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Bluewater Gear interview

Mar 28, 2013

A voyaging family refitting their boat on the fly

Windy and Michael Robertson are on their second round of live-aboard voyaging, this time with their two daughters.

Windy and Michael Robertson are on their second round of live-aboard voyaging, this time with their two daughters.

Michael Robertson photos

Windy and Michael Robertson sold their Washington, D.C., home and dropped out of their high-pressure lives in 2011 to voyage with their two daughters, Eleanor (9) and Frances (7). They bought their 1978 Fuji 40, Del Viento, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and have been refitting her as they go. They are currently in Victoria, B.C., and headed for Alaska this summer.

The couple met as 20-somethings in 1996, when Michael was living aboard his 1980 Newport 27,
Del Viento, in Ventura, Calif. He was preparing to go cruising for the first time and found Windy on a crew list published in a regional sailing magazine. He was on a tight budget and looking for an extra pair of hands to help manage his tender boat with an unreliable tiller pilot. Windy was looking for an adventure and a cheap passage to Costa Rica to meet-up with her half-sister. From day one they had the time of their lives.

After seven months, they’d transited the Panama Canal and made it to Florida, broke and in love. They sold the boat to start living up to society’s expectations and eventually had a house, careers, and a family. But the sirens of the voyaging life grew louder and in their 40s they returned to the sea as a family. They document their journey at

The Robertson’s 1978 Fuji 40 Del Viento at the dock in British Columbia.

Ocean Voyager: What is your philosophy regarding voyaging gear? Do you like a systems-rich approach or do you prefer to keep your gear simple?

Windy Robertson: Our first cruising boat was bare-bones: no refrigeration, radar, SSB, or digital charts. Our current boat is much more complex, and I have to say that we absolutely enjoy a cold beer and value the safety radar facilitates. That said, our previous experience and appreciation for the time and cost savings associated with cruising simply informs our choices with regard to upgrading, repairing, or doing without as systems age.

Michael Robertson: For example, when we bought new instruments and electronics this year, we leaned towards the basic. Our sailing instruments are hard-wired and tried-and-true (a couple generations old). For electronics, we bought the most basic fixed-mount GPS to augment our hand-held GPS. Our VHF is the Matrix model from Standard Horizon that includes an AIS receiver, probably the most “cutting-edge” piece of gear we have. Except for a connection between our GPS and VHF (for the AIS receiver), all of our electronics (radar, GPS, sailing instruments) are stand-alone, modular units.

While I like technology, I’m uncomfortable (now) with the amount of systems integration. It sounds good to have one or two built-in touch-screen monitors that serve as chartplotters, instrument displays, radar displays, etc. — all from the same manufacturer — but I’m concerned there are several potential failure points in such a set-up that could strand us with nothing. I think this approach — and the wireless sending unit technology (such as used by Raymarine’s Tacktick line) — is the way of the future, but I don’t want to be an early adopter.

With regard to non-electronics gear, we are relatively simple. Primarily because of the increased power requirements, we don’t have powered winches or an electric head or a freezer. If our daily amp usage increased, we’d need more battery capacity and more charging capacity — it all gets expensive and heavy.

We have a water heater that works off the heat from our engine coolant and we have pressure water. Both of these systems were installed when we bought the boat — we would not otherwise have them. We have an icebox fitted with a 12-volt refrigeration system and an SSB.

I guess we are systems–rich, but in the simplest possible way.

OV: What tools do you have on board?

MR: Electric tools: drill driver (doubles as a drill), small buffer, Dremel, Multimaster, jigsaw. Note: all of these are corded tools. Battery-powered tools sound good, but tools can sit for months without use; I don’t want to worry about maintaining batteries.

Hand tools: pick, ax, shovel, several hammers, hacksaw (and many blades), dozens of screwdrivers, standard and metric socket wrenches, standard and metric combination open-end/box wrenches, chisels, several pliers, wire cutters, crimpers, multimeter, strippers, Vice-Grips, Channel Locks, pipe wrenches, large adjustable wrenches, bolt cutters, dental tools, Wiss metal snips, lots of flashlights and knives.

