Category Archives: How?

Anything related to projects or boat tasks.

Lock It or Lose It

While chartering in the British Virgin Islands, we learned to always, always, always lock up our dinghy or risk losing it. It’s a habit we took home with us, and to this day we always try to lock our dinghy to something secure like a dock piling or palm tree, even when we’re in our home waters. When we’re anchored out and retire for the evening, we lock the dingy to the stern of Eagle Too, and when the dinghy is on deck, we make sure the outboard is securely locked to the railing. We also make ample use of bicycle locks to secure valuable but portable deck gear like our Rainman water maker and scuba tanks. Due to an unfortunate incident a few years ago where we had someone enter our boat and steal our cash here in the marina while I was up doing laundry, we never even leave the boat without making sure the companionway is locked. Not even to visit a neighbor’s boat for sundowners just two slips over. If our feet hit the dock, the boat is locked. It’s a little sad that that’s the way of the world, but then we sailors do tend to glorify pirates. It’s just that we always think we’ll be the ones doing the pirating, rather than the ones that get pirated.

While we try to exercise good dinghy locking discipline, I have to admit the locks we were using would probably be considered “honest man’s locks.” They indicated to a basically honest person that no, this dinghy wasn’t orphaned and in need of a good home, but rather was owned by someone who didn’t care to be parted from it. But if you smacked it with a hammer, pried it with a screwdriver, or possibly even just looked at it angrily, it would give up faster than the French army.

Getting some better locks was always one of those things I intended to someday do. So when we were wandering around Home Depot the other day on an unrelated matter, I was pleasantly surprised to find these new locks from Masterlock. They had beefy stainless steel bodies that looked like they’d be more than able to withstand hammer smacks and prying attempts, and would be better able to stand up to the marine environment than the locks we’ve been using.

In addition, they had our “must have” feature, a user settable combination. We just don’t like key locks here aboard Eagle Too, because we’re too likely to misplace or forget the key.

Best of all, they were less than $20 each, which seemed like a real bargain. Time will tell if that turns out to be true.

While these obviously won’t stand up to a determined assault from someone armed with a pair of bolt cutters or a hacksaw, they should make life much more difficult for “pirates of opportunity” to make off with our dinghy compared to the cheesy little locks we’ve been using.

So what’s your philosophy on when, where and how to lock up your dinghy?

Galley Notes—Our Own Diamond Mine

“Ice is civilization.” — Harrison Ford, The Mosquito Coast, 1986

Cruiser’s diamonds. That’s how some refer to those little nuggets of frozen water that put the chill in ‘Chillin’ with a Sundowner.’ While a ten pound bag of chill is available for a couple of bucks in almost any marina in Florida, the price climbs rapidly the further from the US you get. Six to eight dollars a bag is pretty common in the Bahamas, and in Cuba, when we could find bagged ice, it often smelled like fish.

When we’re out cruising and living Life On The Hook™, once the ten pound bag is gone (all we have room for), we’ve been limited to the small quantity of ice balls that Rhonda can make in our freezer. Sometimes we’ve gone weeks with our daily production of concentrated cold only allowing a single cool drink for each of us per day. Every piece of ice was valuable, and almost as rare as diamonds.

We’d always just roll our eyes when someone on another boat (usually a big trawler with a generator running 24/7) would say “Oh, we have an icemaker onboard.” Can you even call that cruising? I mean, learning about what you can do without is a big part of adopting and adapting to this lifestyle of being a maritime gypsy.

But Rhonda and I were having some cocktails with Beth and Stephan on S/V Cattywampus recently, and noticed that they weren’t shy about sharing their store of this most precious resource. Every round of drinks came with an ice refill. “No more ice, I don’t want to run you out,” I said. “It’s OK, we’re making more,” they replied. “Show me,” I said. After all, this was a sailboat we were drinking on, and not many sailboats in the less than “Oh my God you’ve got to be kidding me” price range come with something as exotic as an icemaker.

Stephen pointed to a small countertop appliance. It wasn’t much larger than a four-slice toaster. But it was producing enough cruiser’s diamonds to keep four people in cubes all evening.

