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 batter 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 batter 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 toollow. 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://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 | 7 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…

Posted in Banking, Money | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Dinghy Disaster II: Trapped Down Under

VOICEOVER GUY: A family, cruising the world under sail. You first met them in Dinghy Disaster: The Panama Horror. Now they’re back in a new adventure in the land of giant crocodiles, poisonous toads, huge mouse-eating spiders, and drop bears. Fasten your seat-belts and prepare to be Trapped Down Under.

The day started out normally enough, for a day where we were picking up visitors at the airport. We’d arrived in Sydney in plenty of time to learn the harbor enough to figure out where and how to collect Will from his flight back from the UK for the holidays. (Ferry to the center of the city, train to the airport) We’d located a spot to park the dinghy while we were on shore at the Manly Yacht Club. They’re a delightful group of people, and several people I met invited us to park the dinghy at their float when we needed to come on shore.

Sunday we set an alarm and got up early to catch the 7:30 ferry. We tied the dinghy up, but not wanting to block the actual float dock used by club members, we tied it off to the side rails on the walkway down to the floating dock so it wouldn’t use any cleats or dock space in the working area of the float. We collected Will from the airport successfully, had a nice lunch, and all was well.

But…we forgot to account for the tide. The unusually high tide, as it happened.

When we got back to the club the dinghy was…gone. It’s one of a cruisers worst, non-fatal nightmares – the loss of the dinghy. They are expensive and hard to replace, but they are also are lifeline to the boat. So my first thought was that someone stole the dinghy, or maybe we’d broken a rule at the club and someone had impounded it.

Then I noticed the float from the towing bridle next to the walkway to the floating dock. And I noticed the floating dock walkway was sloping up from the fixed part of the dock. I walked up and saw to my horror our dinghy trapped under the dock and completely under water.

This was two ours after high tide, when it was almost free.

This picture doesn’t really do what happened justice, since I took it couple of hours after high tide. When we arrived at the dock, the tubes were entirely under water, and only an inch or two of engine cowling was sticking above the water. The engine was clearly under water.

Drowned engines are serious business. And the underside of a dock like this is a nasty place to stick an inflatable object made of cloth. With bolts, maybe nails, and oysters there are plenty of sharp objects to stick holes and slash Hypalon. This was clearly a disaster in the making.

First Response

Fortunately, I’d learned a few things about drowned engines in my courses at New England Tech before before we left. And I’ve read a lot about it. So I knew the clock was ticking.

When an engine gets dunked in salt water, the worst thing you can do is dry it out. The salt will crystallize inside the engine, coating all the smooth surfaces with abrasives. And oxidation and corrosion will kick in immediately when the metal is exposed to air; this takes a lot longer under water. The best thing to do is service the engine immediately. This was clearly not possible, since the dinghy was still trapped. The second best thing to do is keep the engine wet. This prevents the rest from kicking in.

With this in mind, Will and I headed off to a hardware store to find a trash can or giant bucket to stick the engine in when we got it back to the boat. We also looked for a sawhorse or similar support to put the engine on so I could work on it more easily on deck. The only engine mount we have is on the stern rail, and isn’t easy to work on; never mind the risk of dropping parts over board. And I knew his engine would need some work. We got a bucket, but couldn’t find something to hang the engine on for work.

The plot thickens

On our return to the yacht club, we decided to send Will, Kathy, and Danielle back to Evenstar to rig up the pudgy with the backup engine. They could then come back in and tow the RIB out to the boat once the tide dropped enough to free it from the dock. I grabbed a guy that was on the dinghy dock with his boat and he graciously agreed to run them out to the boat.

I then set about to free the boat. Which pretty much involved poking at it with an oar every now and then and watching the tide drop.

The crew on Evenstar called me to let me know they were having trouble starting the backup engine. It’s a month old, it’s not supposed to have troubles. I went back to poking at the dinghy.

It’s caught under the rigid supporting bar. Note the pokey and sharp things all around and inning it in place

Eventually, I got it free. One of the club members helped me walk it around to the float and tie it off. He told me that they’d seen it in the morning and tried to free it up, but it was already stuck. Though they’d been nice enough to pull our oars out so they didn’t float away, there was little else they could do.

Phone rings, more trouble with the backup engine. “Gas is pouring out of the engine and it won’t start!” I was told. “Figure it out,” I snapped back into the phone. By then I was in the middle of hauling the dinghy up onto the dock and tilting it go get water out. Another nice fellow had stopped back with a bucket and was bailing to get water out now that she was afloat again.  The bow and starboard tube were deflated and sagging, and the transom was still dangerously close to the water, but it had stopped coming in.

By now, it was close to 4:00 and most people were clearing out of the club for the day. With the dinghy afloat, I needed to get it back to Evenstar. I confirmed the pudgy rescue was not happening. But the fellow who helped me bail had talked to some racers who were still on the dock, and they agreed to give me a lift out to Evenstar and tow the dinghy behind us. With the continued kindness of strangers, we all found our way back to the boat with the deflated and forlorn dinghy in tow.

