April 17, 2014

Battery bank replacement: power projects aboard

Battery replacement project

More than six months ago our battery bank ticked past the five year mark. That’s a pretty good life for marine AGMs, so we've been thinking for a while about where and how it would be replaced. You can’t always count on easy access to boat bits in the islands of Southeast Asia, so the big concern is that the bank would nosedive in an inconvenient location with complicated and costly results. We wanted to wait as long as possible, but expected it to become necessary at any moment, making it the top priority in a string of power projects on Totem but one that hung in the air for several months.

Battery replacement project

What we put in
Battery replacement project
Totem has AGMs (Absorbed Glass Matt), the deep-cycle sealed batteries commonly used on cruising boats. As we talked to other cruisers in the area, many reported good results with AGM batteries sourced from a local manufacturer. Good batteries, fresh from the factory, with minimal shipping cost (heavy batteries can make it absurdly expensive): a perfect combination. We just had to make our existing bank last long enough to get to the Malay peninsula!

When they finally arrived, it took a couple of dinghy loads to manage the weight. Each one is heavier than Jamie! Thank goodness for friends in the cruising family to help get them on board. If you've been on Totem's Facebook page recently, you already saw how handy the dinghy davits were for loading these monsters on board. They came in really handy, not just to have purchase on the weight, but because could swing them out over the dinghy, then back over the deck, vastly simplifying the transfer.

Tweaking location

Moving weight on the boat was a meaningful side benefit of the project. Totem has listed slightly to starboard since we bought her in 2007. This is primarily the result of tankage being moved around from the original plans, skewing weight on the starboard side. Our house battery bank was also located on the starboard side, just under the nav station (photo above). For the new batteries, Jamie built a box under our bunk in the aft cabin. This would create a significant weight shift: with about 400 lbs coming off the starboard side, and over 600 going in just to port, we might just get a flat boat.

Battery replacement project

Of course, it’s never as simple as just building a box. Over a period of several weeks, Jamie built out the box for the new set under our bunk: grinding down fiberglass (wow, that’s a lot of fine dust), fitting lumber to make a strong base (discovering the many lumber yards on Langkawi!), and building the frame up (I love the smell of polyester resin in the morning…not) to securely hold the new bank. It was a lot of work.

Battery replacement project
before wiring, double-checking with Calder
What about Lithium?

Lithium batteries are getting more common on boats and we’re familiar with some installations that get raves from their owners, on the yachts Tahina and Nimrod. They have some great benefits: because they can be drained more deeply (and charged more fully) without affecting their lifetime use, which provides far more usable power for the same total amp hours in a bank. Their lifetime value- amps delivered vs cost- is superior. This saves weight, too, a meaningful factor on some boats.

On the other hand, they have a higher upfront cost. In addition to the battery cost, we’d have to take on additional projects. We’d need to make sure our alternator was big enough (it probably isn't). We’d need to check the voltage requirements of every device on the boat, because unlike AGMs and their ilk, lithiums can put out higher voltage- over 15v- in a 12 volt system. For voltage sensitive devices like our watermaker, we’d have to put in a regulator.  Maybe in five more years we’ll move to lithium batteries, but it’s too much to take on now.

It's all good.

The new bank is 1000 amp hours, a nice bump in capacity that we definitely need. Totem is floating- dare I say it? nearly level on her lines. I don't get to examine the waterline often, but every time I melt butter in a frying pan and don't see it all run immediately down to one side, I'm going to smile.

Battery replacement project

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April 14, 2014

Healthcare while cruising

Christmas party
Laughter is good medecine, but we do rely on more than fun

Shuffling down the corridor of the hospital on Langkawi last week, I realized with a start that this marked the first time since leaving the US in 2008 we've sought out medical help for anything but routine or preventative care. I’m embarrassed to be going to the emergency room, but it’s a Friday- Jumu’ah- so the village clinic and local doctor are closed on this Muslim island. The blisters on my legs have reached a level of discomfort I don’t want to wait any longer to address, so I overcome the conditioning and we head for the hospital.

Healthcare and medical emergencies were among the chief concerns I had as a pre-cruiser. Looking back over the last six years, I wonder why I worried so much.

