Simple Conveniences, Simple Systems

Simple Conveniences

My goal aboard our yacht is to have the most conveniences in the simplest configuration.  This is not because I am averse to modern conveniences.  It is because most modern (nautical) conveniences require electricity.  The more DC appliances you have aboard, the more power you need to generate. Electric power generation on a yacht is the arms race of boating (I read that somewhere – but can’t remember where to give credit).  If your appliances need more power, you need a bigger battery bank. If you have a bigger battery bank, you need more generating capacity: solar cells, wind generator, bigger alternator.  Your wiring becomes more complex.  More things break down, then have to be fixed.  You can either fix them yourself, which means you have to learn how to do so, or you can pay someone else to fix them.  I can’t afford to own a boat that someone else fixes, so I would be spending lots of time learning and fixing.  Wait – I do that anyway!  I would be spending more time learning and fixing.

Simple Systems

I have minimized electrical conveniences aboard Cay of Sea, because I don’t think we need 85 percent of them.  Refrigeration, for example, is extraordinarily overrated in my opinion, and the most power-hungry convenience of all.  It’s true that my drinking habits don’t require much ice or refrigeration (I don’t drink beer or any alcohol – so I don’t need that blender for margaritas either) and we find that our built-in cooler (with ice to cool it) is sufficient for our needs.  Other examples aboard our boat abound, including manual pumps for all of our water needs, solar shower (or stove-heated water warming the not-yet-warm solar shower), hand-held GPS supplementing paper charts, movable battery-operated fans instead of hard-wired fans, small boombox in place of mounted stereo system, wind chute instead of air-conditioning, non-pressure alcohol stove in place of a propane system (also satisfies my safety concerns), and canvas buckets instead of a deck wash-down system.  As my back ages more, I will install a windlass for anchor retrieval.  But (you’ve already guessed it), it will be a manual windlass. You may argue that we seem to have many battery-powered (e.g. AA, C, D cells, etc.) appliances, and this is true.  Do we spend a lot on batteries?  I don’t think so.  These little devices have become amazingly power efficient, and the batteries last a very long time.

Here are some things to consider when you think about adding more electric appliances:

Refrigeration:  How much will it cost and for how long can you buy ice with the money you would spend?  Don’t just stop with the cost of the cooling unit.  You’ll have to upgrade your batteries and charging system too.  All told, my wife and I figured about $5k.  Seems like a high price for convenience.  $5k will buy a lot of ice.

Adler Barbour Cold Machine

Air-conditioning:  This is something you can only use at the dock when you plug in, unless… that’s right – you spend even more money to add a generator.  And, a portable Honda generator will likely not do the trick, but let’s say that it does.  Air-conditioning (Cruise-air, let’s say) is about $800 for a new unit. Honda generator, with enough power to run the AC?  $1100-$1400.  Plus you now have to carry gasoline to power the genny.  Sorry – this doesn’t add up for me.  I don’t go sailing to take all my home comforts with me (there’s not enough room on the boat anyway).  A wind chute is going to do as well for me.  We lived without AC for a long time and survived.  In fact, I grew up in central Florida without it until I was about 12.  I only remember a couple of times when heat was an issue.

From July 8:  "Cay of Sea" in her host-weather canvas: Bimini, side cockpit curtains and wind scoop are essential warm-weather gear.

Cay of Sea in her hot-weather canvas: Bimini, side cockpit curtains and wind scoop are essential warm-weather gear.

Water Maker:  This one is tempting.  Unlimited clean water, translating into long stays in remote and dry (fresh water-less) areas.  Yes, this is on the edge of not just convenient.  However, I have also read that the two most failure-prone systems on a cruising boat are the refrigeration and the water maker. If a person is skilled in repairing these two items, they will always have income while cruising. Apparently they are also quite expensive to purchase and install.  Still… very tempting.  Fortunately for now, we absolutely don’t need one.

Katadyn 160E. 7 gal/hr, 18 amp draw (!). Price: $5299
@ West Marine

Pressure Water:  How difficult is it to operate a hand or foot pump?  Would you use more or less water with pressure water (most cruisers say they use more water with a pressure system).  Expense?  Well, here is a trade-off.  The manual pumps are not cheap and you need several (and their rebuild kits). You only need one electric pump (and rebuild kit).  But you will probably want an accumulator tank to maintain pressure so the pump doesn’t run constantly.  There is also a tax with respect to electricity usage.  Pumps typically run at a fairly high load, though it’s not continuous.  Still, it all counts towards the total daily amperage use, which is the basis for calculating your power storage and generating needs.

