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…

Beautiful Bahamas

Swim call on the Great Bahama Bank
Swim call on the Great Bahama Bank

We stopped for lunch with Bernard from the Contessa 26 “Little Minute”. The weather couldn’t have been better for a swim all almost out of sight of all land…

A Little More Freeboard

Contessa 26 sailing upwind
Life on a Contessa 26 is always close to the water.

One of the things that I miss about my Contessa 26 is being able to easily reach over the side and put my hands in the water.  I can reach the water from the deck of Idle Queen, but it is a bit of a stretch, and I have to put an uncomfortable amount of my body over the side of the boat, so I don’t do it.  Instead, I use a bucket attached to a line to haul water to the deck of Idle Queen.

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen
Idle Queen.

Besides making washing things over the side a little less convenient, there are other disadvantages to all that extra freeboard–like sluggish windward performance; more hassle getting out of the dinghy; and handling issues when the wind gets up.  No matter how you look at it, anything that increases windage is a bad thing, and more freeboard increases windage in a big way.  This has been known to designers for a long time, and is part of the reason why many old-school sailboats were so low to the water.  When Sirocco had to ride out the remnants of hurricane Irene on an exposed mooring, she sat quietly despite the whipping gusts largely thanks to the fact that she sat so low in the water.

Atkin Ben Bow Sirocco
Sirocco charging down Long Island Sound.

I have heard it said that higher-freeboard boats are drier, but that isn’t necessarily true, especially if you are interested in actually staying dry.  Once the wind gets over about 20 knots, it will drive spray a long distance into the air–much higher than the deck on just about any small boat.  There are other aspects of the hull design that make a bigger difference in how much spray gets thrown about, like the amount of flare; sharpness of entry; and whether there is a significant rubrail or not.  Closehauled in 15-20 knots of wind, Idle Queen takes more spray across the deck than the much lower Sirocco.  Dodgers, windscreens, or other shelters are more effective at providing a place on deck to stay out of wind-driven spray.  People these days seem less interested in putting on their “oilies” and toughing it out…

It is amazing to me how just a foot of extra freeboard on similarly-sized boats like Sirocco and Idle Queen can make such a huge difference in how they handle and how they feel.  The loads on dock lines and moorings are much higher on Idle Queen; windward performance is not nearly as good (though this has much to do with other differences in the hull shapes); and even the motion while seated on deck is less comfortable.  That’s right–being higher in the boat amplifies the effects of motion.  Try climbing the mast at sea if you really want to feel this effect.  (Disclaimer:  Only go aloft at sea if you can do so safely!)

A boat that is excessively low to the water will have the decks frequently washed over by waves, so there is definitely the potential to take the low-freeboard idea too far.  My point is that once past a moderate amount of freeboard, the returns paid in dryness will diminish just as quickly as the negatives, like sailing around at anchor, will pile up.

Besides, boats that are low and lean just look sexier.


How I Became a Full-Keel Convert–Part Two

A full keel has either an unbroken convex curve or straight line all the way from the stem to the stern of the boat. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel.
Sirocco showing off what she normally has hidden under the water.


A year on the Contessa 26 was enough to convince me that I wanted a bit more boat.  I was enjoying the minimalism, but the Contessa was a little too small for long-term living aboard, at least for me and all of the tools that I normally carry.  I started casually looking around and found a William Atkin-designed “Ben Bow” named Sirocco.  She was sturdy, reasonably roomy, and had a lean, low profile that I just couldn’t resist.  She also had a full keel with a rather deep forefoot. This was the boat that finally sold me on full-keel boats.

At first I was a little apprehensive about how she would handle, but that fear was soon put to rest as I discovered how wonderfully predictable she was and what a joy to sail.  True, she didn’t turn as tightly as a fin-keel boat, but the penalty in turning radius was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.  Also, I had not anticipated how her full keel, outboard rudder, and low freeboard up forward would combine to eliminate the tendency that so many other boats have for their bow blow away from the wind in an instant when stopped.  Docking in a crosswind was now a much more controlled evolution.  The same with singlehanded anchoring.  Unless it was blowing a gale, I had plenty of time to stroll up the wide side decks and release the anchor after reaching my desired spot without the boat taking off across the wind.  Backing was also improved over the cutaway-keel design, with the long keel making it easier to keep the boat tracking straight when desired.

