Temps are about to drop back into single-digit highs around here, and we are deep in a week of paperwork. A grim situation all-around. A sample of what we’re working through:

Banking. No fewer than three separate cues came at me this week, reminding me to open a Schwab high-yield checking account, with unlimited free ATM withdrawal worldwide. We still plan to maintain a relationship and accounts with our local credit union, who coincidently holds our mortgage, but the Schwab account should allow us easy and convenient access to our cash.

Property management. Not a heck of a lot of folks are actually interested in managing our lone little property, but we have at least one company on the hook–despite their horror of the low price being charged to our current tenants downstairs. For a mere 6% of the rental income, we’ll be able to forget we even have tenants. If the toilet overflows and we are in Cuba, DO NOT CALL US!

Automatic bill paying. Copies of most of our bills will still have to make their way to our accountant next February, so she can pull off that depreciation-and-deduction magic that keeps our taxes so low; but the more we can pay online, the fewer people we’ll need to hire to push papers for us. It makes our Luddite hearts sad, but we’re heading to 100% online bill-paying.

Taxes. Need to schedule that appointment for this year, and make sure we know how to organize everything NOW so that we don’t have to deal with anything from the San Blas islands in Panama. We’ll have other things to do, ok?

Preliminary homeschool supplies. Thanks to budget cuts, our district recently closed their teacher's resource library; they opened up the contents to the public, and we scored big.

Preliminary homeschool supplies. Thanks to budget cuts, our district recently closed their teacher’s resource library; they opened up the contents to the public, and we scored big.

Homeschool. Getting input from various educational luminaries, and narrowing down what we expect to accomplish for our kids. Hopefully pulling the trigger on ordering books and supplies by the end of next week–we’ll let you know where we land.

Health stuff. Dental, orthodontic, vision, general check-ups and immunizations. We’re slowly checking off the list, but it’s quite a few appointments for quite a few people, and some things we can’t quite schedule yet. The UW Travel Clinic has recommended that we venture to Janesville for yellow fever vaccinations, since our insurance won’t cover any tropical vaccines that are not work-related; Rock County Public Health offers the cheapest vaccines, but it will still cost our family over $500 for yellow fever and typhoid. Guess what we’re doing over spring break, kids?

More free books from the district. That should be enough math stuff, right?

More free books from the district. That should be enough math stuff, right?

Passports. Another sneaky expense–over $500 again, if you include the cost of the photos–but much more exciting than a painful shot in the arm.

Insurance. We won’t really be exploring our health insurance options until Michu gives notice; the hospital where he works has experts in the minutia of the ACA, and we need to know costs and coverage of COBRA before we make any decisions, but there’s still plenty to keep us busy on the insurance front. The boat insurance has been renewed, but will have to be changed once we exit the Erie Canal; car insurance will need to be cancelled in five short months; and our homeowner’s insurance will need to be changed to some kind of commercial policy (for which we’ll also need to estimate the total value of what we’re storing in our attic and basement while we’re away. Spoiler alert: not much. Except for the value of all the kid art, which is of course priceless).

Voting. Yeah, we won’t be around for the general election. Absentee balloting in Wisconsin has only gotten more difficult in the last four years. Our current plan is to have my cousin FedEx us a couple of absentee ballots to a marina when they become available. Anyone know why that might not work?

Document organization. Once we’ve procured/updated/amended everything under the sun, it needs to be virtually reproduced and archived, and also physically contained in an organized and official-looking manner–including but not limited to marriage license, birth certificates, passports, name-change documents, immunization records, boat registration, and notarized papers allowing one or both of our children to travel with only one parent. We hear Central American officials are impressed with embossers and official boat stamps….must add that to the list……

Renew library cards. Our library cards are good for three years, and will allow us to download ebooks to all of our kindles, so we want to make sure they don’t expire. We plan on checking this off the list in late May, but I include it here because it represents so perfectly my state of mind. We go to the library two or three times a week–I can see the building from my living room right now–and every trip, in my head, prompts the mantra: “don’t forget to renew the library cards, don’t forget to renew the library cards.” There’s just so much to do; but the small, important, unobtainable tasks repeat relentlessly. Maybe by writing it down I can exorcise it from my brain.

