Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Keys to Happiness

This is our second stay in Boot Key Harbor (Marathon, FL), and after six weeks here, we have concluded that we like this place more than we did the first time. Because we were new to cruising the last time, I don’t think we knew what we were looking for. As the harbor fills up with winter visitors, we understand a little better what draws boaters here. We have discovered that it takes certain characteristics in our surroundings to make us love a place. While there’s no magic formula, we can rate a place based on the presence or absence of these factors. The presence of so many makes Marathon a favorite.

Good Weather—We live on a boat that is not “winter-friendly.” An old Norwegian adage says that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. If this is the case, then all of our closets and cubbies are filled with bad clothes. In either case, we like to head south when temperatures begin to drop below 60. Even living in middle-Florida, it can get cold at night. The Keys are a place we can winter without having to tie up to a dock and run space heaters or break out the down comforters. It is sunny and pleasant here most of the time, and there’s almost always a breeze, so that even on hot days it is comfortable in the cockpit.

Clean Water— After the Bahamas, the words “clean and clear” have new meaning. We’re a bit spoiled, I know, but even the less choosy would not use those words for Boot Key Harbor itself. It’s more like a marina than an anchorage, so we don’t really expect to jump in. The water is a murky green and people are constantly buzzing by in dinghies. We don’t even go in to clean the bottom. However, just a short ride out Sister’s Creek, one can find suitable water for swimming, snorkeling, fishing, or scrubbing the bottom. With Sombrero Reef nearby, we have a place to go play and enjoy our watery environment.
Islands with Beaches and Trees—The Keys are nothing but islands, and if there is a tree anywhere nearby, all you have to do is look up to find out where our kids have gone. Palm trees, mangroves, banyans—they’re not picky, and there seem to be plenty. And while beaches as we like them are scarce in the Keys, there are a few nice ones close to Marathon, the best of which, Sombrero, is accessible by dinghy and happens to have a great playground as well.

Friends/Community—It took us awhile to make friends here, but now that we have them, coming back to Marathon is like coming home. Most are also home-schooling families, so we’re on the same wave-length (or at least the same schedule). And every time we come, we expand that group of friends! Marathon itself has a very small-town feel to it; everyone knows everyone else. We like the familiar faces in the harbor—people who have lived on their boats here sometimes for decades—who are quirky and kind and add a lot of local flavor to the place. There’s something special about the boating community that reminds me of the neighborhoods of yesteryear when people actually sat on their front porches and everyone helped their neighbors.

Safe Places for the Children to Play—Aside from beaches and trees, this includes public parks and nature preserves. Marathon has a great Parks system, even hosting a Homeschool PE once a week, and there are plenty of places to get some fresh air and exercise. The park nearest the marina has tennis courts, a playground, soccer and baseball fields, a hockey/basketball court, and a skate park. And there are state parks on almost every key where you can go hiking or kayaking and get out in nature.

Low-Key, Family-Friendly Restaurants—Among our favorites here are the Hurricane, Burdines, and the Sunset Grill and Tiki Bar.  It’s hard to go wrong under a tiki bar, especially if there’s a pool where the kids can enjoy the water while the grown-ups have a drink. We keep discovering new places, and so far we haven’t found one that isn’t kid-friendly and low-key. In fact, I think that word was coined for the laid-back people of the Lower Keys!

Beautiful Natural Surroundings—This is not the prettiest anchorage in which we’ve ever stayed, but there is natural beauty around if you look for it. It’s easy to drop the kayak in the water and find mangrove tunnels to explore, or to go ashore and take nature walks, or to take the boat out and just enjoy the sparkling aquamarine water. You can’t beat the parks and preserves of the Keys for unspoiled beauty and wildlife.

Interesting History—No doubt about it, this place is interesting. A friend recently lent me a copy of Les Standiford’s The Last Train to Paradise, about Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway, which opened the Keys to landlubbers and eventually led to the building of the Overseas Highway (a.k.a. US 1, which runs all the way to Key West). After reading that excellent book, I look at the drive from Miami to Marathon in a completely new way. There are all sorts of places to take the kids for field trips relating to the history of the Keys, not the least of which is Pigeon Key, a worker’s camp for those who built the miraculous Seven Mile Bridge.

Quiet Anchorages—Boot Key Harbor is not exactly quiet, nor is it precisely an anchorage. With our 68’ mast, ducking under a bridge to anchor in Florida Bay isn’t an option, and there is a serious shortage of safe, quiet places we can anchor our boat on the Atlantic side of the Keys. But the water here in the harbor is very still, and we have 360º of protection from weather. We feel safe enough to let the kids take the kayak out or borrow a little sailboat to putter around in. If we want to find a remote and quiet place, we can head west to Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park, or hop in the Gulf Stream and head toward the Bahamas. At least we’re poised to do that in Boot Key Harbor. This is a great place to wait for a weather window, though there’s a running joke that people stop here for two weeks and end up staying two years.

