Passage to the Marquesas – a Flashback for the Archives

This was originally run on Sailing Anarchy as a front page story in June 2, 2014, right after we completed this passage. I thought I’d cross-posted it to the blog for posterity, but it turns out I did not. So I’m going to post it here in it’s entirety in case SA ever removes the article. It’s the best summary of the passage experience that I’ve written so it belongs here, too.

Here is the original article link…please note that I didn’t pick the title!


tough enough

Anarchist BJ Porter takes you in a world that you might have always wanted to be in, but perhaps you never should…

For years a part of our plan to cruise was to cross the Pacific to French Polynesia to explore the fabulous cruising grounds there. We’ve been cruising since July of 2012 with our two teenagers, Will (turned 17 on the trip; you may be familiar with him as “Bob’s Intern” from those threads) and Danielle (14). After leaving Rhode Island we spent the rest of 2012 cruising Maine and the Chesapeake then headed to the BVI’s with the Salty Dawg rally in November. The next year was in the Caribbean, riding out hurricane season in Grenada and Trinidad then making our way to Panama at the end of November 2013. After passing through the Panama Canal in December we spent a few months doing some repairs and refits in Panama while until leaving for the Galapagos in April.

On May 15 of this year at 1900 UTC we weighed anchor on Isla Isabela and set out for the Marquesas.

By the Numbers
Total Miles Sailed: 3,008

Miles Hand Steered: 2,702
Departed Isabela, Galapagos: 05/15/2014 1900 UTC
Arrived Taiohae Bay, Nuka Hiva : 05/31/2014 2335 UTC
Elapsed Time: 16 Days, 4 hours, 35 minutes
Average Speed: 7.74 Knots
Daily Average: 186 Miles
200+ mile days: 2
Engine Hours used (including anchoring and approaches): 9.7
Miles Sailed on Starboard Tack: 2

Mistakes and Lessons
The first and largest mistake that was made on this passage occurred not on board during the passage but two years previously in the spring of 2012 when I was completing the fitting out for our departure. One item high on my priority list was replacing the aging autopilots on Evenstar with a new pilot from Furuno. Evenstar came with two old Autohelm 300 processors, one connected to mechanical dual linear drives and one connected to a Whitlock Mamba integral rotary drive. My initial plan was to remove the inadequate linear drives and old processors and connect the new Furuno Navpilot to the Whitlock drive, saving myself the cost of a new drive.

After spending some time reviewing the manuals I erroneously concluded that the old Whitlock drive would not work with the Furuno Navpilot 511, so I ordered an Accu-steer LA100 24V Hydraulic Ram and installed it (with the help of SA poster Anomaly2). It occurred to me that I could keep one of the 300 processors and maintain a mini Seatalk network with a compass, processor, autopilot and controls as a backup. Unfortunately it didn’t all go back together quite right, the drive engaged but it drove the boat in circles and giant S curves. So I made my critical mistake – I figured that I had a brand new state of the art Furuno Navpilot with a hydraulic linear drive that was actually over powered for the boat I’d be fine – my initial plan only called for one autopilot, right? So I put the backup autopilot on the back burner for when I could find a “Seatalk Whisperer” to help me get it all set up.

At the time I had a six page punch down list of prep work and the clock was ticking towards departure. There is a lesson to be learned here, especially since it stayed on the back burner as there was always something else to be fixed and the new autopilot had been working without a flaw.

The Trip
The trip started out smoothly. We were leaving the Galapagos within a few days of some other boats and we agreed on some protocols to join up every night by SSB between the ongoing larger Pacific Puddle Jump and Pacific Seafarer’s net.

Our first day out we had good breeze and covered 192 miles easily. Our weather information had suggested that as we approached the Marquesas the Southeasterly trade winds would go light and shift to the East, so we decided to run as far West as we could until the wind forced us to turn down. For the most part this was our strategy and we stuck pretty well to it, downloading weather GRIB’s every couple of days and confirming with the Routing module we have for MaxSea which actually did a pretty decent job.

Our watch schedule was the same fairly loose one we’d used on previous passages. Will would take the 2100 to midnight watch, I’d take Midnight until 0300, my wife Kathy would cover 0300 – 0600 and Danielle would relieve her for the sunrise watch until people started waking up. During the day with autopilot sailing there was always someone awake and in the cockpit but no tight schedule was followed.

The Problem
We ran into trouble the second night when just after I took over watch at midnight the autopilot started beeping and popped up a “Drive Failure” error. We’d noticed while in our cabin on the prior watch that the LA100 seemed to be straining a little more than usual (it is installed under our berth and can be heard quite clearly). But it just quit on us. The clutch would engage, but then the arm wouldn’t move as the pump made whirring and clicking noises. Kathy joined me and we spelled each other through the night as we thought through what to do.

The next morning we had a family meeting in the cockpit where I laid out the options. They were simple – either turn back and seek a repair, or hand steer all the way to the Marquesas. Turning back would mean hand steering 300 miles back to the Galapagos, then hand steering another 900 miles back to Panama or mainland Ecuador since the Galapagos is not an excellent place to ship things or get work done.

The other option was pretty straightforward, we’d have to set up a more aggressive watch schedule and EVERYONE would need to take time on the helm. Equal time, as much as possible. Watches would need to be two people, one on the helm and one to do everything else – trim sails, fetch drinks and snacks, help watch out and of course take turns at the helm. With no ability to let the wheel go for even a moment the helmsman was limited to what he could reach – the main sheet, the winch buttons (go in, not out…that takes two hands), and a small rack with cup holders and water bottles. With four people on board we’d all need to be on for twelve hours of the day and steering about six of those.

The reactions from the family were immediate – everyone wanted to press on. We’d spent four frustrating months in Panama dealing with one system failure after another and missed seeing Costa Rica and other places on our “to visit” list because of the horrible timing of the things that had to be repaired. None of us could stand for one second the idea of going back to Panama. Both children solemnly agreed that this was what they wanted to do, and they were willing to pitch in and do their share.

The new watch schedule I drew up tried to meet a few new goals – give everyone a six hour block to sleep, put the adults on the core of the night watch, give Kathy a clear window to secure dinner, and of course make sure we always had two people in the cockpit. The six hour sleeping window also meant everyone had to take a six hour block on. The theory is that the two people would split helming duties, and the not-driving watch stander could catch up on some sleep in the cockpit.

Hand Steering
So that is what we did – we stood watches and hand steered. There were certainly a lot of changes with daily shipboard life. We did less fishing, since a “Fish On” drill usually took a couple of extra people to deal with slowing the boat and wrestling the fish on board. Having all of us awake and alert in the cockpit at the same time was a pretty rare occurrence, so some of things we normally enjoy like listening to audio books to pass the time went by the wayside. Everyone was more tired, everyone was a bit sore, and all of us had some adjusting to do.

The Low Speed Chase
With a handful of boats traveling in a loose pack there was some fun each night comparing positions and conditions. As one of the later starting boats we were behind everyone, but we gradually overhauled everyone on the group except the Hylas 46 that started four days ahead of us – they beat us to Nuka Hiva by about eight hours.

There was a surprising amount of breakage in the small fleet, we weren’t the only ones with some major systems that got over stressed. One boat had a main furler problem and had to proceed without their main sail, another stripped out the drive gears in their jib furler. Water pump failures on generators, spinnaker mishaps, broken halyards – almost everyone had a little trouble. The boat that left after us never got their SSB sorted and we relayed their position via e-mails from them through OCENS.

The Fix (sort of)
After a couple of days of hand steering and ruminating on the problem some, I went back to the books and dug out every manual I had on all the autopilot systems. The one critical missing piece was the Whitlock Mamba drive, I did not have a manual for it and I wasn’t even entirely sure what sort of drive it was at the time. None of the drive types I had on hand were shown in the ‘how to connect’ sections of the manuals, but I noticed that the leads were the same on most of them anyway so I could find a way to get the Navpilot to talk to the Mamba drive. I set to it, and it worked!

For a while. Like three hours. For three wonderful peaceful hours all four of us sat in the cockpit, reading our books and talking with dreams of a relatively normal night’s sleep in our heads. Until the Navpilot started beeping with a “Clutch Overloaded” message.

According to the manuals this message meant that the clutch circuit was drawing more than five Amps. With some help from a friend on land with real internet access we’d identified the drive and he managed to e-mail me the salient points from the manual. With communication limited to Winlink/SSB speeds there was no way to send the whole book. But I knew this clutch was rated for three Amps, and more importantly the four Amp fuse on the Autohelm 300 had never blown in years of use. I connected the Mamba drive back to the Autohelm and it worked; well as well as that setup worked, driving us all over the place and every which way but straight. But the key point is the clutch and drive engaged correctly.

This didn’t matter to the Navpilot. Instead of waiting a few seconds to check with the drive, on any attempt to make it access the rudder including a “Rudder Test” it instantly reported that “The Clutch is Overloaded, Please Check Circuit.” Since the circuit consists of exactly two wires that run from the Mamba drive to the Navpilot processor – well, there isn’t a whole lot to check.

At this point any attempt at a jury rig was pretty much doomed. I actually contacted Furuno support by mail, and eventually even called them on the Sat Phone – they could shed no light on what was happening beyond that “the clutch must be pulling more than five Amps.” Not helpful, and the Furuno tech support bureaucracy needs to be taken to the wood shed for how they handle a “so I’m 1,500 miles from land and my XYZ broke” support requests since it took three business days to get to a technician. Enough said on that.

The Rest of the Trip
The rest of the trip was pretty much without incident. We fished less, but we still had a couple of nice Mahi Mahi dinners. We slept at odd hours, but we all got along and everyone pulled their watch without any more than the usual grumbling about being woken up when the sun wasn’t out. We had good breeze almost all of the way except once. We flew the spinnaker a couple of days and made some excellent progress in spite of the wind going light and East on us. Although half the crew hates the spinnaker with a passion they all bucked up and learned how to drive it because it was The Right Sail.

We did use the engine one evening after a day of flying the spinnaker. The wind had dropped to ten knots from the East and the Pacific swells were running. We were two or three days from arriving, and the prospect of sailing more South than we wanted to while struggling to make five knots on a broad reach while the boat rolled and the sails flogged was too much. We dropped the kite and pointed the boat almost West. It paid off well, after about forty-five miles we found 15-20 from the Southeast and found ourselves shortly after midnight broad reaching along the same direction we had been motoring making 8+ knots until the next afternoon. Not a bad tradeoff if you ask me.

The Lessons
The number one lesson of course is that if you are planning to have something on board as a backup it is no damned good at all to you if you never get it working. The backup autopilot should have been a much higher priority, there were many places from Maine to Trinidad where I could have found someone to help me sort it and of course it appears with hindsight I could have sorted it myself if I took the time. There is absolutely no excuse for not having that thing working when all the hardware was installed, wired together correctly and lighting up. Even if all it could do is point the boat in a straight line it would have saved us untold aggravation and lost sleep.
That is the Big One, and it will not be overlooked again. No system is foolproof, even if it is “over engineered” for the application. If I had a buck for every time I’ve heard “well our product usually doesn’t break like that” well, I’d go out for more nice dinners.

