We woke up to gloomy skies over New York City, which seems to be our normal weather condition any time we are going north or south on the East River. However, it still doesn’t get old driving our home past the familiar skyline.
We arrived at the Norwalk Yacht Club and hopped on their free launch with our scooters, headed towards John and Joans where they had graciously agreed to lend us their car for various errands around town including refilling the propane tanks and picking up groceries. We spend a lovely couple of days hanging out with at Norwalk, enjoying the fireflies from their porch while we hung out. I tried to capture a video (firefiles are cool!) and failed terribly.
From Norwalk, we headed Northeast towards the Thimble Islands. We were a bit nervous as Southwestern winds were predicted and our last visit to the Thimbles was extremely rocky and rolly. However, after we dropped anchor and set up for work, the rest of the day and into the evening there was no wind, and it was picture perfect. Later in the afternoon, a catamaran dropped anchor just behind us, and captured some amazing shots of Highwind in the sunset while we were working on the roof preparing for the solar replacement project.
After a brief shouted conversation to exchange contact info, David started a texting conversation and we discovered they were heading to Sag Harbor – near where we later planned to meet up with Steve, a colleague of mine.
The Thimbles were beautiful in the morning as we pulled anchor, but we ran into some fog once we got out of the Mystic River back into the Sound. Our next destination was a return to Mystic, where we stayed again at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Entry to the museum comes included with our moorage and though we both had busy work schedules, we were both able to (separately) visit the museum – there being more exhibits and buildings open this time around without Covid closures. In the evening, we scootered to an Escape Room which was great fun. They were very impressed that we escaped with only two people!
For Friday, we decided to head towards Sag Harbor, and set anchor surrounded by several mega-yachts, with about 15 more moored in the harbor marina. We remained in contact with the folks on the Catamaran and they invited us aboard for drinks. We dropped the dingy and headed their way for a fun conversation before heading into town for dinner. They have been living aboard for about 8 months and have a fun YouTube channel if you want to check out their adventures. In town we had a little bit of culture shock…as Steve told me – “Welcome to the Hamptons!”. However, we ate some delicious Mexican food before heading back to the boat.
On Saturday morning, we headed towards an anchorage off Robin’s Island, where Steve, his wife Lauren, and some friends would join us to raft up. Yay, our first raft in new-Highwind! The weather was amazing, and we had a blast swimming with floaties, grilling lunch, swimming to the sandbar, and hanging out.
The weather was predicting a lightning storm, and most people in Robin’s Island were day-trippers. Not wanting to be the tallest thing around, we managed to find a spot for the night in Greenport. Unfortunately sometime during the day, David injured his back, so he stayed on the boat to rest while I headed into town to meet up with the group one last time for some delicious oysters.
Yesterday, in the morning (after there was absolutely no lightning, rain or storm of any kind), David’s back was still not feeling better, so we headed towards Port Jefferson, and made plans to get off the boat quickly (staying on a mooring at Port Jefferson Yacht Club, instead of anchoring) so we could head to the ER. After several hours, an encounter with a lady trying to detox, some painkillers and muscle relaxers, there was only mild improvement, so we hobbled back to the boat to hope that a couple of days rest will do the trick. Unfortunately today hasn’t been much better, but we’ve seen a couple of very pretty sunsets from this spot. Depending upon how things go for David, we have a few different options for seeking healthcare, but the current plan is for him to stay in bed for another day and hope for some improvement. The town here is very cute, so we will have to return next year, when David is (hopefully) more mobile!
In Solomans, we met up with Mark, Robin, Jan and Jim for a lovely dinner, which of course we forgot to photograph. We did however see a beautiful sunset on the way to the restaurant.
Looking at all of our options for fireworks on the Chesapeake during the 4th of July weekend, we decided our best option would be to head to St Michael’s for their Saturday evening display. Though we had planned to anchor just outside the town, on our cruise, we were able to grab a spot at one of the marinas in town due to a last minute cancellation. While in town, we headed towards the Maritime Museum where we walked around a recovered lighthouse building. It was extremely hot out, so a quick ice-cream break was required.
We stopped at a couple of wine tasting rooms on the way home, but unfortunately were extremely disappointed and ended up returning to the boat empty-handed. Back on the boat, a very brief rainstorm rolled in, and then quickly rolled out, leaving behind an amazing double rainbow.
We had a spectacular view of the fireworks from our Juliet Balcony in the evening.
On Sunday we largely spend the day relaxing and trying to stay cool and ended up eating out in town for a lovely pizza dinner.
For the Monday holiday, we decided to head to Annapolis for a couple of days. We would be able to visit the town together, and then on Tuesday while David and I went back to work, Mark and Robin would be able to do some further exploring. We went to the Naval Academy and the Capitol Building where we got to stand in the room where George Washington resigned. It turned out that the marina we were staying in was right by the Annapolis Yacht Club, which we had reciprocal with and we ate a lovely meal in their dining room.
After Annapolis, we headed for one night to Rock Hall. There wasn’t much there, but as we were walking back from dinner, we did see fireflies up close – I’d never actually seen them before!
We’d been keeping an eye on the progress of the storm Elsa and knew that it would be blowing past us on Thursday evening. We decided to find shelter in a protected anchorage on the Sassafrass River. Unfortunately we knew from last year that this spot had no internet, so we spent the day anchored just up river where we did have connection, and then moved after work and battened down ready for the storm to hit us. As it turned out, we only had a little rain and not unusual amounts of wind. Mark and Robin survived the night!
On Friday morning we headed to Chesapeake City where we met up again with Jan and Jim for one last meal and said our goodbyes.
At O-Dark-Thirty (aka 5:30am), David and I awoke and set out on our long run down the Delaware.
On our previous two times on this stretch, we had done this in two legs – the Delaware River as one and the New Jersey Coast as the other. With an excellent forecast predicted, and the much larger fuel capacity of the new Highwind, we thought that we might be able to make it all the way to Sandy Hook in one shot. The weather was perfect and the conditions were about as good as you could hope. We got a great current push through the C+D canal, and through 2/3s of the Delaware River, setting us up to leave the eastern exit to Cape May around 10:20am and make the long run up the Jersey coast.
As we were nearing Sandy Hook, we started looking at diesel prices, and Atlantic Highlands, our usual reliably-cheap diesel, turned out to be more expensive than most other marinas. We found that it was only a little bit further to make it all the way to the New York Harbor and get cheaper diesel right there, where we could anchor just off the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island. We decided to change our destination, and after 13 hours of cruising we dropped anchor in a spot with an amazing view of the south of Manhattan, with plenty of sunlight remaining.
Monday rolled around and the boat yard managed to find a local turbo shop that would turn around the turbo in ~7 business days, and an injector company that would to the injectors in ~10. The rebuild of the injectors was less than 1/4 of the price of new, so it made sense to just do it all. As expected, we found the port engine’s injectors to be almost as dead, but fortunately the turbo was just fine. So everything was sent off, and we sat on our hands.
