Monthly Archives: September 2016

Making Cruising Fun – Our Favorite Gear #2

During our shakedown cruise, we made three international passages on Eagle Too. The first was from the Florida Keys to Cuba. The next was from Cuba’s western tip to Mexico. And the final one was from Mexico back to the Keys. On each of these passages, we had to cross major shipping lanes, where we crossed paths with everything from cruise ships to oil tankers. Naturally, each time was deep in the darkest part of the night.

Imagine trying to slowly thread your way on foot across a busy interstate highway in the dead of night. That’s a pretty accurate analogy for what we encountered. It was pitch black, but we were surrounded by lights. Lots and lots of lights. Were they coming toward us? Moving away from us? Were we in danger of being run over? We really couldn’t be sure. Large commercial ships aren’t lit like the recreational craft we’re used to dealing with. There usually aren’t discernable running lights and a white stern light to help you figure out their direction. Sometimes a single vessel will display a dozen or more lights of every conceivable color. Our boat was pitching, waves were often obscuring the lights from other vessels, and on top of everything else, we’d be tired from being up all night.

In times like those, we were so very glad that we had digital HD radar and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceiver onboard. With our radar, we could reach out dozens of miles and track the movement of the surrounding traffic. And with our AIS transceiver constantly broadcasting, we could not only see who was out there, we could be reasonably certain that they could see us as well. If fact, on those occasions where our AIS would tell us that we’d be crossing within a mile of another vessel, when I’d radio them on the VHF to confirm our crossing, they’d always reply, “We see you, Captain.” It was very comforting to know that even though we’re only a 37 foot plastic sailboat, we were showing up on their bridge display the same as a 600 foot freighter. And it was also pretty cool to hear a huge ship say, “We’re altering our course to port,” in reply to our “Do you see us?” radio call. Sometimes it’s good to be a sailboat with the right-of-way!AISRadar1

The radar also helped us plot our way around thunderstorms. We relied on it a lot while working our way back up the west coast of Florida during the peak of thunderstorm season. On the water, storms can be deceiving, appearing closer or further away than they actually are, especially at night. More than once in the dark of night our anxiety level would rise when we’d see a cloud near us suddenly start lighting up with continual bolts of lightning. But it would be reassuring to paint the storm with our radar and find out that it was 40 miles away and not moving toward us.AISRadar2

So number 2 on our list of things we’re glad we had onboard for our shakedown cruise were our radar and AIS systems. We love information that contributes to situational awareness, and these tools kept us very aware. Depending on your budget and relative tolerance for risk, we feel the very least you should have onboard for crossing major shipping lanes at night is a very good radar reflector and an AIS receiver. At least with those, you’ll increase your chances of showing up on another ship’s radar (if it’s being monitored, which is a big if), and you can see the AIS signals from commercial traffic. This won’t help you with storms, for that you’ll want radar. And we found that once we crossed the shipping lanes north of Cuba and entered Cuban coastal waters, none of the local fishing boats broadcast an AIS signal, which made the radar that much more important.

Making Cruising Fun – Our Favorite Gear #1

We have a metric we apply here on the good ship Eagle Too that we call the Suck-to-Fun ratio. It has an indeterminate scale and infinite limits, but it acts as a basic measure of whether or not we’re enjoying this cruising life at any given moment. When the level of Fun exceeds the amount of Suck, life is good and we’re comfortable with our decision to embrace this crazy and unconventional way of living. When the ratio is inverted, well, it can be a grim day onboard, and makes us wonder why we ever thought voyaging on a small boat was a good idea.

Stress is a major component of Suck. So anything that works to reduce Stress pushes the needle on the Are We Having Fun Yet meter toward the happy side of the scale.  We therefore gave a lot of thought to ways we could reduce stress when we were outfitting Eagle Too for our future travels.

Now we have it on good authority that dying of thirst is very stressful. We personally wouldn’t know, but it sounds reasonable, so we’ll go with that. Not being able to take a shower or properly bathe for days upon days? Stressful. Having to plan your travels and itinerary around sources of potable water because the tank level is always bumping empty? Stress city. What’s the common factor here? Water, and the access to and availability of same. So we felt that one piece of equipment we definitely wanted onboard was a watermaker.

So let me get to the point. When Rhonda and I started talking about the things that have made our time afloat better, safer, or more enjoyable, we both immediately concluded that one of the best decisions we made was the purchase of our Rainman portable desalinization system. It has been so liberating, so reassuring, and so UN-stressful to be able to make and use as much fresh water as we want, whenever and wherever we want. No measuring water usage by the ounce, no lugging water from shore in 5 gallon jerry jugs, no concerns about bad, dirty, or polluted water. Access to endless amounts of fresh clean water takes almost all the “rough” out of roughing it.

During our four month, 2,400 mile shakedown cruise, which included stops at some truly remote places, we never once lacked for water. We had take long showers, fill up the sink to wash the dishes, use it to flush the toilet and rinse off the deck, quantities of water. We’ve run our unit now for about 25 hours cumulatively, and have made about 800 gallons of tasty, pure water. In that time, we used about two to three gallons of gas for our Honda EU2000i generator to power the Rainman (about half the time we were plugged into shore power) and have changed the primary filter twice. I’m guessing it has cost us about $15 to $20 in total operating expenses.

