While this is tough to share, it is also humbling and inspiring. Hurricane Michael was the strongest hurricane to hit US shores since Andrew. Practically speaking, it was pretty much a Cat 5 when it hit the shore the Florida panhandle on October 10, 2018. With sustained winds of 155 mph, it was just a shade under the 156 mph rank for a Cat 5. We heard reports, however, of gusts up to 178. One hundred and seventy-eight miles an hour. Can you even imagine? I think it might peel the skin off of your face. I honestly don’t know and don’t want to. Although Phillip and I are incredibly grateful for how lucky we were that Michael did make that anticipated hook to the east and missed us entirely here in Pensacola, it is a stark reminder of how close we came to having our downtown, our homes, and our marinas and boats here in Pensacola look like this.
Phillip and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Panama City to deliver hurricane relief supplies to a local church that had put together a drive. We wanted to go to offer our help, of course, but I have to be honest when I say I also wanted to go to see, to document, and to share. Hurricanes are horrific. They’re terrifying and infinitely stronger than you can imagine. Those who have the means to evacuate if a cyclone anywhere close to a Cat 5 is coming, but don’t simply because they feel they can somehow save their house, business, or boat if they stay behind, I hope footage like this can help educate.
The damage in Panama City (the only location we went to) was primarily from wind. While the damage from a hurricane is typically some combination of wind and water via a storm surge, it did not appear in the areas we went to that Panama City experienced a large storm surge. There were no signs of mud slathered across the streets or water lines on the buildings to suggest that. Rather, it seemed in Panama City wind was the deadliest force. It shocked Phillip and I to see entire fields of trees, hundreds of them, all snapped clean in half. Just from the wind. Seeing them all cracked over, my mind instantly tried to re-create the scene mentally watching full-blown, thick-trunked trees breaking from the sheer force of the wind. I could almost hear their horrific cries. I don’t want to visualize these scenes. My mind forces me to when I see damage like this. It is a humbling reminder of who is in charge on this earth, and why we should make a much greater, collective effort to treat her better, to help heal her so we do not feel her wrath as frequently.
While I share this footage to educate, I also want to shine a spotlight on the many, many volunteers we saw out, gathering and giving away supplies. There were people on the side of the road at intersections with signs that read: “Free Lunch” or “Free Supplies.” There were many donation stations. Free food, water, and ice locations. We saw dozens of freshly-mounted new powerline poles along the roads where power company employees had worked feverishly to restore power for those affected.
To the extent we saw devastating damage in Panama City, we also saw courage in the face of disaster. People can sometimes be awful, selfish, terrible things, but it’s nice to be reminded that other times they can be generous, brave, and kind. Here is a link to the American Red Cross’s Hurricane Michael Relief Page if you, too, would like to help the Hurricane Michael relief efforts. To those affected in Panama City, Mexico Beach, Tallahassee, and the surrounding areas, our hearts and thoughts are with you as you regroup and rebuild.
There’s a storm brewing out there. You know it’s coming. You often know how fast it’s going and what the sustained winds are. You even have many, many predicted tracks. But, you just never know with 100% certainty where it’s going to hit and what it’s going to do.
Deciding what to do when a hurricane has its sights set on you is always a very tough call. The cone is so large (made even larger by varying predicted landfalls) and sailboats move so slow.
Even if you have purchased a hurricane haul-out plan, which Phillip and I have, deciding whether to haul-out or not is still a tough call. Being on jack stands among dozens of other boats propped up on what look like toothpicks is no guarantee of safety. But, even if you tie your boat up super secure in an anchorage or marina, that’s no guarantee another boat won’t come loose and come barreling into you. It’s just tough. As Phillip and I wait for Michael to make landfall, I thought I would share with you all some of our thoughts on hurricane preparation and some of the measures we took to (hopefully) keep our boat safe. Many of these are passed down from sailors much wiser than us, and you know me, I’m always happy to share. Here’s to the Kretschmers and Pam Walls out there who have taught us so much. We hope some of these tips help you all someday (if not today!) too.
Whether to Haul
The decision of whether to haul is usually difficult because it has to be made very early in the process, when the hurricane is out there with varying predicted landfalls. But, understandably, the shipyards have to be prepared to haul as many people out on their list that want out, so that takes 2-3 days to coordinate and schedule. They cannot allow all owners on the list to wait until the last day and then demand to be hauled out. For Phillip and I, if our marina requires a mandatory evacuation, then that makes the decision to haul-out easier. However, as with Michael, where the marina merely issued a “voluntary” evacuation—encouraging but not requiring owners to leave—that makes our decision tougher.
While it would be (well … nice isn’t really the right word as I’m sure the experience is a wet, wild adventure) but it would be reassuring to be able to stay safely on the boat in the marina during the hurricane constantly checking for chafe or other wind-driven problems, and watching out for other boats that may come loose. Staying in the water, however, does expose the boat to a potential sinking if something collides with her or strikes her in such a way as to punch a hole or cause a break that would allow water intake. Being on jack stands does give you peace of mind that she won’t sink. However, up and on jack stands does create significant more windage. Jack stands can fail, and other boats can topple over onto you.
While Phillip and I believe hauling out can be the safer option, it’s not guaranteed. Some friends offered us a mooring they dropped themselves (a 2,000 lb tractor axle) with a super hearty shackle up in a hurricane hole where they rode out Hurricane Ivan safely, and I would imagine that would be a safer option than the shipyard. However, it’s in a neighboring state where we are not insured. So that would be a huge downside if something did occur and our boat was significantly damaged during the storm. All of these pros and cons were weighing on us as we left Pirate’s Cove in Alabama and made our way home Sunday to our slip in Pensacola.
It was no surprise when the folks at our hurricane haul-out yard called us during our motor back asking us if we wanted to haul-out and, if so, when we wanted to be scheduled. They offered us a 5:30 p.m. slot the following day on Monday, or a 7:00 a.m. slot on Tuesday morning. Debating a not-so-ideal evening haul-out versus the benefit of earlier prep of the boat, we chose the 5:30 slot knowing that would give us all day Monday to watch the storm and make a last-minute decision on Monday afternoon.
Knowing we would strip the boat entirely whether we stayed in the water or hauled-out, we set to that job on Monday morning while we watched the NOAA reports during the day and waited for the final 4:00 p.m. full report that would force our hand. When the report showed Hurricane Michael moving faster, allowing it less time to hook further east before making landfall, Phillip and I decided to haul-out. We did the same thing last year when Nate was barreling down on us (I wrote a piece on that experience here), so we knew the process, we trusted the yard, and we felt it was best.
Photo from our Nate prep, October 2017.
But, the haul-out itself was just one step of the prep work. I wanted to share with you all here a detailed list of the additional work we did to ensure (we hope) no canvas or sails are damaged during the storm, no halyards or other lines come untethered and start slinging around like ball on the end of a chain, and that our boat stays as absolutely safe and undamaged as possible.
First, we start with Annie up the mast! Detailed list with photos below. Prep smart people, and best of luck out there!
Hurricane Prep on Plaintiff’s Rest
We send Annie up the mast to bring down our convertible inner forestay for our storm sail. We know we’ll have to send me up after the storm to bring other halyards and things down, so removing this just to ensure less “whippage” potential during the storm is a no-brainer. I will install it back when I go up the mast after the storm so it will be ready for our offshore sailing season.
And that video still came from our “How to Rig Your Boat for Heavy Weather Sailing” video where we share some other tips on rigging your boat for heavy offshore winds. Feel free to check it out here.
2. Drop, flake and bag the genoa, and put it below. We leave the sheets on it, so they are also removed from the topside as well.
3. Pull the furling line out of the furling drum on the headsail. It’s easy to re-install and it means one less line on the deck.
4. Remove the flag halyards. (Again, we know I will have to go up the mast again after the storm, so anything completely outside of the mast that can easily be taken down entirely and re-installed when I go back up, we remove.)
5. Remove the dodger and stow it below. (We’re getting a new one this year by the way; our old one is “played out!” as Phillip would say. Zippers coming off and falling apart. This might be the last time that old dodger rides on the boat! Sorry Charlie. See you later!)
6. Unhook the solar panels on top of the bimini (usually by marking the right connections with blue painter’s tape and Sharpie).
7. Carefully fold the bimini with the solar panels attached and stow it in the vberth below.
8. Remove the lifeline from the stern rail and stow it below. Now the cockpit is completely stripped and clean.
8. Secure the bars of the bimini and the remaining solar power cords with tape, line, and zip ties. Same with the dodger frame.
9. Remove all other canvas (hatch covers, hand rails, etc.).
10. Drop the Stack Pack and stow it below. I usually take a photo of it and make myself a little diagram so I remember how to re-install it. It’s not that hard at all. But, when it’s a wadded up pile of canvas and lines it looks a little intimidating.
11. Drop the mainsail and stow it below (with the reef line at the tack stored with it).
12. Check the figure-eight knots on each end then pull Reef One and Reef Two at the clew down into the throat at the aft of the boom with the remainder of the lines in the cockpit.
13. Remove the Cunningham and stow it below.
14. Remove the whisker pole and stow it below.
15. Okay, we’re not quite through but in yesterday-time it’s now 4:00 p.m. and time to head to the shipyard. It’s haul-out time! Let’s go!
