Bluewater Gear: From the mountains to the sea

Originally from Scotland, David Irvine has lived and worked in the Netherlands, Dubai and Malaysia before transitioning to working remotely from his boat Ursa, a 1977 Valiant 40.

David has been inseparable from the outdoors since a very early age, discovering a love for hiking and mountains in his teens. He has since climbed in many of the great ranges, including the Himalaya, Andes, Rockies and Alaska. A relative newcomer to boating, he completed a number of sailing courses and boating vacations in the Mediterranean before going to Malaysia to experience the Andaman Sea and obtain his RYA Yachtmaster certification.

Starting out his career in scientific computing building large-scale simulations for energy and engineering, David switched to working with early-stage tech startups in 2015. He now works full-time as a software engineer for a number of tech startups, working on projects in the automotive and marine tourism sectors. David works remotely from his boat most of the time, with occasional trips to visit his clients in Dubai and Europe.

David is currently cruising in the Sea of Cortez, with a goal to sail south to Patagonia to combine his love for the mountains with his love for the sea.

ON: What prompted you to go voyaging?

DI: I’d had a very difficult project at work and was ready for some change. I wasn’t sure at the time if I wanted to go somewhere specific, or just hang out on the boat a while, but I knew I needed to spend some time on the water.

I decided to spend one season in the sea of Cortez and from there make a decision to go back to the real world or to voyage. With the outbreak of the pandemic, I realized this was the perfect time to make this my new normal and started to find a balance between working and sailing.

This was also something that I’d been building up to for a long time. I’ve always wanted a life where I can be surrounded by nature, be it the sea or the mountains. I love to backpack, but there’s something mystical about travelling by sea, especially by sail. It’s slow, it’s immersive, and you always have plenty to keep you busy. My boat is my home in the truest sense of the word, and it’s been a wonderful sanctuary over the last year.

ON: How much preparation did you do before setting off? 

DI: There were two aspects to this: preparation for the boat, and preparation for me. As far as personal preparation goes, I’ve spent a lot of time in nature, so I wasn’t worried about giving up the luxuries of life ashore. I knew what to expect in that regard and compared to many of the trips I’ve been on, living aboard is relatively opulent.

Most of the personal preparation was mental. I’d been struggling for years to balance a career and the desire to spend more time doing the things I love outdoors. Making the switch was easier than I expected in practice, but the hardest part was taking the first step and adjusting my mindset.

As far as the boat is concerned, I’d been slowly fitting the boat out to my needs since I acquired her in 2016. She was already well equipped for offshore sailing but hadn’t been sailed much in the years prior to my ownership. Most of the onboard systems needed overhauling but with a plethora of boat yards available, it was a relatively low-risk option to leave the comfort of a marina and embrace life on the hook.

One thing where I differ from the average cruiser (if there is such a thing) is that I cruise at a much slower pace as I still have work commitments. My preparation is not so much for a round-the-world passage, but a series of smaller journeys spanning a season. This makes short-term planning much easier. When you are spending three to six months in the same area, you just have to adapt to what you can find, which is rarely an issue, but it makes sense to think ahead. You never know when the next Costco trip will be, so it pays to stock up on any home comforts when you can.

I do a lot of research on places where I could do major work on the boat well in advance of arrival, since labor in Mexico is affordable. It’s a great place to do paintwork and other labor-intensive jobs, but importing parts is expensive. Jobs requiring costly parts are best done in Panama, so some forward planning is required for future maintenance.

ON: What was it about your boat that prompted you to choose it?

DI: I fell in love with the canoe stern of the Valiant in Thailand. I wasn’t ready to buy a boat at the time, but after seeing a Valiant 47 languishing in the marina each time I visited, I started to notice the shape and the lines. It was a few months before I found out the make and the full story on Valiants and the Bob Perry design, but the more I learned, the more I liked about them.

Even before I started actively looking for a boat, I knew I wanted a boat with character, something Valiants have in spades. Sea kindliness and some headroom (I’m 6’2”) were important secondary attributes too. I also wanted a boat that represented good value, and I felt the blister-era Valiants were significantly undervalued; they can be less than half the price of non-blister era boats yet provide exactly the same experience for the owner.

I’m pretty handy, and I knew from experience with other projects that I would want to fit the boat out to my own tastes and requirements, so I was looking for an older boat that needed some work rather than something that was ready to sail. This was also a good opportunity to get to know intimately how every onboard system worked, which gives me a lot of confidence away from amenities that I can diagnose and fix most things on my own if needed.

I’d been to see some other makes and models that seemed appealing. I’m quite fond of the Moody 36 and very much like center cockpit boats with a stateroom aft, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling I had when I saw the Valiant; I didn’t get that emotional connection that I had in Thailand.

In the end, it took more than a year of searching to find the right boat at the right price, but I knew pretty soon after I arrived in the marina that this was the boat for me –– she was fundamentally sound, but with aging equipment, no visible blisters, and didn’t need much work that couldn’t be done in the water at my own leisure. The price was right, and after some back-and-forth with the owner we came to a deal, and a few weeks later I was exploring the Channel Islands.

ON: How do you generate electricity on board?

