue and turned violet when the sun was setting.

GS dude
“You are riding it, dude. Check it out!”

The round of Hatteras went almost unnoticed. For the entire trip we kept talking about it like it was Cape Horn or Good Hope. Even if it’s blasphemous to compare it to some of the most stormy capes in the world, Hatteras has a bad reputation among sailors in the East Coast, and we were constantly warned when they heard us talking about going around. Cape Hatteras is also known as “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of many shipwrecks happened in the area. The presence of the Gulf Stream, the fierce storms that hit both in winter and summer, and a very thin and steep Continental Shelf make this cape a place not to underestimate and to avoid in bad weather.

After Hatteras we turned the bow North and passed the Chesapeake entrance to continue along the Delmarva peninsula. Our destination was Ocean City where we had the mission to find supplies, regroup and organize the next leg. I remember looking at the charts and asking Kate “How is Ocean City?”. She replied that she spent few summers there when she was a child. “It’s a crazy place you must see”.

OC approach
Beta and I checking the approach to Ocean City

Ocean City was attractive to my eyes because of its easy inlet in case we arrived in the dark (as our habit) and for the presence of marinas and shopping facilities. After three weeks at anchor we needed to replenish our fresh water and get a good deal of food. With some 300 miles to get to New England it was one of our last chances to stock up.

We obviously arrived in the early AM in pitch dark and I hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF to ask if the inlet had any recent change from what the charts were telling us. They gave us green light and we approached carefully. With so many buildings and lights it wasn’t difficult to find our way into the inlet and we reached our destination, Ocean City Fisherman’s Marina at 3 AM, tying up at the fuel dock waiting for them to open.

ocfueldock
Our first landing

It was a Saturday morning and fishermen were already leaving. Kate called the owner of the Marina at about 3:30AM convinced that she would talk to the voice mail. Instead she woke him up. She apologized but he reassured her that he was coming earlier anyway because of the early birds coming to the fuel docks, so he told us to go tie up to a near slip and that we could talk later.

We checked in easily and with the BoatUS membership we were granted a discount. We stayed two nights for 101$, which considering the season is not bad at all. In the morning we noticed that ours was the only mast in the marina (and probably in all West Ocean City). All around us sport fishers and other type of powerboats were the only boats.

oc neighbor
Neighbors in West Ocean City

We walked a lot, but all the shopping was close by so we quickly completed the list of our errands. On a saturday night we walked to the board walk, which is this crazy loud, sugar fueled, amalgam of people flowing up and down. Kate wanted me to try any sort of sugary extra caloric eatables and I settled for sea water tabbies and caramelized cashews. On the next monday we left early  with a fully provisioned boat to get to Cape Henlopen, with the plan to sit there and wait for a good weather window.

 

East Coast Northbound: Brunswick GA to Charleston SC

 

This time we picked very light conditions to roll out of the inlet and soon after some bobbing around the wind was enough to start reefing the mainsail and learning how to tune our new to us Norvane Self Steering wind pilot. The predominant SW kept blowing stronger and stronger forcing us to gybe every few miles to hold our broad reach course to the North East. The shallow water of the Atlantic coast provided a carpet of short steep waves. It was a bumpy ride, with objects flying all over the boat. We did not respond well to the solicitations of the environment, trying to hanging in there without much enjoyment.

We also encountered the first ugly thunderstorm off Blackbeard Island. We went into T-Storm preparation, reducing sail area, wearing foul weather gear and battering down all the hatches and when we were ready to face the monster nothing too bad happened as we slipped in between squalls. We spent the rest of the night dodging ship traffic in front of Savannah and charging harder ahead making good speed.

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Encounter in Charleston Harbor

The next morning we were approaching Charleston and we decided that it was enough for the first leg of the trip. Thanks to the limited power of our electric motor we had no option but to tack our way into the harbor as it was obviously an upwind course. Luckily the inlet and the harbor are very wide and with the wind decreasing Kate and I revised out tacking maneuvers on and on. Eventually we arrived to the anchorage in Ashley River, right in front of Charleston City Marina, and dropped the hook for a well deserved rest. As I spent most of the night up I was pretty exhausted, and Kate took a great care of me. She literally fed me and put me to bed.

