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A discussion with Knick and Lyn Pyle

Jan 1, 2003

Knick and Lyn Pyles have made the classic voyagers' choice: sell everything, move onto a boat and head to sea. They both came to their decision by way of a lifelong association with the water and sailing. Both grew up in San Diego and learned to sail at an early age. Lyn raced Starlets and 110s all through grammar and high school. Knick, after one year at the University of Wisconsin, transferred to California Maritime Academy and went around the world as a junior third and third mate for American President Lines.

One of the books that inspired them to voyage actively was Bill Robinson's To the Great Southern Seas, an account of a voyage from Tahiti to Valdivia, Chile, then on to the Galapagos and back to Tahiti in the southeast trade winds. Knick had been to Tahiti, so the couple's goals when sailing their own boat were to reach the Galapagos and Valdivia. After that, they planned to go through the Straits of Magellan, sail to Scotland, then back to the United States, and sell the boat in Florida or store it while they returned to work in Seattle.

They first sailed up to Glacier Bay, Alaska, on the Inside Passage, then they returned south on the outside, along the Pacific coast of North America, Mexico, Central America, to the Galapagos, Chile, Juan Fernandez Island and on to Cape Horn by way of the Chilean Channels. Valdivia and its beautiful navigable river became a hub and something of a home for them as they kept sailing up and down the coast of Chile. They decided there was too much to see in Chile and never sailed to Scotland.

Their sailing home for 18 years has been a Vagabond 47 ketch named Murielle, designed by Bill Garden and built by Bluewater Yachts in Taiwan in 1982. Murielle arrived in Seattle as deck cargo on the containership Harbor Bridge and was then trucked from the pier to Lake Union where she was commissioned.

The Pyleses sold their family home in Bellevue, Wash., lived at a friend's condo, took a long trip to Alaska by ferry and bus, and lived aboard the boat while she was being fitted out.

They look forward to making deliveries, exploring the Patagonian channels of Chile and the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

OV: What type of voyager are you? Do you like to keep the boat simple and straightforward, or do you prefer your boat to have more complex systems that provide maximum comfort and capability?

K&LP: Staying in more than 6 feet of water and in less than 30 knots of wind is our basic voyaging plan. We haven't always managed to stick with it. Fortunately, we have never suffered anything but a loss of pride and time and a few scrapes with mud, sand or very flat rocks in less than 6 feet of water, and Murielle keeps us safe when unforeseen storms find us.

Not much changed in voyaging between Joshua Slocum's day and the 1950s. Sextant, chronometer and sight reduction tables directed sailors across blue water, while leadline, compass and chart were coastal piloting tools. A reasonably reliable auxiliary engine and with it electric lighting and radio were the major additions to a voyaging vessel in a half century. Masts were still made of wood, lines were manila and sails were of cotton.

Now, thanks to space/military programs, the RV and plastic industries, the computer revolution, and changing laws and regulations, a cabin boat of any size can become a very complex vessel indeed. Our philosophy on fitting out for voyaging is: Keep everything as simple as possible, yet include modern gear to make passages safer and life aboard comfortable. An example of this philosophy is the heating system on Murielle.

We live aboard and voyage in climates where 0° F temperatures can be expected occasionally and less than 50° F regularly, so some heating system is necessary to keep us comfortable and the boat and clothing dry. We opted for a diesel/kerosene heater (Dickinson Antarctic) that requires no electricity and can operate at heeling angles of up to 30°. Our H-shaped Charlie Noble exhaust rarely back-drafts. A quiet, 12-volt Caframo fan, mounted on the overhead next to the flue, circulates warm air throughout the boat while only drawing 0.3 amps/hour. If the electricity should fail, the main cabin will remain comfortable, and although the bow and stern will be cooler, they will remain above freezing.

A diesel-fuel day tank, mounted near the overhead, supplies fuel to the heater by gravity, also at up to a 30° heel. If necessary, a hand pump can be used to lift fuel from the main tanks in the bilge to the day tank. Luckily, we have never had to employ it.

We didn't want a wood fireplace, as it is difficult to store the wood, it's messy and one is forever stoking the fire. It may be the simplest type of stove to install, but in the long run it's the most time consuming.

The option of doing without in high latitudes might work for hearty sailors, but painted surfaces, wood members, stowed sails and metal parts suffer greatly from condensation and the molds that grow in unheated, human-inhabited, decked-over crafts.

y´In 1982, many Vagabond 47s were fitted with built-in generators that took up space, made a lot of noise and actually generated hours of maintenance and repairs. In 1982, we opted to install a large engine-driven alternator and carry a portable gasoline generator. This system was used successfully by some world sailors, providing battery charging and electricity at a fraction of the cost of a built-in genset.

Since then, small, portable, diesel-powered gensets have come on the market. These reliable, gasoline-free machines should be the best compromise between no auxiliary electrical generation and a built-in genset.

Our inverter provides mostly comfort and convenience. It is very useful in allowing us to use 110-volt tools, such as a drill, saw and sander. TV and microwave oven are luxuries. In heavy weather, the microwave is an essential safety and health item. We can reheat a piece of apple pie or a sandwich in the microwave at a cost of less than 1 percent of our battery capacity. There is nothing like a hot micro-baked potato when you are tired and hungry while motor sailing in a storm.

An autopilot is not a substitute for a well-balanced rig or a seakindly hull. It does make short-handed voyaging more practical, as it gives the crew more time for rest and setting of sails and tasks aboard in fair weather. Modern units draw little power and take up little space, which is good, but they cannot be relied on to work in heavy weather, as they, or their source of electricity, can fail at any moment. Vessel and crew must be prepared to maintain course without an autopilot.

