28 July 2018

Another Boring Project Blog: New VHF

"Hey, how long has the radio been off?" This was asked more often that we would like aboard Argon when one of us would discover that our VHF Radio had decided to spontaneously turn off at someone unknown time during a passage.  The "fix" was to just reboot it and hope it stayed on this time. It usually did.

Bob Damiano

Argon's instrumentation is almost entirely Raymarine equipment.  Most of it is pretty good, but when it comes to radios, Raymarine has a particularly dismal reputation. Just ask the internet. Tartan equipped Argon with Raymarine's lowest end (at the time) radio - the now discontinued Ray55.  The first issue we had with it was that the remote handset in the cockpit failed. We replaced it ($140) last year. This year, not only did the handset start to get flaky again but the radio started doing this annoying turning-off behavior.

Radios are really important. It's time for a real radio.

iCom and Standard Horizon are generally thought of as the best brands of VHF Radios. We looked at both and the remote handsets that were available for them. The biggest pain was going to be to replace that remote handset wiring out to the cockpit. Not only that, but they seemed to have an equally cheesy connector for the remote set and I couldn't help wonder how long it would be before I'd be replacing those handsets too. I wondered why no one made a wireless remote handset.  Well, they do.

B&G and Simrad (both Navico companies) make a radio and offer a wireless remote handset. They are wireless in the sense that the audio is wireless, but they still sit in a charging cradle which you must get power to.

After reading and researching a bit, we decided to go for the B&G V50 radio and H50 wireless remote. We decided to get a second charging cradle and mount one inside at the nav station and the other out in the cockpit. I found a relatively easy way to get power wiring to both.

IT'S ALIVE - Initial testing phase. Power and antenna connected temporarily


The hardest part of the installation was getting another power wire out to the cockpit. We decided to place the charging cradle on the port side wheel pod and fortunately, it was not too horrible of a job running power there.  We used one of the spare breakers for the charging cradles and I've ordered a breaker label "VHF2" for it. 

The drill template for the charging cradle
The handset and charging cradle ready to mount

Done, and wired.  Handset is charging
New Blue Sea breaker label (and a spare for when I screw up the first one)

The next hardest task was that the rectangular opening in the nav station panel needed to be enlarged for this radio's footprint. There seems to be two common sizes and this one is the taller one. Normally this would have been easy except my dremel saw tool was in the trunk of Linda's car and Linda's car was in a repair shop seventy miles away in Newport. Luckily I was able to borrow a similar tool from a friend at a nearby marina.

The back side of the panel. I reused the mounting hardware from the old Ray55 radio. Notice the N2K wire connecting to the Seatalk "Tee" connector

And, done. Note the future position of the second charging cradle


Argon's network is a modern "Seatalk ng" one with all devices happily plugging and playing together. The exception to this was the Ray55 radio. It only supported a legacy NMEA0183 interface. This is connected to the Seatalk net via some sort of 0183/Seatalk interface. The location of this interface is unknown to me. I can see where the wires start but I have no idea where the thing itself is. If I ever find it, I'll rip it out. The new radio (and any decent new radio) has NMEA2000 (N2K) network compatibility. N2K is fully compatible with Raymarine's Seatalk with only an adapter cable needed to plug in.

The old radio's NMEA0183 connections. Think those signal wires are heavy enough gauge?

With the radio connected to the Seatalk network (via N2K adapter cable), you can see GPS position and Time Data on the screens of the base unit and remote handset

Remote Handset

Most reviews of the B&G and Simrad radios said that the wireless remote sound quality was not quite as good as a wired set. I'd have to agree with that. It will remain to be seen if this turns out to be a practical problem. One reviewer said he had terrible interference when the engine was running on his boat. I asked around and this seemed to not be a common problem. It's not a problem on Argon anyway.

Ergonomically, the wireless handset is awesome. It's really solid and heavy feeling. With dual helms on Argon it will be nice to not be on a short leash to one wheel while on the radio. Without having to disconnect a wire (with a really cheesy connector), we will always bring the handset inside for storage when not in use. It will set in another charging cradle at the nav station.

