The Importance of Access

Broken Through-hull
Okay, that’s bad… Now, how tough is it going to be to work on?

Many do-it-yourself boat owners joke about “boat yoga”, which is the act of contorting oneself to try to work on otherwise inaccessible parts of the boat, but good access to everything is vital. It’s not the sort of feature that attracts crowds at a boat show, but there are few things more important on a serious cruising boat than easy access to every corner, every fastener, and every component of all the systems. The more a boat gets used, and the older it becomes, the more this holds true. The ideal would be some sort of access for every square inch of the inside of hull. Planning for access when designing and building something as complex as a cruising sailboat is is not always easy to do, but every hour spent ensuring that an actual human being can reach and work on everything inside that boat is time well spent.

I can’t count how many times a small task–one that should have been simple and easy to accomplish, like replacing a hose or a fastener–became a difficult slog simply because the components were difficult or impossible to access. I have spent many hours squeezing into cramped engine compartments, reaching into bilges or behind cabinetry, cursing glassed-in fasteners or hoses, and trying to pull wires through spaces that were never designed to be accessed once the factory had closed them up. As a boat ages, eventually every system and most every fastener will need to be serviced if one wants to keep that boat in good working order. If that boat sees a lot of ocean miles, all of the mechanical systems will need regular service, possibly under conditions that are less than ideal. For example, if a fuel filter can’t be accessed quickly enough it could easily mean serious damage, or even loss of the boat. That’s no exaggeration. It has happened many times.

Most of the time I spend on boat projects is spent dreaming up ways to actually be able to get to the part that I need to work on. The task might be simple–replace a y-valve, for instance, but the space too small to even allow me to see the mounting screws, let alone give me room to try to wrestle the stuck, old hoses off the piece before trying to get in there with a new one. What might take less than an hour with easy access to the part can easily turn into a long, frustrating battle.

Contessa 26 Cockpit engine access
Engine access on a Contessa 26 is mostly gained by taking up the cockpit floor. This can be a problem in rough weather!

Considerable time is spent maintaining a cruising boat if one wants to keep things in top condition, and occasionally major repairs to systems and structure are necessary. Easy access can make this work, if not a pleasure, then at least straightforward. Even simple maintenance tasks are complicated when access is poor. How many boat owners are ignoring things that they know need service simply because poor access make working on those things a burdensome task? Many seacocks, for instance, die prematurely because they are difficult to reach, so they don’t get opened and closed regularly. It used to take me more than an hour to change the impeller in the raw water pump of the engine on my old Contessa 26 because I had to take the entire water pump off in order to have enough room to pull the impeller. I had to remove the cockpit floor to change the oil. Needless to say, I didn’t check those things as often as I would have if the access had not been so demanding.

Engine fuel is filtered through oversized dual Racor system for dependability

The primary fuel filter for this engine can be reached through a cockpit locker. 

Good access is about more than making a job easy–there is a safety factor as well. I have already mentioned the importance of being able to quickly get to a primary fuel filter, but there are many other things that need at least reasonably good access even if they aren’t frequently serviced, such as the shaft packing. It doesn’t happen often, but neglected shaft packing has caused boats to sink. Through-hull fittings–even ones above the waterline–should be placed where they can be reached because hoses can crack, and through-hulls can fail. That easily-forgotten little drain fitting near the waterline might become a real problem if the hose breaks. Many chainplates–those very important parts of a sailboat that transfer all the rigging loads to the hull–are neglected until they fail, simply because they are located where they are difficult to inspect or replace.

If the hull is breached for whatever reason, the chances of being able to effect some sort of repair are greatly enhanced by simply being able to get to where the leak is. Even finding a leak can be troublesome on some boats. I once sailed on a boat that began taking on water from an unidentified source when we were almost 100 miles from the nearest all-weather inlet. By the time we made it into the harbor I was pumping every 30 minutes to keep the water below the floorboards. The boat had a structural grid fiberglassed into the hull. Water could flow under this, but there was no access to the space between the grid and the hull except through a small hole where the bilge pump was placed. Though I had spent hours searching, I couldn’t find the source of the leak until after we docked and a strong wind blew up a chop from astern. A locker drain in the swim platform had cracked between the locker and the hull, and I could only see it squirting water into the boat when the short waves from the harbor slammed forcefully under the counter. The clearance was too tight between the bottom of the locker and the inside of the hull to even reach my hand in from inside the boat, so I had to put some waterproof epoxy over the crack as a temporary measure and then wait to repair it from the outside after the boat was pulled out of the water.

