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…

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.  


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.



Trying something new- Videos!

Ready to begin
Cavendysh at the dock in Dunkirk, NY, just before getting underway ahead of a nor’easter.

We are now well into 2013 and I hope that the new year is off to a great start for you.

I left off quite a while ago here with pulling Sirocco for a bit of a freshen-up and routine maintenance.  Quite a lot has happened since then!  I will get busy filling things in soon, but first wanted to try sharing some videos from my trip so far.  I will put links to the new videos here on the blog, starting with this one from the first day of my trip out of the Great Lakes in 2010 aboard Cavendysh.  

This first video was taken not long after leaving Dunkirk with a forecast nor’easter bearing down on Lake Erie.  I was in high spirits while taking this video, as we were making great speed and the lake was still pretty flat.  We made good time–covering 129 miles that first day out in up to near gale-force winds.  My stomach definitely protested the boisterous conditions when it got windy and rough overnight.