gear review

We've been cruising for about a relatively short timie, so this report should not be taken as gospel, but already we have some opinions about the gear we brought with us. Which of these expensive boat toys was worth the money?


There are certain items that I now consider almost mandatory. It's true that you could cruise without them. All you really need to cruise the Bahamas is the right boat with good sails and anchors, a compass or two, and the right charts. But I believe the following items increase both safety and comfort enough to make them well worth the expense:

#1: Cockpit mounted chartplotter. We have a Raymarine C80 with an 8 inch display mounted on the pedestal that keeps us apprised of our location at all times. I had heard that the Navionics Gold charts used by this unit were inaccurate for the Bahamas (I've heard the same about other packages) with some islands as much as one mile out of place on the charts. Although it's early in our cruise, so far the accuracy has been fine. In fact, every time I've gotten the boat in trouble (thankfully, all of this occurred in the soft mud or sand of the southern U.S.) it was because I thought the chartplotter was wrong--and it wasn't. Even the shoals and presence of coral heads (although obviously not the exact location of coral heads) has been on target. I've noticed a lot less detailed charting, including a lack of depths here in the Exumas, but moment-to-moment navigation here is done visually, so that's almost appropriate. You need to steer looking at the water, not staring at the plotter. Incidentally, we bought every Bahamas crusing guide we could find and probably get the most use out of the Stephen Pavlidis Exuma Guide, but when it comes to paper charts everyone agrees: you want the Lewis Explorer Chartbooks (there are three that cover all of the Bahamas). Incidently, for Turks & Caicos, you want the Wavey Line Charts.

#2: Autopilot. After much agonizing over the expense we purchased the entry-level Raymarine below-decks pilot (ST6001 controller, S1G computer with gyro, and Type 1 Drive). At around $2,600 from Defender, this was one of the most expensive items we needed, and the installation (mostly building the mount for the drive under the aft berth) took several days. I considered going with an $800 cockpit-mounted wheelpilot that probably would have sufficed for the easy-weather sailing we're likely to see, but I don't regret getting the tougher below-decks pilot. Our Raymarine has worked perfectly, steering the boat almost all the time we've been underway The only time we hand-steer is when coming into a harbor, or dodging coral heads or crab pots. I can't imagine being chained to the wheel as we were before getting "Alfred" on board.

#3: Dodger and Bimini. We haven't seen a cruising boat without these, so perhaps they go without saying. Still, coming down the river when temperatures were sometimes in the 30's, our full-enclosure cockpit kept us quite comfortable. Out in the open water you inevitably encounter waves that splash into the cockpit so the dodger and bimini (zipped together to form a continuous barrier) help keep us dry and protect all the electronics on the pedestal. The best design for a dodger-bimini combination is probably a "stepped" approach such as ours which leaves a space to look out between the two with the ability to close that gap when necessary. A few boats have a "single-height" roof with just one big "windshield" and I don't think that will give enough visibility when waves or rain obscure the view.

#4: Cockpit mounted VHF radio. We had an older radio that seemed to work fine, and considered just using one of our handhelds in the cockpit. I'm very glad we spent the money to get an new Icom IC-M422 radio with a command mic mounted on the cockpit pedestal. A handheld just doesn't have the range to keep you informed about what's happening around you. Going down the Tennessee and TennTom a radio is crucial to negotiating the locks and commercial tows. Out in the open water you need it just about every day to talk to marinas and other boats. Once we were in the company of other sailboats, we realized that our new Icom didn't have the range of our neighbors. In St. Pete I replaced the antenna at the top of the mast, which helped a little. What we need now is to replace the coax down the inside of the mast. The new radio is also connected to the NMEA GPS output on the autopilot so that we have DSC distress calling available should we ever need it.

#4: Dinghy Davits. It's certainly possible to tow your dinghy around much of the time, hoisting it on deck only when making your Gulf or other major crossing. Still, that involves removing the motor, then hoisting, securing the boat on deck, and doing it all again when you want to go ashore. You may find yourself not going out to explore because it's just too much trouble, or towing the dinghy when it would be better to have it out of the water. We purchased a set of heavy duty Martek davits which have worked fine. The only feature they lack is the ability to twist them in when not in use so they don't protrude behind the boat, but that's just an issue of aesthetics. Our only problem with the davits is that I didn't think our stern pulpit was strong enough to support the boat, so used the wire for the SSB wire doubled through a block at the top of the mast to produce a "triple backstay" effect. This worked very well with just one issue: when under tension, the line (going up one side) and the antenna wire (other side) can sometimes resonate in the wind, making spooky sounds in the night.