As soon as our body were rested we “dinghied” in and walked around the City. We obviously went straight to the library and on our way there we found out that the library is right beside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church where nine people lost their lives. It was June 17 2015 and many people were commemorating the sad event as we walked by.

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As it happened before we decided to stay longer in Charleston, to re-organize the boat interior after the first offshore leg and to make it our base to visit family in Pennsylvania. This time we rented a car and went for a long car trip, with Beta in tow. The occasion was the celebration of Sister Janet jubilee for her 50th anniversary as a Franciscan nun. The ceremony was very moving yet joyous and I was truly admired with Janet and her sisters’ dedication throughout their actions and words.

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Beta visiting the misty West Virginia
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Family group portrait at the Sister Janet’s jubilee
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Casual meeting in Charleston, brother Bernie!

Before and after the road trip we spent some time in Sullivans Island. We found a secret and creative anchorage and we rowed ashore. This pretty island has an infamous past being the main port where african slaves were brought into the New World. The only reminder of this traumatic past is a little section of Fort Moultry Museum and a bench overlooking the marshes where the Toni Morrison Society place a “bench by the road”. As the commemorative plaque reveals “nearly half of all African Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island“.

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bench by the road

Today Sullivan’s Island is a quiet residential destination, where the ‘haves’ enjoy their time on the beach. During our walk we found time to visit the local library which is dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed on Sullivan’s Island as a private in the United States Army in 1827 and 1828, and who used the island setting as the background for his famous story, “The Gold Bug.” The library and many other spaces of the island are located in the disused fortification of the island.

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Eventually we finished our week stay and the weather conjured for another departure. It was time to leave Charleston. We felt like this time we had the opportunity to get to know each other a lot better.

Sea legs and watch system

“One thing about the sea. Men will get tired, metal will get tired, anything will get tired before the sea gets tired”

Sitting at anchor enjoying the nice breeze and the shade provided by Kate (and her mom’s) newly designed boom tent is a good payback for all the sweat and effort, all the tense moment when we couldn’t see an end to our work and it seemed that we could never leave. Gazing at the nearby beach, observing any kind of wildlife, from sea birds to dolphins to bros riding jet skis and rude power boaters (there are few kind individuals in the category) put all this preparation labor on perspective. Now it’s time to enjoy.

Blog_Anchor
Sunset at anchor in Sullivan’s Island, SC

Nonetheless to fully enjoy our new life afloat we had to go trough countless details and preparation. A couple of passages in the open ocean and very soon we found where our preparation lacked and how bad our sea legs were. Cooking meals, resting and even personal hygiene can become difficult tasks out there. Exhaustion by sun exposure, waves shaking and wind can bring to episodes of delirious speech with a low deep tone of voice. Auditory hallucinations are not rare either and happen when your brain mistakes a particular sound for a baby’s cry or for somebody calling your name.

It took a long time to get our sea legs and cruising routines back on track. Sea legs are what keep you standing (or sitting) on top of a vessel accelerating and decelerating under the action of wind and waves. I suspect sea legs are a combination of motor control (governed by the cerebellum in the brain) and muscle tone of the core, so it takes training and exercise to establish a harmonic posture in relation with a shaky floor.

The very first offshore legs put us in survival mode, with the rolling and tossing of the boat depriving us of our natural strength, appetite and comfort. Even without being fully seasick, we were carrying a sort of  malaise. We hung in there resting as much as we could and holding on as of we were waiting for the ride to come to a stop.

 

“One thing about the sea. Men will get tired, metal will get tired,
anything will get tired before the sea gets tired”
An engineer’s observation about the collapse of Texas Tower 4 in 1961

 

Gradually we built up some resistance and developed routines. On board Tranquility we use a 4 hours watch system that starts at 20:00 (8 pm, First Watch) and cover the rest of the 24 hours so the boat is never unattended.The person on watch is in charge of navigation duties, making sure the boat stays on course, keeping a proper lookout for hazards and weather change and updating the Ship’s Log. The other crew member lays in the bunk, trying to rest but ready to be summoned in case of “all hands on deck” situation, or “condition one” as we like to call it. We strictly stick to the schedule but we are also flexible in case conditions arise or if it’s time to make landfall.

