Category Archives: Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ: What kind of safety equipment do you have?

This is an awkward question because it delves into a number of emergency situations that I contemplate and prepare for, but never expect to happen.  I give fair warning that the discussion of the safety items we carry may conjure images of potential disasters that necessitate their use.  I assure you, dear reader, that I have considered these in detail and with a great sense of responsibility.  Your nightmares are no match for mine.  That said, we feel strongly that our life afloat is no more dangerous, in fact less, than life ashore.  Perhaps a future post will address this point directly.

Boats are required to carry certain items for the safe operation of the vessel.  The list varies by the length of the vessel and how many passengers it carries.  The most prominent items are flares, fire extinguishers, and life jackets.  My boats have been boarded by the Coast Guard twice for inspection.  Both times were pleasant, cordial experiences and no deficiencies were cited.

Take Two came to us with a very extensive set of flares, some very exotic and expensive-looking.  Unfortunately they were all expired.  Some even said they were made in “West Germany”.  We went through them and kept the ones that still looked good, just in case, and the rest we donated at the local hazardous waste dropoff.  We have newer ones to show the Coast Guard when they check, but the old stuff probably still works just as well.

Everybody has their own life jacket (Personal Flotation Device in Coast Guard lingo).  The kids spend so much time wearing theirs that they look natural in them.  Tanya and I have the auto-inflating kind, but wear them less often.  Mine has an integrated harness so Tanya has a way to haul me back aboard if I’m injured or unconscious.  Tanya has a separate harness because her PFD is designed for women, and they don’t make those with the integrated harness for some reason.  During rough weather or at night, the harness is attached to the boat with a tether to keep us from going overboard in the first place.

We have an Autotether system to alert us if someone does go over.  The system consists of little transmitters that are placed on the life jackets.  The transmitters communicate with a base station aboard the boat several times a second.  If the base station loses contact with the transmitter, it immediately sounds a very loud alarm.

The boat also came with an exposure suit, which is kind of a cross between a wetsuit and a ski jacket.  I tried it on and almost passed out from heat.  We don’t have any plans to be in water cold enough that we would need something like that, so I got rid of it.

We have these silly little tapered plugs that you’re supposed to have so you can jam them in holes or broken hoses to stop water flow.  I was sure I’d never need them, but damn if I haven’t had to use them TWICE to keep the ocean on the outside.

Of course we have a VHF radio, but it only has a range up to about 40 miles.  At some point we will probably get a single sideband (i.e. shortwave) radio that can bounce signals off the ionosphere to the other side of the planet.  In addition to voice, the SSB can be used for receiving weather faxes and even email.  When we start venturing beyond US coastal waters we’ll probably get an Iridium satellite phone, which can also be used for email and very light Internet access.  All of these can be useful for giving and receiving help during emergencies, but the satellite phone would be especially valuable if we needed to obtain medical advice.

We carry a rather extensive first aid and medical kit, including some good prescription medicines and surgical supplies (thanks Jeff!).  We have received two days’ worth of training on how to use the stuff, but we’ll still need outside advice for any major issues.  Additionally, Tanya has had CPR training and attended a Safety at Sea seminar.

If, God forbid, someone should need immediate medical attention when we’re far from civilization, we have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).  When triggered, it communicates who and where we are to a satellite, which relays the information to global search and rescue authorities (such as the US Coast Guard, among others).  It does not, however, indicate what our problem is, and the assumption is that we require evacuation.

Depending on where we are, help will usually come in the form of a rescue boat or helicopter, but I have heard of things as diverse as military jets and commercial fishermen making initial contact.  It just depends on who can get there the fastest.  How long it takes will depend on weather and location.  Helicopters don’t fly in hurricanes.  

I have heard of two recent EPIRB rescues that probably represent the best and worst cases.  Abby Sunderland was recently rescued from the southern Indian Ocean.  She set it off on Thursday morning and was picked up by a fishing vessel on Saturday.   Then earlier this week a boat capsized 20 miles off the coast of California.  The Coast Guard was there within an hour to rescue three hypothermic crew members.

