Travels with S/Y Thetis

Thetis only

1996: Conclusions

What have I learned from this trip? If anything, I have learned to value reliable communications which include good and timely weather information. These become paramount if one is sailing alone.

Telephones are of course not available off shore. The VHF can be used, but one must have an international account to be able to place calls when traveling in foreign countries. In harbors, of course, there is no problem as almost everywhere there are public telephones but even there I had problems placing calls to my wife Alice from Fiskardo. Receiving calls is another matter. I went through hard times in Sardinia getting in contact with COMSAT so that I could attend to business, as much as possible. It would have been also highly desirable to have a reasonable facility for sending and receiving e-mail. To do so with the use of public telephones is very complicated, one will need several access numbers and will have to use an acoustic coupler which is very low speed and very clumsy. There are two possible technological fixes to this problem: cellular phones or a new service provided in Europe and other countries, including the U.S., called Autolink. Cellular phones will work within 25 nM of an antenna and can be expensive. Autolink will work over the VHF for 50 nmi from an antenna and will also work with a SSB and is much less expensive. It also has several advantages in that it allows distress calls and better weather information. On the negative side Autolink is more complicated to use for a caller. Another drawback is that to use Autolink with a computer (e-mail) one has to have a full duplex VHF (Thetis’ is simplex) which is not inexpensive. Even with Autolink one is range limited. One answer is a HF SSB marine radio. This is expensive (about $2,000) and requires a substantial installation and its communications are not always reliable. Nevertheless, I now believe that it would be foolish to attempt an ocean crossing without it. Satellite based systems like Inmarsat are very expensive (over $7,000) but with the new generation such as the Inmarsat project 21 and the Motorola’s Iridium when they become available will be the real answer. Unfortunately no one knows when they will be available.

Low cost weather information, other than what is available via a telephone or a marine operator like Hellas Radio (in Italy they do not speak other than Italian), comes from either AM radio broadcasts or Navtex. Navtex is a small automatic MF receiver that tunes to weather stations and prints the weather report. Its main advantages are that it can work around the clock, the text is in English, and it is available in most of the world. The main drawbacks are again, limited range of 400 nM (will not work in the middle of the ocean) and lack of extended forecasts. These are serious drawbacks. Again with the use of a SSB radio connected to a computer one can, theoretically at least, receive weather faxes. In Sardinia, however, none of the boats with this system could receive any. A very expensive system ($3,000) uses a direct receiver and an L-band antenna and feeds satellite weather photographs to a computer. This is good and more reliable than a SSB, but as these pictures are raw data one is limited to one's personal interpretation which is nowhere as good as the analysis of a skilled professional. The other drawback, of course, is space; that is, where to put all these machines and antennas on a small sail boat. Again I think that Navtex is a necessity but not totally adequate for an ocean crossing.

The other lesson is that not only one must have a good supply of spares but one must be vigilant for dirty fuel. Spares I had, I was able to replace the alternator regulator and several navigation lights. But I did not have spares of enough items (more than one set of navigational lights, battery operated lights, extra fuel filters etc.). The fuel pre-filter on Thetis was not adequate, there are better ones in the market and I will replace it. Tools I had, but a more powerful, electric soldering iron would be useful. For several of the electronics (GPS, autopilot, depth sounder) I had redundant units which were not needed (this time). I think that a third anchor as well as a storm trysail, to replace the main sail in extreme conditions, may be desirable. Again the problem is storage space. During a very windy night in Gagliari, Sardinia I almost lost the boat she was being bashed against the concrete dock and all six of my fenders were inadequate. I now think that a few extra large fenders should be part of the equipment. Again the problem is space, such fenders are bulky. One possibility that needs to be investigated is to have them uninflated and inflate them when needed by either a small pump or by the one for the zodiac.

Another weakness of Thetis was the electrical wiring. Most of the wires are too thin (high resistance) and not tin plated which results in corrosion and high resistivity. This was the failure mode of the wire supplying power to the instruments. Rewiring all of these wires will be very expensive. I think a partial rewiring of the most critical wires (vital instruments, pumps etc.) together with a supply of thicker tinned wire as a spare will be sufficient.

The amount of fuel I carried was 100 liters in the main tank and about 45 L in jerry cans. This amount allowed Thetis to motor comfortably for about 4 days and nights or 96 hrs. It would be good to have more, again the problem is space. One possibility is to have few extra jerry cans lashed on deck but in extreme weather they can be easily lost overboard, and will impose extra strain on the lifelines and will increase the healing angle. So I am not sure about this.