Small Town/Walking Distance Amenities—It’s hard to have a cute little downtown district in the Keys because everything is built along the main drag. The islands are so narrow, there’s just no other way to do it. But what the town lacks in charm, it makes up for in convenience. This really is a boater-friendly community, and everything is relatively close to the City Marina. Within walking distance we have a library, a park, West Marine, Home Depot, a Chevron station, Walgreens, Publix, the Marathon Deli and Liquor Store, Salvation Army, Dive Shops and lots of little restaurants.

A Good Library—In order for me to call a library “good” it has to have friendly staff and a separate kid-welcoming room which houses the youth collections. Marathon’s public library, while small, meets those conditions. Any book they don’t have, the super-nice librarians are willing to help you find and order from another branch. I have always found what I needed there to keep our home-school running and the kids happily reading.

Access to Marine Services/Ability to Get Parts—Just having a place to pick up packages helps a lot, as Jay usually gets parts for projects from Amazon or Defender. In addition to the City Marina’s handy mailroom, there are so many boats in the Keys that there are also services galore—engine dealers and mechanics, water maker specialists and canvas shops. You name it, you can find it nearby. Except, of course, a place big enough to haul us out.

Freedom and Space—Although the city marina can pack 225 other boats into the mooring field, I really don’t feel crowded where we’re positioned. Living on a mooring ball is a lot freer and more spacious than being tied to a dock, although it is not quite the same as being anchored. There are still rules to follow, people to get along with, and competition for amenities like the laundry room and dinghy dock. But there’s also the ability, if one gets claustrophobic or tired of the neighbors, to simply let go of the ball, sail out of the harbor and get away for awhile. It’s that flexibility that gives the boating life part of its charm.

Although we have long-term goals of traveling throughout the Caribbean and coastal Central America (and who-knows-what beyond), we realize that while we still have very young children, we have to take baby steps. With family on the west coast and a great boatyard on the east coast, we will probably always use Florida as a home-base. The Keys are a logical stopping place to or from anywhere we are likely to go in the near future, and Marathon is one of the many places we like to call home.

Quiet Time

We may not always be models of quiet and decorum, but it absolutely astounds me the number of people who think that right before sunrise and right after sunset are perfect times to run their generators.  So I'd like to offer this rule of thumb for those who might be confused: If you look around the harbor and see that it is calm and peaceful and that a number of people are out enjoying the beginning or end of the day with a beverage and maybe a friend, that may not be the best time to run your @#$% generator!

We have a neighbor right now who for the last two days has fired up his very loud generator at around 7am and 7pm.  This morning I hopped in the dinghy to figure out who it was (I was leaving for work anyway) and found the culprit four boats away.  I thought for sure it would be an open frame gas generator being used under the cover of darkness.  To my surprise it was an inboard diesel generator.  But there was very little water in his exhaust, and there was a thin stream of water shooting out from higher up on the hull.  

This probably means that the water jacket on his exhaust elbow is clogged.  The stream of water is probably from a vent line to an anti-siphon loop in the raw water supply.  The water is supposed to mix with the exhaust gases to cool them and muffle the exhaust, but with the jacket clogged it has nowhere else to go.  In the meantime, his exhaust hoses are probably delaminating from the uncooled exhaust, and the engine is probably running very hot due to the restricted water flow.  If the generator is overheating, that may be why he runs it twice a day.

I now feel much more sympathetic toward this guy.  His generator shouldn't be that loud.  He probably doesn't know his exhaust is dry and he's pissing off half of the harbor.  I still maintain that it's better to run your generator during the day, but I suspect he's going to find out about his problem a whole lot faster this way.

Sailing Kids

A friend in the harbor brought over a Minifish sailboat for us to play with the other day.  A Minifish is just like a Sunfish, only a little smaller.

I was skeptical at first, but before I knew it two kids hopped aboard and took off.  No encouragement, no pointers, no sage advice from dear old dad.  Poof.  Gone.  Like ducks on a junebug.

Sailing Kids

These kids live on a sailboat and have been around boats most of their lives, so I was pretty sure they knew which end was the front.  And they’d been to a 2-week sailing camp a couple years ago, where they learned on Optimist prams, so I figured they knew the basics of sailing.  But I’d never actually seen them do it.  And I did not expect them to do it with so much confidence.  Watching them zip around the harbor in that little boat puffed me up like a proud papa.

Something I found remarkable about all this is that they sail intuitively.  Like most things we try to teach them from books, they have disdain for sailing theory.  They don’t give a rip about the points of sail.  They probably couldn’t tell you the difference between a sprit and lateen rig.  If you try to explain it, they’ll fidget and roll their eyes.  But with a tiller in one hand and a sheet in the other, off they go.


Charging Challenges

The electrical system is arguably the most important system on Take Two.  When docked at a marina, the electricity we use comes to us through a shore power cord just like it would in a house.  The power is virtually unlimited and we can run heavy loads like air conditioning without giving a thought to how much we’re using.  But away from the dock, the only constant supply of power we have is from batteries with a limited capacity, and we have to use intermittent sources like generators and solar panels to recharge them.  Thinking about power is part of our daily life.