EPIRBs, personal locator beacons (PLBs), and the SPOT devices have been criticized for emboldening people who aren’t adequately prepared for their adventurous undertakings.  When they get in a little over their heads they just turn on the EPIRB for a ticket home.  We take our EPIRB very seriously.  We know that if we ever set that EPIRB off we will be leaving the boat with nothing but the clothes on our backs and will probably never see it again.  Needless to say, that isn’t something we’ll do unless absolutely necessary.

The life raft is our last resort.  The boat came with a raft, but upon evaluating its condition and the costs of recertification, we opted to buy a new one.  We’ve been without one for awhile, but we finally placed the order for an 8-man Winslow this week.  This particular brand is made here in Florida, so we’ll go see it when it’s ready and before it is packed up and sealed.  This familiarity will be important, especially for the kids, if we ever have to use it for real.

I really don’t think there is a likely scenario that would see us use the raft.  The adage says you should always step up to the life raft, meaning your boat should be sinking.   History is rife with examples of crews taking to the raft and being lost, while the boat is later found afloat.  Being a catamaran and thus not having ballast, I don’t think Take Two is likely to sink.  We have powerful pumps to remove unwanted water and materials for plugging any holes.  But any number of unexpected things could happen that we might need to abandon the boat.  Since mothers may be reading, we’ll let those horrors remain nameless.  If nothing else, the life raft is a really expensive insurance policy.

FAQ: How do you handle sewage?

Very carefully.

A boat cruising in US waters pretty much has to have a holding tank rather than flush the toilets directly overboard.  That’s because the US has laws preventing overboard discharge within 3 miles of the coast.  Never mind that many coastal cities pump their sewage into the ocean as a matter of course (Miami), or regularly have accidents whenever it happens to rain too much (Tampa).  Or that the real pollution problem in our oceans is caused by fertilizer runoff from residences, golf courses, and farmland.  It stinks but that’s the way things are.  

When being inspected by the Coast Guard usually the first thing they want to see is your Marine Sanitation Device, which is their official term for the commode, to make sure it is properly secured.  In typical government fashion, the laws only apply to the toilets themselves.  It is perfectly legal to go in a bucket and toss it overboard.

We can hold it comfortably for about ten days, which is pretty good for having 6 people aboard, but usually empty the tank on a weekly schedule.  The tank can be pumped out at a shore-side facility such as a marina or fuel dock, or by a special boat that comes to us.  Additionally, most boats also have their own pumps so they can dump overboard when beyond the 3-mile limit.  We do all of the above.  

When offshore, we empty the tank with a macerator pump, which has little blades like a kitchen sink disposal.  The kids particularly enjoy watching our muddy wake while the pump does its business, but it isn’t all fun and games.  The thing is notorious for breaking down and I have had to rebuild it multiple times.  Every aspect of the process related to the tank is fraught with danger.  Poo under pressure is never a good thing and I have witnessed a couple nasty accidents during dockside pumpouts, but have fortunately never experienced one myself.

Outside the US, the holding tanks are usually dispensed with and the goods go straight overboard.  The Caribbean is full of boats doing this and it doesn’t seem to be a problem.  From what I’ve heard, though, you aren’t allowed to flush paper in the Caribbean.  Go figure.

The marine toilet is a bit different from those typically found in a house.  Household toilets operate by gravity, which is not quite as reliable on something that moves the way a boat sometimes does.  You want to deposit that stuff in a safe place where it can’t get back out except on your terms.  Marine toilets operate on principles similar to those on an airplane, but rather than a simple device that empties the bowl in one big vacuum flush at the push of a button, like on a plane, our toilet has handles and levers and must be pumped manually.  It’s definitely a more complicated procedure and most guests require a briefing.  If you’ve been aboard, you’ve probably experienced it for yourself.

There are several different toilets types available for boats.  Our current one was selected because it was the cheapest and most commonly available, but certainly not the best.  It was installed as an expediency after I canned the four toilets that were on the boat when I bought her.