The system has been so easy to set up and operate that even when we were in a marina and water was available from the pier, we still made our own. While in Cuba and Mexico, we encountered a lot of “yes, but…,” when we’d ask if the dock water was potable. There were people that drank it with no apparent ill effects, but bottled water for consumption was the norm.

When we purchased the system, we opted for the 32 gallon high-output version, and it was definitely the right decision. Our water tank holds 75 gallons, and it takes just a little over two hours to completely fill it. Some miserly water users could probably stretch that for weeks, but because we really don’t have to conserve, that’s enough to last us from four to six days. Then in a little over two hours, we’re full again. When talking watermakers with other boaters, our Rainman often gets covetous glances when we tell them how much water we can make. Usually they’ll be running a 4 to 6 gallon per hour DC powered system all day long trying to keep up with their usage.


Custom Sunbrella covers for ondeck storage


Covers removed. We secure the units with bicycle locks to keep them from walking off.

Our original plan had been to store the system in one of our cockpit lazarettes, but the space ended up being used for our expanded house battery bank. With storage room on our Hunter 376 at a premium, the only place left was in the on-deck storage cradle we had manufactured. At the time we had it built, we didn’t know what we would use it for, we just knew it would come in handy, and it turned a dead space under the mainsheet into usable storage. It’s been the perfect place for our Rainman system, and it only takes a few moments to uncoil the seawater suction line and drop it over the side, plug in the membrane unit, and start making water. The instructions for the system say that you should not store it in a wet location, and we also thought that the constant exposure to sunlight would degrade the plastic housings, so we had custom Sunbrella covers made to protect the pressure and membrane units from the elements. Short of a huge wave washing completely over the boat, we think we should be fine. They certainly still look like new after six months stored there.


Setting up to make water


Drop the suction line over the side and turn on the system…


and we’re making plenty of clean fresh water


Filling our tank

Was it expensive? At over $5,000 delivered, you’re darn right it was. But it’s been worth every penny, and we wouldn’t want to leave home without it.

Our Shakedown Cruise

As we’ve mentioned before, it wasn’t originally our intention to return to our hometown of Pensacola, Florida just four months after heading off on our grand adventure last April. But as things have turned out, it probably wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Four months of voyaging turned up some issues with Eagle Too that never made themselves apparent during the year and a half we lived at the dock. Issues that will need to be addressed before we head out again, and which will be much easier to deal with stateside than from somewhere down island. Besides, we had to go somewhere for hurricane season, and Pensacola isn’t a bad place to spend the summer on a boat.


Eagle Too anchored in Bahia Honda, Artemisa Province, Cuba

Our biggest concern, of course, is our ailing transmission. Even though it appears to be running smoothly and quietly and shifts well, the fact that it toasts the transmission fluid to a nasty dark gray color after 30 or 40 hours of operation tells us something is wrong. Fixing it is going to require pulling the transmission and sending it off to be rebuilt, and that means hauling the boat.

It’s been 28 months since our last bottom job, and our antifouling is showing its age, so if we are going to have to haul the boat to do the transmission work, we might as well put a fresh bottom on. No sense heading out with worn out bottom paint when we just happen to have friends here in Pensacola that run a marine maintenance and repair yard.


Eagle Too anchored off Cayo Levisa, PInar del Rio Province, Cuba

The windlass. That was a big deal. The fact that it stopped working at a really bad time (anchored too close to a lee shore with a rapidly approaching thunderstorm) drove home just how important to your health and safety a functional windlass is. Especially when your bower is a 65 pound brute like our Mantus. My back still aches thinking about pulling it up by hand in 25 knots of wind. But it’s all better now. Just some corroded crimp connectors under the deck switches.

Then there’s a short list of little things that we’re working our way through. For instance, we’ve mentioned before that instead of using expensive marine ventilation fans, we stocked up on cheap ($10) 12 volt automotive fans from Walmart to cool the boat at anchor. To power them, we installed 12 volt outlets all over the boat, wired to the Fan circuit on our breaker panel. Well, it turns out that the Fan circuit was only a 5 amp breaker, and if we tried to run three or more fans at once, the breaker would trip. I guess we never tried it before getting underway, since we usually had the air conditioning running. So we swapped out the 5 amp breaker for a 10 amp, since the wiring can handle the current. Problem solved!

We’ve prided ourselves on our bone dry bilge, so it really bothered us when we started accumulating a couple of inches of fresh water in the bilge from an unknown source. Some sleuthing determined that the level probe on our freshwater tank had developed a leak, allowing water to seep into the bilge whenever we topped off the tank. So out came the old one and in went a brand new probe from KUS (the company formerly known as WEMA).

Our cockpit speakers were falling apart due to UV exposure. So now we’re sporting a shiny new pair of West Marine stereo speakers. The backlight on our Raymarine depth gauge gave out early in the trip, so the instrument is now on its way back to Raymarine for repair under warranty. And it’s a little thing, but we kept losing the little black plastic caps on the tops of our stantions. They’d just pop off underway and go overboard, and we eventually ran out of spares. So we placed a quick order with Sailboat Owners for a set of stainless steel replacement caps, which we hope will be more durable and tenacious.