Then it was time for the work to begin.

Cleaning Up The Mess

It was after five o’clock by the time we got the dinghy to Evenstar. We took the engine off, completely emptied the boat, and hauled the surprisingly heavy hull on deck. Given it was softer than a Tom Brady football at halftime, we didn’t want to take a chance on shipping more water with any passing wakes until we’d determined damage and affected repairs.

The engine we dunked into the container Will and I picked up from Bunning’s and covered it with freshwater. It would sit there, upside down and in fresh water, until I was prepared to deal with it. My hope was that I could find a professional outboard person who had some experience with drowned engines. It was Sunday though, there was no chance of reaching anyone until the next day. And if that wouldn’t happen, then I at least had a theoretical familiarity with how to being the engine back, so I’d give it a go. But I still didn’t have any place to work.

So, status at the end of Sunday:

  • One drowned 15 HP Yamaha soaking in a tub
  • One nearly new 3.5 HP Tohatsu that wouldn’t start and was spewing out fuel
  • One AB RIB on deck with two deflated tubes and a lot of crushed oyster shells inside.

Carburetor Day (with patches)

Monday morning I had my work cut out for me. Since I was the only one on board with the skills to fix the engines and patch the dinghy, I set to quickly. First, I’d sort the backup engine so we had at least one motorized dinghy to get about in. Some quick internet research helped me diagnose a sticky float switch. A few phone calls got me ambiguous information about whether ripping the carburetor apart would void my warranty. I also figured out pretty quickly that there would be no help available with the drowned engine.

While I started ripping apart the Tohatsu, Kathy set-to on the RIB with a cup of soapy water to find holes. She found two new ones in the bow, and a lot of badly abraded Hypalon.  Fixable though.

A dinghy “Trolley”. I don’t think our American name is any better and it is less charming.

Within an hour or so I had the carburetor apart, cleaned out, and back together. We then dispatched Kathy and the kids to Whitworth’s (the Aussie version of West Marine) to pick up a dinghy “trolley” and a new gas tank. I was concerned that the fuel tank was compromised and the dirty tank and fuel would mess up whatever cleaning I did on the big engine.

Dinghy patches take a couple of days to really cure well, so I stayed behind to put the patches on the dinghy. Mixing glue, sanding, and waiting for the glue to dry took up most of my time while I waited for them to return with the engine stand.

Real men smell like a melange of WD-40, Carb Cleaner, Petrol, TC3W oil, MEKP, and Hypalon glue.

After their return I pulled the 15 HP from the soaking bin and set to work. I had to drain it thoroughly. Pulling out the spark plugs, I set it on its side and spun the engine to force anything out. Lots of WD-40 got sprayed into the spark plug openings, to displace water and coat the cylinders. Then I pulled the carburetor off and set to work, again.

The Yamaha log was under water earlier.

Cleaning the carb out is the most important part of this process, since water in the fuel will kill any chance of starting the engine. The carb came apart easily – I’d done this same operation in Brisbane less than a month previously to try to sort some issues we were having with the engine. Lots of carb cleaner spray later, and it went back together.

The patched but not yet filly re-inflated boat went back in the water. A fresh batch of fuel in the new tank with double engine oil was prepared – the extra oil is like a new “break in” for extra cleaning, lubrication, and smoke while running.

Then a LOT of pulling on the start rope.

And something was wrong with the new tank, because it wouldn’t draw fuel into the engine. I got enough in it to start the engine briefly, but it ran out of fuel. So we had to siphoned the old fuel from the old tank and filter it, then move the new fuel to the old tank and try again.

And…we got the engine to start. And it even ran long enough to drive a lap around the boat before stalling. Further pulling wasn’t getting any more life from the engine.

With my left shoulder about to fall off from cranking the engine, I was done for the day.  Close, but no cigar. But it had run enough to convince me it could work.

Carburetor Day Redux

The next morning, Will reported that the backup engine was stalling out regularly, though it would start right up again. Sounded like a float pin issue to me. I set Will to removing and re-cleaning that carburetor, taking special care to fully remove the float valve and clean it (we’d only sprayed it the day before). This solved the problem. Meanwhile, I jumped back into the dinghy and pulled the carburetor off again.

I had a theory about the problem with the erratic behavior. Earlier, Kathy had said to me “By the way, I found this screw in the bucket you were holding things in.”

Oops.  Immediately I knew it was the screw that held the pin in place that held the float in the carburetor. That would explain the odd behavior of running for a while then stalling. So I quickly took it apart, put the screw in, reinstalled the carburetor and tried to start the engine. It fired right up. Then ran for a bit, then stalled.

I discovered I could keep it running by racing the engine, but eventually it would stall. I could reliably restart it by pulling once with the choke closed then once with it halfway or open. But it would stall eventually and would not idle.