That was over two years ago and six of us have been enjoying it daily for almost a year.  It has proven surprisingly reliable, but when it does have a problem, it immediately goes to the top of the project list.  Usually the problem isn’t discovered until someone has to use it.  In a pinch, we get the bucket out.  Installing a second toilet is somewhere further down the project list and staying there for now.

The biggest challenge to our toilet’s regularity is the kids’ toilet paper use.  Every once in a while, one of the kids will use about half a roll of TP and clog it up.  They have all been amply warned, so when it happens the culprit becomes my special helper for the unclogging.  You can’t just use a plunger the way you would in a house (remember, poo + pressure = bad).  You have to open the hoses until you can find the clog and clear the line.  It’s a messy, messy job.  So far there haven’t been any repeat offenders.

FAQ: How do you get groceries?

This is a common question I get from other moms, since we all spend a good bit of our time searching for the best food options for our families, comparing prices, shopping (sometimes making several stops each week), making meals and cleaning up after said meals.

Essentially, aside from not knowing where to find fresh, local produce in the Florida Keys and missing my old health-food connections, getting groceries, or “provisions” as they’re called on a boat, is the same as it used to be. Instead of going out foraging in my mini-van, I go out by dinghy. Instead of parking the car, I tie up to a dinghy dock. Instead of walking from the parking lot to the store, I just walk a mile to Publix in searing heat along a busy and dusty U.S. 1. I then revel in the coolness of the air conditioned store for as long as possible, then call a taxi. For five bucks (insignificant cost compared to trying to walk back a mile with a cart full of groceries), he drops me off near the dinghy dock, where I load up a dock cart from his trunk and wheel the provisions down the ramp and load up the dinghy. I now drive back to the boat, sloshing salt water all over my canvas bags and melting anything that used to be frozen. With both boats moving, I precariously hand the provisions up to someone and then put everything away. See? It’s just like the old grocery run, only more fun and exciting! 

Fresh food lasts for 7-10 days and then we eat from stores of dry goods and cans. I carry about 150 lbs. of grain, so that will make a lot of bread before I have to figure out where to buy oat groats and wheat berries! But I still have to make that grocery run about once each week. And if I forget something?  Too bad—better luck next time!

FAQ: What about hurricanes?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this.  At this stage in our life aboard, we don’t move around too much, and our home base is at risk of the occasional hurricane.  In the future we’ll likely change our location seasonally based on weather patterns, but for now we have to take what comes.  Florida has had a couple bad years recently, but fortunately it has been pretty quiet since we’ve owned the boat.  But one thing I learned from owning a house during those bad seasons is that if you wait until a storm is forecasted before making your preparations, you’re pretty much screwed.  So we have a plan for Take Two.

Hurricanes are big enough and unpredictable enough that moving the boat out of a forecasted landfall area isn’t really practical.  You would be pretty much guaranteed to experience bad weather of some type during the transit and may very well increase your risk.  I think the time is better spent preparing the boat and taking your chances where you are.

In theory, the boat is safest at sea in open water.  My understanding is that the Navy and Coast Guard take their ships to sea.  As I’ve posted elsewhere, Take Two’s original owner did this with success, but there are several key differences between then and now.  For one, Take Two is older than she was then.  I like to think that she’s still strong and capable, but I don’t know for sure and haven’t tested her much.  The other factor is the crew.  Tanya and I just don’t have anywhere near the skill and confidence to face that kind of weather intentionally.  Could we do it?  I bet we could.  But it isn’t a reasonable risk.

To prepare for a storm in the marina we move the boat into a more protected slip and double the number of fenders and docklines.  We take the sails and other gear off to reduce the windage.  But the boat is only safe in the marina up to a certain point.  Docklines frequently break or chafe through under those conditions, and even if you prepare adequately, what if your neighbor doesn’t?  Storm surge is also a serious problem.  It is virtually impossible to set your docklines such that they restrain the boat properly when the tide may rise 20 feet or more.  In our case, it would only take about a 10 foot surge for the docks to float right off the pilings.  The boat is now secured to a raft that isn’t secured to anything at all.

