Much has been written on the subject of preparing a boat to go offshore. It seems most of this literature is now focused on affluent types who aspire to live as profligately afloat as they do ashore, but it’s important to remember you can in fact explore the watery parts of our planet in a boat of your own without spending huge sums of money. As an illustration of what’s possible, I thought I might tell the sordid tale of how I bought and equipped my first bluewater sailboat.
I purchased Crazy Horse in Connecticut in the fall of 1994 expressly for the purpose of taking her offshore on a North Atlantic circle cruise to West Africa and back. She was a 1964 Pearson Alberg 35, built in Bristol, Rhode Island, and cost me all of $28,500.
In selecting a boat for this adventure I wanted primarily to find something strong, simple, and cheap. I was naturally attracted to older CCA designs that are still commonly seen in New England waters and are often featured still in low-budget brokerage listings. Similar boats I looked at included the Luders 33 and Bristol 32. With their full keels, narrow beam, and long overhangs, these may not be the fastest or roomiest boats going, but they are solidly built, quite sea-kindly, and are certainly faster (and cheaper) than fat double-ended cult cruisers like the Westsail 32.
At the time I bought her, Wanderlust, as she was then known, had been in the same family for 18 years and had been well cared for. She was strictly a seasonal boat, was always stored inside during winters, and had been upgraded on a regular basis. She had been repowered with a 27-hp Volvo diesel engine, had a good sail inventory, new spars, an electronic pedestal-mounted autopilot, two refrigeration systems, and a pressure water system. Still, she was equipped primarily for coastal cruising and there was much to be done before she was ready to work offshore.
I have to admit I am a bit embarrassed now at how hastily we prepared the boat. She was out of the water when I purchased her, and because of where and how she was stored (far from home, deep in the back of a very crowded shed) it wasn’t possible to do much work prior to her launching. With the help of my good friend Nim Marsh (currently editor of Points East magazine), I splashed her in early June 1995, and after about six weeks of frenetic activity we took off for Bermuda in mid-July.
The boat wasn’t really ready when we left, but we were passionately committed to somehow getting to sea that summer. I can’t recommend this as a modus operandi, but at the opposite extreme there are those who are so obsessed with getting everything on their boat just right that they never actually go anywhere. Different people will draw the line in different places, but if you ever want to really go sailing, you should resign yourself, on some level, to preparing the boat as you go along.
BELOW THE WATERLINE
One of the reasons I bought Crazy Horse was because she had a very clean bottom. The heavy lay-up of early glass hulls is the stuff of legend, and in New England, where the water is cold and boats spend a lot of time on the hard, it is fairly easy to find one in good condition. The surveyor’s moisture meter turned up some damp spots, but nothing dramatic, and Crazy Horse showed no signs of having ever had blisters. Her previous owner had also recently treated her to an epoxy barrier job, and as such she offered an excellent foundation on which to build.
The rudder was a different story. Pearson built Alberg 35s with wooden rudders–mahogany planks mounted vertically on drift pins–and Crazy Horse still boasted an original example. It seemed awfully wobbly, but several people assured me it would swell up tight once it was immersed in water, so I decided to leave it be. One nice feature of full-keel sailboats is that they are not horribly dependent on their rudders for directional stability. In an emergency they require a less substantial jury-rudder, or, if you are good at trimming sails (and particularly if you have a yawl), they can be sailed without a rudder at all. If the boat had a fin keel with a spade rudder I probably would not have taken a chance on it.
The rudder did cause concern during the voyage. When I hauled the boat more than a year later in Gibraltar, there was some play in it, and just to be safe I beefed it up by screwing horizontal beams on to either side of it. This made for a strong, but not very hydrodynamic foil that served well enough for the rest of the trip. A year after my return I finally bit the bullet and had a new rudder fabricated in glass.
The other issue was the bronze rudder heel. It was corroded a bit along its leading edge, and as a condition of purchase I insisted that the previous owner replace it. This, it turned out, was a mistake, not because he did a poor job, but because he was so slow about it we ended up launching the boat a month late. I would have been better off demanding a price reduction and doing the work myself.
TOPSIDES AND DECK
The boat still had her original grey gelcoat, which was thoroughly crazed. My research told me this was likely because it had been laid on too thick when the hull was built. After a good waxing, however, the gelcoat shined up nicely and the crazing was barely noticeable. I thought seriously about painting the boat, but it seemed silly to go to much trouble over a cosmetic issue prior to an extended cruise. Instead, I just waxed her every few months. In a few places, tiny chips of gelcoat started falling out, but I just puttied over these spots and kept on cruising.