These radios actually support multiple wireless handsets. This can be handy on very large multi-deck boats I guess. Interestingly, you "pair" each handset with the radio similar to setting up a bluetooth pairing. The pairing procedure worked perfectly as soon as I found the article in the manual.

Built In AIS

Most modern VHF radios have built-in AIS receivers. Argon already had a full duplex AIS transceiver (we could see and be seen). I wondered how our systems would behave with two competing sources of AIS data on the network and I asked that question on a few sailing forums. Eveyone who answered essentially said "No Problem".  Well, everyone was wrong.  While the targets still do show up with both AIS data sources running, they are not quite right. Our chartplotter displays BIG BOATS as bigger targets and will differentiate sailboats by drawing them differently from power boats. With AIS enabled on the B&G, these display details were lost.  As soon as I turned off the AIS function of the B&G radio, these issues resolved.

So the good news is that we do have a redundant AIS receiver in case our main system should have a fault. But the radio must be normally kept in non-AIS mode for it not to interfere with the real AIS data from our tranceiver.

What do do with the old Ray55

Normally, we hate throwing things away. In this case however, I really don't want to give this radio to anyone to use on a boat.  Having a radio that just stops working without you noticing can be a pretty unsafe thing aboard.  Maybe I'll put it in my museum at home.

25 March 2018

Spring Reveal: Getting Argon Ready For Another Season

Argon will be splashed in just a few weeks.  We have a pretty long spreadsheet of things to get done before (or shortly after) that happens.  We're way overdue for a blog so here's a bit about the projects.

Bob Damiano

Stern Light

Argon's stern light is mounted on the stern rail. Sounds logical so far, but then we went and added davits for the dinghy. The problem is that when the dinghy is hoisted, it just about perfectly blocks the stern light. Our rear end is definitely not visible for 2 nautical miles like this.

Stern light needed to be re-positioned from the stern rail up to the transom radar mast so that it is clearly visible when we have the dinghy hanging off the davits.

The logical place to put the stern light up higher would be on the transom radar mast. This mast is a standard Edson 3.5" round aluminum mast. The new light - an Aqua-Signal series 34 LED (of course) has a flat mounting base.

I figured there would be dozens off the shelf thingies - either from Edson, or others - that would provide an easy way to mount this light. I couldn't possibly be the first person who wants to mount a flat thing to an Edson mast, could I?  Well, apparently I am.  After kicking around a few ideas with my brother and others, I happened to be in the hardware store one day and noticed that 3" PVC pipe has exactly 3.5" outside diameter.  I decided to try molding my own thingie out of epoxy.  The pipe made the nice radius and some duct-tape covered cardboard formed the edges of the mold.  Then, I just filled it with six-10 and waited a day.

It's not the most beautiful thing, but it worked. See photos to follow

Building the mold

Mold filled with six-10

First prototype extracted from the mold

Final version drilled for the light and ready to paint

Back on the boat drilling wiring hole and drill/tapping mounting screw hole

Wiring done, bracket mounted
And the light mounted to the bracket
The new wire was easy to snake down to the bottom of the mast.  I've ordered some Deutch Connectors for the disconnect at the bottom of the mast.

Ground Tackle

Argon's main ground tackle consisted of 100 feet of 3/8" chain plus 100 feet of line.  The Anchor is a 35lb Lewmar Delta.

This setup has served us well in most conditions.  There was one particular situation during our Caribbean Cruise in 2016 where we wished we had a little more going on down there.  It was about 40 hours straight of 30+ kt winds while anchored in 30 feet of water in Deshaies, Guadeloupe. Our chain alone had us at about a 3.5:1 scope.  We put out some line and also extended our snubber as far as we could but we were still very under-scoped for the conditions.  We dragged nearly 30 feet over the 40 sleepless hours.