We already carry a few countertop appliances on Eagle Too that many cruisers would consider superfluous, such as our Foodsaver vacuum sealer and Gourmia electric pressure cooker (both of which deserve their own Galley Notes blog post). But they’re small enough to store on shelves or in lockers, and their advantages outweigh the inconvenience of finding an onboard home for them.

Surely something as important to crew morale and the general welfare as a reliable supply of ice to chill beverages deserved a place in our equipage?

We were walking the aisles of Home Depot a few days later, and what of all things did we happen to see but a big stack of Magic Chef countertop icemakers on sale for $89. Since the seed had already been planted and had some time to sprout, it only took us about 30 seconds to say “it’s a sign!” and decide to take one home.

So now we can mine our very own diamonds, pretty much whenever we want!

Here’s the lowdown on operation. I couldn’t find a wattage rating on the box in the store, but when we returned to Eagle Too and unboxed the icemaker, the UL tag on the back said it uses 650 watts continuously, and 800 watts while birthing new cubes. That’s pretty much ideal, because our 50 amp battery charger uses about the same amount of power. When we redesigned the electrical system on Eagle Too, I settled on a 50 amp battery charger because I knew our Honda EU2000i generator (2000 watts surge, 1600 watts continuous output)  could easily power it while still having about 800 watts left for other uses. So this means that next cruising season, when the occasional need arises to run Genny (our Honda’s name) to charge our batteries, we’ll also be able to plug in the icemaker and replenish our supply of cruiser’s diamonds.

Since buying the unit, we’ve run it about every third or fourth day, and it has made all the ice we use onboard, saving us a few dollars over buying bagged ice. It takes eight minutes per cycle, with each cycle producing nine cubes. Well, more like hollow cones, but you know what I mean. It makes about a pound an hour, compared to probably the pound a week we were averaging making ice balls in our freezer.

Will it turn out to be a good decision? We’ll see. Something we currently carry onboard will probably have to be left behind next season in order to make room. But as we gain more experience, we’re constantly adjusting our list of what’s essential and what’s not, so we’ve probably made enough space due to things we’ve already taken off the boat this off-season. Also, I’ve heard stories that these units only last about 8 months to a year in continuous use. That will be disappointing if it turns out to be true, but then again, every season we have to buy replacements for something (or several somethings) that we expected to last for years, but barely made it through a single season, like power cords and solar lights, or fuel cans and dinghy paddles, to name just a few. So if we get a year’s worth of reliable diamond production out of it, we’ll probably be happy.

One last comment before wrapping this up. The icemaker we bought was branded Magic Chef, and it has a sturdiness about it that I like. We were recently in Sam’s Club and saw a stack of no-name icemakers of similar design for the same $89 price. But when I examined one, it had a cheap and flimsy feel about it that totally turned me off. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if one of those bit the bullet within a year. I’m hoping ours is a bit better quality.

Summer Upgrades—Hatch Work

The Lewmar size 3 hatch over our galley sink needed replacing. I’m fine putting new seals and O–rings in an old hatch if that’s all that’s needed to stop a leak. You can get the parts at Hatchmasters. But in addition to dripping water down the back of our necks while standing at the galley sink whenever it rained, the hinge rivets broke off this one, so the hatch wouldn’t operate properly, and replacement rivets are impossible to find. It needed to be replaced.

In another case of procrastination paying off (I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t get so much positive reinforcement), West Marine put all their Lewmar hatches on sale, and for a brief period were actually the cheapest source I could find for a replacement. The price was so good that I bought two, although being a somewhat rare size, it took them two weeks to get the new ones in.

The replacement hatch had been redesigned to eliminate the hinge that had broken off our old one, which I liked. One less thing to go wrong.

It fought me tooth and nail, but I eventually got the old hatch out with the help of some heavy duty pry bars from Harbor Freight. Then I cleaned and prepped the deck.

If you follow us here at Life On The Hook™, you know that butyl rubber tape is the only bedding compound we ever use. But don’t use just any butyl rubber tape from Home Depot or AutoZone. Get it from this guy: http://www.pbase.com/mainecruising/butyl_tape. His is the best.