There were other benefits not related to handling at low speeds and close quarters that were pleasant surprises.  Tracking when under sail at sea was superb, and I could balance the boat to sail herself in most conditions, but I had expected that to be true.  One thing that I had not considered was how the deep bilges, outboard rudder, and near-vertical sternpost combined to put the propeller in a location where I could reach it from the dinghy.  What luxury to be able to keep the prop clean without having to dive under the boat!  I suspect that I may have also been able to unwrap a line from the relative comfort of the dinghy, but I never picked up a line in the prop in all the miles that I sailed in Sirocco, probably thanks to the protection offered by her keel.  Finally, and probably only due in part to the design of her keel, Sirocco was one of the most comfortable boats that I have ever taken to sea.  Even though I am normally somewhat prone to seasickness when I first put to sea, I was never once seasick aboard Sirocco.  That comfortable motion was a tremendously endearing characteristic of hers, but I have to also give credit to her other design attributes, including short overhangs, moderately slack bilges, relatively heavy displacement, moderate beam, etc., as contributing factors in that department.

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen out of the water for maintenance
Idle Queen out of the water for maintenance

Now that I am moving up to another boat, I again chose a full-keel design in the Dreadnought 32, Idle Queen.  I am looking forward to continuing to enjoy the benefits of being able to inspect and reach the prop from my dinghy; having a boat that tracks well in a variety of conditions; not worrying about picking up lines and weed on the rudder and propeller; and having the option to comfortably dry out on a grid or beach if I ever need to.  The full keel design has much to recommend it when choosing an underbody for a cruising sailboat.  


How I became a Full-Keel Convert–Part One


A line drawing of Sirocco, a true full-keel boat. Sirocco is a “Ben Bow” designed by William Atkin. 

Over the years that I have been sailing, I have logged miles on a number of different craft from an International Sabot up to a steel schooner of about 200 gross tons.  Most of my time has been in small, shoal-draft centerboard sailboats up to about 20 feet long; racing keelboat designs like the J-29; and the few cruising sailboats that I have owned over the years.  I benefitted from spending time in a broad variety of different sailboats by getting a taste of how different types of boats perform in various conditions.  This has given me the opportunity to compare the merits of the different classes of boats.

Picture of a generic fin-keel boat. It is easy to see how exposed the propeller and rudder are. Having the rudder right near the stern, far away from the keel, contributes to good steering characteristics, though.
Picture of a generic fin-keel boat. It is easy to see how exposed the propeller and rudder are. Having the rudder right near the stern, far away from the keel, contributes to good steering characteristics, though.

When I was younger, I craved performance.  I wanted nothing more than to just go as fast as possible on the water.  My desire for speed eventually led me to become a windsurfing enthusiast, but that is a whole other story.  During my high-school and college years I spent a lot of time in International, and then Collegiate 420’s, a two-person dinghy.  I thought they were slow and longed to spend time in a more performance-oriented dinghy, even though the 420’s could easily plane and give a good ride when the whitecaps showed up.  When I started sailing keelboats, it was mostly the smaller J-boats (24’s and 29’s, mostly), but there was time spent on numerous other designs.  I loved the taste of performance multi-hull sailing that I experienced as fill-in crew aboard a Nacra 6.0.  The boats that I sailed in my teens and twenties were mostly well-regarded classes that taught me what a fun, responsive boat felt like.  They sailed well in a wide variety of conditions with good speed and few bad habits.  There is a reason that the one-design dinghies and keelboats that I sailed in were such popular designs–they were good all-round boats.

Picture of a boat with a cutaway keel. There is a concave shape in the profile up forward, with the keel really beginning under where the second cabin porthole is. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel, offering some protection and making it less likely to snag lines and other debris.
Picture of an Alberg-designed Cape Dory with a cutaway keel. There is a concave shape in the profile up forward, with the keel really beginning under where the second cabin porthole is. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel, offering some protection and making it less likely to snag lines and other debris.

When I finally had enough money to consider buying my own sailboat I began to consider all aspects of its use.  I couldn’t really justify spending a ton of money on a boat that was only good for racing.  By this time my sights were fixed on the far horizon rather than outright speed.  I wanted to explore the world from the deck of my own sailboat, so I decided to look for a reliable design that could take me anywhere I wanted to go.  What I ended up with was a Pearson Vanguard–a 32-foot racer/cruiser designed to the old Cruising Club of America rating rule.

Buying the Vanguard was a huge step for me in many ways.  It was the first “big” boat that I had ever owned, it was my first home on the water, and it allowed me my first significant experience with something other than a centerboard or fin keel design.