We became particularly intimate with our ground tackle while cruising the Caribbean regularly diving in to check the set and confirm there was no debris. And we also decided that even more chain was needed.

So, we purchased a new 160 foot length of 3/8" chain.  I think Defender actually gave us more like 165 but who's counting?  I spliced our existing rode to the new chain, put some marks every 40 feet and installed it. This extra 60 feet of heavy chain would have sure come in handy in Guadeloupe.  It will certainly make me dislike anchoring a little less in general.

Measuring and marking the new chain

Ready to "weigh anchor" and slurp it all into the boat for the first time.

Chain Splice by Bob.

Sanitation System

The head worked. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Marine sanitation systems are built for weekenders.  We lived on the boat full time for nearly three years, so this system had about ten years of normal use on it. I figured it would be much easier to tackle this stuff preemptively while on the hard than it would be during the season while sailing around.

What we did:

  • Replaced all (well most) sanitation hosing including the vented loop
  • Replaced all internal components of the toilet itself
  • Replaced the deck filler cap

What we learned:

Warning: I'm going to say a bit of bad stuff about the Tartan-4000 here.
I have always loved how easy Tartan made it to work on the various systems on Argon.  I am able to get access to and work on just about anything, anywhere on the boat. The sanitation system is the exception. I have to say, I'm really unhappy with the access to this stuff - especially considering that there is some below-the-waterline stuff in there. Access to the Y-Valve, Thru-hull and Macerator Pump are through a tiny door that opens under the sink which is not nearly wide enough to get both hands inside. At one point I stuck my head in there and was not quite sure it was going to come back out. I found myself fishing around in my pocked for my phone in case I needed to make the most embarrassing 911 call ever.  It is extremely difficult to work on this stuff and given how unpleasant the sanitation system already is to work on, this was a particularly miserable project.  I am very tempted to hire someone to completely re-do the pretty round casting under the sink to have a nice big fat access panel. There's just too much important stuff behind there to have such horrible access to. Either that, or maybe I'll get me some trained rodents to work on it next time.

The main access to the vented loop and deck fitting is gained by removing the shelf cabinet in the shower.  That's easy enough to do and actually gives pretty decent access.

Unknown to us all this time was that the vented loop had at some point failed.  The "duck bill" was stuck open so that what was inside the pipe could get outside the pipe when flushing. This explained the occasional bouquet inside the boat which we always assumed was because of permeation of the hoses. No - it was just squirting sewage on the side of the hull and a wiring conduit - that's all.  If nothing else, seeing and fixing this made it worth opening up the shower to get this replaced.

Strange Deck Fitting

The deck fitting for waste pumpout has always been a bit frustrating on Argon.  We first ran into a problem when we lived aboard over the winter at Constitution Marina and tried to get a pumpout "snorkel" made. We could not find anything that would fit the thread properly. Nothing english or metric would fit quite right.  The next indication that this was a strange fitting came when I accidentally swept our filler cap overboard while sweeping snow off the deck one day. Finding a replacement eventually led to emailing Tartan to ask where they got the fittings.  Turns out, they are sourced from a company in Florida that I had never heard of.

The problem really came to a head (ha!) in Turk$ and Caico$.  The marina we were at would only do screw-in fittings for pump-outs. They had nothing in stock that would fit our deck fitting.  Eventually, they took an old fitting and cross-threaded and mangled it enough to get it to suck (then charged us $30 for the pump-out).

As long as I was in there, I wanted to replace that deck fitting with a normal one with a regular ol' thread.  The new one is a White Cap brand.

Shower cabinet removed. Stains on the hull were from the spewing vented loop. Yuk.

Toilet is out (and home)

The old vented loop and hose

Linda working on replacing everything in the toilet at home. PDF manuals on the laptop.

Linda, our head technician.

The replacement parts for the toilet were challenging to source. No kits available and had to search for individual pieces across three different companies. Ended up costing well over $200 for several basic parts. All in all, we spent nearly what a new toilet would cost replacing all the guts of the toilet. Tartan: this would make a nice spares kit!

