Readying a small boat for a Pacific crossing (published December 2015)
Outfitting a boat for an ocean crossing is no easy task. Like so many aspects of cruising, every decision represents a trade-off: cost versus utility, safety versus comfort, savings versus preparedness. Given a finite amount of space, what should your priorities be?
Having completed an Atlantic crossing on an earlier trip, we were able to make informed decisions about exactly what gear we wanted for the Pacific. Crossing the Pacific on a relatively small boat brings its own set of challenges and rewards. We knew we’d have to remain self-sufficient for long periods of time and manage our resources carefully. Economy of space and price were top priorities: our wish list was long, but our pockets and lockers only so deep, so we knew we couldn’t have it all.
Bit by bit, we settled on a final list and set off. Of course, every sailor has a different definition of what constitutes a “necessity.” What follows is our version, tailored toward outfitting a small boat for a big ocean on a moderate budget.
In preparing our sloop for departure, our biggest expenditures were safety gear and sails. We upgraded to a Viking Resc-You life raft for two reasons: first, it’s service interval is three years, and second, there are service stations around the world. At the same time, we repacked our grab bag with fresh flares and supplies and made sure to update the emergency contact information on our EPIRB.
Just as important as that gear, however, is preventative safety equipment that costs a fraction of the price, such as quality life jackets, tethers, and jacklines. Many boats run jacklines along the length of the deck, but surprisingly few install a jackline in the cockpit. We find the cockpit jackline equally important since it allows us to clip in before leaving the cabin. It’s easy to make your own: just use a length of heavy line attached to U-bolts that are securely mounted to the cockpit.
In terms of safety equipment, we also consider an SSB transceiver an absolute must. With our SSB and a Pactor Modem, we could download email messages and weather reports, as well as report our position to radio nets during blue water passages. SSB radio nets are a great resource where solutions to problems can be solved using the collective knowledge of the cruising fleet in multi-party conversations. Radio nets also build camaraderie and provide entertainment during long days at sea. Satellite phones are expensive (both the device and minutes of service) and do not offer the same range of advantages, in our opinion.
Our budget allowed for a radar that we rarely used—but when we did, we were glad we had it. We also carried an AIS receiver which was useful off the coast of North America and Australia, though rarely inbetween. The Pacific is full of small fishing boats of dubious accountability, and only a fraction transmit an AIS signal.
Our GPS, radar and AIS units were standalone devices with their own displays. While we relied entirely on paper charts for our Mediterranean/Atlantic/Caribbean cruise, in the Pacific, we gradually shifted toward electronic charts. We used an old laptop running OpenCPN (a popular open source charting software) and interfaced to our GPS’ NMEA output as a chartplotter. Still, it wasn’t until Fiji that we started using electronic charts for coastal navigation, and even then, we always carried paper charts as a backup.
In Panama, we came across a wonderful—and free—computer operating system called Navigatrix, created and maintained by sailors for sailors. Navigatrix includes a comprehensive compilation of electronic tools for navigation, communication, information and security, ideally suited for use on a boat (including OpenCPN Chartplotter, zyGrib GRIB file viewer, Airmail for HAM and Sailmail, GPS interfacing, MS Office compatible word processor and spreadsheet, and more). It is extremely robust and can be installed on the hard drive alongside your current operating system or run from a 4 gigabyte USB stick (hence it works even if your hard drive doesn’t). Navigatrix comes fully preconfigured and can be downloaded for free at www.navigatrix.net.
With Navigatrix, we could remove the hard disk from our navigation laptop and run the software from an SD card. This reduced the laptop’s current draw to about 1 Ampere—a lot less than a typical marine chartplotter. This is something to keep in mind when considering electronics and computers for a Pacific crossing. You should also remember that you’ll be without Internet connectivity for long stretches, which means you can’t always keep up with automatic downloads for software patches and security updates. This was another advantage of Navigatrix: it works out of the box without the need for constant updates.
One of the advantages of buying a used boat is the wardrobe of sails that often come with them. Our Dufour had already been equipped with a removable inner forestay and two staysails (including a tiny storm jib). We rarely used these sails, but were glad to have them the few times we did encounter a gale. In fact, we used the “baby” staysail several times but never used the storm trysail we carried. When we left North America, we also carried a triple-reef point mainsail, a light-weight 130% genoa, and an innovative new head sail we call a twin genoa. It consists of two lightweight genoas sewn onto the same luff tape that can be flown wing on wing downwind or lying against each other on other points of sail.
On long downwind passages, we always flew the twin genoa at night since one person could roller-furl it quickly from the cockpit in case of a squall. By day, we switched over to our Parasailor: a spinnaker-like sail with an air slot and a lifting “wing” that makes it ridiculously easy to set and fly. We loved this sail not only for its efficiency, but also for the dampening effect it had on the boat’s roll.
