Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Power to the People

Funny old game, boating. The boat goes in, if the yard’s to be believed, this week. I had been promised it would go in the week before Memorial Day, but anyone who knows boatyards knows that line is right up there with The Check’s in The Mail. So I spend the weekend doing yard work, and never went near the boat – no reason to, as she’s ready for launch.

What a contrast to last year. This time last spring we had taken our first steps down the Road of No Return… that is, we’d stripped everything removable from the decks and cockpit, portlights and hatches included, and were prepping the boat for new paint, new grabrails, new ventilators, and a new rig.

The latter process involved enlarging the hole in the cabintop that the mast passes through (the hounds), fitting a new mast step, and installing a deck ring. Doesn’t take long to write it down; but what an agonizing process it was. I’d never done anything like it, and it was fairly critical; if I screwed up, the mast might end leaning one way or the other; the location of the mast step itself was just as critical.

With the help of a couple of wise old heads in Joe Grenier, the rigger at Hawthorne Cove Marina in Salem, and Scott Alexander, sales manager for mastmakers Selden, I contrived a measuring jig that involved taping vertical straightedges to the chainplates and carefully measuring the distances between them; then we rigged up a laser level across the midpoint of the cutout and shone the beam down onto the mast step. To cut a long story short, it worked. The mast stood as straight as we could we wish when it was finally stepped, raked a desirable 3 degrees aft with enough latitude for adjustment.

In amongst all this I filled and sanded a couple of dozen dents, holes and gouges in and around the gelcoat, filled in a 14” x 6” hole in the cockpit footwell where I’d removed the old hydraulics panel, took off the winches, and generally sweated blood over that and a dozen other jobs. Then, grunt work complete, my wife took over and painted the cockpit and decks.

That accounted for all of April and May and most of June; when we finally got the boat launched it we found we didn’t have a headsail that would fit the new furling gear, and so we spent a few more weeks sailing with a blown-out #4 jib whilst awaiting the new genoa.

Anyway, that seems a lifetime ago. This year we’ve almost had the opposite problem. There is still a hell of a lot to do, but only one thing that would have interfered with the operation of the boat – dead batteries and an antiquated charging system that looked as though it could fail at any time.

After killing off the house battery over winter (see State of Charge, below), I leapt (well, slouched) into action early in April. I relocated the engine start battery to make room for a second house battery, and bought two new Group 27 flooded batteries from West Marine. This doubles my house capacity to 180ah; low by most standards, but since I am replacing almost all the domestic and running lights on the boat with LEDs, and there is no power-greedy fridge, it should serve us well enough.

Spanking new cables in attractive red and ABYC-compatible yellow replaced the cracked, greenish items that had been on board for a generation or more, and I connected these, via a new Blue Sea Dual Circuit Plus battery switch, to a Blue Sea ACR 7160 automatic charging relay that automatically diverts the full alternator charge into the house battery bank after the engine battery is topped up. This means I never again have to worry about forgetting to click the switch to ‘both’ so both banks get charged; the switch keeps starting and house circuits separate, while the ACR combines batteries for charging and isolates them when the engine’s turned off. This is small potatoes compared to some of the electrical systems I’ve seen in boats costing 20 or 30 times as much, but it’s as close to state of the art as we’ll ever get with this 35-year-old boat.

I need to know what this whizzbang system is doing, so I also added a Microlog battery monitor that shows me the voltage on both banks as well as actual current input and draw. I now know that the stereo draws nearly half an amp, and that my minuscule solar panel is putting close to two-tenths of an amp into the house battery at high noon. This was a weekend well spent; the project was surprisingly easy, and extremely satisfying. There’ll be a full account of this makeover in the October issue of SAIL.

While I was fiddling around with electrics and dabbing paint on the bottom, Pip was replacing the tired old vinyl hull liners and redoing the cabin overhead. Then, suddenly, there was nothing pressing that needed to be done… and that’s a feeling I’ve never had around a boat.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Antigua and All That

Team SAIL went to the races a couple of weeks ago. Along with colleague David Schmidt and a gnarly crew recruited from the waterfronts of Marblehead, Mass, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Annapolis, Md and New Orleans, I’d chartered a 50ft Beneteau from Sunsail at the mecca of all warm-water regattas, Antigua Sailing Week. I had been surprised to discover that charter boats made up a healthy proportion of the fleets in the Caribbean regatta circuit. In fact, of the nearly 300 boats entered in the Heineken regatta in St Martin back in March, 130 were spread through seven bareboat classes. When nearly one in two boats in a regatta is a tubby cruiser, you know you’re on to something. Here is a way for Everyman to race at a competitive level alongside some of the hottest boats in the world, in some of the best sailing areas in the world.

You might think the average charter boat is more fun at anchor than under sail, and up to a point I’d agree. If you’re one of that small contingent who only sails hot racing boats you won’t find much to whoop and holler about on a boat with five toilets and bunks for ten vacationers. But for us mere mortals, the thought of punting a 40 foot Jeanneau or 51 foot Beneteau through warm Caribbean waves seems pretty attractive.

And it’s not as if people don’t take this kind of racing seriously. I’ve seen anchors and chain piled up on the docks, stoves and tables removed and stashed ashore, water tanks drained. The leeward mark roundings can be pretty hair-raising; no wonder the charter companies ask for a hefty racing deposit – 5,000 Euros in our case. There are even ways around that. We met one skipper at Antigua who had insured against his deposit being lost. Thankfully, he was in a different class. Crews tend to come back year after year, often chartering the same boats. Some even have sails made just for the regattas. It’s not easy to win a bareboat race.

Most of our competion was European. The boats weren’t decked out in corporate logos the way they were in St Martin, but the crews generally sported team uniforms that matched down to the Speedos. Some also evidenced an unfortunate predilection for getting naked at every opportunity, chief among one boat full of middleaged Germans that we found anchored next to us on a couple of occasions. You can carry the bareboat concept a bit too far.

I won’t tell you how we did on our Sunsail Beneteau 50, because the report’s in the July issue and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say we learned a few things, not least among them that the bareboat class is a wonderful way to check out the hot boats. We started before the fast guys and they usually caught us before the leeward marks, so we got to see plenty of spinnakers and some interesting takedowns. We even got asked kindly to move out of the way, once or twice.

We did our best to sample some of Antigua’s legendary parties, but only got to two of them. The other nights we kicked back on board, grilled steaks, and drank a bit too much Wadadli and Carib beer and rum laced with Ting, a local soda. I had never realized that Wadadli, the island’s national beer, was actually brewed in Denmark, while the maltier Carib is made locally. Luckily, neither was proof against aspirin.

In spite of these temptations we emerged at the end of a solid week’s racing happy, tanned and more-or-less healthy, if you discounted the inevitable boat bites and cruises. Winds had been unusually light, not topping out at much more than 20 knots, and more often around 12-15. The five races were all around 20-22 miles long, favoring the beautiful south and west coasts. By the end of the week we were starting to get the hang of the place.

This was one of the best weeks of sailing I’ve had in years. To top it all off, I got home to find that my wife had refinished all the floorboards on our boat. Truly, does life get any better?