How we prepared our boat in Mexico to go offshore (published October 2013)
Sailing is pretty basic; as long as the boat floats, has sails to push her, and can be steered in the right direction, you will eventually get where you want to go. Like many cruisers who enjoy some creature comforts though, we forgot or chose to ignore this when fitting out our Beneteau First 405, Hydroquest, for offshore cruising and the process became an extensive one-year undertaking. But we did it this way because we wanted Hydroquest to be as safe and comfortable as possible, and also fall within our budget and time frame.
We purchased Hydroquest in Guaymas, Mexico—a town in the Sea of Cortez, 1,600 miles from our hometown of Vancouver, BC—with the dream of sailing her 8,000 nautical miles to Australia. What better way to start a sailing trip than with a very long road trip? So we packed our bags, filled the car full of boat gear we thought we’d need, and hit the highway in early January 2011. Crossing the Mexican border with a heavily laden Volvo station wagon was an interesting experience, especially after we spent five hours at customs, but it certainly contributed to the excitement of the early days of our adventure.
FITTING OUT IN MEXICO
We expected outfitting Hydroquest to be one of the major disadvantages of purchasing a boat in Mexico. But it didn’t turn out to be difficult at all, and we had the opportunity to work on the boat in beautiful ports and eat lots of cheap tacos along the way. We drove most of our gear across the border ourselves and had other large items sent from San Diego to La Paz at a reasonable price.
Hydroquest had been well taken care of by her previous owners and came equipped with some excellent gear including a Garmin chartplotter, Raymarine radar, Raymarine hydraulic autopilot, new sails, including an asymmetrical spinnaker, and an EPIRB. Electronics are more difficult to import into Mexico than other kinds of gear, so we were happy to have some of those items already installed.
There are no West Marine stores in Mexico, but many of the small chandleries are surprisingly well stocked. Finding oddball parts normally involves a long, hot walk around town, visiting a few different stores and backtracking to the first store before finally coming up with an out-of-the box solution. Being patient and having a good sense of humor makes it all a lot more fun. We did most of the work ourselves but found that, when needed, there were many good tradespeople in all of the larger towns.
It is possible to get stainless, canvas, mechanical and electrical work done at good prices, although the tradespeople are in high demand during the Mexican cruising season so some waiting is always involved. One of the great things about the cruising community is that when someone is having difficulty with a project, there’s always another cruiser on the dock who will offer advice or a helping hand. Many of our projects would not have been completed without the know-how, tool lending and assistance of fellow cruisers.
Gear We Added:
We added two 80-watt solar panels on top of a bimini that we constructed. Finding a place to mount the panels so they wouldn’t get shadowed was difficult, and it would have been nice to be able to articulate the panels to make them more efficient. Our solar input in the South Pacific has been considerably less than Mexico due to the trade wind clouds and periodic squalls. This is something that should be factored in when determining how much solar to carry.
We added a Hydrovane self-steering system. Without being too biased, I must say that this has been one of our most valuable pieces of equipment. A commonly reported gear failure among offshore sailors is the electronic autopilot, and this generally comes from boats that do not have a good windvane to rely on. It can be hard to envision the demands of being at sea 24/7 for three weeks straight. Being able to lock off the wheel, engage the vane and let our dependable Hydrovane, “Ernie,” take over is always a good feeling. It also takes the load off of our main steering system and the motion of the boat is much less dramatic because of the fixed main rudder. We certainly would not attempt any offshore passage without a windvane and it appears that many offshore sailors feel the same way. A survey of 29 cruising boats in Neiafu Harbour, Tonga revealed 65 percent with self-steering gear. For many boats, their self-steering windvane is the only piece of “essential” gear they can name.
AUTOMATIC IDENTIFICATION SYSTEM (AIS)
We installed a new Standard Horizon GX2150 VHF with built in AIS receiver (there is no transmitter). This $300 purchase has paid for itself many times over; being able to see and call other vessels by name has been invaluable, especially when you need to wake up the deck officer of an oncoming freighter. However, as we’ve since been told by Standard Horizon, it is important that this model of VHF have a dedicated GPS feed or else an alarm will go off every four hours to tell you that the position is not up-to-date. Ours gets its GPS location from the chartplotter, so when that is turned off we get Beep! Beep! Beep! every four hours. This is extremely annoying and doesn’t help make friends with neighboring boats when the radio is left on by mistake.
PRIMARY ANCHOR AND BOW SET UP
We upgraded to a 45-pound Manson Supreme anchor and kept the 35-pound Delta as a backup. We also upgraded our bow roller to extend further forward so we wouldn’t damage the hull when lifting the anchor in rough weather. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a robust anchoring setup. In the South Pacific there are very few places to tie up, so a majority of our time has been spent at anchor, sometimes in water as deep as 60 feet. The only dock we’ve tied to was a med moor in downtown Papetee.
