Preparations for Sailing Offshore, Part Three - SailNet Community

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Old 09-25-2001
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Liza Copeland is on a distinguished road
Preparations for Sailing Offshore, Part Three


Boat shows can serve as a strong reminder regarding any maintenance you might have neglected on your own vessel.
In the last month, I’ve worked at two outstanding boat festivals. The first was organized by the Metal Boat Society in Vancouver. This was the first time they had included a mini boat show to go with their informative seminars, and I was impressed not only with the enthusiastic participants but also by how many sailors are building their own boats. Last weekend, I attended the Wooden Boat Festival in attractive Port Townsend, near Seattle. It was the event’s 25th anniversary and the numbers of lovingly restored and maintained wooden craft were impressive. The brightwork gleaming in the fall sun and sails billowing against a blue sky with snow-covered Mount Baker towering in the distance made for an inspiring sight.

Both events served as excellent reminders regarding the importance of getting back to the basics. Although many sailors enjoy sophisticated systems on board, when preparing to go offshore one should always keep in mind that these might fail at any time, putting a priority on navigating the old-fashioned way. When you're considering blue-water cruising, being involved in installations and thoroughly knowing a boat’s systems are invaluable opportunities, as are the following precautions:

Fuel    We take clean fuel for granted in the so-called first world. Elsewhere fuel is often contaminated with dirt and water, which must be removed before it reaches the engine. Furthermore, older boats that experience a bad pounding at sea may have debris or sludge shaken loose within their tanks, which can clog the fuel line and stop or damage the engine.


Keeping the fuel free of contaminants is one of the best things you can do for your boat's engine.

The use of a Baja filter/funnel will catch some of the dirt and water at the time of filling (old pantyhose will also work) but there is no substitute for a good filter system that can purge both particulate and liquid contamination between the tank and the engine filter. We have twin Racor filter/water traps aboard Bagheera, which can be switched instantly in the event of trouble. We also carry enough of our preferred lube-oil, transmission oil, and various filter cartridges for at least six changes. Those sailors headed out cruising should plan on taking biocide to add at each filling as well. Microbes will thrive in any moisture in the tank, feeding on the hydrocarbons. A black sludge can develop that will ultimately clog your filters as soon as the weather shakes it up. Once your fuel tanks have this contamination they have to be completely purged, and as such it is best to avoid the problem from the beginning.

Many boats have inadequate fuel capacity for long passages and additional fuel may have to be carried in flexible fuel tanks that stow in lockers, or in those badges of the ‘true’ cruiser, in jerry-jugs along the deck. Jerry jugs should be fastened securely on deck and in such a way that they do not put undue stress on the stanchions or lifelines. A system for transferring fuel from these to the main tank—even in bad weather—should also be thought of before you need it. We use an Australian self-starting, siphon tube.

Water    On a long passage, water is a precious commodity. Unless the boat is equipped with a water-maker, water will have to be rationed, meaning that the water pressure system will be turned off and that foot or hand pumps will be have to be used. In the galley, salt water will be used wherever possible including washing-up, with another foot pump needed, although an in-line electric pump as well makes galley life easier. Fresh water can be unsafe to drink in many places unless treated with chemicals, usually chlorine or iodine. To make it taste reasonable (for us tea is always the ultimate test), fit a large water filter using charcoal cartridges.

"We spent nearly a year in the Indian Ocean without ever getting water from a tap, instead we existed on rain from tropical downpours."
As a minimum, tanks should be large enough to carry half a gallon per day per crew for 150 percent of the voyage’s expected duration, although we try for a gallon. This doesn’t allow much for personal hygiene, but one gets used to a saltwater wash followed by a wipe down with a washcloth and a cupful of fresh water! Catching rain and leading it into the tanks is both practical and labor saving. We spent nearly a year in the Indian Ocean without ever getting water from a tap, easily existing on the rain from tropical downpours that we caught in the awning and through a pouch in the mainsail at the gooseneck and hose led directly into the deck filler.

A watermaker probably makes the biggest contribution to comfort on board during a passage. After over 40 years of cruising, Andy still can’t reconcile us having long showers, hosing down the cockpit, washing up in fresh water, and making ice in the middle of the ocean!


Even low-maintenance items like winches need occasional TLC to ensure that they work well when you truly need them offshore.
Although we have used watermakers on other vessels and found them temperamental and noisy, Bagheera’s Spectra, installed three years ago, produces a reliable eight gallons an hour. It is powered by our solar panels and operates so quietly that we often don’t notice that the tanks are full and that we are simply pouring fresh water back into the ocean. However, a watermaker is not for everyone. They are high-maintenance, needing to be run virtually daily. A fresh-water flush is required if not being run for a few days and chemical pickling if longer. This then, has to be purged before sweet water can be obtained. Regular chemical cleaning, both alkaline and acid, and frequent filter changes keep an owner busy.

