Gear Gossip

This is for Rob and Bob, in Marina Del Rey:

For over a year Charlie and I have learnt everything we could about what to have, what to spend and what to leave behind when long-term cruising on a sailboat. There’s an endless sea of systems out there, and what to bring depends as much on what kind of sailor you are as on your budget. We are still learning, but I’ll try to share with you some of the trial and errors we’ve experienced so far. If you’re not interested in the nerdy technics of cruising paraphernalia, please skip these sections when they pop up 🙂

I should start by saying that we are low to middle tech sailors. We have endeavored to keep energy costs down, while maintaining safety as a primary concern. Of course, even that description is subjective – I often read articles of cruisers saying they were ‘low-tech’, then was surprised to hear about their electric winches, auto-pilot, chart plotter etc…

To cut to the chase, here’s what we have:

AIS – both receiver and transponder. This is connected via a splitter to our prime VHF antenna. We keep it on ‘silent mode’ (receive only) unless we’re in a heavy traffic area. It is also connected to a GPS antenna on our stern. We use its ‘Anchor Alarm’ feature when stopped, and use the listed GPS position for logbook entries. Amp draw is minimal, though slightly more in transponder mode.

VHF – A built in Standard Horizon unit that came with the boat and is probably 20+ years old.  Also, the latest (awesome!) handheld VHF from icom, complete with GPS positioning, MOB function, and floating/flashing capabilities. It requires charging once every 24hours or so, if left on with occasional transmitting. We keep it in the cockpit or in our pockets when on solo night watches.

GPS – A simple Garmin standalone unit that we use as a positioning back-up, though the maps are far from reliable. We like it for it’s easy (though rough) calculation of logged distance and ETA. We also keep it handy for it’s one-push MOB function. It chews batteries when left on though (4hours?) so we only power-it-up when we need it. It takes 11secs for the MOB way-point to kick in.

In-reach – By request of our various parents (and thanks to their donations), we use the Delorme In-reach as a tracking device. It can be synced with an Iphone or Android for two-way texting (we have 40per month), but we mostly use it as a standalone device, which has Tracking, Pre-set Text Messages (unlimited), and an SOS function. Annoyingly, it resets to tracking at 10mins intervals whenever it’s turned off/on, which chews up batteries. 12hours of constant tracking every 10mins will do it in. If left on, we can keep it set to hourly or 3 hourly intervals, preserving battery life.

Epirb – We went with the best we could find on this one. It’s the Manual, GPS integrated version, and activates when submerged or when we set it off. The GPS feature allows rescuers to place us within 0.02 square miles. I like those odds! We keep in mounted in the cabin, midships, well away from the compass.

Sat-phone – Our iridium 9505a (with data kit) satellite phone  is what we use for weather when offshore. Thanks to our friend John for a great deal on his used one. We have over 900minutes on our prepaid card, and on the crossing made weather calls every 2-3 days, and personal-parent calls (hieverythingisgreatweloveyoubye!) once a week. With good reception, it takes 30secs to a minute per call, at 1.50 per minute. We can also send and receive basic email. It’s a sophisticated if bulky little device, and we have both a fixed antenna and extended antenna. We use it paired with Airmail and SkyFile Mail, and my little used Eee PC – a tiny laptop with minimal memory that does the job nicely (thanks mum!).

Auto-Pilot – We have come to love our ‘Gramps’ – an “Autohelm 2000” that came with the boat and is probably older than I am. It handles light to moderate conditions and makes single-watches possible. It uses 2-3 amps when in use, and almost nothing when in stand-by mode. Any more than 15knots though, and we’re back to hand-steering.

Stereo and Speakers – We have a simple ‘Boss’ stereo, with no CD input, just USB or aux input. We plug in our mp3 players or USB sticks, and the two ‘Polyplaner’ marine speakers work well in or out of their brackets (so we can move them around/into the cockpit). At mid-range volume it draws 1-2 amps.

Lighting. Before leaving we switched all but two cabin lights to LED bulbs, and we’re so glad to we did! LED’s draw a 10th of the power, and newer technology means you can now find warm bulbs for a nice cabin ambiance. At 20-30 bucks a pop, they’re not cheap, but honestly well worth it. Our Nav-Lights are also all LED, and have all performed well so far. Our tricolor is a “Supanova”, was quite cheap and can be seen from a great distance. We often think we have the brightest anchor light in the bay, and don’t have to worry about running our batteries down over night.

Oh to have a fridge. Our little Nor-Cold refrigeration system has a lot of potential. When connected to shore-power she worked great! After two 12v power supply purchases and endless tinkering, we still haven’t got it to run without AC. We can plug it into our inverter, then plug that into our DC charging station (cigarette lighters) but it’s an inefficient use of energy, and usually too much for our panels. We are thinking of connecting it directly to our batteries, by-passing the thermostat, which may mean cold beers after a hot day at last! We’ll see!

That’s pretty much it as far as electronic systems go. We have a couple of camera’s on board that require charging periodically, and two laptops (one of which was mentioned above). We use a basic (180w) inverter to recharge batteries, or plug things in directly to our 12-volt charger. We have a waterproof, float-able spotlight that requires charging occasionally.

So – how do we power all this? We have four, 30watt solar panels, purchased from Alt-E, two mounted on each side of our boat on swivels so we can tilt them towards the sun. These panels run into a Genusun solar controller to maximize output, then to our house batteries. As long as we keep them tilted to the sun and clear of any shade structures, they will keep our batteries nicely topped up. On cloudy days they don’t do so well, which is why we have our second charging option:

Our little MD7a. This little 13hp Volvo Engine pulls through for us when we need her. Her alternator charges our batteries when we don’t have enough wind for sailing, or if we need to top them up on a cloudy day. It’s rare that we run it solely for charging though – our solar panels usuallt do the trick, and if it’s cloudy for days on end, there’s usually patches of no wind and therefore motoring. We have a cheap alternator as a spare, and the original Volvo alternator, re-built.

And finally, storage. We have two dual-purpose wet-cell batteries as our ‘house-bank’ and one sealed starter battery for our engine. A selector switch controls which one we draw from. Before kicking over the engine we change to Battery 1 (starter), then switch back to Battery 2 (2xdual) so our Volvo charges our house bank. Periodically, we check the water levels on the wet-cells, but so far have barely had to top them up.

That’s our electronics! Doesn’t seem so low-tech now that I’ve written it all down, but we have what we need and not too much more. We have been overall extremely happy with all of our gear, but as time and motivation allows, I will review some of them in more detail.

Of course there are many more systems aboard a sailboat, and plenty more decisions and choices made, but that’s a start on the most complex.

However – the most difficult choice, the most thought-out and perhaps the most abused piece of gear we use is nothing electronic. It’s very simple, and yet absolutely vital. Without it, we would have no access to the beautiful places we visit, no wings to our bird, no zest to our lemon, no key to our door…

It is of course, our wonderful nesting dinghy, “Luckey”. Review on the way!




3 thoughts on “Gear Gossip

  1. Thanks for the gear review, it was great!! I’ll need to write you guys an update soon on the goings and comings of MDR!!

  2. Also an idea for the next gear gossip! I am really curious about navigation! What sort of charts are you using? How are you navigating and have you had any issues with it and what would you do differently next time?

    Looking forward to your next posts!


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