Bluewater Gear Interview

Liveaboard voyagers Larry Roberts and Mary Anne Unrau talk about equipment on their boat Traversay III

Traversay III at anchor with an audience of penguins at St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia.

Larry Roberts/Mary Anne Unrau

Like most voyagers, Larry Roberts and Mary Anne Unrau had jobs before they went voyaging. Roberts worked as an airline pilot, finishing his career as a captain flying intercontinental routes. Unrau holds a masters degree in music and spent part of her career teaching classical piano, including at the university level, and part as an elementary school teacher.

A few years before retiring in their late 50s, they commissioned Waterline Yachts of British Columbia, Canada, to build a 45-foot custom steel cutter. Their response to the designer Ed Rutherford’s question of “What do you want in a cruising boat?” was “A piano and a dive compressor!” There was more to it than that, but those features were incorporated, along with various lessons learned from previous boats. The piano has a full 88 keys, is touch sensitive and, as a result of clever electronics, sounds very much like an acoustic grand piano.

The end result from Rutherford’s drawing board was a boat that could take them anywhere they wanted to go as well as to places they hadn’t imagined. The boat, Traversay III, also provides Unrau and Roberts a cozy home wherever in the world they happen to be. Three Washington state liveaboard winters tested the heating system and their tolerance for cold and wet. During those same years, a voyage to Hawaii and Alaska plus a return visit to Prince William Sound and Kodiak/Katmai gave the rig and boat systems an initial workout.

A few days after retiring, they sailed non-stop from Washington state to New Zealand in 46 days. Since then, six years of cruising have taken them twice more to New Zealand, to Australia (four visits, one including Tasmania), French Polynesia (two visits including the Australs, Tuamotu, Gambier and Society Islands), Chile (both ways through the Patagonian Channels), across Drake Passage to Antarctica, to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Uruguay and Argentina, Easter and Pitcairn Islands, across the South Indian Ocean via Cocos-Keeling, Rodrigues and Mauritius and to South Africa. All this traveling has presented plenty of opportunity to engage in scuba diving and underwater photography in cold and warm waters. A professor at a Canadian university is even using their underwater photos from southern Chile in a marine biology course.

Future voyaging plans include Saint Helena, Bermuda, the Saint Lawrence River, Lake Ontario and Europe.

OV: Which approach do you take to voyaging: equipping your boat with sophisticated gear, or taking a simple approach and trying to get by with less?

LR&MU: Some cruisers consider our boat to be fairly sophisticated, but given that much of the gear is 10 years old, it is less so than some. When we had our boat built, we planned on living aboard for a few years before setting out. Living a regular working life aboard our boat, we liked features like hot showers aboard, hot water heating, stereo and a large freezer and fridge. Many voyagers consider a freezer a power-hungry luxury. In an earlier boat we cruised offshore without one and, before passages, dealt with trying to find “tasty tinned food,” almost an oxymoron. Now with a large freezer, we provision with the same foods we would consume ashore and eat the same sort of meals. We would not travel offshore again without a freezer. Of course, this “sophisticated” approach demands lots of electric power at anchor and underway. We meet this demand with battery chargers for marinas — and don’t forget 240 volts is the standard in much of the world — and a high output alternator, genset, solar and wind. There is a price to pay for complexity, not only in electric power but also in maintenance effort. Most of the time though we are happy with the tradeoff. As we answer this question, hundreds of dolphins have arrived to welcome us to a new ocean. Our gentle motion comes from enough wind to move the boat but not so much that we start tucking in reefs. A late afternoon sun silvers the rippled water and the wakes of the dolphins seem to pull us along with their exuberance toward our destination 1,500 miles ahead. Whether your boat is complex or simple, you share these experiences — the real reason you are out here.

OV: How extensive a supply of spare parts do you carry? How do you decide what spares to bring along? Do you use a computer to track spare parts?

LR&MU: We carry a large collection of spares for most essential services from windlass motors to stove and toilet spares, motor and genset spares to spare pumps for water and waste plumbing. In particular, as a short-handed crew making long voyages, we have parts aboard to replace our complete autopilot. As is customary in a sailing vessel, we carry spare rope, hanks of various types and wire and terminals for sail and rig repairs. For some services, we use redundant installation rather than spares to deal with failures; for example we have two identical digitally controlled freezers, one of which is usually set at an above freezing temperature to serve as a refrigerator but can serve as a freezer if the other unit fails. In another instance, we deal with the possibility of VHF or GPS failure by having additional portable units. Our initial approach to choosing spares was to follow each failure by buying two of the failed item to cater to the next failure. We added to this by thinking about what services we particularly didn’t want to do without. And yes, we do keep track of spares in a spreadsheet file in the laptop.

