Making your own water on a boat

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
From The Ancient Mariner

November, 2018

The Ancient Mariner had to haul his own water, but thanks to modern technology, we can now convert salt water to fresh water on a sailboat. To me, a watermaker is freedom.  Freedom to cruise for extended periods of time without having to worry about pulling into a marina or fuel dock for water. Freedom to take showers and rinse salt off of the boat and equipment without worrying about running out of water.  Terrapin is a small catamaran with a modest capacity water tank of 47 gallons.  This means that a full tank of water will last the two of us about 3 days of conservative water use: dishes, short showers, stern shower rinse after swimming.  Why not carry extra jerry cans of water lashed to the stanchions?  In a word, weight.  At about 8.3 pounds per gallon, we would have to carry about 370 pounds of water just to double our capacity, not to mention having 6 jerry cans tied around the deck.  Catamaran performance is seriously impacted by weight and 370 pounds is a lot.  Then there is the fun of carrying around 50 pound jerry cans on the deck of a sailboat, and sometimes in and out of a dinghy.  Finally, in some isolated areas as in the Bahamas or Caribbean good quality water is hard to come by.  So, for a small boat, and in particular catamarans, watermakers make a lot of sense.

But then there is the issue of how to power it.  The heart of a watermaker is a high pressure pump that can put out 800 psi of pressure, and then a low pressure pump to supply sea water to the high pressure pump.  Both of these pumps draw a lot of power.  There are two flavors of watermakers: AC and DC.  AC watermakers can put out more capacity in terms of gallons per hour, but draw more power. This AC power generally has to be provided by an on board generator.  DC watermakers use less power but don’t put out as much capacity. The advantage of the DC watermaker is that they can be powered by solar if you have sufficient solar capacity.

Terrapin has 140 watts of solar, not enough to power a high output DC watermaker and it would be difficult to add more solar (although I am still considering it).  We do however carry a Honda EU2000 suitcase generator that fits in the stern locker.  This generator can power an AC watermaker.  Watermakers are also noisy and I wanted the highest capacity possible to limit run time.  In terms of capacity, AC watermakers win hands-down.

My choice:

Cruise RO makes highly rated AC watermakers, the most popular of which can be powered by the Honda 2000 generator and puts out 30 gallons per hour.  Most comparable DC watermakers put out less than half that much. The other strong selling point for the Cruise RO is that it is made up of readily available pumps and filters so when components inevitably need replacing, they are easier to source and less expensive.  Finally, the owner of the company, Rich Boren has earned a reputation for outstanding customer service. At about $6,000, this is not a decision to make lightly and I believe I did my homework.

How they work:

Most watermakers are modular and require custom, permanent installation on the boat, although one that I considered, the Rainman, is portable and self contained in two suitcases.  The heart of the watermaker is the reverse osmosis membrane.  This membrane basically filters out the Na+ and Cl- ions and anything else out of salt water and only allows H2O to pass through.  Of course to do this, the water has to be under tremendous pressure (800 psi) to force it through the membrane.  This is accomplished with a high pressure pump.  The membranes are rolled up in a 4’ tube capable of withstanding this pressure.  The number of tubes dictates how much fresh water can be produced.  My Cruise RO has two pressure vessels.  The high pressure pump needs to be supplied a continuous supply of clean seawater, and this is accomplished with a low pressure pump and some pre-filters.  All of this is attached together with a bunch of tubing and valves.  On top of all this, some watermakers add in electronics and sensors to make it all run automatically and shut off when done.  This greatly increases the cost and adds to the complexity, which means less reliability.  In my opinion, watermakers are not a “set and forget” device and should be monitored while operating.  With two high wattage pumps and 800 psi of pressure, what could possibly go wrong?  The cruise RO has an electronic option, but I did not go with it and Rich does not even recommend it for most people.