With the dates for the rebuilds pretty solid, David’s parents had been itching to come out and visit for a while, so we told them the whole situation, and they decided to book a flight for July 1st, to stay in the area for two weeks, and they could spend a bunch of it with us, and a bunch with other relatives, however it worked out. But we took those plane flights to the boat yard and used that as leverage — “you gave those dates, David’s parents are coming, we need to be out of here by the 1st.”
The weather at this time of year in Virginia is quite hot and muggy. Luckily, we were now in the water, so able to turn on the AC to find relief. However, we started rationing fresh water again, because the water at the ship yard was NOT terribly potable, so we were back to taking showers in the brackish water in the ship yard’s facilities. I also made arrangements with a mobile pump out service to empty our black-water tanks since there were no pump out facilities at the ship yard. Despite repeated appointments, they never actually showed up, so by the second week, we were also using the facilities on land for that too as our holding tanks both bumped over 80% full!
I decided to pull out the pole, but unfortunately it was so humid out that I spent the entire time slipping down the pole. As facebook is reminding us, around this time last year we were already north of Long Island Sound, heading towards Maine, where we spent at least a month in the fog before summer truly began. We’re experiencing the weather a little differently as we’re stuck in Virginia and the weeks tick by.
At least the sunsets here are exceptional. We decided to take some of this time in the evening to do the work to finally break in the dingy engine, so we did a couple of sunset runs for 30 mins to put some variable speeds on the boat. One night we were joined by Alex, our friend who is working on his sailboat a stones throw from where we are moored. He took the shot above of Highwind from the bow of his boat!
Since we had two more weekends of waiting for repairs, we decided to make some plans, so we organized to spend a weekend with Jan and Jim, David’s Aunt and Uncle. We’d seen them on our way north and south, but since it was still Covid-times, we only met with them briefly. This time, Jan drove out to pick us up and we hung out with them for the weekend – it was great fun to spend some quality time together. On Saturday evening we went to an outdoor dueling piano show with a picnic. We had a good time hanging out, but unfortunately the show ran into technical difficulties and had to be cancelled before it began! We ended up getting tickets to the show at its normal location for the following evening, which was very fun.
For the second weekend, we decided to rent a car and head to Washington DC. It had been many years since either of us had been there and we hoped that by now things would be more open for visiting. As it turned out, many museums and attractions were either still closed or required advanced time-specific tickets that we did not plan far enough in advance. On Saturday morning, we managed to get tickets for a hop on-hop off tour that visited the major sites, which was actually quite good.
In the afternoon, I convinced David to visit some of DC’s amazing street art, since we couldn’t get into any of the Smithsonian or other museums. We rented scooters and made our way to the DC Alley Museum on Blagden Alley, where there was a collection all together!
Since we like to collect stars, we had made a reservation at the Rooster and Owl for dinner and enjoyed a lovely meal! We dressed up for the first time in forever!! (And I regretted my shoe choice for the 1 mile walk back to the hotel).
Amazingly, all of the parts arrived at the shipyard on schedule and the rebuild of the engines could begin. We were all set up to leave by Thursday afternoon. As we set off, an unpredicted thunderstorm seemed to roll in over the north Chesapeake with 180 degree visible lightening in front of us. The wind picked up and soon we were being tossed around in random 6 ft chop.
We hadn’t done a great job of tying everything down, due to the frantic nature of leaving, and the predicted very calm conditions. Everything that wasn’t tied down got tossed everywhere. One of the Kayaks broke loose a mount from the deck and we almost lost it, managing to tie it down on top of the dinghy for now. The TV was apparently poorly secured to the wall panel by the previous owners and hit the floor, breaking it.
With the conditions having completely deteriorated, David noticed the starboard engine temperature starting to drop. It looked like potentially a sensor issue, but we slowed down off plane, and he went down to the engine bay to check for coolant or some other obvious failure. While he found no coolant or oil, he did find a large unexpected supply of seawater in there, and it appeared to be coming from the shaft seal area.
All of these things together led us to make the decision to turn around and head back to Deltaville so the boat yard could fix it. It was just after 5pm, but we managed to get hold of someone at Regatta Point and reserved a spot we could pull into (which turned out to be in a complete downpour for the 5 mins while I was tying the lines).
In the morning, the technicians were back on the boat bright and early. The theory was that the new shaft seals were still breaking in for the first hour of our trip, but we wanted to try to find any other issues that might be causing water, as well as duplicate the temperature issue to diagnose it with an IR camera. We went to fire up and sea trial and found that the starboard engine wouldn’t even try to start. Some diagnosing found that the boatyard had neglected to tighten down the bolts to either engine start battery after installing secondary bilge pumps (a small side project David had them do), and in the 6 ft seas the previous day, they’d shaken loose and could no longer start the motors.
They fixed that issue, and we went out for a quick sea trial, at which point we found that there was some water leaking in from a few rotten hoses in the aft lazarette area, but nothing else was coming from the shaft seals anymore. Also the engine still didn’t get up to temp, verified with a camera. So they called a bunch of stores in the area and managed to find one with an actual factory thermostat in stock, and swapped it out to find the expected defective one — stuck wide open! We swapped out the rotten lines and went out for one last sea trial. This time, everything seemed fine — no unexpected water in the bilges, no leaking, and the engine got up to temp. David had the day off work, so we managed to still head up to Solomons and make it there by evening, finally escaping Deltaville, and meeting up with David’s parents as they flew in.
The last week, our patience wearing thin, we got down to business riding the shop pretty tightly on a daily basis. They actually got the running gear back together, the cutters came in and got installed, they fixed the fiberglass damage below the waterline from when Hannah wrapped the line around the prop, and we got dropped back in the water late Thursday afternoon! The whole week has been in the 90s and quite humid, so it has been pretty painful working from my little office on the boat. The fridges also haven’t been keeping up, hovering around 50 degrees in the heat, so we’ve had to throw away anything vaguely temperature-sensitive. Turning the A/C on Thursday night was lifechanging, and I slept for ~10 hours that night, trying to make up for almost two weeks of way-too-hot fitful sleep.
While they were working on our boat, we received two freight shipments. First arrival was replacement lithium batteries. We originally ordered a slightly different model of the batteries, but ECPC made a mistake and sent us the wrong ones back in February, so we’ve been waiting for the correct ones for a few months to swap back out. After a bunch of hernia-inducing hauling around of all the batteries, I swapped everything back out, and we’re basically exactly where we started, but I have the ability to tie the BMSes into the WS3000 now, for the future.
