April 1, 2004, Newport, Rhode Island
41° 29.325 North
071° 19.319 West

Redundancy On Ithaka

By Bernadette Bernon

Before Douglas and I set off cruising, we got some excellent advice from a cruising friend of ours, Alvah Simon. Over two decades, he and his wife Diana slowly circumnavigated, and then sailed here and there on “expedition” voyages; for instance, they took their 36-foot steel sloop, Roger Henry to the Arctic, and wintered over there – a mammoth undertaking in a small sailboat. The resulting high adventure, and life-and-death experience, became the basis of the thrilling book “North To The Night,” which Alvah wrote upon their return.

When Douglas and I told the Simons we were setting off cruising ourselves – albeit on a far less ambitious voyage than their’s -- Alvah had one piece of advice to pass along. He told us to set a goal, before we took off, to make sure that every single system on Ithaka had a manual backup, so that WHEN something happens to one system (notice he didn’t say “IF something happens”), you’re not without resources and can easily switch to the other. This has turned out to be invaluable advice, and it’s saved our bacon many times over. Now that we’re home for a few months, we’re taking out some broken systems, replacing them, and installing even more backups for backups.


In Belize, Douglas replaced our old alternator with a new Balmar unit that wed brought as a spare.
For instance, on Ithaka, we have a mammoth and typical cruiser’s spare-parts inventory for every single system—lockers and resealable plastic containers brimming with everything from selections of lights, fuses, belts, impellers, cotter pins, odd sized “o” rings, shackles, glues and goops, to large items such as a spare alternator, regulator, starter, windlass motor, refrigerator compressor, injectors…


The fridge isnt a critical piece of gear on a boat, but it sure is nice to have it. We carry a spare compressor and a vacuum pump onboard
It’s a list that goes on ad nauseum, and over three years, we’ve used an awful lot of these “extras.” But in addition to spares, there are also conceptual redundancies that have been smart upgrades to the boat. Here’s a list, to give you an idea of how we back up every one of Ithaka’s systems, no matter how seemingly small, and why:

Rudder -- The boat’s rudder is backed up by the rudder on the Monitor Self-Steering System.

VHF Antenna -- We have a spare antenna. Should the mast-top antenna be lost in a knock down, a second antenna is mounted lower—on our aft-deck radar pole—and its cable already is snaked behind the VHF radio where it could be attached fairly easily.


Cruising boats are well served by having a simple water-catchment system sewn into the awnings. You never know when youre watermaker might develop a problem, or something might foul your tanks.
On-Board Water – We have a pressurized fresh-water system in our head sink, at the galley sink, and in the cockpit. At the bow we have pressurized salt water to hose down the deck, anchor and rode. But we have foot pumps for both salt and fresh water, so that if (when) the pressurized systems fail, we can still take care of our needs. Often we don’t use the pressurized water at all, preferring instead to use the foot pumps. They save water. (It’s only this winter that we’ve added a watermaker.) We know lots of cruising boats that purposely have no pressurized water systems to avoid a possible total loss of water if a hose bursts.

Lifelines – We’re replacing our lifelines with new wire. At the Safety At Sea Seminar in Annapolis, Maryland, at the Naval Academy, where we just spent last weekend, we were again reminded by the experts at Chesapeake Rigging that lifeline wire should be bare, not sheathed in plastic (to avoid corrosion) and that it should be the size of your rigging – which is far more substantial than most boats currently use. We’ll soon upgrade to that size. To backup the lifelines, we also have lots of handholds all over the boat. Also we installed stainless-steel hoops over the four dorades on the deck – both to protect the dorades, and to provide handholds. We had them made higher enough and rugged enough to serve as support as we work the deck underway. To back up those “systems,” on the simplest level, we always wear safety harnesses at night or in foul weather, so our lifelines are our last defense against falling overboard.


We have two spare tillers. One is a large one that wed use to steer the boat over the long term if the hydraulic system were to fail. The other, a small aluminum stub tiller we use all the time connected to our wind-vane self-steering system.
Steering -- The wheel steering is backed up by an emergency tiller that can be inserted directly into our aft-mounted rudder head. In fact, we use a third, smaller, aluminum tiller for our self-steering gear, so we’re well backed up in that department.