Other lessons include “When You Have New Favorite Lure, Use a Damned Leader” which I offer up to the fish that made off with my screaming pink Smoker Baits “Hootchie Troll” which had literally produced a Mahi Mahi as long as my arm every time it hit the water until some nasty Wahoo or other toothy critter made off with it.
“Get More Music” because even a playlist with hundreds of songs gets repetitive after a few days.
And yeah, this trip was daunting and we did it.

Conclusions
Kids are tougher than you think. Personally I think I have great kids, of course every parent does. But I felt particularly proud of the way my kids handled this adventure. No complaints, no whining, and no dodging – they woke up, did their shifts, took their helm time and just got it done. Anything we needed done, from sail changes to help with dinner and they were there and on it right with us. We all agreed in the end that sure, the trip would have been a lot more fun with the autopilot but it could have been a lot worse. We had good weather and good wind and that means a lot.

And maybe we’re a little tougher than we think too, because we decided not to turn back, but instead to face the remaining 2,700 miles of the trip in spite of the problems we were having.

For the daily updates from the trip and more check the Sail Evenstar blog

Posted in French Polynesia, Marquesas, Nuka Hiva, passages | Leave a comment

Adventures in Woodworking and Soldering

Straight off, I have to disclose that the title of this post isn’t strictly accurate. I don’t really do “woodworking.” It’s more like “woodabusing,” in which I end up forcing, splitting, cutting, re-cutting and usually abandoning what seemed like such a good idea at the time. So I may buy the wood, measure the wood, and cut the wood. But the odds of my producing anything that looks more professional than a kid’s fort in the woods built from scrap wood and corrugated metal are pretty low. Wood isn’t one of my strengths.

I’m also not an electronics guy. I do electricity quite well and can integrate electronic systems, but my experience with making circuit boards, or assembling gadgets that work from scratch out of piles of resistors, capacitors, and MOSFETs (go ahead and Google it, I had to the first time saw it dropped casually into a technical solution) is very, very limited. That I am middle aged and have had typical near vision degradation like many in our fifties,  learning to solder tiny little components to the back of circuit boards is somewhat problematic. Though with two pairs of reading glasses and a really bright headlamp I finally did it.

Meanwhile, back at the Battery Balancing…

When we finished the last post I’d started the balancing. This gave me several days of slack time to work on other aspects of the project while the charge level of each cell slowly crept closer to 3.5 volts. Other than checking the cells periodically, there was little to do with the balancing process. The way we’d set up the batteries – in the empty battery compartment under our bed in the master cabin – it was easiest for us to move from our bed to the V-berth for a couple of days while this happened. Just a small increase the pandemonium on a boat filled with boxes, brackets, and wiring.

Battery Framing

Setting up a couple of the battery frames had convinced me that they just weren’t going to work. Which was unfortunate, as the vendor who provided them had charged us a lot of money for “cutting and assembling” even though they arrived completely unassembled. They didn’t look much like the pictures I’d seen when I decided on this solution, either. But my plan to have the BMS and all its switches and components installed all neatly in a single location lay in ruins.

I began to toy with the idea of building a wooden box within the battery box to contain them. I drew sketches, made measurements, and bought wood. I started cutting the wood.

Bad idea.

Not just the cutting, the whole lot of it. After cutting and fitting and playing with various options, it became clear that there was no way we were going to secure the batteries well enough to stop all vibration and movement.

Part of the trouble is the batteries themselves need to be secured into non-moving blocks. Some do this with steel bands. It was one of the design functions of our almost abandoned metal framing. You also need compression on the ends of the cell groups, to prevent swelling and distortion in the battery cases in the event of a Bad Thing happening to them (overheating, overcharging, etc.).

On the advice of one of our vendors, we tried banding the batteries with really strong nylon packing bands. Steel bands require extra special tools and expense. So we spent a day driving off to an industrial packaging supply shop to get some banding tape, and made these nice little bundles of cells.

Those weren’t, ultimately, going to work. Two bands made nice tight groups and the straps had several hundred pounds of breaking strength and were plenty strong. But the metal connector made it impossible to keep the cell groups installed flush to the wall of the battery box. There would be wiggle room, even if the sides and bottom of the battery box were completely flat and smooth, which they were not.

When I inserted the cell groups into my “nice, compact block”, what ended up wasn’t tight or compact. As I put the boards of the box-within-a-box against the cells, it became clear that I’d need to do a lot of shims and wedges to make things tight. After collecting some wood for this and trying it, the futility of the whole exercise finally struck me. No amount of shims and braces would ever get me what I wanted – firmly mounted, immovable batteries.

When the balancing was near complete, we were back to square one on how to secure the batteries.

My First Circuit Board

Abusing wood and flailing at battery boxes wasn’t the only thing I’d done during the three-day hiatus while the batteries balanced. I also opened up the BMS box and started trying to make sense of the installation.

The BMS is a tiny little black box about two inches by three, with two multi-pin connectors in the back. It comes with the connectors, the “optical isolators” for inter cell communication, and some wiring. Everything else is pretty much a la carte. I’d worked with the vendor that sold the Emus BMS to provide all of the equipment I’d need. This included the power supplies, the relays, the contactors, switches, fuses, and the “cell monitors” that are also made by Emus. He’d also recommended “active balancers”, which are devices outside the BMS that help maintain cell balance.

I opened my boxes and started my inventory of parts and bits, trying to match them to the wiring diagram and invoice manifest provided by the vendor. Most of them lined up, but a few puzzled me. One of the more vexing, which wasted a couple of days time, was the DC-DC power converters.

On a 24V boat like Evenstar, dealing with 24V to 12V DC converters is nothing new. Many boat bits just aren’t made at 24V, so I’ve had to deal with converters with systems from the refrigeration to the NMEA 2000 instruments. You get a little box with four wires on it…two for 24V in, two for 12V out. You wire it in and forget it. That we needed a 24V-12V converter is a subject of another rant; suffice to say that what we got was I suspect what was in inventory, and I believe a 24V based system (which would have made sense for us) was a special order item.

What I didn’t expect was something that looked like this:

There were “board ready” DC-DC power converters. What they were NOT was “user ready” as a power supply. To top it off, I’d been charged $120 AUD each for these tiny 30W power supplies. Discussions with the vendor were fruitless…we needed “isolated” power supplies, and these were special orders and couldn’t be returned.

For about $103 AUD I could have gotten something like this, which would have been adequate to run the whole show and has 100W of power, not 30W.

Little holes for wires, no soldering. 3X the power.

Needless to say, when I found out what I could have ordered a “board ready” power supply for myself (a lot less than $120) and that I would need to find a way to mount, wire and rig these things the whole process made me a little hot under the collar. There may have even been a discrete bit of foul language dropped.

But I owned the stupid things, and I needed two power supplies to make it work. One supply dedicated to the BMS and its functions, and one to run the relays and larger contactors.

It took too many trips to Jaycar (a store that is what Radio shack used to be before it turned into a retailer for RC toys and modular connectors) to sort this, but I finally did. Initially, I purchased some of the wrong things, like a breadboard (useful for prototyping electronics, but not for permanent installation) instead of “Vero Board” for the circuit, and a box that didn’t fit everything.

 

Vero boards are quite handy things. You can cut them to size, and the provide a number of continuous bus strips you can use to electrically connect your project.

Eventually, after the second or third trip to Jaycar, one broken vero board, and several false starts, I learned how to solder circuitry to a board and built this:

It looks cheesy and I don’t trust it, but it works. There’s even a cover…

This was the sort of thing that would have taken an experienced electronics hobbyist a couple of hours to do, and this person could have gotten everything sent mail order and right on the first try. For me, it wasted a couple of days.

I still may buy that pretty blue box for $103 AUD, because I don’t really have much faith that this thing will survive in the marine environment in the long haul.

Installation Inspiration

About the time the batteries were nearing balancing, I’d reached the hair-pulling frustration level about how to install both the batteries and the BMS in an acceptable fashion. When the balancing finished, it was time to fish or cut bait and I had to move.

Kathy hit the solution. There is a settee next to the bed with some space under it. She suggested that I could fit the BMS components in there if I could get the wires to reach. There is also a space at the corner of the bed, next to the battery compartment, where the main power bus and the negative shunts for the boat wiring all meet. This is between the settee and the batteries and was a perfect place to install the master switches and contactors. So the decision was made – we’d go back to the frames we’d ordered, and we’d install all the components in these two spots. Perfect!

With the batteries balanced, my kluged up power supply complete, and a spot for the equipment located, we were ready to rock and roll on the installation!

But wait…there’s more!

Really, I can milk this for a few more posts; it was a pretty major undertaking.

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Measure Twice, Cut…How Many times?

“No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy”

–  Helmuth von Moltke

If you haven’t figured it out from my posts to date, the initial battery installation didn’t go as smoothly as planned. There were some speed bumps. A few dips in the road. A couple of potholes. A long, lost meandering in the woods, another in the desert, some epic struggles, blood, sweat, tears, and foul language. Lots and lots of foul language.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Nobody actually cried.

But now I sit, thirty-five hours after my last charge, with the batteries resting at 65% remaining. I can live with one percent consumption per hour, that puts me right at the three days between charges I was aiming for.

Arriving at the Marina

The trip up to the marina may have been a harbinger of things to come. With the batteries on a truck somewhere in Australia and a delivery status of Friday, we wanted to make our best effort to be in the marina when the batteries showed up. The fellow that shipped the batteries didn’t think there was much change they’d be there Friday, but the delivery company’s web tracking said that was the day.

Gold Coast City Marina is a fantastic place to do a boat project. There are dozens of marine vendors on site – a chandlery, metal fabricators, electrical shops, shops devoted entirely to stainless steel screws and bolts – a treasure trove for the optimistic Do It Yourself-er embarking on an ambitious project. After we got there, we also discovered they had a courtesy car we could use also, which turned out to be a life-saver.

The one thing it is NOT, however, is right on a big body of water. It is on the Coomera river, which is part of a network of rivers, streams, and canals at the north end of the Broadwater on the Gold Coast. This network actually runs all the way through the space inside Stradbroke island up to Moreton Bay and the entrance of the Brisbane river. But we’re too deep of draft, and there are overhanging wires that are lower than our mast. So we can’t go all the way through. But we can get to GCCM.

The way is long, narrow, shallow and twisty. But that’s not where we ran aground.

The marina office closes at 5:00 p.m., and it’s always good to arrive when the marina is open so you can get things like bathroom keys, WiFi codes, instructions on how to hook up the power, and other useful bits of information for your first night in.

