It has been more than a full year since we left Trinidad and started our cruise westward across the Southern Caribbean, via Venezuela and Colombia, to the San las and Panama. In March we popped out of the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean, since which time we sailed south to mainland Ecuador, west to the Galapagos Islands, and finally northeast back to Cocos, Western Panama and Costa Rica. For those of you that have been following the "Logbook" updates you may already know how things have been going for the boat and crew, especially during this last season of multi-day offshore passages.
we know many visitors to this website are fitting out their own boats
for cruising, the following info will hopefully give a closer look
at the mechanical side of the trip. In other words, of all the money
and time spent on the refit, what has worked, what has changed and
what was a waste of time."
Autopilots - The Aries Wind Vane and Autohelm
Quite simply, don't even think of passage-making without one! A mechanical wind vane autopilot, that is. Which is not to say that it didn't take us a while to come to this opinion. When we pulled out of Trinidad the only major piece of equipment that was not completely installed was the Aries Vane gear. We had hurriedly installed the mounting brackets a year before in St. Thomas, literally the day before we left, for no other reason than to have a place to carry the mechanism which was the last item to come out of the storage locker. The Aries came on Gwen's boat when she bought it, and she had not used it since her delivery trip from Florida ten years before. We had been told it would be invaluable but that's about all we knew about it. With the help of a Danish sailor who had had a lot of experience with the vane, we mounted the brackets, which required eight fairly large holes to be drilled into the stern. Drilling holes - especially into the hull - is one of my very least favorite things to do. We hung the apparatus on the brackets and backed out the slip, and it sat there virtually neglected the four months it took us to work our way down to Trinidad.
Once in Trinidad, having the boat up on the hard would have made for very easy access, but the vane was way down the list of projects to be done. One day a tall, tanned, tattooed, loud-mouthed, know-it-all American came by and said it was mounted way too low and needed to be raised if it was ever going to work. I was appalled that there was the remotest chance I was going to have to drill eight MORE holes in the stern and ignored him. Two hours later I met the same guy in one of the local bars where I found out that, not only was he a good friend of a good friend of mine, but he was a Harken dealer, ran a rigging shop in Margarita, AND he had sailed around the world one or two times with an Aries Vane on every boat. I bought him a beer.
Several weeks later we were in Margarita, drilling new holes in the back of the boat (in the water!) and completely rebuilding the gear mechanisms that were very stiff from years of storage without use. After raising the brackets 13" and remounting the refurbished gear, we then had to run the two steering lines to the wheel. The center cockpit was not an exceptional problem, besides making the control lines very long, but getting the lines to lead straight to the hub of the wheel was. The cockpit coamings on the walk-through CSY are very high off the outside deck, unlike the walk-over which is almost flush. The solution was to cut two 2-inch holes (notice how I have now got past the "drilling" of holes to the "cutting" of holes!) in the inside and outside walls of the coaming and to glass in a large PVC tube between them. This conduit passes right over the top of our two Adler Barbour refrigeration compressors mounted over the fridge - not a place you want to have a leak. Then with a double cheek block mounted to the outer surface the turn can be made to the wheel hub with very good alignment. All this only took about three weeks. It was not that much of a job (once the decision was made to cut the holes), but things do not happen quickly in Margarita, or anyplace else in the Caribbean for that matter.
Once installed, our famous, knowledgeable, experienced rigger agreed to a shake down cruise and "lesson" on how to set up and use the Vane correctly. After he had been on board for about 15 minutes, however, we were not only unsure the Vane was going to work, but whether the boat was even SAFE to pick up the anchor. From his exalted viewpoint, there was lots wrong with the leads for the running rigging, adjustment in the standing rigging, tightness in the steering cable, tension in the batten, etc.! It seemed like it was amazing this condo-on the-water had survived twenty years of sailing let alone get us all the way there from St. Thomas. (Our mentor was very much of the lean-and-mean school of cruising!) However, once we actually got started all was well. It was a beautiful afternoon, the Vane worked fine on every point of sail it was supposed to, and he really couldn't grouse much about how TII handled. Back at anchor, I not only bought him a cold beer, but I gave him cash.
Leaving Margarita the Vane worked great on the first leg, but after that we motored or just got lazy and didn't use it. We finally hooked it back up again a few weeks later and could not get it to even come close to holding a heading. After several tries, we gave up till we could find help to show us what we were doing wrong. Finally, discovered with a little effort that I had the lines hooked up backwards-duh!!!
Still, use after that was very intermittent, primarily due to laziness of the crew. First, we had to remember to hook it up before departure (we disconnect the steering lines at anchor for unrestricted use of the cockpit); second, the boat has to be fairly well balanced and, third, the heading does roam quite a bit as the Vane makes its corrections. On relatively short legs, this is quite noticeable. Mr. Autohelm Electric Autopilot, on the other hand, holds the heading very close and doesn't really care that much about the balance of the sails (unless it is really bad), so he got to do most of the steering across the Caribbean.
However, as with all things mechanical and electrical, they don't always work and Mr. Autohelm is no exception. He went bonkers on the leg from the Gulf of Panama south to the equator, so we were forced to use the Aries. Being forced to use it is apparently what we needed. Now, like most of the other cruisers we have met, we have hundreds of miles under our belts with the Vane steering. And, now, we consider it one of the most important pieces of equipment we have. I can tell you that we will never again leave port without it hooked up and ready to go.
