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Cruising: Offshore Prep Talk

Getting a boat ready for cruising is no small (or inexpensive) feat

Getting a boat ready for cruising is no small (or inexpensive) feat

When I began preparing Minx, my 1987 Pearson 39-2, for extended Caribbean cruising, I had to balance my champagne wish list against my beer budget. Every buck spent on the boat before leaving would be one less frosty can of Carib down in the islands. On the other hand, I had to ensure the boat was properly prepared for the 2,500-mile journey from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to my first destination: Guatemala’s Rio Dulce.

I’ve sailed in the Caribbean plenty of times, so I had a good idea of what to expect weather-wise. I’ve also done enough bluewater cruising to have a solid idea of how to prepare my own boat. The mission was to get her equipped for safe, comfortable cruising and be able to spend a week or three off the grid, without wasting money on nonessentials.

I almost got there. Here’s how I prepared the boat, over a three-year period. Some of the upgrades were carried out before I sailed the boat down to Florida in 2018. The rest were completed in the first half of 2021.

Trusting your rig is essential, so be sure to inspect every inch

Trusting your rig is essential, so be sure to inspect every inch

THE RIG

You would be foolish to go undertake a venture of this nature unless you have total faith in your rig. At the very least, go over it scrupulously yourself, assuming you have faith in your own abilities. If you don’t, engage a rigger (one with good references) to inspect it. A rigger’s written report would be something to show your insurance company in the event of a dismasting.

What I did: The standing rigging on my boat was less than three years old, but I went over every turnbuckle to make sure there were no signs of cracks or damaged or missing cotter pins. I also took a magnifying glass to the wires where they entered the Sta-Lok terminals and hoisted a trusted friend aloft to inspect the masthead fittings. The only problems I had en route were with the Dyneema mainsail and genoa halyards, when their exposed-core splices failed from UV damage.

It took the author several years of work to be ready for the trip south

It took the author several years of work to be ready for the trip south

GROUND TACKLE

You must have total faith in your anchoring system, from windlass to anchor and everything in between. You also must carry a spare (kedge) anchor and rode. I know sailors who carry three or four different anchors, which is great if you have room to stow them all, along with their associated rodes. But I do not. If you are heading to the Caribbean, I strongly suggest you install an electric anchor windlass if you don’t have one already. You don’t want to be the person dragging sideways through an anchorage while trying to get your anchor up by hand. Your benchmark should be at least 150ft of chain and 200ft of nylon rope. Your main anchor should be one of the modern scoop types—they are all pretty good. The kedge should be some type of Danforth.

What I did: I ditched the boat’s underspecced original windlass and installed a Muir Storm 1250 vertical unit with a handheld control. I’ve seen too many near-accidents involving foot switches. Later, I added a wireless remote. I also tossed the ancient anchor rode, with its pathetic 20ft of chain shackled to a 25lb Danforth, and replaced it with 150ft of 5/16in G4 chain spliced to 200ft of 5/8in nylon. My new bower anchor is a 45lb Manson Supreme. The kedge anchor is a Fortress FX23 with 15ft of chain and 200ft of 1/2in nylon rope.

For an extended voyage, you can’t beat a traditional chartplotter

For an extended voyage, you can’t beat a traditional chartplotter

Some sailors choose not to install a plotter, relying instead on phone/tablet navigation. This is fine for limited coastal cruising—indeed, my iPad/Navionics combo has seen me all the way down the ICW. But I would not be without a chartplotter, or multifunction display/MFD, mounted at the helm for more extended adventuring. The reasons include the fact chartplotters are easier to see in daylight and to use in the rain and don’t run out of charge at inopportune moments. Radar is useful in some situations, and an AIS transponder is essential as it allows you to keep a sharp eye on most commercial traffic in the area. Wind/speed/depth instruments? At the very least, you should have a depthsounder for making your way through treacherous channels or in and out of shallow anchorages. You will also want paper charts and cruising guides. ActiveCaptain and the Waterway Guide app are useful resources for the ICW.

