Category Archives: Lessons Learned

Fuel Usage

A good long trip is a great time to evaluate fuel consumption and capacities.

With 200 gallons of diesel aboard, there is a tendency to think it will last forever.  Of course it doesn’t, as we’ve already proven.  We also now know that actually putting 200 gallons into the tanks is not such a good idea, and have revised our capacity down slightly.  

With the rough graduations we put on the fuel gauges during our last fill we’re now at least able to monitor the decline with some confidence.  And with the empirically determined generator burn rate (0.4 gal/hr), and the new engine hour meters, we can extrapolate our propulsion burn rate (0.6 gal/hr).  This is useful for various planning exercises.  For example, we can now estimate with some confidence that with a full load of fuel we could either motor 1,600 nm on one engine OR run the generator daily for 320 days.

Propane is our second most important fuel since we use it for cooking.  We were very uncertain when considering a switch to propane because we didn’t know how much we’d use.  With all the cooking, bread baking, and tea & coffee drinking we do, the concern was that we couldn’t reasonably carry enough propane and would be constantly in search of more.  Those concerns were unnecessary as it turns out.  Our 10-month average shows that we get 30 days out of a 20# bottle.  We carry three bottles dedicated for the galley, so we have about 3 months of fuel there.  Our last bottle is projected to run out in 10 days (yes, I have a spreadsheet for that), but we have another 30 pounds for the grill.  The grill has seen very little use on this trip due to lack of fish and cows.

It is very nice not to have to worry about getting propane.  It isn’t available everywhere in the world, and in some cases the bottles have to be sent off to be filled.  George Town is supplied by a truck that comes once a week and queries about when/where are almost a daily occurrence on the morning radio net.  Apparently the truck broke down this week which is causing some anxiety in the harbor.  I’d like to add a fourth bottle for the galley and build a rack to store them more securely and efficiently.

We also carry a fair amount of gasoline.  Our dinghy motors, little Honda generator, and hookah dive compressor all have gas engines.  Gas is harder to store (and more dangerous), so we try to strike a balance between having enough without having too much.  We have four 5 gallon jugs and try to have at least two full at any time.  The dinghy has a 12-gallon tank and we feed it 5 gallons at a time to make it easy to mix in the oil.  

We don’t really have a good way to store gas, but I’m not sure that there is a good way.  I prefer to store the full jugs on the deck to prevent the possibility of fumes inside the boat, but then they are subject to temperature and pressure variations which can’t be good for them.  A hot fuel tank can build an enormous amount of pressure.  Maybe some type of cover would help.  I suppose I could also vent the tanks, but then I’d be concerned about the fuel absorbing moisture.

I count the dive tanks among the fuels.  We have two and they live on deck also, although probably shouldn’t for the same temperature/pressure concerns.  I didn’t put them in a locker thinking they might be a safety risk there too.  We carry the tanks in addition to the hookah simply because we have them.  I can throw a hose on a tank and be in the water in minutes, while the hookah requires more setup and cleanup.  Tanks are also much quieter than the hookah.  But tanks have a very finite capacity, which makes the hookah way more practical overall.  I suspect we’ll continue carrying the tanks (because we have them and do find them useful), but need to evaluate how they’re stored.

I Don’t Fish

My friend Ken will be so disappointed in me.  

Ken and his family are out on the water almost every day.  In the summer they're catching lobster and spearfishing, in the winter they go crabbing, and they're fishing all the time in between.  When we were planning to cross the Gulf Stream, Ken gave me a lure and told me how to use it.  My track record for fishing at that point wasn’t so good.  Lots of money spent on gear, but not much time getting it wet, and mostly catfish and barracuda to show for it.  But with visions of tuna and mahi mahi I gratefully took the lure.  We were in the Gulf Stream for about 12 daylight hours.  Did I put the lure in the water?  No, I did not.

Before a trip, catching a big fish seems like a no-brainer.  After the trip I pine for those big tuna steaks with regret.  But during the trip it just seems like a hassle.  I’m not hungry.  I don’t want to fight with a fish.  I don’t want to slow the boat down to haul it in.  I don’t want to clean a fish.  I don’t want to dehook another damn barracuda.  I'm focused on running the boat and everything not necessary to that end is put aside.

It was the same story between the Abacos and Eleuthera. I did put Ken’s lure in the water on the banks between Eleuthera and the Exumas.  It yielded a very nice snapper, followed by two very angry barracuda, the last of which bit through the wire leader and stole the hook.