#5: SSB radio. You need at least a receiver (the Sony ICF-2010 was the standard for years and may still be) to keep informed about the weather. It's possible to use the NOAA forecasts as far as Bimini or Cat Cay, but once across the banks the VHF radio is far less useful for weather. From Nassau you may be able to pick up the BASRA repeat of the NOAA forecast each morning, another repeat from Highborne Cay, and the nets from Georgetown, but that leaves gaps where you'll get nothing. With SSB you'll get not just the forecasts but also interpretation from experts such as Chris Parker. You'll also have the capability to download weatherfax and NOAA forecasts directly to your computer. We've had some problems with our SSB installation and before leaving Florida I considered it something that wasn't earning its keep, but here in the Exumas I'm very glad to have it.

#6: Radar. We've often split the screen on the C80 so show the chartplotter on the left and the radar on the right. We used the radar extensively on the trip down, mostly when caught out on the water after dark. Plowing into the darkness is never comfortable, but even with binoculars I found that at night the radar was better at spotting buoys and vessels than my eyes. During big-water crossings radar is invaluable in tracking the path of ships you may encounter. The ability to overlay radar on the chartplotter (as our Raymarine C80 can do) is useful in verifying that chart is accurately reflecting reality. Our radome is mounted on the backstay on a Questas Self-Leveling Backstay Radar Mount (around $1,200, ouch!) which works well, with a couple of downsides. The dome stays nice and level, but the mount makes it cumbersome to disengage the backstay--not that we do that all that much--and I've read that the cable can get worn from the twisting action. It's also a bit more difficult to get the thing down as compared with a pole or arch on the stern. Since I'm pretty good at going up the mast, it would actually be a bit easier for me to work on the thing up there. If I had it all to do over again, I would get a radar arch for the stern of the boat that could hold a fixed radar mount, solar panel, dinghy, and wind generator. The high cost of the arch would be about the same as all the components we already have.

#7: Watermaker. The single most expensive item we purchased ($3,400) was a Katadyn 80E watermaker, which we installed in the wet locker. There are a lot of opinions pro and con about watermakers, and I'll admit that the cost per gallon is very high when compared with purchasing water underway. Like a puppy, a watermaker is a big responsibility--it needs to be run often but only in clean water. However, the convenience is worth it for us. Water is readily available here in the Bahamas (occasionally for free, but more often around fifty cents a gallon) so long as you stop into marinas frequently. When I hear about people showering with spray bottles, I'm glad I can take a "real" shower every day. I'm glad we spent the extra for the 80E (3 gallons/hour) over the 40E (1.5 gallons/hour) because anything less would mean running the thing for several hours each day. While on the subject of water we are also big believers in our Seagull water purifier. These pups are not cheap (well over $300) but they do a great job of providing clean, fresh water even when your water tanks may not be spiffy clean as you would like.

#8 Apple iPod. Okay, this one is not an essential, but I will mention it anyway despite the fact that I discovered it relatively late in our cruise. Before leaving, sailing friends had told me they would not leave port without their iPod. I was already downloading music from Apple's iTunes service, but being old fashioned had burned songs to CD and tried listening to them on a cheap portable CD player, which did not work all that well. The player was too big to slip in a pocket so I was always getting hung up on the cord, the batteries didn't last long enough, and even a modest collection of CD's in a wallet takes up some valuable space on the boat. I bought an iPod Shuffle for around $60 and have found it works perfectly. Of course, you could use any MP3 player, but I like Apple's product because it is simple to use and the only one on the market not designed--I don't mean to be harsh here, but let's talk reality--for playing music that's been stolen over the Internet. Songs on iTunes are 99 cents each, and cheaper when we buy the entire album. As my friend Bill Johnson once said, if a song isn't work 99 cents to you, why would you waste time listening to it?

Mixed Reviews

Interphase Probe Sonar. I had high hopes for this forward-looking sonar unit, figuring that it would help keep our 5 1/2 foot keel off the bottom. The Datamarine unit that came with the boat works most but not all of the time, so we needed a more reliable unit. The Probe was available for around $800 from Interphase (note that the Probe is an older model that may be phased out at some point). Installing the unit required putting a new thru-hull just ahead of the leading edge of the keel. In order to shoot ahead, the transducer bulb is two inches of plastic down on the hull, vulnerable to damage since it is forward of the keel fin. The Probe does work, showing a rough profile of the bottom immediately ahead, but unless the change is quite dramatic there isn't enough to be a big help. If the sensitivity is not set correctly, the unit may (as it did on Lake Chickamauga) fail to detect a solid cliff just 30 feet in front of the boat. Speaking of settings, we were surprised that the Probe lacks the ability to set a keel offset. Since our transducer is about two feet below the actual waterline, our depth always reads two feet less than reality. You can mentally compensate, but it would nice not to have to.