We added an ECHO Tec 13 gallon per hour 12-volt watermaker, which has been a real luxury. Not only do we have great tasting water, we’re also more independent and don’t have to be constantly looking for our next source of potable water to jerry can back and forth to the boat. We generally run the watermaker when the engine is running, and in many cases have arrived in port with full tanks. We are still careful with our water, but when at sea we are able to shower every second day.
SINGLE SIDE BAND RADIO (SSB)
We couldn’t see the value in purchasing a brand new SSB radio and tuner so we were on the lookout for a second hand system. We managed to find one in Mexico—an SCG radio and Kenwood tuner—but struggled mightily with the installation and set-up. Two days before we left Mexico, we had a very knowledgeable and kind fellow cruiser get it working for us, but unfortunately, our ability to transmit was lost on our third day at sea. Many of the boats we have met and are now traveling with do not have SSB radios either, so we haven’t missed it. We keep in touch at sea by text messaging with our satellite phones.
We chose the four person Viking Offshore liferaft housed in a valise. It was the easiest installation we had to do. The liferaft was shipped with a freight forwarder from San Diego. We were a bit anxious that customs would want to open the bag and have a look inside, but luckily that didn’t happen.
MAINSAIL REEFING SYSTEM
Reefing the sails is part of the daily routine when sailing in the South Pacific, so it needs to be an easy and quick process. We ran the mainsail’s first and second reefing lines back to the cockpit and found a sail loft to cut a third reef point for us. After thousands of miles, we have yet to use it—knock on wood.
The little things that make a big difference:
FANS – If you plan to sail somewhere hot, don’t skimp on the fans. Every sleeping berth should have one and it makes a world of difference to your comfort. We installed Hella-Turbo fans because of their quiet hum and low amperage draw.
12 VOLT CHARGERS – Purchase 12 volt power chargers for all of your electronics—laptops, iPad, etc. These take away your reliance on the inverter and help conserve power.
LED LIGHTS – All lights should be LED. It’s so nice to turn on lights and not have to constantly worry about the amperage draw. They also transmit less heat, which is important when cruising in the tropics.
USB Wi-Fi BOOSTER – Pay-for-service Wi-Fi hotspots can be found all over the South Pacific islands. One of our last minute Amazon.com purchases was a cheap Wi-Fi booster that has worked well and allowed us to access Internet from the boat in many ports.
BUG NETS – Believing that nets would make a big difference, Sarah spent many hours at sea sewing no-see-um nets for all of the hatches. There was no need to bother; we haven’t used them once. There were far more anchorages with mosquitos and no-see-ums in Mexico than the South Pacific.
What we should have done differently:
We thought Hydroquest was power-neutral, but that turned out not to be the case. In the year we spent in Mexico, we became accustomed to plugging in at a marina every few weeks to do projects. We didn’t properly consider the fact that we weren’t going to be docking in another marina until we reached Australia. Had we wanted to plug in our 110 volt AC system we would have needed some sort of converter for the 220 volt feed. As mentioned before, there have been many poor solar days in the South Pacific and we do so much sailing that it’s sometimes an annoyance to run the engine. We definitely should have added more solar panels or considered a wind generator—not great for Mexico, but certainly worth it in the South Pacific—or even a small suitcase generator.
Anchoring in deep water has been necessary on a few occasions, so we think we should have added an extra 50 feet of chain to bring our total to 250 feet. We are lucky to have friends who carry dive gear onboard and we’ve already had to have our chain unwrapped from bommies (coral heads) once. If you have your own dive gear, it’s a good idea to bring it.
We have not run our fridge, except for special occasions, since we made landfall in the Marquesas. It is a new Dometic fridge with a seawater cooling pump, installed by the previous owner, but the power draw is too much to keep up with. In hindsight, we should have further insulated the fridge and made the fridge compartment much smaller. There’s not much to put in it because you don’t need to refrigerate fruit, vegetables, or eggs, but it would be nice to have cold milk once in a while. We drink our boxed milk warm—not my favorite, but a small price to pay for cruising in paradise.
All in all, we have been pleased with most of the decisions we made when fitting out Hydroquest for the South Pacific. Moving from the “fitting out” phase to the “enjoying cruising” phase has been a wonderful adjustment and we feel like all our hard work has paid off. We have been amazed at the range of boats we’ve seen—small, bare bones pocket cruisers to fully loaded offshore thoroughbreds with enough power generation to feed an entire anchorage. At the end of the day though, we are all here in the South Pacific living the same dream, which has been nothing short of amazing.