Steering Systems -- We have both a Monitor wind vane AND a small Raytheon autopilot, and the autopilot is backed up by a second autopilot.

The GPS – This is such an important piece of gear, and the handhelds are so cheap these days, that we have three spares, in addition to our ship’s GPS. One lives at the binnacle while we’re underway. One lives in a metal (Farraday) box that will protect it in case we get struck by lightening. Another lives in our ditch kit. Just in case all hell breaks loose, and we lose all three GPSs, we also have a sextant, and we learned celestial navigation before we set off cruising.


Douglas in the lazarette, snaking wires for our new ICOM 802 Single Side Band radio.
Depth Sounder -- The depth sounder, which is critical when you’re sailing in reef-infested waters, is backed up by a second transducer in the hull. Last year, sailing from Cartagena, Colombia, to the San Blas Islands off the north coast of Panama, we were especially glad to have that second unit in place. In the middle of the night, nearly 100 miles offshore Ithaka bounced off a mammoth tree that was afloat out at sea. We sustained little damage except that the tree smashed against the transducer we were using, and sent it into a terminal state of “off soundings.” All we had to do was switch to the second unit and carry on -- a great relief. In addition to the built-in systems, we also have a have a lead line aboard, AND a nifty hand-held battery operated depth sounder. The latter is a great bonus; these small, portable units are terrific for taking with you in the dinghy, along with a GPS, to scope out a safe passage between reefs.


Our new Spectra watermaker will give us lots of pure fresh water for drinking, and washing.
Watermaker – We’re installing a new Spectra watermaker, now that we’re home, which will change our lives onboard when we set out again in June. But a watermaker should never be relied upon as your only source of collecting water when you’re cruising, especially if you’re cruising in Third World countries. Our back-up is a water-catching system built into our bimini and awnings. Also, we keep our water tanks full all the time, and we have spare water in jerry jugs on deck in case a tank gets fouled. Having the Spectra should make for longer showers, more freshwater rinses for salty gear and equipment, and less hauling about jerry jugs. To conserve water, we bathe and rinse out the soap in the ocean, and use the freshwater shower in the cockpit to rinse off the salt water. We use water we’ve warmed in a solar-heating bag and then poured into a pump-up three-gallon bug sprayer that Douglas fitted with a spray nozzle (a sink sprayer). It works wonderfully and conserves water – although the truth is we look forward this year to more leisurely showers, and purer drinking water with the Spectra.


We installed in-line redundant fuel filters, which weve used several times in the past three years.
Fuel Filters – When you’re entering a shallow cut between roiling reefs, and your clogged filter stalls the engine, this is not when you want to spend 15 minutes searching for a spare, taking out the old, putting in the new, bleeding the system and wondering if you’re about to hole your hull on the reef. We installed a second in-line fuel filter to which we can switch instantly, giving us precious time when we need it, and deferring the dirty work until later on in better circumstances. We’ve needed to do this two times already, and highly recommend it.

Sails Up – Whenever we’re leaving a reefy anchorage under power, we always keep our mainsail up, just in case the engine stalls. Also, keeping the sail up through the reef usually helps our stability as we squeeze through the often choppy cut.


Our ships compass has several back-ups.
Compass -- The ship’s compass is backed up by a hand-held compass, AND a compass in our binoculars.

VHF -- The ship’s VHF is backed up by two other hand-held VHFs, one of which lives in the ditch kit.

Anchors -- We have four different anchors on board. Each is oversized for our boat, and we wouldn’t have less.

Generating Power -- For charging batteries, we have two alternators, a KISS wind generator, and two solar panels.

Charts -- All our electronic charts are backed up by paper charts, which we update with our position at every change of watch. Electronic charts are very cool, and a wonderful tool, but our experience is that sometimes they present your boat position quite a bit off where you actually are – no big deal when you’re at sea, a much bigger deal if you’re trying to make landfall amongst reefs. It’s always worth remembering that computers always crash at the worst moment. That’s why we have paper charts.