After about half an hour of sitting there like an idiot, restarting and racing the engine thinking there was just some moisture in there I had to burn out, it hit me what I’d done. Or more correctly, failed to do. A month ago in Brisbane I’d solved our idling problem (the engine would stall when idling, which was a nuisance shifting gears!) by turning the Idle Mixture Screw half a turn. Of course it was more complicated than that – the EPA mandates that this screw be set to a certain emission level, then capped with a cap permanently over it so a boat owner with bad intentions couldn’t tamper with the fuel mix. I had to drill this cap out, then I could turn the screw.

But the one part I had not pulled out and cleaned, and blown all the lines clear in was the idle mixture screw. One more removal and disassembly of the carburetor to clean this screw out and the engine started and purred like a kitten! I let it idle for some time to make sure while I cleaned up and showered, and we all went off to meet Ian (the guy that helped me bail) for a beer.

Resolution

By the end of day two both engines were running normally, and the patches on the bow seemed to hold air. We found one more problem the next day when we went to hoist the dinghy in the davits. It had listed to starboard (the deflated side). When we pulled it, it was REALLY heavy on that side. We’d taken some water inside the tube.

So that is our last job to be done in the next day or so – we have to remove the engine, empty the dinghy, and pull it up on a ramp. Then we can tilt it up so the valve on that tube is facing down and drain the water.

But in the end, I was pleasantly surprised to find that we solved all of this ourselves with minimal expense and less time than I’d feared without a dinghy.

 

UPDATE: We drained the water out of the starboard tube this morning. Easiest part of the whole process…

Posted in broken things, Dinghy, outboard | 2 Comments

From Brisbane to Sydney

If you follow the position tracker or the Sail Evenstar Facebook page, you know we’ve moved from Brisbane to Sydney. We moved last week, about as late as we could stay in Brisbane. Brisbane is a lovely city and altogether too comfortable, so we got pretty complacent there.

One thing I’ve noticed talking to other Americans is that many of my countryman have no idea how large Australia really is. On the US-centered Mercator projection maps we have on the walls in school Australia looks sizeable, but smaller than Greenland. But off by itself, you don’t really see the size of the place compared to North America.

It doesn’t look small, but it doesn’t really look like it should. The effect then, is that when we say something like “We’re sailing from Brisbane to Sydney next week” it doesn’t occur to some that this actually isn’t a short trip like heading out to Block Island, or even moving the boat from say, Rhode Island to Boston. It’s not a failing of the geography curriculum so much as a distortion created trying to map the surface of a globe on a flat piece of paper.

In fact, it’s about the same as sailing from Myrtle Beach to Miami; about 500 nautical miles.  And that really only covers a small part of the East coast of Australia.  Sailing from the Cape Howe in the Southeast corner of Australia to Cape York, the northernmost point of the main land mass, is almost 300 miles further than sailing from Maine to Key West as the crow flies over land (about 1,200 miles for that trip). Sailing around all the hard bits of land will put it closer to 2,000 miles.

Here is a more telling image:

Brisbane is up in Virginia, Sydney is down in Georgia on this map.

Australia has less that 1/10th the population of the U.S., which also contributes to the perception that it is smaller than it is. Population-wise, it’s not a large country but geographically, it’s huge. Unlike the U.S., the middle of Australia is nearly empty.

Taking Care of Business

Before leaving Brisbane of course we had to undo the effects of nearly three months of not moving. A lot of little things, from changing oil to putting things away where they wouldn’t fly around if we hit rough conditions. And taking care of all the last-minute things we could do in Brisbane but didn’t know how to do in Sydney, like sending packages and picking up the new grill. We finally got our act together and cast off the pilings on Saturday, December 10th.

Our first stop was Rivergate Marina, about seven miles down river from the moorings. Three months of running the generator after the trip from New Caledonia meant we needed to refuel. We got to Rivergate quickly, then spent the next hour circling in the river waiting for the fuel dock. A power outage had slowed everything down, but we got in and picked up a little over 700 liters of diesel (185 Gallons).

Next stop, Sydney!

Watching the Weather & Route

Or, maybe not.

The weather prediction for the day read 10-15 knots from the Southeast. When we left the river, the wind was blowing more like twenty-five knots and gusting higher. Moreton Bay was riled up and choppy.

In some conditions, this discrepancy in the forecast wouldn’t have been much of a problem. But it was getting late in the day, and we knew we had a lumpy trip rounding Cape Moreton ahead of us in these conditions. And the wind was expected to stay Southeast for another day after this, which would be largely on the nose for our trip South to Sydney.

As you can see in the above chart, we had to go North first to escape Moreton Bay before we could begin the trek South. What you can’t see so well there is that the area around Cape Moreton is rife with currents and shallows, and has the potential for some lumpy seas. We had zero desire to pound through this in the dark, in windier conditions than the mild forecast we had. With discretion being the better part of valor, we sailed over to the spot where the blue route up there begins (conveniently labelled “1”) and dropped the anchor for the night.

