Friday, February 13, 2015

Living on the Cheap. Dying on the Cheap.

Boating, actually sailing, for that matter, is not a cheap sport. The inherent problem with owning a boat is the fact that, unlike cars, they aren't as mass produced. Sometimes, no one has the off-the-shelf part you need, so, you have to have it made. That's even more expensive.

What we have to understand about the prices we pay is that not all of them are unfair, or necessarily a ripoff. When a company does the R&D for an item and only sells 10,000 units, they will recover that cost in the price per unit. Actually, they must recover that cost or they cannot stay in business.  If the same unit was going into 5 million cars, they can spread the R&D out a bit and the cost comes down.

Does this mean that some marine supply stores don't sell the *exact* same thing you can pick up at the local hardware store for what seems like half the price? Of course some of them do. They play on the "everything on a boat is expensive" game and, some people pay it.

But what if you don't want to pay it?

See that? This is a perfect example of going on the cheap. It's a photo of wire nuts and short pieces of odd spliced wire on my bilge pump. They don't belong there. The wires were also non-marine (not tinned) and were corroded where the wire was nicked. The pump failed. For lack of a handful of waterproof crimp connectors, a crimping tool, and a couple feet of tinned wire, I had no bilge pump. The house water pump was wired the same way too. Someone before me tried to save about $50.00 on a cheaper bilge pump for their $100,000+ boat. If that pump failed to run and Brigadoon had water intrusion while we were away for the weekend -- sunk boat.

The solution is not to "go on the cheap". Going on the cheap bends your sense of reason. It drives you to get the best deal, which is only measured by getting the cheapest price. It frequently means the person going on the cheap has a big pile of rationalizations why their cheap unit is as good as your more expensive unit. Most of the time they are wrong, as they try to defend their decisions.

Price isn't the only factor here, people. Sure, in America, where we value price above everything else. We don't care where our iPads or iPhones are made, or under what conditions, as long as we get it at a good price.

What matters is value for the dollar. How many times have any of us bought the cheaper of two items, only to have it fail or break on us. We get upset. "Damn cheap Chinese crap!"

But, who bought that, "Damn cheap Chinese crap?"

It's taken me a while to get over my early training. You see, my father served in the military in this country for 23 years. We had a family of six. My father worked second jobs. My mother worked. We were military poor. I was raised in an environment of scarcity, of worry over money, for fear of survival.

Fortunately, today, things are different for us. We have valuable skills that we can sell in corporate environs. We are beyond simply surviving and, for that, we're thankful. In our efforts to pay down debt and becoming truly "free", free from the yoke that debt puts on our shoulders and gives our creditors power over us. So, we shovel money towards debt (might be zero in mid to late summer).

I don't live in a environment of scarcity anymore but, that doesn't mean I'm foolish with my money.

So, what does this have to do with "going on the cheap"?


My background of scarcity might drive me to go on the cheap. However, I've learned, over the years that quality matters. If I'm trusting my life, I said, "trusting my life", to the safety and seaworthiness of my vessel and her systems, my primary motivation is not to save a dollar today only to die one dollar richer because a cheap unit failed.

There is always something cheaper that you think can do the job my thing does. I will not argue that. I will argue that, if price is your only consideration, you will get shortchanged eventually, perhaps at great cost, maybe a life.

Balance quality in what you do. You invest in quality and buy the best you can afford.

Save money in creative ways. Anchor out. Cook on board. Learn to splice your own lines. Don't buy useless doo-dads to hang fenders with. Learn to tie a round turn and two half hitches -- you already own the line on the fender. Learn how to use it. Save money in practical ways. That way, it's there when you need to buy the best diesel filtration, bilge pumps, safety harnesses, sails, and engine parts you can afford.

How has this worked out for us?

Our battery replacement project coast 5K. It ended up with the right parts, the right install, and a reliable and flexible system.

Our Portland Pudgy Dinghy and Active Rescue System was almost 5K with the electrical system and sail rig. The lifeboat canopy for this lifeboat (more than just a dink) will cost another $2,500. However, a life raft can cost about $5,000 plus an additional $1,000 a year to certify for a one time use item.

Our planned wind vane self-steering system will cost about $5,000, plus install. Aside from steering our boat so we don't have to, it provides a completely redundant rudder for Brigadoon. If our rudder fails, we can still steer. That's value added to the primary purpose of the unit.

Our sails cost about 14K. Yes, I could have paid less. I could have gone to any number of companies that took measurements (some have you measure) for sails made in Southeast Asia. We could have gotten those sails for about 40% off. Yet, our sails are clearly of a better quality. They are made locally, here in Pt. Townsend. Sail material arrives at one end, and finished, hand-made sails of the highest quality come out the other. Our vendor is here. That is valuable to us.

