Today is a significant day. It’s the anniversary of the latest chapter in our life together, the start of our Life On The Hook™. It was December 27th, 2014 that Rhonda and I first moved onboard Eagle Too and became full time liveaboards. That means that today marks the beginning of our fourth year of this latest stage of our lives.
How did we spend the day? Helping another newly minted cruising couple better understand their new-to-them boat and some of the challenges (the unknown unknowns) that they have ahead of them. After thousands of miles of cruising and three years as dwellers-upon-the-sea, we feel we’ve learned quite a bit about this crazy and unconventional life. Enough so that when asked, we feel comfortable sharing some of that knowledge and experience with others now embarking on a similar path. We’ve gone from being the sponges that eagerly soaked up all the wisdom more experienced cruisers were willing to share to being those who are (occasionally) asked for guidance and advice. It’s help that we’re happy to provide, as we feel we’re paying forward the kindness and wisdom of those who helped us in the past.
Who knows, maybe that would be a great subject for another book … 🙂
So what’s next for the crew of the good ship S/V Eagle Too? Well, after the holidays, which we’re spending here in St Petersburg (because it’s 76° here, while it’s 49° back home in Pensacola) we’ll start working our way south. We’ve received permission from the Coast Guard to once again travel to Cuba, and we hope to make the jump across the Straits of Florida to that island nation in mid-February. So stay tuned, for there appears to be yet more adventure ahead as we begin our fourth year of this cruising life!
One of the first things we learned when adjusting to our Life On The Hook™ is how little space there is onboard for extraneous stuff. If we can’t eat it, it isn’t related to safety or security, serve multiple purposes, or address an ongoing need, then there just isn’t room for it on S/V Eagle Too. For that reason, our initial plans to pack along a small collection of Christmas lights, decorations and a modest artificial tree so we could celebrate the season quickly collided with our new reality, and it all ended up in our storage unit. We just couldn’t find space onboard for things that would only be used once a year.
Because she misses her garden, Rhonda tries to maintain a few small herb plants onboard. It gives her something to grow and nourish, and also spices up our cuisine. So when she found a small rosemary plant shaped like a tiny Christmas tree at the grocery store, we gave it a home. It provided Santa a place to leave a few presents, and once the holidays are over, it will supply savory spice for our steaks and stews. It checks the boxes of being multi-functional and edible, and so a new tradition is born!
We’ve definitely gotten into the spirit of the cruiser’s minimalist Christmas here aboard Eagle Too. Rather than an orgy of conspicuous consumption, our holiday has become a day to relax, reach out to family and enjoy some scrumptious food. It’s almost embarrassing to look back at our first Christmas aboard! How far we’ve come.
Rhonda and I want to take a moment to wish each of you a very Merry Christmas and extend our best wishes for your pending New Year.
Trigger Warning: This post includes math. If this causes you anxiety, you may want to go browse through some of our other posts instead.
One of the lessons we’ve learned in the over 5,000 nautical miles we’ve traveled since embarking on our Life On The Hook™ is how reliant we are on our engine to get around. While we may live on a sailboat, we don’t really do that much sailing, because of the wind’s uncanny ability to always blow too much, too little, or from exactly the wrong direction. If we relied on the wind alone to get where we wanted to go, we’d probably spend months waiting for just the right conditions, or it would take five times longer to get where we were headed. I’d say we spend roughly 80 to 90% of our time underway either motoring or motor sailing. It always surprises new cruisers when we share this lesson with them, but whenever we catch up with them further down the line, they usually admit we were right.
Being as reliant as we are on our trusty little Yanmar diesel, you can imagine how unfortunate it would be to run out of fuel. We always keep a close eye on our fuel tank level, and a big part of planning for any passage is making sure we have enough fuel onboard to motor the entire way if necessary.
While we obsessively watch our fuel level, you may be surprised to find out that this gauge really isn’t very important or even useful:
It only provides a rough estimate of the level in our tank, probably plus or minus 25%. We’ve learned that we can be down six to eight gallons and the gauge will still say full, and when we’re underway and the boat is rolling, it will swing wildly over half its range. It also hits empty long before we are critically low, causing needless anxiety.
