by Jeff Williams
Blue Water Sailing
J/40 GRYPHON REFIT
She’s now safe and reliable – and still fun to
About three years ago my wife Raine and I sailed our J/40 Gryphon down Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay under the Newport Bridge and south past Block Island. It was a fairly typical late season sail – blustery winds, scudding cumulus clouds, and chilly air – except that we never turned back. Now, 15,000 miles later, we’re sitting in Port Moselle Marina in Noumea, New Caledonia, having cruised the Caribbean, transited the Panama Canal, and crossed the Pacific.
Before leaving Rhode Island we had performed a fairly intensive refit of Gryphon, converting her from a weekend cruiser/racer into a blue-water, liveaboard boat. In the process – we added, we serviced, we rebuilt, and we replaced – nearly 100-plus projects, big and small, were completed. Altogether we felt we assembled a cohesive and sensible set of systems with which we could live safely and comfortably for some years to come.
Each of our decisions – my engineering background demands that I organize and categorize projects like these – fits neatly into one of two categories: “good” and, well, um, “other.” By describing some of the distinct winners and losers that hindsight now makes obvious as well as some generalizations based on our experiences, perhaps what we learned can benefit other long-term cruisers.
The first, and most far-reaching, decision we made was to do extensive open-ocean sailing in a J/40 – not the sort of boat that first comes to mind when people think of a liveaboard vessel. For us, it was – and still is – the right choice. Beyond the basic needs of safety, comfort, size, and budget, we wanted a boat that would be fun to sail. Gryphon has answered, and answered ably, in all of these categories.
We’re not racers, but we appreciate a boat that can sail quickly and handles nicely. From the Galápagos to the Marquesas we logged 175 miles each day; from the Virgin Islands to Panama we had three consecutive days of 200-plus miles, just on main and jib. She is an easily driven boat that performs well in light air, but she can be reefed down and balanced well in 30-plus knots when necessary.
There’s a single notable disadvantage to the J/40 as a liveaboard boat – a lack of storage volume. This means that the second cabin often becomes the repository for spare sails, bicycles, and other bulky items. We added storage space by modifying the aft berth, converting the centerline space to storage compartments and shelves, and by having a custom cabinet made for under the saloon table. And although the second head could be considered overkill, the two-cabin layout has allowed us easily and comfortably to accommodate friends during long passages.
When we purchased Gryphon, she was fitted out as a weekend cruiser only. The electronics consisted of a VHF radio, radar, and sailing instruments; the GPS was dysfunctional. Three old gel-cell batteries were wired together and charged from an automobile alternator and regulator. The sail inventory seemed extensive at first but turned out to include two battered mains and several worn and worthless genoas. The words “ground tackle” would more accurately read as “dock lines.”
To convert Gryphon from a casual weekender to a safe and reliable floating home, we concentrated on making her sturdy and, to a high degree, easy to operate. Much of the refit took place at Warren River Boatworks in Warren, R.I., where their attitude of rugged and proper installations meshed exactly with our needs. Sturdy – as applied to both the equipment and the installation – implies reliability, an important characteristic when cruising beyond the reach of 1-800 service calls, and it means more time devoted to cruising, less to maintenance or repairs. Reliability also comes through redundancy, multiple pieces of equipment that can perform the same task independently. And operational simplicity suggests convenience and usefulness, without which equipment may go unused and thus be little more than excess ballast. Our mindset was, “Do it right, do it once.” Gear that we bought was high quality, or we found a way to do without it. A dodger, for example, that cannot stand up to the occasional boarding wave is worse than useless.
Certainly one area where reliability and ease of use is important is safety equipment. We discovered that the ORC Special Regulations provided handy guidance for the best equipment to carry and for specific safety improvements we could make to the yacht itself. The definition of a Category One race involves long distances offshore and requires self-sufficiency and preparedness for serious emergencies without outside assistance – exactly the conditions of blue-water cruising. These rules were born of years of racing involving countless boats and crews facing all types of conditions, and they have benefited from the hindsight of both success and tragedy – their purpose being to thwart the latter. We treated the rules as a checklist, and we feel confident in the results. Thankfully, I cannot testify to the worthiness of any of our safety equipment in extremis since we haven’t had to deploy any of it in earnest.
An important safety improvement that we made to Gryphon was the addition of storm ports to cover the opening portlights. The Bowmar ports on the J/40 are up to the task of keeping out spray or the occasional deck-washing wave over the bow, but the compression-gasket closure seems inadequate to stop a boarding wave that breaks against the coach roof. The storm ports are simple 3/8-inch Lexan plates that fully cover the portlights when attached. They are held to the coach roof by two bolts, one at each end, that are fastened to stainless-steel threaded receivers which in turn have been permanently mounted beside each port. Mounting or dismounting the eight storm ports takes less than ten minutes, and, having now been nearly knocked down by a breaking beam sea, we are convinced that these were a worthy investment for both comfort (never a leak) and safety.
