Electronics overload

Kindle Paperwhite (times 3)
Garmin GPS
VHF with AIS and DSC
Bluetooth speaker
DSLR camera


In real life, we are not complete Luddites, but all you have to do to know where we’re at is to take a look at our phone. It is not smart. It’s barely intelligible. We have a tracphone, to which you can anonymously add minutes like a criminal, and we share one phone for the whole family.

As we plan for the next two years, however, we are suddenly feeling a need to have 500 different ways to connect with each other, other sailors, the world we’re leaving in our wake and the rest of the anonymous interwebs. Our boat is being loaded down with more computing power than was installed on the Apollo spacecraft; the autohelm alone has more processing oomph than any computer we owned in the 1990’s, and the new camera is smarter than our desktop Mini over there.

How much is enough? At what point can we find balance between the mostly-unplugged life we’re anticipating afloat, and the ability to access weather info when we need it? How often do we really need to check in with our land-life family and friends? Do we need to pay the big bucks for the Iridium GO package, or can we hang with just a WiFi extender antenna?

Yeah, we don’t know. We want to have options, but we need to protect our budget. We need emergency contact ability, but I’m not sure we need eight different avenues to call the Coast Guard. We want to keep friends up to date, but wow, do we dislike Facebook. Mostly, we feel a pressing need to figure everything out right now, because we won’t be ordering an extra iPad in Cuba, or trying to pick up another digital camera in the San Blas islands. We are in the throes of Cyber Monday, and the pressure to purchase is intense.

But really, whatever we have when we leave will be sufficient. Humans adapt. If we don’t have all the toys (and we certainly won’t have ALL the toys), we’ll just use what we have. The best boat to cruise is the one that you own, and I figure that goes for the extra bits as well.

Living room, or sail loft?

Why not both?
Why not both?

Fresh water systems

Stainless, yes! Storage, no.
Stainless, yes! Storage, no.

In the manner of people who know nothing, I spent much time before purchasing a boat worrying about embarrassingly small things. Chief among them: what are the water tanks made of? Are we going to have to compromise on the perfect boat, with our drinking water stored in some kind of weird, leach-y plastic–or worse: aluminum, coated with BPA? (Never mind that the entire boat is essentially made from BPA.) Fortunately, our tanks are made of stainless steel. There endeth the good news.


The water in the little corner of northern Texas where our boat used to live has a distinct sulphur odor/taste that had permeated all aspect of the water systems. The hoses themselves were filled with a rainbow of algae and microflora (possibly microfauna as well. We didn’t test). Inadequate winterizing had burst hoses and wrecked pumps. The tank monitoring systems were corroded and not giving us accurate readings. The two tanks couldn’t be isolated; if one tank was contaminated with salt or diesel or some unknowable water catastrophe, they both were. The tanks weren’t located in our shallow bilge–they filled out most of the storage under our port and starboard settees.

Who thought this was still useful?
Who thought this was still useful?

Finally–the whole system was pressurized, making water come out of the tap just like at home. Sounds good? Actually, it takes electricity to run–in short supply–and wastes water, especially if you have in your tribe Children Unaccustomed to Extreme Water Conservation.

Filter, pump and hoses going in under the galley sink
Filter, pump and hoses going in under the galley sink

The tanks remain under the settees, but most of the other problems have been addressed: new hoses, new tank monitors, new pumps, and death to the pressurized water. We now have two foot pumps in the galley–one bringing water from our tanks, and one bringing water from the outside, so dishes can be washed in salt water (or, for a few more luxurious months, the fresh water of the Great Lakes). We even have an in-line filter for our drinking water.

New hoses everywhere.
New hoses everywhere.