After a restful night, our first at anchor for some time, we awoke to a calm, clear morning with light breezes. After a quick breakfast we set out as the breeze started to fill. With favorable currents and a breeze behind us we fairly flew out of Moreton Bay, and the rounding was pretty easy with the lighter wind.

The wind was dead on the nose and light, so we kept motor sailing with the main up as the day progressed. Approaching sunset, the wind had picked up to over ten knots but was still in our faces. If we wanted to sail, we would be sailing close hauled, in the dark.

Sailing close hauled (right up to the wind as close as we can go) makes the boat heel a lot. More important though, it’s a trickier way to sail.  The autopilot isn’t smart enough to do it, because it can not respond to the minor wind shifts, so it will end up sailing to high and stalling the sails much of the time. To sail that close to the wind, one had to hand steer. And that only worked really well if the driver could also see the “tell tales” on the sail – small bits of cloth that clue us in to how the wind is flowing over the sails.

An eight inch strip of cloth on the bow if the boat isn’t so easy to see in the dark. Given the light air and the wind direction we decided to motor sail over night, and wait for the wind to back and fill from the North the way it was predicted for the following day.

Riding the East Australian Current

 

The EAC is nothing like you saw it in Finding Nemo. First, it’s only a couple of knots at most. I suppose if you are a three-inch fish that might feel like a wild roller coaster ride, but you don’t actually see it on a fifty-three foot boat. You don’t feel it at all, either.

Second, we didn’t see a single turtle. Seriously, not one, okay?

But we did get a nice little speed bump from the current, which was very nice. One or two knots of extra speed makes a big difference on your trip lasting two or three days.  It helps you cover an extra 20-50 miles every day.

The Wind Fills In

On Monday in afternoon, the wind finally shifted North and we cut the engine and put up the sails. It started out light, so we put up the main, Genoa, and staysail.

By dusk, it was blowing harder and we’d reefed down the main and the Genoa. Kathy and I switched watches, and by the end of her watch at 2:00 a.m. the wind had moved further North, and was now blowing steadily over thirty knots with gusts to thirty-five.

We were FLYING, with the wind and the boost from the EAC. With the wind shift, we were also flying off in the wrong direction, out so see and away from land. We were over fifty miles off shore by then, and needed to jibe back.

Staysail jibing in the dark

Jibing Evenstar in the dark with the staysail up is a slow process. Our rig requires the use of “Runners” or “Checkstays” (there is a technical difference between the terms, but I’ve heard them used interchangeably) to support the mast with the staysail up. These are lines that connect to the mast around the height of the head of the staysail, that run down to the deck. The windward checkstay must be loaded up hard and cranked down, there is a 4:1 purchase system to do this. It makes the check stay stiff as bar, and supports the most from shock loads and bend caused by the staysail.

The downside to the checkstays is that are in the way when they are tensioned. So while the windward side checkstay must be kept loaded, if the leeward side checkstay isn’t eased it keeps the main sail from moving out when the main sheet is eased.  So the checkstay must be eased before the sail can be trimmed. If the checkstay is eased, it flaps and flops around, so it must also be secured somehow. We have small bits of rope attached to the lifelines for holding the checkstays back.

The other complicating factor in the jib is the “preventer”.  Jibing intentionally is a normal, safe and reasonable maneuver. Jibing accidentally – letting the wind switch from one side of the boat to the other while sailing down wind – is dangerous, violent, loud, and can break things and hurt people as the boom slams from one side of the boat to the other with incredible speed and force. We try to avoid it.

One tool we use to avoid it is the preventer. This is another line that is run forward to a block on the bow, and back to the boom. The end of the boom has a roughly 12′ strop line permanently installed on it for the preventer. This has an eye in it, and the line that was run forward through the block has a shackle that can hook to this eye. This is actually a simpler system, because the preventer needs to be able to be run on either side of the boat, and the line on the boom end means we need shorter lines to connect it to.  The preventer is tied off at the stern cleat, so it can be adjusted without sending someone forward to handle it.

When the main sail is eased WAY out to run off the wind it’s time in put a prevent on. The line run to the bow at a steep enough angle will keep the boom from bouncing and banging as the boat rolls, greatly lowers the chance of an accidental jibe by stopping the boom from gaining enough momentum to start a jibe, and can minimize the damage if we do jibe by keeping the book from flying out of control.

So…with the ground work laid, the rough steps to jib Evenstar with the staysail up running off the wind are as follows. We’ll go from Starboard to Port in this jib, so the wind will be coming over the starboard, aft quarter at the start.

