Monday, February 17, 2020

Power of the Sun

As I eluded to in my last post, there is one project, or upgrade, that made the list along with the repairs, and it is something that I had wanted to do since before we built the hardtop. When Doug, my crew that came to help out with some of the repairs on the boat, came up with a system that wouldn't cost too much more than the fuel I anticipated we would use with the generator on the trip (at Bahamas prices), I decided it was a worthwhile investment.  I'm, of course, talking about adding solar power to the boat.

SoelCat 12, an autonomous solar electric catamaran
No, this is not my boat.

When I was designing the hardtop, I intentionally moved the sail viewing window forward just a bit in order to allow for the larger size panels you often see in residential applications as well as building in wire chases that could be used for solar.  At the time, getting panels for around $1 per watt was a very good deal.  Now the power output has increased and prices have fallen and you can get 320 watt panels that should put up with the marine environment for under $0.60 a watt.  He also found a MPPT solar controller that was getting pretty good reviews for $150.  A couple lengths of 6 gauge wire from the controller to the batteries, the special 10 gauge wire for hooking up the panels, a couple breakers, a wire gland for sealing the wire chase hole in the hardtop, a special tool for installing weatherproof MC4 connectors on the wires, and a couple other odds and ends for installation and I'd get "free" power from the sun.  Since Doug would be passing nearby the solar panel supplier on his way to the boat, it would also save me the (not insignificant) shipping cost for the panels.  The whole system would end up costing me around that magic $1/watt number that used to be reserved for just the panels.

The first step in the process, after getting all the materials to the boat, was to drill new holes in my beautiful hardtop.  Having worked so hard on that top, I had mixed emotions about drilling 5 holes for each panel in it...but if I wanted solar it had to be done.  We brought one of the panels to the boat, attached the mounting brackets to it, and marked the four mounting hole locations for each panel.  We carefully determined where the middle of the wire chase was on the underside of the top and marked the larger hole for the wire chases.  Using my drill guide, I drilled oversized holes until we reached the bottom fiberglass skin, cleaned them out, filled them with epoxy (the top is foam cored, so I needed to create a sealed "sleeve" for the holes that would also act as a compression post to tighten bolts), and drilled the smaller final size hole at each location.  It all sounds simple enough, but this is a boat project so we had to fight weather, wait for epoxy to cure, as well as other issues so making the holes ended up taking 3 or 4 days to complete.

Carefully locating the center of the wire chase.

While waiting to complete the holes in the hardtop and get the panels mounted, we installed the solar controller, breaker, and wiring from the controller to the battery bank.  The solar controller and breaker were mounted in the engine room next to the original battery charger for the boat. The wiring was run from the large main bus bars below the main electrical panel (think of a bus bar as the extension of the positive and negative posts of the battery bank), through the breaker, and on to the controller.  The controller connection was another interesting problem to solve.  Our calculations showed that we should use 6 gauge wire for the charger, but the charger terminals would fit at most a 9 gauge wire (remember the larger the gauge number, the smaller the wire).  Since the controller is rated for 60 amps, it has two connectors for each of the positive and negative battery outputs and the instructions said to run two wires to the battery...probably done to save in production costs of the charger.  Well, I didn't want to double up wires. It turns out if you take a 6 gauge wire, strip off the cover, divide the wire strands in half, and re-twist them into two conductors you end up with two 9 gauge wires.  So, that is exactly what we did to the end of the 6 gauge wire cable.  Marine grade wire cables use thin diameter strands of wire for the conductor (for added flexibility) so it was a fairly easy process. Seal it all up with quality adhesive lined heat shrink tubing and viola, a custom single cable that hooks up to the controller. A few zip ties and zip tie mounts and the cables were installed.

Drilling and filling holes in the hardtop.

Once all the holes in the hardtop were ready, we mounted the solar panels and sealed the top sides of those holes with butyl tape.  We then used an electricians fish tape to pull wires from each of the solar panels through the unsecured gland boxes, the chases in the hardtop, and to the access panel in the top corner of the targa (arch at the rear of the boat).  There we used two Y adapters to connect the solar panels in parallel and ran the resulting single set of wire down the rest of the arch, into the engine room and over to the controller.

Making the custom connection wires.