Removing the old oddly sized deck fitting.

The new White Cap deck fitting installed - easy job.

Rebuilt toilet ready to install. Brand new sanitation hoses already run.
Another improvement to the system can be seen in the above photo.  Tartan had simply butt-spliced the four wires to the toilet.  The new motor for the toilet came with a Deutch Four-Pin connector.  After some searching and several re-orders, I finally got the mate to this connector from a race car supply company called Batts Racing.  The connectors are very well made and waterproof.

The toilet is in (and it runs). Note the tiny access door under the sink.

New vented loop and hose can be seen behind the shower
Generally, when we touch anything on the boat, we try to make it better than it was. On this project, we also replaced all of the low-end hose clamps with expensive non-perf stainless steel ones. We've been doing that all over the boat in other projects as well. The cheap ones are about $0.79/ea and the good ones are several bucks a piece.


Speaking of Vented Loops

I have no photos of this one, but the discharge hose for the sump pump had a loop, but not a vented loop. Argon has always had a slow re-filling of the sump due to siphoning action from the discharge. This became semi-alarming (actually literally alarming) during the six day passage from Bermuda to Antigua as the sump was filling quite often.  Per Tim Jackett's recommendation I also put a vented loop in this discharge line. That problem should be solved.


Headstay Adjustment

We've known for some time that Argon's head-stay could use a little more tension.  We find ourselves hardening up the backstay to compensate even in pretty light air. A couple of different rigging folks have suggested that a turn or two might be good but that it was "pretty close" as it was. Before putting the sails on, I wanted to get to this chore. With the furling head-sail systems, it requires detaching and raising the drum to reveal the turnbuckle.

It's been a while but I finally remembered how to do that. We ended up putting 1-1/2 turns on the turnbuckle.  I measured the head-to-head spacing of the turnbuckle rods and we shortened the headstay by about 4mm.

Measuring the turnbuckle spacing with digital calipers


The best part is that Argon is finally uncovered. The heavy winter canvas cover and metal framework are taken down. Now, we're just hoping for a good hard rain to clean things up. This time, when we took the cover off, we added some labeling to make putting it back on a little easier.

Taking the cover off.
Cover off revealing the frame.

Rolling up and labeling the cover.

Getting ready to fold the bigger rear half of the cover.

Soon Argon's bottom will be painted and then back in to the water where she belongs!

There are other projects in the works as well.  We're replacing the gooseneck bolts with shiny new ones that we ordered from Tartan (another proactive replacement).  We're also adding some control lines for the reacher sheets. And of course there is plenty of routine maintenance such as painting the bottom, replacing all the zincs, waxing the hull & deck, cleaning & treating the cockpit teak, and all the diesel engine maintenance. Oh, and there will be sailing too!

07 July 2017

Our Caribbean Cruise in Stats, Graphs and Tables: Finances, Fuel, Feuds and Fishing

Ten months, 5000nm, 18 countries, 80 harbors. One broken collar bone, clogged head and seized up water pump. Hundreds of cruising friends met. Below are some more data and figures of our extended cruise.

Captain Linda Perry Riera


Back in Boston

As I write this post, we are overlooking the Boston skyline from a favorite anchoring spot, Peddocks Island, part of Boston Harbor Island National Park. We will sail the short hop to Constitution Marina tomorrow which was our departure point ten glorious months ago. This trip as been an unbelievable adventure in so many ways. Below are some of the analytic aspects of our voyage.

Argon's grand loop:  5000nm (5754 statute miles), 15 countries, approximately 80 harbors.

Boston skyline from the anchorage at Peddocks Island last night. A fitting time to reflect as we return to our starting point.

Many Wonder, Few Ask:  How much does a trip like this cost?