In Panama, before we cemented our faith in the Aries, we also installed a Tillerpilot (Autohelm 1000 plus) to the Vane for vane steering when there is no wind. This works perfectly, as very little force is needed to move the Vane to maintain the ship's heading. However, in the "that's my luck" department, our Tillerpilot failed after about 20 hours of motoring on the way to Ecuador from Panama; something was rattling around loose inside! (Later diagnosis from Raytheon was that the drive motor came unmounted inside the housing! i.e. warranty repair!) Once again the Vane itself took over. With very little wind to drive it, we wandered a little more than we liked, but hand steering was not necessary, and in multi-day passages that is the fundamental need.
We were fairly sure that the Tillerpilot's failure was not related to the installation but to a fluke problem with the particular unit, as many people we have met have a similar set up. The unit itself, which of course is actually designed to push and pull a tiller athwartships in the cockpit, is instead mounted pointed aft on the lower stern rail on a bracket I made. The push rod attaches to the Vane where the wind "sail" would normally go by means of another hand-made bracket, and it simply pushes and pulls back and forth to maintain the ships' heading. It draws very little power (especially as compared to the "big" belowdecks autopilot, and, very conveniently, we can control it from the cockpit with the same remote control we'd bought to use with the big autopilot. (Separate wiring is needed, but the same control head will work by changing to the proper power plug)
As for the main Autohelm autopilot (the Type II Linear Drive and Type 300 course computer, with a 6000+ Control head), we have mixed reviews. For the most part it has worked just fine. However, we seem to have a bug or two that crop up at the damnedest times. At Autohelm's warranty-backed suggestion, I replaced the drive motor in Panama and that seemed to take care of most the problems. However, two weeks out of the Canal and in the middle of the night it just went directionally "bonkers" and had to be turned off. The Vane took over and did great till we ran out of wind. Several days later, at anchor in Bahia de Caraquez and after several emails to and from Autohelm, we seem to be back in business, with no clear cause of either problem or solution. On the four-day trip from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos, the Vane did three straight days of close-reaching sailing (winds 12-18 kts) and the electric pilot did only the last day when we had very light winds that came around on our stern. But, on the leg from Cocos back to Western Panama, and during the whole month we spent along that coast, we had light to no winds and we used the big Autohelm exclusively, during which time we had no problems whatsoever. Go figure?
In Trinidad we converted our port settee water tank into a fuel tank (what was left of it after cutting the end off to make more room for batteries in St. Thomas). This gave us 33 gallons more of diesel and of course the same amount less of fresh water. This works great as a holding tank, from which, via a small 12-volt pump, we transfer the entire tank to the main tank when there is room or need. The only problem with the conversion was the lack of a proper loop in the vent hose. The first transfer of fuel included about three gallons of saltwater into the main tank. This gave me a very good practice session in draining the water out of the bottom of the main tank (using the normal fuel pickup and with the 12-volt electric fuel pump I normally use just to bleed the engine), replacing both the fuel filters and bleeding the engine. Fortunately we were at anchor in Margarita, so there was not too much discomfort in the operation. Vent hose has been fixed now, as well as adding a shut off valve in the line whenever fueling is not in process.
The Spectra 12-volt, 200C-WONDERFUL, PERFECT --- Can't say enough good things about it. Does what the dealer says it will do, AND it does it quietly and nearly maintenance free. We have had a couple of leaks that required some attention, but otherwise I just change the filters whenever the flow of good product slows down below 8 gph, and I keep it freshwater-flushed weekly when in a port that we can not make water. (We have isolated our forward reserve tanks - about 30+ gallons - to keep a supply of our own water available for back-flushing as it's important to keep chlorine away from the membrane.) As of May '01, we'd run it for 679 hours since installation in May '99. That's 679 x 8 gal/hr = 5432 gallons we didn't have to buy or carry! I use two sets of filters, both 5 and 20 micron, and I just wash them out, sun dry them, and rotate them as necessary.
Generator - Northern Lights 5kw Total time -- 483hrs.
It's been working like a top! Replaced one impeller at 150 hrs, replaced the temperature safety switch at 300 hours, and otherwise it's just been normal maintenance the rest of the time. We use the generator to drive the Freedom 25 for battery charging at anchor and underway. If the main engine is not needed to move the boat (and it hasn't been much lately), we use the generator for needed charging. The combo is much faster than even the high output alternator.
The only problem
with the generator in regards to the battery charger is the total
output from the charger. Apparently from the shape of the sine wave
the charger reads the voltage slightly different, and we can only
get about 100 amps out of the charger from the generator, whereas
on shore power we can get 130 amps. Once the batteries start to heat
up with the charge, the charging amps drop back to 75 to 80 on the
generator. Not all that bad, as I do not like to put more than 100
amps in at a time anyway, but the quick cut back is troublesome if
you are 100 or more amp hours down and the charger cuts back to 70
from 100. If additional load is put on the generator, then the charge
rate will go back up, so we generally turn on the water heater after
the generator has run about a half-hour to get more charging out of