The day we needed to travel, August 4th, high tide was about 6:00 pm. That was an unfortunate time for several reasons. Ideally, when traveling somewhere expecting low water, it is best to travel the lowest bits an hour or three before high tide, if it’s deep enough. That way, if you run aground, the water will lift you off again instead of stranding you high and dry if you run aground on the falling tide. In this case, it meant that we could travel on the rising tide, but we had to leave on the bottom of the tide, at low, in order to make it to the marina while it was still open and we could receive the batteries that were scheduled to arrive. Also, we prefer to arrive when it is light out and a high tide arrival would mean arriving at a strange marina in the dark. So we set out as the tide turned (1:00) for what we expected to be a two-hour trip.

We actually got into trouble where we didn’t expect it, at a spot marked eleven feet on the charts. With our eight foot draft, it should have been a no-brainer. Out of nowhere it started shoaling out. I cut the throttle, but we still hit bottom and stuck. The bottom there appears to be soft sand or something forgiving, so we backed off it pretty easily. But the way north was definitely shut for a while. The upside was, there was a spot nearby where we could anchor while the tide came in that had Wallabies hopping around on the beach that we could watch with the binoculars. So we parked, called the marina, and waited out the tide. All the twisty narrow parts? Those were tense, but we didn’t have any problems and even made it in time to get the bathroom key and WiFi codes.

The Lack of Batteries

What we didn’t have when we arrived was any new batteries. As it turned out, there was some confusion about the shipping slips, and there was one created initially by the shipper and not used, and other one created when he dropped the cells off for shipment. It was the one that wasn’t used that said Friday. We didn’t get the cells until Tuesday. But there were still things to do.

The first step was to figure out how to keep the lights and refrigeration on while we were in the marina with no batteries. One bit of information I picked up from Stan Honey’s notes on his LFP installation was that they picked up a Switched-Mode power supply to run their boat when in marinas. The technical rationale is that LFP batteries do not like to be “float” charged, which is what happens to them in marinas. But a “switchmode” power supply can give a fixed voltage with current sufficient to run the boat’s basic systems.

The power supply was ridiculously easy to set up, and in short order I had the boat running from it instead of the batteries. So over the weekend we pulled the old batteries out and starting puzzling over the Battery Management System and the battery frames. We also had the chargers in a huge, heavy box, but I didn’t want to unpack them because that would then leave this uncrated, awkward thing underfoot and ready to gouge up the interior wood and stub toes. So we left it in the box. This proved a big mistake.

The First Pieces Don’t Fit

My plan for installation was pretty simple. The LFP cells are much smaller than the AGM batteries they were replacing. With the huge battery compartment, once the AGMs were out there would be plenty of room for the more compact LFP batteries and all the extra wiring and system components needed for the BMS and its contactors and switches. Cake, right?

Look at all that space! You could fit a person or two in there. Well, if they were fairly compact. The metal frame there is for holding one of the eight four-cell groups.

The metal frame in the picture is what we ordered to hold the batteries down and in place. It wasn’t actually what we expected. The framing was different, and it was larger.  The cells were not going to end up in a single tight mass of cells, but instead, would be spaced out by a couple of inches from each other in groups of four. You can’t tell from that picture, but there is not actually room in there for eight of those frames to fit. End to end, four of them were about two centimeters too long for the space.

But worse…when you put two rows of batteries in there, there was not really enough room to work with the BMS components. They weren’t going to fit.

I’d measured this stuff, sketched it out, looked at the drawings…it was supposed to work. But the only possible way the BMS components could go in there would be if I installed them first, before the batteries. And they’d be impossible to reach and service once the batteries were installed.

This was a problem.

My initial thought, and that which eventually worked after haring off after some more idiotic ideas, was to simply shave a centimeter or two off of each frame. There was enough extra to do that and still have them provide sufficient support. So Monday morning I dropped the frames off at the metal shop to be shaved down.

Balancing Act

One of the little joys about this project has been the wealth of wildly inconsistent information available about how one should actually do such a project. This allows the inexperienced installer like me plenty of opportunities to agonize over what is the right way, the wrong way, and the workable compromise that I’m going to choose.

One of the tricky things about LFP batteries that I’ve alluded to in prior posts is their voltage. In particular, their lack of change in voltage as they discharge and charge. It changes very little between 80% discharged and 90% charged. Given the sensitivity to overvoltage, it’s important to not overcharge them. If each cell in a bank has a different voltage, the battery charger will stop before the first cell reaches a dangerous voltage. This means all the other cells in the bank will also stop charging, and potentially they will do so well before they are fully charged. If one cell hits 3.5V before another cell hits 3.35V, the lower voltage cell will never get fully charged, and battery capacity can suffer badly.

So the concept of “balancing” your individual cells is an important one. You want to keep the voltages between the cells close. The best way to do this is to start out balanced. So how do you get there?

Well…that depends on who you talk to. My research showed me there was an established (sort of) method to “Top Balance” the batteries to all the same voltage at the full end of the scale. There is also a “Bottom Balance” one can do, but it’s not optimal for a boat bank. This whole topic could be the subject of a 5,000-word blog post that would send most of you running screaming if it didn’t instantly put you to sleep, so I am not going to get into more depth.

But in short, the process I read about speaks to charging ALL the cells to the same voltage at the same time. The trick is in the details. Some suggest doing this on a cell by cell basis. Some suggest wiring all the batteries up in one massive parallel bank and bringing them all to the same voltage together. Where it gets confusing is when I talked to the guy that sold me the batteries, and with the guy that sold me the BMS. They both had entirely different methods to balance the cells that I’d never read about anywhere.

I decided to make one big parallel group of 32 cells, and attach them to a bench power supply. This supply could provide up to 60A of current (in theory) at a specific voltage between zero and twelve volts, exactly. This process would take days, however.

Thirty-two 180 Ah cells in parallel make one BIG cell with 3.6V nominal voltage and 5,760 Amp-hours (32 x 180) in capacity. Assuming the cells were 50% discharged when they arrived, that means I’d need to supply 2,880 Ah of power to them at a constant voltage. My power supply was rated for 60A, but could realistically deliver 50A without overheating. Quick math will tell you that is 57.6 hours of charging if my 50% assumption was correct (2,880 Ah / 50A = 57.6 hours).

When the batteries finally arrived, I cleaned all the contacts, applied a conductive carbon grease to the terminals, and wired them all up in the battery box in parallel. I plugged in the bench charger and…immediately discovered I’d spent hundreds of dollars on the wrong type of power supply. There weren’t enough knobs.

I’d ordered a power supply which had a knob to set the desired voltage but had no knob to control the desired current. This meant it was a “constant current” supply, which would do everything it could to give max current, including lowering the voltage supplied. This was not going to work since the LFP batteries would suck every amp they could out of this thing and eventually burn it out or lower the voltage too low to make it useful.

Fortunately, I was able to get a power supply with two knobs sent to me overnight, and the balancing could being after another delay of a day.

Once the balancing started, I turned my attention full-time on how the heck I was going to fit all the batteries and the BMS into the battery box. I really, really liked the look of all thirty-two cells in a nice, compact block with plenty of room for the other equipment. That’s how they were for the balancing, and it looked good.

I began to consider doing something to secure them with wood. When I start thinking about wood, it always ends badly.

I’ll leave you there for now though with a cliffhanger…much more to come.

Posted in 24V, Batteries, Lithium | Leave a comment

My Bespoke Battery Bank

Apologies in advance for this next series of several posts. I’ve been neck-deep in battery upgrades since my last post, and we’ve not really done much that is all that fun to blog about. So these wil be a bit technical, talky, and without many pictures of cool places or critters. But this too is part of “Living the Dream…”

No, I’ve not grown a large ironic beard and started wearing flannel, nor have I changed my drink of choice to elderflower mojitos with artisal ice cubes. But I did have to Google “Bespoke” because it seems nearly everything trendy these day is also “Bespoke” and it was annoying me that I didn’t know what it meant. Then I realized my battery installation really is…bespoke.

Definition of bespoke

1 a :custom-made

  • a bespoke suit

b :dealing in or producing custom-made articles

  • a bespoke tailor

When you last heard from me, I was descending into the madness of upgrading  my batteries from traditional Lead-Acid technology to Lithium Iron Phospate or “LiFePO4” (or preferably “LFP”, because I am that lazy). Back then, it was research, planning and placing orders.

Since then…things have gotten real.

Status of the Project

At the time of this writing, we’re doing the first full charge of the new battery bank. I’ve installed the batteries into the boat and the core systems are in working order. I wouldn’t say the project is finished yet – I still have a lot of loose ends to tidy. But at this point I can say that I’m pretty sure by now that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an onrushing train. We’re getting there.

We are, however, a bit behind schedule.

We ordered the cells for our battery bank in June, and were told to expect “two to three weeks” until they arriveed. My plan was to get the batteries in, the BMS, order customs framing, and park in a marina for two weeks to get all of this installed and converted. We’d have everything ready and just be tidying the lose ends when Will joined us at the end of July. We could then strike out for New Caledonia and two months of tropical play on his last summer as a student.

The universe had another comment on this plan.

This is literally how the universe reacted when my plans were formalized.

Reality Intrudes

Things started spinning out of control with the delivery of the thirty-two cells that we’d ordered from a local supplier in Australia. We’d decided against ordering directly from China, since we weren’t thrilled with the idea of wiring thousands of dollars off sight unseen to a business there, then taking the delivery and importation on ourselves. So we went with a local vendor, Lithium Power. I link to them because I think that Peter, who runs the company, did a fine job and don’t blame him for the delays.

But the delays happened. There was confusion about where the batteries where, what ship they were one. What routes they were taking to get from China to Australia. But was important, at the end of the day, is that poor Will beat the batteries here by several weeks. So much for fun in the sun and two months of French food.

The exact date of the battey delivery remained fuzzy. We were trying to pin it down to within a week, so we could let the marina know when to expect us. We didn’t want to be late and have the batteries show up without us. But we didn’t want to show up too early, because the Slip Fairy wasn’t going to be leaving any free nights in the marina under our pillows.

We ended up spending a weekend without batteries in the marina, but I took that time to remove the old batteries, start poring over the plans and manuals, and figure out what was going to work and how it was going to go in.

Ordering Up a Storm

Preparatory to the project, I’d had to design the system, which included deciding how much power I wanted (how many cells, what size), how I was going to charge it (we needed more capacity), how we were going to secure the batteries to the boat, and how I was going to keep myself from accidently destroying the batteries once I finished the installation (pick out a Battery Management System).

Don’t worry, I’ll make a nice little table of all this stuff at the end.

“Batteries” and “Cells”

Back to the truly “Bespoke” angle of this project, I had to configure the batteries. When you buy a twelve volt battery for your car, it is in fact a group of six “cells”, each having a “nominal voltage” around 2 volts. Stick six together, and you get a 12V “battery” which is really nothing more than a bunch of cells organized to get a target voltage for your application. Don’t believe me? Go look under the hood of your car…pop open the water fill caps on your battery. There are six….one for each individual cell.