Ground tackle is a frequent topic of conversation among cruisers. Our choice is a 45-pound Bruce anchor with 200 feet of 5/16-inch, hi-tensile chain. The Bruce, which we used on a previous cruising boat and on several charter boats, has served us extremely well, and we’re still happy with our pick. Speaking honestly, though, a casual dock survey shows that the CQR (and derivatives) is the most popular anchor out there. The 200 feet of chain may be overkill – perhaps 150 feet would be sufficient – but anchoring in depths of 80-plus feet with plenty of scattered coral heads has been common ever since we sailed into the Society Islands. While we do carry two complete rodes on the bow, we could count on one hand the number of times that we used both anchors. A stern anchor would be many times more useful.
The windlass that we added is the Lewmar Ocean Two with gipsy and capstan. It has been 100-percent reliable (although the “waterproof” circuit breaker turned out not to be) and has required only minimal maintenance. It does have one significant inherent drawback that took us some miles to understand and circumvent – the hawse pipe is insufficiently protected from boarding seas and tends to ship large quantities of water. As Gryphon’s anchor locker drains directly into the deep bilge, this is a major disadvantage. Even on a boat with a watertight anchor locker, the amount of water shipped will damage quickly the electric motor and corrode the transmission and mounting. We fabricated a plastic-and-leather panel that is bolted in the place of the normal hawse cover and that completely seals the hawse pipe during offshore passages. Since we usually move the anchor off the bow during long passages anyway, it’s no additional inconvenience to close off the hawse pipe in this manner.
THE ELECTRICAL SYSTEM
Most cruisers these days have hefty electrical requirements demanding large-capacity battery banks and charging systems adequate to the task. Gryphon is no exception with our PUR 80 watermaker and Glacier Bay 12-volt refrigeration system. The two house batteries are 8-D absorbed glass mat Lifeline batteries from Concorde. We have been very pleased with the operation of these batteries, including the sealed aspect of them and their high-acceptance charge rate. The two house batteries are normally kept electrically paralleled to provide maximum capacity. In the event of a battery failure, however, this redundancy allows the failed battery to be taken offline and the boat to be operated completely on the remaining healthy battery. Further redundancy is provided by a small maintenance-free wet cell, which is used only for engine starting.
We have four distinct means of charging the boat’s batteries – solar, wind, engine, and shorepower – all of which can operate independently and/or concurrently. Our assumption was initially that the solar and wind sources could produce sufficient energy to meet our daily needs. While this is probably true on average, it does not take into account the exceptionally high current drain of the refrigeration system (35 amps), and we have found that running the engine for the (roughly) 45 minutes per day required by the refrigerator satisfies that system’s demand and tops off any other accumulated deficiency. Other normal daily electricity consumption is usually offset by the solar and wind sources. That said, however, on a passage with a fresh breeze or in an anchorage in trade-wind conditions, the wind generator will produce a constant 10-12 amps and can easily keep up with all of the electrical needs. The equipment we installed is as follows:
• Solar – Siemens high-efficiency panels. Two panels are bolted permanently to the coach roof in a way that one is nearly always in full view of the sun, while the other may or may not be shaded by the boom. We chose to install the panels in a manner that would require no attention from us, especially in preparation for rough conditions. The trade-off is that our panels are not oriented optimally for maximum output, but, alternatively, they exhibit zero windage and have weathered all wind and sea conditions faultlessly.
• Wind – Fourwinds II generator. This generator produces high-current output, especially in trade-wind conditions (12-18 knots). The suggested benefit of some (small) output even at low wind speeds is superfluous in a system with loads like DC refrigeration and watermaker. The generator was purchased secondhand; the rebuild was simple, and the company’s service excellent.
• Engine – Hamilton Ferris 120 amp alternator with Heart Incharge three-step regulator. Flawless. Operates as advertised. Need I say more?
• Shorepower – Heart Freedom 10 (combination inverter and charger). Ditto. While the 1,000-watt inverter output may seem excessive for a boat with no microwave oven or TV, it has been used innumerable times for power tools including a drill, sander, and heat gun. When traveling outside North America, 110-volt AC power is only available if we generate it ourselves.
A couple of noteworthy items regarding shorepower include, one, that we had to purchase a step-down transformer in New Zealand in order to use the domestic 220 VAC supply. It’s the same here in New Caledonia. If I were preparing the boat today I would include a transformer as a permanently wired component in the shorepower system. And two, every country (and sometimes each marina!) seems to have its own “standard” AC plug and socket. A 100-foot extension cord can be refit at each location with a local plug from an equally local hardware store.