So for an intense storm or a high strike probability, we’ll take the boat to what we hope will be a sheltered area nearby, moor her as best we can, and leave her to her fate.

This is the scenario we’ve spent the time planning for.  It involves many anchors (I currently own five), lots of high tensile chain and heavy duty shackles, and heavy 1″ line.  The goal is to array the anchors so that as the wind shifts they don’t have to break out and reset.  Shock absorption is necessary to avoid breaking the chain, so we’ll use relatively stretchy lines for the rode and bridle between the boat and the anchors.  And we will also try to eliminate all points of chafe by using thimbles and shackles on each end of the lines.  For the boat side, we’re currently planning to use chain inside hose looped around the cleats, but I’m still thinking about putting stronger attachment points on the bows that the line can be directly shackled to.

We’ve purchased all the gear called for in the plan and have it in our storage unit, so there should be a minimum of panic shopping.  Setting it all up will require a significant amount of time (much of it underwater).  We should probably practice it at some point.  Hopefully we’ll never need it.

FAQ: What do your children think about moving aboard?

Our family, unlike many we see in our culture these days, is a together family. That means we do everything together—school, work, play, church, outings, meals, happiness, misery—you name it, and we do it together. When we went to meet Take Two for the first time, we drove the five hours to Fort Lauderdale together. The kids were aged 6, 5, 4 and almost 1. Although we’re not running a democracy (it’s more like a monarchy), we wanted their input. If everyone looked at the boat and said, “No way!” that would have figured into our decision-making. We want happy subjects in our little kingdom. But everyone thought it would be a great adventure, and the boys thought the boat would be their own personal playground, complete with climbing apparatus and trampolines. They still think so.

Now, since that time, a bit of the romanticism of that first day has disappeared. We’ve had rainy, leaky weekends, uncomfortable conditions at sea, cabin fever, loneliness, malfunctions, mischief, broken toilets, spills, frustration, and a toddler.  But life is life wherever you are, with good and bad all mixed together. So we all feel ambivalent. Sometimes moving aboard seems like a great idea, and at others, we pine for our stable life on dirt.

Although we won’t have to yank our kids out of school, they are still leaving an established group of friends among neighbors and other home-school families we see regularly. That part is hard, because we can’t promise them a stable social environment where we’re going. Do they have cub scouts in the Caribbean? We will meet other families afloat, but to call it “regular” would be misleading. It makes us happy we have four—they are an established social group in and of themselves.

They express nervousness about all the normal things: shipwreck, storms, sharks, seasickness, boredom (hahaha), and discomfort. They look forward to visiting places we read about, to exploring and climbing and snorkeling and finding interesting creatures. Sometimes they miss being at the house, but they are the first to brag to people we meet that they are moving onto our boat. I think I know how they feel.

 

FAQ: What do you eat on the boat?

People always ask me this, but I’m not sure why. Um, we eat…food, just like you. That may be a bit sarcastic, but, seriously, we cook on the boat just like we do at home. If you have been aboard, or seen interior pictures, you know that I have a gargantuan galley. For a boat “kitchen” it is unbelievably large and well-stocked. I mean, it has a dishwasher. I’ve never used it, and it’s going bye-bye to make space for a clothes washer someday, but still, who ever heard of a dishwasher on a boat?

Cooking over the last year or so has been its own adventure. The ancient electric BOSCH stovetop and oven are power hogs, and require running the generator. The stovetop does not work properly—it only works on the “high” setting and only one burner at a time. For “low” or “medium” heat, you just manually switch it on and off a few dozen times, and pray you don’t get distracted.  I’ve almost mastered it. The oven is fine, but it heats the whole boat up and seems to be very inefficient, taking forever to warm up and forever to cool down. To compensate, I use a toaster oven for warming things up, and an electric skillet or crock-pot for cooking off of battery power. (I’m the anti-microwave oven type.) We also have a great little gas grill which is perfect for cooking al fresco.