LiFePO4 cells have a Nominal Voltage of around 3 Volts. So instead of sticking six in a group to make 12V, you stick four. In our case, you eight in series to get to 24V. Then have to decide on the capcity – how much power do you want, measured in Amp-Hours.

Be forwarned – I will frequently and sloppily, without regards to your state of confusion, use the terms “batteries” and “cells” interchangeably. Don’t worry…all the math works out the same.

Parallel vs. Serial

Batteries are connected in two acceptable ways that don’t make sparks and smoke. Parallel – connecting the postive and negative poles to each other, or Series, where the positive pole of one battery is connected to the negative of the next and so on, daisy chaining the batteries from positive to negative poles.

The main difference is that connecting them in Parallel increases the capacity, but does not change the voltage. Batteries in series add their voltatge, but capacity does not change. Two 200 Amp-hour (Ah – one unit of capacity for battery storage) 12V batteries connected in parallel makes one big 400 Amp-hour battery. If you take those same 200 Ah 12V batteries and wire them in Serial, you will end up with one 24V battery with 200 Ah of capacity.

So when I say I have to “configure” my cells into batteries, what I am talking about is how they will be wired in order that I get the right capcity AND the right voltage.  You end up with this:

Ignore all those other wires, doohickeys and doo-dads you see for now. I’ll get back to them. You will see this picture again.

What you are seeing there is groups of four cells wired in parallel You can see the bars running between each positive and negative post in the group. Each individual cell has 180Ah of capacity, so each little group is one 3V cell with 720Ah of power.

Then, all eight groups are run in series to bring the voltage up to 24V. If you look at the first group (lower right corner) you will see a fat wire running from the positive terminal of cell 1-4 to the negative terminal of cell 2-1. Then you will see a wire from 2-4 Postive running to 3-1 Negative. And so on – this makes all of these connecting into what whacking great 24V battery.

Once I’d sorted out how many cells I needed, all I had to do then was order them!

The Safety Net

I’ve described the general functions of the Battery Management System in the last post; I won’t belabor it here. Suffice it to say, it is a means to idiot proof to the batteries, in order to keep the idiot in the equation (me) from over charging or over draining the batteries and destroying them. We settled on the Emus BMS, made by Elektromotus, an Italian company.

But you need more than the BMS, the BMS is just the brain, and the eyes and ears monitoring the batteries. It needs hands to turn the batteries and chargers on and off, as well as switches, power supplies, wiring, and so on. Using a series of Relays (electromechanical switches that can be controled by another circuit) and Contactors (pretty much like relays, but with a fancy name because they can handle much more power without melting), the BMS can enable it’s safety features, like turning the boat batteries off in the middle of a movie because it lose the signal from a cell monitor…

So all this, in my view, is part of the BMS even if it isn’t sourced from Elektromotus. They just provide the brain, and some of the monitors and sensors.

Strapping it Down

Vibration and motion is a battery killer. So LFP cells have to be secured so there is as little of each as possible. In addition, since we’re on a boat, there is a non-zero chance that we might roll over. Having all the batteries fall out of the boat onto the ceiling in the event of a knockdown really doesn’t increase your odds of recovering and finishing the passage. So you need something tough.

We ordered some battery frames from the provider of the BMS. They weren’t what we expected and caused some troubles and delays, but I won’t get into that now.

Charging it Up

One of the big drivers in doing this project was cutting down out charging and generstor run time. One way to do this is to increase your charging capacity.

The other consideration for chargers is that LFP batteries are fdickle beasts. They don’t match all the charging rules for Lead-Acid batteries and need to be handled differently. Our old chargers were not going to get it done.

Going to a new high-tech battery with a smary BMS, getting chargers that the BMS could control directly seemed a sensible option. I may come to regret that (more later on that one, too), but the idea that the system responsible for protecting the batteries from over charging could actually control the battery chargers directly seems pretty sound. So we ended up special ording some smart chargers from the states that we couldn’t buy in Australia.

Bits, parts, tools, and wires

Above were the major and easily identifiable components. But when the time came to install all this stuff, there would be need for a constant supply wiring, new tools, a bench power source, and many other items. I’m not sure it bears going into, with a few exceptions (TOOLZILLA!!!). But there have been almost daily trips to various vendors for nuts, bolts, screws, wires, terminators, tooks, fuse blocks, switches, and so on.

There were also a few other semi-major components to get. Once I removed the old batteries we would lose all 24V power on the boat until the new batteries were ready to go. Not such a great idea, as our regfrigeration, house lights, computers and so on work off of battery power. In a slip we plug into shore power, but that still just runs a battery charger for most applications. The boat runs on the batteries for it’s core systems. So I needed to replace that with a power supply. When the batteries arrived, I needed to “balance” the cells with a precise power supply. Another tool…hopefully one we can sell to the next guy trying this project.

Putting it together

There were a lot of things to order.

Item Notes Coming from
CALB 180Ah Cells (32) The batteries themselves China, via Australian retailer
Emus BMS BMS, and associated equipment Aussie retailer
Battery Frames For mounting to the boat Aussie retailer
Smart Chargers CAN enabled 6000W charging USA, West Coast
24V  Switchmode Power supply To give us 24V power for living while we had no batteries USA
Bench Power Supply For the initial battery balancing. Australia

That’s most, but not all, of what I had waiting for me when I arrived at Gold Coast City Marina the second week of August…

That’s All for Now…

I can see people nodding there in the back row, so I’m going to cut this off around 2,000 words and give us all a break. So picture us, at the marina with a load of batteries…because there’s a lot of work to do.

 

We had three crates like this to unload.

Stick around though, because we’re just getting into the meat of the installation. A sneak peek of the upcoming topics to be adressed includes:

  • The frames don’t fit  – a Visit to the Metal Shop Part I  and we have to revise the whole BMS installation plan (delay)
  • The charger is all wrong – missing parts, misunderstandings, rewiring. Visit to the Metal Shop II (delay)
  • The batteries need compression (Metal Shop III) (delay)
  • Letting the smoke out. See “The charger is all wrong”. (delay)
  • By the way, we had a new holding tank installed. (no delay, just chaos)
  • Pandemonium and chaos rule – the daily destruction of our bed and two week relocation of the kids
  • Very Weird Charger Behavior and elusive tech support (see “Letting the Smoke Out) (delay)
  • You too can wire 240V A/C power (or “Electricians? We don’t need no steenking electricians!”) (delay)
  • Marina life in the middle of nowhere and the Life Saving Courtesy Car.

Gratuitous Wallaby

And if you got this far, I will throw you a completely gratuitous Wallaby. You earned it.

The kids took a dinghy to go camping while were where here in the marina. They practically had to shove these little guys out of the way to get into the tent.

Danielle starting the camp fire while a hopeful Wallaby looks on.

Posted in 24V, Batteries, Brisbane, Lithium | 2 Comments

The Wonder and Terror of Lithium Batteries

Welcome to my Research Project

Lithium batteries are a wonderful technology. They are lighter, charge better, and are so efficient.

OH MY GOD YOUR BOAT IS GOING TO EXPLODE LIKE A GALAXY NOTE SEVEN ON A TRANSCONTINENTAL FLIGHT!

You’ll get so much more life out of them, they’ll last for decades and need so much less recharging.

THEY ARE SO COMPLICATED AND EXPENSIVE. No one really knows the technology. It’s really easy to screw it up and destroy your investment. And watch out for that Chinese garbage!

Seriously, you’ll never need another set of batteries if you do this right. You’ll have so much power.

YOU’RE PUTTING THEM UNDER YOUR BED? Are you insane? The technology really isn’t ready.

Welcome to the research I’ve done for the last few weeks. There is, to say the least, a lot of information out there about battery technology. And much of it is alarming, intimidating, and concerning. But most of it is pretty encouraging, if you’ve the stomach for electrical work and a bit of technology.

Apologies in advance for the length, there is a lot of material to cover here and even at that I’ll be skipping a lot of detail. Most of it is background for our choices and why we’re making them.

The Good Lithium

Safety First

Lithium batteries come in a whole range of technologies and mixes. Some earlier lithium batteries were indeed risks for fire or explosion. Safety has been one of the many factors in developing more advanced lithium battery technology, as well as improved battery performance.

We are installing are Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries, or LiFePO4, often abbreviated to LFP. LFP batteries are one of the safest Lithium technology on the market. They are safer than many of the batteries in your house, pocket or purse now.

In the video below, some cells similar to those are installing get put to an intentional destruction test. The cell terminals are shorted, creating one of the most dangerous conditions for ANY battery, regardless of chemistry. In this case, it took thirteen minutes for the battery to “explode”, and it did so with no flames or dangerous fumes. In a real world installation, the batteries will have fuses to prevent this sort of over load within seconds of it occurring.

The next video (in Chinese), several guys try to make some LFP cells blow up or burn. They over charge them intentionally, short them out, throw then in a fire and shoot them with a gun.

Just sayin’…

These are intentional tests to try to destroy these batteries or show they are dangerous. Yes, any battery can be dangerous. You CAN make them pop and smoke by overcharging. it is possible that Lithium, which is quite flammable in its elemental state, could burn and be difficult to put out. But an overcharged Lead-Acid battery produces hydrogen gas…that may be an explosive risk, too. No battery technology is completely risk free.

The Big Performance Win

The main reason to switch to LFP technology is the performance of the batteries. If you read the first part of this series, than you are familiar with the main faults of Lead-Acid batteries: taper charging, discharge limit to 50%, decreased efficiency at high loads, requirement to periodically fully charge AGM batteries, and limited cycle life. Specifically:

  • LFP batteries do not taper charge and they can usually accept a massive charge as well. They accept the full capacity of your chargers from the moment you start charging until they are full. This is huge, since the batteries will take much less time to charge. 200Ah of capacity can be replaced with a 50A charger in four hours, a 100A charger in two hours, and in most cases even in an hour with a 200A charger. That same charge would take many, many times longer to replace with Lead-Acid cells.
  • LFP batteries can be discharged to 20% without harming the battery. So fully 80% of the battery is usable. A 200Ah Lead-Acid bank will give you about 80Ah of usable power, a 200Ah LFP bank will give you 160Ah.
  • Not only can LFP batteries take massive charge loads, they can also handle large discharge loads without the same inefficiencies and loss of power of Lead-acid. If you run a 100A load on 200Ah LFP batteries for an hour, the power consumed is about 100A. The same load on an AGM would consume much more power, and may damage the battery.
  • There is no need to fully charge LFP batteries. In fact, for storage it is better to leave them in a partially discharged state. But it is less relevant since recharging to 100% is much easier without the tapering.
  • Cycle life (complete discharge -recharge) in Lead-Acid batteries is quite low. 600-800 cycles to 50% discharge is good for many AGMs. Most LFPs are rated for 2,000 cycles – at an 80% Depth of Discharge (DoD). The particular cells we are putting in claim 3,000 cycles at a regular 70% DoD, if we choose to charge them that way.