Last thing to deal with is the lines that are remaining on the boat. Pam Wall gave us some great tips on these.
16. We pull all all halyards in the mast up to the top so the lines are protected and the shackled end cannot come untethered and start whipping everything on the boat with a fury. This includes the genny halyard, the staysail halyard, the topping lift, the spinnaker halyard and the main halyard. (That’s one busy mast!) We run dyneema leads up with the spinnaker and genny halyard (the two lines we often use to raise me up the mast) so those can be pulled back down to raise me up to retrieve the others post-storm. At the shackle end of each line I tie a big figure-eight knot to (while I’m sure it already is, but just to be doubly-sure) it’s too fat to fall down in the throat of the sheave. I then fold the shackle back onto the figure-eight knot and tape it all securely with blue tape (that way the shackle can’t bang and beat itself to death). We then attach a dyneema messenger to those we will pull back down. I tie several knots in the dyneema and tape them with blue tape to prevent the knots from slipping out. (That dyneema is super strong but notorious for un-tying itself. It’s so slickery! Annie word of the day.)
18. The remainder of the dyneema (because we don’t want to cut it, it’s one piece long enough to replace any stay or shroud) I stuff into the boot cover at the bottom of the mast and tape it round and round (to ensure the Velcro doesn’t give during the storm).
17. Here’s the Pam Wall trick. We run the remainder of the genny and the spinnaker lines round and round (tightly coiled) around the base of the mast. The main halyard that is back in the cockpit we run the same way (tightly coiled) around the binnacle. And the other lines (outhaul, main sheets, reminder of the topping lift, staysail halyard, etc.) we stuff in a bag on a port wench and we tape the throat of it shut and secure it to the wench. You can see the bag here:
18. You tired yet? We were. It was a loooonnng day yesterday. Now that everything topside is as secure as it can be, it’s time to reinforce the bottom. We run seizing wire around the handles of each jack stand (a trick Brandon with Perdido Sailor taught us – thanks B!) to help prevent them from rattling themselves loose in heavy winds.
19. We then run chain or dock lines (chain is best) from jack stand to jack stand to create a sort of secure “cradle” for our boat. To make all of the jack stands work together to support our hull.
20. Okay, I believe that’s it (as I’m running through this mentally). We’ll always do one last sweep to make sure all hatches are closed and that we didn’t miss anything. I hope this list helps some of you!
And, we hope this sheds some light for those who do not own a boat on how much work really goes into preparing a boat for a storm. Phillip and I got this all accomplished yesterday and we’re hoping our baby girl is as secure as she can be for Michael’s fury, whatever he may bring. We hope all of you remain safe during the storm, too. We’ll be sending our thoughts to your hearts, homes, and vessels. Hold fast followers!
It’s always the people. When you come to a new place and have an experience you know you will remember for a lifetime, it’s often because of the people you met there. People you connect with instantly. People who feel like long-time friends in a matter of minutes. Phillip and I are always humbled and astounded at the quality of people we meet cruising. It doesn’t matter if they are dirt poor or filthy rich, big corporate CEOs or car mechanics. For the most part, cruisers are just quality people, with astonishing stories and experiences to share. And sharing is what they do best. Before I dive back into another vivid video from the Bahamas, I had to share this one in words first. I believe in words. And, they are the only thing that could do this pair justice. I give you, Pat and Steve:
“Sailboat coming in from the south. Sailboat coming in from the south,” we heard his voice crackling over the radio. Phillip and I were just preparing to drop the hook at our first island in the Berries when he reached out to us over Channel 16. Phillip and I looked around a few times. There wasn’t any other sailboat that was coming in at the time. We literally had the place absolutely to ourselves.
“He must mean us,” Phillip said as he picked up the receiver.
“This is the sailboat coming in from the south,” Phillip said cautiously.
“There are mooring balls just a bit further north of you,” the voice said. “They’re free and good holding. Hell, I helped drop them. The sands and strong shifting currents don’t make for good holding here. You’d be best on a ball,” he said over the radio.
Phillip thanked him for the advice and asked about the Berry Island Club (a place we thought we would go to ashore to grab a sandwich). We thought wrong.
“Hasn’t been kept up in years. It just changed owners, but it’s a dust bucket right now. But, get settled in on the ball, then come ashore to my house. It’s the yellow one on the north end. Feel free to use my dock. The name’s Steve. My wife is Pat. See you soon.”
Phillip and I shared a bit of a what-else-are-we-doing? look and said “Alright, thanks! See you soon, Steve.”
Just like that, a relationship was formed. And, I’ll tell you, I am 100% confident I will not meet two people quite like Pat and Steve as long as I live. They broke the mold and built a new one in its place. My mind is struggling with where to begin. I’ll start where we did.
When Phillip and I tied up the dinghy at the little dock next to the “yellow house on the end” and started making our way up the hill Steve greeted us. He was cheerful, tall, and clad in a hodge-podge of clothes it looked like you would wear to paint a house, oversized and old. His shoes were duct-taped together. His hat was dirty and crooked. And I loved him instantly. You could just tell from the way he shook your hand, to the way he welcomed you into his home, and told you about its trusses he built back in 1982 that Steve was a man who could care less what you wore, what you owned, or how much money you made. He judges character by experience. What have you done with your life and what have you gathered that you can share? Because boy did they! Their food, their home, their time, their stories, their laughter, their help, their advice. Even their toilet paper! And they don’t have much of that there. I’m getting ahead of myself, I know. It’s just so inspiring to meet people like this. My fingers are tingling.
When Pat came out from the back of the house, she, too, looked like a painter’s apprentice, draped in a stained men’s button-down that was three sizes too big for her, sporting blue pants, and pink Crocs, and I loved her even more. She was, just, hilarious, is the best word.
“Would you like a Rum And?” She asked me.
“A rum and … ?” I repeated, a little confused.
“Yeah, rum and whatever we got.”
When we got the truck stuck in the sand on the way to our hot dog party (we’ll get there), Pat plopped down, happily started digging sand out from under the tires, and said: “Well, it wouldn’t have been any fun if we just got there.” I mean … kudos, Pat. Well said.
These people just don’t see any point in getting upset or stressed over things they cannot change. It’s humbling and refreshing. While Phillip and I have met many hearty, resilient, interesting people in our cruising—Pam Wall is a perfect example—Steve and Pat have a story, a past, a presence, and a perspective that reminds me every day that if I wake up and I’m coherent and breathing and walking, it’s a good damn day! Listen to this:
Steve was an engineer. He’s freaky smart and can fix, build, and repair anything. And I do mean anything. He spent a good bit of his adulthood building and growing a program where high school kids built submarines then raced them in a competition. Submarines!? Are you with me? Steve and his son built their yellow house on the island in the Berries themselves. From the ground up. On an island that does not have any running water. No electricity. They sailed all of the building materials, including the trusses he showed me, in on their boat. Mixed concrete by hand in buckets. Built scaffolding out of trees on the island. Can you imagine taking on a project like that? Then, when Hurricane Andrew took the roof off in 1992, Steve built it back. When Hurricane Matthew struck in 2006 and tried to pull it off again, he repaired it.
“It would have ripped the whole thing off like a Band-Aid if the porch roof would have gave. But it didn’t,” Steve said with a wink. “Cause I used 5200 on it. Have you heard of that stuff?”
Have I …
Steve, what a guy. And, Pat, her story is even more inspiring. She was a teacher and helped Steve with the submarine project for many, many years. Before she and Steve began teaching stateside, they (much like Pam Wall) took their two children to live aboard a sailboat, and they sailed around the Caribbean for several years. Pat home-schooled the children and Steve worked odd jobs to allow their kids a childhood rich with experiences and travel. You can see in this photo a framed picture of their boat behind me and Pat.
Gusto they named it.
“Oh, that’s a great name. Live with vigor,” I said. “How did you choose it?” I asked Pat.
“A beer commercial,” said Pat as she imitated guzzling from a can. “When we were thinking about a name for the boat, a Schlitz ad came on that said ‘Go for the gusto,’ so Steve did,” she said laughing.
Pat. She’s just awesome. No matter the situation we found ourselves in, she found humor and an entertaining perspective. I mentioned the stuck truck. That didn’t phase her.
We couldn’t find a good place to make a fire pit to roast our hot dogs: “Use that old toilet,” Pat said. “It’ll be a hot dog potty.” I’m not kidding.
Jostling around in Steve’s Volkswagen creation in the hot, hot sun, Pat was just smiling and cheery. “We call him Mr. Toad,” she said with a snort. She’s not kidding. Steve starts it by touching a wire to the 12V battery that sits behind the passenger “seat” (plastic chairs bolted in) and flicking an “on” button. I’m not kidding.
When talking about the painful root canal Pat had to have a few years back: “We went to Hungary to have them done on the cheap. Steve and I got the ‘tooth’ for one special,” Pat said with a cackle.
When telling us about the horrific plane crash that almost crippled her and took her son’s life: “He lived more in his 21 years than most do in a lifetime,” Pat said.
I hope your heart is beating as hard as mine right now. I look forward to every day, every experience, every stuck truck, and every hot dog potty because of the very fact that it is beating. And because I’ve met people like Pat and Steve who inspire me to keep the right perspective, never sweat the small stuff, and fill every moment of my life with … well … GUSTO!