Pearson Vanguard Side Drawing
Side-view of the Pearson Vanguard, showing the cut-away in the forward part of the keel.

The Vanguard has a “cutaway” keel with the rudder attached to the trailing edge.  Looking at the profile of the boat, there is a lot of area that has been cut away, or hollowed out, making the deep part of the keel start a long way back from the bow.  This is done in an effort to reduce the amount of boat in contact with the water, or wetted surface, to make the boat faster when the wind is light.  This design achieves its intended goal of reducing wetted surface, but pays the price of introducing a couple of undesirable handling characteristics.  The one that I remember most is how the bow would blow downwind when trying to maneuver at low speed.  The high bow and long forward overhang on the Vanguard would catch the wind, turning the boat broadside to the wind very quickly.  There was no underwater surface to counteract this tendency, and the rudder was way under the boat at the end of the shortened keel. This reduced the rudder’s effectiveness by giving it a shorter lever arm for turning the boat.  Fin-keel boats don’t have a surface underwater up forward to stop the bow from blowing away from the wind either, but their rudders are placed farther back on the boat, which gives a stronger turning force and allows better control in low speed situations (especially in reverse) compared to the cutaway-keel boat.

On the positive side, I really came to appreciate some of the good qualities of the cutaway keel on the Vanguard.  The keel on the Vanguard is molded with the boat as one unit.  The shape transitions smoothly from the hull to the keel, which prevents the front part of the keel from loading up with seaweed when sailing–a real plus when there is a lot of weed in the water!  The shape of the keel also helps reduce shock loads in some grounding situations, such as when running onto a sloped sandbar.  Not having a long fin keel sticking out of the boat also reduces structural loads when running aground–in particular eliminating the point-loading at the trailing edge of the fin keel that can cause it to push up into the hull and cause a lot of damage.  Having the rudder attached to the trailing edge of the keel helps prevent seaweed, lobster and crab pot floats, and other fishing gear from getting trapped on the rudder. The keel shields the propeller as well.  I never once had a pot or fishing line caught on my Vanguard, though I often sailed in waters thick with fishing gear.  Besides making my life easier, fishermen don’t exactly appreciate having yachtsmen cut their floats from props and rudders, either…

A cutaway-keel boat tracks better than a fin-keel boat.  The Vanguard didn’t need constant, minute attention to the helm.  I could count on her to track well if I needed to adjust a sheet or otherwise divert my attention for a moment.  This is a great characteristic to have in a cruising boat.  I could balance the boat and let her sail herself for a while if I needed to go forward to attend something or use the head.  I have had some luck locking the helm down on a fin-keel boat to keep them going straight for a short while, but this technique is not as effective as when used on a cutaway-keel boat or a full-keel boat.

Overall, the cutaway-keel Vanguard was a surprisingly enjoyable boat.  I didn’t feel too handicapped by the speed penalty that I paid for the extra wetted surface of the cutaway full keel.  She still had good speed even in light airs, and offered a more comfortable motion than most fin-keel boats that I have been on.  The comfort was due in part to her keel design, but also because the Vanguard was heavier, deeper, lower in freeboard, and had a more moderate beam than the other cruising sailboats that I had experienced.  I don’t want to contribute to the myth that there aren’t any comfortable fin-keel boats out there!  Those boats do exist. They are just more difficult to find (it’s not fashionable to build relatively narrow boats with easy bilge sections these days) and still won’t offer the other advantages of a keel with an attached rudder, like weed-shedding, or a rudder that doesn’t rely solely on the stock for attachment to the boat…

Contessa 26
The Contessa 26 has a cutaway keel, but it is much longer than the one on the Vanguard–closer to a full keel.

When I went searching for a small, versatile cruiser a few years ago I settled on the Contessa 26.  This design is based on an older design than the Vanguard, and has a much longer cutaway keel.  It is getting pretty close to a full keel, but still has a concave shape to the forward end.  The longer keel eliminated some of the poor handling  characteristics of the more dramatically cut-away keel on the Vanguard.  Having a longer keel gave the rudder a longer lever arm and actually improved steering, even though there was a much longer keel to drag through tight turns.  She tracked like a dream and worked very well with her self-steering gear in all conditions.  I loved sailing this boat.  The Contessa 26 design was close enough to a proper, old-school full-keel boat that it seemed only a small leap to go all the way to a full-keel the next time that I went boat shopping…

Continue reading Part Two here. 