From our first trip, we knew we could count on our 44 pound Rocna anchor for holding in just about any kind of conditions. However, the 100 feet of 10mm stainless steel chain that served us well in the Mediterranean and Caribbean would not be adequate for many deep-water Pacific anchorages. Therefore, we swapped the chain for 200-plus feet of 8mm galvanized chain. That’s one of the many trade-offs of cruising: weight versus length and price. We packed an additional one hundred feet of line to extend the overall rode length. In a stern locker, we carried two Danforth anchors and another thirty feet of chain and line for the rare instances when we anchored bow-to-stern. One good snubber and a second back-up line worked wonders, even when we sat out several gales at anchor.
Power is another subject that merits an entire chapter, especially since different crews have vastly different power needs. Some crews rely heavily on generator power, which seems illogical given the abundance of wind and solar energy, not to mention high fuel prices and distances between fueling points. Their decks are typically cluttered with jerry cans which can reduce mobility on deck and pose a hazard in rough conditions.
For us, it made more sense to minimize our power consumption and make the most of available space by using a flexible arrangement of renewable energy sources. Our sloop carried four solar panels (for a total peak output of about 150 Watts), of which two were permanently mounted on the dodger. The other two could be set up either on the bow, atop the bimini, or amidships. We also carried a dual tow/wind generator: on passages, we towed it off the stern rail, and at anchor, we converted it to wind mode and hoisted it on the inner forestay. With this arrangement, we could meet all our power needs at anchor or underway, by day and by night, and on cloudy or windless days. It was a rare occasion when we had to run the engine to power our batteries.
We managed very well on these power sources because we do not rely heavily on powered equipment such as a watermaker or autopilot. Our Hydrovane self-steering worked extremely well throughout three years of near-constant use. The auxiliary rudder also gave us a secondary means of steering should our main rudder sustain damage.
We only ran our ancient refrigerator for basic cooling purposes when power permitted. With good insulation, we found that running it for a few hours at night was sufficient to keep staple items cool all day. This worked perfectly for cheese and beer but not for fresh meat, which we generally did without (instead, we relied on canned chicken, eggs, and quality canned hams). In a similar vein, our only source of warm water was a solar shower which was very effective when the sun was out. (When it wasn’t, we used the stove to heat water.) Solar showers come in various models: check for one with a sturdy nozzle that’s easy to turn on and off.
Using a foot pump to bring fresh water to the galley sink helped us reduce our power needs, too. The foot pump also gave us the ability to draw very small amounts of water—say, for brushing teeth. Similarly, we used simple solar garden lights as additional anchor lights in crowded harbors. Resource-conscious as we were, we never felt like we were roughing it. On the contrary, we reveled in the simplicity of it all and had correspondingly fewer electronics to maintain or repair.
On hot tropical days, it’s vital to shade the deck from the sun. We created a large deck awning for days spent at anchor from an old sail and used smaller hatch covers underway. As for cockpit shade, we like having a system that folds back easily for those glorious nights under a starry sky. The biggest improvement we made to it came when we paid a New Zealand canvas maker to replace and redesign our aging bimini. She added an infill flap that zipped into the open slot between the dodger and the bimini – a simple addition that made a huge difference to perceived space on board. We used it at anchor on rainy days to create a protected space in the cockpit. The new bimini also came with a rain-catcher fitting that helped us augment our fresh water supply.
Many sources recommend carrying a hard-sided dinghy for the coral shores of the Pacific, but this wasn’t an option given our deck space. We used a mid-sized inflatable Zodiac throughout the trip, and though the dinghy floor was heavily patched by the time we arrived in Australia, the outer shell never suffered a puncture. It was small enough to fit on deck for short day trips in good weather, but for longer passages, we always deflated and lashed it at the foot of the mast (for lack of locker space). The outboard sat on a bracket on the stern rail and we used a pulley system to lower it with relative ease. Sounds complicated, but we could have the dinghy and outboard stowed very quickly once we got the hang of it.
A small cruising boat doesn’t have much room for fun extras, like the kayak I always dreamed of. I finally got my wish in a sturdy inflatable model that could be bundled into a relatively small space in the cockpit locker. My fears that the kayak would meet an early demise against the coral of the Pacific were for naught, and it performed well in all but the strongest cross-winds thanks to an attachable skeg. The kayak served several functions: as a secondary dinghy, so our crew could go to two different places at the same time; as a vehicle for shallow-water exploration; and finally, as a playtime platform for the kids while at anchor.