All these decisions were weighed on value. It was value that drove us to these purchases. It was value that drove us to save the cash for these purchases so we aren't in debt. Our money is our life energy. We sell our souls, our time, to corporations so we can have nice things. We won't waste money but we won't be afraid of quality either.

There are many ways to save money, yet still have quality. Yes, the stainless hardware (if it's the right quality) is just fine for marine use. Alkyd Enamel paint from any quality paint vendor will work just fine in marine applications and will be about half the cost of 'marine' paint. Heat shrink from my hardware store is cheaper -- it's still the same stuff. So, there is nothing wrong with finding value at a cheaper price.

Just don't buy crap that fails that you have to replace. Don't be cheap on stuff that can affect the safety of your boat or yourself.

I see it time and time again, in person and on the net. People put non-marine propane installations in boats. Use the cheapest lines they can for mooring lines. Buy the cheapest chain for anchoring. Thin wall stainless tubing is cheaper than thicker wall stuff. It's also weaker. Cheap anchors bend and break. Cheap light fixtures burn up. Cheap electronics fail. If all you look at is price, you will get burned, sooner or later.

Don't be so focused on living on the cheap that you end up dying because of it too.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The 2015 Boat Show...decisions, decisions...

Each year, we make plans on attending the boat show. It's a chance to spend a week totally focused on the boat, our plans, and the execution of same. We can talk about stuff all we want but, if we don't execute on that talk, this will never happen.

This year we were focused on getting information about a few major and projects:

  • Water Maker
  • Self Steering
  • Power generation (alternator/generators, solar, wind, hydro)
  • Batteries
The show also provides us opportunities to consider ideas that pop up during the show. Some of these were:
  • Honda gas powered generator
  • Honda gas powered outboard for Fiona, our Portland Pudgy
  • Propane powered outboard
  • Electric drive for Brigadoon (flirted with this for a day or so)
So, here are some of the things we are considering.

Water Makers

There are many models out there. They range in capacity, power, ease of use, simplicity vs. complexity, cost, and support. We've heard horror stories involving failed units, lousy customer support and difficulty in maintenance. We decided that we would focus on the systems we could see at the show.

Watermakers range in price from about $4K on up to $11K for one that will fit out needs on Brigadoon. That's a large range. Some of the units are very simple and others have a lot of touch screen electronics. We are wary of this level of features and complexity as we just can't run down to the corner store to get a replacement if it fails.

RO Watermaker

The RO unit is one we have noticed before. It's AC driven. This means we have to power it from our batteries, through an inverter. This is not easy to do and, since pulling AC from a  DC batter pack can lose 15-20% power, it's not a good choice. Well, they have an answer. They power it with a Honda 2000i generator. 

Well, that got us doing down the road that suggested gasoline on the boat. If we go with this, we have to have gasoline for the generator. And the generator can be used to put electrons back into our batteries. That also means that, since we have gas on the boat, we can get a Honda 2hp outboard too. They are great engines. So, by purchasing a watermaker to the tune of about $4-5K, I would also have to purchase a generator for $1K, and end up with an outboard that coasts about $1K. 

It's a good watermaker, but I'm not sure of the path it leads us towards; explosive gasoline on the boat.

ECHO Tec Water Maker, sold by Hydrovane.
 The ECHO Tec is sold by the same company that sells the windvane steering we will purchase next year. The unit is either powered by the DC motor you see here, or an engine mounted pump to the right. Either way, the system is price competitive, simple, and serviceable.

We don't think we want to load up our diesel auxillary engine with the pump. At only 27 hoursepower, our engine needs all the power it can get and, I don't know if I want to side load the crankshaft to drive the high pressure water pump. This is also true for large alternators.


Back side of diesel genset, water maker pump, and large DC generator.

Diesel Genset with water maker pump, large DC generator, and refrigeration pump.
We saw this unit a couple years ago and deemed it too expensive. However...

This is a Kubota diesel genset. It's is reliable, is built to carry large loads of the high pressure water pump for the water maker and a large DC generator for topping up our batteries. It's starting to make sense. The cost of this unit is comparable to another water maker, plus generator, upgrading the engine to take the generator loads to fill the batteries to run the DC watermaker's a rabbit hole.

But this. This is a generator. It's a simple machine. It's not that large. It should fit in the stern compartment, behind the engine. All in all, we are seriously considering this unit.

Why? No need to purchase a Honda generator. No gasoline on the boat. It runs on fuel we already have. We don't need to upgrade our drive motor with a big alternator or pump. That way, the only time we are running the engine on Brigadoon is to -- and this is key -- move the boat.

Self Steering

Hydrovane Self Steering unit

Beautiful workmanship here in the guts of the Hydrovane.
Self steering is crucial to crossing oceans. There is not way a person on watch can steer a boat the whole time. You need the machine to do that for you. Because Brigadoon is a pilot house sailboat, with two separate steering stations, we need a unit that is independent from out steering. A regular system that attaches to the wheel in the cockpit is likely to have issues with friction in our steering system.