More on the Contessa 26

Cavendsyh flying across Tampa Bay on a blustery winter day
Cavendsyh flying across Tampa Bay on a blustery winter day

So many people love the Contessa 26 that I have decided it is time to dedicate part of setforsea to this design.  I am just learning how to better organize things around here, and one of the changes that I have made is to create a Contessa 26 category, which can be found in the toolbar to the right of this page, that contains all of the posts that I write pertaining to this versatile little boat.

More videos:  I have posted most of the video log style clips that I took while sailing my Contessa 26, Cavendysh, out of the Great Lakes in fall of 2010.  I didn’t take many videos during my time on the rivers, or out on the ocean because I was running out of storage space, and was more interested in taking pictures and writing about the experiences.  The ones that I have can be found the Contessa 26 playlist on the setforsea Youtube channel.

More pictures:  I will add more pictures of Cavendysh and make a gallery on the Contessa 26 page.

More stories:  Some of the log entries and experiences on Cavendysh are worth writing about–like the time I took the mast down singlehanded… in the middle of a huge storm.

A couple of new videos

Here are another couple of videos from when I was sailing my Contessa 26, Cavendysh, on the Great Lakes in October of 2010.  These two were taken on Lake Michigan while sailing upwind under a double-reefed mainsail and small (85%) jib.  I haven’t started trying to edit the videos yet, so there is no fancy soundtrack or anything–just me talking to the camera while sailing alone in a small boat on a big body of water…

On motoring efficiency

Cavendysh and Sirocco
Cavendysh and Sirocco facing each other. Sirocco weighs three times as much, but motors in a flat calm at almost the same economy as the smaller Contessa 26.

Many sailors pride themselves on how little they can use their engines, but any boat equipped with an auxiliary will end up motoring some percentage of the time.  Being able to motor somewhere is a big part of the reason for having the engine, right?  My last three boats have each come equipped with auxiliary engines, and I have used them at times to travel a good many miles on rivers, canals, and in confined channels.  Sometimes that meant motoring all day, and I would begin to wonder just what I was getting out of each gallon of fuel consumed.  With fuel prices currently over $4 per gallon this subject is on my mind frequently, especially now that I have moved to a much larger boat.  So, I pulled out my logbooks and did a little figuring.

Here is Cavendysh on stands next to Sirocco.  From this angle it is a bit more apparent how much heftier Sirocco is.
Here is Cavendysh on stands next to Sirocco. From this angle it is a bit more apparent how much heftier Sirocco is.

The three boats that I am comparing are a Contessa 26, which weighs about 5400 lbs; a William Atkin “Ben Bow”, weighing about 17,000 lbs; and a Dreadnaught 32, weighing in at 20,000+ lbs.  They are all powered by inboard diesels.

One of the things that I had enjoyed most about my trim little Contessa 26, Cavendysh, was that she was very efficient both under both sail and power.  I figured that would be the case when I bought her.  Efficiency was one of the reasons that I chose the design.  For power, she carried a little one-cylinder Bukh diesel engine that made all of 9-hp.  The propeller was a 2-blade fixed model.  I could motor all day at 4 knots with that little one-lunger banging away and only burn a couple of gallons of diesel fuel.  Cavendysh returned about 20 nautical miles per gallon on calm water at that speed.  Pushing the throttle forward farther resulted in a big drop in economy.  She returned about 10-12 miles per gallon at 5 knots.  I motored quite a lot when I had the mast down heading south from the Great Lakes.  My efficiency through the water over 150 hours of motoring worked out to about 20 nautical miles per gallon of diesel.  That number reflects varied conditions–sometimes I was motoring into wind and chop, and sometimes I had the wind behind me (when the mast was down), but overall, that is pretty stellar economy.  The little Bukh could run for ages on just cupfuls of fuel.

A view of Sirocco with her freshly refinished bottom.  I still have to peel the tape off...  Sirocco has a full keel with a deep forefoot.
A view of Sirocco with a freshly refinished bottom.  Sirocco has a full keel with a deep forefoot.
Looking at Sirocco head-on while she hangs in the slings.  Her fine underwater lines are apparent from this angle.  The very bottom of her keel is narrower than that of the Contessa 26, which contributes to her relative efficiency.
Looking at Sirocco head-on while she hangs in the slings. Her fine underwater lines are apparent from this angle. The very bottom of her keel is narrower than that of the Contessa 26, which contributes some to her efficiency.