GAS AND WATER
Like many boats, we used LPG gas for cooking and consequently had to deal with different systems and standards as we crossed the Pacific. Standard North American propane bottles are handy since they can also be filled with butane—provided you have the right adapter. However, local businesses in French territories are only permitted to fill blue butane bottles (the type used in Europe). A typical way around this is for several crews to buy one large butane bottle together and gravity feed their propane bottles, then return the blue bottle to recover the deposit. In most other islands of the Pacific, you could practically show up with a plastic bag and find someone willing to fill it with the local LPG mix. New Zealand requires that gas bottles are locally inspected and stamped for a fee. North American steel propane bottles will meet local standards but lighter weight fiberglass or aluminum models may not.
Remember, there aren’t many marinas in the Pacific, and it’s often necessary to jerry-jug water from ashore. Rather than carrying large jerry cans for transporting water, we kept a large supply of five liter bottles which were much easier to carry and hoist from the dinghy to deck. We found outstanding water quality on many of the islands we visited, with few exceptions (the Galapagos Islands, Hiva Oa, and several dry atolls). Using our 70 gallon supply sparingly, we were able to stretch our fresh water for over six weeks at a time.
In our three-year trip, the coldest temperatures we experienced came when we left the US East Coast for the Caribbean in November, and in leaving New Zealand for Fiji at the end of May. I was happy to have a few layers of warm clothes, though I kept the selection small since they would only be used for a week or so at most. In terms of foul weather gear, look for a jacket with a fleece liner at the collar and forehead; otherwise, you’ll soon feel chafe. Given the warm temperatures, I didn’t invest in quality pants. Instead, I used inexpensive fisherman’s overalls over polypropylene long underwear the few times I needed protection against cold and damp (perhaps 10 times over three years).
Most of the time, we wore light summertime clothing: T-shirts, bikini tops and lightweight, quick-dry running shorts (these are comfortable, have a built-in liner that eliminates the need for another layer, and dry quickly). Finally, a wide-brimmed sun hat is a must for any sailor. Look for a hat that cinches under the chin and can also be tightened around the crown of the head to help it stay put in a blow.
Another important piece of equipment is a sturdy bucket with a reinforced handle and line to scoop salt water for various uses. We also carried a three-foot wide inflatable child’s wading pool that fit into the floor space of our cockpit. The original idea was to have a safe, on-board recreational option for a three-year-old. Soon the pool was serving double duty as an inflatable laundromat, either in a marina or at anchor—a very practical accessory!
After our first sailing trip, I learned the value of nesting tupperware: it takes up a fraction of the space a mismatched set of containers does. Plastic egg cartons are worth their weight in gold, as is a selection of Zip-loc bags in all sizes.
As for reading material, we became Kindle converts during our sailing time. Much as we love the feel of a real book in our hands, there’s nothing like the huge capacity and convenience of an e-reader. I’ll never forget the time I was pining for a new title off a remote Fijian island and found just enough of a signal to download exactly the book I wished for—bliss! In e-readers as in any other portable devices, it pays to consider battery life and power consumption. Our basic models could run for days, even weeks, before recharging. Newer models with extra features consume much more power. No matter what devices you choose to carry, make sure you can plug them in on board. Twelve-volt chargers for almost any small device (including camera batteries and e-readers) can be found on the Internet.
For the most part, we didn’t miss what we didn’t have, since the Pacific made up for it all with a thousand other prizes. If we could have somehow fit more on board, I would have liked a portable printer to print photos for the friendly islanders we met along the way. A printer would also have allowed us to print notices for enterprising locals who offer their services to boaters. A watermaker would come in handy for extended stays in lonely atolls with no reliable fresh water source, though the cost, space, and power trade-offs ultimately struck this item off our list.
Ultimately, every crew will create a unique list of equipment they deem critical. Some crews carry SCUBA gear and compressors to make the most of diving opportunities in remote locations. Others bring all the comforts of home along for the ride and have the space to accommodate them. If this style of cruising is for you, go ahead and enjoy. If, however, your budget or tastes run to the more Spartan end of the spectrum, don’t worry: your Pacific experience will be every bit as rich and comfortable as theirs. A voyage of a lifetime isn’t defined by discretionary gear but by balmy days, fresh breezes, and a constantly stimulating environment at sea and ashore —all of which the Pacific provides in generous supply.
Nadine Slavinski is the author of Lesson Plans Ahoy: Hands-On Learning for Sailing Children and Home Schooling Sailors. Together with her husband and young son,she cruised the Atlantic and Pacific aboard her 1981 Dufour 35, Namani. She is also the author of The Silver Spider, a novel of sailing and suspense, as well as Pacific Crossing Notes: A Sailor’s Guide to the Coconut Milk Run. (See nslavinski.com for more information and free resources on home schooling).