So overall you get a battery that stores and releases more energy, is easier to charge quickly, is more flexible on charge and usage patterns, and has many, many more charge cycles of use.

With good capacity, you can also reduce the number of charge cycles needed. Our present set of AGMs required charging every 30 hours or so, +/- six hours depending on wind, sun and use. Over time, that worked out to pretty much charging every day. Over 330 charge cycles per year will kill a battery designed for 6-800 charge cycles pretty quickly. Our new battery bank will need charging every three days, cutting our charge cycles to about 125 per year. Even if the LFP batteries didn’t have a 2,000+ cycle life, that reason alone would double or triple their life span compared to AGM.

Weight Savings

How do we get to a three-day run between charge cycles? More usable capacity. How do we do that? Two ways: deeper discharge/better charging and more batteries.

LFP cells are considerably lighter and smaller than their AGM counterparts. Our current 660Ah 24V house bank weighs in at a hefty 792 lbs. For that, we get 264Ah of usable capacity. The new bank of LFP cells 720Ah 24V, but has double the usable capacity of 576 Ah. And they weigh 394 pounds – half the weight. If you look at usable Amp-Hours per pound, the LFP cells deliver power at about four times the rate (1.46 Ah/Lb) over the AGM bank (0.33 Ah/Lb). I could easily have fit more than 720Ah of capacity if I wanted to.

So you can replace your AGM bank with 1/4 of the weight in LFP cells, for the half the weight you can double your working capacity. More capacity equals fewer charge cycles, and more battery life.

The Lithium Risks

As mentioned above, the physical risks to your boat and your body using LFP technology are pretty low. Not zero, but no battery is 100% safe so we can stipulate some risks no matter which type of battery you use, and move on in the discussion.

The risks of LFP technology are more financial than physical. Improperly installed and managed, you can flush a lot of money away quickly. They are more complex to use and charge, more expensive to buy, and you need to take some steps to make them idiot proof if you want a good long life to realize your Return on Investment for the project.

The Fragile Knees

The charge state of Lead-Acid batteries can easily be checked by reading the battery voltage. A fully charged battery will read with high voltage, and as the battery drains, the voltage will slowly and predictably drop. The reverse is true for charging – the voltage rises with charging, and all the various “smart” chargers will adapt their charging behavior based on the read voltage. You end up with a pretty linear relationship of voltage to charge like this:

The near linear relation between charge state and battery voltage with Lead-Acid.

LFP batteries tend to maintain a constant voltage over their charge and discharge cycle. Voltage at 95% charged is little different from at 40% charged. From a use perspective, this is excellent – devices on boats like high voltage and work more efficiently. Your lights will be brighter, your electric pumps will be more lively.

Unlike the Lead-Acid batteries, at the points of fully charged and discharged the voltage suddenly and precipitously changes. The voltage plummets as charge level approaches zero, and it starts to shoot up right around 100% charged.

The graph above shows the difference in the voltage states, and the “knees” in the graph of the LiFePO4 cell voltage as the charge varies. The problem is that LFP batteries can get really damaged by pushing them over those knees. Discharging an LFP down past the lower knee to 0% can damage the cells and reduce life cycles. Over charging past the upward knee can very quickly destroy the cells as well, resulting in the loss of your expensive batteries.

Traditional Lead-Acid chargers can not cope with LFP charging needs, and must be reprogrammed to fake them into handling them properly. This is not always possible. But there is a way around this.

Charging and Management

Batteries are stupid. They have no inter-cell circuitry, no knowledge of their own charge state. The solution to avoiding premature LiFePO4 battery death then is to ADD a brain to the process. A Battery Management System, or BMS, becomes the heart and soul of your battery setup and prevents you from stupidly destroying your batteries through mismanagement.

In theory, you can avoid damaging the batteries by running over the “knees” as I described above. You could sit near the batteries with a Multimeter, checking the voltage of each cell repeatedly, looking for the first spike upwards when recharging, or the first precipitous dip when discharging. When you spot that spike, you can turn off the charging and all will be well. When you spot that dip, you can start the charging up to keep things from running too low.

But sitting with the batteries all day with a multimeter would get tedious.

In essence, that is what a BMS does. It constantly monitors every cell for voltage, and will cut off charging to prevent over charge. It also cuts off power out if the batteries are too low. At its most basic level, that “brain” of the system idiot-proofs the battery bank and prevents accidental destruction of the batteries. Although a simple BMS wouldn’t start charging automatically, more likely it would sound and alarm and flash some lights telling you to start the generator before you hit the lower knee.  You really wouldn’t want your “need to charge” notification to be the complete shutdown of all electrical systems on the boat.

A more fully functional system can take it steps further than acting as a simple gate-keeper to power in/power out of the batteries. The system we are employing, the Emus BMS, can control certain chargers directly and preemptively using a protocol called CAN (Controller Area Networking – it’s used in a lot of automobiles and is the underlying infrastructure of NMEA 2000). It can also trigger relays, lights and displays, provide detailed information on the battery state, alert the operator when attention is needed, balance cells that are out of voltage (more on that later…some day), speak Bluetooth to allow battery monitoring on an android device, and even has an add-on module to accept a GSM cell SIM to enable SMS notification of battery state.

In theory, one can install and use a LFP battery bank without a BMS. But the risks to the batteries are big enough so most view it as foolhardy to do so.

Charging With the Oldies

If it’s not clear yet, there are some risks using “old school” charging techniques with your flash new LFP batteries. Charging “profiles” from “Smart Chargers” will kill your LFPs in short order. Many devices simply do not know about the “knees” and will try to charge by the old rules.

On Evenstar we have the following means of charging the 24V house bank:

  • Victron Multiplus 24/3000 Inverter/Charger (70A)
  • Victron Phoenix 24/25 (24A)
  • 75A Large Frame alternator on the engine
  • Small frame alternator on the generator
  • 400W wind generator
  • 260W solar panels with a Blue Sky MPPT charge controller.

Not one of those charge sources knows the first thing about LFP batteries or their “knees”. Most of them have the potential to damage the batteries. In some cases, like the alternators, the batteries are quite likely to destroy the charge source by over drawing power from them. LFPs being charged will take every Amp they can, and any alternator that run at 100% output for any length of time will overheat and burn out.

So I’ve got to work out the charging. The Victron chargers will be replaced by new CAN-Enabled chargers. The alternator on the generator will be disabled and removed. The engine alternator needs to be de-tuned so it doesn’t cook itself, and be protected against a back surge if the BMS shuts off the charging. The wind generator will free-spin and burn itself out if the BMS shuts of the charge source, so I have to come up with something clever with that. The solar we may just leave attached to the 12V system all the time.

But it all needs re-thinking and every device, no matter how old and stupid, needs to be brought into line and taught to behave or get replaced.

The Expense

The cost is really the big nut when it comes to the downsides of LFP technology. There are three basic ways to approach LFP, and none of them will be anywhere close to the cost of just dropping in a new set of AGMs. Which isn’t cheap either – a single 4D sized 200Ah AGM costs over $1,000AUD (about $750 USD). We need six of them to replace the house bank which could run over $5,000.

The Proprietary Install

The most expensive way to convert to LFP is with a complete soup to nuts solution from a single source, installed by professionals. It will work, but it will cost a LOT. This big dollar solution would be several times the cost of what we are doing. There are some good companies doing this stuff, but you need the budget.

The Drop-in/Prebuilt Assemblage

There are really two flavors of this, but they both involve pre-built batteries (a battery is just a group of cells, wired together). Many companies have made pre-built drop-in batteries which claim to have a built-in BMS on board. They also claim compatibility with existing charging systems, but there is no guarantee. The batteries are quite expensive, and results are varied and wild as it’s tough to validate claims about them. But without a comprehensive BMS and complete integration with  the charging systems, it is difficult to see how this will really be stable and cost-effective.

The alternative “flavor” of this is to buy pre-made LFP batteries from a more known and reliable vendor like Victron or Mastervolt and work with their BMS, chaging and other supporting systems. These batteries are crazy expensive, but should work well if you use all their high quality equipment.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY)

Or the “Roll your own” battery bank for the somewhat less reverent. This is what we are doing on Evenstar. It requires that you order your own individual cells and wire them together into a battery, install and configure your own BMS, and integrate your own charging system. This is not a project for the faint of heart. If you can’t explain Ohms laws without looking it up or don’t grasp basic electricity it may not be for you. If you can’t crimp a cable or operate a multi-meter, it’s probably not for you. Even if you have a firm grasp on electrical systems, it still may not be for you.

Years ago I received an A+ in my “Electrical Systems” course at New England Tech, I installed all the instruments on the boat now, I’ve upgraded the charging and inverting systems on the boat, and I’ve crimped a LOT of cables. I’m mostly (but not completely) sure I can handle it. I’ve had to learn a lot, and immerse myself in some new concepts and ideas. It’s fascinating, and a bit intimidating. I do intend to detail our DIY install in later posts, so I won’t spell it out here.

It’s complex, and it’s a lot of work. At the end you get a completely custom setup tailored for your boat, for a lot less money.  And like all DIY projects on your boat you know where all the bodies are buried, because you put them there.

The Return on Investment

Any of those approaches are workable, and your mileage will vary in your results as will your costs. But what you need to look at is the ROI to see if it’s worth the money for you. This technology is not for every boat or every boating application. It would be overkill for most weekend and seasonal sailors, for example.

In my last post I mentioned that we’ve spent an average of $2,200 a year on new batteries for the last five years. That figure does not include the diesel I’ve burned running the generator every day and the extra wear and tear for the 2,300 hours we’ve put on the new genset since we installed it in 2015.

So – if sticking with AGMs costs $2,200/year + diesel and shortened life…how long until the batteries pay for themselves if I change to LFP?

I figure it’s about five to seven years to break even. My outside/worst case budget on this project is $20,000 – though I hope to bring it in closer to $17K-$18K.

This upgrade should save me about 700-800 generator hours per year. Call that 1,000 Liters of diesel at $1.00 or so a Liter (prices vary wildly by location). It’s also saving me 3-4 oil changes on the generator (about $30-$35 each for oil & filter), and is extending the life of my generator by a couple of years every year.

If you assume 650 hours of generator time used/year, a 10,000 hour life on a generator that costs about $20,000 to replace, for annual cost savings by doing a LFP installation you can assume:

Generator Life saved, $2/Hr $1300 $20,000 Replacement cost over 10,000 hour life, 650 hours saved/year
Fuel Savings, $1.00/L $975 ~975L
Oil Change Savings $115 3-4 oil changes
AGM Annual Expense $2,200 Not buying new AGMs in 2-3 years!
Total $4,590 Annual costs recouped by LFP install

With a $20,000 expenditure that’s a five-year return; I’m thinking seven because I’m probably overlooking a few things and being too optimistic. With the expected cycle life of 2,000 cycles, these batteries should last sixteen years, not the two to three we’ve gotten from the AGM batteries. If they last sixteen years, my annualized expense on the install is $1,250. Or a little more than half of what I spend on AGMs now.