I applied several overlapping layers of tape to the flange of the new hatch.

Then all I had to do was set the new hatch in place, press it down firmly to set the butyl tape, tighten the mounting screws, trim off the excess butyl that squeezed out, and I was ready for a leak check.

I’m delighted to say that we no longer have to endure the shock of cold water dripping on our necks while washing dishes during a thunderstorm!

Summer Upgrades—New Cowl Vents

Being back in the land of online shopping and two day delivery gives us a chance to work on some of the things we’ve wanted to upgrade on Eagle Too. Today’s task is the replacement of our really sad, decaying, weathered cowl vents. These things are just a complete eyesore, and like duct tape on upholstery, they just make our boat look shabby no matter how good she looks otherwise.

We’ve already replaced these rotatable air scoops once before. But they’re made of soft PVC, and the sun just absolutely destroys them. These were less than two years old, but were so UV degraded that they were actually sticky to the touch. Trying to clean them just resulted in a gummy mess.

Buying another set of PVC vents seemed like good money after bad. But at least they were affordable, at about $80 a set. There are some that are made from stainless steel, and Rhonda thought that sounded like a great idea, until I told her they would cost between $600 – $800 for a pair. We didn’t hate the old vents that much!

Thinking there had to be another option, I kept researching, and found out that Vetus actually makes a line of cowl vents in silicon rubber. Unlike PVC plastic, the silicon is supposed to be impervious to sun and weather, and come with a three year warranty. They’re twice the cost of the PVC vents, but only about a quarter of the cost of the stainless steel ones. I placed the order for a pair.

One of the issues with purchasing anything online is that you can’t touch, feel and take a good look at what you’re buying. When the new cowl vents arrived, we learned that they mounted to a completely different type of deck ring, which was never shown or explained in the product description. I couldn’t use the old deck rings, but the mounting holes on the new ones had a smaller radius and wouldn’t work unless I could make the holes in the deck smaller.

In situations like this, I usually put the job aside and ponder on it a while. After a couple of days, a solution popped to mind. I called Carpenter Tony (our name for him, to differentiate him from Canvas Tony, who does all our canvas work), and asked him if he had any scrap 1/2″ Starboard laying around his shop. In case you’re not familiar, Starboard is the brand name of a marine grade plastic lumber that holds up really well to sun and weather. He had some available, so I asked him to make two 6″ rings for me with 4″ holes in the middle. The next day he called to tell me they were ready.

Two new Starboard rings and one of the old mounting rings for comparison.

Taking them one at a time, I removed the first vent and mounting ring…

and then cleaned up the 21 years of accumulated gunk that had collected.

I drilled and countersunk holes in the Starboard ring to match the existing screw holes, applied a bead of silicon, and screwed it down. You don’t really need to seal this, as any water that goes down the vent will drain away, but I thought it would act as an adhesive to back up the screws.

Next I mounted the deck ring for the new cowl vent…

and then screwed the new vent to the ring.

Not bad! Now on to the other side to repeat the process.

And shortly after that, Eagle Too sported two shiny new vents.

You probably noticed the new vents are more upright than the old ones. I couldn’t find the low profile vents in silicon, and these were the best I could do. But they’re still short enough to not be in the way of anything, and they should probably catch a little more air than the old ones.

 

A Bigger Mess Than We Thought

In an earlier post titled  “How We Broke The Boat,” I described how I managed to part our topping lift while cruising in the Bahamas a few months ago. At the time, a temporary repair was the best we could manage. Now that we’re back home for the summer, getting this properly repaired was high on our to-do list. After ordering the parts from Rig-Rite, we scheduled a date with our rigger.

We only have two lines that go to the top of the mast. One, the topping lift, was broken, and the other, the main halyard, needed some adjustment as part of the repair. That meant there was no line available to haul someone to the top of the mast, so we had to take the boat to the shipyard in order to use their boom truck to hoist someone up.