And, speaking of hearts beating, thankfully, island life requires they be hands-on, hard-working, active people. At 73 and 74, Pat and Steve are able to walk steep hills all over the island. They are more mobile and capable than many, many older people I see in the states, and far healthier. The lifestyle speaks to its own health benefits. Maintenance of the house, rigging up the solar and sistern, and foraging in the sea for food keeps them fit. And, Steve is always fixing something, for either he and Pat, or Dan, Donna, or any of their other five neighbors on the island. Here, Steve is fixing a leak on Dan’s water cistern.
The island has an intermittent population of approximately ten, and eight buildings total, two of which Steve built. He built Dan and Donna’s house up on the hill which has a stunning view of the entire island. The four of them come from such diverse backgrounds, with different educations, careers, and socioeconomic status but, as Pat says: “We all have the same view.”
And boy do they! That’s Steve and Pat’s view! And that’s Plaintiff’s Rest in it!
Love those people. Dan, Donna, Pat, and Steve are all very good friends who spend a portion of each year together in the Berries where they relax, fish, garden, read, and play dominos together every night. It was so fun to be invited to their game and learn about all four of them over many-a Rum Ands!
Oh, but the dominos came after dinner, which we shared with Steve and Pat every night when we were in the Berries. About an hour after we met Pat and Steve in their home, Steve asked us if we wanted to know where the good reefs were on the island. “Of course,” was our response. But before we could get that out Steve was grabbing his wet gear. This is not the kind of guy who just points things out on a map. “Well, let’s go!” he said to our stunned faces. “Get your spear!” Pat shouted to him. “And bring us some dinner.”
Us. They had already considered Phillip and I as part of their crew. Having only known us for an hour, we were already an “us.” It was such a cool feeling. Steve and his spear then took us out and did, in fact, catch us dinner. I got to see myself (for the first time in my life) a fish speared! A lobster stabbed! Fresh dinner caught right before my eyes!
And, remember Steve is doing all of this at 74! What an inspiration. He taught us so much, that very first day, about fish and spearfishing. Phillip was wide-eyed and happily challenged. I was excited and happily hungry! Here, Steve is showing Phillip how to look for the lobster’s antennae and hold gently onto the reef to steady his launch.
We were all so chummy by the time we got done spearfishing and snorkeling, it didn’t phase us at all when we dropped Steve and the fish off at his house and he said: “Y’all go spiff up at the boat and come on back for dinner. Bring anything you’d like.”
“We like eclectic dinners!” Pat shouted from inside (because you have to remember there is no grocery store there, they live off the pantry and land). “We won’t starve!” she promised. And she was right. Every night with Steve and Pat was shared over a fantastic, fresh fish dinner, mixed with a fun side of “canned whatever” and rice. They’ve got lots of rice! And conch! Steve showed us how to look for conch that are fully developed and harvest them, and Pat taught me how to clean a conch with my own two hands.
Once that wiggly alien-looking thing was out, she gave me a tenderizing hammer, told me to “beat the shit out of it, then make conch spaghetti.” You see? I can’t make this stuff up! Island people are so resourceful and creative.
And, every night after dinner, the four of us, Steve, Pat, Phillip, and I, would walk up the hill, a pretty hearty but much-welcomed digestif, to Dan and Donna’s to play dominos till dark.
Our experience in the Berries was just … unforgettable. Sure, the island was beautiful. The spearfishing was thrilling. But, as is often the case: what made the Berries our favorite stop in the Bahamas was hands-down the people. Before we left the island we stopped by Steve and Pat’s place one more time to bring them a little gift, a signed Salt of a Sailor(Pat’s going to love it I’m sure!) and some toilet paper. They were thrilled! You have to really scrimp on that stuff there. It was a bittersweet goodbye, but I’m confident we’ll see Pat and Steve again. Hopefully in the Berries, and hopefully with a spear in hand.
Steve, Pat—now, two of our absolute favorite people—this one’s for you:
Whatever Phillip and I may do, wherever we may go, I know now, thanks to you, we will GO WITH GUSTO!
High times at Harbour Island High! These high-flying kite-surfers were also there on a boat at Harbour Island when Phillip and I were there, back in March of this year, only their boat was just a smidge bigger. Owned by a billionaire. Yes, with a B. It’s amazing the potluck of people you meet while cruising. But, they were super humble and a lot of fun to “hang” with … get it? : ) From Spanish Wells, Phillip and I decided to hire a captain to help us navigate through the treacherous coral-ridden path, known as the “Devil’s Backbone,” into Harbour Island, and we spent a fabulous three days exploring ashore, kiting our a$$es off (with the billionaires!), and hiking the south side with Brett and Kristen from Life in the Key of Sea. As we share work from our time in the shipyard this summer, it’s also fun to remind ourselves what all of that hard work is for. Flash back to one of our last stops in the Bahamas this past March with a fun video and photos for you below from our time in Harbour Island. Enjoy!
There was no end to the surprises the Bahamas kept revealing were in store for us. At Spanish Wells, we were honestly expecting a more industrial fishing town, not many stunning sights. But, then we got this:
It won the award on Plaintiff’s Rest for most beautiful beach in the Bahamas. For us, anyway, our first year there having only made it through the Abacos, Eleuthera, and the Berries. We’re often told the beaches and shorelines in the Exumas are just incomparable, but we haven’t seen them in person yet. So, until then, this neon-breathtaking-blue beach on the north shore of Spanish Wells will have to do. C’est la vie.
But, Harbour Island turned out to be a great surprise, too. Initially, when Phillip and I were planning our route through the Bahamas in 2017/2018, Harbour Island was not one of our intended destinations. Our (very vague, back in 2017) plan was to tinker through the Abacos, then make our way down through the ragged islands and the Exumas—to the extent we could—before we needed to get the boat back to Pensacola for hurricane season. When we got to Spanish Wells, our cruising timeline was starting to close for the year. Currently, Phillip and I are more “commuter cruisers,” who spend roughly half of the year aboard our boat cruising and the other half (broken up here and there) back home in Pensacola working. Somehow you gotta pay for all this fun, right?
So, we knew our window was closing and we still had on our list: the Berries, the voyage back across the Gulf Stream to Florida, and all of the wonderful cruising we wanted to along the west coast of Florida. With that in mind, Mother Nature decided to throw us a curve ball. Around the time we were planning to leave Spanish Wells one of those very common north fronts came through and it looked like it was going to blow for days.
This meant we had one of two options: 1) Run down to the Exumas and try to find a place to hide there for the four-or-so days we expected weather. (And, many of you who have been to the Exumas likely know—hiding is not a great thing to try and do in the Exumas. The islands are just so small and sparse, they don’t offer great protection.) So, we could either race down to the Exumas, try to hide for a bit, hope for a few clear days, then race back to the Berries and onward to home or … Option Two. Tuck into Harbour Island, which was just a short half-day jaunt over in Eleuthera. Here is where we were in the Bahamas:
We could then drop the hook there for a few days to escape the coming winds, explore Eleuthera and the Berries slowly, then pick our way home. As you can imagine, any option with the word “slow” in it is likely the one that’s going to appeal to us. You just cannot do the Exumas in five days. I think it’s blasphemy. Birds would start flying backwards. Ducks would bark. Strange things would happen. I’m sure.
With the Harbour Island decision made, Phillip and I then had to decide whether we were feeling brave enough to navigate the very rocky and coral-ridden inlet to Harbour Island—known locally as the “Devil’s Backbone”—on our own or hire a captain to take us safely through. You can see here the many, many coral heads that litter the path from Spanish Wells into Harbour Island! Makes me want to tuck my keel and run. Yipes!
The cost to hire a captain was roughly $120 (and we added a $20 tip). While we are in no way made of money, our keel and hull are not made of material that is good to slam into a coral head. It just seemed worth it to us—our first time coming into Harbour Island—to hire a captain to ensure a safe entry, no damage to the boat, and avoid the immense stress it would put on us trying to do that ourselves. Now that we’ve been in and out and laid a track, I feel confident Phillip and I could now do it on our own, but we didn’t feel the need was great enough to chance it the first time, in light of the fairly low cost to ensure safe entry with a captain.
There were several captains available to take you most days, either at 9:00 a.m. or around lunch. The run through the Devil’s Backbone took about 3.5 to 4 hours, traveling as we do at roughly 4-5 knots under motor. The captain that took us in was very knowledgeable and nice and told us to follow him “very closely.” He did not tie up to our boat or board, but he puttered slowly in front of us, making sure we were on a safe path, communicating with us often via radio, and he got us in safely.
And, while it was a beautiful day, gorgeous waters, and a successful navigation, there was one thing about the trip that bothered me and Phillip. When we were envisioning doing the Devil’s Backbone ourselves, both of us had a mental image of one of us standing at the bow, sun directly overhead, pointing out coral heads left and right, giving cues to the helmsman at the wheel. To be frank, we kind of wanted to gain that experience while following a captain so we knew we would be safe. Like a test run with training wheels on. But, here’s the thing: we couldn’t really see the coral heads. Neither Phillip nor myself could make them out. Sometimes I would feel like I saw one up ahead and it turned out to be a big patch of black sand or grass. Then sometimes I didn’t feel like I’d seen one at all, but there it was breaching the surface where I thought there was no coral.
