Update to "Offshore Sailing on a Micro-budget"

What worked and what didn't

(Updated 10-14-2017)


Having described on our blog the many highlights and challenges of our voyage in Minimus from Southern California to French Polynesia, on this page we'll talk about what worked and what didn't in regard to the boat, the rig and the crew.   

For post-voyage updates on many other aspects of our preparations, see our "Offshore Sailing on a Micro-Budget" page.

Before talking about the boat, we should say a few words about how our minimalist approach worked for us.  In short, it was only reinforced as the voyage unfolded.  We didn't have the comforts and conveniences enjoyed by the crews of larger boats with complex mechanical and electrical systems but didn't really miss them either.  Time and time again we watched those crews working on fixing the systems instead of enjoying the tropical paradise they'd sailed to.  Or worse, they waited for specialized parts to be flown in at great expense.  One apoplectic sailor we spoke with in Nuku Hiva told us he'd paid an extra $400 over and above standard shipping cost to have an engine part flown in from the U.S.  After waiting more than two weeks, he'd just discovered that the part had gone to Hong Kong instead.

For us the choice, both before and after the voyage, was clear.  The anxiety, hassle and expense of owning and maintaining a larger and more complex boat held little appeal. 

As for the diminutive size of Minimus, it was never a drawback for us.  On the contrary, it made her more manageable both physically and economically.  Unlike the owners of so many larger boats, she didn't represent a large portion of our assets.  If, for whatever reason, she'd gone by the wayside in the course of the trip, it would have been sad but not financially devastating and there was a comforting freedom in that realization.  Although Minimus was by far the smallest boat in every anchorage we sailed to, she was also by far the largest boat I've ever owned.  We both agree that if we have another boat it will almost certainly be smaller. 

The boat:

To give context to my comments below, I'll share a bit about my past experience in small boat voyaging.  In the mid 1970's I sailed a 14-foot West Wight Potter from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska.  A few years later I built a 23-foot Wharram catamaran and sailed it from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas and from there to Hawaii.  In the early 1980's I sailed with my ex-wife (and yes, still dear friend:) in a 20-foot monohull from Seattle to Southern Mexico.  Then, after a 35 year hiatus from voyaging, I sailed with Pearl to French Polynesia aboard Minimus, a 25-foot Cape Dory.   

One would think I'd finally have it all dialed in.  Alas, that's not always the case.  

Those four boats represent radically diverse approaches to boat design.  One was a form-stable monohull, two were ballasted monohulls and one was a multihull. 

For her type, which is to say a ballasted monohull, we have little but praise for Minimus.  She did everything we asked of her and took us on our greatest adventure to date.  While she was not without her faults, those were not hers specifically, but rather those of her type. 

With the acknowledgement that no small boat is comfortable at sea, I personally think a small boat should be as comfortable as possible, in keeping with seaworthiness and other qualities necessary in a sea-going boat.  As I've noted elsewhere, the arch enemy of single-handed and short-handed sailors is fatigue.  Fatigue not only dulls the enjoyment of the experience, it also leads to poor decisions.  In that regard, the catamaran was the best sea boat I've had, followed by the form stable monohull.  In last place by a fair margin are the ballasted monohulls. 

Ballasted monohulls not only heel (lean over in the wind), but more significantly they have a tendency to roll from side to side.  In my experience, rolling is the more objectionable trait.  It usually happens under one of three conditions.  Either a particular combination of sail and direction with respect to the direction of wind and waves, or a calm where there's no wind to fill her sails and steady her, or in an anchorage exposed to ocean swell.   

In the first situation one can sometimes adjust sails or course to help reduce rolling.  In the second situation the mainsail can be raised, but only at the expense of enduring endless noise as the sail fills with a rig-shaking slap on one roll, then again on the next roll and on and on.  Knowing that such treatment is hard on the mainsail, which is typically the most expensive sail, doesn't help one to endure the racket.  In the third case a second anchor can be set to help hold the bow toward the entrance to the anchorage or roll reducers can be deployed.  In each of these situations though, the cure is usually only partial.  The underlying tendency remains.  Regardless of why it happens, sleep becomes more difficult as one has to wedge as tightly as possible between hull and lee cloth to keep from rocking back and forth continually.  All other activities also become more difficult as one constantly has to brace against the next roll.

