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Voyaging and breakdowns

Sep 5, 2006

I never thought I’d be anchoring in 40 feet of water routinely, but that is what happens in the San Blas Islands. With all chain rode and a 45-lb. Bulwagga anchor that’s a vertical lift of around 90 pounds. No wonder a lot of folks have powerful electric windlasses. We have a manual ABI windlass, which has plenty of pull but the gear ratio is so low that it pulls in the chain too slow. It is only really useful for breaking out the anchor, or for when the hand-over-hand pull is too great. On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of busted electric windlasses on other boats. And, when they’re busted, people on bigger boats are in real trouble.

People just don’t believe it at the boat shows and back in the U.S. where all manner of repairs and parts are available, but the biggest problem out here is breakdowns. Forget about storms, pirates, officialdom, and disease—those are occasional worries, but every day we’re fooling around with break downs. Everything on a boat breaks down eventually and we have to be prepared to do without for long periods of time. A big trawler (less than two years old) that was here had to tow their dinghy 120 miles offshore back to Colon because their hydraulic winch broke down.

On the way, his electronic throttle control broke, leaving him with nothing but idle speed on the main engine. Of course it was a stormy night with big seas. He eventually bypassed the throttle control and was able to continue on, and he had a spare “wing” engine that helped. Whenever you add a piece of gear, picture what it would be like if it broke or what you would need to do to bypass it—you will have to at some point. That’s one advantage of our 38-footer—we can still manhandle things when we need to or when equipment breaks down, which it does all too often. In fact, I think about 12 meters or so is the ideal size for a couple or a four-person family like ours. We’re big enough to get places reasonably comfortable and fast, yet the repairs and maintenance are not overwhelming.

Next time you’re tempted by the 45 or 50 footer, think what it will be like trying to haul up a 75-pound anchor and several hundred feet of chain on a black night with your engine and electric windlas out of commission.

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