We relied on our autopilot for many hours of long, straight, no-wind stretches along the coasts of Mexico and Peru. But we never assume it can do it all, and we respect its fairly delicate nature.

The use of electronic charts by military and commercial vessels probably means that paper charts will become more and more expensive and hard to find. Updating and correcting paper charts may well become the exclusive responsibility of the sailing voyager, with the needed information only available through the Internet or a fee-for-service private firm. So future safe navigation probably means some contact with electronic charts and the equipment to present them.

OV: What is your plan for maintenance and repair when you are voyaging? Do you attempt to make repairs yourself or do you rely on boatyards and repair shops to handle your repairs?

K&LP: We plan to be able to repair sails, rigging, engine and equipment ourselves or be able to do without the gear if we can't repair it. This is an easier thing to say than to do; but it must be done by every voyager who wishes to sail away from major yachting centers.

To this end, we try to have a real mechanic's or factory service manual for every piece of gear onboard. The typical owner's manual, except for routine troubleshooting and maintenance procedures, tells the hapless owner to "take the equipment to the nearest authorized service center" — a big help when on passage 1,000 miles from port or anchored in some far-off cove. A law should be passed that requires every manufacturer to state boldly on the cover of their owner's manuals that a complete service manual must be ordered if the equipment is to be taken offshore or more than an hour away from a service center.

Supplementing the equipment manuals are some of the popular boat maintenance books and books on specific subjects on the care and repair of diesel engines, electrical systems and electronic equipment. Boatyards, welders and mechanics all along our way help us out, make repairs we can't, build new stainless-steel parts and generally keep us going. Of immeasurable help is expertise and help from fellow voyagers who just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

In port, the state of the cruising kitty is the major consideration on whether a piece should be made or repaired onboard, hired out to a yard or done without.

OV: How large a supply of spare parts do you carry?

K&LP: The rig, engine, steering gear, galley range, bilge pumps and basic navigation gear are the most important things to keep operating. So our spare parts inventory is built primarily for these systems. The bulkiest and costliest spares are shrouds and stays, sails, cast engine parts, alternator and starter.

A voyaging manual we consulted suggested buying the spare part, then fitting it and saving the original part for the spare. That way it is absolutely certain that the spare on hand will fit. A good idea, though we have never done it and are lucky that every spare we have had to use has fit and worked!

We carry bearing races and other parts for our winches but have never carried a whole spare winch. We do carry extra blocks so running rigging can be led to a different winch if its home winch fails completely.

Extra anchors, chain and lines are really not spares, but reserves. Surely they act as spares if used to replace lost, worn out or damaged originals; but they are also there to run out in case of a real need, such as a hurricane. Not taking up much space, but a good deal of the budget, are spare turnbuckles and terminals for the standing rigging, injectors for the engine and circuit boards and other parts for the battery charger, inverter, radar, radios and autopilot.

One problem when voyaging over many years is keeping fresh polyester and epoxy resins aboard for hull and other repairs. Often it is hard to find resins, packaged for secure onboard storage, in outlying ports. Flares and flashlight batteries, too, are a nuisance or a great expense to keep freshly stocked when offshore. We haven't found a solution to these problems, except to pay the price necessary to maintain a minimum fresh stock aboard.

OV: How extensive is your tool kit? What tools have you found to be essential for the voyager?

K&LP: Before we went cruising, Phil, a Seattle marine mechanic, told me to pick a quiet Sunday, turn on some good music and then thoroughly go over the engine, valves and other equipment and make sure I had the wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools needed for each and every nut, bolt, set screw and fitting in the boat. Not only must each size be aboard, but each wrench or combination must not be too long or too short to do the job.

Even though we have good sets of socket and end wrenches and screwdrivers of diverse types aboard, we found nuts that required extra-long extensions or crow's-foot end wrenches to slip into tight spaces. Our portable generator requires special tools to remove, repair and replace the intake and exhaust valves. In some cases we are able to make our own special tools, cobbled out of other tools and parts, to fit specific needs. Due to Phil's sage suggestion, we are never prevented from making a repair or adjustment due to the lack of a proper tool.

A proper mechanic's vice mounted on a baseboard that can be secured in the cockpit and down below is an essential tool. Working with metal parts is very hard to do without a vice.

A supply of C-clamps and fabric-band cabinetmaker's clamps is a necessity when working with wood items. We were able to stop a transmission fluid leak, when it was critical to do so, with a cabinetmaker's clamp binding rubber patches, from the inflatable boat's repair kit, over the joint between the engine and transmission.

It is almost impossible to have too many sail and rigging repair tools aboard. Sail needles break or are lost at a surprising rate when rolling over seas or being rocked around in a windy anchorage.

OV: What types of gear do you plan to purchase next and why?

K&LP: The most important piece of gear, or most sorely missed in any case, is a change-of-heading warning alarm. When underway, it is dangerous to have the boat change course due to an autopilot failure or a failure of the steering system. So an alarm set off by sensors on the compass card would really help.

We have needed, but have not gotten around to buying, a drifter and a mizzen staysail that can be flown when close-hauled. Our full-shouldered cruising spinnaker theoretically can be flown on headings as close as 55° off the wind. We have never gotten closer than 60°, and tacking a full-shouldered sail is a chore for two people.

Before setting off we spent a good deal of time and money on heavy-weather sails. Money well-spent, as it turned out. However, we should have budgeted more planning time and money for an extensive suit of sails for close reaching and beating in light airs. The cautious voyager spends a lot more time in light airs than heavy!


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