I can’t explain why we couldn’t see the coral heads. Perhaps it was too early in the day, although it was a very clear, bright day, and we navigated the corally (that’s a word today) section from about 10-12:00 p.m. Perhaps we just don’t have good coral eyes (another linguistic gem for you.) Whatever the cause, that part about the trip made us very glad we had hired a captain because he obviously could either see them where we couldn’t, or he just knew the route between them by heart. (We later learned it is both but mostly the latter). Either way, it was a beautiful day and a very enjoyable journey.
Once in Harbour Island, the captain rafted up with us briefly to get his fee then sent us on our way. Phillip and I navigated the shoals (which would later become our kiting ground when the tide was out) to drop the hook behind Harbour Island on the south side. We took the dinghy over to Man’s Island and snorkeled around, which was really fun. I saw my first lionfish underwater. Oh, and sea cucumbers, too! Those lovable lazy slugs. Phillip and I were also very surprised to find such a diverse, budding little town ashore with plenty of shops, eateries, nice restaurants, conch salad shacks, clothing boutiques, etc. There was a laundry mat where we washed all of our clothes and linens for $4/load and wifi in certain places. I certainly had one of the nicest, most beautiful “offices” I’ve had in a while. No complaints from this little remote worker!
The north side of the island also promised pretty pink beaches! While I imagined an entire beach shoreline the color of conch shell pink, that’s not really what we got. But the sand did have a nice rosy hue to it and—pink or not—it was gorgeous! One of my favorite parts was seeing the horses walking along the beach. The locals apparently give horse rides on the beach often to attract tourists (and it works!) but it was still cool to see my favorite animal in now one of my favorite places: the Bahamas.
We also inadvertently ended up dropping our hook next to another cruising couple we had previously connected with on social media: Brett and Kristen aboard Life in the Key of Sea. We met up with them one of our last days in Harbour Island, hiked the south side, and ate at the famous Sip Sip with a stunning view of the Atlantic shore. Brett and Kristen were very like-minded and easy-going (as most cruisers are) and we connected instantly. It was fun to hear the places they had been, their plans going forward, and a lot of the wacky, unfounded questions we all get from people who aren’t cruisers. Like “How do you feed the dogs?” Kristen told me someone had asked her, as they have two very lovable rescues aboard. It’s like the ability to buy dog food in advance and store it on the boat while cruising cannot be fathomed.
People are funny! But we always get a kick out of some of the questions we get, too. For instance: “What do you dooo all day on passage?” is another one of my favorites. You don’t have time to think about it, you’re usually so busy fixing things, checking the weather, holding your shift, cleaning, napping, fixing more things, researching, cooking, more cleaning, fixing something else, then it’s all of sudden the next day and you don’t know how it happened. We definitely had a good time laughing with Brett and Kristen about these shared bewilderments from our followers!
Phillip and I also did some of our best kiting from our entire Bahamas trip in Harbour Island. Mainly because the folks we kited with made it so memorable. It’s always the people, am I right?! Phillip, from our table at a little vegan restaurant, saw someone pumping up a kite on a tiny spit of sand in the harbour. He couldn’t help it. That man smells wind, I tell you. Instantly, he was up, “Check please,” and we were on our way out there. We met the folks and got to talking to them. Obviously—when you’re all on a tiny island with no airport—the question of “How did you get here?” often comes up. The gal with them said offhand “Oh, we’re staying here on a boat.”
“Oh, cool. Us, too. Ours is that sailboat over in the distance,” as I pointed.
“Oh nice,” she said (I now know) graciously.
“Where’s your boat?” I asked looking around for perhaps another monohull or cruising catamaran.
The gal got a little quiet and responded, “We’re on the biggest one here. It’s the Trending Yacht over there.” And by “over there,” she meant a vessel big enough to block out the sun. The thing is 165-feet of mega-money. It is a badass boat. Fun video for you here:
I mean. Whoa. We later learned her dad, who owns the boat, is not just a millionaire. But a billionaire. With a B. Say it again. Whoa. Check out more photos, video, and info about the boat and crew and the charters they do at Trending Yacht.
But, the crew (the two guys in the video above and photos below) and the daughter, “Biz” (short for Elizabeth), were super cool and a ton of fun to hang out with. The crew also told us the owner of Trending is—much unlike most other mega-yacht owners who are total douchebags—very low-key. He just wants everyone to have a good time, and wants to keep the boat in good working order so folks can appreciate it. It felt pretty freaking cool to meet my first billionaire! We had a great time kiting with them several days in the harbour. The two guys helping Biz learn to kite and crewing on the boat were total adrenaline junkies, trying to loop their kite (which usually ended in monster crashes into the water), hoisting each other up into the air, launching wicked jumps on the kite, etc. The “Trending Show” was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
In all, Harbour Island was an unexpected treat. Phillip and I had never really envisioned ourselves heading this deep into Eleuthera during this trip to the Bahamas. (We had envisioned ourselves in the Exumas instead.) But it was just further proof that when we go where the wind takes us (and not try to fight the universe’s obvious coaxing) we usually are rewarded to an unexpected but surprisingly unique and memorable new place. Harbour Island definitely fit that bill.
Hope you all enjoy the video, write-up, and photos below. We only have one more destination in the Bahamas to share before we scoot back across the Gulf Stream and start trickling up the west coast of Florida back to Pensacola, in blog time that is. As I mentioned in the video, in real time, we just splashed back after 4.5 weeks in the Pensacola Shipyard with Perdido Sailor, having accomplished some very awesome and necessary projects on our boat, and we’re now working to prepare our workloads and stock the boat for this season’s cruising. I will announce our plans soon. We’ve got something very, very cool in store for you followers. Stay tuned!
For now, let that Harbour Island footage roll! Enjoy!
Following the captain through the Devil’s Backbone:
Off on a dinghy adventure to snorkel around Man’s Island:
Our favorite time on the boat: Captain’s Hour
Exploring the awesome little town on Harbour Island:
The pink beach on the north shore!
Time to get our kite on!
The fun billionaire-ess and her cRaZy crew!
Enjoying the little eateries and shops in town:
Hiking and dining with Brett and Kristen from Life in the Key of Sea!
I was completely sober when I took that picture … promise ; )
At first, we couldn’t really get our “heads” wrapped around it, but once the system started to make sense (a simple composting unit vented to the outside), and we realized all of the nasty things we were about to remove from the boat, Phillip and I were all for it! As you can imagine, we asked around to many, many boat owners about the pros and cons of going with a composting head, and the really far-fetched cons we heard came from boatowners who didn’t even have a composting head on their boat! Psssshhh …
From those owners who had swapped to a composting head (including Andy and Mia from 59-North), the only true con that was noted was the head is a bit taller and there is the occasional hard-over tack that might prevent urine from making it to the bin. “But, in the rare event that happens,” Mia told me, “you just straighten the boat up for a minute while you do your business, and that’s that.” Most owners with composting heads told us they were thoroughly pleased with the function and smell (which for most is non-existent, but even those who did not vent theirs told us the light mulch smell was far preferred over the previous smell of the holding tank and it’s many nasty hoses). And, I don’t think I’ve heard of a single boat owner with a composting head going back to a manual toilet and a holding tank, which should tell you a lot.
While the install was a little tricky for us (mostly because we wanted to route the venting in a way that turned out very clean using the old channels that were designed for the propane water heater that was previously on the boat), it was really not that hard. I did most of it on my own with little oversight. Is it a stinky, shitty job? Yes. The removal, anyway. But, it’s no worse than changing out your holding tank hoses which has to be done every so-many years, and you can take great comfort in knowing that is the last time you will ever have to experience the pleasant feel of having your hands covered in your own … stuff! You’re welcome for that odorific memory. That was a fun day on Plaintiff’s Rest.
Phillip and I have also been using the new composting head on the hook after our install and we are thrilled with it. I will admit, the urine bin (we opted for the small one) is a bit small, only a gallon. And, it turns out, after an evening of wine, that’s about equivalent to Annie’s bladder. So, I do have to empty that bin a couple of times a day, but it’s like a 30-second chore, so no big deal. Regarding the “mulch,” we were told each coco brick lasts about 3-4 weeks with regular use. You can get five bricks for around $20 through Amazon. So, the cost is roughly $4-5/month. Each brick is about 8” long, 4” wide and 2-3” inches tall. So, a six-month supply likely fits in the size of a milk crate. I can assure a full year’s supply would be a mere fraction of the space our 25-gallon holding tank previously occupied.
A good friend and fellow captain and his wife (Russell and Lynn, hello!) who have used a composting head for years advised you soak one brick in one quart of fresh water overnight. It expands to about twice its size (roughly two gallons worth of material). Then you break it up into the composting bin and you’re set for about 3.5-4 weeks of use. When you notice the bin has roughly exceeded its halfway point (the crank inside is a good indicator), it’s time to dump!
