August 01, 2012
After a Circumnavigation: Toms Reflections on What to Take, What to Leave Behind
By Tom Morkin
La Cruz, Puerto Vallarta Mexico
After 13 years and umpteen miles under her keel Feel Free has tied the knot on the circumnavigation. As the ship’s chief engineer and bottle washer I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the hardware side of the trip. How did all the stuff we packed on Feel Free perform, and would we recommend it to other cruisers? If, heaven forbid, we were to contemplate a second circumnavigation, how would things be different? What gear would we simply have to have and what would we leave behind?
This discussion will also include the boat itself, how did she perform, how well suited was she and is she suited to this kind of long distance sailing endeavour? Would we entrust our lives with her to do another circumnavigation? What would we look for in our next cruising boat?
Feel Free is a Canadian built Spencer 51. She’s of 70s vintage which explains her very thick fiberglass layup. The hull above the waterline as well as the deck, are cored with airex foam. She has a long fin keel and a skeg hung rudder. Her beam is 13 feet and her draft 7 ½ feet.
Her long, narrow wineglass shaped hull with the deep fin keel means she can go to weather better than her crew. We have paid the price though, for her deep draft. We’ve been kept out of plenty of anchorages and harbors. Shallow cruising areas like the Bahamas and the south coast of Cuba while not out of the question for us, would be challenging.
Spencer 51s were built with aft or center cockpits, ours is the latter. The center cockpit design has several advantages: it’s a more comfortable liveaboard while at anchor; there’s more privacy when guests are aboard; and the engine access under the cockpit is much better than under the floor. The disadvantages: foredeck is much smaller and less user-friendly; there’s not as much space for stowing dinghies; accessing the wind vane is more difficult and requires leaving the safety of the cockpit. Although my personal preference is the center cockpit, it isn’t a strong preference.
Feel Free is a cutter rigged sloop. I wouldn’t want it any other way. We carry a full battened main with three reef points, the inner forestay is on hanks and the head sail is controlled with a Harken roller furler.
In heavy weather we tend to completely furl the head sail and carry on with stay sail and reefed main. After 20 years of service we retired the North Sail main and replaced it with a Lee Sail mainsail which we ordered direct from Hong Kong and had shipped to Panama six months ago- no dramas at all and much cheaper than buying from sail makers in North America. So far, so good.
Our sail inventory includes two furling jibs, a 120 and a 140, the larger of the two has been virtually unused during the circumnavigation. This can also be said of our asymmetric cruising spinnaker and our storm trysail. I can say that we really needed only three sails, the main, staysail and 120 furling headsail.
Although we often put a single reef in the main, and occasionally a double reef, we have never had occasion to triple reef the main. That said, I would insist on having three reef points for the main.
Occasionally people ask if it would be easier handling a smaller boat given the relatively large sails on Feel Free. Not at all, thanks to the efforts of the previous owners who put a lot of thought, money and work into arranging that all sheets and halyards be led to the cockpit.
No fewer than 10 winches surround the cockpit complete with six jammers. Although I must leave the cockpit to reef the main, only at the mast, it takes only seconds to lower the sail and hook the tack cringle to the goose neck.
We use lazy jacks (lines that run from either side of the boom to the first set of spreaders at the mast) to catch the mainsail when it is lowered.
We put steps on the mast which lead to the mast head. I couldn’t live without mast steps. They are invaluable when conning through reef strewn channels in the tropics or going aloft to check standing and running rigging as well as replacing light bulbs or wind instruments.
Protection from the sun, wind, rain, salt water spray and the cold while in the cockpit cannot be taken too lightly considering the vast amount of time one spends in the cockpit.
Over the years, we added a hard, fiberglass over plywood bimini to the original fiberglass dodger that came with the boat from the factory. During our two winters in the Mediterranean, one in Turkey and one in Malta, Liz made a complete cockpit enclosure. This ‘bubble’ gave us another room aboard and meant we could keep the forward and aft companionway hatches open without freezing to death. In the heat of the tropics, the bubble gives way to sunbrella side curtains and overhead canopy that runs aft from the bimini to almost the end of the boom.
A 70 hp, 4 cylinder marinized diesel engine turns the 20 inch fixed 3 bladed propellor. Named “Yosh”, it’s the original power plant on Feel Free. It has about 6,400 hours on the tack. Of those hours, about 2,000 of them were since leaving Cabo San Lucas in 1999, when we began the circumnavigation with Feel Free.
Although it performed flawlessly since new, it did have an appetite for motor oil and drooled a bit around some oil seals.
Nothing major but while in Malaysia, contemplating the importance of the motor in transiting the Red Sea and Mediterranean, we considered re-powering. Our mechanic quickly talked us out of that insisting it was a great engine and would be a shame to replace it with a newer higher revving type. “Let’s pull it out and rebuild it” he said and so we did. Yosh has lost his appetite for oil and has stopped drooling. After 1,080 hours on the rebuild, it looks like it was a good decision.
There are a number of ways to steer without steering. We always had two autopilots and one wind vane.
Both autopilots are antiques (Cetec Benmar Course Keeper and CPT 2000), in fact, so is our Sayes Rig wind vane. If we were to go again, I’d get a light duty autopilot that would steer the boat via the wind vane, since the power required to turn the wind vane is only a fraction of the power required to turn the boat’s rudder.
Self steering is not a luxury, it’s a safety item. It eliminates the need for a helmsperson and frees that person up to navigate, handle sails, keep a lookout, or make tea. It reduces fatigue and stress.
We carry solar panels and a wind generator. We have 4 60 watt panels mounted on a stainless steel stern arch we had built in Malaysia. While in Curacao where the trade winds blow virtually nonstop we bought an Air Breeze wind generator. It was fantastic, doubling our electrical output while we were in the Caribbean. Now that we’re back on the Pacific coast the wind generator’s contribution is drastically reduced.
If you have the resources and space to have both, have both. If we had to choose between one or the other we’d definitely go with the panels as they generate no noise and are virtually maintenance free.
The dinghy and outboard- (the family car)
We’re on our 4th inflatable dinghy in the 18 years of owning Feel Free. So many, because with the exception of our present dink the other 3 were second hand. They were all either 9 or 10 feet in length and all made from hypalon.
In that time we’ve bought 4 two stroke outboards, 2 were 8 hp and one, 2.5 hp, and one 9.8hp. We still have the 9.8 and the 2.5. The 2.5 stays in the bilge and is for emergencies only. One of the 8’s was stolen and the other we just sold recently.
Most boats carry their dinghies on davits, however with our wind vane on the stern we required a different solution. We simply raise the dinghy and outboard with the spinnaker halyard every night while at anchor and put it on deck while underway.
That’s a brief look at Feel Free and some of her gear. By today’s standards she’s a pretty simple boat. We certainly haven’t been quick to adopt all the new innovative technologies. We still have no water maker or AIS, we’re still without email while offshore, have no fancy wind instruments or furling mainsail. Our limited resources are directed toward ensuring the boat’s rigging is strong, ground tackle well galvanized, through hulls and seacocks sound, bilge pumps working well, life raft serviced, ditch kit up to date; in short the systems are kept simple which make them simple to keep safe. It’s definitely a K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) boat. Certainly she’s a safer boat today than she was 18 years ago when we bought her. Although she’s definitely in need of a paint job and some minor cosmetic work she’s certainly no worse for wear after all those years and miles and I, with mixed emotions can say she’ll no doubt be cruising long after Liz and I.