Bluewater Gear interview

Apr 4, 2014
John Lewis, left, and Shawn Maxey on board their Tayana 37, Active Transport.

John Lewis, left, and Shawn Maxey on board their Tayana 37, Active Transport.

John Lewis photos

Since leaving their home port of San Francisco in September 2008 to see the world aboard their Tayana 37, Active Transport, John Lewis and Shawn Maxey have visited more than 20 countries and sailed more than 50,000 miles. In October 2013, they crossed their outbound track and completed their circumnavigation. They are now slowly making their way back to California, allowing plenty of time to become reacquainted with one of their favorite countries, Mexico.

John is a lifelong sailor who learned to sail as a child in Miami when a neighbor offered interested kids from the neighborhood the opportunity to learn how to sail on his Herreshoff-designed 54-foot wooden ketch.

John later raced his NorSea 27 in the 1994 Singlehanded TransPac from San Francisco to Hawaii. Prior to retiring to sail around the world, John worked as a sales and marketing executive in the life sciences industry.

Before leaving San Francisco, Shawn had only spent one night at sea. His sailing resume was limited to weekend excursions around San Francisco Bay and a few day sails as a child in his hometown of Newport Beach, Calif. Despite persistent sea sickness, Shawn has taken to life afloat so much that he’s now trying to convince John they should extend their voyage by sailing back to California by way of Hawaii, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Prior to leaving his job to sail around the world, Shawn worked as an executive assistant in the medical device industry.


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

JL&SM: We try to keep our mission critical gear simple enough that we can repair it when we must. This includes standing rigging, running rigging, sails, and wind vane self steering. We strive to be able to tolerate some failures at sea and still enjoy a fast and safe passage. We think a sailboat should be able to cross an ocean without most of the gadgets that make life easy for modern cruisers, but we still like our gadgets.

Active Transport at anchor.

So for us, it’s back to basics for the systems that make the boat move in the right direction. We do make some concessions to safety at sea, like roller furling head sails that keep us off the foredeck a lot of the time.

We tend to divide the gear on the boat into two categories. One category is mission critical gear like running rigging, standing rigging, and self steering. The other category is comfort critical equipment and is a much longer list.

When the boat was new and we were buying everything for the first time, it was frequently less expensive to buy things in packages, like the Raymarine ST60 instruments for speed, depth, and wind, but as the boat and her gear have aged the replacements we choose tend to be selected more on the individual performance of the product rather than how well it will integrate with devices we already have on the boat. A few years ago each manufacturer was developing its own buss architecture for interconnecting instruments, but NMEA standards have changed things and now it’s possible to connect components from several manufacturers into a single network.

OV: What tools do you have on board? Are there any tools you’d consider vital?

JL&SM: Tools that we would list as vital include a hammer, socket and box wrenches, Vise-Grips and hack saws. We would want screwdrivers, Allen wrenches (metric and imperial) and a bolt cutter big enough to cut through our standing rigging. We could probably make do with that short list.

But, like most cruisers we have a lot more on board.

Mechanical tools: We tend to buy cheap tools for things that are made out of steel and have short lives in the marine environment. The consequences of dropping something overboard are not as painful if it was cheap to buy in the first place.

The voyaging gear-equipped Tayana at sea.

But we have found some cases where we are willing to buy higher quality. Vice grip brand pliers are an example. The performance difference between cheap knockoffs and the brand name product are worth the higher price in that case.

Cutting tools, like diagonal pliers, are another type of tool where we are willing to pay more for quality. We have a good set of diagonal cutters in our electrical toolbox and a cheap set in with the wire ties. The appropriate choice of tools depends on the application.

Tools like box wrenches, crescent wrenches and sockets don’t seem to last any longer or work any better if we buy expensive versions, so we buy cheap sets and replace them when we need to.

There are a few tools we took along when we left the states just because we already owned them. Some of those tools have turned out to be very valuable to have on board. These include a large Stillson wrench, a 110-volt saws-all with plenty of blades, 110-volt electric drill motor and a complete set of smaller drill bits for our electric screwdriver. We also have a couple of power sanders (220 volt and 110 volt), a heat gun and a 110-volt saber saw. They have all been important to have at one stage or another.

Our electric screwdrivers are the only rechargable tools we have left. We decided that the convenience of battery-operated drills and saws were not worth the hassle. We have found that power tools like 110-volt drill motors are much more powerful than their battery-operated counterparts, cost a lot less and never force us to postpone completion of a project because of the need to charge batteries.

Last but not least is our magnet. Our boat has a very deep bilge sump. The bottom of the sump is a good two feet below the lowest point an arm can reach. We drop things in the bilge and fortunately it is almost always something made from ferrous metal so we can fish for it with a magnet.