After wiring the controller up, were now ready for a test.  Of course, we were ready at about 5pm and the sun was a short time away from setting, so this wouldn't be a real test of power generation, but it would be enough to verify everything is hooked up and working.  We flipped the breaker on the battery connection and the controller came to life and recognized it was connected to a 12 volt battery bank.  A few parameters were set in the controller and then the solar panels were connected.  We have power generation!  It was only about 150 watts coming from the panels and a couple amps going into the batteries (I don't recall the exact numbers), but it was proof that the system works.

Solar controller mounted next to the original charger.

The next day we did a second test.  It was fairly sunny and right around noon and....wait a minute.  It was only showing 150 watts from the panels and under 10 amps going into the batteries.  Oh yeah, need to turn off the regular charger and drain the batteries a was doing a constant voltage topping charge because my regular charger was taking care of the batteries while I'm plugged in at the dock.  I used the inverter and a space heater to pull some energy out of the batteries and then tried again.  That's more like it.  Even with the boat sitting so that one panel tilts a bit north and the sun was at best about 45 degrees from overhead, we were seeing 460 watts coming from the panels and 31 amps (at proper charge voltages) going to the batteries. Yay!

Data from the Android App.

I finished tidying up the wiring and checked the connections with my non-contact thermometer to make sure there wasn't any resistance causing heat build up.  We then reinstalled all the access panels and I glued down the wiring glands on the top so it is again waterproof.  The only thing left to do on the install is figure out some sort of skirting for the panels so lines don't accidentally get hung up under the panels.

Panels Installed except for line deflection skirting.

In the days since the initial install, I have run a number of other tests and found that, as long as I'm not running electric heaters or air conditioners, the setup seems to keep the batteries charged.  Of course the real test will be sitting at anchor when I have to use the inverter (or...shudder...the generator) for 120 volt AC service. 

I also found a glitch in the solar controller.  It was rarely going into its float charge state.  I contacted their technical support (which only seems to be available via e-mail) and found that the charger has a hard coded value for the switch over point from topping charge to float charge and doesn't take into account the recommendations of most of the battery manufacturers or size of the battery bank.  For most solar installs that have loads that take power most of the time, this isn't really an issue as charging time is limited by sunlight hours.  The only time it comes into play is when the battery is fully charged and there isn't a load (like a boat in storage). I was informed that, at the price point of the charger, the manufacturer would not change the programming of the device to better align with the lead acid battery manufacturer recommendations. Fortunately there is an easy work-around by simply setting the controller to limit the charge voltage to the lower values used for float charging when the system isn't actively used.  With the WiFi feature of this controller, it is easily done.  Not the ideal solution, but good enough for my purpose.

Overall I'm happy with the result.  One of the things I really hated was to have to start the generator in an otherwise peaceful anchorage in order to recharge batteries.  With this addition, I hope I won't have to do that very often.  Not having to burn fossil fuels in order to produce energy is also a good feeling.

Friday, February 7, 2020

If it ain't ain't a boat

Work on boat projects continue.  Spending a bit of time on the boat, we've run across a number of items that were, after two years of sitting alone, were need of repair or replacement.

Things like interior lights and the stereo are not really mission critical systems, but enhance the utility and enjoyment of the boat so they are getting replaced.  The water heater, also not critical, was leaking our fresh water supply so it obviously needed to be repaired or bypassed. The sump pumps are a bit more critical, so they too required attention. The dinghy, aka the family car, is a must have as basic transportation.
The installed new water heater