Mexican train
five healthy kids, including two I just shared chicken pox with...

Is it easy to find a doctor / clinic / dentist / hospital / etc.?

People everywhere have basic health care needs, so pretty much anywhere that people live there is a way to access health care. I think that growing up in the US trains us to think that we’ll somehow be turned away or have difficulty getting care abroad. In fact, it’s the reverse of the US. Along our travels, care is accessible, it is generally far less expensive, and medication relatively easy to acquire. We do not need any routine prescriptions, which certainly simplifies this for us. Some planning would be needed otherwise, but it's hardly insurmountable.

In French Polynesia, our friend’s son needed stitches on his head after a minor accident. In Australia, another cruising kid suffered a broken arm. In both cases, medical care was readily available and inexpensive.

What about insurance?

We do carry insurance: a travel policy, intended for catastrophic needs only. We minimize our premium by carrying a high deductible, and presume that we’ll cover all our medical care out of pocket. Medical evacuation for the victim and a parent are covered, a benefit we value in the event of a calamity.

A few months ago, dental workups for our whole family- including an extraction and a filling- added up to less than $200 (about the same as we paid in Mexico). With good care, at such reasonable cost, we would have to try hard to spend enough on medical care for any other insurance coverage to make sense.

Some cruisers and travelers we know have affordable health care in their home countries (such as Australia and the United Kingdom) and return often enough to cover routine needs there. On the other hand, plenty of cruisers don’t. They find, as we do, that locally available medical care is both accessible and affordable.

What about the ACA?

Two things are pertinent for cruisers (but I’ll be the first, I’ll be the first to admit we’re no experts on the subject!) First, the ACA does not recognize travel insurance policies. So the insurance coverage we do cover is meaningless in their evaluation. Second, if you spend most of your time outside the US, the insurance requirement is waived. Because we are outside of the US for more than 330 days in a 365 day period, we meet the "physical presence" test for exemption. That solves the insurance problem, but we can’t afford to fly back anyway! I guess if we get back for a visit, we’ll just be careful to keep it under the maximum allowed days.

Meanwhile, my visit to the emergency room has cost about US$15. Diagnosis: shingles, and aren't I the lucky one, but I have a full-body case (wheee!). I waited about two minutes to be seen, received a basic workup, a consultation with a physician, and medication. One flat registration fee covered it all.

Healthy readers know we live it when you read this on the Sailfeed website!

April 11, 2014

Normalizing the view of family life afloat

Playing in the cockpit

Most of the time, the general public really has no view, or interest, in our very different way of living. The events on Rebel Heart have changed that temporarily, the center of a swirl of media attention. It's given the uninformed,  hiding in the anonymity of the internet, the mistaken impression that their opinions are wanted or matter. Seeing the venom spewed at families who choose this life, it's hard not to feel judged, and feel frustration that there's so much misinformation!

It's time to showcase the way cruising family life looks 99.9999999% of the time. Check out the #kidsonboats hashtag on Twitter, where people are sharing images of their kids, on boats, all over the world. Or this collaborative photo album of family cruisers that's the brainstorm of mom Cindy, raising her kids afloat. There's the awesome video soon-to-be-cruising mom Cidnie pulled together, families from our connected cruising world sharing more photos from around the globe.

Rallying around Rebel Heart, cruisers like Tamiko are taking the naysayers to task for the gross and inaccurate assumptions made Charlotte and family. After publishing a great article in Slate about their life afloat, cruising mom Diane waded through the comments and found a few good questions tucked among the absurd. So, she answered them.

Want to see super normal happy kids growing up- just, afloat? Look at the gorgeous photo essay Genevieve put together of her girls, who happen to be growing up aboard their boat in the Caribbean. Or, take a stroll through this a slideshow BabyCenter published a little over a week ago of our life, from early days as weekend sailors through the miles we've voyaged since. Or visit with Brittany, who is no stranger to dealing with those who question the decision to raise her little girl Isla (and soon, twins Haven and Mira) afloat, and has choice words for those who pass judgement. Or the yacht Momo, where Michelle ponders why people need to judge, and reflects on what she's learned about risk while raising her daughters cruising.