We are in the process of replacing old and broken fridge and freezer units, which forced us, for awhile, to use a cooler for a refrigerator. That works okay for weekends, but not long-term.  Food storage is a subject of its own, but that is definitely a challenge for a family of six. My friends have jokingly called me the Little Red Hen, since I started grinding grain and baking bread a few years ago, but it’s a skill that will serve me well on the boat. Whole grains, if kept dry and well-sealed will store for several years. We can carry a few hundred pounds of grain and I can make bread, tortillas, pancakes, breakfast cereals, pasta—you name it. Beans and brown rice are also easily stored and easily prepared, but meats have to be frozen or dried, fish have to be caught, and things like dairy, eggs and fresh produce have short life-spans. Canned goods are the old stand-by, but I try to use them as a last resort. Basically, we are very old-fashioned, and make everything from scratch. That doesn’t mean we don’t eat pizzas or hamburgers, it just means that we made the crust and the buns!
 
We’ll carry as much food as we can, to be self-sufficient for several months, if necessary, but everywhere we go in the world, people have to eat, so although we may not have as many (or the same) choices, we will still be able to find food. We are trying to raise kids that are not picky eaters, knowing that one day they may have to eat octopus and be thankful for it!


Tools of the trade:

Vita-Mix Super Blender, dry blade for grinding, wet blade for juicing
Family Grain Mill, manual grain grinder and oat roller
KT Oil-Core 12” Stainless Electric Skillet (makes great popcorn, too)
Rival Crockpot
Bodum Stainless Steel Coffee Press
Dehydrator
Toaster Oven with convection
Marcato Atlas 150 Pasta Machine, manual crank
Electric tea kettle

Favorite Cook Books:

Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer
Gourmet Under Way by Robbie Johnson
The Care and Feeding of a Sailing Crew by Lin and Larry Pardy

Some Favorite Ingredients:

Rapadura sugar (a truly raw and unrefined sugar from Rapunzel)
Bronze Chief and Prairie Gold Wheat Berries, whole oat groats (Wheat Montana)
Extra Virgin Coconut Oil (Tropical Traditions)
“Really Raw Honey” (expensive, so used sparingly)
Bulk Herbs, Teas, Essential Oils (bulkherbstore.com)

FAQ: How do you get rid of your stuff?

Little by little. That’s the short answer. Here’s a shorter one: arson. For a few days after returning from the month-long live-aboard experiment, I felt completely overwhelmed. It seemed an impossible task—I was surrounded by so much STUFF, and I had to actually deal with each object. For about a week I had this niggling thought that it would be a relief if the house caught fire and I wouldn’t have to think about what to do with everything. When I vented to Jay, he basically said he didn’t want to join my stress fest and he wasn’t too worried about it. He has bigger fish to fry.

Emotionally, I started to let go of my stuff about a year ago. I started with my tea-pot collection because it means the most to me and I can’t take it; besides, tea-pots and cups make the best gifts to friends and family with whom I have shared a cuppa’ over the years. We can still share a cup of tea halfway across the world from each other if they think of me while pouring.

I now have lengthy lists of every item in every room, with a little mark next to each item indicating where it goes: B for boat, S for storage and D/S for donate/sell. I packed up all the home-school stuff once we finished our year, getting rid of all excess packaging and making everything fit into small bins. Clothes are easy: everyone gets 10 changes and the rest get donated. That allows for a week’s worth of laundry to build up, which is a lot, and usually laundry day comes every four days, and has to be done by hand until we do a renovation of the navigation table and put a compact electric washer/dryer beneath it. We’re not that fond of any of our furniture, so it will be sold. Kitchen gadgets are a toughie, because I’m really attached to things like my Italian pasta-maker, waffle iron, and vacuum sealer. Kids’ toys might be tough, as they will have to say good-by to their stuff, too. Some of the toys will go to cousins, but the smaller, more versatile toys get to come with us: Eli and Aaron need little besides their bin of Legos, Sarah has some magnet dolls (like paper dolls), a baby and a small horse barn, and Sam is happy with a few train tracks and Duplos. They spend a lot of time in and around the water, collecting and observing interesting specimens from the sea, and inside reading, playing games, or doing puzzles and art projects, so I’m not too worried about keeping them busy when we’re not doing school. Besides, there’s always laundry they can help with if they get bored!