When I moved to Sirocco, the “Ben Bow” designed by William Atkin, I was prepared to spend a lot more for fuel.  The new boat was almost three times the displacement of the Contessa, but also longer on the waterline (28′ versus 21′) and with a much fuller keel.  The big full  keel meant a lot more wetted surface, which results in more drag as the boat has to overcome more friction with the water.  The engine in Sirocco was a big jump up too–a 28-hp three cylinder Beta diesel driving a three-blade fixed prop.  However, I was surprised to find that my mileage over the last 150 hours only dropped to 15.2 nautical miles per gallon.  That was running mostly between 4 and 5 knots, and mostly in calm water, although at least 10% of that was motoring into headwinds, which consumes a lot more fuel.  Sirocco was also capable of motoring at over 6 knots, but would burn 2/3 of a gallon per hour at that speed (9 miles/gallon).  Motoring at 4 knots in a glassy calm I could still get 20 miles per gallon out of Sirocco–about the same fuel economy as the Contessa, but much more efficient because Sirocco weighed three times as much.  I was more comfortable on the larger boat, as well, and the engine was much quieter.

This is a good view of Idle Queen to show off her long, shallow keel.
This is a good view of Idle Queen to show off her long, shallow keel.

My present boat, Idle Queen, at 20,000 lbs, is definitely the biggest and heaviest of any boat that I have owned.  She is also the most lightly powered.  Her inboard engine is a 15-hp, two-cylinder Beta Marine engine that drives a 3-blade fixed propeller.  That gives her 1.5 hp per short ton (2,000 lbs) of displacement–relatively less than half as much power as either of my last two boats, which were both very close to 4 hp per  short ton.  Would this drastically different setup change the economy of motoring in a calm?  Well, I don’t have as much data yet as I do for the other boats, but it seems that at 4 knots in a glassy calm Idle Queen gets very close to 20 nautical miles/gallon!  At 5.5 knots on flat calm water, Idle Queen seems to burn around .5 gallons per hour, giving an economy of 11 miles/gallon.  I need more data to be sure that figure is accurate, as it was taken over relatively few hours, but I have enough data to be close.  

I am surprised that all of the numbers are so similar across such different boats and engines.  I really thought that the Contessa 26 would come out far ahead of the bigger boats, but that was only true when motoring into wind and waves–hence the better overall economy of the Contessa.  Even then it was not as great a difference as I had expected.  The numbers show that moving displacement hulls at relatively low speeds in a flat calm is really quite energy efficient.  There are many factors at play here, but I think that the biggest surprise is that I can move a 20,000 lb boat in calm conditions at about the same cost per mile as a 5,400 lb one as long as I keep the speed to about 4 knots.

The next biggest surprise is that the larger wetted surface of Sirocco and Idle Queen really didn’t translate into a much greater cost per mile under power.  Modern boats are made light and with small keels and rudders to improve their efficiency by reducing wetted surface.  At least as far as economy under power is concerned, the difference is not as big as I had thought.  Granted, even the Contessa had a relatively full keel, but she had less than half the underwater area of the other boats (measured by how much bottom paint it took to paint her).

When the wind and waves come up, the smaller boat requires much less energy to keep her moving, and then her fuel economy is much better than the bigger boats.  Motoring into wind and sea is frustratingly slow as well as expensive.  Idle Queen’s fuel economy quickly drops to about 10 nautical miles/gallon with only a 12 knot headwind and small chop.  Motoring into 15-20 knots and a bit of sea will take her right down to 2 miles/gallon or so.  I have only tried this for a short while, so my figures might be off a bit, but you get the idea. 

My estimated long-term figures are based on actual volume of fuel added to the tank versus engine hours and average conditions.  Still-water economy was measured in calm water (no current) by GPS, on glassy calm sections of canal, and the fuel volume was taken by sounding the tank.

A head-on view of Idle Queen while she hangs in the slings.  Her very shallow keel is evident, as well as her almost barrel-shaped (round) underbody.  This semicircular section, along with her shallow keel helps keep wetted-surface low.
A head-on view of Idle Queen while she hangs in the slings. Her very shallow keel is evident, as well as her almost barrel-shaped (round) underbody. This semicircular section, along with her shallow keel helps keep wetted-surface low.



Why aren’t there more young people out here?

