It is the most recurring debate of modern cruising: Do we keep the boat as simple as possible or do we load it up with all the equipment and systems advertised to make our cruising lives safer and more comfortable? Everyone you meet will have a different opinion!
Many of the classic accounts that stimulate us to go cruising are told by people who went with the most basic of systems. They went young, they had their adventure, and they lived to tell us about it. There is romance to their stories, as there often is to tales of roughing it, and they prove quite categorically that it can be done. Almost every cruiser I have ever met would insist that it is better to go small and simple than to not go at all.
It is good to remember how little is really necessary: a boat with sails for going and an anchor for stopping, running lights to be legal and enough battery power (or kerosene) to keep them operational. You need good charts and the navigation skills and tools to use them, plus some means of getting a fix. For creature comforts what more do you really need than water containers, a mattress, a bucket, and a can opener?
But, although there are some holdouts for that kind of fundamentalist sailing (I know several people sailing the Pacific with little more), I find it telling that even the authors of those classic accounts, when they go again, upgrade systems and even boats as maturing budgets allow. Camping out, which is essentially what such rustic sailing would be to many of us, can be fun, but it is not how most of us want to live long term. Remember, one of the great charms of real cruising is “seeing the world from the comfort of your own home.”
There is nothing dishonorable about being comfortable. When you get out there you will see that most cruisers sail with such basic upgrades as pressurized water, plumbed heads and showers, 12v lighting and fans, plus refrigeration and propane-based cooking. Most also use computers, radios and modems for getting email and weather forecasts; GPS with some sort of electronic navigation – either chart-plotter or PC-based (or both!), as well as autopilots and radar. Most have watermakers as well as inverters that convert 12 or 24 volt power to 120 or 240 volt, allowing them use onboard of regular household equipment like blenders, microwaves or vacuum cleaners.
These systems make daily life easier and safer, but they do require more power. Making more power on board introduces another layer of systems, the most common approach being a bigger battery bank charged by a high-output alternator from the main engine, a generator (either DC or AC; inboard diesel or portable gas), a wind generator or solar panels. Many cruisers opt for combinations thereof, because they do not want to be completely dependent on just one way to power important equipment. All require power management systems and battery chargers, and when you add in 120v or 240v circuits you obviously add yet another level of complexity.
Furthermore, as we increasingly rely on these extra systems and as we sail farther afield, the more we are likely to want redundancies in place in case of failure — redundancies like complete back-up systems, a good inventory of spare parts and rebuild kits, an alternative way to make power. It is a very satisfying feeling to resolve problems in remote locations without having to come into port or wait for slow overseas shipments, yet carrying a full load of spares can add huge cost to the cruising bottom line not to mention weight to the waterline. Plus, every time we go to a big shiny chandlery, a boat show, or “The Jones’” boat next door, we are liable see something we can convince ourselves we need, particularly as technology leaps ever forward.
Here’s the rub: At each increase in onboard complexity there occurs an increased commitment to maintenance, both preventative and repair. At the very least, for the mechanically and electrically-gifted, maintenance takes time away from more pleasurable pursuits. If maintenance skills don’t come so naturally, breakdowns can turn the onboard atmosphere tense as the frustrated mechanic cusses up a blue storm. At its worst, many cruisers (particularly men) become depressed by the tyranny of maintaining everything –of worrying over what will go wrong next, of having a project list that never gets shorter, of being afraid of getting caught somewhere he can’t get help or parts, or of getting into a situation he can’t manage. When things are breaking all the time, partners may lose confidence in the boat and feel out of control, not to mention resent the time and expenditures ongoing repairs can take. The burden of maintenance is a common reason cruising plans get derailed.
Can we escape this spiral of ever-increasing complexity? The first step is to be as far-sighted as possible when equipping your boat. Try to have an overall plan of what kind of equipment you would like to have aboard, scale it to the kind of cruising you actually foresee yourselves doing and where you plan to go, and figure out how you can most efficiently power everything. Educate yourself in the “costs” of each system not only in upfront dollars, but in space, amps, integration with other equipment, ease of operation (for captain and crew), accessibility, maintenance, availability of service where you will be cruising, spare parts you will need to carry, and your ability (and willingness) to do the maintenance required. Consider how you will get along if a particular piece of equipment should fail. Make choices that will give you the most for your investment as it fits your cruising style and budget.
The next step is to not get bogged down in making the boat perfect. There are so many cruisers who have taken years to leave the dock…and some who never do. There is always one more thing they have to have before they go. Others are sure they can save a few dollars or a few amps by designing and building various pieces of equipment themselves, but often the result is a system that not only delays departure by months or years, but in the end can only be operated or repaired by the person who built it (usually NOT the Admiral!) In the end, you can’t really know what you need (or don’t need) until you get out there! Plenty of North American cruisers finish their fitting-out in ports like Trinidad or Ensenada or even back in the US after a trial season.
What it is all about is striking a balance between comfort, expense, convenience and frustration, a balance point that will be different for each boat and crew. It’s often the case that older cruising couples have more complex boats simply because they have more money to spend, while younger cruisers have simpler ones because they aren’t as well-to-do. Do the younger folks have less fun? Young or old, choose and build equipment systems carefully so you can manage their operation and maintenance, and avoid being seduced by stuff you don’t truly need or that doesn’t fit into your personal equation. Be wary of equipment whose failure can bring you to a standstill, and plan for an inventory of crucial spares. The cruisers’ goal is to spend as little time as possible at the dock or on repairs. Happiness is being able to continue cruising even when the gizmos let you down.
Contributing Admirals: Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Jane Lothrop, Cormorant; Yvonne Katchor, Australia 31; Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Mary Verlaque, I Wanda; Laura Bond, Bolero; Sandy Bullard, Columbine; and others.
This article was published in the February 2009 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.