Engine access. Alternator replacement
Repairing the systems is a fact of life on a cruising boat. It’s best if they’re easy to get to!

How to access the systems is always one of the first things on my mind when I inspect a boat. How easy is it to access the service points on the engine?  Is there somewhere, if not comfortable, then at least manageable to sit or lie when working on the engine? (This is something that needs to be doing regularly, so it’s worth taking the time to try it out rather than just looking in and thinking, “Well, it looks a little tight in there, but it’s probably not too bad…” I’ve thought that before, and then later found that I had to modify tools to fit those awkward places.) Can I easily reach all parts of the steering system? Are the important parts of the electrical system easy to reach for inspection and service? How difficult is it to inspect the bilge pumps? Tanks? Hoses? Can I follow the propane line from tank to stove and reach all the connections? If there is a cabin liner, can I still get to deck fasteners and backing plates? Can I get to the fasteners for the chainplates? Has provision been made for removing the engine? How about cleaning and repairing the tanks? Can the bulkhead tabbing and hull/deck joint be inspected? Centerboards and daggerboards can be difficult and expensive to service on any boat, though they are wonderful for reducing draft. The hinge pin and lifting mechanism on a centerboard will need attention eventually. There are many more things that could be put on this list, for sure.

Certain construction methods naturally leave better interior access than others. Fiberglass boats with individually glassed-in bulkheads, screwed or bolted cabinetry, and removable ceilings and overheads with no fixed liners are relatively easy to work on when it comes time to repair them, whereas boats that are built with full liners can be a nightmare when it comes time to service certain systems or fittings if the liner was not designed with adequate access points. A full fiberglass ceiling liner is easy to keep clean, but might mean cutting a lot of holes when the deck fittings begin to leak, for instance! Even a partial liner can be a problem. Here’s a common one I see:  showers built in such a way that the drain fittings and hose are not accessible.

Metal boats built with flat bar or plate stringers, rather than “T” shaped, allow one to reach all interior surfaces. Interior accommodations on steel boats are ideally demountable for interior inspection, painting and repair, as steel usually rusts from the inside out…

Wooden boats need good air circulation throughout their interiors to avoid rot, and should to be built so that all corners are accessible for cleaning and inspection.

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen anchor locker
Idle Queen’s anchor locker access just didn’t cut it.

On my own boat, the Dreadnought 32 named Idle Queen, there is good access almost everywhere. This is something I was looking for specifically when I decided to buy her. Idle Queen was in need of a major refit when I found her, so I knew I would be inspecting and probably working in every nook and cranny. There were only a couple of square feet that I could not easily reach when I bought herjust the farthest forward part of the anchor locker. I can’t quite squeeze past the Sampson posts to reach the inside up there at the very point of the bow. Well, it came as no surprise to me that during her refit I had to get into that space in order to remove the fasteners that hold the gammon iron to the stem. After some reflection, (and some time spent trying to tape the nuts to my wrench, which was in turn taped to a boathook in an effort to start threading them onto their bolts without being able to get my hands in there), I ended up putting an inspection plate in the deck to replace the port chain pipe to solve the problem of how to access that small area. This change allows future access to the space as well as giving me a place to put an extra ventilator when in harbor. Whenever I work on something that didn’t have good access, I always try to allow for future service.

Idle Queen has a few unusual features that make her most-serviced systems easy to live with. She gives up a lot of interior space to her engine room, but that makes working on the engine a breeze. Changing the oil takes all of ten minutes, including cleanup. All of her tanks are placed far enough away from the hull that it is possible to get behind them, and every tank can be removed by unbolting the tie-downs. Pumps are placed where they are easily removed for service, and hoses and wiring run where they can be inspected and replaced if needed.  She has insulation throughout most of her hull, but holes have been cut to access fasteners. I can reach my hand into every corner of the bilge, even the deepest part, and I can physically climb into the lazarette. Hiding systems took a backseat to serviceability when they were installed. I actually appreciate Idle Queen’s utilitarian finish.

Easy access to most everything aboard Idle Queen has helped to keep the number of enjoyable hours spent aboard ahead of those spent contorted and frustrated at having to spend a lot of extra time doing something that is only difficult because it is problematic to reach. Of course, I still tend to underestimate how  many hours will go into my boat projects on Idle Queen, but at least it’s not often because I can’t figure out how to access what needs to be worked on…

Small is Beautiful

Wayfarer lunch
Time for a picnic lunch! Tied to the dock at a deserted town landing in Orleans

I love small boats and believe that, for the most part, one shouldn’t choose the biggest boat that one can handle or afford, but rather the smallest that one is comfortable with for the intended purpose, whether it be for daysailing or cruising all the oceans of the world.