Water is another vital element. We consumed, on the average, about 3 liters per day per person of water strictly for drinking and cooking. This came from bottles of mineral water. Water for washing came from the two water tanks of 200 liters total capacity which was replenished by the watermaker. During the whole trip the only place I filled these tanks was in Malta and even that was not needed. I returned to Glyfada with the tanks full. I also carried, for emergencies, a 22 liters can of water which was never used. I believe that by buying bottled mineral water, whenever possible, water will not be a problem, as long as the watermaker functions. In long crossings if one runs out of bottled water one can refill the bottles directly from the watermaker by-passing the tanks. Should the watermaker fail, and assuming there are only 200 liters left, there should be enough water for drinking to last 2 people for at least 25 days.

Electricity is another consumable item. The largest consumers of electricity are: the refrigerator (8 A), the watermaker (4 A), the navigation and cabin lights (about 20 Ah/night), the radar (1 A when scanning), and the instruments together with the autopilot (1 A). If there is wind adequate for sailing, the wind generator has no problem compensating for the instruments, autopilot, and radar and can create a small surplus (about 2 - 4 A). The battery capacity of 225 Ah, if depleted to the recommended 50% level, allows then for about 1½ days of operation without any wind. To recharge this loss requires about 3 hrs of running the engine, so if we are to run the engine for about 2 hrs every day we can have some refrigeration, about 10 liters of water and cover all the rest of the electrical needs. Thus on an ocean crossing with the 145 liters of fuel we are covered for about 40 days with plenty of safety margin.

Food supplies can be kept in the refrigerator (operated for 2 hrs/day) if they are not too perishable. Eggs, cheese, vegetables etc keep rather well. The main problem, as far as food is concerned, for an extended voyage is adequate variety. Pasta alternated with rice can be tiresome. More thought is needed to devise foods which provide more variety. Other than variety again the problem is storage space i.e. where to store the food and keep it dry and out of the way.

Clothing is not a big problem other than the need for laundry so that one can have regular changes of clothes. As long as there is plentiful fresh water and sunshine, laundry is manageable. It is good to have plenty of clothes so that one does not have to do laundry for two weeks if necessary. During the night, it can get rather cold. Woolen pullovers and caps are a must. Cotton socks proved very useful. A warm pair of gloves could also be useful. Tee shirts for warm days are very convenient. Storm gear is of course indispensable. It is preferable to have two sets per person so that after removing a wet set one can put one a dry one. This is also convenient in case an item gets ripped and needs to be repaired. Boat shoes, at least 2 pairs per person, are also absolutely necessary. A pair of storm boots may also be a good idea. Again the problem is storage space. Room must also be allowed for wet clothes to be drying without being in one’s way.

One of the issues that have been uppermost on my mind is this: Sailing for any long distance requires a lot of time. Unless one’s family can also participate in such a voyage two major problems are created. The trip will disrupt family life and one needs to find suitable companions unless one goes alone. Most of the people one meets cruising with sailboats are either young couples with young children or elderly couples. My children are at school and have a life of their own so the option of traveling with them can be ruled out. Alice has no tolerance or interest in joining me in such trips; as a result traveling with family is eliminated. So the two problems are very applicable in my case. Family disruption due to extended sailing cannot be eliminated, the best one can do is to moderate it to some extent. Limiting the sailing to separate periods of about two months each together with good radio/telephone communications will partially achieve this. Such an approach of course has to be scheduled during the periods of the year that sailing is safe. If one can manage to leave the boat in safe harbors for extended periods this mode of sailing can be achieved. The advantage of this, in addition to increased family tranquillity, is that I could also have time to practice engineering consulting and thus raise the needed funds. Unfortunately, as I show from my limited sampling this mode is not only difficult and risky for the boat (hard to find safe harbors for unattended boats) but it can be rather costly in terms of transportation costs and harbor fees. The second problem of suitable companions is also very difficult. Unless one is willing to take on unknown companions the chances are very slim to find people among ones acquaintances who are willing, capable, have the time, and are convivial to join for such a trip. Even the most agreeable people can become irritating boat mates during a long and strenuous passage. The only viable option in my mind is to be prepared to travel as a single handler and to hope that a suitable friend or relative can joining you.

This brings me to the last area of concern, single handling. It is true that I have by now proven to myself that I am capable of single handling Thetis. Not only that, but I even enjoy the freedom of not having to coordinate and please another person during a trip. This does not, however, mean that single handling is a desirable and totally safe way of sailing. The margins for error during some emergency are greatly reduced if one is alone. On the other hand I now also know that the problem of sleep and exhaustion is not as big as I originally expected. But realistically speaking unless one’s spouse loves sailing and is willing to go alone, there are no other realistic ways of extended sailing other than single handling.

Am I going to take another long voyage with Thetis? Absolutely yes!