Indian Ocean lookback: the best gear over ~7,000 miles

16 Dec

Indian Ocean GE track

Sailing across the Indian Ocean made 2015 a big year for nautical miles under Totem’s keel:  6,901 of them, in fact, from the time we left Malaysia in February until we arrived in South Africa in October.  It had a little bit of everything: light winds. Big winds. Really big current! Weeks among uninhabited islands, and great distances between supplies. We tested ourselves, Totem, and a lot of gear. Here’s what stands out for equipment on board that served us well while crossing the big I.O.

Toughbook. This ruggedized laptop is the brain of our navigation station. After eight years of service, after reaching Madagascar we finally retired our Toughbook CF-52 and replaced it with a current model. Boats are tough on laptops: the constant motion, salty air, and added risk of untimely demise tend to shrink the expected life span…our average is only about two years. It costs more- a LOT more- but the durability of a ruggedized machine, given its role on board, makes the markup easy for us to justify (if a little hard to swallow). Another brand to check out is Getac, with similar specs and prices. But think of it this way: we didn’t spend that on a chartplotter, and this can be used for a thousand other tasks as well.

Honda Generator. I didn’t want this, but have to admit it’s been really useful. When wind/solar don’t keep up it gives our batteries a more fuel-efficient lift than the engine, while being kinder to Totem’s Yanmar. We also use it to run our hooka rig. The hooka languished for a few years but paid for itself to make bottom cleaning faster and easier when we were in more difficult water (e.g., current- or sharks- or murk- or all of the above!), and as an AC unit, the only way we have enough juice to power it is by running the Honda. Also priceless: the kids having a blast  hooka “diving” from Totem when our first anchorage in Maldives swung out over a beautiful reef.


AIS. We’ve had a receiver for years; transponders weren’t yet available when we left the US. Adding a Vesper XB 8000 transponder was a meaningful addition we appreciated over and over this year. Especially useful is how it takes navigation data from the NMEA 2000 network and makes it available through a hotspot. That means we can use data across devices like our ipad: our iNavx chartplotter app now gets all nav data this way. We also liked the redundancy of yet another GPS.

There’s also the obvious safety benefit of sending out our position data. When we only had a receiver, we could at least call out to ships, but experienced times they were so confused about the fact that we did not transpond and couldn’t find our signal that the conversation effectively stopped! That’s not safe! Now that we have the transponder on board, we’ve noticed ships proactively alter course to give additional room to our position – that normally we’d have been a probably unnoticed blip, but the AIS helped us stand out. Big ships at sea move FAST and a collision ranks as one of my biggest fears: the responsibility is still squarely on our own shoulders to avoid, but knowing we’re also more easily avoided is tremendous peace of mind.

And then there’s just the fun fact that people can find us on marine tracking services like Vessel Finder or Marine Traffic when our signal is picked up by a shore-based station.

SilentWind. We’ve had a turbine from SilentWind on board for more than a year, but it’s in the Indian Ocean we came to really appreciate it. Back in equatorial Southeast Asia there was precious little wind to spin it up; since finding trade winds in Maldives, it’s dependably pumped amps into the battery bank. As I sit on Totem this afternoon, it’s blowing in the low 20s, and the wind gen adding 15 amps as I type. We’re very pleased with the performance of this product, and don’t for a second miss the AirBreeze it replaced! Friends in the cockpit for sundowners have been shocked when we point out the spinning wind turbine: so incredibly quiet compared to their own, they hadn’t even noticed it.


Iridium GO! Spending a chunk of change on communications equipment when we have a perfectly functional HF radio and pactor modem seems needless on the surface but has been a valuable addition this year. We could connect pretty much anytime / anywhere, 24×7. Basic browsing is dodgy at best, but still better access to information than we had through the radio/pactor combo. I get a little twitchy without internet, and this was JUST enough to get me through the six weeks between Maldives and Seychelles without bandwidth! The downside is that I still feel like we’re using a beta product, and we haven’t gotten our money’s worth from the GO! yet, but it earned its keep and the investment will pay off over additional years of use.

PredictWind. PredictWind’s weather app, Offshore, gave us the best information we’ve had- from anywhere, thanks to the Go! It was especially valuable for anticipating and adapting the current in our route. At times the conventional GFS was more accurate, but the power to easily compare four different GRIB models inside the PW app is a winner. Particularly useful for the typical cruiser: route planning that’s far better than what most cruisers can do on their own. Racers by far are accustomed to synthesizing this data – cruisers aren’t.

Radar overlay

Radar on OpenCPN. Before taking off from Southeast Asia, we added a HD Garmin radar and Jamie connected it to overlay on our OpenCPN display. This has been tremendous: it’s helped us to have safer transits as we watch squalls, it’s tipped us off to waterspouts, it’s helped us avoid unlit fishing boats in the middle of nowhere (and constellations of them near the Sri Lanka coastline).

Refrigeration. OK, so not “gear” per se but our new fridge is a significant improvement over one year ago, and it paid off big. Functional insulation brought tremendous power savings, and better design lets us get more use from the same volume. It was priceless to be in Chagos, weeks from our last provisioning port, and have more than cabbage and pumpkin in the produce stash to choose from!


The end of the year, and the end of this ocean crossing, has prompted a lot of reflection… more to follow about things we loved.

This post is syndicated on Sailfeed.


  1. Behan Gifford

    Hi Dave, glad you’re enjoying the posts! Our hooka is commercial product: it’s a Brownie’s Third Lung. AC powered (110), but needs a lot of juice – we run a portable generator concurrently to use it.

  2. Dave

    Behan, I just discovered and am enjoying your posts. Can you describe the “diving hooka” rig you mentioned in this article? Is it a commercial product or one you rigged together yourself? I saw one recently that a sailor/diver assembled from mail-order parts that included a two-stage 12v DC compressor, but didn’t get enough info to consider trying to make one myself yet.

  3. Behan Gifford

    Hi Herb! We put in an Alder-Barbour Cold Machine 200, which lets us have both air and water cooling. So far, we’ve only connected the air cooling. The compressor lives in the aft cabin, which is just behind the bulkhead from the fridge in the main cabin. The evap plate is also an Alder-Barbor: we chose the large, horizontally-oriented plate because it also gave us a small freezer (bonus!). Number one: replacing the insulation was the key for us. The old stuff didn’t actually insulate much any more! For you: being in cold water helps a LOT. When we used our old setup back in the Salish Sea, it worked fine. It wasn’t until we got to warm water and had to deal with the stress of warm climate/water on insufficient insulation that we had a bigger problem with too much power draw to keep things cold.

  4. Herb Clark

    Fine article and I enjoyed your information. As for refrigeration, what unit to you replace and what was the new one? I’m considering getting one for my boat and like the systems where the coolant can run through the sink drain fitting. I would be cruising in BC where the water is cold.

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