Next, we finally got our pallet of stuff sent from WA, with everything from the storage unit that we wanted out east — clothes, tools, knick knacks, records, etc. We’ve spent much of the week with the boat a complete disaster of a mess merging the stuff from Seattle with everything already on the boat, but by the end of the week we’d mostly sorted through everything and put a bunch into storage, merged wardrobes, etc. It was a good excuse to actually throw away a bunch of extra hoarded spares (used wiring, used plumbing bits, stained clothing, etc.) and get some weight off the boat, now that our projects are mostly done.
Friday, now that we were in the water, we got down to our big unknown — we’re at around 975 hours on the motors, and so I wanted to get the 1000 hour service done while we were here. They got started on checking the starboard motor and immediately found some bad news: the injectors are all pretty gummed up, and the turbo has significant shaft play. Hannah and I were busy with work so we couldn’t do any checking on things, but they checked their usual shops, and the turbo rebuilders are backed up by a month, and injector rebuilds are backed up several weeks.
While the news is bad, it’s also not surprising. Since we got the boat, the starboard motor has always consumed significantly more fuel than the port motor — over a gallon/hr more at basically anything above idle. And recently, it’s started surging a bit at idle even when warm. So I had an inkling that something was up with the fuel injection system. It’s annoying that we have yet more things that our fairly-useless engine surveyor didn’t find on the PPI, but at least we have some answers about why that motor’s been acting wonky. With how quickly the behavior has been worsening, it didn’t feel worth the risk to continue north without fixing it right away, so we decided to stay tight and get some more information, about both motors, before proceeding.
I spent some time this weekend doing some research on the turbo and injectors, and found some other options to call early Monday morning and hopefully get some more options. But we may have some uncomfortable choices coming up between being down for another month to get things rebuilt, or coughing up for new parts to get under way much sooner and send away used parts for rebuilding to come back as spares/sell them off later. We’re intending to be liveaboard on this boat for many years at this point, so it’s not the end of the world if we get some prebuilt spares for critical components like this ready to go in the hold. We’re going to be putting ~800-1000 hrs a year on the motors doing the loop repeatedly, which means we’ll need turbo replacements and injector rebuilds each in a year or two anyway, so it’s not totally wasted money.
In the meantime, we’ve been continuing to explore the Deltaville area a bit. The guy that I originally met here to sell the inverter to turns out to be a really nice guy with an interesting life story/mission, spending 3 years in the boatyard here completely rebuilding a 50 foot sailboat down to the hull and back up again, after sailing it 9000 miles from Europe. Check out their blog to read about their adventures. So we’ve been hanging out with Alex now and then in the evenings and exchanging stories of our respective projects.
This afternoon, we decided to check out the Deltaville Maritime Museum, since we’ve been riding by signs for it the last couple weeks. It was a neat museum talking about the extensive boatbuilding history of the area — from the 1700s through to the early 1900s, the extensive timber of the area bred an industry of affordable and reliable boats that serviced the Chesapeake for centuries.
After returning from the museum, we spent some time in the sun on the roof of the boat trying to decide on a solar strategy. The boat came with 800 watts of old 2008-era solar panels, but we’re looking to go way beyond that. I was originally going to go with a stack of newer rigid panels, but was getting uncomfortable with how much weight that was going to add way up high on the boat, so I’ve since leaned toward doing flexible panels again. The efficiency of the newer flexible panels is very similar to the solid panels, but they’re a fraction of the weight, and much easier to mount to the roof. After being up top with a tape measure for a while, we decided to go with 15 of the Sunpower 170W flexible panels, giving us 2550 watts of theoretical power. I also may be able to fit a 16th one, but it’s really close, so we’ll order 16 and possibly just have one spare panel for down the line.
So now we just need to come up with a plan, once we talk to a million shops in the morning…
After spending a great weekend in Norfolk, we started thinking about our plans for heading north and the Chesapeake. Our shaft seal on the port side had started leaking again, so we knew that we needed to get hauled out sometime soon. We started calling around and managed to find a boat yard in Deltaville, VA that had an opening to be able to haul the boat with a couple of days notice and fix the seals and do some other work.
We stayed for a few extra days in an anchorage just north of Norfolk that we had been in before, so we knew it had good holding and was sheltered. We then headed straight towards Deltaville to get hauled. We decided to take advantage of our vaccinated status, and the time the boat would spend on the hard, to visit Seattle for a week. We would be able to organize our storage unit, which had been packed for us while we were here on the East Coast, and also see family and friends in person!
In a random coincidence, someone who had been chatting with David about purchasing one of the electronics that we have replaced turned out to also have his boat on the hard at the same marina! We made arrangements to meet him after we were pulled out of the water. He invited us to a drink that evening with some other boat-yard liveaboards and we enjoyed good company and a beautiful sunset on the dock.
After a bit of a panic where our pre-arranged driver didn’t show up on time (and there are no ubers out here!), we did make it safely to the airport and were greeted in Seattle with beautiful blue skies and mountains.
Over the course of three weekends, we spent many hours going through all of our possessions (that are not on the boat), sorting out what to send to the boat, what to give away, what to donate and what to throw away. We gave away tons of our stuff to friends and family, so at least lots went to a good home. We went from a completely packed-to-the-gills 10×20 unit, to a not-even-filled 5×5 closet. It was emotionally draining letting go of so many things, but we believe that we will be on the boat for hopefully the next several years, or more, and it just didn’t make sense to hold on to all that stuff and have it hidden away. We pared everything down to the stuff we may need when we visit Seattle and family heirlooms/childhood memories.
In the gallery below, the first image is what greeted us when we opened the door of the unit – floor to ceiling all the way to the back of the unit! The second shows the actual size of that unit after we had kept only what was going to the boat and what was to be saved. All our remaining possessions after we shipped the boxes to the boat fit into a small van!
We ended up staying an extra week due to the boatyard delaying work on Highwind, and it was so lovely to be able to catch up with family and friends. My brother even flew up from California for a quick visit! I was also able to get to two magical classes at Divine.
Last weekend, we returned back to Virginia, and are now living on the boat while it is in the yard. They got virtually nothing done on the boat while we were gone, despite me calling every other day to check on status, so basically they straight-up lied to us about having availability for us. So now we just get to yell at them every single day until we can get out of here. It’s looking like we’ll be here for one more full week, but ideally start heading north again for next weekend, the 12th.
In favor of pressing northwards, and avoiding the bug situation in the Pungo and Alligator Rivers, we decided to do a long push all the way from RE Mayo to Coinjock, totally bypassing Belhaven. (Yes, we continue to avoid the Dismal Swamp). Coinjock Marina is famous for their prime rib, which you have to reserve in advance. They have a large outdoor dining area, where we enjoyed a lovely dinner when we passed through heading south. Unfortunately, the outdoor dining area was closed, so we ended up ordering our food to go and ate a lovely meal on the boat. We were a hair over a week past our second vaccine, and didn’t realize that the safety period was actually 1 week, not 2.