These are the tribe of cruisers, of families afloat, of people who get it. Not jumping to conclusions. Knowing there's a story to be told, and it's for Charlotte and Eric to tell. And meanwhile, as we wait, to offer our support by trying to normalize a public view of family life afloat.

The Kaufmans have expressed profound thanks on their blog, and asked that donations be made to That Others May Live, an organization which provides relief to the families of members of the United States Air Force Rescue community when tragedy strikes.

bobbing off the stern

I'm always grateful when followers read this on the Sailfeed website.

April 8, 2014

Crazy people, taking children cruising

evening bonfire

What kind of irresponsible parent would take their children cruising? That seems to be the underlying message from many corners in the wake of the Kaufman family's rescue in the Pacific from their boat, Rebel Heart.

It's all too easy for me to remember the questions we had from people who didn't understand our decision to go cruising as a family. They dove to the risks, and not to the benefits, and never considered that we had considered those risks already. This was a very deliberate choice driven by family values: not crazy hubris, not selfish interests.

Ridgetop view

Not that this stops the naysayers, who loved to let us know how we were ruining our children's education. Placing them in harm's way. Not to mention, of course, that they would never be properly socialized.

I remember too well what it was like, that run up to cruising: it is full of voices, some from the well-intentioned but uninformed, some in your head, some from those who need to speak against your brave choices to justify their own inaction. Don't let them intimidate you, or let one unfortunate event spun up in the media tip your dreams. Don't let the ridiculous fabrications of the fearful leach into your psyche.

dancing on the beach

Consider the sources, and hold tight to your supporters instead. Their voices align more closely with the reality. Cruising is the fulfillment of our dream to share precious years with our children as they grow. Countless memories and experiences enrich their lives and ours. It is turning our kids into curious, articulate citizens of the world. It has given them respect for cultures and lives beyond our home sphere. It has built our bonds as a family.

No, it's not completely without risk, but we take great care to prepare for the tough realities, and mitigate each of them to the best of our ability. And really, what life is without risk? Whether it is natural disaster, or human error, or pure bad luck- stuff happens, whether you live on a farm in Oklahoma or a boat in Mexico or a condo in San Francisco. None of us are immune, no matter how we navigate our futures.

mairen and bryce

Irresponsible? Crazy? If that's the bucket we get tossed in, well, I'm proud to be a member of the tribe that's chosen to raise children differently.

You know it drives us extra crazy when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

April 1, 2014

Managing power on a cruising boat

paddling home, racing the sun
Living off the grid, providing your own power, is a tremendous feeling. On Totem, it’s one of the compelling aspects of life afloat, hand in hand with a more simple life and a lighter carbon footprint. Relying on our solar panels and wind turbine to supply power needs instead of plugging in is liberating.

That good juice from the sun and the wind is stored in our house battery bank. Currently, that bank has 660 amps total from six 220aH 6v AGM batteries.  When we have steady trade winds, and sunny days, these meet our needs pretty well. For a long stretch, that’s been enough. We’re all power-watching hounds: even the kids understand the numbers on our electrical panel that show the voltage level in the house bank, and the net amperage being used or added at any given time.

Lately,  we’re falling short on power needs. Part of it is generation. Part of it is use. Part of it is storage.

- On the generation side: as it happens, the equatorial zone where we find ourselves often has a lot of clouds- part of this whole convergence zone thing that produces squalls that increase seasonally, as they are now. Not great for solar power generation. It turns out isn't known for having a lot of wind, either (you've heard of the doldrums?). There are windy squalls, yes, but they don’t last long; the steady trades aren't here. The moniker “land below the wind” is well earned. We do have wind and sun and make power from both, just not at the level we'd like- but that's relatively short term. Once we leave these low latitudes, we can more consistently generate green power.

- On the usage front: we’re simply using more energy now than we were back in 2008. Our biggest power hog is the refrigeration, which suffers mightily in the tropics: the 32 year old insulation is ineffective. Our needs are changing, too. As the kids get older, we’re losing more power to the #2 use after refrigeration: digital devices, primarily powering computers. That’s not going to change, so we have to.