Fort Jefferson sunset
One of the best ways to see the Dry Tortugas is by cruising sailboat. The cruising sailor can stay for an entire week for less than the cost of a day trip on the ferry from Key West.

While speaking with a friend a couple of days ago the subject of the average age of cruising sailors came up.  He had the idea to start a “young cruiser’s club”.  It would be a place to meet other cruisers and encourage more people to get out there.  My first question was, “Well, what qualifies as young?”.  Who should we focus on?  After a couple of numbers were tossed out there I finally said that we should admit anyone who isn’t yet eligible to collect Social Security benefits.  That really thins the crowd these days.

The fact is that I don’t meet very many people out cruising who are not fully retired and out enjoying their golden years afloat.  I immensely enjoy meeting other cruisers and rarely focus on the fact that they may be a few (or more) decades my elder.  I have made some wonderful friends who are old enough to be my grandparents, but I can’t help but feel just a little bit removed from their social circle.  There is more than just a generation gap between me and the average cruiser that I meet.  It’s more like an immense, yawning canyon with a tiny little river and some trees waaay down there in the shadows at the bottom.  We can laugh together for a few hours at a potluck on the beach, but there isn’t usually much shared experience beyond the fact that we are all out cruising.

The fellow who brought up the idea of some sort of club for younger cruisers is in his 40’s.  He sails a Bristol 30 that he bought on the cheap.  He is a new cruiser and told me that he often feels that he is the only “young” person out sailing!  He was floored by the fact that he seldom sees anyone under the age of 50 out cruising.  I am in my early 30’s and should probably feel even more removed from most of the cruising crowd than he does, but I have been cognizant of the demographics of this group of people for years because I have spent a lot of my spare time in boatyards and in anchorages where cruisers gather ever since I was a teenager.  I had stopped giving it much thought except for the times when someone near my own age would call me an old man because the average age of the people that I hang around with is about the same as that of my grandparents.  This time hearing from someone who was looking at the cruising lifestyle with fresh eyes got me thinking about what is keeping younger people off of the water.

Cost is the obvious answer, but a summer cruise could easily be done on a modest boat for less than a summer cross-country road trip or similar, and there are many people who undertake trips like that in any given year.  There is a minimum knowledge that needs to be acquired before setting out so that the cruise can be made safely, but that can be had at one of the many Coast Guard Auxiliary or sailing school training courses available throughout the country.  It would be great to hear from others about what is keeping people in their 20’s and 30’s from taking to the water.

I would like to see more people take a “gap year” cruising vacation before going to college or before starting work or before starting a family.  These are natural transition periods for young people.  Those transition periods work well for providing the time necessary to have a grand adventure.  Going on an extended cruise can be fantastic way to hone decision-making skills, take the time to decide what to do next, unwind, get fit, meet new people, and visit new places.  All of this can be done at a very reasonable cost, especially with the very low price of some quality used boats out there right now.  If more people begin to make these sorts of cruises, then there will be an even better market of inexpensive but adequately outfitted boats as people enter and leave the cruising lifestyle.

I hope that there is a new wave of young cruising sailors about to take to the waters in small but seaworthy craft.  They should be ready to spread their sails to a fair wind and discover the exhilarating feeling  of true freedom that is still available to anyone on their own boat on the wide rolling sea.  They will discover the peace of a snug, deserted anchorage, and the wonder of a sky full of bright stars on a dark night.  They will feel the excitement of new landfalls and learn of the satisfaction of successfully navigating their small ships safely to their intended destinations.  They will benefit from learning the art of self-sufficiency and from having their personal horizons broadened by meeting new people in new places.

See you out there!

Heading to Key West

I left Garden Key at dawn in hopes of making Key West with some daylight remaining. There was a 15-knot southerly breeze blowing through the anchorage carrying the promise of a fast passage. I set the #3 genoa and full main and sailed off the anchor, following the eastern passage that I had seen the ferry taking the past few days. It looked shallow, but there was over 6 feet of water all the way through. Three other sailboats left that morning, and every one of them took the other channel, which is fair enough since the chart shows a shoal all the way across the path that I took. If I hadn’t been there observing the channel for a few days I would have chickened out and went out the way that I came in. I got a wave and a thumbs-up from one of the construction crew that was restoring the walls of Fort Jefferson as I went by.