There is a range of how to approach an extended cruise from a lifestyle and thus financial perspective and scant specific information out there. During our planning phase I would read Beth Leonard's The Voyagers Handbook in the evenings (while sprawling on my king sized bed... oooohh, to sleep on a big bed again; I digress). Beth's book is a wonderful resource for learning about passage planning, watch keeping, anchoring, sail handling, living aboard, etc. A particularly interesting section is devoted to finances and is highly recommended for anyone considering an extended cruise. Below is an estimation of our monthly and total spend.

Disclaimer: We started off with an extremely ready, sea worthy vessels (and lots of up front investment in to it). Many cruisers we met along the way had older vessels and needed to spend more time and money fixing things along the way. 

Several prior blog posts outline some of our preparations prior to last September:

Our monthly burn rate was a bit higher than we initially forecasted mainly driven by:
  • Data / connectivity.  See blog post Data While Cruising  Note: Our (aka Bob's) need for data due to his job is definitely way more than that of the average cruiser. And we have accumulated half a terabyte of photos and videos to upload.
  • Eating out.  One can certainly spend less by cooking aboard vs eating out as much as we did. But we enjoy experiencing the islands by visiting lots of different restaurants and eateries. 
  • Trips. The visits with the boys were fantastic and I am very grateful for the special time with them in gorgeous locations. In hindsight, we would have chosen less expensive locales. Two of the three countries we selected for visits were extremely expensive: Bermuda and Turks & Caicos.
  • Docking more than planned (vs. anchoring which is free).  Dock fees would vary widely from $40 to $160 per night. (The lower priced docks were only basic tie ups with no electricity or water.) Sometimes we docked to be more secure in high winds, or to be able to get shore power to run the air conditioner a bit (to dry out the boat even more so than to cool it), and to give Argon an occasional good exterior washing. We extended dock time in St. Maarten to give Bob's collar bone some time to heal and in TCI due to bad weather and waiting for boat parts.

Some added notes about spending

Boat insurance - Many cruisers deem this optional or too expensive and opt out. Some marinas require insurance for dockage. I suspect shipyards will also require if a haul out is needed. Our insurance premium was quite high due to our scant off shore experience prior to the trip and the associated dangers with the long off shore passages (and shorthanded crew). In the future, our premiums should be less as our experience is now much more robust.
Medical insurance - Many cruisers are a bit older than we are and seem to have medical insurance either through their retirement package and/or Medicare (if US) or national insurance, of course, if from outside the US. We both purchased private, basic policies through the healthcare exchange last year and planned to mostly pay out of pocket for minor needs.


  • Bob continued working remotely throughout the trip, more than planned at about 20-30 hours per week which was good to help address the ad hoc hits and lessen the savings drain.
  • I had put aside $40K from my savings prior to the trip. This is gone; time for me to get back to work I guess. (I left my job July 2016.)
  • YouTube sailing channel and ad revenue from blog:  Well, we are not popular enough to make more than a couple of dollars a month here... yet. 
Bob continued his software engineering on the high seas and anchored in harbors. The work sometimes took him away from land exploration but provided nice income to off set expenses. I immensely enjoyed the freedom from paid work for a while (although the paycheck is missed).


Cost of Cruising vs. Cost of Living on Land

This is a discussion Bob and I have had several times when we estimate the cost of this trip. The above representation does not compare the expenses of living on land in a house and weekend boating expenses to the cost of living aboard and setting off on an extended cruise. Many of the expenses above would have been incurred even if we had not been cruising (groceries, eating out, boat parts, cell phones as well as many of the boat related expenses). In addition, we have not been spending money for a year or more on the following:
  • personal cars and associated insurance, maintenance, gas, repairs
  • home mortgage, taxes, insurance, maintenance and repairs
  • accumulating stuff to fill and replenish home
  • summer dock slip, winter haul out and storage
I guess one might be able to rationalize that we saved money on this trip. :-)

Although $68K sounds like a lot, this was our total expenditure for 10 months of living. Intense living filled with unique adventure, travel, challenge and beauty. It was worth every penny.