Wayfarer Arey's Pond
Sailing the creek to Arey’s Pond
Wayfarer Chatham Harbor
Foggy Chatham Harbor

I was reminded of my affection for small boats when I visited New England this past December. There was a stretch of beautiful, unseasonably warm weather, so naturally I wanted to get out on the water. The 15′-long Wayfarer sailing dinghy I keep at my parent’s house was put away for the winter, but that was no problem. It took all of a couple of hours to take the tarps off the boat, dust things off inside, fetch the mast and rudder from the garage, and gather the rest of the sailing gear. My floating home, Idle Queen, at 32′ long, would have taken days to ready if she had been similarly put away.

Fishing boats in Chatham harbor
Fishing boats in Chatham harbor

The Wayfarer is a small boat, but one that has long been noted for its good sailing and seakeeping abilities. Designed by Ian Proctor in 1957, she is stable enough to be a training boat, fast enough to keep experienced sailors interested, and seaworthy enough to take on the open ocean. Indeed, Wayfarer dinghies have even made long voyages, like all the way up the east coast of the USA from Florida to Canada, from England to the Faroe Islands, and even from Scotland to Norway and Iceland! The stout little Wayfarer is one of the boats that helped spread the idea of “dinghy cruising”–sailing and camping in small open boats. Sailors like Frank Dye and others have written entire books about cruising in their Wayfarers. Far from sailing across the North Sea, I just wanted to enjoy some quiet daysails on Pleasant and Buzzards Bays, but it was nice knowing that the boat was up for anything the weather might throw at us.

Seals in our wake near the Chatham cut
Seals in our wake near the Chatham cut

As long as the warm weather held out, I went sailing every day. The waters were deserted except for the seals and birds. I didn’t even see any fishermen while I was out. The navigational markers had mostly been removed for the winter, leaving me to pilot by eye and memory. This was a fun exercise, as the Wayfarer only draws about 6 inches of water with the centerboard and rudder up. I enjoyed seeing the waterways with fewer signs of civilization.

Monument Beach Sunset
Monument Beach Sunset. Time to head back to the boat ramp!

I didn’t bother to take the engine, as the Wayfarer could be easily moved with paddles if the wind died, further simplifying setup and reducing the number of things that would have to be put away later.

Sailing near Pocasset Harbor
Sailing near Pocasset Harbor just before sunset.

Each day at the beaches and boat ramps where I launched I was greeted with envious comments by people who had already put their boats away for the winter. With air temperatures nearing 70 degrees Fahrenheit on a couple of the days, they missing out on some truly beautiful sailing. The wonderful memories I made that week that were only possible because of the ease of setting up the little Wayfarer. When the freezing weather returned, I washed everything down (admittedly no fun task in those temperatures!) covered the boat, and contentedly put all the gear away, ready for next time. That surprise winter sailing fix was just what I needed to carry me through ’till spring.

Wayfarer on the trailer
Wayfarer on her trailer–ready to head home after another beautiful winter sail.

Starlight’s Voyage: The Finish Line

Boats returning from evening races in West Haven marina, Auckland
Boats returning from evening races in Westhaven marina, Auckland

Although I felt like the voyage was pretty much over when we arrived in Opua last week, the real goal and final destination for Starlight was Auckland. This is where the owners will make their new life, having left their home country in search of greener pastures.

Now I can finally say that this voyage is complete, almost exactly 9 months after I first set foot on the Beneteau 445 that was named Livin On De Edge at the time. Along the way we have sailed from the freezing temperatures of the east coast of the US in winter down through the tropics all the way to cool weather again south of the equator. The boat’s owners have gone from having zero offshore experience to having thousands of bluewater miles on their sailing resumés. I don’t think they really knew what they were in for when they started this voyage, but they stuck with it and shared a rare experience together as a family that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

It is good to be in Auckland, but I won’t be staying long. Idle Queen has been waiting a long time now for me to finish her repairs and refit.

West Haven Marina, Auckland
Starlight will stay here until her owners find long-term berthing
Race boats, Auckland, New Zealand
Sunset and the end of the day’s racing
Skyline of Auckland, New Zealand
The city of Auckland as seen from the water

We’re Here!