New USB/Bluetooth stereo
Something I seem to have forgotten but have definitely been reminded of is that it always takes longer to do a task on a boat.  Cramped spaces, a rocking platform, limited tools and supplies, the "creative" solutions of prior owners or maintenance people and the weather all play a part in slowing down what would be an easy task on land.  On Youtube there are many helpful videos on maintenance, but the videos are usually shot in a nice studio with plenty of lighting and the part in question (usually a brand new example of the part) sitting neatly on a bench.  I would love to see a video where the demonstrator was busting their knuckles on bulkheads and other sharp objects trying to access the part...then I'm sure the videos would be much longer with a lot of "colorful metaphors" being beeped out in post production.  They would also be more of an accurate representation of how the process goes.  Oh well, at least there is some instruction available. about you demonstrate on mine...
...and I consider this pretty accessible. The mounting
screws are right behind the big waste hose.
One critical system that was questionable was the standing rigging.  The wires that hold the mast up and make this a sailboat are pretty critical as you definitely don't want it to come crashing down while on passage.   Weather had been playing a part in delaying the inspection as one doesn't want to be freezing and flapping around in the wind while attached by a rope to the top of the mast.  About a week ago, I was finally able to go up and do an inspection.  Unfortunately, what I found only confirmed my fears of what I thought I had observed via binoculars from the dock.  There was some surface corrosion (which in itself isn't necessarily bad), but there was also some rust lines that follow the strands of the wire (called candy caning as it looks like the twisted stripe of one), a small amount of pitting, and a few small bulges in the thickness of the wire.  The latter are indications of corrosion taking place in the inner strands of the wire.  So, it looks like replacement is necessary for safety.

Yeah, gotta replace those wires.
Trying to measure the rigging so I can order replacements is also not the easiest of tasks.  Ideally, the mast is unstepped and the rigging cables can all be taken to a shop, measured, and replacements constructed.  Since there is no place nearby where I can get a crane near the boat in order to take down the mast, we will be doing it once piece at a time while the mast remains standing.  This means ordering the cables with special fittings on one end so the cables can be cut to the final length and the fitting installed at the dock.  Doug, the crew member that graciously offered to come down to help, and I took turns going up the mast in order to get the measurements.  Thanks to the weather and some technical challenges in measuring wire paths while dangling nearly 60 feet up in the air, it took two tries over three days to get the measurements done.  But we did get them and were now armed with enough information to order replacements.

Inspecting the rigging on a less than ideal weather day

Doug took a selfie up the mast on a nicer day.
Previously, primarily as an overabundance of caution, I had looked into replacing the rigging.  What I had found was that some riggers were unable to even source some of the parts required and others were unable or unwilling to work with the special cable used to rig the boat (swaging fittings on compact strand wire is more difficult due to the "compactness" of the cable).Being the DIY type of person (if you aren't DIY, you had better be rich to own a boat) who wants to cut the rigging to exact length and install boat-side, I am also looking for swageless terminals to avoid the swaging issues.  Looking into sources for rigging, I quickly ran into similar problems.  I currently have a call in to the original manufacturers of the rig and it sounds like I may be able to get the parts directly from South Africa.  I've been told, if they have the parts the turn-around time on an order should be under a I just need to figure out what it will take to get it half way around the world.  Unfortunately, communications have been slow with them.

While I await answers on the rigging, a number of things are getting done.  The two manual emergency bilge pumps were disassembled, cleaned, reconditioned, and are now effectively pumping water.  All the winches have been serviced.  The dead stereo has been replaced with one that now supports bluetooth streaming as well as USB thumb drives for music sources. A newly discovered glitch in the refrigerator was researched and "repaired" by simply exercising the thermostat control.

Not everything is repair.  I finally came up with a design for a simple replacement dodger that deals with the issue of strange angle of the mounting of the main sheet winches.  I was even able to get a good deal on the Sunbrella material needed to make the dodger and get other items ordered.  There is one other project in the works, but I'll save that for another post.  It is something I had planned to do a while ago and I think it will be of great benefit for the trip.

So, the work continues...but hopefully I'm seeing a light and the end of the tunnel and am really looking forward to some relaxing time in the Bahamas.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Fixin' Things

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't have called this blog "Fixing my boat in every location" as I think the majority of my posts deal with boat maintenance and repair.  And this one will be no different.

Having been unable to get out to the boat for almost two years left the boat gremlins plenty of time to break things.  I was actually fairly surprised that I haven't found more problems, but still have more than enough to keep me busy.  Fortunately one of my crew, Doug, joined me a week ago and he has been a great help as we tick things off the list.

As previously mentioned, one of the bigger items I found during my initial inspection of the boat was a leaking water heater.  Doug picked up a new one while en route to the boat, saving both shipping time and cost.  A few days ago we removed the old water heater and installed the new one.  A quick pressure test and....oops, forgot one hose clamp.  A second pressure test with the hose clamp installed and all is well in the fresh water system again. 