There are a few reasons why most long distance cruisers are in sailboats, not power boats:  (1) sea steadiness / handling in big waters, (2) cost of fuel, and (3) travel distance with available fuel. We strive to sail as much as possible but firing up the diesel is necessary when winds have died as well as for motoring in to and out of harbors. In addition, the alternator on the diesel engine will charge our batteries when the solar panels can not keep up such as when we were in higher latitudes (last fall) and when there were extended periods of overcast. We consumed 270 gallons of diesel overall.

We track the diesel consumption rate to ensure we know our range on a tank of fuel:

The fuel consumption rate is generally about 0.8-0.9 gal/hour when we are motoring in to and out of harbors and in transit due to low wind. The rate was lower around November when we were in Bermuda and having to run the engine a bit just to charge the batteries as the low, late season sun was not quite sufficient for our solar panels.

At 0.8 gal/hour we can run the diesel for 96 hours. Depending on conditions, this would yield a range of about 675nm. This is important to know for the extended off shore trips should the need arise to motor substantially.

Our most efficient trip may have been from Hampton, VA to Bermuda 650nm (748miles) using only about 0.6 gallons diesel which translates to 2,247 miles/gal (I'm feeling very green). However, total gallons consumed these past ten months were 270 which for a 5000nm (5753mile) trip translates to 21 miles/gallon. Diesel price ranged from a high of $7.91/gal in Antigua to lows around $2.60 in North Carolina. Our total spend was about $850 on diesel and about $50 on gasoline for the dinghy. Other than renting a car a few times, we had no automobile expenses this past year.

Feuds and Fights

Bob = introvert, Mr Fix It, keen attention to detail and safety, anxiety prone
Linda = extrovert, big picture, optimistic, not anxious enough
Both = love sailing, Argon, and each other

As friends have commented, Bob and I most definitely find our chi best when sailing. However, there have been a few times during this trip when we butted heads and both wanted nothing more than to get away from each other. Two of these times we were kind of stuck on the boat and I was unable to easily stomp off and away. Argon feels very tiny at times.

We still like each other.


Our early fishing success was attributed to Smitty, our third crew person for the six day Bermuda to Antigua passage. This would be followed by a couple of months of being skunked before starting to get hits and bring in fish starting around the waters of Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos and throughout the Bahamas. The graph below represents mahi, wahoo and barracuda that we landed on the boat (but did not necessarily keep and clean). There were several additional mahi that we came close to landing but lost. It is customary not to eat barracuda in particular as they can be infected with ciguatera so we carefully plied out the lure and threw these mean guys back.

Fishing success kicked in around February.

Mahi mahi caught in Bahamian waters.
We stretched fresh mahi for several days across many meals. Yum!
We switched to using a hand reel instead of a traditional poles in the Bahamas.

Another Project Management Spreadsheet

We lived by a multi tab spreadsheet the 18 or so months prior to our trip to help us organize the many things to do, to buy and to learn. Now we have started a new log of projects to tackle this winter complete with cost estimates, due dates, and completion statuses. Below are a few items on the list.
  • Upgrades: Reacher fairlead car adjusters, rope clutch replacement (started recently in Mystic), add solar panel (Solbian 50W) and controller - this will increase our (theoretical) power generation from 335 to 385, solar panel controller upgrade, DC to DC converter, aft cabin shelves, nav station instrument, top down furler for spinnaker (not sure), ground tackle (increase from 100 to 150 feet of chain), compass light re-wiring to separate breaker, etc.
  • Maintenance and replacements: Sails (main, jib, genoa) washed, inspected and repaired; Canvas cleaned and treated, new sail cover, brightwork (teak cap rails, cockpit table, dorade box covers, etc), interior floor varnishing, dinghy outboard servicing, dinghy cleaning and proactive patching, kitchen faucet (done), head hoses (yuk), move stern light, goose neck inspection and new bolts, etc. 
But wait, it's still only early July! We have the rest of the summer to spend enjoying the cold (but warming) New England waters. So not to much attention to this spreadsheet just yet!

Argon returning to Mass Bay via the familiar Cape Cod Canal.