OV: How much repair work do you attempt yourself? What kinds of repairs do you think voyagers should be able to perform on their own?

LR&MU: Each year, we try a bit more. We do all our electric and plumbing repairs and electronic installations and replacements. We have faired and spray painted areas of deck where the paint was tired or chipped. We do rigging repairs such as replacing a forestay and have removed and reinstalled our engine gearbox and changed the motor of our genset. At the very least, voyagers should be prepared to make temporary repairs to sails and rig at sea. You have to be able to get yourself to port. Beyond that, it is partly an economic question: If you lack the skills or tools to effect a repair, you may be able to pay someone to do it for you. Voyagers with a discomfort for making complex repairs may choose to have a boat with simpler systems. The reality is that in many foreign ports it is difficult to find tradesmen with a working knowledge of sailboat systems and parts can also be complicated to import.

OV: What tools do you consider to be essential in your boat’s tool kit?

LR&MU: We have a lot of tools and major tasks seem to involve taking most of them out of the tool bins! I think the best approach for a prospective voyager is to do long cruises within their own country or nearby with their voyaging boat. When something needs fixing, buy the tools if you don’t have them and then keep them aboard. If you hire a person to do the repair, watch what he or she does, ask a lot of questions and buy the tools and materials to do it yourself the next time. Through this approach, we learned to replace windows without mess or leaks and to find and repair leaks in refrigeration systems — yes, for this you need a refrigerant leak detector and spare refrigerant.

OV: Do you use wind vane self-steering? Do you use an electrically-powered autopilot?

LR&MU: We use an electric autopilot exclusively. I would not go so far as to recommend this approach for others though. We choose not to use a wind vane because we are ardent scuba divers. We have a stern designed for easy entry and exit and didn’t want to clutter it up with a wind vane. Wind vanes are very powerful and reliable and use no electric power; powerful autopilots use a lot. Possibly the best general approach is to have a wind vane for sailing and an electric autopilot for motoring. If you do choose to use just an electric autopilot, there should be complete spares aboard or, if you have room, two of them installed and ready to use at the flip of a switch.

OV: Do you have a watermaker on board? How easy is it to use and maintain?

LR&MU: We do have a watermaker aboard and love the reliable and uniform water quality as we travel. Good water is at times difficult to find and difficult to get aboard — try jerry-jugging hundreds of gallons! Our watermaker occasionally requires parts ranging from pumps to motors to membranes to be removed for maintenance and/or replacement. This is not difficult, but given the desire to place machinery in remote parts of the boat, does involve moving some gear for access. Our watermaker is operated manually. This involves turning the power on with valves selected to discard the product water until it tastes okay. We then switch the valves to put the water in the tank. We test the water with a salinity meter in order to determine when maintenance is required. After use, we rinse the unit with fresh water from our tanks. Certainly there are simpler watermakers to operate — generally they cost more to pay for the circuitry and electric valves that do what we are doing ourselves when we start or shut down our unit. Of course, that extra gear needs to be maintained too.

OV: How do you use charts? Do you use a laptop to run electronic charts or use a dedicated chartplotter?

LR&MU: Coastally, we display charts on a laptop that is secured semi-permanently in our chart area; the same laptop used for our e-mail and weather faxes. Offshore, we plot on paper charts.

OV: What kinds of communications gear do you use while voyaging? Do you have an HF SSB? A satphone? An AIS unit?

LR&MU: We communicate and obtain weather through SailMail using an HF SSB and a Pactor III modem. We have an Iridium satphone to allow e-mail communication in the event of our SSB failing, to order needed spares while at sea thus avoiding delays when we reach port, and, on occasion, to telephone a few of our family and friends. An AIS receiver is a recent addition. We wanted to avoid the clutter of “yet another” device at our nav station, but rebelled against the cost of replacing our quite functional 10-year-old radar display with a new one just to display the AIS info. A much less expensive solution involved replacing our VHF transceiver with a unit that incorporates an AIS receiver and display in a space barely larger than that occupied by the old VHF. While we opted not to get an AIS transponder, every voyaging boat ought to consider an AIS receiver at least. They are simple to use, not very costly and if you are single-handed in particular, may save your life.

OV: Do you use one of the new broadband radars or a magnetron-based pulsed radar?

LR&MU: We have a 10-year-old radar and are happy with it. While it works, it will not be replaced.

OV: What new gear do you plan to purchase for your boat and why?

LR&MU: We have no plans for new gear, being generally happy with what we have. As systems age and no longer give adequate service, we will replace them with their possibly more modern equivalent.

Categories: Ocean Voyager