We stayed only one night here, as everyone does, and headed up to Norfolk the next morning. After you go through a wide expanse of nothingness north of Coinjock, you go through a tiny 1-foot-height-change lock to drop into the Chesapeake water system, and then enter the massive Norfolk naval complex.
This area is all relatively slow due to no wake zones through most of the Norfolk area. Some heavy winds were expected, so we decided to book a night in a marina, rather than anchor. We stayed just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, since the marinas were 40% cheaper. In the evening, we visited a nice local brewery and had our first indoor meal since pre-COVID in a little tapas speakeasy place in Portsmouth. We celebrated a little hard and the next morning was kinda rough.
The weather was turning more sour for a few days, so we decided to extend our stay in the marina so that we could explore Norfolk proper for the weekend. A great ferry service allowed us to easily cross the river to get to town, which we used several times. Our first time being on a boat not owned/piloted by us in a while!
At this point we were fully vaccinated, so we were able to enjoy several meals inside and also went to a museum for the first time in over a year and a half. We visited the Nauticus Museum and the USS Wisconsin. Quite a lot of the battleship was open to the public, so we were able to walk around both the exterior and the interior.
We really enjoyed exploring the city and were very glad that we decided to extend our stay. We look forward to doing more exploration and finally going into museums again!
The theme of the past two weeks has been the realities of both being quite busy with our jobs and therefore not having much time for living “the boat life”. However, I’m going to start off this post with a picture that I didn’t share in the last post when we were at Butler Island. I managed to convince David to make a gap in his meeting schedule so that we could enjoy a Happy Hour drink at actual Happy Hour, before the sun went down, on our Juliet Balcony. How lovely!
We cruised up the Waccamaw stopping in another familiar anchorage for one night. Anticipating some high winds (harhar) over the next few days, but still wanting to make progress, we planned to do several marina hops for save overnights. This is a section that in the past we had blasted through on some long cruising days during the Covid shutdowns where it made no sense to stay in marinas and/or they weren’t accepting transient visitors.
Our first stop was in Myrtle Beach. We did a short scooter ride for some amazing wood fired pizza and along the way saw an advertisement for Dolly Parton’s circus pirate extravaganza show. Sadly we were only partially vaccinated, but I’ve told David that it is a MUST for next year. :). I was also able to get in a quick pole session after work.
We did a quick stop at Ocean Isle Marina next, but didn’t leave the boat for the evening.
Our next stop was the St James Marina in Southport, for an uneventful though windy night. At this point we were nearing our second shot appointment and after much coordination (see previous post) we decided that Wrightsville Beach was the place. On our cruise to the anchorage, the starboard engine started throwing a warning and was having trouble when we tried to change speed. It was a Sunday, so I started leaving voicemails for every boat mechanic/service/repair place in the Wrightsville Beach area. On the Monday morning, we woke up early, dingyed with the scooters to get our second vaccine shots, and returned to the boat. I started to get calls back from folks and amazingly there was someone in the area able to service Yanmar engines who would be available to help us out the next day! Yay! But also a little worrying since that would still be within our potential second shot recovery period. Luckily I didn’t suffer too much overnight, though David did have a tough time. In the morning, we woke up, pulled anchor and headed to a nearby marina where the mechanic had found us space where he could come aboard and check things out.
Unfortunately, he had issues with the software on his laptop that prevented him from being able to update the engine software, but we did determine what new parts would need to be ordered.
Since the slip we were in was due to be occupied later that day, we had to leave and had back to re-anchor for the night and await news for when new parts could be delivered and they could fix their software issues.
A day later, the parts had arrived and we found a slip at a different marina that had availability for an overnight stay. The mechanic came aboard, updated the software on both engines, installed the new parts on the starboard motor and in theory we were all set. By the time that he had finished, it was a bit late for a trial run, and we were blocked in from both sides in the marina. We decided we’d wake up early the next day and do a quick sea trial (with the mechanic on board) to confirm the fix. If we were good to go, we’d continue on our way north.
Luckily the next day we did a trial and everything seemed good, so we continued onwards!
On our way south, we had stopped at a small town called Swansboro, and were charmed by it’s feel, despite everything being closed due to Covid and the fact that we’d arrived at sunset and left early the next morning. We resolved to spend longer on the next time through, so we had made a 2 night reservation there. As we pulled into the dock on Saturday afternoon, there were a ton of day-boaters hanging out who helped us with our lines and welcomed us to the town. Southern friendliness at its best! We headed to a spot just by the marina for a local beer and cider and where treated to some live music from a band playing just below us!
This week, David had quarterly planning meetings making his schedule hard to plan around, so we’ve been doing lots of short hops early in the morning and parking for long days of meetings (for the both of us!). After Swansboro we stopped at Beaufort where we revisited the rooftop bar and Oriental where we previously stayed and then today we arrived at RE Mayo Seafood.
So far we are a couple of weeks behind our trip last year (so my Facebook memories tell me), and we’re enjoying seeing a few more towns along the way now that things are more open. We are so looking forward to next week when we will consider ourselves fully vaccinated!
After buying all the available O-rings within a 10 mile radius from our marina (only slightly joking), David was able to find one that fit, and with much effort was able to get everything back together! With the oil leak fixed, we were finally ready to head out of St. Augustine. Our last stop in Florida was Fernandina. Despite this being quite a popular spot for loopers, we have yet to actually see the town. We dropped anchor and since it was both a weekday and we didn’t even slightly trust our repairs, we didn’t leave the boat!
However, I did enjoy a lovely sunset from the cockpit and a quiet evening with my kindle.
Since David had Friday off, and the weather was good, we decided to run outside the ICW for a stretch. We wanted to do do some anchoring, and also get to Charleston, and unfortunately most of Georgia waters in the ICW fall into a no-anchoring zone (silly laws that were intended to reduce the number of derelict boats on anchor but make it impossible for boaters like us to stay one night anywhere). The weather and conditions were about as good as you could hope for, and while I discovered that working in David’s office with only a very high window while underway makes me a bit queasy there were no other incidents.
Next up, we made a reservation at Isle of Hope Marina, the marina just south of Savannah. Since we spent several days in Savannah, moored right in the historical district, on our way South we decided we didn’t care too much about visiting the city this time around. At this point, we are only partially vaccinated and in the downtown area the restaurants were crowded, with limited options for outdoor dining – most on the street right by passers by. We pulled in to the marina right behind another looper boat and had a good conversation with the couple aboard. I blew her mind by running off to pick up my grocery delivery that I had placed while we were underway!