Satellite Phone. We needed a way to get e-mail outside of cell phone range, and had planned to purchase a Pactor III modem for our SSB radio. A new modem cost around $800, so instead we decided to get a Globalstar phone from Outfitter Satellite. For around $1,000 we bought a used phone with a partially used minute plan (1600 minutes which we must use by June 2006, at a cost of about 30 cents/minute) and a data connection kit. One annoyance: when our plan finally did expire, Outfitter Satellite automatically renewed it at a cost of over $800 at a time when we were already back in the states and didn't need the phone except for emergencies. Check your contracts carefully and make sure your vendor is upfront about what happens when the plan expires (most, like ours, will probably renew automatically if you don't stop them.)

On the one hand, we've really enjoyed having the phone and would definitely buy one again. Voice calls generally have worked fairly well. The mixed feelings come in the area of e-mail. To make a data call, we take the phone up to the cockpit using a long USB cable, then move it around to various positions trying to get a strong signal. Since the Globalstar satellites are constantly in motion, reception varies from one moment to the next. You may have to wait a few minutes for a satellite to come into view. Sometimes you'll have ten or fifteen minutes with a strong connection and can get all your work done. Other times the signal will drop out--this can happen very fast, with the signal going from full strength to nothing all at once--and you'll lose the connection. The real frustration is that if I am checking my mail with Outlook or Outlook Express, the next time I pop the mail I'll get everything all over again, including the messages I had received before losing the connection (techies out will probably say that with POP3 protocol the server apparently doesn't flag the messages as sent until the last one goes). Still, given the lower cost and higher data speeds of Globalstar, I believe it's probably still the system of choice for this part of the world. You won't be browsing a lot of websites (although you can often do so v-e-r-y slowly if necessary), but for e-mail and FTP, the phone works pretty well.

Update: In Georgetown about a dozen Globalstar users, led by Steve on Clear Day, discussed tips about using the phones. Steve called Globalstar and received these instructions to enhance service:

  1. Press MENU, 8, 4, 3 and erase all entries on the PROHIBITED LIST.
  2. Press MENU, 4, eight zeros to get into DEBUG, then 4 and OK to clear all errors in NVRAM.
  3. If not using your phone for cell service, press MENU, 8, 8, 1, then # key to scroll to GSTAR only, then OK.
  4. To force the phone to search for a satellite at any time, press MENU, 8, 4, 4, then OK.
A couple of boats reported that they had installed the car kit (around $900!) and that had dramatically improved their phone's performance. Steve reported that the tech had said it might not be so much the antenna as the amplifier that comes with the kit. However, others are not so enthusiastic.

I'm sorry to report that following the suggestions Steve provided did not result in any improvement. This morning the phone is connecting with a strong signal for about two or three minutes, then disconnecting. If the $900 car kit is needed to do this kind of work, then the brains at Globalstar should sell it for a reasonable price instead of stabbing their customers in the back with a 2,000 percent markup. If they heard how many people yesterday wanted to throw their phones into the ocean (which is what I'd like to do at this moment) they just might see the light.

One thing I have figured out is that if you are disconnected and the computer thereafter refuses to dial the phone, saying the connection is busy or already in use, just unplug the USB cable for a moment from the computer. At times I had rebooted both the computer and the phone to fix this, but unplugging the cable takes just a few seconds and fixes the problem.

Bottom line: I had read a review of Globalstar in Practical Sailor a couple of years ago that had all the same complaints we still hear today. The phone works most of the time, but can be extremely frustrating when it disconnects with absolutely no warning. The reviewer (and I) had hoped that additional ground stations and improvements in the system would make it more reliable, but the level of frustration is still very high. You'll get the job done--eventually--but if you're prone to foul language, don't use your phone in front of impressionable children. [Update: Globalstar service continued to slide until by the next year the system was basically non-functional--see my newer essay (okay, rant) on the subject).