Besides, what do you do in a boat with a rudder failure? If you have this, you don't worry about it. The Hydrovane has a separate rudder that hangs off the back of the boat. If our main rudder fails, we can use this one. The black handle you see in the second picture is the emergency tiller. 

We have little doubt we will put this system on the boat in 2016.


Replacement Spreader Lights
Our spreader lights are really crappy old Perko units. They are dim, corroded and incandescent. We want all LCD lighting on Brigadoon so, I looked at the new LED lights flooding the market. Many of them use only a few watts but put out impressive amounts of light. Well, we found a model we like at a good price. Stay tuned for the pictures of me climbing the mast and installing these. 


We need electrons on Brigadoon. They need to be held in large batteries. When it comes to power, where you might pay cents for your kilowatt hours, on boats they are more on the order of dollars or tens of dollars. Generating power and storing it takes money. You need a place to store it and a way to make it. 

We took a great class on boat systems from Nigel Calder on Saturday. The three hour talk was well worth our time. We learned about the requirements and complexities of generating and storing power on board. After attending that seminar, we don't think bolting large loads on our ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) just to make water; that doesn't make that much sense. 

Battery technology is really gaining ground. There are flooded batteries (cheap and powerful but not a long life along with requiring regular maintenance). There are AGM (sealed batteries, sometimes called gel cells, that are more expensive and require almost no maintenance. Then there are Lithium Ion batteries. We agree with Nigel that these are not suited for boats. They are too prone to suffer from thermal runaway for our taste. I don't want an unbalanced battery to set itself on fire and burn a hole in our boat while setting the whole thing on fire.

AGM technology is getting there in capacity and cost over flooded. We have about 500 ah (amp hours) in flooded cells right now. There is newer technology on the way for AGMs that looks promising. They can accept a very high charge rate and perform well over many discharge/charge cycles.

We will likely replace our flooded cells with newer AGMs in 2016.

Wind Generators

We know that wind turbines get a bad rap due to the noise some models make. And yes, the winds (10-15 knots) make for good wind but not a good anchorage. Where there is good anchorage, there is little wind. So, why get one? 

The wind, my friend, it is free. It's not a major component of our power generation but it may supplement. I like power from multiple sources so...

Hydro Generators

These are really coming to the fore. Since water is denser than air, the generator is smaller and can generate more power. The nice thing about this model is it's being sold by the Hydrovane guys. They even make a bracket that attaches the generator to the post for the self steering unit. 

Now, this unit is not cheap. It costs thousands but, it's extremely reliable and it generates a lot of power. The fact that it's used on the Vendee Globe and other ocean races speaks to the capabilities of the unit.

We are watching this one too.

Solar Generation

We will get solar. We just haven't decided on which unit yet. Since electronics, especially solar, is making such huge gains over the last couple years, we feel good about holding off on this one until 2016.

Electric Drive for Brigadoon (no -go)

Yes, we actually thought about this. There are some boats out there that have electric drive setups. It makes sense for sailboats because, most of the time, the engine is used to get in and out of a harbor, or through a canal, or a set of locks. That usually doesn't take much power. An electric drive might work. 

All you have to do is tear out the diesel engine (no more oil changes, no more diesel fuel, no more maintenance), build a huge batter bank, and find a way to charge it. Unfortunately the technology isn't quite there yet. Power generation and battery storage needs to catch up the new motors before I'm willing to cross the globe with such a setup. It was a good exercise but, it really came down to putting a large generator on board - much larger than the Kubota above. 

Why tear out one diesel engine to simply replace it with a generator of the same size?

VHF Radio

Our current VHF is a decent radio. It has never failed to perform. However, we don't have AIS capability or DSC ship to ship capability. This radio has that. This means that, even though we will add an AIS transponder to the boat, this will give us an additional AIS receiver, along with a RAM (Remote Access Mic) for the cockpit. We picked this up at the show and will install it this week. The other radio? It gets boxed as a spare.

SSB (Single Sideband) Radio

This a mainstay of cruisers around the world. VHF only reaches so far and, it can't pass data. SSB is long range and can pass data (with the right modem), which means you can get weather charts and email. The system were more complex and expensive but, we think we found a simpler install method that is less expensive, while still using a high quality radio. This is another 2016 item.

In Summary

It was a good show. We made some good decisions around systems, gained some good knowledge from Nigel Calder, got new spreader lights, a new VHF radio, and some galley sundries.

It's a real challenge, figuring out what to do. There are plenty of people out there who are more than willing to sell you something you don't need for a price you can barely afford, to laugh it off as, "well, you need this or you can't go cruising and it's always expensive."

Sorry, not playing that game.

We are going for value, usefulness, simplicity, ease of maintenance and I think we are on the right track.