Essential Upgrades to an Offshore Cruising Boat


Preparation is the key to happy, safe cruising in a well fitted out cruising boat  (published October 2017)

When you are getting a boat ready for sailing offshore and passagemaking, there are a host of upgrades to any boat that need to be checked off the to do list. If you are starting fresh with a new boat or modifying and improving a used boat, you need to think about the health and safety of the crew, the condition of the boat and its gear, and you need to have in mind the kind of cruising you will be doing and the cruising grounds you will be visiting. Here are nine upgrades that most experienced sailors will consider at the top of the list.

Most modern cruising boats do not come with an inside helm where you can stand watch out of the weather. Instead, most cruisers need to add canvas to the cockpit to provide relief from wind, rain, spray and, most importantly, the sun. Sunbrella is generally considered the best fabric for cockpit canvas.

The first item here is a dodger that covers the companionway and the forward end of the cockpit. A good dodger will have a very sturdy frame that will stand up to a boarding wave. It should have large isinglass windows and stainless-steel hand holds on the after end and both sides so you have a place to grip as you leave the cockpit. A zippered window in the middle front of the dodger will allow breeze to cool the cockpit on warm days and it should be large.

A Bimini over the helm(s) and aft end of the cockpit will give you lots of shelter and will be useful in both hot sun and light rain. You’ll be surprised how effective a good Bimini can be keeping you dry in a drizzle. The frame needs to be built of heavy stainless tubing that is well anchored to the boat. The top of a Bimini is a great place to add large solar panels, but doing so will make the Bimini a permanent installation.

The insert that zips in between the Bimini and the dodger will keep the cockpit well shaded in tropical conditions and will keep most of the rain out of the companionway. The insert is usually taken out when not needed so you can see the mainsail and the sky. Side panels are common on boats that cruise in cooler climes and these are most often large sections of clear isinglass or plastic that can be rolled up and stowed away.

A cruising boat that is going to be anchoring most of the time and exploring far and wide depends on its anchors as the most basic insurance. The rule of thumb for cruising anchors is to carry at least three primary anchors, two of the hooking type and one of the fluke type. The fluke type is for soft sand and mud bottoms that you are likely to find up deep harbors or rivers where you may be seeking shelter from a storm. The hooking types are all-purpose anchors. Modern hooking anchors, like the Mantus, Rocna, Manson and Spade, are superior to the old plow and less likely to foul than a Bruce. Size the hooking anchors at one and a half pounds for every foot of waterline; the fluke anchor can be lighter and a Fortress will be even lighter since it is made of aluminum. If you carry a stern anchor, often a fluke type that stows easily in a cockpit locker is the best choice.

An all chain rode makes life worry free and it is easy to handle if you have a proper windlass. Three hundred feet is a common length. BBB chain is popular and high test is better and costs more. You should have two spare rodes with at least 20 feet of chain and 200 feet of nylon rope.
The anchor windlass does all of the work in your anchor system and needs to be powerful, reliable and easy to maintain. Vertical axis windlasses have all of the gearing and motor below deck while horizontal axis windlasses are all above deck. Do not skimp or buy a bargain windlass; your boat and your life will one day depend on it.

Most cruisers use high quality Dacron sails from a reputable sailmaker and go with a mainsail (and mizzen), a moderate, high cut genoa, a staysail if possible or a smaller bulletproof jib, and a downwind sail with an ATN snuffer.

If your sails are getting tired and you are planning to make some miles offshore, then it is definitely time to replace them. Make sure your sailmaker knows your planned cruising routes and how long you will be away. If you stress quality and durability, you should be able to get 15,000 miles from your sails as long as you protect them from UV rays as much as possible.
Instead of buying a storm tri-sail, most skippers today are having their mainsails built with three reefs instead of the standard two. And, instead of buying a storm jib, many skippers are going with ATN’s Gale Sail or a smaller bulletproof jib on the roller furling.

For downwind sails, most folks are using asymmetrical reachers that don’t require a pole. That’s fine but you should rig a spinnaker pole with a toping lift anyway to use when you want to pole-out the genoa to run wing-on-wing. So, if you already have a pole, then a symmetrical, traditional spinnaker makes a lot of sense and the new Parasailor is proving very popular.

The difference in boat speed between a fixed three bladed prop and a feathering or folding prop is pretty dramatic and can be up to a knot through the water. So, if you are sailing from Hampton, VA to the BVI with the Salty Dawg rally – 1350 miles – you can knock off 24 miles a day or 150 miles on the while trip. That’s a full day.