Book sorting was actually the hardest task, as Jay and I are both avid readers and book-lovers. I donated 8 boxes to the local Friends of the Library Book Store, 3 boxes to various friends, and a box to the marina laundry-room book swap. Photo albums will go into storage, and we’ll just have to enjoy the occasional digital trip down memory lane. Several boxes of leather-bound books will go into storage, and several boxes of books I deem necessary for boat-schooling will—hopefully—fit on the boat. I guess I’ll pack in as many books and kitchen gadgets as I can and whatever doesn’t fit will go into storage.

Of course, I keep remembering how little I seem to need when we are afloat. There’s just no way to squeeze our land-life onto the boat, so why try? It’s almost better to pack it all into a storage unit, empty the boat, and then only bring aboard what is absolutely necessary. Start from scratch. I’ll let you know how it goes.

FAQ: How much fuel do you use?

Depends on our usage.  The boat carries 200 gallons of diesel.  Between what was in the tanks when I bought her a year ago and what I’ve put in, I think I’ve burned about 100 gallons to date.  In theory, each 29HP propulsion engine burns .75 gal/hr and the 12KW generator about 1.25 gal/hr.  

If we’re taking daysails or overnights from the dock, the generator doesn’t see much use since the batteries will hold us for a couple days  and we’ll recharge when we get back on shore power.  Sailing is generally faster and more enjoyable than motoring, so unless the wind is against us and/or we’re in a tight channel we try to sail whenever we can.  

If we’re on a trip the generator is the primary user since we would get to a place and then stay anchored there for awhile.  On most boats, generator usage is determined solely by power replacement needs but we’re a little different because our oven/stovetop are electric instead of the usual propane.  We have big inverters to provide AC power from the batteries, but heavy loads aren’t practical on battery power.  We try to use the more battery-friendly toaster oven, electric skillet, and electric kettle whenever we can.  If only for charging batteries we could get away with running the generator an hour every other day, but for heavy-duty cooking it runs more irregularly.  Thanksgiving required a 4-hour run.  

After the batteries are charged to 80% capacity their acceptance rate drops, thus the load on the generator drops, and it becomes very inefficient.  It runs a constant 1800RPM to produce power at 60Hz.  If we have to run it for cooking, this is a good time to use the extra capacity for something else like vacuuming the boat or running the air conditioners.  We have a dishwasher but don’t use it.  Instead we’ll be replacing that with a clothes washer/dryer that would be another good free power user.  We would probably be better off with two smaller generators sized to individual appliances instead of the one big one.  Someday we’ll get solar panels that should reduce our need for bulk charging.

I had previously estimated that we could live for a year in conservation-mode on 200 gallons in our current configuration.  That may not be accurate because based on my understanding of our usage I really can’t account for the 100g of usage cited above.  We have propulsion problems and it may be that those engines are wasting fuel.

FAQ: How fast is it?

Fast enough.  8-10 knots is pretty comfortable and a nice cruising speed.  Going over that can be fun for short periods, but it isn't relaxing.  I've been 13 knots in the middle of the night and didn't like it much.  I'm more interested in keeping the boat moving in Florida's typical light air than I am setting speed records.

My information indicates that previous owners have had her up to 18 knots.  Speed stories are sometimes like fish stories, but it does give me an idea of what happened to the first mast.

FAQ: Will the boat lift a hull out of the water?

With enough wind the boat will heel a little bit, but it should never lift a hull.  She weighs about 14 tons and if we did experience enough wind pressure to lift a hull, I expect (and hope) that the mast would break first.  I have no interest in pushing Take Two that hard.  Interestingly, the boat is on her second mast.  I haven't yet determined what happend to the first one.