  1. Furl the head sail. Because it’s just easier (cockpit)
  2. Ease the preventer (port side, aft)
  3. Bring the boom in closer to the boat. (cockpit)
  4. Detach the preventer line from the strop (port, midships)
  5. Clip off the preventer to the lifeline to secure it (port, midships)
  6. Center the boom (cockpit), bringing the main centerline on the boat
  7. Snug up the slack in the preventer (port, midships)
  8. Detach the leeward (port)  checkstay tie down (port, midships)
  9. Pull in slack from checkstay blocks (port aft) and run to winch
  10. Tighten checkstay  with the winch (cockpit) and get the line off the winch
  11. Pre-load the lazy (unused) staysail sheet onto the winch that was vacated in step 10. (cockpit)
  12. Break (remove from the self tailer) the staysail sheet and hold it. (cockpit)
  13. Steer the boat downwind, across the wind and actually do the jibe.
  14. When the boat jibs and the staysail fills grind it in and trim it on the new tack. Also ease the other (now lazy) sheet.
  15. Ease starboard checkstay (starboard, aft)
  16. Secure the starboard checkstay; this involves easing about 80′ of line through a 4:1 block setup and walking it forward to tie down. (starboard, midships)
  17. Move the preventer strop on the end of the boom around and to the other side
  18. Ease main part way out.
  19. Ease preventer (starboard, aft)
  20. Reconnect preventer to boom (starboard, midships)
  21. Ease boom out and trim main (cockpit)
  22. Snug preventer tight (starboard, aft)
  23. Put Genoa back out (cockpit)

Simple, right?  Of course, this is at night, in the dark, when it’s blowing thirty-five knots in six-foot seas.

For this jibe, we added a couple of steps, and eliminated #23. Since it was blowing the dog off the chain and we went no slower once we furled the Genoa in, we decided we didn’t need it since all it was doing was overpowering the boat. But to make it more fun, we added a couple of steps, including:

  • Because we forgot to pre-run and secure both checkstays when we set the staysail, before step nine you need to go midships, get the checkstay from it’s “out of use” stowage spot and “install” it in operating position. This is a pain in the neck, since you have to hand feed stiff line through a 4:1 block and tackle type setup.
  • After step 14, notice that the staysail is making a weird “fwump fwump fwump” sound and shaking the whole boat. With a flashlight, figure out that somehow we managed to “hourglass” the staysail and wrap it around its own forestay. Don’t ask me how.
  • Jibe the boat back quickly, and with a stroke of luck, clear the mess from the last step by fulling the sail while sailing “wing and wing” with an over-trimmed main and twisted staysail. High fives all around for dodging that bullet, even though we weren’t sure how we did it.
  • Jibe back, trim stysail, and proceed to step 15

Generally – and I do not agree with this logic – I lose the argument about who leaves the cockpit to do this stuff. I’m stronger than Kathy, faster at these tasks and have a bit more insight into them. Kathy is quite competent, but more deliberate and less strong.

Her argument for doing the work is simply that she firmly believes the odds of me recovering her if she goes overboard are much higher than of her being able to handle the boat well enough to get me back. At night, offshore in the dark, I’m not sure how much those odds are improved by my driving, but I am more skilled and comfortable at the helm so she has a point.

This sounds wildly dangerous, and to a point there are safety concerns. We take every step we can to avoid sending someone out on the deck at night. Our hope when we started the night was to stay on this tack all night and jib in the morning, but the wind shifted and blew us offshore.

We also are very, very careful about safety when working on deck. We run “jacklines” from the bow to the stern of the boat. These are very strong webbed lines with reflective tape. Everyone always wears a PFD with an integral harness, and we have tethers to clip the harness to either the jackline or a hand piece of boat. The tethers have two lines on them, so one can clip on to a new fixed point before unclipping from the old one. So everyone operating outside the cockpit is always tethered to the boat. This is an immutable rule we follow in all but the most benign daylight conditions, although we never leave the cockpit without a PFD no matter what.

Getting Into Sydney

When we left, we figured on a three day trip. Leave Sunday morning, get in Wednesday morning. Three nights of watches.

Flying along in the EAC with a reefed main and staysail only, we were putting up some huge speed numbers. Our ETA in Sydney at times showed as early as Tuesday afternoon, so we had optimism that we might get to skip the third night of watch.

The wind did hold, and we blasted into Sydney Harbour around midnight.

Ordinarily we have a “no strange harbors after dark” rule. The charts of Sydney showed that it was an easy, easy entry with no real hazards. If you turn right right after the entrance, there is a wide open anchorage that is also easy to find and free of hazards.

So with a full moon and an easy approach…we decided to bend the rule a bit and get some sleep!

Posted in Australia, passages | Leave a comment

Something Shiny and New

Several somethings, really. For several years we’ve had a couple of items that have been vexing us. We’ve finally addressed them.

Dinghy Engine

Our main dinghy engine is a work horse. A two stroke Yahama 15 HP, it’s the de facto engine for cruising boats outside the U.S. It’s reliable, low maintenance, tough, not heavy for it’s power, and it has served us well for years.