When ordering new axles and sheaves for the top of the mast, I’d ordered a few extra, “just in case.” It turned out to be a good thing, because once our rigger got to work, he determined that we were dealing with a much bigger mess than we thought. Not only was the sheave (small pulley) and axle for the topping lift destroyed, but the ones for the main halyard as well. Basically all the little pulleys and the axles they rode on at the mast top were trash.

Suddenly it all became clear. I thought I’d broken the topping lift by over-tightening the mainsheet and pulling the boom down too far. But our problems probably started a year earlier when we’d had trouble with our mainsail head swivel. For some reason (I can’t really remember), we had taken the mainsail down. Perhaps it was in order to ship it off to SailCare for cleaning. When it came time to re-install the sail, it refused to go on. The top swivel, which attaches to the head of the sail, wouldn’t go up the track inside the mast. It would hang up about a quarter of the way, and then refuse to go another inch. We continued applying more and more force with the winch, until the halyard was as tight as a guitar string, but the swivel just wouldn’t budge. Eventually I gave up and called the riggers, who diagnosed and fixed the problem (a loose screw on the swivel that had backed out enough for the screw head to catch on something inside the mast). But unknowingly, when we were trying to force the swivel to go up the mast, we applied so much force to the halyard that we crushed the sheaves and axles at the mast head.

Hoisting someone the easy way – using a cordless drill

No wonder I’d almost had a heart attack down in New Providence while trying to winch someone up the mast to do our temporary topping lift repair!  I had 160 pounds of French Canadian hanging from a line that I thought was running freely over a pulley at the top of the mast. But it was actually just dragging over a crushed pile of pulley and axle parts that were no longer capable of doing their job. I feel much better now about having needed five rest breaks to get him all the way to the top!

In any event, all is now squared away at the top of Eagle Too’s mast. The efficient folks at Zern Rigging finished the job in a little over two hours, and then we were back out on Pensacola Bay, where we rolled out the sails and tested everything out. We’re good as new and ready to go!

Out Out Damned Stain

You can always tell a boat that has spent time traveling on the Intracoastal Waterway by its unsightly brown bow stain. The tannins given off by the mangroves and decaying vegetation along the canals turns the water in the ICW a murky brown, and the stain it leaves on your boat develops so fast that we never bother trying to keep our bow clean while we’re actively cruising. It would take a daily wash and wax to keep the stain from forming, and who’s got time for that. But removing this ugly brown stain from our bow is one of the first things we try to tackle when we return home for hurricane season.

Before

The usual boat soap, water and a scrub brush won’t touch this discoloration. Even so-called super cleaners like Amazing Roll Off that brag about their deep cleaning ability won’t phase it. In the past, we’ve had to resort to a product called Mary Kate’s On and Off to remove our bow stain. But On and Off is basically muriatic acid, and it’s a real hazard to use. Forget to wear your rubber gloves or fail to rinse it off your leg when you spill some and you can be looking at some nasty chemical burns. It’s pretty unpleasant to inhale it, and safety glasses are a must to protect your eyes from splashes.

But we heard a tip recently that seemed so good that we thought it couldn’t possibly be true. We were told that simple lemon juice would wipe that stain right off. At only a couple of bucks for a quart bottle, we thought it was worth a shot.

Here’s a three word review of our results: best idea ever! The lemon juice cleaned off the stain better than anything we’ve ever tried. I poured some into a trigger sprayer, and then I just sat in the dinghy and wiped the hull with a wet sponge, sprayed on the lemon juice, let it set a few minutes to work, and then wiped the hull clean. No concern about accidentally getting some on me, no worry about accidently splashing some in my eyes, no need to have to use rubber gloves and a scrub brush. Cheap, effective, and environmentally friendly. It even made the boat smell good!

After

I wish someone had mentioned this to us years ago.