Then there's the sinking issue.  Ballasted monohulls depend on the weight of their lead or iron keels to keep them upright.  If the boat becomes holed for whatever reason, it can sink fairly quickly.  That possibility became vivid for us when we were struck by a sperm whale in mid-ocean.  Later, in the Tuamotus we met an ex-sailing couple who, only weeks before, had lost their 45' sailboat when it struck a submerged container and sank soon afterward.  Fortunately, they were able to send an SOS and were rescued before the boat sank.    

Early in our preparations for the voyage, we'd given a lot of thought to the potential for sinking.  Philosophically we preferred to avoid the need for rescue, however small that chance might be, by ensuring the boat wouldn't sink and thus making the boat itself our life raft.  We began by calculating the volume of positive flotation necessary to keep Minimus afloat if she should be seriously holed or for whatever reason became filled with water.  It soon became apparent that there wasn't even close to enough room on onboard for the volume of flotation required, with enough room left over for us and our provisions.  Next we experimented with flotation bags, but those also proved impractical (see our "Positive flotation" page). 

We finally concluded that adding positive flotation to a small, relatively heavy displacement monohull was futile.  Adding to the difficulty is that the position of the buoyancy within the boat is critically important in order to keep the boat floating reasonably level when swamped.  Having explored the issue in some depth, I personally would not trust a claim of positive flotation in a ballasted monohull unless the boat was actually tested by filling it with water in a fully loaded condition.  Performing the test in fresh water would add a level of confidence, as fresh water is less buoyant than salt water. 

In the end we made a collision mat and several collision pads and hoped we wouldn't need them (see our "Emergency preparedness" page).  We never really gave serious thought to investing in a life raft.  The odds against needing it seemed too remote and the expense was counter to the underlying principle of the voyage, which was an experiment in offshore sailing on a micro-budget.  There's nothing micro about the cost of a life raft. 

Nonetheless, I felt a considerable responsibility for Pearl, as well as our friends, who would have been greatly saddened if we'd sunk without a trace.  It led to a low-level but persistent sense of anxiety that I would probably not have experienced if we'd had a life raft.   

It's a decision we'd make differently next time, assuming we were going offshore again in a potentially sinkable boat.  That we'll again sail offshore is quite likely, but as we note below, it probably won't be in a ballasted monohull.       

(Pearl)  I knew that David was anxious about being out in a ballasted boat without a bomb-proof strategy to deal with a catastrophic holing, but I had no deep concern about it.  That eventuality seemed so remote that it didn't feel to me worth putting a lot of effort into.  If he had proposed putting the money into a life raft, I would probably have objected and tried to dissuade him. 

Only after hearing the stories of boats striking reefs and sinking, and most especially meeting sailors who had recently been rescued from their sinking boat (only possible because they were close to an island), did I start to experience that sense of anxiety within myself. I realized that hitting a container and sinking may be rare, but it does happen, and had happened to people we got to know.

In retrospect, I would say the sense of security that a life raft would have offered would have been well worth the expense.  Even better would be knowing that our boat couldn't sink. 

Next time we'd be inclined to go with an unsinkable boat to avoid the necessity of investing in a life raft.  That consideration in addition to the comfort factor would likely incline us toward a multihull.  By way of example, my catamaran was built of plywood and, as an added safety factor, it had several watertight bulkheads in each hull, so was unsinkable. 

I've been working on a radical small boat design that would be relatively quick and inexpensive to build, have positive flotation, and be suitable for offshore voyaging.  It would also be habitable in the inverted position in the highly unlikely event of a capsize.   If that project proceeds, we'll be posting about it on this website.            

The rig:

Minimus, like my previous boats, had a Bermuda rig (tall mast and triangular sails).  This reflects the fact that the vast majority of sailboats these days are Bermudan rigged.  It's arguably the fastest of rigs overall and certainly is to windward.  On a small cruising boat sailing offshore with either a single-handed or short-handed crew however, my preference is for a junk rig, which is much easier to handle.  It's a rig with relatively low loads on halyards and sheets, so they can be lead back to the cockpit for safer and easier handling.  On a Bermudan rigged boat, I've yet to see a workable setup for leading sail control lines back to the cockpit.  The loads and friction are just too high for it to work well. 