And no, we don’t expect to be getting a watermaker. For those not in the know, a watermaker turns sea water to fresh. It’s magic and sorcery, and if you told Vasco da Gama about such a thing he would slap you in the face. Much as we would love such fancy tech, we will not indulge:
1. So. Much. Money. $2-3000 for the cheapies.
2. Power use. It takes a lot of energy to perform that kind of alchemy.
3. Space considerations. It would be a tight install, to say the least.
4. Cruising grounds. We have no plans to cross oceans. While it would be very useful to have a watermaker when we cruise the Sea of Cortez, we’ll be close enough to civilization to find drinking water.
5. Maintenance. And this is the big one. While there are some great (expensive) watermakers that rarely (expensively) break, they do break, and they are a huge hassle to fix.

New tank monitors
New tank monitors
New access hatches
New access hatches and shut-off valves.

Last night, the temps in southern Wisconsin dipped into the single digits. Fortunately, Michu has already winterized the water systems–with vodka, now conveniently on tap.IMG_2842

Stopgap duct tape

Good enough for Mark Watney=good enough for us.
Good enough for Mark Watney=good enough for us.

Electricity Part 1- Battery box and wiring

I met Milou about two years ago back in November of 2013. It was early in the relationship but even then I knew we were going to have to deal with a lot of issues. One of the big ones was that Milou’s original batteries had been neglected/damaged to such a degree that when I first turned on the battery switch the batteries began to boil acid out through the vent holes and tried to light themselves on fire… not good.

F's cabin. Yeah torn fabric.
F’s cabin. Yeah, torn fabric.
Original evil batteries. Acid. Smoking.
Original evil batteries. Acid. Smoking.






The first thing I did after the boat made it to Wisconsin was remove both of the 135 lb group 4D batteries. I carried them, wet and slimy with acid, out of the starboard aft cabin up the companionway and up to the side deck. At this point I was so mad I wanted to simply drop them 10 feet to the ground below, but Deb urged restraint and John (marina guy) safely lowered them down with his forklift.

It was winter and the boat was three hours away from our home. I thought I would be able to clean up the acid mess and put in some new batteries in one trip. Looking back over my notes, it took four trips.

Almost cleaned uo
Almost cleaned up.
New shelf and temporary batteries.
New shelf and temporary batteries.









I removed all of the burned, acid-soaked wood, which included the shelf the old batteries were sitting on. I thought I would neutralize the acid with some baking soda, which made a cool angry hissing noise. After neutralizing the acid, I coated all of the exposed, burned wood with epoxy. On trip number three I made the new shelf; then I brought it home and covered it with fiberglass so I could install it on trip four.

I was working on this in December, so if I wanted light after 3:30pm I needed to have some sort of battery hooked up. A cruising boat has two different electrical systems, DC (batteries) and AC (extension cord or generator); all of the lights on Milou are DC. I installed two used-but-decent traditional lead acid batteries. We ended up using these batteries for the entire first year on Milou. During my winter boatwork trips, I would schlep a battery home and charge it up, then bring it back to Oconto to use for a weekend. Before I could install new batteries, I had to replace the battery switch and battery cables, as they had all been severely corroded by the spilled acid.

Most boats have two batteries or two banks of batteries, the “house” battery and the starting battery. This helps to ensure that a charged battery is always available to start the engine.  Most boats out there have a switch that looks something like this:


The idea is that you select battery 1 to start the motor, drive around, and when you stop you turn the switch to battery 2. That way, if you blast your tunes all afternoon and run down battery 2, simply turn the switch back to 1 so you can start the motor and head home. If battery 1 happens to be low you can combine both batteries by selecting 1+2. I know exactly how this switch works and yet every time I reach for it I have to think about what I am doing–this switch is not at all intuitive. Added to this, if you start the motor on battery 1 and want to switch over to 2 to charge up the house battery, you will destroy the regulator on your alternator. If you turn this switch with the engine running, an expensive important thing breaks.


I feel that this is a superior set up: three separate switches. I made this board and mounted three simple on/off switches. One switch for the starting battery, one for the house bank and the one in the middle will act as jumper cables if the starting battery ever goes dead.



That was it in the beginning: new shelf; new switches; new battery cables; scrounged-up free used lead acid batteries; and a small 20 watt solar panel to keep the batteries topped off while we were away. Next up is a real snoozer; I call it “energy storage” or “battery chemistry”.