Media. The name of the game here is compression. Pull the dvd’s and cd’s from those horrible plastic cases, cull the duds, insert into binder; better yet, burn to an external hard drive. Copy out the top five recipes from most of these cookbooks; only one or two books can make it on the boat. Organize the online photos, so that not all is chaos when we start dumping 300 pictures of parrotfish into the cloud every day. Stare at bookshelf, realize I WILL NOT read anything on it in the next five months, stick it all in a box in the attic. Except the Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I am totally going to read that on the boat. (Resolve to digitally download the important Shakespeare before boxing up the Works. Public domain, right? And all the Dickens? And Twain? Resolve to spend some time organizing the digital book collection before things get out of control.)

Clearly we won’t be getting through everything this week, but we’ve made a solid start, and at least have an action plan for all of these areas begging to be tidied up. And at least most of it can be accomplished with a steaming pot of tea.

Teapot: 100% coming on the boat

Teapot: 100% coming on the boat

Pack it up, pack it in

I’ve always backtracked through new-to-me blogs, to find the parts about prep. Maybe obviously, since that’s where we are in our lives…but I find it more fascinating that the actual travel sections of blogs, because that prepping part must be The Most Exciting, right? How can you not write at length about sifting through the wheat and chaff of your life, checking off the boxes of bureaucracy, getting everything into straight and even rows before casting off? How is that not fascinating?

Uhm. Not. Not fascinating. Seriously, seriously boring.

Empty (-ish)

Empty (-ish)

We have friends leaving for sabbatical to New Zealand this week; they’ll be gone for six months, and have rented out their house. At the sledding hill, we were commiserating about our desire to just GET EVERYTHING PACKED AWAY ALREADY, versus the reality that, no, you actually need all of those shoes for your life, right up until the minute that you don’t. We’re trying to sort through and pack up as much as possible in advance around here, because we know that May will be a whirl of chaos focused around the boat, and everything we can do NOW on the home front will save us time then. But it is really the least interesting thing in the world.

Full (-er)

Full (-er)

When I do look through other blogs of folks packing up, I feel lucky about our circumstances. We’ll be keeping our house; we own a duplex, with a large walk-up attic, so we don’t have to get rid of all our furniture or rent a storage space. Our apartment is small–just over 1100 square feet for the four of us–so we haven’t been physically able to accumulate all that much. We’ve got a big old basement for staging our boat gear. And since we’ve been thinking about this trip for years, we’ve curtailed our purchases as a family, to both save money and fight clutter.






But we’ve been in this home for over 13 years, and had two kids along the way, so yeah–there’s a lot of stuff. Most of it can’t be packed up or gotten rid of until the end of May. And the remainder is not interesting or fun or exciting to sort through.

Last winter for views like this out of the window...for a while, at least.

Last winter for views like this out of the window…for a while, at least.

Electricity Part 4 – Three ways to fill a battery (mostly alternator)

Persistence. Whether repeating the same tired joke for the thousandth time, or not giving up on a difficult IV start, or relentlessly describing the DC systems on a cruising boat, persistence is a quality that has served me well. I know you guys are eager to move on from the Electricity series to something a little more exciting. “I hear he is an ER nurse, must be some good stories there.” (Yeah, lots of them. Too bad.)

Sticking with electricity.

On Milou we currently have two ways to charge the batteries, and we will have a third installed before we set sail.

Method 1: Plug the boat in and turn on the battery charger.

One of the few items that works and did not need to be repaired or replaced is our trusty Xantrex 40-amp dual bank battery charger. This works well as long as someone else makes the electricity and we have an extension cord long enough to reach an electrical outlet on shore. Obviously, of zero use while not at a fancy dock.

Method 2: Run a motor.

A lot of cruising boats have a diesel generator; Milou does not. Even if someone gave us a generator, I have no idea where I would put it. There is not a lot of extra space aboard. Our motor is a Perkins 4108 marine diesel. It is old. It is ugly. It is a huge hunk of iron. And it is nearly bombproof.


Original set up. The fan thing by my thumb is the 55 amp alternator. Note the location of the Racor fuel filter (white thing with clear bowl full of red liquid).

The 4108 puts out 50 hp, but is governed to 40 hp. It makes electricity the same way your car does, by using a belt to spin an alternator. Milou came to us with a 55-amp alternator, which makes enough electricity to charge our house battery bank from empty to full in about four hours of the engine running at top speed, maybe eight hours at idle. Not good enough. I wanted to be able to get more electricity out of the motor, to make it act more like a generator.

