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Bluewater Gear interview

Mar 26, 2015

Voyagers seek the right equipment for the job

Michael Hawkins and Barbara Sobocinski in the South Pacific.

Michael Hawkins and Barbara Sobocinski in the South Pacific.

Barbara Sobocinski photos

Michael Hawkins and Barbara Sobocinski have been sailing together for more than 30 years. They started on a 23-foot boat on the Columbia River in Portland, Ore. They moved up to a 36-foot Cascade, Mariah, which they owned and sailed for 20 years around the Pacific Northwest and then had it trucked to Florida where they moved for work. They did a “test” full-time cruise aboard Mariah, circumnavigating the Caribbean in 2001 to decide if this was a lifestyle they would enjoy together. They liked the life, but determined a different, heavier boat would be more comfortable.

They purchased
Astarte, their 1987 Moody 422, in 2004 and prepped for their current cruising lifestyle, which began in February of 2009. Since leaving St. Petersburg, Fla., they have explored the Caribbean, transited the Panama Canal in late 2011, made a Pacific Passage in 2012 to the Galapagos and then on to French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Niue and Tonga, before ending in New Zealand. The following cruising season took them to Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Heading back south (on a passage that seemed to take forever), the next stop was the Vanuatu islands and New Caledonia, and then back to New Zealand to sit out cyclones and work on the boat. 

Plans for the future are written in sand at low tide — ever changing and evolving.

Prior to taking on the cruising lifestyle full time, they both worked in the television industry. Emmy award-winning Michael shot golf as a cameraman — not as a player — and traveled extensively covering a variety of sports. Barbara worked in management at television stations in Portland, Ore., and Tampa, Fla., before becoming a consultant for television and new media. 

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

MH&BS: As cliché as it sounds, we have always believed in the “KISS” principle aboard. Keeping it simple works best for us. After all, we went cruising for a simpler, less stressful life! That being said, we do have many systems on board. We have refrigeration with a small freezer; we have a watermaker, but not one that is fully automated; we have an SSB radio with an old pactor modem; we utilize solar and wind generating systems, electronic autopilot and wind vanes to help us get places; an automated propane sniffer safety system is installed for our propane stove; we have redundant GPS/chartplotter/computer navigation aids; and, we have an outboard for our inflatable dinghy. We use an inverter when needed, but tend to stick with doing mostly everything we can with 12-volt DC. 

We prioritize purchasing new gear in this order: safety, reliability and comfort. If we had unlimited resources, we would probably have more “toys,” but we feel like right now, with the exception of an AIS transponder, we have most things we need to cruise safely. When looking at gear, we look at what we will need to be able to repair it (what spares we’ll need), and if we can’t live without it (mission-critical), do we have a redundant system to help us.

Hawkins and Moody 442 Astarte at Bora Bora.

Running a cruising boat is like being the mayor of a small city. There are all these different departments — the water department, the power company, the sewage people, the transportation department — and you have to deal with each one, any of which may decide to go on strike at any moment! 

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

MH&BS: Michael considers every tool vital and has a collection spread out over the boat. There is the easily accessible quick tool bag with your basic set of screwdrivers, pliers, cutters, and wrenches. The larger tool bag has a set of files, more screwdrivers of various sizes including extra-large, hammers and mallets, wrenches and various socket wrenches with both metric and imperial sizes. Then there are the more buried battery power tools as well as specialized stuff like prop pullers, right angle drills and specialized tools for specific jobs like aligning the water pump on the main engine. 

Tools that can be used to work various materials and make or adapt things are top of the vital list: saws to cut, pliers to bend, a dremmel to shape and files to shave so that you can jury-rig a spare in a remote place where you just can’t go and buy the right part. Measuring and testing tools have also proved their worth aboard. A good multimeter is a “must have,” as are calipers and a metric tape measurer. Sizes vary in so many countries, so having the gear to measure becomes helpful.

A good collection of stainless nuts, bolts and self-tapping screws of various sizes is a must, as well as a variety of tapes, glues and gasket-making material of various types and sizes. Penetrating lubricants come in handy as well, because many of the screws you need to remove simply won’t budge without letting them soak. And when you replace the fastener, you want to make sure you’ll be able to get that screw next time around. 

Our advice is to think about fixing or making things in remote locations, rather than simply being able to run out to the nearby hardware store to buy a replacement. And think manual — not power tools — because it may be your power source you’re working on fixing. 

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

MH&BS: Mission-critical systems get the most spares. Our main engine, a 1987 Perkins 4-108, has a whole locker of spares. These include starter, alternator, fuel lift pump, raw and fresh water pumps, injector, gaskets and seals. A spare exhaust mixing elbow is something you should have on board because we’ve known many boats that have had issues with theirs and you’ll be dead in the water (engine-wise) without one. 

The outboard gets treated with a collection of spares: carburetor re-build kit, impeller, spark plugs and prop. We recently added fuel pump diaphragms because of ongoing fuel issues in various countries. 
 