When you live on a boat, your dinghy is your car. Unless you are tied to the dock, it is your lifeline to food, services, supplies, parts, entertainment, and just stopping that “I haven’t been off the boat for three days and I need to go NOW” sensation.

Not having a dinghy is like not having a car when you live in the country and there’s no public transportation. You will literally be stuck on the boat (in your house). Unlike a car, you just can’t get a loaner when you go to the shop. Nobody will rent you one of these.

If your engine fails, you can row your dinghy. In theory at least. Rowing an inflatable RIB is an exercise in futility in anything but calm water. With a current, you’ll be doing well just to be rowing in place. The big, fluffy, squishy hull form just doesn’t lend itself to tracking well in the water while rowing with relatively flimsy, undersized oars in oarlocks that are flexible and don’t hold well. It’s not something you want to experience, or rely on much beyond getting you back to the boat if the engine stalls less than a couple of hundred yards away.

Which brings us to the Shiny New Thing.

We’ve cruised with two dinghies, the main RIB (an AB Lammina 3.1) and a Portland Pudgy for the kids. The Pudgy has a sailing rig, and it rows pretty well. But that’s not something you want to try and do into the 2-4 knot currents you get in place like Brisbane, or that we saw in Opua, NZ and other places.

For years we’ve discussed getting an engine for the Pudgy, as a backup, in case the main dinghy was stolen, damaged, or the engine failed. And we finally dif.

The requirements for the new engine were a few. As small and light as possible – the Pudgy is only rated for a 2HP engine. It needed a long shaft, to fit the Pudgy’s high transom. We wanted a two stroke so we could easily store it without draining the oil reservoir before putting it on it’s side. And of course…cheaper is always better.

A number of options were explored, from Chinese knockoffs of Yamaha standards setters, air cooled Honda four strokes (expensive, loud, and four stroke), things that looked like weed whackers with propellers on them (loud, dirty, but very, very cheap) and other possibilities. The major problem is the Long Shaft. Most outbaords have a 15″ shaft, and this works for most boats. The Pudgy…not so much, since it has a higher transom. This severely limited the engine choices, since almost no outboard manufacturers offer their smallest engines in a 20″ Long Shaft option. The smallest Yamaha with a 20″ shaft is a 5HP which is too big, too powerful, and too expensive. The annoying thing is that a Long Shaft engine is the same engine, except it has a a five inch spacer stuck between above the lower unit, and a 5″ longer shaft inside it.

We ended up with a Tohatsu 3.5HP long shaft to stroke. It is an identical engine to their 2HP model, with different carburetor jets and exhaust. But the 2HP is not available in a Long Shaft; even though they could offer it in a 20″ (same engine, same parts as the 3.5HP), they don’t choose to. The Pudgy scoots along well with it, and it will happily drive the big RIB at hull speed (not fast!) around half throttle.

Ours looks just like this. Except it’s got a five inch spacer above the propeller. You can’t even find a picture of the Long Shaft version!

Grilling!

For four and a half years we’ve carried a grill around on the back of the boat, a Magma Catalina. We used to bring it in and stow it for passages to protect it. But it stopped working. The inside guts rusted out years ago and it stopped working. So we left it on the rail, and when we got an opportunity, got some parts for it.

One of these, installed just like there. We even had the optional tool tray. You can not cook that much food on this grill, BTW. Not even close.

Then I tried to fix it. The second I touched some of the internals that looked in place, they crumbled into rust dust. So now I had spare parts with no way to attach them, and no working grill.

I must confess, I never liked this grill. It didn’t heat evenly, temperature was tough to control, it did’t actually get very hot, and it was tough to clean. We have been through three grills since we’ve owned Evenstar. The best was a West Marine 180SS, now discontinued. The rail mounts on that gave way and it flipped over while I was cooking once, dropping several steaks, and more importantly, several key grill components, into Block Island’s Great Salt Pond. Since the grill was discontinued, I couldn’t replace the parts.

The next was a Dickinson Spitfire. People raved about Dickenson grills, so I tried one. Hated it. Tried it again. Hated it more. A grill must actually produce enough head to sear things. Gently warmed raw meat isn’t what I’m aiming for. That grill ended up in a marine consignment shop.

Enter the Magma Catalina. It worked OK for a while. Frustrating, but functional. Over time it deteriorated. It was also a single burner grill. Yeah, I know – it’s a boat grill. Before we moved on board I had an outrageous grilling rig with gas, charcoal, and a smoker, and did some pretty serious work for a Yankee. Even with indirect heat on the gas side of it. While nothing on a boat will compare to slow BBQ done over indirect heat with hickory wood chunks, at least with two burners you can turn one off and try some indirect heat cooking!

I dreamed of new grills. I looked at them in New Zealand, but prices were mad, and the one grill we liked the look of didn’t have any mounting hardware for boats. Why sell it in a marine store, then?