Note that these numbers work GREAT for full-time liveaboards like us. If I were a seasonal coastal cruiser putting 50 charge cycles on my AGMs a summer and fully recharging them when I returned to my slip on Sunday night, they’d make zero sense. Keep the $20K, your batteries will probably last a decade.

But on the whole, if you live like we do, have our various requirements and limitations on power generation, and aren’t intimidated by the DIY approach it can work out well.

I hope…

Further reading:

http://www.pbase.com/mainecruising/lifepo4_on_boats

http://honeynav.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/LFP-battery-Stan-Honey-notes.pdf

http://www.panbo.com/archives/2014/08/the_diy_lithium_battery_bank_bob_ebaugh_has_330_cycles_so_far.html

LiFePO4 Lithium Battery Installation and Research

http://marazuladventures.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/diy-lithium-iron-phosphate-batteries8.pdf

Posted in 24V, Batteries, Lithium | 10 Comments

Batteries – the Vexing Problem of the Hour

…or as Kathy says “Can you maybe not say the B-word for an hour, please?”

Apologies in advance…things are gonna get technical about batteries. If you’re into that, the buckle up because it’s going to get bumpy. It will be a multi-part post, because there’s a lot going on. I’m going to try and keep it readable though, for those of you that don’t get off on tech, gadgets and flashy gew-gaws too.

There’s a lot of background needed to understand why I’m going out on a flyer on a new and very expensive battery technology instead of just buying some new ones just like almost every other boat uses…so why don’t I just admit now this entire post is basically just one techno-folksy digression.

Boat Battery Basics

“How does solar work at night? How does wind power work when it is still?”

These are questions which seem to vex many politicians who can not grasp the fundamentals of renewable power. The answer of course is you store the electricity to use when the sun goes down and the wind dies. This presupposes that you are generating more power in a day than you use. If you aren’t, then your home cuts over to the “grid” for backup power. On a boat, we run the generator.

Batteries are the core of a boat’s electrical system. Cruisers have been doing “renewable” and self generating power long before it was cool, even if we’re burning dinosaurs to keep the lights on. For us, solar and wind don’t generate enough power to offset our consumption, so we have to run a generator periodically to fill the batteries up.

The typical cycle is to run the generator for a few hours to top up the batteries. Then for a day or so, we can run off the stored power. If it is windy or sunny, we may go longer with the boost to charging. Or if we’re using less power, such as by being off the boat for the day instead of using laptops and computers for school and writing. Then we get a few more hours without running the generator. It’s fairly simple; the batteries are a tank you keep refilling by making more power.

The Problem of Lead-Acid Technology

This process of storage isn’t a simple and efficient as it sounds. The limiting factor in all of these systems has been energy storage. Lead-Acid batteries have been around since well before the Model T had an option for a self-starter. A simplified explanation is that dissimilar metals in a bath of electrolyte allows current to flow. A battery cell has lead (Pb) and lead dioxide (PbO2) plates bathed in sulfuric acid. Closing a circuit on the terminals on the plates cause current flow by a forward electrolytic chemical reaction. Lead sulfate (PbSO4) forms from the Pb and PbO2 as the electric current flows. Charging reverses the process; the added electricity breaks down the PbSO4 and the lead returns to the plates.

There are some problems with this technology. It requires a LOT of lead plates, which are very heavy. “Deep Cycle” batteries, which are deeply discharged at a slow rate and recharged over and over again, need heavier, thicker plates than “Start” batteries that cars use. Each battery installed on Evenstar now weighs sixty-six pounds. We have sixteen of them, weighing in at  total of 1,056 pounds. This chemical reaction, as it goes forward and backward, leads to sulfation, a buildup up PbSO4 on the plates. It also weakens the plates over time. This leads to a limited number of times that a battery can be charged or discharged.

Certainly, battery technology has improved since Alexander Graham Bell burned himself trying to power his first telephone. Various techniques for suspending the acid in gels (“Gel” batteries), or in absorptive fiberglass matting (“AGM”) have increased life, better charge holding, and reduced risk of acid spills. But each of these improvements is still based on lead and sulfuric acid.

Depth of Discharge, the Dreaded Taper Charge, and Mr. Peukert

A “deep” discharge battery can be discharged to 50% of capacity. A lead-acid battery which holds 100 Amp-hours (the Ah refers to one Amp of current for hour of use; think of it they way you would a gallon of gas) can effectively yield up to 50 Ah of power before it is considered “discharged”. Drawing more power will shorten the life of the battery. So in our case, our 24 Volt, 660Ah main battery bank really has 330Ah of “usable” power before it needs to be recharged.

But it gets worse.

Lead-Acid batteries are limited in how much charge they can take as they get more full. Imagine you are filling a kiddie pool, and you are dim enough to place the pool on top of the hose you are using to fill it. When you start filling the pool it goes quickly, since there is no weight on the hose. As the pool gets more and more full, the hose gets more and more compressed and you can put less water into the pool. By the time you have the pool 90% full you are ready to scream in rage because the fill has dropped to a trickle and the kids are getting all spastic and whiny to get in. Finally to tell the kids to get in the pool when it’s 90% full and like it, because you’re not standing here for four more hours to get it to the top.

Charging Lead-Acid batteries works in a very similar fashion. Charging from 50% up to 75% might go pretty quickly as the batteries accept all the power you give them – all 100Amps of charge are going into the battery! But then the input starts to drop and drop. By 90% charged you’re putting in 10-15 Amps of charge instead of the 100 Amps you started with. If you’re on Evenstar with me, at 90% you’ve still got 66 more Amp-Hours to put in, and the batteries won’t take more than 15A of charge. After 3-4 hours of charging we’re at 90%, and it will take another four hours to get to 100%. That’s nuts, and most cruisers don’t run our generators the extra hours to get that last 10%. The only time we see 100% is in a marina, and that is quite rare.

The problem is, with some battery types like AGMs, every now and then they really NEED that 100% charge. People who spend their lives at anchor like we do don’t have enough opportunity to do that, and it hurts our battery life. But the other big takeaway is that the REAL usable range of your batteries is from charging them from 50% to 90%. You only really get about 40% of your rated capacity in daily usable power. For use, that’s 40% x 660 = 264 Amp-Hours from our giant bank of battery.

But wait…there’s more.

The Amp-Hour rating of a battery is calculated by the number of Amps it takes to draw the battery to 0% over twenty hours. That’s a fairly slow rate of discharge – 5% of the batteries capacity. But…as the rate of power draw increases, the efficiency of the power usage decreases. So if I drain a 100Ah battery at 5A (5% of capacity of “C”), it takes 20 hours to drain. If I drain it at 50Ah, it should take two hours, right?

Wrong. It takes much less than two hours. How much less depends on your battery, and can be estimated by this formula:

Also known as Peukert’s Law, a detailed explanation of which is beyond the scope of this already careening-of-scope and rambling blog post. Suffice it to say, if you use your 100A battery to line a single lightbulb it will actually give you more than 50A of effective power since the draw is so light. But the draw is never that light. If you spend a lot of time running the microwave and jumping up and down on the bow thruster, you will take a lot less than 50A. Somewhere in between lies reality.

So what’s the point of this essay?

It’s background, for the next one. The rationale for ripping apart the boat and dropping an outrageous amount of money on battery technology than many people are still afraid will make their cell phones explode.

The point is simple: after two years, the AGM Lead-Acid batteries we installed in New Zealand are dying. We’d hoped to get 4-5 years out of them, but that just isn’t happening. I can give you another 1,500 words on WHY they’re only lasting two years, but that wouldn’t do much more than annoy you. The salient point is we got three years out of the batteries we installed before leaving in 2012, and only two years from the set we installed in 2015. That’s about $11,000 worth of batteries in five years. One a per year basis, that is a pretty expensive piece of disposable equipment.

Something has to change.

What is going to change is the technology. We’ve installed our last Lead-Acid batteries in our house bank. We’re moving to Lithium.

Next up: The Terrors and Wonders of Lithium Iron Phosphate

Try to contain your enthusiasm.

Posted in 12V, 24V, Batteries, electricty, Electronics | 2 Comments

New Year’s Madness on Sydney Harbor (Bucket List Week, Part 2)

Photo from ABC News, Australia. Evenstar is too big to be allowed in that anchorage – it has a 15 meter limit, or we would have been right there.

First off, I’ve got to admit up front – I don’t have great photos or video from our New Year’s Eve on Sydney Harbor. So I’m going to have to borrow, link, and credit.

Warwick, RI. This one’s mine.

Good firework photography requires a few things – a long exposure time, a stable platform, and a tripod. While I do have a somewhat flimsy tripod, a boat is just not a good place take long exposure times since it’s always jiggling, swinging and moving. So a picture like the one on the right, which I took on the Fourth of July about thirteen years ago, takes a lot more care and trouble than you can do on a boat. It would be a blurry mess if I’d even bothered. Your best hope is to shoot video and hope for stills, but we don’t have great video equipment.

Setup and Positioning

When my parents told us they were planning to meet us in Australia my mother wanted to be in Sydney for New Year’s Eve. It would cost more to travel that week, so we needed to make it worth while.

Sydney Harbor has a well deserved reputation as a madhouse on New Year’s Eve. As it’s one of the first places to ring in the new year, they’ve gone out-of-the-way to make a big deal out of it, and do it up right. That there is such a gorgeous setting is a bonus – the harbor bridge and the opera house make a fantastic back drop.

Sydney Harbor is a big place, and a LOT of boats are out there on NYE. It’s not just the private boats like us that add to the madhouse feeling, there are commercial party boats on booze cruises, megayachts, and a parade of lights. The harbor fills up fast and gets busy in a hurry.

From the official NYE harbour management site. I’ve added in our rough location as a green dot, with the boat name in red over on the right.

New Years Eve this year was a Saturday. My parents were arriving on Friday, the 30th. Since we had zero interest in jockeying for position and hunting for an anchorage with the masses flocking out on Saturday, our plan was simple. Beat the crowds who had to work Friday. So I picked my parents up at the airport and brought them back to Middle Harbour Yacht Club, where we’d made arrangements to stay for the three weeks my parents would be visiting. After a relaxed lunch at the club restaurant, we cast of lines for Athol Bay. That’s on the far right side of the grayed out exclusion zone on the map above, to the North.

Athol Bay sometimes has a couple of boats anchored there. That’s typical every time we’d passed it. It’s pretty enough, but exposed to the South and it’s not so easy to get ashore. When we arrived on Friday afternoon there were already LOTS of boats there. Hundreds, where we’d never seen more than a dozen at once. We staked out a nice anchor spot near the edge of the exclusion zone. It wasn’t crowded at the time, and there was plenty of room around us. Of course, that changed over the next twenty-four hours.