Del Viento at anchor in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

OV: How do you decide what spares to carry? Has your mix of spares changed as you have voyaged more widely?

MR: I think of spares in terms of consumables and non-consumables. Consumables include zincs, oil filters, fuel filters, water filters, motor oil, lamp oil, transmission oil, WD-40 and other lubricants, impellers, thermostats, fuses, hose clamps, pump rebuild kits, etc. These are most of the spares we carry.

Our non-consumables list continues to evolve. So far our cruising grounds have been Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, where parts are readily available. Even still, I don’t see a lot of value in carrying non-consumable spares for the engine. Alternators and raw water pumps are in use all over the world and can be serviced almost anywhere. Additionally, I make it a point to proactively service the serviceable parts of our engine and thereby reduce the chances of failure. For example, after we bought Del Viento, the engine ran, but we had the turbo charger, injectors, and alternator serviced. We are up in Canada now and over the winter I am having the heat exchanger and oil cooler serviced and the raw water pump rebuilt.

Off the engine, our non-consumables list includes plenty of sail repair goods, lots of hose (different types, diameters, and lengths), lots of wire, all kinds of butt connectors and terminal fittings, and tons of stainless hardware (screws, bolts, washers, nuts).

WR: But we consider areas of vulnerability. We don’t have self-steering aside from our autopilot. I don’t think we’ll ever cross an ocean before coming up with a back-up, either obtaining a spare head and motor for this system or figuring out a way to fit a wind vane — it would be a difficult piece of gear to do without.

OV: How much repair work do you attempt yourself? What kinds of repairs do you think all voyagers ought to be able to handle?

MR: I try and do everything that I know is possible to do myself, myself. Even if I’ve never done it, I take the time to teach myself to do it. In the end, I learn what tools I need aboard and there is nothing better than the feeling I get knowing another system aboard, inside and out. Also, this knowledge helps me determine what spares to carry.

I have a hard time qualifying a list of repairs all voyagers ought to be able to handle. I think it’s more important that a voyager have all the basic tools on the boat, be familiar with them, and be willing to tackle any project that comes up. I just helped circumnavigator Jeanne Socrates prepare for her third attempt at an unassisted, solo, non-stop circumnavigation via the Southern Ocean. I got to know her. She is a 70-year-old woman sailing her 38-foot cruising boat in some of the most arduous conditions. Her self-sufficiency is tested for months at a time. She has coped with knockdowns and several breakdowns. She’s not a shipwright and she’s not Nigel Calder, but she’s smart and willing. When her Raymarine wind instrument recently failed 2,000 miles north of Cape Horn, Jeanne did her best to troubleshoot from down below. She climbed the mast to check out the sending unit. She solicited advice via radio. She found spare Raymarine cable she knew she had aboard. She ended up removing the sending unit from the top of the mast, fabricating a bracket for it, and attaching it to her stern arch using her shorter spare cable. All voyagers should be able to do what she did.

The Robertson’s Fuji 40 Del Viento underway on Oregon’s Columbia River.

OV: Do you use wind vane self steering at all or do you rely on an electric autopilot?

MR: We have only an electronic autopilot, a Raymarine, electric ram attached to the rudder post. I would love to have a wind vane, but they’re expensive and we need to figure out how to use it in conjunction with our davits and solar panels. I’m sure that’s possible, but I suspect we will keep on with the set-up we have.

OV: Is your boat equipped with a watermaker? How easy is it to use and to maintain?

MR: No watermaker. My biggest reservation about a watermaker is the power consumption. If we had a watermaker, we’d probably use it only when the engine was running — and then would we tend to run the engine when we otherwise would not? Also, my understanding is that these are complex and delicate machines. My concern is that maintenance and repair needs would be both expensive and restricting.