Beside navigation duties we have daily chores that are split between the two of us and include cooking three meals a day and washing dishes, redding up (Pittsburghese for cleaning), ensuring that the cockpit snack bag is always full, washing and drying rags, towels and clothes,  waste management (composting toilet redd up, trash and recycle locker) and Personal care and Beta care.

The watch schedule and the work routines help to keep us busy and comfortable. When it is properly planned a passage at sea will be mainly smooth, with occasional rougher bits, so it’s important to be ready to face the unpleasant weather in good condition and spirit. If you let the boat get dirty and messy it will affect your well being. If you don’t eat, drink or rest enough you will be tired soon.

As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and so we are picking up with the old habits and safety protocols, by trial and errors. Three years ago, we sailed the opposite route in much worse conditions, during the winter and in a barely fixed boat. Now we remember that trip as if it was not a big deal. Why we became such wimps? It’s probable that memory erases the bad parts and retain the good ones.

We are still learning a lot, and we are lucky that Tranquility behaves so well. She is a tough girl, we have been the weak ones so far. She protected and transported us during the first thousand miles of sailing while experiencing winds in the range of 4 to 40knots, the latter number only briefly during thunderstorm gusts.We have an ample range of sail area available to adapt to different wind and sea conditions and the modifications to the deck and sail controls seem all very successful. The introduction of a third reef in the mainsail, the new boom vang, the sheeting blocks for the staysail, the bowsprit for the cruising gennaker all contributes to a finer sail tuning and ultimately boat handling.

Now we are taking a prolonged stop in the friendly Fairhaven, in the South Coast of Massachussets. This is the place where Joshua Slocum rebuilt his 36ft. gaff rigged sloop Spray, before setting sail for the first ever recorder singlehanded circumnavigation of earth 121 years ago. Incidentally this is where we purchased Tranquility, fixed her up and set sail in November 2013.

We don’t have such an ambitious circumnavigation plan, but we feel the power of the maritime lore of this place. Fairhaven is the fairy tale New England village in front of the rougher city of New Bedford, the “city that lit the world”, the whaling capital of the world portrayed in Melville’s Moby Dick and the city where Tranquility was on stands in a boatyard while we feverishly prepared her for sailing. We have so much connection to this area, friends that keep helping us, favorite places and memories. We are going to keep sailing, visiting other wonders of New England, but this is probably going to be our home base for the next few months. Until winter will force our next move.

 

Two months living aboard and final preparation

We hit the two months mark since we have moved back aboard Tranquility. So far it has been 24/7 work and I suspect it won’t end very soon. The difference with the previous condition is that now we are finally untethered: we sold the car, we have a provisioned and fully mobile boat and we took care of few bureaucratic conundrums strictly related with life on land. So now we can move where it pleases us!

Not too fast, though. The brake at this point is the condition of the boat that keep changing over time. We are making constant improvements in the degree of comfort and sailing performances since the beginning of April. Like the life cycle of a star, the interior and the deck keep going through a alternate state of expansion and contractions. Tools and parts come out of storage, the content of every locker and box has to be moved around, and everything shifts and gets hauled somewhere else. Every time things are put back together we can see the improvements, but then the next job brings more chaos aboard. It is definitely not easy to live and work on a boat, and this is so far limiting our mobility. Luckily we can work at anchor so we don’t have to necessarily be tied to the land, and every trip ashore we unload garbage and unnecessary items gaining more and more living space.

Despite this apparently erratic behavior our preparation happened with a specific spreadsheet-assisted path. Every step put us closer to certain milestones and eventually to the end of the preparation and the beginning of the trip.