A view of Astarte from atop the mast showing the vessel’s solar panels.

Multiple rebuild kits, especially for the heads and water pumps, are a must. Bilge pumps are critical and require spares. Spare blocks and line are aboard and we have a sewing machine (complete with spare needles) and sail repair material and tape on board. We may carry more spares than most people, and it has helped on numerous occasions in critical and remote locations. 

The spares you carry will really depend on two things: 1) where you will be cruising, and 2) how old and complex your boat systems are aboard. If you are in a first world, chandlery-rich, or easy to “ship to” area, you can use that valuable locker space for something else. If you’ll be on remote atolls in the far reaches of the world or on long ocean passages, you’ll need to be your own chandlery. If you have a brand-new engine, you probably don’t need quite as many spares as our old workhorse does. 

Ours is an older boat and with that comes corrosion on the electrical system —and, we discovered woefully as we were out cruising, undersized wire sizes. We carry more spares in this area, as we have had to replace wire, crimps, breakers, connections and fuses.
 
Our list hasn’t changed much over the years. If anything it gets larger because when we replace something, we’ll often realize we should have a spare as well. And corrosion, which probably accounts for almost half of all issues aboard in some way, increases with the years afloat. Plus, things simply wear out with use. 

OV: Is it getting easier or more difficult to find skilled boatyard workers around the world? What repair work do you attempt yourself? 

MH&BS: Since leaving the U.S. in 2009, we’ve hauled out in Honduras, Panama and New Zealand, and each experience was a good one — but we did lots of homework in advance of picking the country and the yard. We’ve never left the boat to have repairs done without us staying around to supervise. 

We do most of the basic maintenance work (bottom paint, thru-hull changes, etc.) and many repairs ourselves. If it’s broken already, why not try to fix it yourself first before hiring someone? You become a jack-of-all-trades aboard a cruising boat, learning new skills with every repair. Other cruisers are a good source of information, and now access to the Internet and “how-to” videos also have made information and advice more available and repairs easier to attempt. 

Finding someone to fix things is pretty easy in most places. It may not be someone who works on marine diesel engines — rather, someone who works on tractors, for example — but you can usually find someone. Most towns or islands that have an airport or some transportation system, power plant or construction industry will have people who can fix things. To get real boat work done, like rigging, you probably need to head to a place that has someone with those particular skills. 

Michael with freshly caught dinner.

The biggest challenge is figuring out the actual level of the person’s skills — no matter what location. We have had a bad mechanic in a developed country and an excellent machinist in a developing country. It is very dependent on the person, and trying to separate who knows what is the most difficult part. We met a cruising sailor early on in our adventure who told us he was a waiter. We saw him a few years later in another country and he was selling himself as a boatwright, able to fix anything. Trying to determine if the mechanic is good or bad means you have to know just enough to make that call. We have learned that on the big projects, if you are in a place with multiple options, get a few opinions and ask for referrals before you dive into a big repair. Getting good work done at a fair price is always a challenge no matter where in the world you happen to be. We’ve found that the best source for info is usually the cruiser network or coconut telegraph. Also consider the repair; you may not need someone in the boating industry, which may be more costly. We recently had a wooden grate repaired in New Zealand by someone from a woodworking club who we met at an exhibit. It cost $180 rather than the $500 that a boat woodworker quoted us. 

You should also plan your travels to be in places where you can get the necessary maintenance done regularly. We have returned to New Zealand this season because we need a haulout and to have our mast lifted. We know we can do it here at one of the many yards around. We chose to go to the Marshall Islands the previous season, knowing we didn’t need a bottom job as there is no place to get work safely hauled out in that area. We had planned our Caribbean stops around where we could do the maintenance jobs. With planning you can be near supplies and haulouts and for the unexpected emergency repairs, you just simply need to be prepared to tackle them with your own skills, spares and tools.

A few good books in your ship’s library also help. Have the owners’ manuals for all your major systems — and even the smaller ones. Nigel Calder’s Boat Owners Mechanical and Electrical Manual is extremely handy. We have an older version and will be upgrading to a newer one when we save a few bucks. There are also good websites that have diagrams of things like pumps that are good to know about if and when you have Internet access during needed repairs. 

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

MH&BS: We have both and have always thought that was the way to go. On our last boat we had a Monitor windvane self-steering unit that we loved, along with an electric autopilot. On this boat, we installed a Hydrovane wind vane and are not as pleased. We chose this brand because the specs said you could offset it, and we wanted to preserve our swim platform. We have tried everything, including contacting the manufacturer, but cannot seem to get it to steer straight enough for our liking (20 degrees off course is too much for us), and it doesn’t seem to adapt to changing wind or sea conditions. Plus, getting the rudder on and off at sea is very difficult. The good news is that it serves as a backup rudder and should the power fail aboard, we still have some type of autopilot system — as flawed as this particular one may be for us.