IMG_2481 (1)

Old next to new. Will it fit?

I was thinking around 150 amps to triple the speed at which we can charge the batteries. Balmar makes nice marine alternator, a set-up like that from Defender.com runs around $1500, including a fancy regulator. After hundreds of hours of research, and measuring the available space 10 or 12 times I settled on an industrial Leece Neville alternator. I went with the BLD2333GH. It is 185 amps, but it is the same size as the 160-amp version; also, I stumbled across a new one on Ebay for $230. Of course it was not a simple part trade-out to gain all of that charging capacity. First, the distance between the mounting feet was wider, at 4 inches, and the mounting bolts were bigger 1/2-inch bolts. I spent about $50 at a local welding shop to modify the alternator mount.


Modified alternator mount.

The next issue was that the torque required to turn the 185 amp alternator is a little more then three times the required torque to turn the old 55 amp. The new alternator needs about 12 hp to turn at full output. The single V belt that turned the original alternator wouldn’t have enough contact area to spin the new larger alternator without slipping. I would have to upgrade to a flat, multi-groove serpentine-style belt. I rang up Trans Atlantic Diesels and ordered a serpentine belt kit (along with the parts to convert the diesel from raw water-cooled to closed-cooling–a different story).


First of many times I lifted this thing into place. I had to move the fuel filter aft to make room.

I paid about $570 for the serpentine belt kit, which came with a belt, alternator pulley, crankshaft pulley and a new water pump. The alternator pulley did not fit the alternator shaft and the belt ended up being too long, so I spent another $70 for the right belt and pulley. After spending half a day relocating the fuel filter, I finally had the thing bolted in place.


New pipe for closed cooling.


No room for alternator adjustment.





Then I realized that once the new pipe for the coolant circuit was installed, the alternator–which hinges up and down to allow for belt tightening–only had room to be at “all the way out”.


Almost there!

So, I cut the pipe and soldered in a couple of elbows to bend it around and under the motor attachment and foot (yeah, not perfect the first time: coolant leak). The last thing I needed for the physical install was a way to tighten the belt.


Basic engineering. The inclined plane of a screw inside a turnbuckle is far superior to a pry bar in this tight space.

The conventional way to do this is to loosen a bolt; use a bar to pry the alternator away from the motor; then, while holding the correct pressure on the pry bar, use the other hand to tighten the bolt and hope it does not slip. This is a total pain in the butt. Also, with my decreased room in which to maneuver, almost impossible.

I went and bought a $12 turnbuckle from the lawn and garden section of Ace Hardware. After epoxying some 1/2-inch interior diameter sleeves in the ends of the turnbuckle and modifying one hole on an engine mounting plate, I now have a simple way to dial in the exact correct belt tension.

Now I could fire up the motor and the alternator, securely in place with proper belt tension, would spin around. The BLD2333GH has its own internal regulator-rectifier, which means I did not need an external regulator to change the varying alternating current output of the alternator to rock-steady 12 volts DC. DSC_0321But I did want a way to specify the exact voltage at which the batteries charged, and I also wanted to keep the starting circuit isolated from the house battery. After another 100 or so hours of research I settled on Sterling Power: Alternator to Battery Charger for $330 (I see the price has gone up). This unit tricks the alternator to get the output it needs and charges the starting and house batteries independently at whatever voltage I specify.

If you followed the hyperlink about the alternator and read the brochure on the BLD2333GH you already know that the new alternator is “self exciting”. At this point in the game I did not know a whole lot about alternators. I knew that you spin them and they make electricity. I ran electrical cable from the alternator to the charge unit and from the charge unit to the batteries, then I started the motor… and nothing. No charge. No electricity coming from the alternator to the charge unit. Maybe that $230 eBay alternator was not such a good deal after all.

I removed the alternator for the 12th time (did mention the thing is heavy?) and took it to an alternator shop 30 minutes south of Oconto in Green Bay. The guy at the shop put it on his test bench and, for no charge, assured me the alternator was operating perfectly. It only needed 12 volts for an initial exciting of the field coil.