My installation:

The biggest decision is where to locate the various components on the boat.  I chose the head (forward in the starboard hull of the PDQ 32) to locate the valve panel as there is a large flat bulkhead to mount the panel.  Furthermore, behind the panel is the forward bow locker with enough space for all the tubing, pre-filters and pumps.  I chose to locate the high pressure vessels under the forward settee in the salon.  This will allow easy removal when the filters eventually need replacing.  Another decision to make is how to supply the watermaker with a supply of sea water.  This requires a thru-hull below the waterline.  The PDQ 32 has a thru hull in the forward bow locker, but it was supplying sea water to the head, a common Jabsco head with a manual pump.  The watermaker requires a dedicated through hull and I couldn’t simply put a tee in the line to supply water to both the head and the watermaker.  But then I thought, why flush the toilet with sea water when I will have a good supply of fresh water?  Sea water to flush the toilet is problematic in that the sea water itself in the bowl and lines begin to smell like sulfur if allowed to sit for any length of time, and sea water in the holding tank makes the smell all that much worse.  My initial thought was to install a new electric head that flushes with fresh water.  I may still do that, but for now, all we need to do is add fresh water from the sink to the bowl using a cup, and then pump the head like usual.

The hardest part of the installation was getting the courage to cut two 12” square openings in the bulkhead. After consulting some knowledgeable folk, the consensus was this would not appreciably compromise the structural integrity of the PDQ 32. So, I went ahead. It was a matter of carefully locating all the components to make sure they were in logical and accessible locations.  Then I attached all the tubing, and wiring.  All in all, it took me about 5 days, with the help of my very capable first mate.  I think it would be rare for anyone to have no issues upon start up, and I had some issues, but nothing terribly serious.  The first issue I had was getting the low pressure pump to prime and circulate water through the low pressure circuit. After a frustrating hour, I decided to call Rich Boren.  I had read about his legendary customer service and was about to find out how true those testimonials were.  I knew from reading some forums that he was on his boat in La Paz, Mexico, and was not particularly confident that I would be able to get ahold of him.  Well, I was pleasantly surprised when he answered his phone.  He walked me through priming the pump and a few other questions I had.  I also had a few water leaks and he helped me trouble shoot those.  I probably made 4-5 calls to Rich over the next few days getting everything dialed in.  His legendary for customer service is well deserved in my opinion.

Cutting holes in the boat is always hard.

A pretty clean installation. All the tubing and filters are on the other side, but still accessible.

In operation; low pressure pump is at 10 psi, high pressure is at 800 psi and the flow meter reads 0.5 gal/min or 30 gal/hour.

I have now used the watermaker for a season in SW Florida and the Keys, refilling our water tank every 3-4 days. It has worked beautifully and produces very pure water that tastes great.  I first start the Honda generator and plug it into the boats AC “shore power inlet”.  If the house battery bank is discharged, they will suck up a lot of amperage from the generator, so I need to wait until the batteries are mostly charged before I turn on the watermaker.  Once the system is able to route most of the generator output to the watermaker, I turn on the pumps, adjust the flow rate and then test the output using a TDS meter.  It takes about a minute for the salinity to be reduced to the drinkable range, about 200ppm.  At this point I divert the water to the ships water tank and let it run for until the tank is full, about an 1 ½ hours.  During this time, the generator is also able to contribute significant charging to the battery bank in that critical window of 80-100% charge (more on battery charging in another post).

So, yes, the watermaker is definitely freedom.  We no longer have to find a dock to tie up to in order to fill our tanks and, while we are always conservative with our water use, we no longer have to ration our water or feel guilty about taking a shower when out cruising.

Sombrero Reef

The Florida Keys Reef is the only living coral reef in the continental United States and the third largest barrier reef system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef.  It runs along the seaward side of the Florida Keys and is typically about 3-4 miles from the islands.  Sombrero Reef lies just 4 miles from Boot Key Harbor.  There is a cool lighthouse (one of six along the Florida Keys Reef) sitting on top of the reef and lots of mooring buoys surrounding it.  We can sail right up to the reef and hook onto a buoy for an afternoon of snorkeling right off the boat.