The first milestone was to leave the docks. After two years spent running a landlocked life, Tranquility was able to get unchained and make a very slow progress toward the next step, the boatyard. It took us a few days to get there. Our destination was rather close but we experienced issues with some freeloading marine animals and vegetables that were squatting peacefully on the bottom of our boat seriously limiting our speed on the water and ultimately on the ground. Once we were lifted outside of the water they were brutally eliminated, with little or none compassion. This slow pace made for nice time outdoor, timing the tides we moved from anchorage to anchorage, savoring wonderful sceneries between St.Simons and Cumberland Island, all the way into St.Marys and the boatyard.

St. Marys Boat Services became our new home for 1 month. Personally I have been in many boat yards before but this particular one deserves a special mention. It’s very uncommon to find a place where you can both live aboard while working and have free access to their tools. I am not talking about a drill or an angle grinder. Here you have access to a woodwork and a metal shop equipped with table saw, drill press, lathe, welders, belt sanders and other exciting shop tools. The managers are friendly and ready to find a way to help you in every possible way. The community of liveaboards has set some common spaces and rules of cohabitation so it’s easy to meet interesting people, ready to share stories and knowledge.

On the hard we had the opportunity to lose and find again Beta, our cat, who jumped ship for two weeks. We also had a good look at our bottom, dropped the rudder, had a machine shop put a square key in it for a new tiller cap, we replaced the propeller, removed and fiberglassed two thru-hulls, repaired a water intrusion in the deadwood, repainted the topsides, sanded the old bottom paint and put 5 coats of new antifouling, installed a Norvane self steering, new lifelines, interior wood work and painting. I probably forget a lot of other jobs that happened while we were looking for our cat or trying to stay cool in the hot Georgia climate. I have never been a fan of 44oz Jiffy mart fountain drinks, but working in the Georgia heat made me change my mind and I learned how to add more water to the ice after the drink was gone to extend the cooling effect. This is life without refrigeration.

I’d like to go through the details of our work as I did in the past but lately the pace is too high to both work and write about it. I even feel a little guilty in writing this post as the job list is waiting for my attention. You would wonder what possibly is left to do on Tranquility after a two year refit. If you owned a boat before you probably know the answer. If you didn’t, think twice about buying a boat. The reality is that a boat is never fully finished and  wrapping up projects may take more time that you can possibly expect.

Eventually splashing time arrived, after one month exactly. I feel proud of what we did in this amount of time, I am usually pretty unsatisfied with my speed, but not this time! We immediately enjoyed being at anchor in the marshes of Camden and Glynn. The first day at anchor, right in front of the boatyard, we simply laid down and did nothing for the whole day. Then little by little we resumed our course, together with high doses of Battlestar Galactica. Now we are back where we started, saying goodbye to friends and provisioning the boat for a long trip, and of course checking off few more jobs on the list.

If you like to see us on a map, check our Delorme track: https://share.delorme.com/sytranquility

 

 

The good enough boat

There is a lot going on and around Tranquility, even more in our own lives. The final rush to be ready to leave the dock is undergoing, with printed sections of spreadsheets that follow me everywhere I go…

There is a lot going on and around Tranquility, even more in our own lives. The final rush to be ready to leave the dock is undergoing, with printed sections of spreadsheets that follow me everywhere I go. Thankfully Kate is on the organizational side now that she ended her jobs and she is doing an incredible job with boat work and trying to contain  my chaos.

Somehow I am failing to report all of this on the blog. It was difficult to sit and focus on the plan and make time to narrate what was happening. For me writing requires finding an empty space in my mind. There was definitely time and energy to do so, but as the boat required more immediate and interconnected actions, my mind was never really at ease. In fact,  once the big jobs like structural repairs and painting ended we were left with a huge list of smaller tasks and installation that required full attention. Basically we need to put Tranquility back together.

Every single one of these tasks come with decisions, every decision needs a justification. What we liked when we first set step on Tranquility was that the conditions of the boat gave us a very wide freedom of choice. Paul, the previous owner, had suddenly interrupted the refit of the boat and put her up for sale, leaving her bones exposed and unfinished. We liked her structure and her lines and we dreamed about how we could build the rest by ourselves to make her the best possible fit for us. This is the most alluring side of a boat refit, the idea to customize the boat according to your needs and desires. Three years later I just started to realize how this is a big trap we voluntarily threw ourselves in.