Engine Key – Here’s a simple one. We tied an engine key to a closed hook in the lazarette, so that if the boat should suffer a knockdown, and the engine key should fall out of the ignition, we can immediately locate the spare from the helm. Last year we heard about a couple who sustained a knockdown in heavy winds off Panama. The husband was washed overboard, the key was lost, and when the wife ran down below to locate the spare, she lost sight of her husband, who was never found.


Never used, but great for peace of mind: a 406 GPIRB.
Emergency Gear -- Before we left home, we purchased a Gale Rider Storm Drogue with 350 feet of line, and a 406 GPIRB. We’ve never used either one, and hope we never have to, but we’re glad we’ve got them.

Sails – In addition to our mainsail, and 125-percent roller-furling genoa, we have a staysail, which we fly when we know we’re going to do a lot of windward work. We had a spinnaker, but we used it so seldom that we took it off the boat. We’re reconsidering putting it back on before we set out in June, but the jury us still out on that. Before we left home four years ago, we’d read enough horror stories about the danger of lying a hull in heavy weather, that we wanted to make sure that, despite conditions, Ithaka could always keep some sail up, no matter how bad it gets. A bareheaded boat can more easily suffer a knockdown in heavy wind and seas. So in addition to our normal sail inventory, we purchased a storm jib, and a storm trysail, and installed on the mast a separate track for it – good insurance. We have three reef points installed on the mainsail, and we highly recommend this to everyone who sets offshore. The Western Caribbean has powerful winds, especially in January and February, and we’ve used that third reef point several times.


The single-sideband radio is more than a communication tool, its a safety tool.
Communications -- We have an Inmarsat C unit, which connects to our laptop. In addition, we use the SSB, connected to our laptop, so we can download email through the SailMail system – a great way to get email. We also have an Iridium satellite phone. Both our ICOM 802 SSB and our Inmarsat C can, with the press of two buttons, transmit a Mayday call, complete with latitude and longitude position.

Bilge Pump -- We installed a much larger electric bilge pump, with a high-water alarm, and a bilge-pump monitor that counts the cycles it’s turned on. We also have two large-capacity manual bilge pumps, and plenty of buckets.


Douglas downloads weather data from the SSB.
Computer and Single-Sideband Radio – We need both to download our weather information every single day. The marine environment is tough on computers, so we have two laptops onboard. In case those electronics fail for some reason, we also have a recording barometer.

Radar Reflector – We have one mounted on the mast. Still, when we call bridge to bridge at sea, operators of some ships – if they answer AT ALL -- sometimes tell us that they don’t see us on their radar. So we always try to contact ships as we approach each other, and we always steer well clear of them. The responsibility for vigilance amongst commercial shipping is always ours.


We have a 6-person liferaft mounted on deck.
The Boat -- All these preparations are great, but the biggest piece of redundant safety gear is the boat itself. Ithaka is extremely strongly built to take a real beating out there. Of course, if something did happen to her, we have a liferaft.

So you get the point. Think through every piece of gear, ask yourself what you’d do if it stopped working, because it will stop working, no matter how new it is or how much you paid for it. Gear that has to live at sea takes an awful beating from the elements, corrosion, salt and sun, and will break at the least opportune time.

This past weekend, Douglas and I spent some time in Annapolis, Maryland, attending the annual two-day Safety At Sea Seminar put on by the Naval Academy. We’d been honored when they invited us to talk to the audience about the preparations we made to Ithaka to try to make the boat as safe as possible. During our slide presentation, we were sure to pass along Alvah’s advice about system redundancy. The audience was filled with cruisers who were preparing themselves and their boats for voyages this summer and beyond, and it was a thrill for us to be there and help in their preparations.

Spring is upon us. Everywhere, people are working on their boats and getting ready to splash. Especially, for those planning to head offshore and beyond, it’s useful to go through your own redundancy list, and plan accordingly. Safe sailing!