Electronics    Not many cruisers are proponents of the ‘kerosene lamps and bucket toilet’ approach to cruising. Modern aids and equipment vastly improve the safety and cruising enjoyment, and most people preparing for prolonged voyaging add gear that has not been needed for local sailing.

Upgrading the electrical system, enlarging battery capacity, and improving the charging systems is one of the most important upgrades. It is unwise to go to sea with old batteries. Have your boat’s batteries checked and replaced unless they still retain 90 percent of their original capacity. A high-output alternator together with a ‘smart’ regulator is very cost efficient. The engine runs under a greater load, which is good and also runs for a shorter time, also good. The batteries are charged efficiently and fully, greatly extending their working life. Be sure to have enough batteries to run your systems. We have expanded our battery bank to 690 amp-hours, and use good quality wet-cell deep cycle batteries. We monitor charge and discharge amps, battery voltage and have an alarm that sounds at 12.2 volts, so never allow our batteries to discharge more than 50 percent.

"Only larger vessels have room for built-in AC generators, but there are some small water-cooled, diesel powered DC generators that are growing in popularity."
Battery chargers from shore power which operate on North America’s 115-volt 60-cycle AC supply will not work in most of the rest of the world where 220 volts and 50 cycles are the norm although duel system charges are available. Consider adding solar-panels, wind or water generators or a prop-shaft driven alternator to keep up with onboard electrical demands. We find our solar panels an excellent source of free power, requiring only an occasional washdown. Carefully consider where to mount them as even a small amount of shadow will cause a considerably larger percentage loss in output. Mounted aft, suspended over the steering station is common. Our wind generator is also efficient, particularly when there is more than ten knots of wind, although it is noisy over 20 knots. Only larger vessels have room for built-in AC generators, but there are some small water-cooled diesel powered DC generators that are growing in popularity. Some boats also carry portable, gas powered gen-sets such as the Honda units.

Before setting off, you may need to upgrade the electric bilge-pumps, pressure water pumps, lighting and other electrical components, making sure that you bring an inventory of spares and repair kit, including bulbs (don’t forget the nav-lights!) and fuses. Are there enough circuit breakers in the DC panel? Is there a good alarm system? In Bagheera we have alarms for various engine functions, for propane gas, smoke, and also one which sounds if the bilge pump ever operates.


If you've got a large arsenal of electronics on board, it's wise to spend some time getting to know each unit's quirks well before you head to sea. And keep the manuals handy too.
Electronics have in the last few years become more reliable and considerably more affordable. Most offshore cruiser will have some or all of the following: an SSB marine or Ham radio, weatherfax, radar, chart plotter, depth, speed, and wind instruments, as well as GPS and self-steering. Many will have a computer on board, with weatherfax and chart plotting programs and a demodulator for email via SSB radio. Satellite telephone systems are also common although still expensive for the budget cruiser. Spend some time reading through the manuals and practicing with these instruments in calm waters before leaving. Most have many functions and far more uses than initially realized. (See Cruising for Cowards for an in-depth analysis.)

We also have a full chapter on lightning, so important do we think this matter is, after being struck off the South African coast—in the black of night of course! A lightning strike is likely to ‘kill’ all electronics unless protected in a metal ‘Faraday’s’ cage. The oven will do, though it’s better to have a metal box or lined locker for your hand-held spare GPS, your portable VHF radio, and a spare quartz watch (you may be back to celestial!). Make sure that the mast is properly grounded so that structural damage is limited if the boat is struck.

Mechanical    Depending on your route and destinations, an inventory of spares and materials will be needed. Most of the world uses the metric system, so zincs, cutlass bearings, gland packing, nuts and bolts to suit your vessel should be carried. Workshop manuals for the engine, outboard motor and generator also need to be onboard. (My next article will deal with specific tool and spare parts for systems.)


By checking and servicing your roller-furling units prior to an offshore trip, you can avoid the unexpected while en route.
A great deal of grief can be avoided by fully checking all mechanical systems before setting off and replacing anything old or suspect. This includes the drive train, steering, all pumps and plumbing. The seacocks are particularly important. The engine should be thoroughly checked out and overhauled if required, the gearbox, cooling system, generator, starter motor and injector pumps included. Consider switching to synthetic lube oil, which gives far greater protection, particularly if oil change intervals are stretched.

There are only a few more things to consider for our final article in the ‘preparations for going offshore’ series. If you are feeling overwhelmed, rest assured we all do at this point, but just a little more time and energy is needed before freeing those lines from the dock and heading off into the sunset!


Suggested Reading:

Offhore Preparations, Part Two by Liza Copeland

Preparing to Sail Offshore, Part One by Liza Copeland

The Forgotten Lessons of Heavy Weather by Beth Leonard


Buying Guide: Roller Furlers

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