When we were in New Zealand we went to a shop that specialized in magnets and for about $10 we bought a magnet about the diameter of a U.S. quarter that has a loop on its back that we can tie to a string.

Sail and canvas repair tools and splicing tools: We didn’t buy a sewing machine when we left the states and are still happy with that decision. Even in the most primitive ports we have been able to find someone to do sewing repairs for us for much less than it would have cost us to buy and maintain a good quality zig-zag machine.

Active Transport during a haulout in Mexico.

Many times we can usually do an effective job of temporary sail or canvas repair with our Speedy Stitcher (about $15 on Amazon, but it’s important to spend about that much again for spare straight needles for it).

Tools for electrical projects: For electrical and electronic repairs and installations we carry a ratcheting crimper that does a much better job than the cheap plier-type crimpers that come with many automotive kits. The ratcheting crimper is also good for crimping metal connectors on fishing lines.

We carry a relatively inexpensive digital volt meter. They seem to last a couple of years on the boat and usually have to be retired because of corrosion on contacts. We know some people who feel the need to carry a high quality meter. No doubt those meters are much more accurate than ours, but we have never felt the need for additional accuracy.

We replaced our original soldering pen with a trigger operated gun. That was a good idea. Soldering chores go much faster now and the massiveness of the soldering gun stays put when it’s set down. It is much less likely that the weight of the power cord will flip the hot tip around.

OV: How do you decide what spares to carry? Has your mix of spares changed as you’ve voyaged?

JL&SM: Our mix of spare parts has changed a lot since we left the states five years ago. One area of preparation where we could have done a much better job was soliciting advice from cruisers, who went before us, on the subject of spares.

Engine and mechanical spares: We have used our spare water pump impellers. We seem to get about 1,000 to 2,000 hours out of an impeller. Sometimes they are damaged when the system runs dry due to a plastic bag or other debris blocking the intake.

We stocked up on racor fuel filters when we left San Diego and we recently discovered that they have a steel clamp in them that holds the pleated filter element closed. The steel clamps had rusted in our spare filters (we had left them in the original packaging) so we replaced them. Those filters need to be stored in vacuum seal bags. They wont fit in quart mason jars.

Racor, Yanmar and oil filters, of any brand, are very expensive in some parts of the world. We stock up when we get back to the states. Pound for pound of luggage, the filters are probably the best investment we make for spares we import ourselves.

We have replaced our auxiliary engine starting motor three times in five years. We had a failure before we left the states which is the only reason we thought to bring a spare. We have used our spare and had the old one rebuilt.

In addition to the starting motor itself we had to purchase a set of long throat sockets needed to get the motor off and on the engine. I don’t think we could replace the starting motor on our engine without those special sockets.
Based on input from others who had the same Adler/Barbour refrigeration system we carried a spare electronics module, but have not needed it. If we had it to do again we would still take it with us.

Electrical spares: We have always carried at least one spare alternator. We ended up with a spare one when we replaced the original Hitachi with a higher output Balmar alternator before heading out. The spare alternator has saved us several times when the high-output alternator failed for mechanical or electrical reasons.

We have also been glad to have spare belts on board for the alternator. The engine has eaten two belts in 4,000 hours. An alternator failure will not necessarily keep us from using the engine, but a belt failure on our engine means the fresh water circulation pump will not operate and the engine can not be used for more than a couple of minutes. We recently installed a serpentine belt kit for our engine and belt wear seems to be non-existent with this system. It is also easier to get the belt tight.

Plumbing spares: We have several Henderson Mark V manual diaphragm pumps on the boat for bilge pumping, emptying the holding tank at sea, and for our Lavac toilet. Having all of those pumps being the same model reduces the number of rebuild kits we need to carry. The only pump that ever needs rebuilding is the one on the toilet, but the same kit works for the other pumps and we could also cannibalize parts off one pump to fix another in a pinch.

We have gone through a lot of hose clamps in five years and very few of them were used for the installation of new equipment. Hose clamps fail. Even the marine quality all stainless models fail.

All of the hose clamps on our auxiliary engine were the automotive type with stainless bands and steel screws. Once we discovered this, we changed them all out for the proper type since the failure of a single clamp on the oil cooler soaked the aft end of our engine in salt water including several electrical components that were subsequently ruined by corrosion.

Rigging spares: This is the single category where our pre-departure spares were entirely inadequate.

We had a length of stainless steel cable longer than the longest stay on the boat. It had the appropriate size eye swaged on one end and we bought a Sta-Lok stud fitting for the other end. The idea was that we could cut the cable to length and replace any single piece of standing rigging on the boat.