It turns out that this is actually a much more useful tool to tell how full our tank is:
How does the engine hours meter tell us how much fuel we have onboard? It’s really very easy. It all comes down to knowing our burn rate, or how much fuel our engine uses in an hour. When you know your burn rate, you can multiply that by the number of hours since your last fill-up to determine exactly how much fuel you’ve burned, and thus how much you have left (because you know how many gallons your fuel tank holds, right?).
So how do you determine your fuel burn rate? To get a rough estimate, you just fill up your tank, run the engine for a while, and then fill the tank back up again. Now divide how many gallons it took to fill up the tank by the number of hours you ran the engine, and you’ll get an answer in gallons per hour. This is your burn rate. Do this several times and average the results, and you’ll get an increasingly accurate estimate of your actual number. In our case, the year or so we spent sailing our local waters around Pensacola gave us an estimated burn rate of .6 gallons per hour.
Now this rough estimate was fine for ensuring we’d never run out of fuel while sailing our local waters, where we had numerous places to refuel. But when we started actively cruising, actually crossing oceans and traveling to remote places where there were fewer opportunities to refuel, we wanted to have a more precise number. That’s where a fuel log becomes vitally important.
In the back of our maintenance log, we have a section in which we record the engine hours every time we add fuel, and the number of gallons added. We began the process by carefully filling our fuel tank until fuel came out the vent, which told us it was completely full. For several months of cruising, we’d log our hours and gallons whenever we added fuel. After several hundred engine hours and over a hundred gallons of fuel burned, we once again filled the tank to the vent, bringing it back to full. Dividing the total engine hours by the total amount of fuel consumed gave us a much more accurate burn rate value of .664 gallons per hour.
Why go to all this trouble? Two main reasons. First, when we pull up to a fuel dock to fill up, the last thing we want to have happen is to overfill the tank, spill fuel out the vent and create a fuel spill in the marina. It makes everyone very cranky, and you can actually be fined for the environmental impact. If you’ve never been at a fuel dock, you may not know that because most sailboat fuel tanks are vented, they don’t build up the backpressure necessary to make the pump automatically click off like it does when you fill the tank of your car. When the tank is full, they just keep pumping, spilling fuel out the vent. So you need to have a way to know how much room there is in your tank so you know when to stop pumping. A quick check of our fuel log and a simple calculation (engine hours since last fillup x burn rate) tells us exactly how much room there is in the tank and thus how much to pump.
Second, having this information lets us calculate our maximum range under power, which is a pretty good thing to know when planning to cross an ocean. For example, we carry 35 gallons in our tank, we want to maintain a 5 gallon reserve for emergencies, and we have 20 gallons of fuel on deck in Jerry cans. We know we can motor for (35 gal tank + 20 gal in jugs – 5 gal reserve) x .65 gal/hr = 76.9 hours. Let’s just call it 77 hours. Now we can calculate our maximum range for various speeds. If the wind, current and sea state limits our average speed to 5 knots speed over ground (SOG), we can travel 77 hrs x 5 nm/hr = 385 nautical miles under power. If things are a bit calmer, we’re not bashing into a swell or fighting a contrary current and can maintain closer to 6 knots, our range is 462 miles. If we find one of those rare weather windows with calm seas, light and variable winds and no current, at cruise RPM we can maintain closer to 7.5 knots SOG, which would give us a maximum range of 577 nautical miles. We can also run the numbers in the other direction. If we know we can motor for 77 hours, we’ve been underway under power for 48 hours, and we have 120 miles left to go to our destination, we have enough fuel to complete the trip as long as we can maintain at least 4.2 knots SOG (120 ÷(77-48) = 4.13)
I’ll admit it takes a bit of discipline to keep an accurate fuel log, but the peace of mind we get from knowing exactly how much fuel we have and how far we can travel is worth the effort. The results speak for themselves. We went 11 months between complete fillups this year (i.e. fuel out the tank vent), putting 300 hours on the engine and burning 200 gallons of fuel. To completely fill the tank took 3.1 gallons more than I expected, which means our calculations were off by only 1.5%.