Our current setup is four Lifeline 8D absorbed glass mat (AGM) lead-acid batteries providing a 510 amp-hour (theoretical) capacity at 24 volts.  We charge the batteries through a pair of Trace PS 2524 inverter/chargers with a combined charging current of 130A.  The chargers are supplied by a split-phase 12kW Northern Lights diesel generator burning 0.4 gallons/hour.  

The generator is set up to be controlled by a GSCM from Atkinson Electronics.  We send start and shutdown signals to the GSCM from a Flexcharge programmable timer.  Automating the generator this way allows us a degree of flexibility to leave the boat unattended, but also helps keep things on schedule in case we aren’t paying attention.

We can monitor the battery state of charge with a Victron battery monitor.  It measures the current flowing in and out of the batteries and attempts to calculate how much capacity remains, and how much time until we have to charge.  The monitor also has relay outputs that we can use to manage the GSCM.  

For a while, we had things set up so the battery monitor decided when to start and stop the generator based on battery state of charge, and we used the timer to institute quiet times when the generator wasn’t allowed to run.  Practice showed that generator runs were longer and more consistent than we anticipated, and the monitor did not remain accurate for more than a couple days without a full recharge to synchronize it.  The straight timer approach proved simpler and more predictable.  

When you live on a boat you get tuned in to every sound and motion.  It can be a little nerve-wracking to have a big generator starting and stopping at random times.  Besides, we like being able to plan activities like running the vacuum cleaner and clothes washer for times when the power is “free”.

For the health of the batteries, they should never be discharged below 50% and really should always be charged back up to 100%.  But due to internal resistance, all lead-acid batteries heat up and accept less current as they approach a full charge.  So recharging to 100% takes a lot of time, about six hours for us.  This isn’t a generally a concern when unlimited shore power is available, but is impractical to do with a generator.  

Instead, we stop the big generator after charging for an hour and a half.  Typically the current being accepted by the batteries is below 40A by that point, which is about 80% full.  This is not great for the batteries, and we’re probably significantly decreasing their advertised life span (measured in discharge cycles).

We had hoped when we installed our 750W solar panel array that they would provide enough power to top up the batteries after the generator does the bulk charging, but it doesn’t really work out that way.  After the refrigeration and water maker loads, there isn’t much left for the batteries.

We would like to add a pair of wind generators to help out with this.  We’ve observed other boats’ turbines spinning away on cloudy days and dark nights with envy (and irritation).  But wind generators are not subtle things, and we have yet to figure out how to mount them unobtrusively on Take Two.

Instead, about once a week we fire up our little Honda 1000 gas generator to get a full charge on the batteries.  The Honda is inverter-based, meaning it is a DC generator that uses an inverter to form its AC output.  The boat’s chargers then turn that AC back into DC for the batteries.  While there is some loss from all these conversions, a DC generator is able to reduce its engine speed when demand is low, which saves fuel and makes it perfect for finish charging a lead-acid battery during its low-acceptance phase.  

AC generators like our big diesel must run at a constant speed regardless of load in order to make the correct line frequency.  And diesels like heavy loads.  So a light load on an AC diesel generator wastes fuel and wears on the engine.

The dilemma we face now is what to do with this situation.  We don’t particularly want to bite off any huge projects, so the answer may simply be that we keep on as we have been.  By far the cheapest option is to continue burning diesel.  But we may not have that option for long.  The generator is 13 years old and the inverter/chargers are 10.  

So as we near the end of life on some of our more expensive pieces of equipment, we need to at least have a strategy in mind for how we’re going to manage our power needs in the future.  And it would be really nice to replace something before it fails.  If our big generator were to die today we’d be in a real pinch to replace the power it provides.

The primary focus of our next electrical system will be to reduce our dependency on diesel and the machines that convert it to electricity.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we expect to be rid of diesel entirely, but we want to use less of our fuel capacity for daily power, and we never want the failure of a single device to be catastrophic.  If we’re going to depend on a diesel generator, it will need some kind of equivalent backup.

I think there are several aspects to a full solution:

*  We should reduce our daily power usage.  We have no desire (and little ability) to become misers.  If anything, our personal usage is only going to go up as our kids get bigger; more food, more laundry, and more showers.  Our best opportunity to use less power is probably to upgrade our current AC-powered refrigeration to more efficient DC-powered units.  This would also reduce our need to have an inverter powered up 24/7.

*  We should increase our ability to charge from alternative (non-diesel) sources.  We already have a decent amount of solar, so wind seems like a logical next step.  

*  When our current batteries die, we should change to batteries that we can charge on our own terms without risk of damaging them.  I want the bank to have enough capacity that we don’t have to charge them every day, and can afford to wait for the sun to shine or the wind to blow.  When a generator is running, I want those batteries to take max charge current until they’re full.  No more of this acceptance rate business.  I think Lithium-Ion (LiFePO4) makes this possible.  

*  Finally, any future generator should be sized (and the corresponding chargers also), so that the engine operates at a healthy load and uses fuel efficiently.

Hopefully we have a while yet to ponder all of this, and won't have to do it all at one time.