Port Opua, New Zealand
We made it!

We’ve arrived and checked in. Starlight is currently docked in Port Opua, Bay of Islands, New Zealand. The boat’s in one piece and the crew are all accounted for and in good shape. I’ll count that as a successful trip. We enjoyed a bottle of bubbly while waiting for customs to arrive, and are now looking forward to clean laundry, hot showers, and a full night’s peaceful sleep.

We’re in New Zealand, but there’s still a little farther to go–we have to move about one hundred miles farther south to Auckland once the owners have paid the import duty on the boat. But, New Zealand is our destination country, so in a way it already feels like the voyage is over. I’m already thinking about what comes next…

New Zealand Arrival

Beneteau 445 sailing to Bay of Islands
Our first view of the Bay of Islands

It is 0740 shipboard time. The sun is already quite high over the eastern horizon, bathing the Bay of Islands in yellow light. The wind is still from dead ahead, but only at about 5 knots. We are about 1.5 miles north of Whale Rock at the entrance to Bay of Islands, so we have a good view now of one of New Zealand’s most famous cruising grounds.

We spent the last day with the diesel engine noisily but steadily grinding us to windward, as this was the fastest way to make the final miles. The family was too anxious to arrive for us to have spent another day tacking in to arrive under sail. The only downside of arriving today is that it is Sunday, but maybe that won’t matter here. We will soon see.

We still have about 10 miles to go upriver to reach our port of entry, Opua. If we have a good internet connection at the dock I will soon post some better quality pictures. In any case I will at least send another quick update once we have checked in.

Troll’s Bridge

What the forward hatch looks like when it is underwater
What the forward hatch looks like when it is underwater

Lift, roll… Slam! Repeat. It’s time to pay our dues. Considering the fact that we haven’t had very much uncomfortable weather on the entire trip, a couple of days hard against 20-30 knots of wind with 2-3 meter waves doesn’t seem like too steep of a price for finally leaving the tropics to push south to New Zealand.

This stretch of water is known for rapidly changing conditions, and indeed the weather forecasts that I load every twelve hours or so bear little resemblance to each other or the actual conditions. One thing that I knew for sure a couple of days ago as we motored across a flat sea under a big high pressure system was that the calm weather wouldn’t last.

Sure enough, as soon as we crossed 30 degrees south, the wind began to build. It was fitful at first, but soon gained strength. Surface ripples on the ocean became whitecaps, which became waves atop swell. We had a good day of fast reaching before a bank of clouds brought with it a blast of wind that howled in the rigging and laid the lee rail under water. Even with the mainsail deeply reefed and just a scrap of genoa out we had more than enough sail power until dawn.

The following day saw us powering south through confused seas with occasional gusts of wind from all directions. When the breeze returned it came all in one gust and has stayed with us ever since. I expect that it moderate by tomorrow morning, and we may yet have to motor some of the final miles to Opua according to the latest forecast. We will just have to wait and see.

For now, the waves are getting up enough to properly rinse the deck. One just poured in the ventilator, so I will have to go pump out the shower sump after I finish writing. The attached picture is the view looking up the forward deck hatch while it is under water. Only about 150 miles to go before we reach sheltered water…

Rarotonga to New Zealand, Day 8

Beneteau 445 sailing Rarotonga to Opua
Hoping for some rain in those clouds!

Since my last update we have had variable wind and weather–some beautiful sailing; some motoring across calm seas; rain squalls and sun; headwinds and fair breezes. In other words, we are experiencing pretty much exactly what I expected for this leg of the trip so far.

Our average day’s run has been a shade over 115 miles per day since leaving Rarotonga. That average has been inching downward ever since the steady easterly that we departed with began to falter about three days out.

Right now there is a squall passing over, bringing yet another wind change. Hopefully we get some rain out of it. It will be nice to rinse down the decks and catch some sweet fresh drinking water. A dozen squalls have already passed this afternoon without dropping enough rain to do more than make the decks slippery.

We want to continue west past the International Date Line before beginning to head directly towards New Zealand, but today’s winds are forcing us south for now. I expect that we will be heading west again by tomorrow morning, but we will just have to wait to see what the wind does.

Everyone aboard is doing well and enjoying the comfortable temperatures that we are experiencing. It’s not too hot or cold out for enjoying time in the cockpit or sleeping comfortably below. I definitely appreciate this, as so often the boat is stuffy belowdecks or it is too cold to enjoy time outside. Here’s to spring weather!