Phillip and I chose the Airhead because it was the right aesthetic and size for our boat, and I cannot say enough nice things about the good folks at Airhead (particularly my buddy Geoff, shout out!) who answered my many, many, literally dozens of questions. They were very responsive and considerate (and complimentary of my install! Thanks for the kind words Geoff!). If you are on the fence about swapping to a composting head, feel free to send us any questions or hit up my buddy Geoff at Airhead, here is his email. While you are considering, it is helpful to think of the many benefits we have found (that I did not anticipate when we were merely considering it) from our swap to a composting head.
Pros of Swapping to a Composting Head
You no longer carry your shit along with you everywhere in a sloshing stinky tank under your bed (let’s just start there).
You remove an entire electrical system and thru-hull from the boat (the macerator for pumping overboard).
You gain space and better smell quality in all lockers that contained any element of your old system (the Y-valve, the macerator, the holding tank, and all the hoses).
You never have to go to the fuel dock again just to pump out.
You never have to pump out again. Yippee!
You don’t have to worry about an overflow, rupture, or leak from the holding tank.
You never again have to suffer through the smell of said overflow, rupture or leak from the holding tank.
You’ll never again have to change out the holding tank hoses or joker valve.
You’ll never again have to worry about or unclog a clogged head.
Most guests will refrain from use because it freaks them out. Yippee!
No more pumping after every donation. Whon-shee, whon-shee, whon-shee.
The whole boat smells so, so much better.
There’s less weight aboard. (For us this was particularly beneficial removing weight near the bow, where we work to counter-balance our heavy 200 feet of chain in the bow).
We never put salt water in our old head (as we heard it contributed to smell) so we now no longer have to keep a jug of fresh water in the head for pumping.
You’ll never again have to help … things … through the joker flap. Isn’t that fun?
With good aim, you’ll never again have to clean a shitty bowl. Ever. Yippee!
And, just in the pursuit of fairness, here are some of the cons we have heard about and/or experienced ourselves.
Cons of Swapping to a Composting Head
The head is a bit taller, so the “comfort factor” of having your feet lower can play a role (it does not for me, but seems to more for men).
You have to empty the urine bin often and should check it each time before you take a leak. It sucks when it overflows (yes, we’ve already done that).
Some people have told us they worry about violating some old boat regulation that requires you have a holding tank. In the U.S., a composting head is a USCG-sanctioned Type III marine sanitation device, so you’re fine here. With respect to other countries, as one follower said: “I would argue the composting head is a holding tank.” Smart guy. My lawyer brain would agree with that. We’ve never heard of anyone ever actually being cited or otherwise penalized under this alleged old regulation.
It may prove difficult to urinate on certain tacks. (But the simple fix for this I will call the “Mia Rule” above: straighten the boat out for a minute, do your business, get back on tack).
You have to find a place to dump your compost roughly once a month. While underway, you can throw it overboard anywhere outside three nautical miles from the nearest land. While ashore, you can (if you want the earth to get some use out of it) donate it to any garden, flowerbed, or natural earthy area, or otherwise safely dispose of it. Simply follow local regulations and good judgment when disposing anywhere.
So, let’s dig into this already as I want to share the full details or our install and hopefully dispel any erroneous myths you all my have about composting heads. If you may recall, this entire project emanated (ooh, great word) just as the smell did on our boat one morning when we inadvertently overflowed our holding tank. Good times.
Here is a link to that Facebook thread if you want to read everyone’s input on swapping to a composting head.
We were on our way back from the Bahamas and, after talking to many cruisers about it, primarily Russell and Lynn, we decided no more turd tank and we added it to our Post-Bahamas Boat Projects. But, simply deciding to explore the option does not make it possible on our boat. We do have a rather small area in our head. Our first obstacle in all of this was size. Was a composting head going to fit?
After researching all three major brands (C-head, Airhead, and Nature’s Head), we found the Airhead met our needs aesthetically and size-wise. The Airhead was a bit more stylish (I now know toilets can be stylish) than the C-head and was not quite as monstrous as the Nature’s Head. I sent these initial photos to the folks at Airhead asking their thoughts. Our main concern was our platform, which is approximately 12” aft, but it narrows down to only 4” going forward. The flat area we were working with was really rather small.
Geoff at Airhead got back to me immediately and asked for more information about our space back there. I did some more measuring and created this rough diagram for him.
Geoff, before he even knew we would be a customer, took the time to create a CAD drawing showing various configurations where he thought the Airhead, with the “hull shape” on the back (to match our slanted hull), would work.
These diagrams gave us confidence, but it was still a tough call to make because you cannot really tell whether the composting head is going to fit nicely in your head until you remove the old toilet. But, you don’t really want to remove the old toilet until you know … It was a bit of a Catch 22. But, we had a friend who owns a Catalina 28 (the one we helped deliver back in 2017) who had just made the decision to swap to a composting head and he let us “play around” with his (man, that sounds awful) by holding it up in our current space.
It looked do-able, so Phillip finally gave me the go. We ordered our Airhead to have it in time while we would be in the shipyard this past summer and could do the install. Annie’s first solo job when we hauled out was to remove the old head.
“I’m all over it!” Shipyard Annie said!
Thankfully, the old toilet was far easier to remove than I imagined. Day One at the shipyard, even after we hauled out, dropped the rudder and removed the engine exhaust elbow, there was still a couple of hours for Annie to get this beast off. I was thrilled to find it was only mounted with four bolts on the bottom plate and there is a hose that goes to the pump (to pull raw water into the bowl, which, like I said, we never did because we heard it contributed to smell).
And, while we, of course, pumped out entirely before we headed to the shipyard (and filled the tank with water and pumped out several times, like we always used to do when pumping out), but what we should have done was head out in the Gulf one day and run loads of water both through the toilet to the holding tank and from the holding tank out the macerator. That would have been the smart way to do it.
I never said we were smart. While the tank was as empty as we could get it, both the hose from the toilet to the tank and the tank to the macerator and out the thru-hull were not. Disconnecting the toilet from the holding tank hose and working with a Shop-Vac to “contain the spill” was not a fun day for Annie at the shipyard, but damn if I didn’t get it done!
Yes, I was that excited enough to dance with a toilet! It was a glorious day on Plaintiff’s Rest! To celebrate, I might need a little privacy … ; )
We’ll miss ya Jabsco … said no on ever!
The spot where the old toilet had been was stained a bit green from the rusting pump, but it cleaned up easily with the Magic Eraser. Thank you Mr. Clean!
This was the first time I could sit the new composting head in its resting place without the old head in the way and I was confident we were going to be able to make this work!
That was an exciting day, when I could finally set her in place and see that she fit! She fit! She fit! All of that worrying was done.
The Airhead was a little tall but not alarmingly so. I was excited to get the rest of the shitty stuff off the boat and continue with the install. Phillip and I spent a fun Saturday on the boat at the shipyard disconnecting the tank. Our holding tank (25 gallons) sits underneath, ironically, my side of the bed, on port under our vberth. Try to guess how many hoses were connected to the tank.
Five. Five stinky hoses: 1) intake from the head, 2) pump-out to the deck, 3) pump-out to the macerator, 4) overflow over the side of the boat, and 5) air ventilation up at the bow. Five hoses were pulled off the boat. And, I’ll spare you the details, but the one down to the thru-hull was the worst. Yuck. Nuff said. This here was a victorious moment on our boat!
The holding tank is gone! That’s a giant Annie “Whoo! Hoo!” right there. We also took off the macerator that day and all of the hoses. Many of our days at the shipyard looked like this. You eat when you can and work from sun up to sun down.
Alright, with all the crappy stuff gone, it was time to get back to the install. Our first step was to fill the old holes on the floor with a coosa insert (where the hose to the pump came through) and 610 in the others, so we would have a solid leak-free base for our new head.
Happy worker there! Phillip knows I love 610’ing things.
For the floor, I knew we were going to have to build a floor underneath it that would extend out to support the urine bin. Geoff at Airhead and other composting head owners had advised the bin could not hang off on its own, it needs floor support. I used construction paper first, then cardboard to make a template for Shane with Perdido Sailor at the shipyard to cut a nice, bevelled piece out of starboard.
Shane did a really nice job cutting the starboard. Brandon liked to call it our “potty platform.” Ha!
It was a perfect fit. Although we knew we (well, I mean, I, Phillip is banned from caulking) was going to have to caulk the seams to prevent water from coming in beneath the floor piece, but it didn’t need caulk for security. That thing was a perfect fit.
The next step was positioning the head exactly how we wanted it and mounting the brackets.
Then we could pull the protective paper off of our starboard and see what a nice clean look Shane had created for us.
Once the toilet was mounted, our next step was ventilation. This turned out to be the trickiest part of the install for us. Like I said, primarily because of the way we chose to run it (or hide it, I should say) in the old ventilation channel that was for the propane water heater that used to be on our boat. We removed the water heater when we got the boat to meet insurance requirements, and we’re happy to heat our water in the kettle when we want a nice toasty below-decks spa experience! Our water heater used to reside in what we call the “shower caddy,” a rather large (and very convenient) storage locker in our stand-up shower, which is just aft of the head.
The heater was vented through a tube along the shower wall up and out the top of the boat through the deck in what I called a “stove pipe.” A not very pretty metal contraption, that Phillip and I have both cut many a toe-on over the years, so we were happy to see it go! You can see it in the photo here. Say “Hi!” to Hanna Banana. And, yes, it was such a hideous rust-bomb we had a cover made for it to both cover it up and keep the occasional water we knew was getting into it.