Mutton Snapper

We went offshore a third time between Big Farmer’s Cay and Elizabeth Harbor.  I put a new hook on the lure, but once again, didn’t feel like putting it in the water.  A boat making the same trip alongside us caught four mahi-mahi on hand lines.  If they were in the fish, so were we.

It isn’t just fishing.  I have a new pole spear that has never tasted blood, and I haven’t bagged any lobster since the last time we went out with Ken.  Technically cruisers aren’t allowed to take conch in the Bahamas, but they were never in much danger from me anyway.

I’m not proud of any of this, and I hope to improve.  We expect that fish will eventually make up a large portion of the meat in our diet.  What we’ve seen available in the stores tends to confirm those suspicions.  Have you ever seen a Bahamian cow?  I haven’t had a good steak since my dad brought some in before Christmas.

Once the fish is cleaned, we can do it justice.  Another boat donated a big hunk of tuna to us.  We marinated it in lemon, soy, sesame, ginger, and garlic, then pan seared it and ate it rare.  Oh, it was good.

It would probably help if we started the trip with a cooler full of ice and could just throw the fish in without having to worry about cleaning it right away.  Hand lines are also probably better for hauling in a fish than reeling in 100 yards of fishing line.  But until I take a more relaxed view of our passages rather than being focused on VMGs and ETAs, I'll probaby never want to fish.

We have three more bodies of deep water to cross before we return to Florida, so I still have an opportunity to redeem myself with a big fish.  I’m not holding my breath.

Anchoring in the Bahamas

We had expected anchoring to be more difficult in the Bahamas.  We’d heard about poor holding in hard bottom scoured by current, and the need to use two anchors in a “Bahamian Moor” to prevent breaking one out of its set with every reversal of the current.  After dropping the anchor 36 times over the last 2 months, we don’t see what the big deal is.

Rock Anchor

We’ve never needed to use two anchors.  Maybe we’re not going to the right places, but if the chart says “strong current”, “surge”, or “poor holding” we don’t go there.  We have seen one place where boats were using two anchors: the Norman’s Cay cut.  We looked at the cut, looked at the boats anchored there, looked at the forecast, and went somewhere else.

Our primary anchor is a 44# Delta.  For the most part we drop it and forget it.  We try to hit sand, and usually can see a cloudy spot where it lands.  We don’t back down on it, we don’t dive on it.  Sometimes I’ll go look at it with a glass-bottomed bucket, but that is rare.  Knocking on wood, we’ve never had a problem.  Sometimes it comes up clogged with weeds or rock, and sometimes a wind shift breaks it out and it has to reset.  But we’ve never had to re-anchor.

I don’t mean to sound flippant.  I’ve spent plenty of time worrying about my anchor, and many nights curled up with a portable GPS, getting up every hour to check the wind.  We’ve just never had a problem with our anchor holding.

We’ve come across two cases that make anchoring a little bit challenging: close quarters and high winds.  It takes a little practice to figure out where to drop the anchor to make the boat lay where you want it.  This is especially challenging when you’re trying to find shelter, the wind is forecasted to shift, and you want to make sure you remain sheltered without swinging into anything.  Sometimes I’ve ended up a little closer to the rocks after the shift than I planned to be.

When anchoring we let the boat come to a complete stop pointed into the wind before we drop, then we let her fall back as we pay out the chain.  We try to tie on our bridle quickly before the chain comes up short to prevent shock loads on the chain, windlass, and crossbeam.  This gets tricky when it is blowing since the boat is difficult to control when it isn’t moving forward.  We often use the engines to keep from falling back too fast or the bow getting blown off to one side, but it doesn’t always work.  If it were a big problem we could drop the anchor while still moving forward and use a hook for the bridle instead of tying it on.  The hooks aren’t as strong as the chain or are prone to falling off, so we prefer to tie them.

The adverse waves we've complained about before continue to be a mystery.  We've been anchored in this particular part of Elizabeth Harbour for about a week now, and a few days ago we had mystery waves.  The wind had not recently changed directions or strength, we were miles from any cut that would admit surge, and yet soon after the sun went down we started getting waves on our beam.  They are irritating and frustrating because we don't know what causes them, and therefore how to avoid them.  By the time they show up, it is always too late to do anything about it.

All in all, in our experience, anchoring difficulties in the Bahamas are over-rated.  We carry four (not counting dinghy anchors), but one always does the job.  If I had to buy a new anchor today, I might consider a Rocna, but they’re so expensive.  I’m more likely just to stay with Delta, though I’d probably move up to a 55 pounder.