I have two of these on board, plus a foot operated pump

Water Heater:  Mentioned above, this introduces a pretty complex plumbing system on your boat. Most small boat water heaters operate with a heat exchanger off the engine, plus (usually) a 120 volt heating element for dockside use.  I think the hot water heater can work well for the cruiser who is moving every day to a new location and using the engine (even intermittently).  However, if you wish to stay several days in the same location, then you need to run the engine for 30 minutes prior to your shower. If you are charging batteries while you do this, I guess this is okay too.  Depending on your charging set up, 30 minutes will rarely replace much current to your batteries.  90 minutes to 2 hours is a more common figure for battery charging, which will certainly provide you with hot water.  But running your engine every day with no load isn’t a great idea.  This isn’t helpful to the life of your diesel engine (although this doesn’t hurt gasoline engines much).  And, you have to listen to it all that time.  Not for me.  I prefer the simplicity of a solar shower, with stove-top supplementary water heating.  Also, you typically need a pressurized water system to work with the water heater, and I don’t want that. Perhaps foot/hand pumps would work with a water heater.  Haven’t really looked into the possibility.

Water heaters for boats

Radar:  This is a safety and convenience item that has undergone tremendous changes.  The new technology in radar has brought the electricity usage down to a level that is reasonable.  However, the acquisition costs of radar is still fairly high.  Radar is only a necessity if you are going to sail in fog-prone areas.  It is certainly helpful for longer distance cruisers, especially with night passages and early warning of severe weather systems.  But necessary?  Again, depends on where and how you sail.

Dinghy:  From all the opinions that I’ve read concerning dinghies (in itself, a subject worth several posts), it is apparent that which sort you choose is very personal.  Perhaps this is true of all cruising gear, in the long run.  Years ago, my 3 sons and I built an 8 foot plywood sailing dinghy/tender (stitch and glue) and bought a set of oars.  I think we finished it in 1997, and we’ve been using it ever since. I’ve been tempted to motorize it with a trolling motor and battery, but the idea thwarts the simplicity of this dinghy.  Somehow I would have to figure out how to stow the battery on board our yacht, how to get the battery into the dinghy, spend time attaching the motor and connecting the battery, etc..  Some sort of motor would be helpful when rowing against wind, chop and current.  As it stands, though, any kind of motor is more of an inconvenience.  How can you improve on the simplicity of oars for a launch-and-go application?  The dinghy is not difficult to sail, either, so that is certainly an option for longer distances than you might want to row.  It’s not a great sailer – a situation that could be improved with a bit more sail area – but it will get you there.  Boarding the dinghy from the water could be difficult.  Unlike a RIB (which is very stable when boarding from in the water), if you pull yourself up on the side from in the water to get aboard, it will likely swamp, so for a snorkeling platform, it’s probably not great.  So here are up sides and downsides of our hard dinghy as I see it:

  • Pluses:  I don’t carry an outboard or gasoline; it rows well; it sails okay; it’s easy to launch and retrieve from on deck; it’s easy to repair and maintain; sun won’t destroy it; it won’t puncture; a new coat of paint makes it look fresh again.
  • Minuses:  Can’t board from in the water; is not fast; is range-limited by practicality (you can’t reasonably go five miles away for a snorkeling trip and return in a short time period); short chop, contrary winds and current make for a difficult trip (usually in only one direction, though).

The building cost was about $800 in materials and gear.  A RIB with no outboard will set you back a good bit more than that.  With an outboard, even more.  My plywood dinghy was fun to build – a RIB won’t give you that satisfaction.

This is the pram I built with my kids – 15 years ago. Simple yacht tender.

There is one other convenience that I think is worth the cost both in terms of cash and electricity, and that is an autopilot/tiller pilot.  These are not that power-hungry, and for the service they provide, are well worth the cash outlay.  I had an old Tiller Pilot that finally gave up the ghost last year, and I miss it a lot.  However, they are limited in what they can do.  For instance, if your boat is overpowered and you have too much sail flying, they won’t steer the boat very well at all.  If you reduce sail, however, and take the pressure of weather helm off of it, it will do fine.  Also, they don’t handle down-wind courses very well, nor following seas (usually goes with down-wind sailing).  Where they shine is steering your boat while you are motoring.  They unshackle you from helm duty, which is awfully nice for making a head call, getting a snack or drink, and just moving around the boat to do things while under way.

Couldn’t find an image of the old unit I had. Here is an Auto Helm ST 2000 from the West Marine website.

Call me anachronistic.  Call me cheap.  Call me… practical?  That’s the word I like.  I hate to spend money for convenience when the labor savings seems more like an indulgence than a necessity. When the expense makes sense, I’m all for it (I can lust for boat toys with the best of them).  But when it’s a simple matter of a little more effort or time versus a great deal of expense and future repairs… Yeah, I like the simple-is-better approach.

  1. Len Mustard said:

    We have found that one of the easiest ways to get a lot of air down below, is to anchor by the stern. Your dodger becomes a HUGE wind scoop, and your companionway is (usually) WAY BIGGER than any hatch. It works best in sheltered anchorages, of course.
    An added advantage for most boats, with the head located forward, is that it blows any unpleasant odours out of the forward hatch, and not through the length of the cabin.

    • That’s an unexpected answer to the cooling problem! I can see how the dodger would be a great collector for air below. Suppose that would work less well in an unprotected anchorage, as any significant fetch with a good breeze would bring quite a chop with it, but that’s true even if you anchored by the bow – uncomfortable regardless.

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