Next up, we were headed to Charleston where we had made a reservation for the latter half of the week. Unfortunately the marina could not accommodate us to arrive early, but we decided to take advantage of the weekend weather and do another hop outside the ICW. These two hops outside the ICW meant we basically blew past Georgia in a weekend :). There are plenty of anchorages around Charleston, so we planned to hang out on anchor for a couple of days until we could fit in the marina.
While underway, our high water alarm on the port side kept going off. Since we purchased the boat, there had always been a fair amount of water in the port engine bay, so we knew we had an issue somewhere that we’d eventually need to debug. I went downstairs to run the bilge and this time took a look in the engine bay. To my great dismay, I saw a LOT of water spewing in from the spot where the propeller shaft goes through the hull to the propellor outside the hull. David went downstairs to take a look while I took the helm and he confirmed that we definitely had an issue with our prop shaft seal. Luckily our bilge pump was easily able to keep up with the water and David had spotted that we did have a spare seal around the shaft.
We were about 8 miles offshore and all of the nearby inlets were pretty sketchy, so we had to make a call on what to do — risk an inlet or keep going to Charleston. After checking with some more experienced boaters on the risks of running on a dying shaft seal, we decided to maintain our plan to reach Charleston, and try to replace the seal when we arrived. If needed, we’d be in a populated area to arrange for further intervention if required.
After we dropped anchor, David prepared to make the swap. This was a little risky, being after 5pm, and afloat, but he felt that he had it in hand after watching a youtube video on the process. The swap went smoothly and after a quick test of running the prop forwards and reverse while still on anchor, it looked like there was no further leaking! Huzzah!
Everything seemed to hold for our quick run to the marina where we set up shop for the rest of the week. We both had extremely busy meeting days through the rest of the week and basically didn’t emerge from the boat until Friday evening when we headed into town on our scooters for dinner.
On Saturday we did a scooter ride around town, had a delicious brunch, hit a distillery for a tasting (oops, purchased some vodka and gin) and then settled in to a brewery to play some cards. It was a lovely day!
Though we tried to extend our stay for another couple of days, unfortunately the marina was already booked, so we headed out as we originally planned on Sunday to a familiar anchorage, Butler Island, just at the southern end of the Waccamaw River.
The last couple of weeks have been marked by a lot of very busy working days, a focus on progressing northward, much coordination around vaccinations (I’ll tell that story in the next post!) and ongoing boat projects/fixing issues; hence the decided lack of photos in this post! We’ve mostly completed the large projects at this point, so I’m very much looking forward to getting back to “normal” as much as is possible when you live on a a boat!
Around the time we decided to buy the Endeavour, I had come around to the idea that, if we instead committed to sticking with our old boat, I was going to have to redo batteries to non-lead-based technology of some sort. I was tired of always running out of power, managing/timing generator runs, carefully running as absolutely little as possible, timing showers to after we made a travel hop, etc. and wanted a change for our next year+ of east coast cruising.
When we looked over this Endeavour, in the electronics cabinet I found mostly original equipment with a few awkward slightly newer pieces thrown in. I quickly came to the conclusion that, if we bought it, it was a good excuse to do a complete writeoff of what it came with, and go nuts with something I’d be really happy with for years.
A couple weeks before we looked at the Endeavour, Kevin @ Airship posted a fantastic blog post talking about their power system. They’d been working on it over the last year, and were finally pretty happy with it. They had decided to do what most boaters consider pretty crazy — run 100% of their AC power through inverters. I’d been contemplating a system like that for a while but it seemed like absolutely no one did it, so it had been simmering on my back burner throughout 2020. However, when this article came out, it validated all of my beliefs about a modern power system for uses like ours:
Lithium really does live up to the hype in liveaboard boating usage
Heavily load your generator if you’re going to bother starting it — running a 9-12kW generator and pulling 1kW slowly charging batteries is inefficient and bad for your generator
Run everything through inverters and use power boost as needed if shore power isn’t enough
Get to a place where you barely have to think about power on the boat anymore
Throughout 2020, every day we weren’t plugged in at a marina, power was a foremost concern and dictated much of our scheduling. When are we going to generate so we can time our showers around the limited duration hot water? Are there people around us? Crap it’s 8pm we should probably not generate at this point, but our batteries are getting lowish so we have to either go to bed early or just read books or whatever to avoid using too much power overnight and drawing the batteries down too low.
Early in the trip, the mental load of managing all this was a little fun, even though we were already used to it from before we came out east. To semi-quote JFK, we don’t do these things because they’re easy, we do them because they are hard. But at some point it’s basically just an algorithm and it gets old to manage. So I decided I was done with it.
The Slowboat article led me to a newer suite of products from Victron called the Quattros that are a bit of a godsend for this sort of marine off-grid system. These actually go above and beyond the standard age-old inverter/charger combo unit. There’s two AC inputs, so you can put your generator in one, fix the current limit (50A for us), and then plug the second one to shore power, and, from a monitoring panel, easily update the current limit depending on whether you plug into 50, 30, or even 20A at a marina. Then it would use whatever power source was available as input.
Our boat has one 230VAC device currently: the older watermaker that came with it. While I may replace it someday, I wanted to make sure that we could support it, so I needed to keep the full split-phase system that the boat came with. I also figured I’d probably upgrade the heating/cooling to a chiller system that would much rather be on 230VAC than 120VAC. While there’s a few options for accomplishing this, I decided to go with using two slightly smaller Quattros (5KVA) in a split-phase configuration, so that if one of them broke, I’d be able to quickly rewire/reconfigure the system to still function off the one remaining unit until we could get a replacement.
The Quattro has a bunch of neat features, not least of which is the PowerAssist functionality, which is part of what really sold me on the system. If you’re plugged into shore power of a certain amperage, and your panel needs to draw more power than the shore power can provide, the Quattro will fill in current from the batteries. So if you’re in a smaller marina with single-phase 30 amp, you can run the microwave for a while or the air conditioning, and it will fill in any extra power requirements over the limit. Then, whenever you drop below 30 amps again, it’ll go back to charging the batteries up with whatever spare current is left. This is really useful for marine air conditioning units, which traditionally require huge loads at startup (30-40 amps) for a few seconds, which tends to blow breakers, but this system totally avoids that problem.
So pretty early on, I decided to pick up a couple Quattros, and was able to move on to figuring out what to do for batteries. The first step down the carefree-power path I’m heading down is getting a silly amount of battery capacity, so this was going to likely be the most expensive part of the new setup, and hence required a ton of research.
Why Lead Batteries Are Terrible
Lead batteries have a bunch of nasty characteristics for long-term usage. When you start at 100% charge, you can only really bring them down to around 50% before you risk dangerously shortening their life span. So you start charging there. Then, once they get back up to ~80% charge state, they start increasing internal resistance and accepting charge slower and slower. Traditional logic is that to get from 85% to 100% takes ~3-4 hours for lead acid batteries. So you just don’t do it if you’re at anchor. You cycle between ~50% and ~85%. We had our auto-generator-management on the Meridian to cycle from 55-85%. So if you have, say, 1000 Ah of capacity, you get to use ~300 Ah of it from your main cycle. Not a great return.