On deck there were several things to attend to. The boat had only a small pramhood over her companionway, and since we expected she would be wet in a seaway, due to her low freeboard, we removed this and installed a full cockpit dodger. As soon as we got to Bermuda, after a brush with a tropical storm, we also added some cockpit weather-cloths. Up forward we added a strong bow-roller, and midships, on the cabintop, we mounted a Plastimo 4-man raft in a canister. I also had a seahood for the sliding companionway hatch (some call this a “garage”) fabricated in fiberglass.
During the survey, the balsa-cored decks had, with a few relatively minor exceptions, read dry on the moisture meter so I did not waste any time rebedding deck hardware. I did this instead bit by bit after we reached the Azores. As it was, I probably should have paid more attention to the hardware before leaving, as one cleat without a backing plate pulled right out of the deck when we were tied to a wall in Bermuda.
The boat came equipped with only a single lifeline mounted atop her stanchion posts, and though conventional wisdom dictates there should be a second line running through the middle of the posts, I never bothered about it. The stanchion posts were rather low, and it seemed likely that anyone going overboard was going over the lifeline and not under it. In the Azores I did add netting up forward, and this made it much easier to keep everything on deck when changing out roller-furling headsails at sea.
I also never installed any special hardware for jacklines. Instead, we just set up lines running from the bow cleats to the stern cleats on either side of the boat and clipped on to these. Nor did I install any dedicated d-rings for lashing down gear on deck, and this was probably a mistake. Most of the time we had a rolled-up dinghy and a few sail bags lashed to the teak handrails on the coachroof, and we were lucky they held up as well as they did.
We did go to the trouble to make up emergency storm shutters for the four large cabin port windows in the event they were punched out by waves. We pre-assembled kits of the gear and fasteners needed to install these and stored them below with the shutters.
SAILS AND RIG
My biggest mistake was not paying more attention to the standing rigging. Though the rig looked good before we left, by the time I finished my two-year circuit I had replaced every shroud and stay on the mainmast piece by piece. Most of the shrouds I replaced in Gambia, which was a pain in the ass. Fortunately, I was religious about polishing and inspecting the swage terminals and found each cracked terminal before any had a chance to fail.
We did go to great lengths to take apart the roller-furler, an old Harken unit, for an inspection before casting off. Unfortunately, I did not discover until after the rig was up that the big problem with these units was that the roll pins that hold the foil extrusions together like to fall out. The best way to prevent this is to peen the ends of the pins, but it is impossible to do unless the rig is down. As it was, I laid in a supply of spare pins and inspected the foil regularly.
The running rigging was in good shape and presented no problems. We did reeve a heavier topping lift, as this was to serve as a back-up main halyard if necessary. Both the jib halyards were wire spliced to rope, and eventually I replaced one of these with an all-rope line, as I felt more comfortable going aloft on this.
As for the sails, these also were in good shape. The inventory consisted of a mainsail, mizzen, mizzen staysail, a drifter, a 150 percent genoa, a 130 percent genoa, and a working jib. The only new sail I added as a storm jib. Instead of a trysail, I had a deep third reef put in the main and also had a reef added to the mizzen. At the sailmaker’s suggestion, I also had a full batten installed at the top of the mainsail, and this, I found, worked well. It is a good compromise for those unwilling to commit to the extra expense and hassle of a completely full-battened main.
One feature of the rig I never addressed was the lightly stayed mizzen-mast. It would have been more useful in stronger winds if its mid-section was better supported, and I soon came to the conclusion it wanted spreaders. I also thought many times it would be just as well to remove the mizzen-mast altogether, but in light air, particularly with both the mizzen and mizzen staysail up, it often gave me an extra knot or so of speed, and thus I grew fond of it.
Crazy Horse had a simple sea-going interior that needed few changes prior to our heading offshore. The two settees in the main cabin made good sea-berths, and the big V-berth up forward was used for storage while underway. We did add canvas lee-cloths to all the berths and learned that canvas is a poor material for this, as mildew grows on it quickly when the lee-cloths are stowed under their berths.
The biggest change we made was rebuilding the engine box. When re-powering the boat the previous owner had installed a ladder over the box, and this made a huge part of the galley counter inaccessible and the galley itself difficult to use. We chucked the ladder and with the help of a talented friend devised a clever new box with integral companionway steps, a little galley seat, and some extra storage cubbies. This proved a huge success, as it opened up scads of counter space and made it possible to cook, navigate, and con the boat from the same spot.