Internet in the Bahamas

While our Internet use doesn't approach anything we'd consider unhealthy, we do use it quite a bit.  I am dependent on it for work, and while I don't necessarily need it all the time, I'm not retired either, and therefore need regular access to high-bandwidth connections for this lifestyle to be possible.  We undertook this trip without knowing exactly what we'd find in terms of Internet availability and quality.  We were pleasantly surprised in the Abacos, but not so much in the Exumas.

There are two Wi-Fi Internet providers in the Abacos, Out Island Internet and Bahamas WiMax, and one or both can be accessed from most anchorages.  If anything, the problem was too much Wi-Fi as the signals were often very noisy due to the number of networks within range.  We found ourselves selecting an access point not only by signal strength, but also by how many others were on the same channel.  We also found it helpful not just to select a network (the Bahamas WiMax APs all use the same SSID), but also to lock to a particular AP’s MAC to prevent us from skipping around.  Rates are $35/week.  We generally favored Bahamas WiMax since we felt they had a better network, but they had fewer APs and sometimes we had to use OII.  On several occasions while in the Abacos we were able to watch movies streamed from Netflix.  

The only settlement we visited in Eleuthera is Spanish Wells.  It did not have any public Wi-Fi signals and the harbor was also not big enough for us to enter with the big boat.  We parked outside, but could not hear any signals from there because of the topograhy.  I eventually found an open network by putting around in the dinghy, which allowed me to at least send and receive email.

The northern Exumas are uninhabited until you get to Highborne Cay.  The Highborne Cay Marina has Internet for its guests, but we never got close enough to see the signal.  Norman’s Cay is next.  I heard that there was an open network that could be used inside Norman’s Pond, but we never went inside and did not find any open networks on the West side.  The first network we actually saw was at Warderick Wells.  It is $10/day and is limited to 100MB, but is only for boats on moorings.  We were not on a mooring, so did not use it.  Next was at Staniel Cay.  We were anchored at Big Majors and could not get a signal there, but took a laptop ashore on Staniel.  The Exumas WiFi network at Staniel was so bad that we couldn’t even log in.  The Staniel Cay Yacht Club also offers Wi-Fi for guests, but we were not.  Next was Black Point settlement on Great Guana Cay, where a couple restaurants and bars offer Wi-Fi.  We did use the Internet here, after going 12 days without, but it was difficult at best.

The Warderick Wells, Staniel, and Black Point networks we found were all satellite-based.  That means signals had to travel about 100,000 miles round-trip through space.  The laws of physics prevent this type of connection from ever being considered fast by general standards.  By comparison, for terrestrial networks the max roundtrip is about 25,000 miles, even if the computers are on opposite sides of the planet.

We were hoping the availability in George Town would be better, since more people live there.  It was better, but we were still disappointed.  There are only two public Wi-Fi access points, each on different networks, and on opposite sides of the harbor.  

Harbour Wi-Fi broadcasts from the town side, and offers unlimited access for $15/week or $50/month.  One must go to Exuma Pets and pay cash for a username/password.  The pet store is left from the Exuma Markets dock, past the intersection and on the left.  The other network is Gaviota Bay and they broadcast from somewhere near Hole #1 behind Volleyball Beach.  They are very careful about their bandwidth.  One must buy “tickets” at the St Francis Resort for $2.  Each ticket is good for 25MB or 80min (your choice), but you can only buy two tickets a day.

Quality of each network varies.  Usually one of them is barely decent at any given time.  With a booster and some luck, both networks can be used at either the Volleyball Beach or Kidd Cove anchorages.  The Gaviota network is better both for speed and signal strength, but the bandwidth limitations prevent this from being a single solution for us.  However, Gaviota internet is free (and unlimited) for boats on St. Francis moorings.  Mooring rates are $20/day or $300/month.

There are several businesses ashore that offer either free or paid Wi-Fi, but we did not try those since they did not meet our needs.  I want the Internet all day for work.  Tanya wants it at night after the kids are in bed.  For both of these cases, we want Internet access on the boat, not in a café.

We have a Ubiquiti Bullet with an omni-directional antenna to pull wi-fi signals into the boat.  The Bullet is connected to a Cradlepoint wi-fi router, which constitutes our onboard network.  The Cradlepoint router supports a USB cellular modem, so when 3G/4G cell networks are available we can use those seamlessly.  For our next cruise, we’ll carry a directional Yagi antenna to help pull in weaker wi-fi signals.