An interesting tidbit is that the government has decided these lighthouses are no longer necessary and will be donating them for free to interested non-profits.  If there are no takers, they will sell them at auction to the general public.  Anyone want to own a lighthouse?

Terrapin tied to a mooring buoy at Sombrero Reef.

Keys Fisheries

One of our favorite restaurants in Marathon is Keys Fisheries.  Keys Fisheries is a seafood restaurant/bar, seafood market, and wholesale fishery.  They supply most of the Florida restaurants with stone crab caught in traps in local waters.  Upstairs is a raw bar that serves fresh stone crab and raw oysters.  Do we look happy?

How do you get internet on a boat?

The ability to connect to the internet from our boat is very important to us.  Let’s face it, the internet is such a fabulous resource that it is worth the time and effort to make sure we have the best connection possible.  Even if you don’t care about reading your email or posting to Facebook, the ability to access weather, anchorage information, or YouTube videos about how to bleed a diesel engine or some other maintenance issue makes the internet an important part of good seamanship.  The challenge on a boat is that we are continuously moving from one spot to another and are usually further away from any internet “hot spot” or cell tower than if we were on land.  There are also two types of internet access: WiFi hotspots and cellular data.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages.  WiFi hotspots usually have a password requirement, but if you have the password, the data are free.  A typical example is a marina WiFi.  The downside is that 100s of other boaters may be using the WiFi also and things can get pretty slow.  There is also the security risk of using a public WiFi: anyone with a packet sniffer can steal passwords, credit card numbers etc.  The remedy is to use VPN software to make your connection.  Cellular data is generally safer, and faster. Cellular data has a much longer range and you can generally receive a cell signal 4-5 miles off shore of most areas in in the US.  The downside is, most cellular data plans have some sort of cap on the amount of data you can use before they slow it way down.  For these reasons, it is best to have both capabilities on a boat.  After doing a ton of reading of Cruisers Forum and other blogs, I settled on a DIY system for Terrapin that does the following:

It has a long-range WiFi radio/antenna on the stern rail that is capable of connecting to WiFi hotspots several miles away.

It has a high gain cellular antenna also mounted on the stern rail that is connected to a dedicated cellular modem inside the boat.  We can and do sometimes use our cell phones as hotspots also to connect, but the high gain antenna can pick up cellular data signals at a distance when cell phones cannot connect.

Both of these are connected to a basic router inside the boat that any device can log into and receive the internet from whichever connection is chosen.  This can be selected by a simple switch.  When we move from one location to another and need to log into a new WiFi hotspot, I can access the long range antenna through my laptop, and see all the available WiFi connections in the area.  If I have a password, e.g. from a new marina, I can log into that WiFi.  The connection on the boat remains the same.  All devices  simply log into the boat router with a single password.

For anyone wishing to set up a system like this, you can download the PDF file below with complete instructions on configuring such a system.

The WiFi installation on Terrapin. The Netgear 4G modem is on the right and the Netgear router is on the left.

A closeup of the installation showing the WiFi/cellular switch on the right and the POE injector for the Bullet on the left.

Configuring a boat WiFi network

If at first you don’t succeed….

When I purchased new sails for Terrapin, I also bought a spinnaker.  The spinnaker is used for downwind sailing when the wind is between 90 and 180 degrees off the bow.  Paradoxically dead downwind sailing or “a run” is generally one of the slowest points of sail, mainly because you are relying on your sails to be “pushed” by the wind directly behind them.  Conventional main and jib are not really designed for this.  Instead, conventional sails are designed to be a curved airfoil, like a vertical airplane wing.  The wind passing over the front of the sail provides “forward lift” and propels the boat forward.  In some cases, this can propel the boat faster than the wind speed as in the recent Americas Cup catamarans.  The spinnaker is a large light balloon like sail that catches the maximum amount of wind from behind to improve downwind sailing performance.  It is generally used for light wind of less than 15 knots.