For example, at a certain moment you need to install fans to increase the ventilation ability of the cabin, displace moisture and have some cool air pampering your skin when you try to fall asleep, read a book or when you deal with hot pots on the stove. You also need a product that does the job while using 12v DC power frugally and that won’t cost a fortune. Then you check your wallet and try to decide how much money you are comfortable to put in this department.

The quest then starts, researching as many options as you can, scrolling through products lists and supplier catalogs, reading their description, keeping an eye on the price to easily ditch the ones that exceeds your pockets. The market is flooded with products that claim to be the best, or good enough, or just sit there available for purchase and the temptation is always to maximize the outcome, because “you always deserve the best deal”.

I spent a ton of time reading and researching about 12v fans, the ones that swivel and the ones that don’t, multi or single speed, and so on. When this was not enough I sought the opinion of experts and when finally I was very close to hit the Pay Now button the constant fear of settling for something not optimal made me delay the purchase. I was paralyzed by the fact that there could be something better or the same product for a better price, just few clicks away.

On a list of items necessary for a safe passage at sea fans surely sit at its bottom. So try to imagine how this would go for all the more important items an empty boat needs to be fitted for ocean passages. Luckily that process spread through 3 years of pondering, tests and life changes, but it is now, when everything converge to the final preparation that the sunken costs of decision making emerges from the mist of the past. It’s the bottleneck of opportunities, the crossroad of possibilities. All the indecisions and doubts have to disappear because it’s time to go. Why did I ordered two inches wide nylon webbing  instead of one? Why propane leak detectors are so expensive? Where am I going to order those mast winches? When am I finally installing that water maker?

Few years ago I experienced doing boat work and repairs in places of the world where the options were scarce. If I was lucky I could choose between product A and product B, but most of the time I had to go for a single choice, with no alternative on the price. Nonetheless the work was done, and my satisfaction towards the result was boosted by overcoming the challenges of the environment. Feeling like there were no alternatives did a lot for on my perception of the result, feeling heroic to have dealt with such situation.

Doing the same in the US, the bountiful land of opportunity, leave me often with the feeling that the job could have been done better, I look at other boats to seek comparisons, and the spiral of self-doubting keeps spinning. It seems that the number of options alone is not necessarily a good recipe for satisfaction, and instead it generates fatigue and uncertainty. After all, when you have so many options you are the sole responsible of your decisions, and most of the time you end up thinking it could have been better.

Finally the number of options decrease as we are getting close to completion. Most of the equipment is installed or on its way, few items are still missing as we make more space for decisions. Also when things finally fall into place satisfaction for starts to sink in and our good enough boat is looking awesome. I am sure the empty time of writing will be more frequent, and so this blogging adventure will be fueled by the real one. It’s happening!

Video: fair winds to all the sailing couples

There is always a mixture of happiness and sadness when you see your friends leaving. You are sad because you are going to miss them, and you are happy because they are set for an exciting adventure. You are also jealous, because this is ultimately what you want to do, but you have to wait just a little more.

Roberto and Vanessa aboard Tranquility in Fairhaven, MA
Roberto and Vanessa aboard Tranquility in Fairhaven, MA

With these mixed feelings we salute Roberto and Vanessa (check her blog!), and wish them all the best for their life.

Seek and Destroy

Mid March may not be the best time to start thinking about 2015 resolutions. Getting through the first quarter of the year however helps to skim the unreasonable off the cauldron of expectations. The recent  approval of my permanent resident status (Green Card) gives us more oxygen and several degrees of freedom to think about the next moves, and what is going to be with our lives. So with this renewed spirit one should think that now the way is all downhill (or downwind). Well, that’s not exactly the case.

First we have to ask ourselves one question: are we ready to resume cruising? Sadly the answer is no, and even if it’s unreal to think that one day Tranquility will be in perfect shape, with every detail addressed and we will be full “ready”, loaded with enough cash to sustain the costs of cruising, we have to be honest and admit that the day we are cutting dock lines and sail away is not imminent.