Give Me A Home Where The Customs Apps ROAM

In the past, returning to the United States meant we’d have to pay a visit to our friendly neighborhood Customs and Border Protection office to clear back into the country. It was never a convenient thing to do, because we’d usually be at the Navy marina in Boca Chica or at Boot Key Harbor up in Marathon and have to rent or borrow a car to go to the CBP office in Key West. I’d started the process once to enroll in the Small Vessel Reporting System or SVRS, which could have theoretically let us clear in with a phone call, but I never got around to finishing. I guess having to make an annual trek to Customs upon our return to the US wasn’t enough of a hardship to push me to finish submitting the paperwork and scheduling the in-person interviews necessary to enroll in SVRS. Well as it turns out, that will no longer be necessary. While we were off enjoying ourselves in the Bahamas this past Spring, CBP apparently rolled out their new Reporting Offsite Arrival – Mobile, or ROAM, app.

Our friends Mike and Jen on S/V Sanitas first told us about it, and then Deb and TJ on S/V Kintala filled in the details for us. While sitting on a mooring in Boot Key Harbor one morning, I downloaded the CBP ROAM app from the Google Play Store and installed it on my Samsung tablet. After entering our personal details, it prompted me to use the app’s camera feature to snap pictures of both our passports and upload them. Next I entered our vessel details. I’m pretty sure the personal and vessel info is a one-time entry, as it appears to save the information to your ROAM account. Finally, I answered a few quick questions about our recent travel and where we were returning from and clicked submit. A moment later, the app requested permission to open a video chat. A smiling Customs agent then appeared on my screen, confirmed that I was Robert, and then asked me to show him Rhonda. I pointed the tablet at her, she smiled and waved, the Customs agent thanked us, and we were done. A moment later it notified me that we were cleared back into the US.

From start to finish, it took about a half hour to get everything set up. I thought I’d hit a speed bump when I learned I needed to purchase an annual Customs border crossing decal for our boat, because I had to input the decal number as part of our vessel information. But the ROAM app launched me out to the appropriate website so that I could order the decal, and then let me use the order confirmation number to complete the vessel info.

My intention when I downloaded the app was to just set it up and explore it a bit. I wasn’t expecting to suddenly be video chatting with a CBP agent. I didn’t even have a shirt on! Apparently using ROAM, you can clear into the country in your pajamas or underwear if you wish to.

The app does say that this is a limited release and not currently available for use at all ports of entry. It’s apparently in an advanced Beta stage, with CBP planning to eventually roll it out for use nation wide. For now though, it supports Customs clearance through all Florida ports of entry, so it’s now the primary means to clear in if you’re returning from the Bahamas or points south via Florida.

One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes procrastination does pay. ROAM replaces the SVRS, which means if I had bothered to jump through those hoops, it would have just been time wasted.

How We Broke The Boat

In a head-to-head battle between a boom vang and a topping lift, apparently the boom vang wins. Now I have to admit that there is a certain logic in this. You see, in the ongoing adventure that is a life afloat, Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. Breaking the boom vang is something that could be safely addressed from deck level. But the topping lift? Repairing that means that someone has to be hauled to the top of the mast, six stories above the water. So obviously, the one that requires the greatest physical danger to repair is the one that will cry Uncle.

Some background: a boom vang is used to pull downward on the boom to control mainsail twist. A topping lift is a line that pulls upward on the boom to keep it from falling downward when the sail is lowered. In our case, we use our topping lift to keep the boom elevated to the optimal angle for unfurling and furling our mainsail, which rolls up into the mast like a window shade. If the boom angle is off, the sail won’t roll in and out smoothly, which can be kind of a PITA.

Here’s a picture I found online of a vang in case you’re not familiar. Pulling the line on the vang shortens it, pulling the boom downward.

So there we were in 10,000 feet of water, crossing from the Great Bahamas Banks to New Providence, and the wind was dying. We’d started off moving along well, cruising at 6 knots in an 8 knot (apparent) SW wind. But as the wind lightened, our speed started dropping into the mid-5’s, and at times our knotmeter would read 4.9. We were trying to delay starting the engine for as long as possible, because damn it, we’re a sailboat, and we should be able to do more sailing! But we wanted to make it to New Providence by dinnertime, and we still had over 30 miles to go.