Up in the head, which was between the saloon and forepeak, I removed the shower curtain and the sump pump under the drain pan and decreed that all bathing would henceforth take place on deck. This made the head much more functional and opened up a lot of deep storage space for canned goods under the drain pan.
ENGINE AND SYSTEMS
Both Crazy Horse‘s exhaust line and fuel vent exited the boat through the transom, which was quite low, and I was concerned that big following seas might overwhelm and flood these. To prevent this, we installed shut-off valves at the end of both lines. After we left, I also realized that with the boat fully loaded the top of the engine was below the waterline, so in Gibraltar I installed a siphon break on the cooling circuit.
Otherwise, the biggest issue was the electrical system. I did nothing with it prior to leaving and ended up fretting over it quite a bit during the cruise. The boat came with just two 85-amp wet-cell batteries charged by a small 50-amp alternator, and we soon developed problems keeping the system topped up. In the Azores I added a 22-watt solar panel and adopted the practice of running dark at night while on passage, except when other vessels were in sight. I always joked that all I had to worry about were other dopes like me.
Ultimately, I became hyper-conscious of every little bit of power we used, monitored the batteries closely, and we managed to squeak by. We always used a kerosene anchor light, had a few kerosene lights for the cabin when power was low, and in the end, believe it or not, rarely had to run the engine just to charge the batteries. Life seemed a bit spartan at times, and I didn’t really mind this, but I must confess I would have liked more battery capacity and a bigger solar panel, or perhaps a wind generator.
I kept all other systems as simple as possible. We immediately removed the 12-volt refrigeration, for example, and I swore the engine-driven Sea Frost system would follow as soon as it broke down. It worked fine the entire trip, but we only used it occasionally. Most of the food we carried did not need refirgerating. After the Azores, we never used the pressure water at all and relied solely on hand-pumps. Consequently, when the trip was over, I found the electric pressure-pump had died of neglect and needed to be replaced.
Initially, there was much debate about the pressurized alcohol stove in the galley. We agonized over whether to replace it with a propane system, and in the end punted and did nothing. I never regretted this and developed a great fondness for the alcohol stove, an old Shipmate. It was very easy to strip and maintain, far simpler than a propane system, and I never had any problem finding good alcohol to burn. In most places we visited it was cheaper than in the U.S., as we could buy it in bulk.
There was also a great debate concerning through-hulls. The cockpit drains and both sink drains had no seacocks on them. Instead the drain hoses were clamped to tall, heavy fiberglass standpipes that reached above the waterline and ran straight out the bottom of the boat. None of these pipes were very accessible, and cutting them off and replacing them with seacocks would have been a bothersome job. The end result would have been four more seacocks to service, and as I couldn’t think of any way the standpipes could break, I elected to leave them alone. In a worst-case scenario, if the hose on a pipe failed, I figured it would be easy enough to plug the pipe with one of those famous wood bungs. I screwed bags of these to the bulkheads near every standpipe on the boat.
WATER AND FUEL
Crazy Horse carried 50 gallons of water in two separate tanks under the cabin sole and about 20 gallons of diesel in one tank under the cockpit sole. All these tanks were of Monel and were clean and in good condition when I purchased the boat. I did have to replumb the water tanks so as to be able to isolate them from one another.
To augment capacity we carried jerry cans on deck. I lashed heavy strips of wood to the shroud turnbuckles on either side of the boat and lashed the jerry cans in turn to these. This worked well and I never had a problem with cans working loose. We carried four 6-gallon cans in total, one each of water, diesel, alcohol, plus gasoline for the dinghy’s outboard. I also had a collapsible 5-gallon water jug, which made it possible, when necessary, to completely refuel and water the boat with just five trips to shore in the dinghy.
Because I was worried about not having enough water, I purchased a hand-powered watermaker, but never had to use it. At sea, and often at anchor, we always used sea water for washing dishes and ourselves, using just a bit of fresh water to rinse with. Consequently, we never came close to running out. On our longest passage, 19 days from Bermuda to the Azores, with three people aboard, we only used half our supply.
Nor was our low fuel capacity a problem. I often motored the first and last few miles of a passage, but once offshore Crazy Horse was a sailing vessel pure and simple. If there was no wind, we furled our wings, rolled like sons of bitches, and waited for a breeze. Only in Africa, when motoring 400 miles up and down the Gambia River, was it necessary to carry extra jugs of diesel.