We decided to replace it with a solar fan on top, which looks much better, and this would actually double-up on the ventilation, with two fans pulling the air out.
Unfortunately, when we pulled the old stovepipe off and started digging around we found a significant amount of deck rot where it had been leaking. We knew it had, and that was the reason we had the cover made, but we didn’t know what damage it had already done. But c’est la vie. If you find rot, you have to fix it and stop the leak. It made this project more tedious, but it felt good to catch a problem on the boat and remedy it before it got worse. And, remember, I love 610’ing!
We put a tube and a half in there. The rot extended back a good 3-4 inches on one side, 1-2 on the others. There was a lot of digging! But we got it filled in nicely and flushed up the seam and we were ready to install our new solar fan. We also chose the solar fan because it creates a watertight seal to the deck. Another biggie in the composting head install is a guarantee water will not be able to get into the system through the ventilation. If water gets in, it messes up the composting and can lead to … I’ll just say “swampy” results. So be sure you have a watertight seal for your ventilation to the outside, or build in a “p-trap” shape into your hose to make sure water cannot get into the composting system.
As I mentioned, our install was likely a bit more tedious than others because we wanted to route the ventilation system through old channels (so we would cut as few new holes as possible) and hide as much of the hose and ventilation system as possible. In most installs, you will simply choose a place out the side of the hull or through the deck where you want the ventilation to run, cut a hole for your fan cover and run the tube to the fan. Voila. Airhead has some great install videos on their website here.
Notice the very visible hose going up. It will then be connected to a fan they have mounted on the ceiling of the head where they cut through the deck and mounted a cover for the fan to vent out.
In ours, we planned to run the vent hose from the composting head through the bulkhead to the shower stall, under the shower bench (to hide the hose into the shower caddy, where we hid the fan as well), and then run through a decorative piece on the wall that previously funneled out our propane exhaust and served as a shelf in the shower for soaps, shampoo (well, not for Phillip ; ), razors, etc. This was our plan for running the ventilation:
The hose will then run up to the fan in the shower caddy.
I’m pointing to where I planned to install the insect screen. Airhead is adamant about this. The screen is needed to keep insects out. If those little buggies smell your “stuff” you are venting overboard, they’re going to be very attracted and try to find any way possible into the system. If insects get into your composting unit, well … good luck compadre. I hear it’s very smelly and must be dumped immediately and start again. You must keep the insects out. You cut the hose in an area that is easy to access and screw the male part on (the hose is self-threading which is handy) and glue the female end on.
You then check this occasionally to make sure the insect screen remains clean and clear, allowing airflow freely out but no buggies in! This was our plan, now all we had to do was implement it. Attaching the vent hose to the bowl was no big deal. Just a little PVC glue and a flap to keep the hose in place and an o-ring to contain the air. But, I’ll warn you do NOT spill that blue and purple wonder glue. It stains instantly!
I brought Shane in to cut the hole through the wall because … well, I probably don’t need to explain that. It’s a beautiful wooden bulkhead and hole saws are not my thing. I always spin out of control and make an absolute mess (yes, even after I realized you have to have a pilot drill on it). Out of the entire install, this was only the second time we brought in an expert, mainly just to make sure, aesthetically, we got the result we wanted: for both the hole through the wall and the floor plate.
I then ran the hose through to the shower caddy and began the fan install.
I did that one all on my own and I was quite proud of it. We even ran the wire through the old propane hose (for chafe protection) back to the battery bank under our galley floor and I wired it up. We put a fuse on it (as it will likely run for extended periods of time when we leave the boat) as well as, what I call “plug-and-play” connectors. It was either these or a switch so we can turn the fan off at some point when we want to. Say, when the head is empty and we will be leaving the boat for a few months. These connectors are tucked away in the locker so an easier plug-and-play install, rather than a pretty switch, was fine with me. This is the pic I sent Phillip when I first turned on the fan.
“This blows!” said Shipyard Annie.
The biggest monster we faced with this project was this guy!
Frankenstein! Thankfully, we probably won’t see him again for decades (I hope) as he will be fully hidden under this piece.
But, getting him to fit and stay put was an uphill battle. We tugged and wrestled that thing for weeks before we finally found an odd rubber PVC fitting at Home Depot that we beveled at the top to match the angle of the ceiling.
Then Brandon finally gave us the good idea to secure the weight of the PVC with zip ties. But, making sure this beast stayed put and in the exact right position for our decorative cover I can assure was not easy and took many days of cursing and sweating in the head. I’m not kidding. That’s what lead to my “Can you see evidence of Annie?” in the head post!
But, we got her done! Here is a video of me walking through the complete install:
Once installed, the Airhead folks recommend you do the “toilet paper” test to make sure the fan is in fact pulling air out of the system and overboard.
Check! It was really cool to finally finish the project and have the new head installed. We could tell instantly (even before using it) that the simplicity of it, omitting so many other systems (a manual pump, a macerator, a Y-valve, tanks, hoses, clogging flaps, etc.), was very appealing. It’s just one self-contained unit that vents overboard. That is all. Annnnd, it allowed me to clean and paint all of those lockers that used to be smelly and avoided at all costs. This is where our holding tank hose used to run forward to the vberth and where our Y-valve for pump out overboard or through the macerator was. Where this once was stinky and shunned, it’s now white and fresh as a spring daisy!
This locker that I’m painting (behind the head where we keep toiletries) was where the old overflow for the holding tank ran. We actually decided to change our sump box discharge from down the head sink to this fitting so it can now get pumped overboard and allow us to now close all sea-cocks (including the one for the head sink) when we leave the boat for extended periods. Again, this proved to be a better use of old channels leftover from obsolete systems. Win-win!
This was where the holding tank used to be. It’s quite a large locker. And where the smell used to emanate from this area anytime you simply lifted the vberth mattress, it’s now odor-free and slapped with two fresh coats of Bilgekote. I love Bilgekote.
We built a cover for the wash-down pump in there in case things we stow in that locker go to knocking about … because that never happens on a boat, right?
We’re excited to see what we can fit in there. Maybe the genoa? If not Stormy McDaniels, our storm sail, for sure. Maybe all of our paper towels and toilet paper? And, at the very least, a shit-ton (no pun intended) of coco bricks for our many seasons in the tropics! But now we will no longer be traveling with a turd tank and we’ll never have to pump out again. We’re stoked!
I hope you all have enjoyed the post about our swap to a composting head. We’ve only actually used it a couple of weekends on the boat but have been very pleased with the results so far. I will post an update as we get about six months or so in. But feel free to shoot many any questions you may have if you are considering making the swap, too.
And, for those who have already made the swap, inquiring minds want to know: What do you now keep in your now fresh and fragrant holding tank locker? Do tell!
This is it! The post you all have been waiting for. Now that the stringers under our engine are repaired, it was time to get Westie back in place and aligned so we could tackle one of the projects we were most excited about this year: PAINTING THE ENGINE!
Phillip and I have had Westerbeke-red visions dancing in our head for weeks. The thought of having a completely leak-free (or even just less-leaky-than-before) engine that would be bright, shiny red, ready to point the finger vigorously and immediately at any leak really pops our corn. Phillip and I were both super excited to get Westie assembled, all cleaned up, and ready for a few layers of sweet Westie red. And, as many of you have asked us about this process (this was probably the most commented-on post from our shipyard Facebook photos), we wanted to share with you all the process in case any of you are thinking of doing the same. To be honest, this paint job, while probably one of the most visibly-rewarding of our projects this summer, was by far one of the easiest.
First, let’s talk a little about why we wanted to re-paint the engine. While a fresh coat of paint would, as I mentioned above, greatly enhance our ability to spot and troubleshoot new leaks from the engine, I later learned this was not the primary goal. What were we really trying to accomplish in cleaning and painting our engine?
As Brandon with Perdido Sailor explained, the number one thing to really rob years of life from your engine is corrosion and decay from rust. Phillip and I were definitely seeing evidence of that in the layers of metal that could easily flake off of our engine, primarily on the backside where it is the greasiest and near the water pump where it suffers the most rust corrosion. This part on our engine, the cradle support on the back, had probably suffered the worst of the rust, so Brandon devised a good plan for us to take the rust head-on and prevent further decay.
Let’s talk a little about this product: POR 15 Industrial Rust Preventer
It’s a three-step process for cleaning metal, prepping it, then painting a rust-preventative coating on it, which chemically bonds to the metal, before the final paint. We special-ordered it from Amazon so we would receive it in time to apply to the cradle before it was time to re-assemble the engine.
That was the plan anyway. Phillip followed the instructions to a “T” using the cleaner, then the prep, then the POR paint, followed by Westie red. We also woke early and were at the shipyard before 6:00 a.m. that day to apply the POR before the humidity rose in the heat of the day. Living in humid, muggy Florida, this was one downside of the product:
POR-15 is cured and strengthened by exposure to moisture and will dry faster under extreme humidity, but moderate to dry atmospheric conditions are most desirable when applying this product, because extreme humidity may cause an immediate surface cure, trapping carbon dioxide gas below the surface. When this happens, bubbling may occur. Extreme humidity at the time of application may also interfere with proper adhesion of the POR-15 coating to metal because it’s almost impossible to keep metal dry under such conditions.