The choice is between feathering and folding props. The venerable MaxProp is a feathering type; when no power is applied to the shaft, the blades fold flat and reduce drag. Folding props, like the Gori, fold aft when not working and create a very low profile and thus much reduced drag. Both types work well and are very reliable in the long term. Pitch can be an issue with feathering props but there are two props, MaxProp and the innovative J Prop, that can be adjusted with the boat in the water.

This is a huge topic and requires a lot of thought and planning. Yet, the basics are simple: carry a quality, inspected life raft, a well-equipped ditch kit, an EPIRB, PLBs for the crew and make sure you have a way to call for assistance with two-way communication via SSB or Ham radio, SatPhone or satellite device.

Set the boat up so crew can be clipped in when they come on deck and where ever they are on deck. Quality inflatable life vests, tethers with clips that won’t self-open and robust jack lines are essential. But you will need a man-overboard system that will allow you to find and bring aboard a person who may be injured from the water.

Take a US Sailing Safety at Sea course and spend time with veteran offshore sailors to get a handle on best practices and best gear when you set out to make your boat safe for all the crew.

The world of marine electronics is evolving quickly and innovations and improvements appear in the market every year. So, if you are on a three-year path of preparation for an ultimate cruise, save the electronics for last so you can start with the latest and greatest. But, don’t select items that have been on the market for less than six month to avoid getting something that still has a few bugs in it.

It all starts with GPS, radar and the autopilot, the essentials. But today, modern marine electronics are built around a multi-function display that used to be called a chartplotter. The MFD is then linked to the GPS, radar, AIS, the speedo-log and the sailing instruments as the brains of the operation where everything can be seen and operated. It is prudent to select a brand of electronics, one that is well known and supported worldwide, and stick with them for all items in the system. Mixing and matching brands is a recipe for problems down the road.

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is the best innovation to come along in many years and will help you avoid collisions with ships and other vessels. Do not leave it off your list. The autopilot will do most of the steering, so make sure you have the system spec’d out properly and that the drive arm is plenty strong enough to handle your boat. Bring spare parts for the autopilot; you may need them.

There are two things to think about when planning out the energy system for your boat, how to get as much low cost and reliable energy into your battery as possible and how try to keep your energy footprint from getting out of control.

Build a battery bank that will be the boat’s energy backbone. For a standard 45-foot cruising boat, a 400 amp hour capacity bank is about minimum, which translates into four Group 31 batteries which are light enough for a normal person to lift and carry. Such a bank can also be charged efficiently by a small-case 100 amp alternator. But, if you go with a huge bank – 800 amp hours with four 4D batteries – you will have much more capacity and longer periods between charges. Plus, you will have to switch up to a large case 180 amp alternator.

On this backbone, and with the correct alternator, you can add both solar and wind generating systems. Each has its advantage and together they cover the widest range of weather and wind conditions. If you can have both aboard, go for it. If you have to choose one over the other, then solar has proven to be the best value for money and the more reliable energy source. Water generators work well on passage and can generate a lot of capacity.

If your boat is big enough, it will be tempting to add a genset which erases most energy capacity problems while adding a whole new complexity to the boat. If you add a genset, you don’t have to make the upgrades already mentioned. But you do have another engine that gives off exhaust to maintain. It’s a trade off.

To reduce your energy needs, switch out incandescent lights with LEDs from the masthead tricolor right down to the cockpit courtesy lights. Your electric bill will drop by 75%. And to get the same 110 volt capability a genset provides, you can add a high output inverter that will run hair dryers, toasters and coffee makers.

Your boat will have a refrigerator aboard but you will have to assess if it works well enough for your long term living aboard needs. In most cases the answer will be, marginally. Insulation and the system’s efficiency are key elements. Adding insulation all around the box will help. Adding a second compressor can help. And installing a dedicated freezer that you rarely open can help.

It is worth consulting an expert who can fairly appraise your boat, your fridge and the spaces available around it. In the end, you want to be able to keep some supplies frozen and most fridge contents cool while running the compressors as little as possible. And, just about every cruiser knows this is a high bar to jump over.

Watermakers are not new inventions and are not new to the cruising fleet, but the modern systems are so much more efficient and smaller than they were that it is really sensible now to install a well-designed and easy to maintain system.

The key to a successful installation is the ability to get at the filters and pump easily for routine maintenance. The more careful you are with the water you put through the pump and filter, the longer both will perform to their best. And, the more conscientious you are about routine maintenance and seasonal pickling, the better the system will perform.
Watermakers can really improve life aboard and make the cruising experience more like home.

Author: Blue Water Sailing


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