DI: I have 500W of solar mounted on top of the hard dodger and on the lifeline railing, and when needed, a briefcase generator (Honda 2000 Clone). I also have a 120A alternator on my engine.

In summer the solar panels pretty much meet all my energy needs; in winter I end up running the generator once a week just to keep everything charged. Most of the time I use the generator to run the watermaker. I spent 314 nights at anchor last year, so being able to make my own water and be self-sufficient is high on my priorities. I upgraded my inverter/charger last year when my old one failed, so I now have a 3000W inverter and 100 A battery charging from shore power when I do visit a marina.

Given the option, I would ultimately like to switch to an inboard generator. The briefcase one is great in that it’s quiet, reliable, and was pretty cheap (Honda clone), but having to carry additional petrol for it is a major downside when cruising in more remote areas. It’s additional fuel to leak into the bilge, and of course the jerry cans take up space in the locker too. My perfect setup would be a small diesel engine which could drive both the RO pump for the watermaker as well as driving a high output alternator (~300 A) that would allow me to fully charge the batteries in a couple of hours.

I would also consider a high-power alternator on the engine, which would accomplish the same thing. I rarely run the engine to just charge the batteries, as it’s old and ultimately the least efficient unless I have to motor anyway, but a higher output alternator would potentially be a great option.

ON: What type and capacity batteries do you have?

DI: I have 560Ah of LiFePO4 cells. These were the cheapest cells I could find. They came with their own BMS and work great, and the price was on par with good brand AGM cells –– but with much longer expected lifespan. These were a new addition at the start of this year, but so far I’m a big fan. Not only are they lighter, but the power density is much better than the SLA cells I had before, which frees up some more space for stowage. I’ll probably add additional capacity this year, especially if I’m venturing to less sunny climes just to give more flexibility.

ON: What’s the most important maintenance task you perform on the boat?

DI: It’s the little things that add up. It’s easy to defer maintenance, be it a coat of varnish or diagnosing something with the engine or another onboard system –– and I make a lot of effort to keep on top of these jobs. Living on the boat full-time can be quite hard on the boat too, so I try to focus on cosmetic items regularly, even when they are not always as high a priority, just to keep the living space fresh.

That said, I pay special attention to the systems I depend on the most. The generator is well serviced, as is the main engine, and the electrical system. I have a schedule for each system; once a week, I check whatever is on the roster. This usually means checking for engine leaks and belt tension and checking electrical cables for any sign of corrosion or fatigue. The UV from the sun is harsh in the tropics, and I now regularly inspect any plastic deck fittings, such as sheaves and clips, for signs of failure and replace them early.

ON: What gear do you plan to add next to your boat?

DI: Big ticket items include a repower or rebuild of the Perkins 4108, which has around 14,000 hours on it. It’s a very reliable engine, but noisy, relatively inefficient, and showing some signs of needing an overhaul. It’s an easy engine to work on, and parts are cheap if you can find them, but it needs more maintenance than a newer engine would.

The stove is also due for replacement. I love to cook, and the Mariner stove I have is great, but it’s showing its age. One burner has failed completely, and sadly the company is no longer in business.

This year I’ll refresh more of the interior and take advantage of the sewing skills readily available in Mexico to have a spray hood made to fit the hard dodger. I won’t use it here in the sea much, as I want every available breeze I can get in the boat, but it will come into its own again once I get into less arid climes.

I will definitely add heating and/or AC depending on my cruising plans. Even in Mexico, the cold nights would have benefited from a small cabin heater, and if I summer here again this year, then built-in AC would be a wonderful luxury.

ON: What are your future voyaging plans?

DI: I’ve been in awe of the exploits of the Dodo’s Delight (www.mountainfilm.org/media/dodos-delight – a sailing and climbing expedition recorded in a documentary film), and I long to sail in the higher latitudes. Ever since I first went climbing in Patagonia, I’ve wanted to go back by boat and explore more of the islands and channels –– it’s not the most forgiving place, and I’m quite apprehensive about the trip. I’ve spent nights there clinging on for dear life as catabatic winds threatened to throw my tent into the abyss, and a dear friend of mine was swept off her feet in southern Chile and hurled onto some rocks, so I can’t imagine what a rough night at anchor in southern Chile must be like, yet it holds so much allure with pristine natural environments, beautiful mountain ranges, and of course some very challenging sailing.

In a perfect world, I’d combine this into a trip to Antarctica, the Falkland’s, and South Georgia Island, and if you’ve gone that far, you might as well continue all the way around the Americas, but this is probably not the right time for me and that trip.

More likely is that I will head to Asia via New Zealand. I learned to sail in the Andaman Sea, and I’m itching to go back with my own boat and spend more time there. Japan and Taiwan are also high on my wish list. From a work perspective, crossing the International Date Line will be a big benefit for me, and Southeast Asia is a very easy place to work from anchorage.

The pandemic has scuppered most of my immediate plans, however, so we’re just taking each day as it comes and evaluating options. I’ve really enjoyed cruising in the Sea of Cortez. I think it’s a hidden gem: it’s relatively quiet, it’s beautiful with a very diverse natural marine environment, and it makes a great destination to weather out the pandemic, so there’s a high chance I’ll spend another summer in the Sea of Cortez. n

Categories: Bluewater Gear