We cruise on what is commonly called a “production boat.” This means Eagle Too is the nautical equivalent of a Chevy or Ford. There are those who say production boats are unsuitable for cruising. We say that’s nonsense. But our recent visit to the St Petersburg Boat Show has me wondering whether that’s still true for the new models now being produced. While we enjoyed the opportunity to climb aboard a variety of boats and inhale that new boat smell, some of what I saw truly horrified me. Designers have in many cases focused on building very expensive houseboats with a mast. They have automatic dish dryers, wide screen televisions that disappear into hidden compartments and multi-channel surround sound, but I think trying to take them to sea in anything but the most benign conditions would be highly inadvisable.
Here are some examples, in no particular order. For starters, what’s wrong with this picture?
Can you imagine trying to reset a dragging anchor in the middle of the night while having to straddle that hatch? To show you that this isn’t a quirk of just one builder, here’s another example from a different manufacturer.
Let’s just put a big fragile hatch with a No Step sign right where you absolutely need to stand while anchoring. By the way, did you happen to notice that these hatches open the wrong way if you want to catch the breeze while at anchor?
Another common “feature” is the long, projecting bow roller assembly necessary to allow the anchor to clear the plumb bow that’s all the rage with designers today. I observed that while this assembly was almost the equivalent of a bowsprit due to how far it projected out the front, the gauge of steel wasn’t anywhere near robust enough to stand up to the forces of a boat surging and sailing at anchor in a blow. The stainless looked to be about half the thickness of that on our boat’s bow roller, and would probably fold up like cardboard if you loaded it up laterally, as is common with the boat swinging about when anchored in storm conditions.
Next, imagine trying to work on these foredecks in any kind of sea state. Other than the lifelines, what the hell could you hold onto to keep from being pitched overboard?
Look how far it is to the nearest handrail.
Now I don’t know about you, but when we’re underway, we spend a lot of time behind the wheel. We have a big comfy West Marine captain’s seat, the one with the armrests, that whoever has the helm uses.
But on so many of the boats we looked at, the helm seat was treated as a major annoyance that looked like the designer was forced to include against their wishes. It was obviously much more important to design it to easily fold out of the way in order to open up the wide stern tailgate than to actually provide the helmsperson a comfortable place to sit.
There’s not enough room on these little planks to use our big blue chair, much less stand a four hour watch in rolling seas.
Another current design trend is to carry the boat’s maximum beam all the way aft. While this creates enormous space down below, this also results in huge, open cockpits. Cockpits with practically nothing to brace against when the boat heels to the breeze. Just imagine how far the fall would be to the far side of this cockpit if you slipped off the seat with the boat heeled 20 to 30 degrees. If you were lucky, maybe the lifelines on the far side would stop you. Or maybe they would just carve you up like a cheese slicer as you fell overboard.
The builders made a subtle acknowledgement of the problem by molding these little toe-stubbers into the cockpit floor on some boats. Yes, this is all you get to brace against to keep yourself in place while surfing down eight foot rollers.
Or you could perch on the little plank (with no backrest) that’s provided for the helmsmen. But at least you have the room to hold a Mambo contest in the cockpit if you wanted to.
That wide beam also leads to open, airy salons down below. But tell me how exactly you’re supposed to maneuver around this cabin in any kind of sea state. I guess you just pick your next point and launch yourself towards it, as there’s nothing to hold onto in route. Hopefully you’ll make a soft landing. Or maybe they expect you to crawl. But hey, it has an icemaker!
And do you happen to see anything to hold onto as you try to exit the salon on this boat and climb up to the cockpit?
Sometimes I like to operate the occasional breaker on our boat’s main breaker panel. You know, like if the sun sets and we want to turn on the running lights, or we’re craving some tunes and want to turn on the stereo. Things like that. But in new boats, I guess people don’t do those things anymore, because getting to the breaker panel requires you to crawl over the settee.