Yep, you read that right. If it’s applied in too humid of an environment, bubbling can occur. For us, bubbling certainly did occur.
Just a few scrapes with Brandon’s knife and both the red and the POR were flaking off back to pure metal.
We’ll have to call this attempt an epic fail.
But, we’re determined sailors. With reassembly of the engine scheduled for the next day, Shipyard Annie was sent in to try and remedy the damage to keep us on track. It was either spend the day stripping all of the paint off of this beast manually (including the areas of mega-bonded POR that did cure properly) or—Option B—whip out this toxic devilish serum for a chemical strip:
Have any of you ever used this product? I mean damn! It will peel the paint off your nails. That stuff was super intense. But, it was our quickest option. Phillip picked up a similar brand from the auto parts store and Annie set to it.
The minute I started slathering it onto our cradle, the paint started hissing and bubbling in violent (albeit futile) revolt!
It literally took me 12 coats of this acid with scraping in between to finally get the POR to let go. Everyone at the shipyard said it looked like a murder scene!
It was also a little painful too. Even through gloves, after multiple applications, the toxic aircraft paint remover began to make my hands feel cold at first, then they started in with a painful tingle. I was honestly worried I might be unknowingly inflicting permanent nerve damage on myself. I checked with the guys at the yard to be sure and they said it’s painful but temporary. So, my murdering continued and finally we were back to bare clean metal for another attempt at the POR.
Brandon helped supervise this time and we applied it initially in his air-conditioned, somewhat-enclosed shop area. (He has what I call “butcher freezer” plastic flaps that hang down, keeping the room cool for the guys but easy to come and go with tools, paints, whatever in your hands.)
Even with Brandon helping with the application we were still getting a little bubbling at the shipyard, so I took the pieces home to our fully-air-conditioned apartment for the final coat and the second time around resulted in a solid cure of the POR under the Westerbeke red.
That piece was easily the hardest part of this job. After the cradle was in place, and the engine reassembled (with a successful alignment check by Brandon and Shane), Phillip and I were finally given the go-ahead to paint. Say it with me: “Whoo Westie Hoo!”
Our first step was to clean the engine thoroughly with Zep. That is some awesome de-greasing stuff. Perfect for this situation. Simply spraying Zep on and rinsing alone took off the majority of our oil and grease for painting. This is the difference in the engine from merely dirty to clean.
We then scraped off any paint that was ready to jump ship. Our goal was to get as much bare metal as we could exposed so we could start fresh with primer coats there before the final red coat.
Our next step was prep. Shane with Perdido Sailor gave us a good tip to cover all of the hoses and wires and other fittings on the engine that we did not want painted with aluminum foil. It was nice because it was easy to work with and would wrap around pipes and fixtures and (for the most part) just hold itself there, which made the prep work much quicker, albeit still a good three hours. We were also careful to tape and cover caps, dipsticks, the throttle and shifter cables, the intake, etc. When we were done, we had an odd-looking foil monster in the engine room.
Then it was time to paint. A follower on Facebook captioned this photo Boat Project Magazine’s August Centerfold. I’ll take that! : )
On Brandon’s recommendation, we started with green zinc chromate on all areas that were bare metal (which were a good bit!). The fumes were pretty intense in the engine room so we donned a mask and goggles. A follower later recommended I probably should have thrown on a Tyvek suit for skin protection, which would probably have been much smarter. We’re told the chemicals in that zinc chromate are pretty harsh. If I start growing a third eyeball, I’ll let you all know. But, you can see the green areas in the photos below.
Outside near the Perdido Sailor shop, Phillip was also painting the heat exchanger before we put it back on as well.
The next step was a grey primer over the green zinc.
The fumes were pretty intense, particularly down in the engine room. But with a mask and goggles, the job wasn’t too bad.
Finally everything was ready for our favorite shade of red. And, I can’t tell you how many times this awesome scene from Kinky Boots was repeated at the yard when we were getting ready to start spraying the Westie red! I mean “Reeeeeeddddd” (with a hiss).
“Red is the color of sex! And fear. And danger. And signs that say “Do not enter.”
But, all of our signs say “Yes, indeed, do paint!” Let the Westie Red fly!
Now you see grey. Now you don’t!
Yeah baby! We were tickled red to pull the foil and tapes and drapes all finally away from the engine and admire her new coat. I dare say Westerbeke red and Bilgekote grey are my new favorite color-combo.
Westie sure does look good! Not only will we now be able to easily spot and trace all leaks of oil, water, or coolant, our engine also now has been given a few more years of rust-free health that we hope to continue. Brandon recommended after we run the engine for 5-6 hours once we’re back in the water, which will give it time to “burn the paint off,” that we then spray the whole engine down generously with anti-corrosion to continue with our rust-prevention plan. It will feel good to know we’re taking steps to proactively fight the rust down there.
But, one word on our prep, in case any of you are planning to paint your engines too. We did not prep near enough. While we did cover everything in the engine room that we did not want to be forever converted to Westerbeke red, and we did drape what I felt like were an exorbitant amount of sheets around the engine area, what we failed to do was successfully contain the red dust that fumigated from our engine room while we were painting, the entirety of which traveled all over the boat. Read that again.
All. Over. The. Boat.
Look at these photos here. I have circled the areas that are coated with a pink dust.
When we finally pulled all of the sheets and looked around, the entire boat, going forward to the bow, had a fine layer of pink dust on it. Thankfully—knock on a freaking jar of acetone—that stuff dries so quickly that by the time it was airborne and ready to drop, it was merely a powder that could be wiped off of the floors and acetoned off of the gelcoat.
Meaning, we did not permanently stain our entire boat pink for good. But, we should have done a much better job of somehow “caging” the entirety of the air around the engine room. Perhaps with more sheets taped over and above, or plastic drop cloths taped all around. I’m just pontificating here because we sure did not contain it enough. We probably should have had better ventilation to pull the “red air” directly out of the boat through a lazarette and draped and taped that exit hole as well. Thankfully, while we were able to remove the red by wiping the wooden floors with a wet rag and all of the gelcoat inside the entire boat with acetone, this did not make it an easy or quick job.
The fans, in particular, took a while to clean because they pulled so much “red air” through them.
You can see in this photo the red sheen on the gelcoat. Each section like this—particularly the sections that were textured like nonskid—took about 15 minutes to wipe clean. We turned twenty rags red just from wiping our boat down after our poor prep job for the engine paint.
The good news is, we had planned to wipe her down regardless—bow to stern—as we always do when we have all of the soft goods out. So, this wasn’t too much of a setback for us, but definitely an extra day of cleaning we added to our own list by not covering as much as we should have for the engine paint job. But, lesson learned for sure.
Our engine paint project, however, did not stop with painting our engine. We had planned from the start to also add bright LED lights in the engine room after we completed the painting and replace our old engine room insulation, for several reasons. One, our old insulation was all rag-tag, duct-taped-on in multiple colors and always falling apart, crumbling, and making a nasty black mess every time we accessed the engine.
We primarily wanted to remove it because it was filthy. And, two, we were sure in that crumbling condition it was not performing at its optimal heat-and-sound buffer capabilities. We also wanted to install engine room lights so we would have excellent visibility in the engine room without having to hold flashlights in our teeth. (Okay only Annie does that, not Phillip, but I would like to break the habit.) The entire goal with this mini-engine overhaul was to make our engine run better, cleaner, and better enable us to work on her, troubleshoot, spot leaks, and repair issues underway. So, cue the lights!
Phillip installed one on the front of this bulkhead over the engine, as well as on the back.
We also installed a third, larger one, that runs bow to stern, rather than athwartship, in the engine room itself behind the engine. Phillip was sure to install them all in a way that the “on” switch can be reached from our easiest access point, the front of the engine in the galley. I can’t show you the big one in the engine room, yet, because it will ruin the NASA insulation reveal. Savor the intrigue!
For the insulation, we ordered four boxes of big thick rolls of Soundown insulation from the internet along with their sealing tape, and this became an exclusive Annie project.
While some of the pieces were easy to template, others were not. These pieces under the sink were rather large, and mostly square, so I started there, with construction paper templates first, then cutting pieces out of the insulation.
This monster, though … I can’t tell you how many days at the shipyard I found (mostly legitimate) reasons to avoid starting on this wall. With all the wires and mounts and stuff, it seemed impossible to template. It was hard enough to rip the old insulation out of there, much less make a precise pattern to put new insulation in.
But, a project will never get done if you never start it. So, I bucked up one morning and set to it, first with construction paper taped together to (in hopes) make the entire piece out of one template. This was my awkward masterpiece.
I had no clue if it was actually going to squeeze in behind the small gap in the gadgets and wires I had created to work construction paper through, but Shane and I gave it a shot. His words as it slid into perfect position: “I’m going to lose my damn job!” : ) That was a really cool feeling for me. Never had I done that before, but I’m confident I can now lay down engine insulation with the best of them.