What I did: The boat was already equipped with a Raymarine es7 chartplotter, mounted in a waterproof, swiveling Navpod at the helm. I replaced the old Autohelm wind/speed/depth instruments and loaded my iPad with iNavX and Navionics and Aquamaps charts. I also bought an inexpensive Android tablet as a backup. The biggest add-on was a Vesper XB8000 AIS black box, which communicates with the navigation electronics via Wi-Fi and/or NMEA 2000, so its data can be displayed on tablets, a phone and plotter. As an alternative to the Navionics on the tablets, I bought the latest C-Map chart chip for Central America and the Caribbean for the MFD. An old Garmin handheld GPS, along with paper charts for the Bahamas and Caribbean Sea, added a layer of redundancy. I mainly use the Windy, Predictwind and Weathertrack apps, and Fastseas for weather routing.

The author’s helm instruments

The author’s helm instruments

COMMUNICATIONS

On the ICW and close to shore, you’ll be using your trusty cellphone not only to make calls, but in all likelihoods to also serve as a hotspot for your tablet and laptop. I did not bother with Wi-Fi extenders or cellphone boosters and did not feel the lack of them. That said, you won’t get far down the ICW without at least one VHF radio, preferably a fixed unit equipped with DSC, with one or two handheld units for backup. SSB radio will come in handy for cruisers’ nets in the Caribbean, but it wasn’t on my essentials list. Your other choices for long-range voice communications include a satphone or one of the other satellite communicators now on the market, of which Iridium Go is probably the best-known. Less sophisticated devices, like the Garmin inReach and SPOT-X, will get you e-mail and/or SMS (short message service) communications.

What I did: I already had a fixed VHF and a pair of handhelds. I deliberated long and hard about splurging on an Iridium Go, which had proved invaluable in an abandon-ship scenario in 2020, but decided that for my planned Caribbean circumnavigation, where I was not likely to be at sea more than a few days at a time, a Garmin inReach would be plenty adequate and much easier on an already stretched budget.

BATTERIES/POWER GENERATION

If your batteries are more than a few years old, it may very well pay to replace them before you leave the United States. Replacing or upgrading will become both more expensive and more inconvenient as you go south. The choice between flooded, AGM or lithium-ion depends on your budget. If money is no object, take a holistic approach to energy generation and delivery by installing as much solar as you have room for (along with efficient controllers), as much battery capacity as your energy audits require and an engine charging system that’s up to the task.

What I did: Prior to setting out on my Caribbean adventure, I returned after six months away from the boat to a trio of dead lead-acid house batteries, which I promptly replaced with three Group 31 AGMs. I would have loved to go lithium-ion, but couldn’t afford the upgrade. In addition to installing an all-new set of batteries, I replaced Minx’s existing rail-mounted 100W Renogy rigid solar panels with a pair of 170W Sunpower semi-flexibles, which I installed on a bimini frame and connected to a pair of Victron controllers. They already had a Superwind wind generator as well. I considered upgrading the original 50Ah engine alternator but thought I’d wait and see if I needed to. Fingers crossed! To minimize consumption, I replaced every light on the boat with LEDs.

STEERING/AUTOPILOT

This system is often (and inexplicably) neglected. Inspect it carefully and replace any suspect components. Steering failure is no fun. Along these same lines, you may think you can get away without a reliable autopilot, and if you have a big crew you may well be right. But if there are just one or two of you, you will quickly tire of the “tyranny of the helm.” If you must choose between windvane steering gear and an electric autopilot, the latter will serve you better for shorter passages like the ones I had in mind. I would like to have had both, but am well aware that many sailors never use their vane gears. For offshore sailing, a belowdecks autopilot drive connected to the quadrant or rudderpost is, in my opinion at least, mandatory. Wheelpilots are meant for coastal sailing, at least on a boat with any heft to it.

What I did: To my credit, I replaced the 30-year-old steering chain and cables on my Edson system, and then checked and lubricated everything the service guide suggested. To my shame, I only did so after a near-catastrophic steering failure off the coast of New Jersey. As a side note, make sure you have an emergency tiller and know how to use it. After the old Autohelm ST6000 system’s controller failed, I replaced it with new Raymarine EV-1 electronics hooked up to the existing Type 2 linear drive. This has performed flawlessly.

