Time. It’s slipping. No, it’s skittering, skyrocketing away. Whatever new warp speed we have found ourselves in—be it a product of COVID, today’s information-overload era, the rapidity of global change, or just age (I’m almost forty)—it has told Phillip and I one thing: If the world can change entirely tomorrow, it matters more than ever how you spend today. Meaning, whatever serious cruising Phillip and I had been merely planning to do in our lives, the planning period is over. Now is the time. That brought us immediately to our next question: What all do we need to do to the boat to make her truly ready to carry us safely and comfortably across oceans. I share this with you all to see if you would consider or make the same upgrades and/or what different projects you would take on if you were preparing an older, solid boat for live-aboard, faraway cruising.
Note, our Niagara, as is, is certainly capable of crossing oceans. She’s strong as hell, reinforced everywhere it really matters.
And, she is comfortable, not luxurious, but comfortable. But, she does not have heat or AC, no hot water heater, generator, water maker, or bow thruster, which means we don’t have to absorb the cost and time required to maintain all of those complicated systems. Her simplicity also allowed us to learn her every nut, bolt, and quirk so we can fix any problem ourselves, a status that takes years to earn and not an asset we dismissed lightly because adding new, foreign (to us) systems would also mean we would have to learn them and get used to troubleshooting and repairing them. “Research time!” we say aboard Plaintiff’s Rest. But, it’s a task that is usually accompanied with a cocktail, so it’s entirely bearable. There were simply some additional systems and upgrades our boat definitely needed to start truly traversing the world. So, grab your cocktail and let’s dig in to our Plaintiff’s Rest Overhaul (the short list):
There’s no denying it. Our Westerbeke 27A diesel engine is original to the boat. She’s 36 years old. Just a couple of years shy of my age. While we have heard diesel engines can go a good 5,000 – 7,000 hours (on a good run), Phillip and I were already approaching 4,000 and have already had several travel setbacks and delays due to engine failure. If we were going to get our boat ready to travel the world, the smart decision would be to just go ahead, bite the bullet, and re-power. With the additional glass work this would likely require in the engine room to modify the stringers and gussets to allow the boat to properly accept and operate under new engine power, this would likely be a fairly substantial and costly project, but necessary for peace of mind in our opinion.
While we do have a very strong hydraulic, below-decks Simrad auto-pilot, it is a model so old that they don’t make the same drive anymore. We joke that when we call Simrad for help troubleshooting it, they have to patch us over to some old guy in a hut in Alaska who worked for Simrad when they used to produce our model. Because Phillip and I have also had several, rather impactful travel setbacks due to auto-pilot failure, we had already vowed (well before Covid or Hurricane Sally, or any other factor that influenced this list) that whenever we truly shoved off to go worldwide cruising, we would change our auto-pilot (all three components: drive, computer, and interface) to a newer model that would allow us to carry an immediate, snap-in spare. Our days of hand-steering are through! Because adaptation to a new, different-sized ram would likely also require more glass work in the engine room (to modify our current auto-pilot shelf in the port lazarette), this would also be a pretty substantial and costly job as well, but, again, vital in our minds. On our boat, we view our auto-pilot as the most capable crew member of the trip. He gets a name, repeated encouragement and flattery, and any snacks he wants on his midnight shifts.
When Hurricane Sally ripped through Pensacola in September 2020, she not only claimed many beautiful vessels, she also destroyed a majority of docks in Pensacola. By the time we hauled out after the storm, any vessel that had survived the hurricane but that did not need to be immediately hauled out, had already limped over to any available dock that was left. Dockage in Pensacola in the fall and winter of 2020 was seemingly non-existent. Knowing this, Phillip and I decided soon after the storm (before we made this list) that we would add more solar to the boat—likely an additional large panel on the dodger, and perhaps more panels on deck—so that the boat could keep herself sufficiently powered up to activate and run the bilge pumps in case she had to stay on the hook for a while awaiting an available dock in Pensacola. So, more solar. Check. Thankfully, advances in solar technology have made the panels themselves ridiculously affordable and the install is really so simple I can (and did!) it virtually on my own. Well, with the help of the immensely cheerful Lyall at www.sunpoweredyachts.com, whom I highly recommend for solar upgrades. We ended up going from 200 watts before Hurricane Sally (a 100 watt panel and two (2) 50 watt panels on the dodger), to replacing the hurricane-ravaged dodger panels with two (2) 50 watt panels and a 110 watt panel, and adding a larger 170-watt panel on the dodger. This increased our solar intake to an impressive 430 watts, plenty for the hook and the ocean.