But wait, it gets worse. The chemistry of the anodes in lead batteries is such that, when you run them down, on the exposed areas (where the electrolyte goes down), they get a little lead sulfate coating that you need higher voltage to get through. And you only uncover that surface up to the % that you charge back up to. So when you cycle up to 85% and then back down again, 15% of the anode starts building an ever-thicker coating on it and starts to crystallize. The next time you charge back up, to get back to 85%, it takes even more time than last time. By the time you cycle 50-85% ~4-5 times, you’ve lost 10% or more of your battery capacity, and you’re actually cycling between 50 and 75% — now you get 200-250 Ah of your 1000Ah bank to avoid damaging your batteries.
The only way to restore that capacity is to get back to 100% with a really long generator run as soon as possible, and every few weeks you need to run an “equalize” cycle that runs very high voltage through the batteries to “break through” that crusty shell on the anode and get your lost capacity back. It’s a pretty terrible system, all in all. And so not only are you constantly just managing these tiny-range % cycles on your batteries, you’re also managing plating that you need to work these really-long generator cycles in to break through, and every few weeks get a full ~8-10 hour generator run (or be in a marina) in place to do an equalize cycle.
Even being “nice” to your batteries and following things by the book, even “good” AGM lead batteries only get around 500 cycles down to 50% before they’re at a fraction of their initial capacity. So, doing 1-2 cycles a day, we basically had a year or so before we were working with a pittance of capacity. After a year of this game, and changing out the batteries once already, I was pretty tired of it and ready for a change.
I spent some time looking into Firefly (carbon foam-based) batteries and a couple other intermediate chemistries, but very quickly settled on a much better option.
Lithium, specifically LiFePO4 chemistry, is in a category of its own in the battery world. These batteries can be around 1/4 the weight of traditional lead-acid batteries (either FLA or AGM) for the same capacity, and around half of even a carbon foam-based setup. So on things like boats, where weight is the devil, if you want a ton of capacity, you go Lithium, or you end up putting a thousand pounds of lead somewhere on the boat. The weight consideration is a nice boost in and of itself, but the biggest wins with Lithium are actually in usable power.
Remember my rant above about the fun 55-85% cycles on AGM and how you can’t get back to 100% without a ton of time, and the memory effects you need to counter? Yeah, those are gone with Lithium. You can safely draw them down to 20% and charge right back up to 100% and get 2000-3000 of these 80%-capacity cycles out of them. If you only draw down to 50%, you get 5000 or more. Better yet, that 20-to-100% cycle is at full speed the whole way. The batteries accept an essentially full rate of current from the bottom of the barrel right up to the last topoff. So you can really just use them as a reservoir like a fresh water tank — top off when it’s easy, let it live low if you want to and understand the risks, and add a little bit if you want here and there.
To do a little math here, the Endeavour came with 800Ah of AGM. With a 55-85% standard cycle, that gives us 240Ah of capacity to burn through in between running the generator. Getting the same weight of Lithium batteries gives us 2400Ah, and with a 20-100% standard cycle, that’s 1920Ah. That’s an eight-fold improvement in usable capacity for the same weight. Plus you’ll get many years out of the packs with the 2000+ cycle lifetime. The primary complaint about Lithium batteries is up-front price, and rightfully so. They’re expensive. But especially if you’re going to spend any significant time on your boat, do all parts of the math — cycle time and cycle count. You might find that lithium batteries actually save you significant money over several years.
So, I’ve convinced you to buy a pile of Lithium batteries, right? Great. I’ve been watching Lithium (LiFePO4, not Li-ion) batteries for years, and they primarily break down into two main camps: US-assembled-and-warrantied packs for around 1000$-per-kwh; and Chinese-assembled-and-basically-un-warrantied packs for around 300$-per-kwh. Forum posts for years have talked about the Russian Roulette of trying the latter — sometimes you get some gold, often you get half-capacity packs, and one dies a few months later and the company has completely disappeared. So, if you go that route, way over-buy for your intended capacity and still pray. For what’s actually our home, I didn’t like either of these approaches. I wanted at least 20 kWh and preferably closer to 30, which was putting the cost of option 1 well into stupid territory, and option 2 still at expensive enough to be a real investment, without any guarantee of success.
The other problem is form factor. Many makers have been making drop-in battery replacements instead of taking advantage of the big improvement that Lithium gets you on power density (capacity per space). So you get, for example, a Group 31-shaped battery for 700-1000$, and it’s still the size of a full Group 31 battery, is only 100 Ah, and is packed full of foam to fill out the space. So, for most of the better units, if you want to get up to 20 kWh or beyond, you end up with a huge amount of space.
Many people go the DIY route, where you buy bulk Lithium cells from China, throw your own battery management system on it, and solder it all together. But especially for a liveaboard marine environment, I wanted something slightly less hand-crafted than that with at least a vague weatherproofing certification claim. I had confidence I could make the DIY approach work, but at what cost, when every time I screw up a little bit we could be in a pretty bad situation?
In the last few months, however, Electric Car Parts Company, a company that’s been around in the US for quite a while, and imports and sometimes warranty-backs various overseas options, came up with a new option: the BestGo “Preferred” packs — 12V, 400Ah, a hair under 2000$ each, with integrated battery management (a whole different topic, but suffice it to say you want this). That’s 5kWh for under 2000$ — slightly more expensive than the cheap-chinese-pack option, but a huge discount on all of the US-backed packs. It comes with a reasonable warranty, backed by the US company, and the form factor is awesome.
When I did the math, I’d be able to swap the four 4D batteries that came with the boat with four of these packs in a virtually identical rectangle (1″ wider, exactly the same length, and about an inch taller). I’d go from 9 kWh of AGM up to 20 kWh in the same space, at 2/3s the weight. And there was a nice little space next to the current battery area to put 2 more if I wanted, to get up to 30 kWh and have weight parity, with 4x the capacity. A plan started coming together. Shipping was going to be a little complicated, since they get “dropshipped” directly from China with a ~6 week lead time. So, we knew that as soon as possible after closing on the boat, we’d have to place the order and sit somewhere for a while.
12V? Bleh. Maybe 24V?
Up until recently, the only thing that made sense on your boat was sticking with whatever its native house bank was. Most boats are 12V, some larger boats are 24V, and none are 48V. You don’t want to change your house voltage. Everything on your boat is designed around it — lights, relays, toilets, macerators, electronics, your engine computers — virtually everything electric that you interact with on a daily basis.