After ensuring you have the know-how to keep your engine in good shape, check the drivetrain for issues

After ensuring you have the know-how to keep your engine in good shape, check the drivetrain for issues

ENGINE AND DRIVE TRAIN

If you are starting out from any place farther north along the Eastern Seaboard, you’ll be motoring for nearly 1,000 miles down the ICW, so make sure your engine is in excellent shape. You should know how to replace all necessary fluids, filters, belts and impellers. Frankly, assuming you take care of these things as you should (and make sure you only use clean fuel) that’s all most diesels will require in terms of smooth running. However, the drive train also needs to be in good condition.

What I did: Everything mentioned above. Unfortunately, some play in the cutlass bearing led to an expensive series of events to set things right. In the end, Minx hit the water sporting not only a new cutlass bearing but four new R&D engine mounts, a new PSS seal, a new prop shaft and SigmaDrive coupling and a new three-bladed Ewol feathering propeller. Ouch! On the plus side, I can now motor wherever and whenever I want with complete confidence. To back up the measly 30gal diesel tank, I carried another 10gal in jerrycans. As it happened, I used only a third of a tank between Key West and the Rio Dulce.

SAILS AND RUNNING RIGGING

It pays to have your sailmaker go over your working sails. A stitch in time, etc. You will be reefing often, so make sure whatever system you use works well. Your storm jib, if you have one on board, will most likely never have been used, so you’ll check it out for things like rot and rodent damage, and work out in advance how you’ll set it and where the sheet leads will go—just in case. I wouldn’t bother with a trysail for a Caribbean voyage. A deep third reef is most likely all you will ever need. Another sail that’s seldom used by cruisers is the spinnaker, so that’s worth setting before you leave, just for the hell of it. You may even be inspired to use it in anger further down the road. If your running rigging is old, it would be wise to replace it.

What I did: The running rigging was replaced in 2018. Only two sails came with my boat—a 100 percent jib in good shape and a tired, possibly original, mainsail that was obviously better suited to life as an awning in a beer garden. I bought a new fully battened, three-reef main just before leaving Florida and was glad I did. I thought the jib might be underpowered, but it’s proved about right for the conditions we’ve had so far. I have not felt the lack of a spinnaker. In the 2,500 miles I’ve covered, I have yet to spend any time sailing dead downwind, and when I do, I will simply pole the headsail out and run wing-and-wing. The Seldén single-line mainsail reefing system works well, though there is some friction to overcome. I can reef in under a minute without leaving the cockpit.

DINGHY AND OUTBOARD

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of your tender and outboard. You’ll often be anchoring farther from land than you’re accustomed to and motoring into 20-knot trade winds to get wherever it is you want to go. The only questions are type of dinghy and size of outboard. For both, I would suggest the biggest you can comfortably carry. A rigid inflatable between 9ft and 11ft long with a 10-15hp outboard seems to be the most popular choice.

What I did: By the time my thoughts turned to dinghies and outboards I had already burned through my budget, so I was stuck with my old roll-up Avon inflatable, which I deflate and lash down on deck on-passage. My old 2.5hp outboard was junked partway down the ICW and was replaced with a much heavier 4hp Suzuki, which was all I could afford. This combination was fine for the ICW, where you seldom have to dinghy any great distance, but it’s not enough for Caribbean cruising. I’ll upsize as soon as I can afford to. And yes, I am considering an arch and davits, something I can have made down here for less than half the price Stateside.

SAFETY GEAR

I replaced the previous undersized electric bilge pump with a 1,500gph unit and carry three spares. The largest of these is a 3,500gph unit. Minx also has a Whale manual pump. Other safety gear includes a four-person liferaft, an EPIRB, two PLBs and a Garmin inReach satellite messenger on board, along with a mixture of electronic and pyrotechnic flares, lifejacket/harness combos and tethers. I already owned most of this equipment.

THE LUXURIES

I think we all have different ideas of what constitutes luxury and what is considered essential. To me, the essentials are what is necessary to run the boat safely. In the context of a voyage to the Caribbean, the rest has to do with comfort.