We were considering replacing our emergency stainless steel cable with Amsteel and the appropriate terminals to allow us to make new stays and shrouds. The idea was that the Amsteel would be much easier to store. Then we realized we could not put a roller furler on an emergency forestay made from Amsteel. Sometimes procrastination pays off.

OV: Is it getting easier or more difficult to find skilled boatyard workers around the world?

JL&SM: We found skilled boatyard workers everywhere we went. Obviously some places, like Vanuatu, do not have the workers you find in places like Australia or New Zealand. We have been lucky in that our need for skilled workers has occurred when we were in places with good access to them. But we also think some of that luck was due to the fact that we did not have gear on the boat that was so complex that we could not cross oceans without professional repair services.

We prefer to install all new gear on the boat ourselves for a couple of reasons and not always to save money. It is part of our learning process about new equipment and so that we know if there are any weak links in the system.

We installed all of our own electronics, our watermaker, our wind vane, our heater, our electrical system (1,000 Ah of AGM batteries with all associated cabling, high-output alternator and switches), our radios (including sat phone), solar panels and wind generator, and our refrigeration system.

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

JL&SM: We use both a wind vane and an autopilot. Our basic philosophy is that steering is for beginners and aside from crowded harbors we rarely steer by hand except when negotiating maneuvers like controlled gybes.

Our boat is a Tayana 37 pilothouse model with both cockpit and pilothouse steering. The cockpit steering is a traditional cable system, but the inside steering is hydraulic. The inside steering can be bypassed with a conveniently located valve.

When choosing an autopilot we decided to use the existing hydraulic system and simply add the needed hydraulic pump. This has worked very well for us. We think a major reason it worked out so well is that the hydraulic system that came with the boat is much bigger than we would have installed if we had used the autopilot manufacturer’s recommendations for the appropriate autopilot to add. We ended up installing a much larger autopilot system than we technically needed and it has steered us all the way around the world with minimal problems.

OV: Do you have manual or electric cockpit winches?

JL&SM: We have manual cockpit winches and are content with them on a boat this size (37 feet). We avoided adding electric winches because we really did not need them and they were expensive. They also need power and take up space that we want for other things.

OV: Is your boat equipped with a watermaker? What are your reasons for having one/not having one?

JL&SM: We have a watermaker and are glad we do. We installed a Village Marine Tec Little Wonder before we left and have had good service out of it. We have had to replace the pump valves once and replace the brushes in the 12-volt motor once. Both are things we added to our spares inventory along the way. Our first membrane lasted for almost five years and produced thousands of gallons of water for us over those years.

We do not view our watermaker as mission critical. If it was out of order, we would not necessarily delay an ocean crossing to wait for parts. It is simply a luxury we would rather not do without.

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

JL&SM: We are not big fans of mainsail furling systems, but can understand why they might be considered necessary on a boat where access to the boom for furling the main might we a problem.

We are fortunate that our boat has an aft cockpit and a pilothouse. Both contribute to excellent access to the sail and boom when we need to furl the sail.

We added a Scott Boomlock to the boom for gybe prevention. It works well and does not require additional winches that the other gybe prevention system we looked at required.

Early on we found that sheets tended to slip over the side and end up being dragged behind the boat. That probably slowed us down, but we were more concerned about possibly catching those lines in the prop.

We added a few large plastic jam cleats to the coaming near the self-tailing winches and use those cleats to secure the lazy sheets so they don’t slip overboard. These cleats are never used to take a significant load so we installed them with screws so they are easy to remove for refinishing the teak.

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

JL&SM: We use electronic charts almost exclusively.

Until we crossed the Indian Ocean we carried paper duplicates of the charts for the areas we sailed. We vacuum sealed them in long bags. The charts were organized by region, were labeled and we made an index that would let us locate the charts for a particular region quickly. We were really prepared. We never used them.

We stopped carrying complete sets of paper charts when we left Australia bound for Mauritius. Instead we printed out charts of all the harbors pm our route where we thought it was possible that we might seek refuge.

We have a small chartplotter that we bought to use as an AIS monitor when we are at sea and would prefer to avoid the power hungry computer. We bought one cartridge for it when we left the states and found the charts so bad that we never bought another.

We very much prefer to use a laptop computer safely stowed in our nav station desk and used with an external monitor, keyboard and mouse. The same $250 Acer netbook has handled our navigational needs for our entire circumnavigation.

Computer software like OpenCPN also lets us use our Google Earth photo charts side by side with electronic charts.

The same computer is used to run Airmail that we use to manage our Winlink connections and also to use our satphone through the Winlink Internet portal. We just pull our GRIB files up on our navigational software and see everything, including AIS data on one screen at one time.

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