I’ve been playing this little game with our steaming light for some time now. It stops working, so I go up the mast with my multimeter and tools and coax it into working again. It tests fine for three or four days, so I consider it fixed. Then the day comes where we actually want to use it, and damned if it hasn’t quit again. I can actually see it up there sticking its tongue out at me. After two or three rounds, the fun has worn off, so there’s a new steaming light sitting on our chart table ready for my next trip up the mast.

With the exception of the transmission, none of these problems are voyage-ending. But sitting here in mid-September, looking back on our year, I think it has probably been a good thing that we first headed out in early spring and were able to do a thorough shakedown on all of our systems and gear, identify all our weak spots and then spend the downtime during hurricane season making adjustments. So much of what we did to prepare Eagle Too was based on research on what seemed to be working for others, or some notional idea of what we’d want or need once underway. But four months of theory-to-practice now allows us to better judge wants and needs.

We’ll shortly try and do some posts on what we thought were the most useful systems and/or pieces of gear, the things we would absolutely not want to leave home without.

That’s A Lot Of Sushi

Rhonda and I had just finished dinner and were sipping some wine in the cockpit, enjoying the cool stillness of the early evening, when a commotion at the end of our dock caught our attention. Moments earlier, we’d watched as Born To Run, one of those colossal and ridiculously expensive sport fishing boats favored by those with an overabundance of wealth, had glided into the marina (much too fast in our opinion, but then no-wake-zones are for the little people), spun around, and side-tied to the end of our dock. The group of loud young men onboard were now struggling to get something off the boat and into a dock cart. Finally succeeding in their task, they wheeled the loaded cart past our stern, and we saw that it contained a really big tuna. Probably the largest we’ve ever seen.

“How big is he?” Rhonda asked the young man pushing the cart.

“166 lbs,” he replied, as he wheeled the cart toward the dockside fish-cleaning station.

We followed the gaggle of fishermen to watch them clean the huge fish. One carved large lengths of flesh from the carcass, and slid them to another to cut into thick red steaks.Tuna1 Tuna2

A small crowd began to gather, watching from the porch of the restaurant above. “How far out did you catch him?” someone asked.

“About 120 miles,” an older gentleman standing to one side quietly sipping a beer replied.

“Wow. How much fuel did that take?” I asked.

The gentleman thought for a moment. “About $4,000,” he replied.

Yikes. At current prices, that’s probably at least 1,200 gallons of diesel fuel. For a single tuna. Oh well, spend it if you’ve got it, I guess. Help stimulate the economy, and all that.

And I’m sure it will make a lot of sushi.  🙂

Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig

Five months and 2,400 miles after throwing off the lines at Palafox Pier and Yacht Harbor in downtown Pensacola, Florida, Rhonda gently worked the throttle to carefully back Eagle Too into a slip while I hung from the starboard shrouds, ready to jump ashore and tie off our docklines.


After cleating off the lines, I climbed back aboard while Rhonda shut down the diesel. As the engine shuddered to a stop, the low-oil-pressure alarm whistled shrilly until Rhonda reached down and switched off the engine key, silencing it.

We noted the time for our log, checked the instruments as we usually do upon arrival, and then, our end-of-voyage ritual completed, stood for a moment in the now silent cockpit, taking in our very familiar surroundings.

“We’re home,” we said to each other. For we had just returned to what has become the closest thing to home for us now that we live the life of vagabond cruisers. We were once again docked at Palafox Pier.


We previously lived in slip 6 on E dock for 16 months, but it has another occupant now, and we slid instead into slip 11 on D dock. We can clearly see our old home, it’s just right over there, and we look with dismay at the squatter currently occupying “our” spot. But D dock isn’t a bad place, and we’ll be fine here for now.

The marina at the Naval Air Station was accommodating and affordable, but unfortunately there is very little there in the way of shopping or dining. Getting around required a car, and after five weeks, we’d pretty much worn out our ability to borrow a car from family or friends. Moving to downtown, while more expensive than the Navy marina, would be cheaper than staying put and renting a car, and would put numerous replenishment and dining options within walking or biking distance. With luck, we won’t be here too long. Rhonda thinks I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have the issue that brought us unexpectedly home sufficiently under control by November to let us head out again before the weather gets too cold. We’ll see.


You may have noticed that It’s been a while since we’ve posted an update.  The creative energy that would have normally been expended formulating blog posts has instead been devoted to teasing out solutions to a complex family health issue. After a day of dealing with counselors, doctors, and social services workers, there just isn’t the energy or desire to pull together a blog entry. It’s all been quite depressing actually, and depression is not much of a motivator. But we’ve been making progress, things may be on the right path now, and we’re feeling somewhat optimistic that the time may soon come when we can resume our voyage and things here will be fine in our absence. And optimism is energizing. So maybe the drought has ended. Again, we’ll see. For now, just know that Rhonda and I are fine, we’re home, and we’re looking forward to the (hopefully not far off) day when we can once again head out and resume our interrupted journey.