Gentle Breeze, Calm Seas

Beneteau 445 Perfect weather
Reading in the cockpit on watch

Right now the GPS says that we are making 2.3 knots over the bottom. The wind is light, but the seas are quiet enough to only occasionally shake all of the wind out of the mainsail. This is a pleasant change from earlier this morning when the good sailing breeze that we had been enjoying for the past few days began to die to its current five knots or so, but the agitated sea continued to rock the boat energetically. There are few things that get on my nerves as much as slatting sails.

We will continue to enjoy peaceful sailing for a while, I expect, as the forecast is calling for continued light winds for the next few days. With more than a thousand miles to go it is a bit early to start burning our fuel reserves just to cover a little extra ground. We might need that fuel later on after we make our turn south. We don’t want to get caught in light winds sitting just north of New Zealand where we could get creamed by a late-season gale blowing in off the Tasman. So, we are being treated to a relaxing afternoon that is perfect for reading, writing, and other light-wea ther offshore pastimes like checking the rig for chafe and loose fittings.

This type of weather is particularly hard on the genoa sheets, which tend to chafe where they go around the shrouds. However, we are still using the old, sun rotten sheets that came with the boat, so it’s not as painful as watching a new piece of line suffer similar abuse. I keep an eye on the problem spots and move or end-for-end the sheets as necessary. Shiny new genoa sheets will be bent on when we reach New Zealand. As for the rest of this afternoon, I am looking forward to the next few chapters of the book that I am reading.

The Final Leg

Beneteau 445 Sailing to Opua
On our way to Opua from Rarotonga

Right now we are already about three hundred miles west of Rarotonga.

We left with a good easterly sailing breeze that quickly carried us out of sight of the island. Deep blue sky and sea contrasted sharply with the bright white crests on the wave tops and a few puffy cumulus clouds. As we sailed away we could pick out landmarks that had quickly become familiar during our week on the island–the rusting boiler of a ship that had wrecked on the reef long ago, the airport, Black Rock Beach, the Hula Bar, and the vertical-walled rock face of the Needle.

So far the sailing has been perfect, and our daily runs make it seem like New Zealand will be appearing over the horizon in no time. This is no place to be complacent, however. The weather around the north tip of New Zealand is famous for unpredictability at almost any time of year. The last few hundred miles are known to some of the local sailors as “the screw-up zone”. Every year some yachts get caught in gales that blow in quickly from the Tasman, usually just as the crews are beginning to relax and think that their voyage is already over.

To avoid the possibility of being blown away from New Zealand by a westerly gale, we will continue to sail west at this latitude until we are almost even with the north cape. At that point, we will head south. At least, that is the current plan. We’ll see what the weather looks like as we get farther along. We could end up having any sort of weather for the last part of this leg, from quick-moving fronts and gale-force winds to hundreds of miles of calm. I’ll be keeping an eye on the forecast and will be sure to update as I know more.

Scenes From Around Rarotonga

Rarotonga Palms
Beachside palms are a common sight here
Rarotonga Beach
A little slice of paradise
Rarotonga Beach, Fossilized coral
Fossilized coral on Black Rock Beach
Beachside schack, Rarotonga
Beachside shack, Nikao, on the west side of Rarotonga
Sculpture outside the National Auditorium. Avarua, Rarotonga
Sculpture outside the National Auditorium. Avarua, Rarotonga
Rarotonga Fern
Unfurling Fern
Mountain Path, Rarotonga
A scene from the Cross Island Trail
Rarotonga Mountain view
The view from the base of “The Needle”
Rarotonga Mountain view
Another view from “The Needle”
Rarotonga goats
Goats on the Cross Island trail
Whale Art, Rarotonga
Artwork on the wall of the Whale Center
Rooster Portrait, Whale Center, Rarotonga
Rooster Portrait, Whale Center, Rarotonga
Church light, Rarotonga
Sunlight on the wall inside a church in Avarua
Rarotonga Church
Thick limestone walls have kept this church standing through numerous hurricanes
Muri Lagoon
Muri Lagoon, looking out towards the reef
Catamaran, Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga
Hokulea catamaran on Muri Lagoon
Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga
Traditional style catamaran, Hokulea on Muri Lagoon
Muri Lagoon
Another scene from Muri Lagoon
Rarotonga Sunset
Sunset over Black Rock Beach