Having mentioned a couple of the significant DC loads on the boat, I should elaborate that both the Glacier Bay DC refrigeration system and the PUR 80 watermaker have performed well for the past three years. The refrigerator, in particular. It was switched on in Rhode Island in October 1998 and not switched off until our short haul-out in New Zealand in November 1999. The PUR 80 has accumulated over 1,000 hours of operation with consistently excellent results. I recently serviced the pump, replacing the seals and changing the gear oil (a normal 1,000-hour requirement), and was particularly impressed with the thoroughness of the PUR documentation and the ease of the service procedure.
Finally, a few generalizations with regard to the electrical system:
• Electrical demand only rises. In my observation, most people only add or upgrade equipment during their cruising tenure and electrical demand only goes up. Plan for spare capacity initially.
• Systems with DC motors are less efficient at lower voltages. Quoted production rates are always given for some specified operating voltage that is often the higher voltage seen only during charging. Running on batteries alone will reduce output below specification. Plan accordingly.
• While we never expected to spend significant time at docks, we have done so during the South Pacific cyclone season in New Zealand and now in New Caledonia. A DC-powered refrigerator has turned out to be an apparent (albeit quite circumstantial) stroke of genius. While other cruising boats endure the noise and smoke of engine-powered systems, ours just hums along on demand directly from shorepower (via the charger and batteries).
Here is a category that will undoubtedly engender strong opinions and reactions. I’ll limit my discussion to only two systems – the biggest winner and the biggest loser. When we purchased Gryphon, she already had a basic Nexus instrument system, consisting of windspeed, depth, and speed transducers, and two multifunction displays. Given this base we chose to elaborate on the system and added displays, an integrated autopilot, and a GPS interface. After some initial problems with autopilot/instrument software incompatibilities, the system has turned out to be incredibly stable and convenient.
A J/40 is commonly steered by sitting outboard at the helm. At each of these positions we have one multifunction display. There is a third display above the companionway in sight of the helm and everywhere else in the cockpit. The beauty of the multifunction display has been that the most pertinent data can be displayed in a manner that is most effective for wherever the helmsperson is situated, whether that be at the helm itself or elsewhere in the cockpit while the autopilot drives. If sailing on the wind, or perhaps downwind, wind angle can be prominently displayed. When sailing on an easy reach, navigation data (bearing to waypoint, cross-track error) can be shown. While navigating in soundings, depth can be shown. In each case the helmsperson can decide which information is displayed where and can easily cycle through the entire suite of data.
Belowdecks at the chart table, a Nexus remote control provides total access to the instrument data as well as control of all system operations – including the autopilot. The remote is on a long cord that allows the helmsperson to move to the companionway in the protection of the dodger and still steer. The Nexus system has turned out to be a delight to operate and in every way has met our needs.
On the other hand, every mariner has his or her albatross and ours is a SGC 2000 single-sideband radio. Our first bad experience with the radio occurred less than six months after installation when the transmitter failed in the Caribbean. It was there that we discovered that SGC’s “No compromise” warranty was limited to the United States and that we would have to pay the not inconsequential shipping charges to and from St. Maarten. SGC’s explanation for the failure was simply “component failure” and that it was in no way related to usage or installation.
The radio has continued to operate poorly on an intermittent basis, including being unresponsive to front-panel key presses and occasionally failing to transmit. SGC’s only response is to request the return of the radio yet again for servicing. Not likely from the remoteness of the South Pacific. In the past six months the antenna tuner has also started to misbehave, and it now no longer tunes and we cannot transmit.
I understand fully the meaning of statistical data, and anecdotal examples should not condemn completely. Yet, since our problems with this radio started, I’ve made a point of questioning every SGC owner that I come across regarding the reliability of their radio. Without exception each owner has had to return his or her radio at least once to the factory for servicing.
A few additional, random discoveries that we’ve made over the past 15,000 miles:
• You can never have too many tie-down points on deck.
• You can never have too many lights.
• You can never have too much shade in the tropics.
• A stern arch will accommodate a dozen additional items initially forgotten.
• Leaks suck.
• Big lures attract big fish.
•And, finally, in big bold print, underlined, and embossed – Know Thy Systems.
Cruising aboard Gryphon since October 1998 has been delightful. We have entertained friends and family on short passages and on long. We have met some wonderful people, made friends for life, visited exotic islands and anchorages, and, just in general, made a life of this lifestyle. We give a lot of credit for our pleasure to Gryphon – her heritage as a J/Boat, her solid construction by TPI, and our own attitude of reliability and low-maintenance throughout the fitting out process – and we look forward to more pleasure-filled years cruising and exploring.
LOA 40’ 4” (13.0 m.)
LWL 35’ 0” (11.3 m.)
Beam 12’ 2” (3.9 m.)
Draft 6’ 5” (2.1 m.)
Displ. 21,000 lbs. (9,545 kg.)
Ballast 7,500 lbs. (3,409 kg.)
Sail Area 733 sq. ft. (24.4 sq. m.)
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