With our four wet-cell battery bank (which consisted of essentially four golf cart batteries), Phillip and I could go roughly 3-4 days on the hook without having to crank, but we would often turn off the fridge for passage to make sure we had enough power to run the auto-pilot and instruments. We definitely had enough power to comfortably cruise locally and shove off on a 5-10 day passage, but more power would certainly make an ocean crossing safer and more comfortable. For this reason, we welcomed the idea of replacing our wet-cell batteries with a new lithium bank as they are becoming more and more popular and accessible. Our buddy Brandon with www.perdidosailor.com had installed a new bank on a catamaran a couple of years back and he was impressed with their size, weight, and performance. He also felt the safety factor of fire was slight and worth the risk in light of the overwhelming added benefits. For this reason, and with more solar power going in that we would want to harness and preserve, Phillip and I were planning to change our wet cell bank on the Niagara to a lithium bank. This would be a pretty substantial project requiring structural work to safely house the new bank, as well as a new battery management system and perhaps battery charger, etc. (or perhaps the addition of a duo-charger) to make this transition.
Aboard our Niagara 35, we carry 80 gallons of water (40 gallons under each saloon settee) that we treat as grey water for cleaning, bathing, washing, etc. Phillip and I always purchased filtered water for our drinking water, which were typically housed in 12-15 one-gallon jugs that we stashed and stowed in various places around the boat. This also meant every week or two we had to find a way to get to town to fill our drinking jugs and carry them back to the boat as well as stopping at a fuel dock or marina every few weeks to fill the tanks below decks. While this worked well for the coastal cruising and short hops we had taken so far on Plaintiff’s Rest, if we were truly going to shove off to sail the Caribbean, and cross the Atlantic to Portugal, Spain, France, and beyond, Phillip and I felt a water-maker would add comfort and safety. We were considering the portable Rainman unit that we could simply bring up into the cockpit when we needed to make water, throw different hoses overboard, and make water into drinking jugs and our saloon tanks. But, we wanted to consider, more fully, installing the unit into the boat and adding (don’t say it!) a thru-hull to accompany it. Either way, this would be a pretty minor, but profound and significant “qualify of life” upgrade to our boat!
On our Niagara, we have a 30-gallon diesel tank under the starboard settee and, as mentioned, two 40-gallon tanks of water under the saloon settees. For long-term cruising this is really not much. We burn roughly half a gallon of fuel an hour while motoring, which gives us about 60 hours of motoring out of the tank on a single passage. Considering the ten-day passage we had been planning to the BVIs in November, 2020, this would severely limit us if the wind shut down and we had a need to motor, to avoid ship traffic or reefs and rocky shores. For this reason, for our BVI attempt, we added an additional three 5-gallon jerry cans of fuel, in addition to the typical three we usually carry for an offshore passage. While this did increase our fuel capacity, traveling offshore with that many jerry cans on the deck added weight, reduced our visibility of the waterline from the cabin below, and made traversing the side decks more difficult. So, it was not ideal. We also carried an additional 5-gallon water jerry on the lifelines as well which added to the deck weight and clutter. But, this only brought us up to 60 gallons of diesel and approximately 100 gallons of water, considering our dozens of drinking gallons below. In all, not ideal. Do-able but not ideal. For this reason, we had been toying with the idea of trying to find some space below where we could install a larger diesel tank or additional water tanks. We are not sure, yet, whether we will take this task on as we know this will limit storage for food, tools, and spares as well. Not to mention wine! Blasphemy! But, additional tankage would undoubtedly improve our boat’s capabilities and increase the amount of time we could safely and comfortably travel offshore, so it was worth consideration.
We knew going into it, that this was going to be a pretty extensive, and costly, overhaul but we felt these particular systems and upgrades were necessary to make our Niagara 35 truly capable of carrying us safely and comfortably across oceans to new international destinations while allowing us to more comfortably live and work aboard full-time. Finding ourselves on this new path, thanks to such sweeping, unexpected changes in our lives—Covid and Hurricane Sally—felt odd, exciting, surprising, but mostly awesome. Whatever we chose to do and wherever path our decisions took us down, the one thing we did know was that this was the start of an entirely new chapter for us. Big changes are coming at HaveWindWillTravel!