The Hordes Descend

By the time we were moving about the boat on Saturday morning the picture of the anchorage was changing rapidly.

Any on-water spectacular always provides a lot of opportunities to watch the show as people try that once a year thing they never do otherwise: anchoring. And they are trying it close to other boats.

We’ve been in the midst of other spectacles/debacles like this, like the Quonset Air Show. I never blogged about that experience, but we did it a few times. The Anchoring Follies was always a highlight of the air show. With fenders near at hand, we watched people come in throughout the day and drop into tighter and tighter spaces.

Like everywhere, people approached it with various levels of skill, seriousness, attitude, and equanimity. Some zoomed up, cocktail in hand, dumped the anchor, cranked up the radio and started partying. Others came in and circled for several laps through the anchorage before settling on a spot.

Unfortunately, one mentality guy that anchored nearly on top of us could be politely described as rhyming with “butter bass pole.” He anchored on top of us, then swung REALLY close to another boat as he settled in. That boat had been there for hours, and the skipper was visibly upset and telling the new arrival he’d anchored too close. The new arrival said to him, and I quote exactly here, “If I’m making you uncomfortable then you should move.”

That is…not done…in the sailing world. At least, not by people who anchor more than once every year or two and have a modicum of courtesy for anyone around them. The rule of thumb anchoring is that new boats arriving in an anchorage anchor around the already present boats with courtesy and distance. If there is a dispute on this distance, the newcomer adjusts position. It’s more of a rule, or even a social more, than anything legally enforceable. From a legal perspective, if a skipper sees a threat to his boat he should mitigate it, even if the threat is from some bass pole that should know better and move his boat.

Without ranting too much, suffice to say that Captain Bass Pole isn’t someone I’d want to hang with. He had four friend boats show up – apparently his job, as the most brazen and obnoxious of the lot, was to ram his boat in a hole and make enough space for two more forty-foot sailboats to raft up to his. And a small powerboat that they hung off the back of the raft that swung almost under our bow. He did stop by and give me a beer and thank me for basically being the only boat near him that didn’t yell at him for anchoring like a schmuck. I’m insured, and I took pictures of his boat, so I took it. He certainly didn’t ruin the day, but he and his friends were one of those…annoyances…that will always stick in your mind for a long time, because I had to Be The Adult and make sure he didn’t smash into my home.

Bass poles aside, we spent a nice leisurely day on the boat. We had the grill and the blender going, producing an Australian style “sausage sizzle” and pitchers of Mudslides. The city of Sydney had planned a few things throughout the day, such as some military helicopter flyovers. There were more shows up by the bridge and the Opera House, but we anchored about a mile and a half from there so couldn’t really see those. Not to mind, we hadn’t planned to.

Night and Fireworks

After dark is when the real activity starts. Though boats were still arriving as the sun set, the Exclusion Zone was enforced from 8:00 p.m until 12:45 a.m., so boats would no longer be able to leave or arrive.

Two fireworks events were scheduled for the night. At 9:00 a “Family” display went off, early for the kids. It was spectacular, for just a “kiddie” display it would have made any city proud, and it was a fantastic teaser for things to come.

Shortly after the family fireworks display, the Harbour Light Parade started. Just about every commercial party cruiser, charter boat, and tall ship in the harbor has decked out in bright, beautiful lights. They spent the next hour or two cruising up and down the harbor. Small boats with lights, even kayaks paddling, worked their way through the anchorage. We grilled up some surf & turn, mixed some more beverages, and checked out watches.

Midnight

A cultural movie show on the pillars of the bridge preceded the fireworks. From our distance we couldn’t make sense out of it. There was a radio simulcast, but our FM radio situation on the boat is pretty poor. I tuned in with my handheld multi band amateur radio, but the signal wasn’t good enough. In hindsight, I should have gotten a small radio or something, since the music chosen for the display tied into the color themes, such as a tribute to Prince with a serious of gorgeous purple displays.

Describing the fireworks is where a good facility with descriptive language would be helpful. In theory, I’ve got one.

In practice, I’ve never seen a show like this one. From where we anchored we could clearly see four of the main display barges and the bridge. I don’t think there was any site on the bay we couldn’t at least glimpse the fireworks from. The whole bay lit up with gold, vermilion, green, purple, blue, yellow, orange and too many others to count. Every fireworks site was choreographed precisely, so the same types of displays and colors and themes were all synchronized across the harbor.

The bridge became a waterfall of light as the finale approached and all the displays crescendo-ed at once. Even from a mile away the bridge was spectacular.

I’ve included some of the better links to the displays for any interested. One is a summary of the highlights, the other is the entire show captured in montage from the land, air, and water.

Definitely a night to remember.

And for those that want to watch the whole thing…

Posted in Australia, excitement, Good Food, Good Times, Sydney | Leave a comment

Playing Catch Up…Again

Bless me father, for I have sinned…it’s been three months since my last blog post…

Sometimes posting to the blog gets away from me. Okay, fairly often of late posting to the blog gets away from me.

Usually, it’s when we’re not actually doing all that much interesting. We’ve spent a lot of time parked in urban places this year, catching up with school and doing the basic, mundane tasks of living. It’s easy to ignore the blog then, since nothing fantastic is going on and it’s even less interesting to write about than to read. I promise you don’t want me to regale you with the details of the Sydney transit system, as nice as it is.

Okay, there were some sights to see, too.

ROAD TRIP!

So I owe you readers a few things. I’ve not forgotten my last post was Part One of the week between Christmas and New Year’s. We did two things that week that make the locals shudder, but that you have to do as a sailing tourist. I covered the first – watching the Sydney-Hobart race start from the water. The second was spending New Years Eve at anchor in Sydney Harbour. That merits its own post and will get it.

I also owe you the fun things we have done since then. When my parents visited for three weeks over the holidays we also took in a lot of sights, including a road trip out to wine country and a few other local attractions. That’s some interesting stuff that deserves a visit. And a link to the video of kangaroos we took after an afternoon of wine tasting.

And then there’s the Boat Project topics. There have been some interesting developments in the last couple of months. We’ve ordered a new sail, our batteries are dying and we’re looking to do a high-tech update, plus a few other tidbits, broken things, weird smelling things and we’ve been working with. It’s not the stuff of Pulitzer prizes or anything, but if you’re interested in what we’re doing then you may want to hear about it. I’ll write about it anyway; what you read is up to you.

We’ve also moved again. We spend a few months in the Sydney area which was quite nice, but very urban and at times challenging. We left Sydney a month or so again and worked our way up the coast with stops in the Pittwater and Newcastle, on to our current resting place on the Gold Coast.

Oh yeah, did I mention we saw a LOT of whales on the sail North? Some got quite close.

In general, I’ve been slack in my writing the past few months, and that needs to change. Those of you that know I’ve done some fiction writing know what I’m talking about. That is another whole kettle of fish to blog about. I’m not sure if this is the venue to do it though, or set up an “author” blog where I can start a running tally of my rejection letters and updates about the works in progress.

But check back in the next weeks, as I’ve got to get back to writing every day and that includes the blog. Thanks for your patience.

Posted in Housekeeping | Leave a comment

The Week of Bucket Lists – Part One

Going cruising was never about a “Bucket List” – those things you want to do before you kick it. I’ve never kept a list of things like that. Outside of being slightly morbid, it seems to set an unreasonable set of expectations and is WAY more goal oriented than an aging slacker like myself is capable of.

In the cruising lifestyle though, you do come across the opportunity to do some things that would be on a Bucket List, if one was directed enough to create one. Things like going to the Galápagos, going through the Panama Canal, sailing to French Polynesia – these are all items that I’d put in the “Retroactively Add to the Bucket List if I Ever Get Around to Making One.”

Australia has a few of those. Two, in particular we knocked off in one week in December.

Watch the Start of a Sydney Hobart

The Sydney-Hobart race is a premier world sailing event. Outside the United States, there are some countries where sailing is simply huge. Hundreds of French people turn out to watch the start and finish of the Vendée Globe around the world race. In Australia, the start of the annual Sydney-Hobart attracts somewhere around 100,000 people. In the U.S., with about thirteen times the population of Australia, that’s equivalent to 1.3 Million people turning out to watch a single sporting event live. The race starts on Boxing Day – December 26th – and takes two to four days or so, depending on the size of your boat.

What’s Cool About It?

Maxis crossing tacks

The Sydney-Hobart race

Line Honors winner Perpetual Loyal.

runs from Sydney to Hobart, Tasmania. It’s about 635 nautical miles distance, and crossed the Bass Strait. The Bass Strait can be a nasty stretch of water with conditions that can change rapidly from placid to deadly.

Every year over 100 boats join this race, from old historical boats to state of the art 100 foot maxi yachts. These are some of the draw,since they are some of the fastest mono-hull sailboats in the world. But the small boats draw too, since anyone can win the race.

There are two types of winners – Line Honors, and Overall Handicap. The line honors is pretty limited to he big boys; no forty-five footer is going to beat a one hundred foot maxi-yacht with a professional crew to Hobart. But with a handicap for the speed of the boat the playing field is a bit more leveled.

The On-Water Madness

Those 100,000 people – many of them are on shore, on the cliffs at the “Heads” at the entrance to Sydney Harbor. But a lot of them are spread out among about 1,000 spectator boats.

One of the larger inflatables with a lot of boats.

The spectator fleet ranged from several harbor ferries that sold special tickets to the occasion, to huge motor yachts, more modest sail boats and power boats, all the way down to a few madmen in kayaks and inflatable boats.

When the fleet was in the distance it was calm but crowded. We spent the early part of the start slowly milling around with the spectator boats.

Credit to Sails Magazine for a nice picture of the start from above.

In the above image you can see the “heads” – North Head and South Head, and the two rounding marks Victor and X-ray. We were milling around with several hundred other boats just a little to the west of Victor Mark, out of the buoyed off race course.

As the racing fleet approached, things got more exciting. The spectator boats started to line up and move along the outside of the course to follow the fleet through the heads. We moved with them.

A big maxi yacht can average fifteen knots over the course of a race like this. Compared to the six knot harbor speed limit on race day for spectators and the  seven knots or so that we can make under power, these things are fast. They move by very quickly. And not everyone follows the speed limit.

Some of the madness going through the heads.

That makes for some exciting boat handling as all these dis-similar power and sail boats all try to watch the race while not colliding with one another. Fortunately for me, I come from a racing background and am reasonably used to maneuvering in close quarters with others boat so it didn’t freak me out too much. But I’d also be lying if I said I got much more than quick glimpses of the boats until the crowds thinned out.

Wild Oats XII – former record holder, didn’t finish the race.