Of course, the leaking hot water heater did do us a bit of a favor by showing us that the electric bilge pump in the engine room was not working.  We discovered the float switch had broken free of its mount and was...well...floating.  After pumping about 14 gallons of water out of the bilge, my crew member was gracious enough to volunteer to work on that project (and having spent a lot of time in that engine room, I was happy to take him up on the offer).  He diagnosed that the problem with the system was that the float switch was not working as well as needing a new mount.  We decided to construct a new mount that would allow for easier maintenance, similar to the mount in the port engine room.  The new switch is now held securely in a new mount behind the engine where it belongs.

Mid "MacGuyver-ing" the new float switch mount.
No, the final version uses bolts and not electrical tape

I would like to say we gave the old water heater a fond send-off...but this thing has now tried to burn down my boat and sink it.

Mr. Broken Heater, meet Mr Dumpster.

Another maintenance item related to fresh water system was to clean and sanitize the fresh water tanks and lines.  This is a relatively simple, if not time consuming process of pumping the existing water out of the fresh water tanks, filling them up with new water, adding a little extra bleach to the mix, and running that solution through all the pipes.  Over the course of the past week and a half that was done (211 gallons is quite a bit of bleached water) and, after obtaining a new water filter for the under sink filter, the water on board is deemed once again safe.

We have had some wins in the maintenance department as well.  Another bilge pump, the main one in the port hull was inoperative but after disassembly and cleaning, we were able to get it running once again.  The raw water pump for the main reverse cycle air conditioning unit was also not working, but after removing the pump head, cleaning it and giving the motor a few spins by hand to free it, it is again among the working systems on the boat (a good thing it is 28 degrees F outside as I type this but much warmer in the boat with the unit running in heat mode).  I even found a good deal on the replacement float switch.

So, things are coming along and the boat is getting back into proper shape.  Due to the cramped spaces and difficulty sourcing parts the projects always seem to take longer than you think it should, but definite progress is being made.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Back In Southport

I really thought I would update the blog more as the Bahamas trip came together...but alas I seem to be out of practice with blogging.

In any case, the trip to the Bahamas is a go.  Due to a variety of reasons, the scheduling of the trip was pushed out to the beginning of this year. I have found crew to accompany me on this adventure.  Technically, there is still one slot available if a person or couple wants to fly to meet us in Georgetown, Exuma, Bahamas and make the return trip, but otherwise the crew is set.

I made it back to the boat on January 5th after three long days of driving from Colorado. Overall, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised with the condition of the boat.  Yes, it is in need of a of the tasks that I have not managed yet...but for it having been almost two years since I was on the boat, it wasn't in too bad of condition.  Thus far there are only a couple bigger ticket items found.  The dinghy, having baked in the Carolina sun for a couple years, seems to be beyond repair.  Not a huge loss, as the slow leak and shoddy repair from the prior owner made it a bit annoying at times.  The hot water heater appears to be leaking.  Don't know if it froze or if it was just time for a replacement, but we can't be leaking our limited fresh water into the bilge.  The other question is the standing rigging.  From the deck I've noted a little discoloration in a few of the strands, so further inspection is warranted.  There have been a number of smaller things like a couple interior lights and stereo (not good) that were not working, but overall still not bad for being mostly ignored for two years and encounters with a couple hurricanes.

I've been working on getting the boat back into shape.  Cleaning, inspecting, repairing, and getting everything back into cruise condition. One of the crew will be joining me on the boat later today to help out with repairs and recommissioning.  We also have one new project to help make the trip more enjoyable while reducing our dependence on diesel.  We are adding 640 watts of solar.  The arriving crew member did a ton of research and found some exceptional deals on marine grade parts.  If it goes anywhere near plan, the whole system will cost under $1 per watt.  When I was building the hardtop and looking at solar, $1 per watt was an exceptional deal for just the panels alone...much less the controller, cabling, and hardware to install it.  Having the option of not firing up the generator in the evenings to recharge the batteries will be a welcome change.

So, that is where I am with the boat and the trip to the Bahamas.  Maybe I'll get a bit better about posts going forward...but the push will definitely be to get the boat ready and head south.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A 3 Hour Month Tour

"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale..." a tale of a potential misunderstanding. It has come to my attention that my last post about the Bahamas trip may not have been as clear as it was in my mind.  So, to avoid confusion, I will try again.