For the longest time, I’d been assuming I’d get a huge stack of 12V battery power, run enormous cables to some huge inverters, just like Slowboat did, and that’s just life on a boat. But there’s a big downside to this approach. 12V is a terrible voltage. Humanity has been using it on mobile vehicles for decades and decades, and it’s so ubiquitous that it’s hard to change at this point. But especially for larger power demands and physically larger installations, it’s terrible. You lose so much voltage over such a short distance that everything is heat management and giant cables. Running, for example, 8 kW of power through 12V to power your inverter means pushing around 1000 amps continuous. That safely requires four 4/0 cables per lead (4 for positive, 4 for negative), and is still converting a bunch of electricity directly to heat. It didn’t excite me, either from a cable management perspective nor from a safety one. Doable, but really not ideal.
This runs into our next problem. With lithium batteries, due to some nuances of the battery chemistry, you really need to run a battery management system on top of the raw battery cells. However, most of the BMS systems don’t really support continuous draws over 100 amps. Even with 6 batteries, that’s only a 600 amp continuous draw. At 12V, that actually isn’t enough to fully feed the inverter behemoth I was looking at doing — I need around 1000 amps. However, BMSs tend to work at the same amp rates independent of voltage. So while the BestGo 12V 400Ah pack supports 100 amp draw rates, the 24V 200Ah pack also supports a 100 amp draw rate, but that’s getting twice the energy out of the pack.
I started investigating running a 24V subsystem — a main large house bank at 24V, with a tiny setup at 12V, and running converters to run power both ways. When the alternators were running, it’d charge up to the 24V house bank, otherwise the 24V house bank would live-convert down to 12V to handle constant loads. Victron makes a bunch of Orion units to deal with exactly this sort of problem, and it’s pretty manageable. However, at the end of the day, I was struggling to convince myself it was worth it. 24V halves the current requirements, but it still adds all the complexity of a new voltage level, and chargers are still fairly low-current. Even going ballistic on chargers, it was going to be ~8 hours on generator to refill a 25kWh drop. There had to be a better way.
Most home off-grid solutions use 48V. It’s still “low voltage” so it’s safe to work with, you get much easier and safer wire runs, and it’s a lot closer to 120V than 12V, so inverting it back to AC is a more efficient process. For off-grid home solutions, no one has 12V to deal with — you’re just storing energy to convert back to AC all day for your house. However, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like this off-grid usage was actually pretty analogous to our higher-demand usage on the boat. We ALSO have a 12V system that has low-but-constant demands, but, over the course of a day, we lose way more power to an inverter than we do to the 12V loads. Computers, cooking in the convection oven, running the air conditioning, hair dryer, water heater, etc. It all adds up to an order of magnitude more usage than the DC stuff. So what happens if we optimize around that AC load instead of the DC load?
Well, as it turns out, the Victron Quattro comes in a few different sizes at 48V, one of which actually looks great for our needs. Significantly higher power conversion efficiency than the 12 or 24 volt models, actually smaller size and lower weight, and, best of all, a 70A battery charger in each unit (remember 70A at 48V is a lot of power). This started looking pretty compelling. For this to work, though, I needed some way to get, at a minimum, power from 48V to 12V to power the hungry fridges and electronics of the boat.
The Victron Orion line has a cheap and simple 48->12V 30 amp DC-DC converter, which would easily run our house loads 98+% of the time, at very low conversion loss. There’s also a whole pile of 12->48V battery chargers around the world to be able to charge the 48V bank from the motors. I fairly quickly pieced out a set of devices that would entirely solve this problem for me. You keep a small 12V starter “house” battery as a power sink in case you, say, run the toilet and water pump at the same time, the 30A DC-DC converter runs load the rest of the time and quickly recharges any actual over-30A-usage from the small battery.
This seemed like a slam dunk. It was a silly project, but I liked it, and it also seemed like it could be genuinely awesome. Fast charging from the generator, run anything on the boat off the inverters with pretty small size cable runs. Let’s do it. I went with six of the BestGo 48V/100Ah batteries from ECPC and got them ordered up, and got an order together from a Victron supplier for a stack of stuff.
As I was about a day from pulling the trigger on a whole slew of stuff, I just kept searching for an even more efficient way to do the 12<–>48 conversions. I had an answer that I found satisfactory, but it still just felt like there had to be a better way. Something interesting popped up on one of my google searches — a PDF of a brochure that didn’t seem to be linked to anywhere. It was from Wakespeed, a company mostly known for their line of alternator external regulators. It mentioned a new product coming soon, a “WS3000”, with this picture, and no other details:
It had to be too good to be true, right?.. I immediately sent Wakespeed an email describing what I was trying to put together, and that it seemed like this WS3000 was the magic bullet to tie my whole system together, but I wanted to confirm that this was what they were going after. Amazingly, that night, I get an email back from the co-owners of the company, “The WS3000 sounds like an excellent solution for your application!”, and offered a phone call the next day to discuss a potential collaboration.
Well, turns out, what I wanted was exactly what they’re trying to build. No one has a good way to bridge legacy 12V systems and high-energy lithium 24 or 48V power banks, so they saw a market opening, and jammed a 3000 watt crowbar into it. Their timeline was getting super-early alpha hardware assembled in a month or so, which was around when my batteries were going to show up, so our needs aligned very well, if I was willing to tolerate early development software and hardware and help them tweak it all. We started planning how things would go by email while we waited for our respective ducks to get in a row.
One interesting insight Al had was to just use my port start battery as the “12V house” battery. With only a 30A converter, I needed some sort of middle buffer, especially since the windlass pulls off the house setup by default on this boat. However, with a 3000 watt converter always at the ready, that changes the game. The idea seemed interesting enough to at least try for a while, so I went ahead with that plan — merge the port start battery with the “house” positive bus, and then feed the house off the WS3000, with the port battery as just a backup/energy sink a 15 foot wire run away. As a safety measure, add an ACR setup to keep the starboard engine+battery isolated from the port/house battery, so that if something went to hell and the port side fully drained, we’d still be just fine to fire up either the starboard side or the generator and restart the rest of the boat from there to get back on our feet.
With the rough circuitry figured out, I started ordering things.
I had 6 weeks to wait for the batteries to show up, but also a ton of other projects to do on the boat in the meantime. And also, converting over to the “no-12V-house” setup was going to involve a bunch of rewiring. Finally, even when the batteries arrived, there was too much to change to possibly do in one big full day, or even a full weekend, to ensure that we’d be ready for working again Monday morning. So I had to figure out how to stage things out to give myself the best chance for success.
I spent several days going through the two engine bays and simplifying things. The factory and modded wiring in here was incredibly inefficient. Really long large-diameter wire runs to junction points that then had really long large-diameter wire runs back to near where the run started in the first place. Very questionable choices. At the end, I was able to pull out ~80 lbs of cable and end up with a more resilient setup, and get actual wire runs that were topologically similar to my ideal-state block diagram from above. I got to a place where I had both engine bays happily wired up with an ACR between them and the port loads all run to a set of terminal posts on the firewall that I could later run 4/0 cables up to the main electrical panel area when I was ready.