Once the maxis had blown by much of the spectator fleet thinned out. Especially since the wind outside the heads had picked up and the spectator fleet was pounding into six+ foot seas to keep up. We’re used to that and Evenstar handles it well. But it’s no place to be in a small power boat! We waited until the end, watching and cheering every last boat as we made our way back in. Some of the faster boats could keep up with the maxis after they headed out, but that wasn’t in the cards for us.

The Results

The link above for the race has the official result. It was a fast race with favorable winds most of the way. The big buzz before the race was the Line Honors record, held by Wild Oats XI, a multiple winner of past Sydney-Hobart races and if it would be brokn. Will was fortunate enough to get a tour of Wild Oats XI before the race, and we were pulling for her. But it wasn’t to be – she developed a mechanical problem in her canting keel and had to retire from the race. Perpetual Loyal won Line Honors and smashed Wild Oats XII’s record by hours. So did a handful of other, smaller boats (still big boats…seventy feet or bigger) because the ideal conditions.

In hindsight, it was very, very cool watch the start and I’m glad we did it. If we do it again though, I think the high-speed ferries look like a good option! Let someone else drive, crack open a beer, and sit back and watch them chase the big boats onto the horizon.

All Photos by Danielle Porter!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Money Matters – Cash Management Abroad

Rather than regale you with the gripping tales of us grocery shopping in Sydney, refilling our propane, playing catch up on boat schooling, or trying to get our heads pumped out, I’ve decided to take a few minutes to answer a question I see a lot on the various cruising groups and forums. Yeah, I’ve some road trips to write about too, but this post has been percolating in my head for a while. If I write this, I can just link it the next time someone asks.

That question is, in some form or variety:

“What is the best bank to use when traveling abroad”.

The flip answer, of course, is “Well, that depends on where you are going.” Though that is technically correct, it’s not a terribly useful answer. So what I will do is talk a little bit to what we’ve experienced, what we do, and how we do our best not to let our cruising kitty get devoured by rapacious banks.

I’m going to try and avoid slamming any banks too hard, or making endorsements, but it’s hard not to when dealing with what we are actually doing. Oh heck, I’ll just speak frankly…

For us, one of these things is not like the other!

Fees, Fees and More Fees

Your bank, of course, wants to make money off you. They’ve devised a number of fees they clip you with when you try to get your own money from outside the U.S.

Some fees above and beyond your account maintenance fees include (but are not always limited too):

  • Foreign currency fees. These will show up at ATM withdrawals and on some credit cards, and typically run 1%-3%. Usually closer to 3%.
  • Foreign ATM Fees. A special charge that some banks seem to add when accessing an ATM outside the U.S.
  • Out of Network ATM fees from your bank. Fee for using an ATM not owned by your bank or a partner bank. Anywhere from a buck up to $3.00 or so.
  • Out of network ATM fees, from the bank that owns the ATM. The local bank may also assess you a fee for using their ATM that is passed back and charged to your account that is above and beyond your own bank’s fee. These may be higher than your own bank charges you, up to five or six bucks.

If you aren’t careful you can rack up some or all of these fees in a single transaction. Once in French Polynesia I withdrew around $200 USD in local currency…and got charged over $20 USD in fees by my bank for the privilege. Bad choice, back when I used a bank that rhymed with “Santander,” which is one of the worst banks to deal with outside the US for fees. Even though it’s not an American domestic bank, which is weird.

I’ll get into how to minimize these fees later. But you REALLY need to talk to your bank and read all the fine print on our checking accounts, savings accounts and credit cards to see exactly what all these fees are so you can avoid them. Or change banks on general principle (see “Santander”).

The FX Game (Foreign Exchange)

Fees are not the only way you can take a financial hit when dealing with your U.S. based, U.S. Dollar denominated accounts abroad. You will want some local cash no matter where you are. Even in a place like Australia where almost every place uses credit cards, it’s handy to have cash. But in the more remote places there aren’t so many places that take credit cards, and some of them add surcharges if they do (I’m talking to YOU, Fiji). And if you can use a credit card, should you?

We’ve found the best exchange rates on local currencies are generally gotten by pulling cash directly from the ATM or using credit cards. You tend to get the rates most closely quoted for exchange – though you don’t quite get those since the rates you see in the paper or on financial websites tend to be for bank-to-bank transactions for a lot of money. You won’t get the same rate charging $12 AUD for coffee, but you will generally get a better rate than an airport money changer or the rate that may be offered to you if you wish to pay in USD even though you are in a foreign country. Avoid those rates at all cost; I’ve yet to see an option to “Pay in USD” that wasn’t a ripoff based on current rates.

But you CAN get much worse rates if you want. For example you can go to a money changer, where not only do the rates sort of stink, but they frequently have fees if you don’t exchange very much cash. They may have a big neon sign that says “No Exchange Fees,” but it turns out to be for only amounts in excess of $1,000. Now, if you are a Santander customer and will be getting hammered with every fee in the book, these may be a better option than using that ATM. But in most cases if you are careful your own ATM will be better. Of course, those places only really work out for you if you have a pile of greenbacks to exchange in the first place. After a few years out of the U.S., we have next to no American currency on board since there is really no use for it once you get west of the Galapagos.

You can also change money at banks…some times. In some countries (like Australia) you can’t just walk into a bank you don’t have an account with and change money. But if you can, the rates and fees will usually be better than the Exchange shops.

Ducking and Dodging the Fees

A major objective of your cash management life becomes “How can I not get hammered by all these stupid fees?”

Good Credit Card Choices

There really is an easy answer – get a credit card that doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees and use it to pay for everything you possibly can.  We have a Capital One QuickSilver World Elite Master Card, and a Bank of America Travel Rewards Visa. Both of these cards offer ZERO foreign currency fees or foreign transaction fees. So you get cards like these, or others like them, and you charge everything on them. Some cards even offer rewards; the Capital One rebates 1% on everything. So if you spend $25 AUD on lunch, what hits credit card with no extra fees is $25 Australian, converted to US dollars at that day’s rate. No fees, no fuss, no mess, and you get 1% of that back.

In places like Fiji where many places add a 1-2% surcharge for credit card use, you still end up ahead charging it if the surcharge for credit is less than what your bank charges you to pull cash out of your account. A 2% surcharge on a credit card with a 1% rebate is still much cheaper than paying with cash that the bank charges you 3% to withdraw.

And American Express…don’t leave home without it, but don’t leave the U.S. with it. Few people take it and their international fees are very high unless you have one of the premium cards – Platinum, etc. But half the world doesn’t accept it anyway. The only use we have for one is paying for things in the states.

Networked Banking

Banking is where the “bank local to bank cheap” argument tends to break down. Many local credit unions and savings and loans have great checking and savings programs if they are in your town. But they aren’t really well set up for the international traveler, since they don’t often have large networks of ATMs you can use for free.

Unfortunately, this has dragged us into world of being megabank customers. In our case, it’s Bank of America, affectionately known on board Evenstar as “Bank of Vader”. But in fairness to Bank of America, in spite of their ever changing terms of service on their cheap bank accounts, they have a few nice products for the serious international traveler.

We first opened a BoA account in the Caribbean. At the time we were still with Santander (Motto: “But our International Fees are Really Obscene!”) and getting hammered left and right every time we took out cash. We were charged a “Foreign Currency Fee” to withdraw U.S. dollars from an ATM in the BVI’s. Yup, 3% “conversion fee” on those $20 bills with Andrew Jackson’s face on them coming out of the ATM.

A friend told us that Bank of America had a deal with ScotiaBank, which has a presence through much of Caribbean (except the French islands…). The deal was great – you could use ScotiaBank ATM’s with your BoA ATM card for free, like you were banking in the U.S. No foreign currency fees, no transaction fees. We applied for a free “eBanking” account, transferred some money in, and off we went. By the way, that free eBanking account doesn’t exist anymore, but they still have a free account with a $1,000 minimum balance you can get.

Bank of America is part of several international networks of banks, and has cooperative deals in many countries which eliminate ATM fees. They still usually charge a 3% currency conversion, but the elimination of ATM fees is huge. CitiBank also apparently offers some similar arrangements, as may other larger banks. But it’s worth a call to your small, local bank to find out about fees, and also exploring at least one account at a larger, networked bank.

The trick then is to find out what local banks you can use, and stick to using them. We only pull money from BoA in Australia and New Zealand using Westpac ATMs, for example. The savings add up…though we still use fee-free credit cards as much as we can!

Brokerage/Investment Houses

Institutions like Fidelity and Schwab also have nice programs for foreign cash access. Our Fidelity account “rebates” all ATM fees and only charges 1% on foreign transactions. This has the advantage of lower fees and the ability to use any ATM without getting hammered. The only disadvantage I’ve found is that transfers in and out of the Fidelity account take a day or two longer because it’s not, strictly speaking, a bank account. So you need to plan ahead a little more if you don’t keep a big pile of cash there.

Bouncing your money around the world

This all sounds like a bit of a juggling act, and it is. All of this is because we have U.S. based accounts, denominated in U.S. Dollars, and we have specific accounts for specific purposes because of fee structures. The one thing you have to get used to is the concept of making sure your money is in the right place, at the right time. Nothing is more annoying than having plenty of money but in the wrong place when something comes due. But e-banking and banking Apps on your phone are your friend for this.

We keep a free checking and savings account with the brokerage we use. This is handy, because if we sell an asset or get dividends in an account we can transfer the proceeds instantly. Otherwise it takes 2-3 days to move from one account to another between banks.

Those brokerage company checking/savings accounts are used to pay the credit card bills and the few bills we have. As mentioned, we charge as much as we can because it is by far the cheapest way to pay for us, so most of our spending is handled in the credit card payments. Keeping all payments in one place, while using the other accounts primarily for ATM access (BoA and Fidelity) or purchasing (the credit cards) makes it much more simple than it sounds.

That brokerage/bank combination also affords us a bit more nimbleness than we had before we made that move. It could take a week or more to get a large block of money moved from point A to point B if it was tied up in something that had to be sold (like a mutual fund) and cleared at a brokerage before it could be transferred. Having the bank account with the brokerage means the cash is available as soon as the sale “clears”, instead of needing three more days to transfer it to another bank after it clears. The free transfers we have available with these accounts, combined with automatic bill payments make it all simple and cheap to do.

Putting it all together

To summarize, we use a combination of big banks, specialized international credit cards, and banks linked to our investment accounts to minimize our fee exposure and make moving money easier. We keep:

  • A checking and savings at our brokerage for paying bills. The ATM fees are horrible on international fees so we don’t use it, but the transfers in from brokerage accounts are instantaneous, which is a time saver. And transfers in and out are free.
  • A checking account and fee-free visa at Bank of America. This gives us 3% fee withdrawals at partner banks and fee-free credit card purchasing.
  • Capitol One credit card. More fee-free credit card usage.
  • Fidelity Cash Account. 1% ATM withdrawals anywhere. We don’t use this enough…but maybe we misplaced the card for a while.

Did I mention that charging everything on international fee-free credit cards is really the cheapest way to get to your money? I hope I did…

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