At least a couple people have thought that the length of the trip I was trying to put together was in the 6 to 9 month range.  That is not my intention.  The time window I have to make the trip is between 6 and 9 months (sometime in October or November to the beginning of June), but the trip itself will not be that long.  Although I may be crazy, even I'm not crazy enough to believe that most people have a free 6 to 9 months to spend sailing the Bahamas. My goal is to spend a month or more in the Bahamas with the total trip length being up to 3 months from start to finish.

I also know that many people do not have the ability to take 3 months out of their lives to go on a trip, so I am perfectly happy to split up the trip into multiple segments. I believe many of the islands have airports and/or ferry services, so it should be possible to embark or disembark at several locations. Since I have two cabins available for guests, there is also room for some overlap here (or if someone wants to do the whole trip while others cannot). Obviously priority will be given to those who will be available for the larger passage segments (from Southport, NC to Florida to the Bahamas and/or the return).

Right now the big unknown is still the schedule. I have a family trip planned for next month and I won't be able to get out to the boat until after that.  I have a caretaker looking after the boat in my absence and reports are that it is doing fine (engines were started and checked just moments ago in fact), but I assume there will be at least a few things requiring my attention when I get there.  This is just part of life when you have a vehicle that sits in one of the more corrosive environments on the planet. Of course this means that the boat could be ready to go in a week or it could be more than a month and I'll only really know that once I do get out there. Naturally, once the boat is ready, the other variable will be the weather. The winter months tend to become a bit tricky with regard to weather windows. Thus having some flexibility in travel dates is key to joining this adventure.

Of course, I can't expect flexibility from others without having some myself.  So, I'm happy to work with others schedules within that time window as well. I fully understand that Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays fall within that time window and many people will have family obligations, so sliding the start and end dates is not a problem (I may return home and come back out to the boat later if needed). I am also open to suggestions as to where the crew would like to go while in the Bahamas, etc.

If you have already contacted me, do know that I have added you to "the list" and will send out an email to that list in the coming week or two.  If you have not and this clarification has you thinking you may be interested or able to join the adventure, please let me know soon so I can include you in the discussions.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Rebooting The Dream

Well, I could apologize once again for the lack of posts, but it is getting old and tired and I think you all understand there is very little in sailing related stories that can be told from Colorado...particularly in the winter. But I do finally have some news to share...and perhaps an opportunity for someone with an abundance of free time and desire to travel by sailboat.

As you probably know, we tried to sell Rover after moving back to Colorado.  Unfortunately the closing company and broker we used when we bought the boat failed us during the original sale and we did not discover this issue until we tried selling the boat. The combination of this fact, being so far from the boat, and frankly my lack of enthusiasm for selling and we still have her.

One of the original plans that we had when we set out cruising was to make it to the Bahamas. The idea was that trip would be an adequate first real test to see if we would like the longer term cruising lifestyle. Of course, this never happened.

Photo by Gregory Culmer on Usplash
So why am I telling you this...well...I'm reviving the idea of taking the boat to the Bahamas. I still have the boat and I put in all that work on it so I might as well....right?  The only problem is that I'm lacking a crew.  While I have found that I can single-hand the boat, it is much easier to have additional hands to take watches and to help with docking or anchoring.  Besides, a trip like this is far better when shared.

Image by PublicDomainPictures fromPixabay
As of now, I don't have much of a plan for this trip, but as they say "cruising plans are written in sand at low tide" so even if I had one it would likely continue to change. Right now the goal is for me to return to the boat in September or October and spend some time getting the boat back in shape.  I'm not sure how long this will take, but I hope she will be ready in November if there aren't too many surprises. The time window for the trip will be sometime from the time the boat is ready until the start of hurricane season the following June.

Image by buckeyebeth from Pixabay
Once the boat and crew are ready, the trip will start with a cruise down the east coast from North Carolina to southern Florida. From there it is a wait for a weather window to cross the gulf stream to the Bahamas.  Spend a month or three exploring some of the various islands of the Bahamas, then use another weather window to return. Depending on time and weather (and any potential new anchoring restrictions in Florida), we may also spend a little bit of time in the Florida Keys.