Some might argue that a roller furling headsail would have made our sail handling much easier.  That's only part of the picture though.  Rigging a whisker pole on a roller furling headsail still requires going forward and every time the mainsail needs a reef put in or shaken out, a trip to the mast is required and often one to the foredeck as well to loosen and then re-tighten the preventer.  Every time I left the cockpit on Minimus to go forward for changing headsails or reefing the mainsail, I found myself wishing we'd converted her to a junk rig.  Hopefully I've learned my lesson this time.  I expect so, as Pearl insists that our next boat will be junk rigged.     

(Pearl)  When we left on the voyage I fully expected to share all the responsibilities of changing sails, reefing, etc.  As it turned out, David never felt comfortable letting me go to the foredeck while we were under sail.  There was just too much pitching and rolling and too many opportunities for me to go overboard. 

Similarly, although there was no choice, I was always anxious when David was forward working on sails.  Although he was clipped in with his harness, it wouldn't have been pretty if he'd gone overboard, and I'd always breathe easier when he got back to the cockpit. Every day he would exclaim about how  much he wished we had gone with a junk rig, and as the days passed I came to appreciate why.  This was reinforced when we met a New Zealander sailor who had converted his boat to a junk rig.  He described how he could adjust sails from his cockpit in a few seconds, and how much he loved it.  Next time....

The crew:

In talking about the crew, I'll start by singing Pearl's praises.  How many 60 year old women, or men for that matter, would consider going to sea in a cockleshell of a boat?  How many would then do it in high spirits, reveling in the sunrises, the sunsets, the formation of squalls, the endless play of wind on water?  How many would sing through rough weather and calms?  I am fortunate beyond words to have had her as a partner on this adventure.  She'll no doubt object to my writing even this little bit, but I feel honor bound to say it.   

Something we discovered in the course of the voyage is that, unlike most of the sailors we met, we have a really good community life back home.  For us, offshore sailing is a sabbatical activity away from that life, after which we return home.  We find that it's best done in a 3-6 month time frame,  To be gone longer than that begins to defeat the sabbatical purpose, which is to remove ourselves so completely from our home life that we return with a renewed appreciation for home, friends, work and community. 

We've had many questions about sea sickness.  I'm fortunate in not suffering from it, but Pearl does.  She took along a wide array of anti sea sickness "cures" including medications, wrist bands and herbs.  She was not convinced of the efficacy of any of them.  What worked by far the best for her was to apply a scopalamine patch the night before leaving shore.  She would leave it on for the 3 day period of efficacy and was fine after that, with no need to use more patches or other remedies.  She enjoyed spending her days in the cockpit where sea sickness was less likely. I did all the cooking, so when she went below she could immediately lie down in her bunk. 

Our division of labor was that I did all the cooking, all sail changes and replied to the messages coming in on the satellite messenger.  Pearl took a several hour nap each morning and was otherwise in the cockpit on watch much of the day.  At night she set the alarm for every two hours, when she would get up to check the course, make adjustments to the self steering if necessary and see that the sails were appropriate for the sea and wind conditions.  I slept, though frequently woke up and then went back to sleep.      

It was a system that worked well for us and one we'd be inclined to do the same way next time. 

Experienced sailors will note that our night watch routine or rather lack of it, is unconventional.  Our reasoning is based on my observation regarding fatigue, as noted above.  By not standing conventional watches, we stayed better rested and thus increased the odds of making good decisions.  No doubt it also increased our enjoyment of the voyage.  

What allowed us to sail through the night with reasonable peace of mind was AIS.  We found it to be a game changer.  The knowledge that an alarm would sound whenever a commercial vessel was within 20-25 miles of us, and furthermore to know its course and speed, was a huge advantage over the situation in decades past.  It was fundamentally responsible for the way we structured our nights.  As long as we were well offshore, we both slept much of the night.  In the highly unlikely event that another sailboat was in our vicinity, it would almost certainly have been going the same direction we were, so the odds of a collision were vanishingly small.  Logs, submerged containers and other debris can't be seen at night anyway, so keeping watch for them is a false hope.  Much more important in our calculus was to conserve rest.