We were contemplating a summer cruise of New England shores, the same shores that saw us on the first chapter of our endeavor. The idea was to leave Coastal Georgia in May-June and head north to savor the wonderful summer in New England. That area had been my home for two summers, the first one as professional crew on Superyachts, and the second as a boat owner who was assembling his boat to go cruising. In neither case I had the option to freely roam the coves and anchorages and to explore historical and naturalistic points of interest, as I was alway “on duty”. It seems that this desire has to wait a little longer.

But why this is not possible next summer? Well something happened while we were wintering in Brunswick, waiting for the green light of the Green Card. And that something was me. I started to take apart Tranquility even more than I did during the previous months. One piece leads to another, and nearly every single component of the deck has been removed. The boom lays down on the deck, the electric motor and batteries hauled out, part of navigation station ripped off. Kate and I observed this process happening with fear and awe, as spectators of an ineluctable fate.

Removing rotten teak on the bow stem
Removing rotten teak on the bow stem

There no such a thing like a small or partial refit. Tranquility was in shape enough to sail the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and she did a good job in protecting us from the severe winter but yet she is not as we imagine her. There is a real Tranquility and a dream one, and the reason why we are investing more time and money is because this two Tranquilities are still too far apart from each other. To bridge that gap the extent of the refit must be enlarged.

Refurbishing the galley
Refurbishing the galley

It is extremely difficult for someone doing their first refit to accurately assess the time, expenses and details of preparing a boat for a voyage. I did other refits on different boats, and no matter the budget and the expertise involved it seems that project management and boat refits cannot go hand in hand. The process is pretty much the same: I start with a little improvement, like re-grouping the batteries in a more rational position and then I have to modify the existing navigation station to host the batteries, remove the existing electrical system, build new floor, and so on… For some reason this path lead to the replacement of the existing ladder and the creation of new and bigger counter space. Little by little every out of date part of the boat is going to be replaced or repaired or refurbished.

A little more destruction
A little more destruction

We have to say that Brunswick is definetely a good place for refitting your boat all year around. Almost too good as departure keep being postponed.

Brunswick, where the hell is that?

This is where we live
This is where we live

We initially moved to Brunswick when James Baldwin offered me an apprentship after visiting us on Tranquility. We were transiting in Jekyll Island, getting ready to land in Florida and find us a good spot to make some money and improve the boat. We never make it further than St.Mary’s on the State Border. We decided instead to give James and Brunswick a chance. After one year we are still here and this must mean that Brunswick is not a bad place at all.

Even if sometimes I feel like we ran aground in the marshes of Glynn, it’s remarkable how many good things happened to us here. We had been introduced to the South, with its culinary specialties (see Oyster Roast and Low Country Boil) and the proverbial courtesy warm hospitality of the population. Soon enough we friended some special people, keen souls who are rooted here or following a similar pat, ran aground. Kate is already a notable person in the community and I personally learned a lot working side by side with James Baldwin, having helped him in many of his sailboat refits.

Tranquility is not ready also because my standards have risen and seeing what James did on other boats changed the idea of what is possible and impossible in terms of boat customization. While we were summering and wintering here few important things had happened. Kate and I got married in very hot day in Woodbine, GA. Subsequently I applied for a Green Card which was approved just recently. The Green Card process itself was very demanding and time consuming, kind of a part time job. No wonder it was a very busy time here in Georgia!

Anyway, we can’t afford to live in a perpetual dream of boat perfection. Wether Tranquility will be closer to perfection or not, winter is coming, this time with some tropical weather and crystal clear waters waiting for us. The time of the distruction must end… just let me deal with a couple little more things that I don’t like…

Visiting Utopia

Franz Matsch - Triumph of Achilles
Franz Matsch – Triumph of Achilles

Recently Kate and I had a meeting about our finances and cruising budget. The atmosphere in the room was tense, almost as we were on the board of a financial firm who is deciding about their future in a shifting market. The tone of voice was high and the opinions divergent.  When you don’t have a fixed income or personal wealth and you dream about a life afloat it’s no joke. We not only have to figure out the way to make it through the everyday expenses, we have also to plan the future with variable and not predictable income.