Me: It's self exciting.
Alternator Guy: Not really, it still needs 12 volts at this terminal. *points at  one of many bolts sticking out of the back of the alternator.*
Me: Oh.
Alternator Guy: What's it on?
Me: A 30-year-old English diesel motor inside of a 30-year-old French sail boat.
Alternator Guy *gets a look on his face like he really has to poop*

Older Guy sticks his head out from around the corner and they both whistle at the same time.  I explain about my trick new alternator-to-battery charger and he is unimpressed. He says there must be some diodes in the charge unit which keep the starting battery isolated from the house battery. The diodes are keeping the alternator from getting the initial 12 volts it needs. Alternator Guy says that I could run a wire from the crank position of my ignition switch to the bolt on the back of the alternator. That way, the alternator gets a little bit of juice while you are starting the engine and is then able to make electricity.

Older Guy, in a quite-non-confrontational-in-the-background way, mentions that on a set up like mine, where Who Knows How Things Have Been Wired, he might use a momentary “on” switch. After the engine is started and the alternator is spinning, you can push a button and give the alternator 12 volts for a second to get it going.

At this point, Milou had been at the dock for the first week of our three-week summer vacation, with my family waiting as I farted around with the alternator. I had a long piece of wire and I ran it from the ignition switch to the alternator. And… the charge system worked! It worked beautifully. This thing really makes some electrons. It took us from 90% to 100% charged after 12 minutes of idling.

Little did I know that my last-minute ignition wire fix had caused some other problems (Rule #1 Always listen to Old Guy). Problems that would delay our vacation for another week and eventually lead to the creation of… The Frankenstarter! But you’ll have to wait for that tragic tale, because remember, people–we’re in electricity here.

Method 3: Solar (you almost forgot about the third, not-yet-installed system!).

380 watts of solar power and a fancy charge controller.

These babies will be installed up high on the new radar arch. In full sunlight, 380 watts divided by 12 volts is about 30 amps of charging capacity. I expect these to put out more like 20 amps in real-world conditions. The solar should pretty much keep up with our energy needs; I’ll let you know how it goes once we are actually using it.

After $1300 spent on an alternator and the parts to get it to turn, we have an engine that is a pretty good generator. Add another $1200, and we will soon have enough solar so that we won’t have to use it.

The Electricity Series is a pretty good overview of the DC electrical system aboard Milou. Up next: the much-anticipated Engine series.

How the nine-year-old is preparing for cruising

Ocean-themed fart jokes.

Ocean-themed fart jokes.

Putting ourselves out there

Did you see the NYTimes magazine article around a month ago about “swatting”? It horrifyingly describes a type of online harassment where SWAT teams are called to an individual’s house. In real life. Like, open the door and face down machine guns. It’s a joke, right? Sooooo funny.

Here we are, world! At Abuela's birthday celebration; photo courtesy C. Blakely.

Here we are, world! At Abuela’s birthday celebration; photo courtesy C. Blakely.

The reality is that being online, in any format–YouTube, Facebook or this here blog–opens yourself up to all kinds of possible abuse, running the gamut from snarky comments to identity theft to credible, real-life threats. So why are we putting ourselves out there?

We are not social media dwellers; we have serious concerns about creating a virtual life for our kids; we like our privacy quite a bit. But: we would not be doing this trip without the existence of family sailing blogs.

When Michu and I met, we both claimed that what we really wanted to do was live on a boat and travel. I remember running into our friend Jo in a restaurant a few weeks after he returned from a circumnavigation, and telling him as much. His response: well, what the heck are you doing here, spending money, when you could be saving it for a boat? Of course he was right; we weren’t serious about saving to go cruising. We had no plan, just a hazy idea about “someday.” And then, the usual pattern–marriage, mortgage, work, kids–became the rhythm of our lives.

During a blessed double-kid-nap one day, without intention or motive, I googled something like “family sailboat cruising blog,” and ended up at Twice in a Lifetime–back when they were Once in a Lifetime. Well, that was that; after reading their entire blog front to back, I was on a mission to read about families cruising, and our fate was sealed: Totem, Del Viento, Wondertime, and the infamous BumfuzzleWindtraveler showed us how to get from Lake Michigan to warmer climes; Toast made us laugh; Knee Deep taught us we didn’t need a $200K boat to make it work.

We’re bad at documenting stuff; we’re hoping this blog will force us to record our trip. We want our family and friends to know what’s happening while we’re traveling. But also, we feel kind of obligated to give back to the place that got us here. There are great, comprehensive resources out there for families interested in getting started with cruising: Beth Loenard, the Pardeys, Voyaging with Kids; but really, every family’s adventure is unique, and we hope ours can inspire other families to break the mold.