How We Refit
I don’t know if it’s a super power but one of the things we’re good at is sorting out a boat for long-distance, long-term sailing. On our first voyage in 2000 (pre-kids) aboard a ketch-rigged Shannon 38, Lani and I spent a year transforming a coastal cruiser into a blue-water vessel. Beth Leonard’s Voyager's Handbook was our Bible, and we spent about $40k adding things like an SSB, wind vane steering, and doing a few unfortunate big repairs like completely rebidding the deck (ouch), which was a problem with 1980s Shannons.
The second time around (2013) we took a different approach. We purchased the first Dafne (a Leopard 40) from the Moorings charter company in Tortola. I spent a week on the boat with some friends and then sailed her to St. Martin where Lani and the kids joined for an refitting, which involved mostly a lot of purchases like a new dinghy, iridium sat phone, and a heap of spares. But, we wanted to get things moving a lot more quickly. So, after a month with a lot of basics covered, we started cruising down the Caribbean chain, continuing our refit incrementally along the way. We re-powered with new Yanmar engines in Grenada, installed an Echo-tec water maker in Trinidad, and added an electric winch in Curacao—an upgrade I was skeptical about when Lani suggested it but that ended up changing my life. We loved this approach. Instead of sitting on a dock waiting until everything was just right to depart, we dove in quickly and solved problems as we went along. For one thing, there are always surprises with a new old boat, many of which don’t surface until you start sailing. You can wait and wait on the dock and think everything’s 100% only to discover shortly along that x, y, and z need fixing or replacing.
For more about Dafne I and our two-year adventure aboard check out the first svdafne blog, which we ran 2013-2015.
We’re applying those lessons to this third voyage. We bought Dafne II (neé Pacific High) in Brisbane, Australia, which is pretty much where we ended our adventures on the first Dafne. The boat, a Lagoon 500, has some bluewater miles under her keels: Her first owner, the Kaufmann family, sailed her from France to Australia, crossing the Pacific the same year (2014) as we did. We actually spent a few weeks tied up at the same dock in Sydney. But, since then she’s just been sailed along the coast of Australia with only moderate investment in her systems and upkeep. Given that and her age, she’s not exactly turnkey. So, the challenge in front of us is to set her up for a 10k+ miles of voyaging in as little time as possible. Here’s how we’re doing it.
First, there’s a whole category of work that’s just basic safety and maintenance. This includes replacing the standing rigging (stays and shrouds) that hold up the mast, which insurance companies require should be changed out every ten year. This is an excessive requirement in my view. At the same time, the last thing I want happening in the middle of the Coral Sea is to have my mast fall over, which fits into the catastrophic stuff I definitely want to prevent. In fact, we have good friends on a boat called Outsider who lost their mast in Fiji last year. They survived no problem, but it was a complete nightmare getting a new mast and rig fitted in Savusavu. (Note to reader, my favorite restaurant in the world, Mum’s Country Kitchen, is located in Savusavu.)
We organized a rig replacement through David Lambourne Rigging in Brisbane after we closed on the boat in March in the hope that it would be done when we arrived in June. David recommended that we re-engineer the gooseneck on the boom, which we also did. This and the general principle that people work slowly when you manage them remotely contributed to the whole project costing more and taking longer than we hoped, which has become a theme for us in Australia. David put the finishing touches on his work a week after we arrived.
The biggest project by far has been converting the boat’s electrical system from traditional AGM batteries to lithium. Interestingly, Pacific High had been set up on lithium by the original owner, Klaus. But those were early days for the technology (2011), and the system lacked any real battery monitoring system (BMS), which is critical for long life. Who knows what happened but when I first surveyed the boat a year prior (another story) the lithium system was completely dead. The owner previous to us solved this by ripping them out and putting in new AGM batteries. The problem is that this boat is an electricity hog. The water maker is a 230-volt, 225 liter/hour Sea Recovery system that draws 3kw with numerous 4kw spikes as it hums along. On top of this, Klaus removed all the propane on the boat and installed an induction plate stovetop and electric oven. While these are incredibly efficient and much safer than propane, they draw huge loads. Throw in the washing machine, a 230-volt fridge, and our absurd reliance on devices (each of us has a computer, phone, iPad, and kindle; and I have multiple of several), there’s no way that Dafne II would survive on AGM batteries on a long-haul voyage.
For one, traditional batteries like AGM can’t take a huge load. When you draw a ton of amps—let’s say 100, which is pretty normal for us—out of traditional batteries, the voltage drops. And when voltage drops bad things happen like sensitive instruments going pop and the like. Lithium, on the other hand, is pretty much load agnostic. 100, 200 amps. Go for it. It hums along at 13.4 volts like no problem. The other big benefit to lithium is charging. If you have the ability to pump 200 amps or more into the batteries, lithium loves that, which makes them worlds more efficient. In 2018 it’s getting pretty common for ocean-going sailboats to move to lithium. I predict we’ll see all sailboats on lithium—even coastal cruisers—in the next 5-10 years.