Since we are stuck in the mud with bills to pay and things to figure out we feel that the original idea is becoming almost an impossible quest. Even when you have determination, the path is hard and steep, the courage itself doesn’t guarantee your success. Will we be able to resume our trip? What does it take to get financially untangled and self sustained? Will we be able to defeat the Forces of Evil? Of course we will.

We are still in a very priviledge position, we have the luck of being educated, with an ever growing network of good people around us and we are constantly on a learning curve, exposed to interesting situation and people. The only fact that we are contemplating the idea of spending some time cruising puts us among the very few fortunate people on this planet. It may sound silly that this is our biggest challenge, while other people face more dramatic and difficult situations. But still this is our Dragon, our Big Bad Wolf, the challenge we decided to face.

I love adventurers, people that risk their life to achieve impossible dreams. When I follow the sailors of the Volvo Ocean Race I am fully excited by the extreme conditions they face. When I read Moitessier’s and other singlehanded sailors’ recounts I feel the majesty and intensity of their experience. Their toughness is an inspiration. It’s a big boost of tension toward the everyday hassles of life, the fuel to propel us over the obstacles that sit in front of our goals. The danger and harshness of their adventures transcend their particular case becoming an ideal situation people can identify with.

That’s the reason why epic is important in our life. When  intellectual and critical thinking, rational intelligence and aesthetic are not enough, the primeval power of epic is what it takes to shake our soul and squeeze energy out of ourselves. We look at heroes from the bottom to the top, sometimes to distract us from the boring miseries of our existence, sometimes as a way to quench our thirst of energy to keep fighting our demons and enemies. Aim high to hit the target.

These utopias act as a beacon that leads to an unhabited island, where gods and demigods live, where the impossible becomes the norm. The Nobel Prize Wislawa Szymborska told us about this perfect place in one of her most celebrated poems. The island she depicts is ofted visited by humans, but none of them can stay. They all have to go back to the depths, where life happens.

 UTOPIA by Wislawa Szymborska

Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

Oh hai, Liebster Award!

Presented to me by Bigdumboat and cheerfully Accepted!

 

liebsta

 

I was asked to answer the following ten questions sent by Bigdumboat, who gifted me with the honor. In turn, I have nominated a few more blog/websites that are well worth visiting.

 

1.Introduce yourselves and the boat you are sailing.

Kate, wife, Fabio, husband, Beta, feline companion animal, live aboard a Columbia 29 designed by Sparkman & Stephens and built in Portsmouth, VA in 1965. We are sailing and living aboard when not busy dealing with bureaucracy and other land amenities (sigh!).

2.What’s the length, the draft, the width?

Her Lenght Overall is 28.5 ft, the draft is 4.5ft and the width (or beam) is 8ft.

3.What was it before? (Translation: What was its original purpose or function?)

She was a sloop once. I guess she was built as a family cruiser for the middle class. In the 60′ it was possible to sell a 29 ft. that sleeps six… People must have been very short back then… A previous owner had the brilliant idea to modify the rig and transform her in a cutter (with two headsails instead of the single headsail of the sloop rig) with strong rigging. That gives her a more bluewater character which was what we were looking for.

4.Did you have it built? (Challenge: make sense of this fuzzy question.)

I often dream about having somebody build a boat to my specifications. It’s still a dream.

5.What made you decide to live this lifestyle?

I was living and working aboard boats and I encountered crazy and happy people doing the same with the difference they were not actually working. I contracted the disease. Now I am doomed. I passed the disease to Kate. Now she is doomed. The disease does not spread to felines but Beta travels with us. So he is doomed.

6.What is your boat’s name and why is she called what she is?

The boat name is Tranquility. It came with the boat. I don’t know why she was called so but I love the name, and I think that is her true spirit (see question number 9). The only problem it is damned long, so every now and then we think about changing it into a short one.

7.Is there anything you really miss by living aboard a boat?

Municipal drinking water systems for Kate, a big book collection for Fabio. We don’t know about Beta.

8.What’cha got for power?

We have an electric inboard engine. Our range is very limited and so it’s the power, which makes for very tricky coastal cruising. It allows for manouvering in ports and approaching and leaving moorings. The rest is sail power anytime anywhere. What if there’s no wind? We don’t move. The more we sail the more the battery bank recharges itself.