We do love our electric autopilot from Raymarine. We carry a spare linear drive unit. We needed to replace the control head in 2013 as it gets lots of use and we count on it to be a third crewmember. When a steering cable came off its sheave during our Pacific crossing, the autopilot was still able to work while we did offshore repairs. 

It’s a toss-up if we would put the Hydrovane on now after sailing with it for six years, or perhaps just get an entire backup electrical unit. A wind vane is valuable, though, because it doesn’t require power if you have a failure in that area. 

OV: Do you have manual or electric cockpit winches?

MH&BS: We are all manual. The jib and mainsheet winches are Lewmar 52, two speed, self-tailers. Before we left, we upgraded one of the mast halyard winches to a Lewmar 40 two-speed, self-tailing winch so that Barbara could get Michael up the mast more easily. The two speeds help, especially as we get older. Many of our cruising friends have gone to electric versions, but it’s not on our priority list — yet.

Barbara enjoys a rainbow while underway.

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

MH&BS: We have a Spectra that we bought for our old boat in 1999 and moved to this boat. We originally bought it because we thought it would give us safer drinking water. Having the watermaker is great, but the reason now is different. Though it does give us safe clean water, it is now less about safety and more about convenience and the ability to stay in remote places longer. Timing stops to resupply the water tanks or depending on rainfall are not criteria for when and where we visit countries or settle into the bay of a remote atoll. The watermaker gives us that freedom. It also means we don’t have to lug water to the boat, which is more difficult as our bodies get older. 

The watermaker does take time and maintenance to keep it going. We are religious — practically zealots — about keeping it flushed and used. These pieces of cruising equipment do better with consistent use rather than simply sitting at rest.

It takes power to run — we can run ours on a good sunny day without turning on the main engine for power. The sun and wind give us enough power to run for several hours. We are careful not to run our Spectra in murky or silted water and usually when we are running the main engine underway, if it’s clear water, we’ll top up our 100-gallon tank. 

We change and clean the filters more regularly than many of our fellow voyagers and we think that has helped keep our system working well. We have had the Clark pump rebuilt twice over the years and have had to change some end caps that cracked, but overall we believe that the work involved in maintaining it is still easier than carrying five-gallon jugs of water in the dinghy. Plus, many countries now charge for water as well, so making your own also can save those dollars. 

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

MH&BS: When we bought Astarte, which had an original Selden in-mast roller furler, we priced the boat planning to remove it and put in a hanked-on mainsail. We didn’t have confidence enough in the in-mast furler and had visions of the sail jamming when we tried to get it in during a big squall. As years went by and we sailed the boat with the furling system, we got spoiled. Plus, our budget somehow got eaten with other projects ... and the in-mast furler stayed. We still have nightmares about it, but we also have not had any major issues with it. There have been a few jams but not in horrific conditions. We are cautious sailors and will reef sooner than many. We reef at night regularly.

When everything works, the furler makes sail-handling much easier. We keep it maintained with regular cleanings and greasings before long passages. We had a new mainsail cut and it was unfortunately not measured correctly and has made the furler have more jams due to a big wrinkle. Hopefully that will soon be repaired and will help eliminate a problem. 

Regarding other sail-handling gear aboard, we have copied a pretty good downwind sailing system that controls the spinnaker/whisker pole when we pole out the headsail. It involves hanging a snatch block on the end of the pole that the sheet runs through. We then run a forward guy, aft guy and downhaul. It gives us a good option in rolling seas to keep the pole out and the sail from collapsing but still allows us to furl it in quickly. 

Astarte under sail in the South Pacific.

On our gear wish list is a new whisker pole that would fit better. 

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

MH&BS: We have both aboard but tend to actually use the electronic charts. We use the paper charts for the long views, which is difficult at best on the electronic plotters. We have several redundant systems on board so we feel we are covered in case of the failure of any one piece of equipment. We have a Raymarine chartplotter/radar, which uses the Navionics charts. We have a Garmin GPSmap 521 that uses the proprietary Garmin charts. What we are finding most useful these days, is a small laptop computer that uses the Open CPN software together with Google Earth maps. 

The chartplotter and GPS electronic maps are not cheap — and when we changed our old Garmin for a newer Garmin GPS, we found that all of the old chart chips we already purchased would no longer work on the new unit. This meant we had to purchase new ones. We were pretty unhappy about that, plus we have been disappointed in some of the charts on these electronic devices. The Garmin charts for the Kiribati and Marshall Islands were unusable. So before you buy them, make sure you know what you are getting, and that they will satisfy your needs. 

There are lots of cautionary tales about electronic charts and we try to heed them well. The recent reef crash of a major race boat reminds us about making sure we check the whole route while being adequately “zoomed in.” 

The best piece of advice we can offer about electronic charts, especially when entering ports or passes: Get your head away from the screen! Nothing beats looking around carefully with a good pair of binoculars, good light and someone on the bow to avoid hitting rocks and reefs. 

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