Since we’re cruisers, we don’t normally obsess over sail shape like racers do. As long as the boat is moving along at 5 knots or more and we’re not heeling excessively, it’s a happy day. But since we had places to be, I started fine tuning the mainsail to get everything I could out of what wind was left. I noticed that the top of the mainsail was twisting off to leeward (downwind) enough to spill air from the top third of the sail, costing us speed, and I wanted to fix it. So I tightened the vang, pulling down on the boom, and reducing the twist in the top of the sail.

But I forgot to loosen the topping lift. Because it’s set to a particular boom angle, I hardly ever touch it. And because we don’t race and aren’t constantly looking for ways to wring out another tenth of a knot, I usually don’t mess with the vang much. So I just didn’t make the connection when I noticed I had to winch really hard on the vang to pull the boom down. I didn’t think about the fact that I was stretching the topping lift. Not making excuses really, just a mea culpa.

A few minutes later, a cascade of line rained down onto the port side deck. “What the hell was that?” Rhonda and I asked each other, until I looked up and saw we didn’t have a topping lift any longer.

“Crap.” That’s about all I could think to say.

We were in the middle of a pretty good weather window, one that was supposed to last for several days, and our plans were to stop for the night in New Providence, and continue south the next day to the Exumas. But now we had a change of plans. It looked like we’d be heading to a marina in the hopes of finding a rigger who could fix our broken boat.

We learned an interesting thing about Nassau in the next few days. While it seems that there are sailboats all over the place, it turns out that there aren’t actually any people here who work on them. No matter where we called, looked or searched, we couldn’t find a single business that did rigging repair (note: I see a possible business opportunity for someone who wants to semi-retire to the Bahamas). I even texted our rigger back in Pensacola to see if he had any connections here. He suggested a person in Miami, who referred us to a contact on the island, who passed us on to the same local sailmakers loft that I had already called and who told me they didn’t do rigging. It took two days of phoning around just to find someplace that sold the line we needed, and then they only had it in red. (Red’s fine, red will work, we’ll take the red thank you very much. How much? $190? Sigh.)

We finally felt that we were making some progress when we approached the operators of NavTours, the local sailing charter base here at the Marina. “Sure, we have some people that can help, but you’ll have to talk to them and arrange something, and they’ll have to do it on their own time after they get off work,” we were told.

The next three days were spent talking to a succession of NavTours employees who all claimed they’d be happy to help, but then always failed to come through for one reason or another. Finally, we met Yasmin, the wiry French-Canadian, who said that if we’d move the boat at 7AM to a slip on the other side of the marina that faced into the wind and then take down our mainsail so he could use the halyard to ascend the mast, he’d do it for us. We shook hands and a plan was finally in motion.

We settled on the 0700 appointment for two reasons. Yasmin had to start work at NavTours at 10, which would give him three hours to help us. Also, the winds have been lighter in the morning, picking up significantly in the early afternoon.  Dropping and then reinstalling our huge mainsail would be impossible in any kind of significant wind. So underway at 0700 it was. But that meant the alarm had to be set for 0530. Being retired for several years now, neither of us had been up that early in longer than we could remember. But we rose to the challenge (and the alarm), and at five minutes after 7, we were sliding into the designated slip that faced into the wind, and I started taking down the main.

Things actually went pretty well from that point on. Yasmin fixed up his bosun’s seat to go up the mast, and I cranked him up while Rhonda tended the spinnaker halyard, which he used as a safety line. Of course, it was 10x harder than it sounds. About 50 turns on the winch to lift Yasmin was all my poor heart could handle before I’d have to stop, gasping for breath, and then take a break. It took at least seven or eight episodes of winch, gasp, pause to rest, then resume before he was finally at the top of the mast.

Going Up

Almost There!

Finally At The Top

Rhonda manning (womaning?) the safety line.

It was then that we discovered that I hadn’t just snapped the line. It looked like I had overloaded the topping lift masthead sheave (small pulley) so severely that I’d bent the axle, rendering it unusable.

That shaft is supposed to be straight!