But, that was just the initial “mounting” (I will call it) of the insulation to the bulkhead with the 3M 77 adhesive spray. The tedious and very time consuming “seaming” of the insulation is what had me down in there for hours upon hours. Shane told us the trick to keeping this insulation in good shape is to prevent any water entry into the foam. You do this by tediously taping every exposed foam seam. This often takes layer upon layer of tape (much link shingles) to get the tape to push the foam down, wrap, and hold. Let’s just say I went through a lot of tape. We also secured the insulation with screws and fender washers, and I was tickled platinum pink with the results. Our engine room now looks like a NASA launch pad.
And, what do you see there? Our new 21” LED light in the engine room. Lighting up the insulation like a Christmas promenade. It is quite the dazzling display down there now. Westie feels like a show horse at the County Fair. I feel bad for any drop of oil that even thinks about inkling out of our engine. Like a prisoner trying to escape from Alcatraz, we’ll shine a spotlight on it so fast he’ll run back to where he came from and never come out again. There will be no leaks from this engine people. Nada.
Hope you all enjoyed the engine projects. Guess what’s next! Our swap to a composting Airhead. That became a bit more of a puzzling project than we had initially anticipated. Trust me, all of this weirdness will make sense soon!
What do you think I’m installing here? Give it a guess! And stay tuned!
And you thought you were going to get to paint the engine today. Silly you! I thought I would give you guys a flavor of just how frustrating some of these boat projects can often be. If Phillip and I could just wake up, list one thing we wanted to accomplish on the boat that day, and actually be able to do it—just by sheer will—we’d be some might happy boat-owners. But, no matter your will power or persistence, what you are able to get done each day on the boat is dictated entirely by what the boat has in store for you. What’s hiding inside that project? Maybe it’s hidden deck rot. Maybe it’s a thirty-year bolt that’s bonded for life. Maybe it’s a piece that breaks upon removal. A bad design. Faulty wiring. Failing parts. Only the boat knows. And she will only tell you once you roll up your sleeves and get your hands in there.
Get in there people!
Our goal that particular day was to do exactly what you all said you wanted to see: start the engine paint project. All that stood in the way of that lofty goal was aligning the engine first. Typically that’s not too bad of a job. A couple of hours turning bolts and checking with feeler gauges. “No problem,” we thought. “We’ll be painting by noon.”
The boat had other plans. This was one of those surprise projects we hadn’t planned for. Projects beget projects …
You see, it’s not often a boat owner aligns his engine. I would imagine some never find the need to do it during the course of their ownership. But, anytime you remove the prop and re-insert it, you have to realign the engine to within the tiniest thousands of degrees. To be such a rugged, hearty engine, it does have a delicate side. Or so I’m learning.
I’ll be honest I did not know at first what this is. Do you?
It is an engine mount. And, while that title seems totally self-explanatory (“Ahh, they’re used to mount the engine to the boat”) I still did not know precisely what they did. Turns out, they are adjustable. These are precisely how you align the engine. You adjust the engine mounts with many tedious quarter turns to align the engine so the prop has a perfect straight shot to the transmission. As many of you have noticed from our photos, some crazy nut put our engine in backwards. And, don’t worry, I’ve heard all the jokes: “You can only go forward in reverse!” They are rather funny, but with this set-up we have two engine mounts on the forward side of the engine—one on starboard and one on port—and a single engine mount in the center of the cradle on the aft side of the engine.
You can see the engine mount here on starboard in the far left corner of the photo:
In the back, we have a cradle that supports the engine with a mount in the center:
I’ll bet you can imagine engine mounts that have been sitting undisturbed for some time don’t like it when you start shoving a wrench around their neck and trying to twist them. They respond like Oscar the Grouch. Much like the one stubborn bolt on our steering quadrant, we had one engine mount that simply would not let go. And, of course! (Because this is how the Boat Gods show they really love you!) Luckily we had engine mount replacements for the two forward mounts, which were still serviceable but pretty far gone, the one mount we did not have a replacement for was the one that was giving us trouble. The Aft Grouch!
Shane with Perdido Sailor tried many times to get her to budge, but she was bonded for good. So, we were forced to order a new mount from Westerbeke (which put us behind another four days on aligning the engine). Now, are you starting to feel me on the boat project frustration? But we were trying to keep the optimism.
“No problem,” we thought. “Just a small delay.” But, when Shane started to remove the engine from the stringers and raise it up on blocks so we could install the new mounts when we had all three, this happened:
Another rotten stringer! I mean …
Shane was actually reluctant to tell me because he knew what we had gone through the last time we found rotten stringers on our boat. I guess if you want to ever consider yourself lucky when you’re facing what may seem like a very bad boat problem, take comfort in that moment knowing if you ever face that problem again, you’ll know exactly how to solve it. The easiest project to do on the boat is one you’ve done before. Because you already know all the mistakes not to make this time around! When Shane asked me if I wanted him and his guys to get on the rotten engine stringer repair, I said: “Nope. I’ve got this one.”
As many of you may recall, back in 2015, Phillip and I discovered the stringers under our mast step had been rotting for some time. Enough so that the mast was crushing its way down into the boat with a visible bump showing in the stringer just under the mast step. This is what launched our extensive “Hard Times on the Hard” season of footage in the shipyard when we spent three months on the hill repairing our rotten stringers, replacing the rigging, and doing about a thousand other things while we were there. That stay at the yard is what easily prepared us for this comparatively short period on the hill (only 4.5 weeks this time, as opposed to 3 months back in 2016).
Russ with Perdido Sailor and I worked side-by-side for a solid week carving all of the rot out of our stringers under the mast, cleaning and smoothing the work area, creating thick way-overbuilt coosa-board fillers and laying down 163 (yes, 163!) pieces of glass into the backbone of our boat. She’s now stronger than ever. If any of you have not yet seen that project, I put together a great montage video below for Brandon showcasing the repairs, or you can watch the detailed videos (Part One and Part Two) I created for our YouTube channel, or scroll through the photos below.
That was a … monster job. But one that we tackled alongside the guys at the yard. And, Phillip and I learned a great deal about structural repairs and fiberglass work while we did it. While it was definitely not fun or cheap, it was undeniably necessary to repair the boat and highly educational. And, it has started to pay for itself over time. Because you know who handled the repair of this rotten stringer portion under our engine?
While the guys at the yard were great to set me up with the right tools and supervision, it turned out to be a project I could totally handle on my own. (Which to be honest, just felt pretty fucking cool.) Once I started digging into the stringer, I found it, thankfully, was not rotted the entire way through—just a portion which, no surprise, laid right underneath our raw water pump.
Before we replaced our Sherwood pump with a Johnson a couple of years back, we had battled leaks from our raw water pump and rebuilt and replaced that Sherwood several times with still no luck. We put the Johnson pump in in 2017 and haven’t had a drop down there since. But, Sherwood had already done his damage. However, I was pleased to find it was just a small portion of the stringer.
I will say, just like our stringers under the mast step, these stringers under the engine were not glassed on top. This just baffles me. So, the vertical surface where water will probably sit and where bolts will likely be drilled into—that area—you’re not going to glass. Just the sides and leave the top as fresh, exposed wood? While I love our boat and most of the design features, these stringers left un-sealed and exposed on the top was just not a good idea. But, c’est la vie. I’ve said my peace. It is what it is. We had rot. I had to fix it.
I showed the boys at the yard the amount of damaged wood I was able to pick and scrape away and I recommended I then cut a square portion out that we could replace with coosa inserts (much like we had done with the rotten stringers under our mast) and glass them in to build the stringer back up. Once I got the okay, I was set to work.
The hardest part of this job (and it was a very uncomfortable four-or-so hours for me squished and sweaty down in the engine room) was cutting out the square notch. There is just not a lot of room down there and the configuration forces some very hard angles of your body and wrists in order to accomplish square cuts. Plus, that marine plywood (when it is not compromised by rot) is some pretty dense stuff. It took a while with a Ryobi handheld blade and an air blade saw to get it knocked out, but I did it!
I then made templates (beginning first with construction paper) for the coosa inserts. I made Phillip cut the coosa (as payment for my services down in the engine room ; ) and they ended up being a very nice fit.
Our first step (again, much like we did with the mast step stringer inserts) was to “butter them up” as Brandon says, and glass them into place.
The next day I floated some of the gaps with 610 for a nice flush fit.
Then Brandon had the good idea to make a batch of resin and use a syringe to inject it down where the fiberglass walls of our stringers had started to pull away from the wood and then clamp them back to the wood for rigidity. This is the port stringer, which did not have rot, but we still needed to glue the fiberglass walls back into place:
Brandon also recommended we then lay a sheet of glass over everything over to seal it all up, allowing no more water intrusion.
I will say I got some props from the boys at the yard for handling this one on my own (and on my own time, so my own dime). I was quite pleased, as well, with how it turned out.
Shane helped us to cut and lay glass on the other stringer as well, just for added measure.
It truly is amazing he fits down there, but I can’t tell you how many times he went up and down the ladder and squeezed himself down there to do hours upon hours of work. “Think small thoughts,” he was say, jokingly, as he made his way down.
And, very much Brandon-style, Brandon recommended (while we already in there glassing) to go ahead and add two extra supports on the front of the engine near the transmission to help keep Westie extra secure. Do any of you know what these support beams are called?