Awning System. I'm sure the need for these items will grow as the seasons change, but so far we have yet to deploy our big awning that shades the entire back half of the boat. Somehow I had the idea that it would be hot as blazes down in the Exumas, but actually the temperatures are usually just about ideal. We occasionally use one of our fans, but only today did I finally take out one of our big Endless Breeze fans since most of the time it's quite comfortable--perhaps because we've always had a nice breeze. We had worried a bit about (but never completed) plans for collecting rainwater, but so far it hasn't rained enough to make that an issue. Update: It did get hot enough in Luperon that we deployed the awnings, and later back in the states it got very hot and we were glad to have the system aboard.

Hella Fans. I have six Hella fans installed on Seaductress, one "Turbo" model and five of the less expensive ($20.00) "Jet" models. The Turbo is a great fan but the exposed blades (the guard covers only one side) scares me since I lost a fingernail to a fan without a guard a while back. Practical Sailor did some long-term tests on fans once and the Hella fans came out winners. I liked the Jet model because it was affordable and seemed to work well. However, every single one has problems with the on-off switch, several of them right out of the box. It's a bad design that seems to fail inevitably. You can solder the contact closed and install a separate switch, or (as I have done) monkey with them and try to keep them working. I e-mailed Hella and told them about my experiences and was surprised that they never wrote back or acknowledged the letter in any way. That's the last Hella product I'm likely to buy. All they had to do was e-mail me and say they were sorry, and all would have been forgiven.

Wish We Had

Larger motor on Dinghy. When I get together with our friend Janet on Promise, you can bet we will eventually start to complain about our lack of planing with the 6HP outboards on our dinghies. Our 9 foot Achilles (wooden slat floor) will almost plane with Annie, Laura and me aboard, so I'm betting an 8HP would have done the trick. I bought a 6HP four-stroke Nissan at a good price and told myself I was going to the Bahamas to learn patience, but having a slow dinghy has taught me only that I want a faster one. There are beaches and snorkeling sites two or three miles away that are just too long a ride when you can only make a few knots through the water. Janet wants an 8HP two-stroke because it will be no heavier than our sixes. I still want a four stroke, which would be 30 pounds more (a huge difference) but thanks to our davits we have never taken the motor off the dinghy, so that wouldn't be a major issue.

Hardwired Inverter. We have a 1250 watt Xantrex inverter that is wired to one outlet to power the microwave, and having that capability is a very good thing. However, we have other appliances (computer, camera battery chargers, TV's and DVD players) that also want AC power. My solution was to get some smaller inverters, but due to voltage drop in the DC wires when we're at anchor--which is almost all the time now--they complain if we put too big a draw on them. I believe investing in a switch so that the big inverter could be wired directly to the house AC panel would be a much better solution. Note: I thought I could simply run a cord from the inverter to the shore power inlet (I had adapters to make this possible) but this results in a reverse polarity warning on the AC panel. Wish I knew what was up with this.

Wind Generator, We have two BP 120 watt solar panels, one mounted on the dinghy davits, the other on the aft port rail, both of which can be tilted (but not swung) to maximize sunlight. Together they put out around 14 amps at full sun (although our BZ products charger controller sometimes gets up to 18 amps out of them). Figuring an average of five hours of full sun a day, we should get around 70 amp/hours a day from solar. Unfortunately, even when we are able to keep up with our consumption during the day, we run a deficit during the night that can't be made up the next day (typically 40-60 amp/hours). The obvious solution, at least for this time of year, is a wind generator. They are noisy (typically a whine) but given that the wind often blows 15 knots steadily for many days at a time, a generator might just put us over the top.

Bicycles. Bicycles can be very useful in places like Florida, especially if you will in one spot for a while. Marathon was the place we missed having bikes the most. I haven't seen any bikes on boats here in the Bahamas, perhaps because most of the islands just aren't that big. Bicycles rust out quickly, but I am still kicking myself for not buying an older folding bike for ten bucks a couple of years ago when I had the chance. Some folks in Florida just buy cheap non-folding bikes and this would work well places like Marathon where you can get them ashore once and use them from there, but I can't imagine taking a full-sized bike in our dinghy back and forth more than once in a long while. I think if we do any cruising in the states, we'll need bicycles--and probably that kayak I've been wanting to boot.

Pactor III Modem. Although not essential since we had the Globalstar phone in the islands and use a Verizon cell phone for Internet access in the states, it might have been nice to have a modem on the SSB radio so we could get e-mail for free. I still think if I had to choose between the Globalstar phone and the modem (both cost around $1,000) I would go with the phone since it obviously gives you more capabilities, but in a perfect world we would have them both. However, as Annie pointed out to me before we left, you can't very well go cruising if you spend every dime of the cruising kitty on toys and can't afford to leave the dock.

Copyright © 2007 by Rodger Ling. All rights reserved.