- On the storage side: Totem’s house battery bank has been declining for a year. When marine batteries start to go, it's possible to have a slow demise, but things can happen very very quickly. For a while, it was worrisome- juggling a lot of different projects on the boat, we weren't sure when we’d be able to have the magic nexus of time and money to get a new set of batteries installed… but we had to. You don’t get a card to Pass Go wait once the batteries are dead.

The next few months are bringing a really exciting trifecta of power change to Totem. I never thought twice about our power use when we had a conventional land life, but I am positively tingly thinking about what’s coming up:

1. A Silentwind wind generator will soon significantly upgrade Totem's wind power capability.
2. We are adding a solar panel. I big hearkin’ panel. It will double our solar-powered amps.
3. New batteries to replace our house bank are on on the way, and will increase our capacity by 50%.

This is huge. It’s going to take some work, but nothing we (or any self-sufficient cruiser) can't handle, from building the box to hold the 600+ pounds of new batteries to installing the turbine and panels and wiring everything up.

What do you want to know about power on board? Who has solar, wind, or generators helping meet their needs? In the coming weeks, I’m going to get into detail on the work we’re doing and the changes that are happening to our own mini power grid, and want to make it as useful as possible.

Green energy fans like the Totem crew always like to read these posts on the Sailfeed website.

March 28, 2014

Your most valuable cruising equipment

Borneo squalls

Important pieces of cruising gear aren't always obvious. A reader who hopes to go cruising emailed recently to ask:  "When you look back at your years of sailing, what are some pieces of equipment that you brought with you that you never realized how important they would become (e.g. handheld VHF, specific spares, etc.)? "

It's a good question, because it's easy to hemorrhage cash in the run up to taking off for cruising, trying to anticipate the things you might need and eyeing shiny toys in the chandlery. It's impossible to know what's essential because you haven't gone cruising and don't have a style yet. Gearhead? Ascetic? Most of us are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between those points, and your essential is someone else's throwaway. As much as you can, avoid discretionary purchases some until you have a better sense of what you real needs are.

  • Outboard and dinghy you can depend on. Unless you're a marina maven, you're going to rely on it almost every day that you're not passage making- e.g., more than 90% of the time! Don't shortchange yourself. We wouldn't have a dinghy we couldn't plane while loaded, but that's us.
  • A spare, small outboard (not important for US/Mexico, because repairs are easy to come by). I thought this was dumb until our Mercury 15 died in Bora Bora. We borrowed a friends small outboard for the rest of the Pacific crossing, because they were way too expensive to buy mid-Pacific. Now we have a Tohatsu 18 and 3.5 (which we just used as the 18 needed a new impeller).
  • Excellent ground tackle. There was a servicable primary anchor on Totem, but we replaced it with a beefy Rocna and use 410’ of 3/8" chain. This has served us really well, as have the 50’ of ½” 3 strand nylon snubber ties- use a rolling hitch, and lead fair. We do love this anchor, but any of the scoop type anchors (Mantus, Rocna, Manson, etc) tend to be more reliable over broader bottoms compositions.
the teacher
  • Good cabin fans. If you're spending time in the tropics (and overwhelmingly, cruisers are spending time in the tropics), cabin fans can be a lifesaver for comfort below. After trying a bunch of different brands, we've found the Caframo Ultimate 747s do the best to move more air and are far easier to keep clean (and wow, do fans get dirty when run all day/night!)
  • An ereader. Being on a passage without a good book is my nightmare scenario. ereaders hadn't hit the scene when we left to go cruising, so we added many many linear feet of bookshelves to Totem to make sure we never ran out of quality reading. Now, we're happily reclaiming that space and everyone on board has their own: don't think for a minute that you can share one! Tablets are fine, but we like the eink readers best by far: they need much less power, and are far easier to read in daylight.
  • VHF. A setup onboard should be obvious, but good handhelds might not be as obvious. They take a lot of use and abuse: we use them to stay in touch on shore as much as ship-to-shore.
  • Scanner/printer. We've used this innumerable times to make copies of important documents, from passports to vessel documentation, for clearance in foreign ports. 
Reading on the bow
  • Fuel filtering gear. Our Baja filter has been invaluable, and it's priceless to have sufficient fuel filters as well. We always filter diesel and gas putting them in the tank. Despite double filtering, we still we had some dirty fuel issues after a few months in a country where most sources were questionable; having spare filters is a good thing.
  • Radar. It's not just fog and ship traffic, it's about invaluable use for piloting in squalls and evaluating chart error by comparing distances. 
  • LED lights. If your boat isn't LED-centric already, make it so, from running lights to deck an cabin lighting. Power saved is too significant to ingore.
  • Good basic tools. Don't pay for high end, because most of them rust just as quickly as the middle range. We've gotten a lot of use from a multimeter an, surprisingly, a VSWR meter. 
Capturing the eclipse
Off label bino use: observing a solar eclipse!