The spinnaker is also somewhat tricky to rig and deploy and I had no experience with them other than reading and watching YouTube videos.  We have been on several stretches of long downwind sailing on Terrapin during our recent cruise to the Keys and have been frustrated with the slow speed.  Finally, one day I decided to test out the new spinnaker.  I think I made every mistake in the book and paid the price.  With Laura at the helm, I went to the bow and pulled the spinnaker out of the bow locker.  It is in a rather large bag and pretty unwieldly.  I hooked it up to a bridle that ran from one bow to the other with a shackle to attach to one of the lower corners of the spinnaker, called the tack.  The other lower corner of the spinnaker is called the clew and is where you attach the sheet that runs to the cockpit on the leeward side and controls the shape of the sail. By adjusting both the bridle position side to side and the sheet, I can control the position of the spinnaker and the amount of “ballooning”, or so goes the theory.  The spinnaker is in a sock about 40’ long and designed to be raised and unfurled in two steps: 1. Attach the head of the sail to the spinnaker halyard and hoist it up to the top of the mast. 2. Pull on another line running from a cuff around the bottom of the sock to the top of the spinnaker and then back down again. Pulling on this line raises the sock and allows the lightweight nylon spinnaker to unfurl and catch the wind.  To douse the spinnaker, you pull the sock back down with the same line.  So, I hooked up the tack and clew and raised the sock on the halyard.  So far so good.  Except that by the time I had done all this, the wind speed had increased to about 15k, gusting to 20.  I should have stopped right there.  Hindsight is 20/20, right?  Well, I raised the sock and all hell broke loose.  The sheet running to the cockpit wasn’t secured and came loose, allowing the spinnaker to flap uncontrollably in the strong wind.  It started to wrap around the forestay where the genoa is rolled up on a roller furler. I had also left the two genoa sheets attached to the genoa and these quickly became tangled with the spinnaker lines.  I tried to bring the sock down but it was jammed.  I spent what seemed like an eternity trying to control this crazy flapping spinnaker, but it was probably about 10 minutes.  I finally went to the mast and lowered the halyard lowering the whole mess to the trampoline.  Exhausted.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t try to fly the spinnaker in wind stronger than 15 knots, at least until you have plenty of experience.
  • Attach the sheet and tack more securely.
  • Make absolutely sure the sock is free and clear of all lines and on the proper (leeward) side the forestay.
  • Remove the genoa or jib sheets so there is no chance of getting tangled
  • Clear the deck of all stuff, fenders, docklines, etc.
  • Practice with raising the spinnaker at the dock before attempting to use it under sail.

Well, after digesting and re-enacting the scenario in my mind, I finally got the courage to try it again when we were sailing downwind in much lighter wind.  This time it worked perfectly!  What a good feeling to pull up the sock and see this beautiful sail catch the wind and feel the boat accelerate.

Flying the spinnaker on Terrapin

Downwind sailing under spinnaker alone

Midsummer night’s dream

Like last year, I plan on flying down to Punta  Gorda mid-summer to check on Terrapin and do a few  maintenance items so we won’t have as much to do in November when we want to go sailing. The number one priority before splashing Terrapin in November is to remove all traces of barnacles on the bottom, the prop shaft and propellers.  Then put on another coat of bottom paint.  Bottom paint on boats is a whole science/art in itself.  Most boats in warm tropical waters have some sort of soft ablative paint.  The ablative material is usually copper suspended in the paint.  I’m talking a lot of copper!  The copper is supposed to retard growth of marine organisms on the bottom, but it is only a partial solution.  The other property is the fact that the paint is soft, particularly when it is wet.  This allows the paint to slowly sluff off over the season when the boat is sailed or when scrubbed with a pad.  So, bottom line is that there will be some bare spots on the leading edge of the hulls and keels that will need touching up. So, I plan to spend a few days scraping barnacles and touching up the bottom paint.  It’s also a good opportunity to check that there is no water leaking inside or bugs.  Last year, we had a few ants in the cockpit and some wasps making a home in the boom, but nothing terrible.