NAVIGATION AND COMMUNICATIONS
The boat came equipped with a VHF radio, and all I added was a portable shortwave receiver with an SSB switch. With this I could pick up NOAA voice broadcasts, Herb Hilgenberg, and the French Meteo Marine broadcasts, which between them provided more than enough weather information.
As for nav equipment, I purchased a small handheld GPS receiver and installed an external attenna, and this worked without a hitch the whole trip. I already owned a sextant and sight reduction tables, but also purchased a Celesticomp calculator, which turned out to be great fun. Because it made it so easy to reduce sights and could even identify stars for me, I practiced with the sextant a lot and would have been in good shape had the GPS failed.
For an EPIRB, I bought one of the older 121.5 MHz models (which are no longer available), as I figured in the North Atlantic there would be adequate coverage from passing airplanes. I also bought a handheld VHF radio, which I stowed in my panic bag on passages.
I had no confidence in Crazy Horse‘s autopilot, a small pedestal-mounted unit, so removed it and never missed it, except on the rare occasions when we motored more than a few miles. Having to hand-steer while motoring encouraged us to sail whenever possible, and thus saved a lot of fuel.
In place of the autopilot, I installed a Monitor windvane, and this performed flawlessly. These machines are as simple as bicycles and there is really very little that can go wrong with them. Over two years of constant use, I never even had to replace the control lines. If you are already attuned to the subtleties of sail trim, learning to use a vane is a snap. If you are not, the vane will quickly educate you.
With respect to the installation, the only issue was the vane quarreling with the mizzen sail, which extended out past the transom. Rather than remove the mizzen or extend the Monitor’s mounting tubes, I elected to play referee. I always kept a preventer on the mizzen boom and when tacking or jibing first lowered the mizzen, hoisted the boom over the vane with the topping lift, then reset the mizzen. It was a small sail, so this wasn’t too much of a hassle. When short-tacking to windward, I simply left the mizzen down.
Crazy Horse came equipped with a 25-pound CQR and a 12-pound Danforth. I added a big aluminum Fortress and a 35-pound CQR and used the latter as our main anchor. Though the conventional wisdom is that thou must have all-chain rode and a windlass, I went with heavy rope and 30 feet of chain and hauled it all by hand. One nice thing about a small boat is that you can get away with this.
We carried two extra rodes with chain leaders in buckets, and this made it easy to deploy extra anchors, which I did fairly often. Anchoring on rope tends to inspire caution, and when it comes to anchoring, this is always a good thing. I inspected my rodes often, took great care in picking my spots, and dove on my anchor whenever possible. I never dragged the whole two years I was out, nor did I ever see anyone else on a rope rode get into serious trouble. The ones with problems always seemed to be people with chain who had grown lazy and complacent.
THE HARD NUMBERS
This was the first time I was solely responsible for preparing a boat for sea, and I found it an overwhelming experience. Even when prepping a very modest boat, like Crazy Horse, it feels as though you are hemorrhaging money, and every decision seems fraught with the most horrible consequences. I already had offshore experience and had some idea of what to expect, but for those without experience it must be truly harrowing. As it was, what with our hasty departure, I got quite cranky during the first part of the cruise, as Nim will attest.
As for what all this cost me, below is everything I spent before we left the U.S. (in 1995 dollars, of course). During the cruise my expenses were about $10,000 a year, much of which was spent on boat gear and maintenance.
Storm jib $397.00
Sail modifications $281.76
Seahood for companionway hatch $1,500.00
Monitor vane w/spares $3,285.00
Cockpit dodger $1,025.00
Bow roller $208.65
Liferaft w/mounting bracket $2,750.00
Manual watermaker w/spares $1,490.00
Used 35 lb. CQR anchor $250.00
Engine exhaust valve $62.75
Portable shortwave receiver $216.25
Spare rope $346.88
Extra snatch blocks $164.25
Handheld VHF $179.95
121.5 MHz EPIRB $234.95
GPS w/external antenna $449.00
Celestial nav calculator $265.00
Small inverter $69.00
Boarding ladder $22.95
Radar reflector $32.95
New companionway boards $45.00
Safety harnesses $120.00
Preventer tackle $68.50
Bosun’s chair $71.95
Lee cloths $43.80
TOTAL AMOUNT: $15,516.47
(NOTE: To see what Crazy Horse looks like now, under her current owner, follow this link here. He’s been taking good care of her!)