9.How fast does it go?

We do 6.5 knots under sail in the best conditions. Under power… forget about it. A Tranquil mean of transportation.

10.Can I have a tour? (Translation: Can I come aboard and snoop?)

Sure! Watch your head…

 

Here the Cruisers/Travelers sites I nominate for the Liebster Award:

 

A journey for Driftwood : Three young men circumnavigating the globe, conquering themselves and the world

Ocean Partisan : refitting a 23ft yacht for sea

Uneven Tread : dreamer, climber, photographer

HIR 3 : Sailor from Croatia with circumnavigation project

Katie and Jessie on a Boat:aboard lovely louise

Plankton Every Day : citizen science and untethered living

Astrolabe Sailing : sailing, yachts, adventures and sailing around the world

Sundown Sailing Adventures : a chronicle of sailing journey and other adventures

Small World Big Dream : Kraigle prepares to sail

Questions for our Liebster Nominees:

 

Your task is to answer the following questions. Due to the different experience of the blogs nominated I tried to make some open question. Feel free to modify and adapt them to our story.  Have fun!

 

01. Where are you now? What did take you there?

02. What is home for you? where do you feel home?

03. Did you meet people like you? Do you feel you belong to a community?

04. What do you always carry with you?

05 What’s the thing you left behind that made you feel more free?

06. How your life would change if you can buy whatever you want?

07. What’s your favorite medium of expression?

08. What would make a huge difference for you now?ù

09. The time you thought you couldn’t make it

10. What keeps you going?

———

If you like any of the question that Bigdumboat asked me feel free to add or swap them.

"Daydream" Columbia 9.6 for sale

Daydream is a Columbia 9.6 originally built in 1977 and professionally rebuilt since 2005 by a boat engineer, ready to sail. She is an ideal boat for liveaboard, exceptionally spacious for a 32 footer and with all the possible comforts, and tons of extra. The boat is on the hard in Clinton, CT and will be available from Spring 2014.

Please write me from my contact page if you are interested.

Columbia 9.6 sailboat

Propulsion

  • Engine Volvo MD6B rebuilt
  • New propeller
  • New Prop shaft
  • New diesel tank 12 gallons

Rigging

  • New chain plates
  • Mast inspected and polished
  • New electrical cables inside the mast

Deck

  • New deck paint
  • 4 Andersen self tailing winches 2 speed
  • New hatches and portlights
  • New anchor windlass, 300 ft chain high test 1/4 inch

Sails

  • Mainsail, Jib, Genoa, and Spinnaker in very good conditions

Electrical

  • New Electrical system, DC12v and AC 120v
  • 3 solar panels (100,60,10 watts)
  • New battery charger 30amps
  • Flat screen tv

Galley

  • Stainless steel propane stove
  • Double sink
  • Microwave
  • Fridge 3 stages (freezer, fridge and vegetables cooler)
  • External Barbecue

Plumbing

  • New Thru-hulls
  • Hot/cold pressure water (new boiler)
  • New plumbing system
  • Shower inside and in the cockpit
  • Pressurized sea water for galley, anchor chain wash, cockpit and head
  • 2 original water tank plus 1 new (80 gallons total capacity)
  • New toilet plumbing with holding tank

Heating

  • Force 10 cabin heather (propane)
  • A/C 9000 btu with electric heating
  • Electric heater AC 250 w 1500w

Sailing and reality

IMG_1365

Sailing is not an escape but a return to and a confrontation of a reality from which modern civilization is itself an escape. For centuries, man suffered from the reality of an earth that was too dark or too hot or too cold for his comfort, and to escape this he invented complex systems of lighting, heating and air conditioning. Sailing rejects these and returns to the old realities of dark and heat and cold. Modern civilization has found radio, TV, movies, nightclubs and a huge variety of mechanized entertainment to titillate our senses and help us escape from the apparent boredom of the earth and the sun and wind and stars. Sailing returns to these ancient realities.

              Cruising blues and their cure – Robert M. Pirsig