And I suppose I’m just being a cranky old salt, but occasionally we do like to start our engine, which means we need to be able to reach the throttle and shifter. But I guess if you own one of these expensive new dock queens, such things really don’t matter. So the throttle/shifter is located where you have two choices — you can either reach through the wheel, or you can squeeze your arm through the 3 inch gap between the wheel and the coaming.
There’s more, but I think you get the point. Pony up a half a million dollars, and you too can have a boat that looks and smells wonderful. But actually take it out in anything more than a Force 3 wind? Forget it!
Rhonda and I have never been to a major boat show. We’ve attended some local hometown ones, but never one of those major metropolitan on-the-water tributes to nautical excess. So when we found out that the St Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show, billed as the largest boat show on the Gulf Coast, was happening right next door shortly after our arrival here in St Petersburg (purely a coincidence, as we had no idea it was in the works), we decided to attend. Particularly since they were giving free admission to military veterans.
It was amazing to watch the progress as a huge marina appeared from nowhere in the empty basin just south of where we’re docked. In a few days, docks and slips for hundreds of boats were set in place, complete with utilities, while several enormous exhibitor tents bloomed.
Once complete, hundreds of vessels of all shapes and sizes, dressed in their boat show finest, motored into the harbor and took their places along the piers, while hundreds of smaller boats were trailered into line along the shore.
There are probably a lot of things I could say about the experience, but the biggest takeaway was a general amazement at how much money there must be floating around waiting to be spent. Because the prices on these vessels were jaw dropping. We saw center console fishing boats that cost over $750,000. Oh sure, they had some nice LED lighting, plush upholstery and every form of marine electronics known to man, but they were still basically just tricked out 34 foot fishing boats. Or for a cool $1.5 million, you could pick up a 42 foot flybridge cruiser, with an outdoor galley on the swim platform and a 55” TV in the salon. But not to worry, financing was available with easy-to-make payments of under $6,000 a month.
You may have heard of Glamping? Would this be considered Gloating?
Prices in the seven figure range were the norm for anything larger than 40 feet, or not much bigger than what we currently own. It felt at times like we were on a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” excursion, taking a peek at a world filled with people who own private jets and have personal chefs (provided we first took off our shoes and filled out a customer contact card listing our personal info). It was pretty sobering.
Fortunately, the exhibitor tents offered purchasing opportunities for we mere mortals. From dinghies to new engines, water makers to yachting wear, there were definitely deals to be had.
We delayed pushing the button on a Defender order we’d been assembling just in case we could find some of the things we were in the market for at the boat show, and I’m glad we did. For instance, we saved over $80 on a new set of dock lines that we needed, and Eagle Too now sports a shiny new set of earrings that we picked up at the Garhauer booth for only $35 each.
3/4″ x 40 ft dock lines for only $55 each. Yes, you get excited about things like this when you live on a boat.
OK, they’re not really earrings, they’re spinnaker turning blocks, but we told Eagle Too that she looked really pretty wearing them.
After chatting up a character known as Bob Bitchin’ from Cruising Outpost (sort of a celebrity in the boating community), we snagged a pair of complimentary passes gaining us entry into the Cruising Outpost party, with live music and free pizza and beer.
Bob Bitchin’, our host for the evening.
So when you factor in the savings on the items we purchased and throw in a party with free beer and dinner, I feel we came out comfortably ahead financially.
We also had a nice long chat with David Marlow, the owner of Marlow Hunter, which is the home of Hunter Sailboats. It was pretty interesting to pick the brains of the guy who owns the company that built our boat.
The show was a lot of fun, and I do think that if we ever need to make a major purchase like a new dinghy, waiting for a show like this one can save a bundle. It’s pretty clear though that if we ever hoped to purchase a new boat (i.e. floating palace) like the ones we saw lining the docks, we’ll have to start buying lottery tickets.
Who doesn’t want a pink outboard?
By the way, I’ll have more to say in another post about some of the things we saw which convinces me that sailboats are now being designed by people who have never actually been sailing.