In Australia, there is a serious marine/RV grill maker, who makes the Galleymate marine grill. I found them online and was impressed by the web site and their claims. Not blowing out in up to forty (40!) knots of wind, easy to clean. High quality construction. And TWO BURNERS. But boy were they expensive. Then we saw one in a store.

What a contrast between the Magma, which is made with very thin steel, to this grill. It is SOLID as a rock, a heavy, strong design. Nothing flimsy and light, the steel has to be at least double that of the Magma.Well thought out, with nice features for cleaning and operation, and more cooking area. The mounting system also looks well engineered and stable, with a quick release for easy stowing.

We also checked the prices on the Magmas, which are imports here from the U.S. because the Galleymates seemed too expensive. And wouldn’t you know, they were almost double the cost of buying the grill stateside.

Suddenly, the Galleymate didn’t seem so expensive. Not when they were a couple of hundred bucks more for a grill that is several times the quality.

Note the split grate/solid cooking surface. Grilling on flat surfaces is an Aussie thing we’ve not figured yet.

So we labored over which one to get. Two models beckoned, the 1100 and it’s larger cousin, the 1500. The latter cost about $350AUD more, and had more cooking area. But of course it was larger, and harder to store. Eventually common sense and reason won out. 99.8% of the time we were grilling it would be for three of us; in to years it will be for two of us. So we went with smaller, less expensive, and easier to stow.

We’re still waiting for all the mounting hardware we need, but we can use it on the deck. Except I’m not allowed to play with it until we get to Sydney!

Oh yeah, this grill can take a rotisserie.

In the following video, the grill on the left (the big one…) is the one we ended up with. He talks specifically about our model about 7:00 into the video.

Did I mention we got a rotisserie with it?

Posted in Cool Gear, Cool Stuff, Coooking & Food, Dinghy, outboard | 1 Comment

Living Large in Brisbane

First, of course I must make the obligatory apology for the lack of posts of any sort since arriving in Australia. After an initial flurry of touristy activity, we settled into a comfortably mundane routine, which you most assuredly so not want me blogging about in detail.

The trip here was pretty uneventful and easy, and the clearing in process with Customs and Immigration was remarkably easy. We’d feared a long bureaucratic process, but the officials were waiting for us on the dock and it was a breeze. We expected a hassle based on accounts we’d read, but the Border Security people were polite, professional and prepared and it was an easy process.

Parked

The view from the Companionway. We are IN the city.

Yeah, we’ve been parked in Brisbane for close to three months. It’s easy to do.

The City Council has a number of pile moorings available in the Central Business District, near the City Botanic Gardens. They are available on a first come, first serve basis, and they are quite reasonable at $70 AUD weekly. With the mooring comes access to showers, heads and a laundry facility. And most important, a waterfront spot to enjoy a thriving metropolitan experience.

Simply put…it’s too darn comfortable here. There are grocery stores in an easy walk, dozens of restaurants, a broad arrange of every sort of store you might need, parks, walking paths, public transportation. Domino’s delivers to the dinghy dock for Pete’s sack. You can not get more seductive than that after traipsing across the remote areas.

But than needs to come to an end. Will is coming back to the boat in just over a week, and we’ve got more family coming to visit during the holidays and they’re all flying into Sydney. So today is our last day in Brisbane; tomorrow we get up early in the morning and leave on the ebbing tide.

Playing Tourist

We arrived in Brisbane all in a flutter because it was our last bit of time with Will before he returned to Southampton, England for school. With him heading half a world a way (literally…it’s like twelve time zones) we wanted to make the most of our time with him here in “Brisvegas” as it is often referred to by the Australians.

In the week or so he had to see it, we scrambled to take in the Maritime Museum, the Botanical Gardens, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, rides on the high-speed ferries, and repeated multiple visits to Will’s newest favorite burger joint.

How can you not love these things?

Lone Pine

The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary was one of several firsts for us. It was our first exposure to a lot of Australian wildlife up close, and our first experience on the Brisbane buses.

We headed to Lone Pine for Kathy’s birthday, where we spent the day looking at Kangaroos, Wallabies, Koalas, Wombats, Platypuses, Tasmanian Devils, Goanas, Emus, Echidnas, Flying Foxes, and a host of other Australian snakes, birds and fauna. They literally have hundreds of Koalas at this lovely park, and has in unusual scent from all the eucalyptus the small bears hang about in while eating and sleeping most of the day away.

We all thought that the overbearing cuteness of the Koala was something that was done to death, and they really couldn’t be so huggable in real life. We were wrong. The zoo keepers are the sanctuary handle them constantly, and they pick them up and move them around from tree to tree. The Koalas sit there, grabbing whatever you stick them on just like those goofy little Koala clips we all had. They really do that, you can just pull one of one tree and stick it on another. We sent the birthday girl in for a picture holding one, so Kathy and Danielle got to pet one up close.