I will also be checking on the batteries.  Terrapin has four deep cycle golf cart type batteries to serve as the house bank, and two starting batteries for starting the diesels.  Lead acid batteries do not like to sit for long periods of time without being charged as they will self –discharge and go dead after a while.  Terrapin has a 145W solar panel and a charge controller that monitors battery voltage and delivers the proper charge from the solar panel.  Last year, this worked perfectly and kept the house bank fully charged.  However, the solar was not hooked up to the starting batteries and they had lost quite a bit of charge over the summer.  This summer, I hooked up jumper cables to the start batteries so they should also be charged by the solar panel.  We will see how they look.  I will have another separate post about battery charging.

50 ways to leave your lover

It is now the beginning of August, 2018 and our commuter cruiser lifestyle is going according to plan.  Terrapin is once again tied down on the hard in Safe Cove Boat Storage in Charlotte Harbor, FL.  Laura and I are back in Lexington and enjoying our work, knowing that we will be back sailing in November. We had Terrapin hauled in mid-April and then lived aboard on the hard while we got her ready to weather the six months in the southern Florida heat, sun and rain.  The first step after hauling was to have the yard guys pressure wash the bottom.  Terrapin had been in the water for 6 months and we had been sailing for about 3 months during that time.  The more you sail, the cleaner the bottom stays.  But a month sitting in the marina is plenty of time for all kinds of marine growth to accumulate on the bottom, from easy to remove algae/fuzz to PITA to remove barnacles.  I had the bottom cleaned by a diver twice, but there were still quite a bit of barnacles on the bottom and the props.  Most were removed by pressure washing and scraping, but there are still plenty remaining on the boat.

For those who are interested in commuter cruising, here is our checklist for prepping Terrapin for storage.  Unless you want to pay someone to do everything, you can’t just drop the boat off and wave goodbye.   If you want to protect your investment and have a boat that will be ready to sail in the fall, there is a substantial amount of work prepping the boat for storage.  For some, this could  be a deal-killer.  For us, it was a labor of love.

How about a Second Chance?

Heading north up the west coast of Florida we were planning on stopping for the night in Marco Island, the same place we stopped coming south a few weeks ago.  But then we noticed a small anchorage just south of Marco in a shallow area off Cape Romano.  We decided to give it a try.  Wow, it turned out to be one of our more memorable anchorages.  There is a large exposed sandbar called Second Chance Sandbar.  The area is constantly shifting and we had to maneuver very carefully watching our depth gauge.  We ended up anchoring close to the Second Chance sandbar but we were way out in the middle of a very large bay with gorgeous views 360 degrees.  Second Chance Sandbar turned out to be a “CWA” or Critical Wildlife Area that is a nesting habitat for a variety of seabirds.  The other interesting feature of this area is a group of bizarre looking dome houses out in the water that look like they are right out of a Star Wars movie.  For an interesting read, Google Cape Romano Dome House and read the Wikipedia  page.  They were built in the 1980’s as a vacation residence on a small island, but they have been abandoned since the 90’s and the rising sea level is now taking them back.

Second Chance Sandbar from Google Earth

Cape Romano Dome House

Up close dolphins

We haven’t seen a lot of dolphins on this trip but we finally got a bit of a show one afternoon while anchored off of Chino Island, just off the ICW north of Sanibel Island.  There was a group and they were circling around schools of fish in a typical dolphin feeding behavior.  I grabbed my camera and managed to get a few shots.

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Ding Darling

White Heron

The J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is part of the United States National Wildlife Refuge System, located in southwestern Florida, on Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico. It is named for the cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling.  You can access it by land from Sanibel Island, but the most extensive part of the refuge is a large expanse of shallow waterways and lagoons which provide habitat for a large number of aquatic birds.  We anchored just off the eastern edge of Sanibel Island and took the dinghy into the maze of canals in about 2 feet of water.  I brought my new Olympus OMD E-M1 Mark II with a 300mm f4 IS Pro lens to try it out for bird photography.  Here are a few examples.

Tricolor Heron

Tricolor Heron

Blue Heron

American White Ibis