  • Good binoculars. We went a few months without functional binos in an area where eyeball nav is critical, and it was very unpleasant!
  • Large storage bags that have a port for sucking out air with vacuum cleaner. It's not just about sealing, but the fact that they are great for reducing the space needed by bulk storage items.
  • Spare line. 6mm single braid Dyneema (Amsteel and the like) with a 6mm (1/4”) fid for splicing – very easy to splice and endless uses.

Shopping lists are convenient. Here's the plain truth: YOU are the most valuable equipment of all. Cruising is ALL about attitude! Whether you are newer to sailing or cruising, or have a moderate level experience, we all have to tackle the mental side- regardless of your learning curve.

Through hull replacement

Go in with an open mind. Learn how to use, and re-use, and get away from the disposable economy of single-use items. Don't try to know everything; ask those around you to help, since cruisers near you may have great experience and are often very generous with their time. On the flip side, cruisers are also full of opinions, so take it all in and then decide for yourself.

Ready yet? The last thing to remember is not to feel like you need to buy everything to reach a perfect state of readiness, because really, there is no such thing. As much as possible, hold off on discretionary purchases until you have a sense of what your real needs are- it's a mental game, not a game of Boat Stuff.

Cruisers in touch with their valuable equipment know we love it when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

March 19, 2014

Staying in touch while cruising

What a gift it is to be so far away, but so readily in touch with people we love.

Just today, we were able to Skype several times, to see and hear familiar faces and voices. Early in the morning we connected with my parents back in the USA, while they got ready for dinner. The girls could show their grandparents our new pet hamster through the camera on the ipad- it was better than a phone call! The bandwidth wasn't good enough to hold a connection with two-way video feed, so we took turns.

At midday, we Skyped with friends we love: two different boat families, formerly of MV Oso Blanco and SV Mulan. They have shaped indelible parts of our cruising experience from Mexico to across the Pacific. They're both well settled back in North America now, but we can catch up as if it were only yesterday...old memories shared, new ones related, and our hearts filled to be reminded that ties in the cruising family run deep. People we haven't seen in nearly two years, and nearly four years, respectively- yet they feel as familiar as if it were only yesterday.

Later, Niall and his boat kid friend Josh (who is with his family in Thailand) caught up over Skype again, working out when our respective cruising tracks would cross so they could catch up for more fun and games (literally, as the boys play epic multi-day strategy board games when they're together).

Good connectivity is unusual for us, to be fair. Even with the growing ubiquity of mobile internet, being on the move makes access unpredictable, and every country is different. We're parked in a single spot for while, and there's a great signal from the anchorage- so I expect to make the most of it as the coming weeks unfold. Not without some cost, as data isn't cheap here, but so worthwhile!

Using technology to stay in touch like this is a marvel. Our cruising mentors circumnavigated in pre-internet days. Much of the literature we were reading to prepare for our cruising life in the early 2000s was written without the filter of the internet. Staying in touch meant poste restante mail to hear news from home, and dodgy slow boats to send word back. This is just wildly different than what they had to experience.

Oh, there are times it is blissful to be disconnected: to let the simplicity of clear nights at sea to free our minds from any detail except to marvel that the North Star and the Southern Cross are concurrently visible on opposite sides of an inky sky. Or to spend an evening paddling between boats in our watery neighborhood, as the sunset turns high clouds into firey waves and tints the world pink.

The remote experience dominates our lives by comparison to the super connected one, and bears a gift: it brings a sweetness to the chances we do have to connect.

Connected readers know we love it when you stay in touch by reading this on the Sailfeed website.