Inadvertently green, the budget cruising dividend

Oct 21, 2011

To the editor: When my husband Seth and I started cruising aboard our Westphal 38 Heretic, being “green” wasn’t on our radar. But sailing on a shoestring was. We were trying to outfit a 40-year-old boat for a round-the-world voyage; we had to make our money last for the next few years.

Heretic had come with a VHF radio and a fixed mount GPS; a friend of ours donated an old Furuno 1621 radar to the cause. For safety and communication with those back home in Maine, we decided to install an Icom M700PRO single sideband radio and Pactor modem for e-mail. That was all the electronics either our wallets or our small battery bank could handle, so items like a chartplotter didn’t even cross our minds. Too much money; too much juice. Paper charts were fine. An electric windlass? We were young and winch handles were cheaper. Similarly our fiberglass dinghy never had an outboard motor since oars cost less. A fridge? Not necessary: we had read Hal Roth and Annie Hill on keeping food without refrigeration and were game to try. A watermaker? Again, too much money; too much power draw, and we had two 100-gallon stainless steel water tanks under our settees. Even pressure water was out; instead we used a Whale Babyfoot Pump for our galley sink. If you wanted hot water, you could put the kettle on. Showers came in the form of a 2.5-gallon Stearns Sun Shower bag when we could get water from shore; at sea you got a bucket over the side.

An electric autopilot was also out of the question. We bought a used Aries wind vane which worked so well that we joke that the wind vane sailed around the world; we just sat there. The fact that Heretic had no way of self-steering when we motored simply meant that we almost never motored at sea. This practice was accentuated by the fact that in many places we visited, diesel fuel cost eight dollars a gallon or more.

Little by little, however, our shoestring sailing gave way to being consciously “green.” We witnessed the contrast between Panama’s pristine rainforest around Gatun Lake and the grimy urban sprawl of Panama City. Across the Pacific, pilot whales followed in our wake and dolphins glowed in the phosphorescence. Bora Bora’s vibrant coral reefs captivated us and we spent hours watching albatrosses soar over the waves off New Zealand. We realized that there are a thousand reasons to be “green,” and we were suddenly aware that our tight budget had inadvertently made us that way already.

But there were things that needed improvement. We still charged our batteries with the inefficient alternator on our Perkins 4.107 engine. After earning some money on odd jobs, we bought 120 watts worth of solar panels. Sunny days earned us around 28 amp hours, so when we were not using our masthead tricolor or GPS, we found we could run a low-wattage refrigerator. We decided to purchase a small Engel fridge and indulge in the luxury of fresh meat and cold beer. With our new power, we could also replace our smoky kerosene lamp with LED cabin lights.
Secondly, our 40-year-old engine leaked oil beyond its drip pan and covered the bilge. As luck would have it, we managed to procure a very reasonably-priced raw-water-cooled Yanmar 3HM35, at least 20 years newer than the Perkins and free of oil leaks.

When these projects were finally complete and we set sail north up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, our boat, which many people have called primitive, was both “greener” and more comfortable than before. The overhead was no longer black from the kerosene smoke. With the newer engine, we had fewer maintenance headaches; and with solar power, we could listen to music on our 12-volt CD player and use the Engel fridge while at anchor. But best of all was our heightened enjoyment of the natural world we had come to see. Knowing that we were doing less harm to the fragile ecology of the reef, our swims among the butterfly fish and Napoleon wrasse were just that much better.

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Ellen Massey recently completed a circumnavigation with her husband Seth on board their Westphal 38 Heretic.

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