OV: Do you have a mainsail furling system? If so, what type (in-mast or boom)? Any other important sailhandling gear?

MR: We don’t. I would gladly sacrifice a bit of sail efficiency for a mainsail furling system, but it would be pretty expensive to switch over to such a system, so it is unlikely to happen. I would favor an in-boom system for accessibility, lower center of gravity, and the ability to retain battens.

WR: For our main, we use lazy jacks and have a love-hate relationship with them. (Another argument in favor of a mainsail furling system.) For the boom, we use a Wichard boom brake. I think a brake or preventer is vital safety equipment — plus it can save your sail (and maybe rig) in case of an accidental jibe downwind.

OV: Do you rely exclusively on electronic charts or paper charts or do you use both?

WR: Aboard this boat, cruising from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Victoria, B.C., we have used nothing but our iPad and guidebooks for navigation. We have paper charts aboard and a hand-held GPS and a Standard Horizon fixed-mount GPS, as backups. We use the Navionics and Navimatics apps and have been very pleased.

MR: I’ve heard people say that the iPad GPS (only on the models that are cellular-data capable) doesn’t work, or isn’t accurate, away from cell tower range. This is false. We’ve been in remote places with zero cell connectivity and were astounded at the accuracy, perfect. We love the hardware interface, the ability to drag the map and change the scale with our fingertips. We generally use this in the cockpit only sporadically, just to get a position fix. If we’re entering a harbor and need to refer to it often, we’ll leave it on. If it is drizzling or damp, we stick it in a Ziploc freezer bag and the touch-screen still works great.

WR: As we head north up the Inside Passage this summer, navigation will be more challenging and precarious with swift currents, rocks and islands everywhere, and narrow inlets. We are always mindful of the fallibility of electronic charting and we check multiple sources during passage planning. One time, we noticed that at one particular map scale, Cedros Island, off the Pacific Coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, disappeared.

OV: Have you equipped your boat with a tablet device like an iPad? Do you use a smartphone?

WR: Yes, we have an iPad 2 (3G capable) aboard. In addition to navigation use (see above), we rely on it for anchor watches and homeschooling learning games for the girls — in addition to e-mail and Internet access. One app I recommend for everyone is Offline Wiki. It is the complete Wikipedia like you could access online, but with pictures omitted. Underway, we are often without Internet access and having the ability to look up almost anything answers a lot of questions that conversation provokes.

MR: The only downside with Offline Wiki is that Windy is often able to prove me wrong. We do have two old, partially functioning smartphones aboard, but use them mostly as iPods for the girls. As cruisers we are on the move too much to commit to a plan. On our to-do list is to unlock one of our smartphones so that we can buy a chip and use it ad hoc as a phone.

OV: What mix of communications gear do you use when voyaging?

MR: For voice communications, we have an SSB (Icom M710), VHF with AIS reception (Standard Horizon Matrix), floating hand-held VHF (Standard Horizon). For e-mail, we have two laptops and the iPad. To connect to the Internet, we often use a cellular data device and pay monthly for a plan (usually about $50 a month in Mexico, U.S., or Canada, but a unique plan/device is required for each country). When we can, we use our Wi-Fi booster antennae (Wirie), but have found free, unlocked Wi-Fi to be scarce. That said, if you’re in a marina, the antennae can boost your reception of the marina-provided Wi-Fi.

OV: What new gear do you plan to purchase for your boat and why?

MR: The systems on our 1978 boat were dated when we bought her. We’ve been refitting her over the past year (new sails, rigging, chain plates, water tanks, holding tank, upholstery, port lights, electronics, dinghy, etc.) and there isn’t much left to do. We no longer have a list of gear to buy and that’s a relief. We’ve talked about getting a second kayak someday, but I think we will just wait to find one at a marine swap meet or something, someday. Folding bicycles would be handy in some of the places we’ve cruised, but storage is an issue. Until something breaks and needs replacing, we are good to go.

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