We were surprised by a few things we saw. For example, all of us had always envisioned a duck-billed platypus as a fairly large creature, maybe the size of a beaver. They aren’t though, they are quite small. Closer in size to a ferret than a beaver. They are also wildly impractical creatures than swim with a charming wobble and a ridiculous side to side sweeping motion of their heads as they look for food on the bottom.

Tasmanian devils on the other hand were larger than expected, and considerably more charming. In a zoo setting they were pretty laid back. Apparently in the wild their calls and noises belie their relatively benign and somewhat huggable appearance.

Queensland Maritime Museum

With a Naval Architect in training in the family, and us a bunch of sailors that live on a boat, we rarely miss a Maritime Museum. Though the information in some of the displays is often repeated between them (yes, we know what a Fresnal lens by now and how to pronounce it since they all seem to talk about lighthouses!), they still have a lot of interesting information, and of course boats.

The interest in boats in our family runs from Will, who can easily arrive at a maritime museum at opening and will need to be forcibly removed and fed to avoid collapse or being locked in, to Danielle (“Another Maritime Museum? Seriously guys?”). Somewhere in between like Kathy and I. But these museums have tons of information not only about boats and shipping, but generally the growth and development of the local area as it relates to shipping, maritime commerce, shipbuilding, piracy, and so on.

But a lot of it is the boats, and there were some cool ones at this museum. Will could have stayed longer if we all weren’t so hungry!

Public Transportation

Coming up the Brisbane  River on Evenstar, one is almost immediately struck by the ferries. With luck, this is a figurative strike and not a literal once, since dozens of ferries ply the river. Since the city is split in half by the river than snakes through town, the ferries are an extension of Translink, the public transit systems, and not a system of boats on their own. They range from the somewhat portly “Cityhopper” free ferries, to the sleek and fast “City Cats” that move in excess of twenty-five knots.

On first seeing a City Cat, Will immediately wanted to ride one. Because, well, Yacht Designer. As it turned out, riding one is no more challenging and expensive than taking a bus!

Meeting Friends

For years I’ve been a participant in an online sailing community. In that time I’ve made many friends around the world. One of the highlights of coming to Australia is finally meeting some of them! It’s really nice to finally get to shake hands with a guy you’ve known through correspondence for almost fifteen years, or be invited to the home of someone you’ve had many pleasant conversations with out there on the internet.

While keeping privacy, I’ll say that meeting some of these folks has been the brightest of visiting Brisbane. One thing I’m looking forward to in Sydney is meeting even more of my Oz compadres.

Taking Care of Business

Brisbane is the largest city we’ve been to on the boat since Panama City in 2013/2014. Auckland is a good-sized city, but it’s smaller than Brisbane, and we never parked the boat there.

Being in the city gives us a chance to get some stuff done. There are chandleries one can take a bus to. Haircuts and shopping, shipping packages, getting things fixed. We’ve been away for a long time from someplace where things were relatively easy to come by and we’ve been trying to catch up. So it’s been new cell phones, new clothes, a grill for the boat, and some repairs when we’ve found parts. There’s always a lot more to do, but we’ve spent a lot of time playing catch up.

Mundane Life

Probably the largest intrusion in to my ongoing blogging is the mundane. We’re parked in a place with great internet, Will’s off to college, and we’re just…living day to day life. Kathy and Danielle are doing school every day. I’m been writing and pitching a book, trying to find an agent. We get water, we shop, we cook, we clean. We Skype with Will and other family. We do repairs, like patching a leaky dinghy or fixing an outboard that keeps stalling.

This is not the stuff of fantastic blogs. It’s not the stuff of interesting blogs.

Except maybe the water. That is an aspect of liveaboard life most people don’t appreciate.

Tied to a dock, one usually has a tap right there in the slip. Topping up the tanks is a no-brainer. We don’t stay at a lot of docks, and we’re on a mooring now. So there’s no water tap. Nor is there a water/fuel dock within miles of this location where we could slip the mooring, motor over, and take on 250ish gallons of water; enough to hold us for a couple of weeks. When we’re not at anchor we usually run the water maker. But the Brisbane river is to…chunky. I tried, the filter clogged in about five minutes.

So we get water the time-honored way boats have gotten water since the first time a boat sailed out of sight of its home port. We schlep it, manually.

At least we’re not moving it in wooden barrels from an unexplored stream on islands with hostile natives.

Instead, there is a spigot on the other side of the river that can be reached at high tide. Most of the boats here fill up from this tap, though the longer term residents are more efficient than we are and have more tanks and cans. We grab our two water Jerry jugs (5 Gallons/20 Liters) and our two collapsible camping tanks (~15L each). As the tide rises, we zoom across the river in the dinghy and duck under the section of the river walk were the tap is, about a quarter-mile from the boat.  There is a hose on it (which we repaired once) and we quickly fill out tanks. We take our roughly seventeen gallons of water and head back to the boat, where we dump it into the main tanks. Lather, rinse, repeat three or four times every couple of days. Shower on land, and don’t waste too much water washing the dishes!

Exciting, eh?

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