Also, interestingly, when I pulled the AGMs out of Dafne II one of the four batteries was beyond dead. It registered .5 volts. I’ve never seen that—a dead battery usually has something like 8 volts. This one probably never fully functioned.
We had two choices. One on the one hand, I could design and install a lithium system myself, compiling individual cells and building a BMS and charging system. This would be the most cost-effective way, and it would be a bit of fun. I know enough about electrical systems and have enough resources at hand, such as my friend Mark on Field Trip who did this himself recently, that I’m sure I could have done it myself. The problem is that it would take a lot of time, and I’d need to be in a marina near a place where I had access to great internet, international shipping, and electrical supplies. Brisbane fits that, but Lani and I weren’t super keen on staying there for a month or longer while I sorted this at the start of our trip. We wanted to make quick work of our refit and get going. So, that left the other option: hire it out. After some research I decided to install a custom-built system from Enerdrive, a local Brisbane alt-energy specialist. Together with Ben Wellings of Onboard Electrical, they built a 1200 ah lithium battery system for Dafne with a state-of-the-art BMS that coordinates communication between charging and loads.
All boat projects inevitably encounter hiccups, and one major hiccup in this project is that we discovered after we started that the current combo chargers/inverters—the boxes that transform 12 volt DC power from the batteries into 230 volt AC power for things like microwaves and also, critically, use the 230 volt AC power supplied by the generator to charge the batteries—were too old for a firmware update that will allow them to communicate with the battery monitoring system (BMS) of the Enerdrive system. This is bad because if there’s some kind of event—let’s say the solar panels go crazy, start overcharging the batteries, and BMS shuts down the system—the combis won’t know that it’s being shut down except that suddenly there’s no power, and all sorts of bad things can happen like stray, high voltage current can ping around frying expensive equipment. And on a boat you just know that this will happen when you’re anchored in the middle of nowhere with a storm coming and the anchor impossibly wedged beneath a rock. Like so many hiccups we cured this with money by ripping out the combis and replacing them with the exact same units, but newer, so that they can have intimate conversations with the BMS.
Traditional AGM batteries can only take so much charge, and as they fill up their ability to absorb amps falls off a cliff. On the first Dafne I don’t think I ever got the batteries above 90% except on long motoring stints. Lithium, on the other hand, can take tons of amps. As a result, a critical piece of a lithium system and one that usually adds to the cost is that you have to rethink your charging profile in order to maximize it. To this end, we ripped out the eight 6-year-old, 100-watt solar panels sitting on the transom, widened the stainless tray that they sit on, and replaced with four 360-watt Sunpower high-efficiency panels, which will give us a whopping 1440 watts of solar power. To save some money I removed all the panels myself—a back-breaking, all-day job—and shipped the tray off to Concept Stainless in Brisbane to widen it a bit. In retrospect I wish that we’d spent more money on the stainless work and elevated the rack off the dinghy davits and up to the flybridge. This would have added some nice shade to the back of the boat and made handling the dinghy easier. We might modify this down the line.
(For the techies: To solve the engine/alternator charging issue we installed Enerdrive’s DC2DC chargers to run off the starter batteries after they’re full. The nice bit of it all is that the Enerdrive BMS communicates with all of this, shutting down the combis, DC2DC, or solar chargers in any voltage event.)
In addition to these two big jobs, there are tons of little things that we have to do to Dafne II in order to ready her for long distance voyaging. One is communications. We need internet both for schooling and for keeping in touch with work. As mobile connectivity has become more prevalent since our last trip, we decided to over index on this and install a robust mobile router. I went with the Locomarine Micro Yacht Router, which doubles as both a wifi repeater for the times when we have a local wifi signal from land and also a 4G router. This is an install that I’m doing as we go along, with mixed results so far. I’m not in love with Yachtrouter’s interface, and we seem to be consuming bandwidth via the router at 10x what we consume on our phones. Hmmm. More on this in a future post.
We also installed Iridium Go, which is a step up from our Iridium handheld from last trip (which is now sitting in our ditch kit). This will give us always-on weather (via Predict Wind) and the ability to have phone, email and SMS from anywhere. I’m pretty stoked about this, especially since Iridium is currently lobbing 100+ satellites into the air via SpaceX at a breakneck pace ahead of their NEXT launch next year. (Can’t wait….)
In all, we spent two weeks on the dock in Brisbane working like mad to clean up Dafne II
and equip her for the next few years. We’ve plowed through about 30% of our refit list, which is pretty good, and have set off now towards warmer weather up north, whittling away at projects as we go. Next up for me: Completely replacing all the toilet plumbing on the boat in an effort to get some of this age-old stink out of here. Fun times.