The topping lift normally runs from the end of the boom to the top of the mast, over the sheave, down through the mast to deck level, and then back to the cockpit so it can be adjusted underway. But with the sheave destroyed, there was no good way to run a replacement. So it was on to Plan B. I passed a length of 3/8ths line up to Yasmin, and he tied it to the top of the mast. I could then tie this to the end of the boom, effectively acting as a replacement topping lift. Only it wouldn’t be adjustable. It would have to be set to a specific length and tied off. But that’s OK. We can work with that. It will allow us to keep sailing the boat, until we can make it back to Pensacola, land of readily available parts, overnight delivery, and easily obtainable rigging services, and have a proper repair done.

Yasmine came back down, the mainsail went back up, and a little after 9AM we were slowly sliding back into our original slip, all before the winds started picking up. A $100 bill changed hands, I tied off the new temporary line at what looked like a good height, and we were back in business.

Of course, it took five days to work out a solution, it caused us to miss what had been an excellent weather window, and it now looks like it will be about three more days before the winds again turn favorable for us to continue south.

And that’s the story of how we broke the boat. A simple little cautionary tale about how a brief lapse of judgement led to a week’s delay and over a thousand dollars in unanticipated expenses counting parts, labor and marina fees.

Just another day in the Bahamas, mon!

Galley Notes—Provisioning Tips

When it looked like our cruising season had been ended by my  recent injury, we began eating into our store of onboard provisions. But now that it looks like we’ll soon be on our way again, we’ve started restocking the pantry. Here are some provisioning tips we’ve learned for you current or soon-to-be cruisers out there.

First, before we leave the states we stock up on some essentials. We like to have plenty of shelf stable UHT milk (no refrigeration required until opened) onboard to make our morning lattes. While we’ve never had a problem finding bacon or some sort of breakfast sausage wherever we’ve traveled, we have had a hard time finding things like Spam and corned beef hash. Spam and hash can be scarce in the Bahamas, and when you do find them, they can run six to seven dollars a can, compared to about two bucks here at Publix.

Refrigerator space is some of the most valuable space on a boat, so in addition to buying UHT milk, another way we’ve found to stretch the limits of our cold storage space is to stock up on canned butter. We usually get a confused look from people when we mention it, and you probably won’t find it on the shelf at your local grocery store, but it’s easy to locate online. This is really high quality creamery butter from New Zealand that tastes wonderful. Each can holds the equivalent of three sticks of butter, and can be stored in the pantry with the other canned goods. As we open each one, Rhonda transfers the contents to a small plastic storage container to keep in the refrigerator.

We’ve never had a problem finding flour and oatmeal wherever we’ve traveled, but all the flour or cereal products we’ve purchased in Mexico (even at major stores like WalMart and Sam’s Club) or in small groceries in the Bahamas have come with unwelcome guests in the form of weevils. It’s common in stores down in the islands to have to look for flour in the freezer, as it’s the easiest way to protect from infestation. A traditional cruiser’s way of dealing with this is to add a liberal amount of bay leaves to the containers used to store pasta, cereals and grains. Apparently there’s something about them that weevils just can’t stand. So we keep an ample supply onboard. It’s much cheaper to purchase bay leaves in bulk than to buy spice-sized bottles, and this gives us enough to let us throw a liberal amount in each container used for cereals or grains. Plus we have plenty onboard for soups or stews!

Believe it or not, mac & cheese is a major staple in the Bahamas. They serve it as a side for everything, along with a dish called peas & rice. Dicing a can of Spam into mac & cheese is an easy to make one-pot meal when underway that we’ve found is one of the few things that goes down easily and stays down when it’s rolly enough to start making us feel a little green around the gills. So when we saw this while doing some online provisioning, we decided to give it a try.

It’s apparently a whole pound of what’s in that packet of golden goodness that’s included in every box of Kraft mac & cheese. We always have plenty of pasta onboard, and usually have butter and UHT milk, so with this, we’ll no longer have to hunt for boxes of Kraft while we’re down in the islands. We’ll let you know how it turns out. Plus we’re all set if we decide to whip up some beer & cheese soup someday!

Fuel By The Numbers

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%.