The seas were a bit confused once I got out from behind the protection of the fringing reefs of the Dry Tortugas, but I still made very good time, mostly averaging around 5 knots. I had 70 miles to cover, so I was at about the minimum speed that I needed to make landfall before dark. I thought that I could pick up a good push from the Gulf Stream on the outside and was tempted to go that way, but the confused seas were making me sick and that was the determining factor that caused me to choose to sail north of the Marquesas Keys and enter Key West harbor from the north. The water would be smooth with the low islands and reefs to break the sea, but I was afraid that I was going to slow down.

I didn’t need to worry about my speed. The wind kept picking up through the afternoon and I soon found myself close reaching with a single-reefed main and looking for even less sail. Around 1500 I tucked in the second reef into the main and started thinking about changing down to the working jib. My speed stayed in the 6-knot range all day, which is moving right along for a Contessa 26. I let the windvane do all of the steering while I kept watch from the companionway trying to stay out of the sun as much as possible.

The entrance to the Northwest Channel to Key West harbor came into view in good time. I hardened up and was almost able to make a straight shot right into the harbor, but a little oscillation in the wind at a bad time forced me to make a couple of quick tacks–no big deal for the agile little Contessa. The wind dropped as I closed the harbor, but I kept the main reefed down to make the boat easier to handle and keep my speed down when I entered the anchorage.

I sailed deep into the mooring field to the west of Wisteria Island looking for somewhere to anchor because it was the first obvious place that I saw and from a distance I thought that there were boats anchored there. While sailing between the boats it was obvious that they were all on moorings and there was no good place to drop the hook, so I worked my way around the south of Tank Island to the turning basin just opposite from the Coast Guard base. There I found room to anchor between some other widely-spaced sailboats who had dropped their hooks in about 5-9 feet of water. While exploring the edges of the available anchorage I ran gently aground just north of the green “27” daymark. It gets shallow quickly there! It took just a minute to sail free, as I had been able to turn the boat towards deeper water before she stopped. I went back and found a spot to anchor in 8 feet of water about midway between the “27” and the southern tip of Wisteria Island with about 20 minutes of light remaining to tidy the decks.

What an uncomfortable anchorage! One of the biggest hits against Key West in my mind is the lack of a good anchorage. My spot off of Wisteria Island had decent holding because I was able to drop my anchor on a sandy spot amongst all of the weed on the bottom, and it was adequately protected from the forecast easterly winds, even though they could kick up a chop across the fetch of the turning basin. The tide runs through here at about a knot, so my boat was often sailing against the rode when the wind lined up with the current–a problem remedied by using a second anchor. There were manmade downsides to that particular anchorage, such as powerboats that cut between the anchored boats in that area at all hours. They would kick up a wake, which I could live with, but the high speeds at which they came barreling by just feet from my boat made me nervous, especially when I saw others swimming from their anchored boats. Occasional fleets of up to 24 (the most I counted one morning) waverunners would do the same thing. The seven-tenths of a mile row in to the dinghy dock could be treacherous with all of the wakes kicked up from the sportfishers who plow their way out of the harbor at speeds carefully gaged to keep them from fully planing out so that they throw an impressive half-throttle wake. Use of the dinghy dock in Key West Bight Marina costs $5 per day, with discounts for weekly or monthly passes. I dinghy-pooled with a neighbor, which halved the cost for both of us.

Waterspout over Key West
I decided to set a second anchor when this thunderstorm came through. This is the fourth waterspout that I saw that morning.

On the third morning that I was anchored in Key West some strong thunderstorms moved in.  With the weather radio warning of strong winds I kept an eye on the developing clouds.  I still had quite fresh memories of the squall that came through while I was out at the Dry Tortugas, and while I held with no problems out there I am of course  always wary of strong winds when I am on the hook.  The clouds kept developing and soon I saw a funnel form below one of them.  A few minutes later a second funnel appeared.  They were off in the distance, but a good sign of the strength of that particular storm.  I decided to set a second anchor–a 33 lb (15 kg) Rocna–just to be sure that I stayed put if caught in a strong wind from the storms in the area.  I set to work and soon had the anchor ready to deploy.  I started the engine and was ready to lay the anchor out when I remembered my camera and took the picture above.  About 5 minutes later I had the new anchor laid out in a direction that would hold Cavendysh in deep water if the wind switched onshore.  Having the two anchors also meant that I had some degree of mobility and redundancy without actually having to get underway if one of the neighbors started dragging my direction.

The strong wind didn’t materialize, but I was glad that I had put out the extra gear anyway so that I didn’t have to worry about how I was swinging when the tide or wind changed.