Refrigeration: This is as close to essential as luxury gets. The boat came with an old, non-functioning engine-driven system that was top-shelf in its day but would have cost as much to resurrect as it would to replace it with a 12-volt DC system. I stuck with the devil I knew from previous boats and installed an Isotherm ASU SP holding plate/water-cooled unit. It has now been keeping the beer cold for four years. I backed it up with an inexpensive Alpicool AC/DC portable fridge/freezer. Although it is possibly a bit more power-hungry than the more expensive units from Engel, Dometic and the like, it has been working well for a year and a half.

Watermaker: I don’t have one, but if I carried less than 100gal of water, I would certainly be tempted. Fortunately, it rains a lot in the Caribbean, and it’s not hard to fill your tanks in a decent squall.

Air conditioning: The expense and power and space requirements of a built-in AC keep it way down my wish list, but if you have it, flaunt it—as long as you’re in a marina. I bought a window unit when the boat was in a marina in Florida, and if I come back to a marina in the hot and humid Rio Dulce next hurricane season, I certainly will get another. At anchor, there is almost always enough breeze through the hatches to keep the boat livable.

Cockpit enclosure: if your cruising plans will take you farther than the ICW, forget about the full cockpit enclosures you see on so many boats. I can understand their appeal for the snowbird boats that move north and south every spring and fall, because it can get mighty cold on the ICW, and you may well want to insulate yourself from your surroundings. However, once you’re in warmer climes you won’t want to be sweating inside your wrap-around plastic—you’ll be clamoring for more airflow, not less. A good awning or bimini, on the other hand, is essential.

It took the author several years of work to be ready for the trip south

It took the author several years of work to be ready for the trip south

AFTER 2,500 MILES: WHAT WORKED, WHAT DIDN’T

Sails and rig: I feared the boat would be underpowered under the high-clewed 100 percent jib, but not so. I could carry the sail into the 20-knot range without needing to reef it, and even in sub-10 knot winds it drew well. I’ve had my fair share of winds blowing 15-20 knots and more, and the sail just ate it all up. It’s been great so far, and I think it will be the ideal Caribbean sail. Apart from the aforementioned exposed Dyneema halyard splices that failed, there have been no issues with the rig. The single-line reefing system has also succeeded in keeping the crew in the cockpit—where it belongs.

Ground tackle: The Manson anchor met its first real test in Belize, when we anchored in 30ft behind an island and did not budge during a night of squalls up to 45 knots. The windlass works flawlessly, and I am happy with the amount of chain I have. One thing: the assorted anchoring scenarios I’ve encountered have highlighted a glaring deficiency in the anchor locker design, which will be remedied before heading for the Eastern Caribbean.

Power generation: The Superwind generator was little more than dead weight on the way down the ICW, but earned its keep while crossing the breezy Gulf Stream and in the lively Yucatan Channel. Once we are in the trade wind belt it will come into its own. The Sunpower panels get enough sun most days to have the small battery bank topped up by noon. I would like a bigger house bank, but there is just no room for a fourth battery.

Electronics: I had no issues with the Raymarine electronics suite, except for not being able to get the MFD’s Wi-Fi operational; however, the Vesper XB8000’s Wi-Fi worked well, and I was able to receive its GPS signal and data on all my devices. As well as keeping tabs on shipping and alerting other traffic to your position, the XB8000 is an excellent anchor alarm. The shining star has been the autopilot, which steers from the moment we leave harbor to the moment we arrive at the next anchorage. I cannot fault it, and the solar panels and wind generator have so far had no problem keeping up with its power demands on passage.

After 2,500 miles, there were as many lessons learned as successes

After 2,500 miles, there were as many lessons learned as successes

LOOKING BACK

In the end, I ended up going well beyond my original beer budget, because of the unexpected expenses that inevitably crop up once you actually start cruising instead of just dreaming about it. After a list of upgrades that ran well into five figures, I naively thought the big bills were done with. Then, in a single, painful week I spent well over $3,000 on a transmission repair, a new outboard, a sail repair and an $80/night marina that at least provided a stable platform for writing checks. As for the rest, the tab would have been much higher had I not installed every bit of gear myself, with plenty of help and advice from friends.

On the bright side, I’m in the Caribbean now, and I’m now on a rum budget as opposed to beer. Salut! 

Photos by Peter Nielsen

May 2022

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