The swimming pigs at Staniel Cay
Image by Lisa Larsen from Pixabay
Photo by tavius on Unsplash
In the past when I've looked for help moving the boat, I tried to find people with at least some sailing knowledge since I was paying for room and board while aboard the boat and the goal was to complete the task of re-positioning the boat.  Well, that worked out well at times and other times it did not.  I realize I don't really need people with sailing knowledge or experience for this trip. I just need folks that are honest about their abilities, willing to learn what little I will need them to know to help out with the boat, have a somewhat compatible lifestyle to mine (since we will be living in relatively close quarters - imagine a very small "3 bedroom" apartment), and want to spend some time seeing what it is like to live on a sailing catamaran. The right person/people will also need to be flexible with time, have a passport, and want to spend some time in the beautiful islands of the Bahamas.

Bahamas Lobster and coral. 
Image by Paulo O (Creative Commons)
I'm sure you might be wondering how much a trip like this would cost.  Unfortunately, that is like asking the question "how long is a piece of string".  A lot of it depends on your lifestyle.  I'll provide the boat (two double berths available), cover the costs for any boat maintenance, the first tank of diesel (67 gallons) and other durable supplies.  We will split costs for food and drink on board, stays at marinas, customs and cruising/fishing permit (currently a flat $300, but theoretically changing in 2020) and other group related costs. You would be responsible for getting to and from the boat, your own restaurant and bar tabs, and any other personal purchases.  So, depending on how well we provision the boat before we leave, how much water and diesel we use, and how much time we spend at marinas and restaurants and bars, the costs can vary quite a bit.  I will only say that I'm pretty flexible as far as food and entertainment goes and am happy to anchor out and sail as much as others desire to help keep costs down.  If you want to get an idea of how much this type of trip may cost, you can Google "cost to sail the Bahamas" to get an idea. All I can really say is this should be significantly cheaper than a similar land-based stay in the Bahamas and you will have the chance to go places that are not accessible to those staying in one of the resort hotels.

What the accommodations look like.
Images and videos available at The Boat link.
Does this sound like something you would be interested in doing?  If so, shoot me an email (the tool at the bottom of the right hand column of the blog can do this if you don't already have my email address). Someone able to complete the whole trip would be ideal, but I'm happy to entertain different people for different segments of the trip if we can find others to fill in the empty slots. I'm posting this here first to give those that are following my blog the first chance at this opportunity before I post it on some of the crew wanted sites.

Rover at No Name Harbor...where many people make
the hop to the Bahamas.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Goodbye Dear Friend and Companion

This past Monday we had to say goodbye to our eldest four-legged crew and family member Madison.  After her cancer diagnosis in August we knew this time would come but it still does little to prepare one for it.

Madison entered our lives in 2004 when she was about 8 weeks old. We adopted her from a local rescue and she has been a part of our family ever since.  For 15 years, she was a wonderful, adventurous, smart, loyal, and occasionally mischievous companion. She enjoyed playing in the yard (including chasing cats and squirrels out of it), our daily walks when I worked from home, hiking in the mountains, camping, car rides, and food.  One vet once described her as the most food motivated dog they had ever known.  It was an easy choice to cook special meals of steak and lamb for her the last few months.

Cruising seemed like a natural fit for her.  Getting to see new sights and smell new smells was something I know she liked.  Being able to lay out on deck while the house moved to a new location was something she really seemed to enjoy.  I guess it was like both laying in the yard and going for a car ride at the same time. Although she wasn't a big fan of water (or at least baths), she did like playing in the surf with her brother.

Having moved back to Colorado, we had access to one of the premier veterinary cancer centers at Colorado State University. While her cancer was found too late to cure, they were able to provide her comfort and make her last months with us more comfortable.  Thanks to their efforts in palliative radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she was able to go on one last family vacation, celebrate the holidays, and celebrate her 15th birthday with us. We are grateful to them for the added quality time we got to spend with her.

In her final days, we took her on numerous car rides and walks. Unfortunately the cancer was making her legs hurt and her breathing difficult so the walks were slow and fairly short.  But, just like always, Madison was a determined and independent dog and she seemed to still enjoy checking things out despite her failing body.  In the end she passed on at home surrounded by those who loved her most, her family.

Fair winds and following seas my dear, sweet, crazy little girl.