Once the engine bays were ready, which took way longer than I expected, I started dismantling everything possible from inside the electrical panel area to get down to the bare minimum needed to run the boat every day — basically, just the existing mastervolt 12V inverter/charger.
Eventually, over the course of a few days, two freight shipments showed up with the batteries and a stack of Victron stuff, and I was ready to go. I made a pretty serious tactical error here, and despite my plans to first merge the port battery in as the “house” battery, get that working, and then move onto installing the 48V setup, I got cocky. I can just dismantle the panel, throw the batteries in, mount up the Quattros, and be off to the races later in the day to do cleanup, right? How hard can it be. Well, turns out, quite hard, when you forget some important nuances.
To get through the day, when it came time to pull the plug on the charger setup, I wired the house setup to the Port battery, but didn’t really think about how small capacity the port battery was, nor did I have a good idea of what our steady state DC power usage was, since the factory gauges were really inaccurate and I hadn’t measured with a good ammeter or anything. So, barely a few hours into the rewire job, I realized I’d heavily drained the port battery, and quickly threw the manual switch on the ACR to join to the starboard battery to buy me some time. But this kicked off a frantic battle to get something, anything, in place that could keep the 12V system charged while I worked. I’d thought I had several more hours before I needed to be in this state, but now quickly needed a solution, or to revert to throwing the old house batteries back in to buy myself some time.
I decided to just go straight to throwing a couple of the 48V batteries in place, adding the Orion (48-12V DC-DC converter), quickly wiring it in, and using that to get the system into a recovered state so I could breathe and more thoroughly finish other aspects of the install. For those paying attention, why do I have an Orion when the WS3000 is coming? Backup. Given how utterly dependent we are on 12V power, I want at least 2 ways to keep 12V power going, especially given that one of them is in an alpha-level development phase.
Eventually, late into the night, I got one of the inverter/chargers up and running enough to start charging the 48V batteries from shore power, as well as power outlets on the boat, so we were in a breathable steady-state. I’d misjudged the length of 8 gauge triplex I needed to make nice-looking wire runs between the Quattros and the panel, as well as that I needed a stack of 8 gauge ring terminals, so I had to hack stuff together for a few days while I waited for more parts to arrive in the mail. But several lessons were learned, and a few days later, everything was finally in a full-power-usable state, though not cleaned up very well.
With the last final-gauge wiring hooked up, I was able to disconnect shore power and run about 4000 watts through the inverters for an hour before we got bored of how uneventful it was, and also the boat was really cold since we were running all the air conditioners at full blast on a not particularly warm day, so Hannah wasn’t thrilled. Then I flicked the shore power switch back on, it started charging back up at 120 amps into the 48V bank, and we were back to full in under an hour. It was a pretty magical experience to see it all come together in the end.
I spent the next many days getting the batteries properly hooked up together and secured for rough seas and cleaning up a bunch of wiring in anticipation of someday soon actually leaving a marina.
One thing I didn’t think about until much later than I should have was the electrical panel. Boats are usually designed with a front-door circuit breaker breaker + selector panel. You can select shore power (1 or multiple inputs around the boat) or generator, so that, just like with a home installation, you don’t back-feed into the grid. Then, you have a small AC panel that the inverter covers — usually outlets on the boat and the microwave. Then larger AC panels with the bigger loads on the boat that the inverter can’t cover — air conditioning, stove, water heater, etc.
This new strategy blows both of those systems out of the water. As mentioned above, the Quattro takes the generator input straight into itself, so you don’t need to “select” the generator anymore — it can just always be enabled, and can never back-feed into the grid. Also, we’re running the entire load through the inverter, so your runs go from shore power/generator through a front-door breaker, and then straight into the Quattros. Then the output from the Quattros go back and drive the entire AC panel. No more thinking about what works on the inverter or having to fire up the generator. Everything is battery-backed, usable no matter where you are.
This is neat and all, but since no one does a setup like this, there are no off the shelf panel building blocks to do anything like this. So, for now, I’ve kinda hacked my panels to do what I want — joined the “inverter” panel to the rest of one leg of the AC panel, removed the physical block between the generator and shore power connectors and now just use them as breakers, and ran the source wires back to the Quattro output for the panels. It required running a bunch of pretty large-gauge triplex wire (8 AWG for safe continuous 50 amp AC over these distances) back and forth ~6 feet between the panel and the back wall, but it worked out in the end.
Finally, I repurposed one of the 120VAC panels for 48VDC for now, mostly just to coordinate my two DC-DC converters for now, but hopefully over time I can get more 48V-native devices (like a windlass!), since it’s such a better power transport voltage.
Once I get everything more final in the coming months, I’ll probably end up contracting with Paneltronics’ custom panel wing to build a new custom AC management panel for the new reality, but this all works quite well for now, in the end.
As a total dork, one of the parts of this system I was most excited about was the monitoring/observability aspect. On the old boat, there was pretty much just a voltage display, current in/out display, and state of charge number to the nearest whole % point. This new system is a little different.
The Cerbo GX is a cheap addon for your Victron network that lets you connect all of the individual pieces of your power setup and upload all the data to the internet for observing, as well as convert it to NMEA 2000 messages so the rest of your boat network, like chartplotters and Maretron displays, can display all the power information as well. It has a little touchscreen addon, the Touch 50, you can get for it as well that nicely mounts into your power panel and gives you quick access to all of the info on your power system as well as deep configurability through a touchscreen. It’s a pretty great little setup.
One of the key parts of the observability is the Victron SmartShunt, which is a nice little all-in-one current shunt plus electronics to measure it and integrate it into your Victron network. So I can monitor voltage and current in and out of the low side and high side battery banks and alarm on a whole slew of different characteristics, which was really helpful in the early WS3000 debugging days. It also allows monitoring an auxiliary battery, so I can monitor the otherwise-isolated starboard battery bank from next to the port one.
It’s a nice little interface that even does a calculation of how much power is “disappearing” outside of what it knows about for generation/consumption, and calls that “DC Power”, which happens to nicely correspond to how much power is going from the 48V bank to the 12V house loads. So, at a glance, I can see how much AC power and DC power we’re using, as well as the solar generation and house battery bank levels. Then I show the 12V port/house battery voltage and SOC levels on the little Maretron display at left there, along with our two holding tank levels.
The level of insight this system provides is amazing, both live and using the VRM portal to go back in time and see what everything was doing throughout the day, even showing holding tank level history.
One of the primary tenets of the new system was around effectively utilizing the generator when we do run it, and another was getting to the point of just not really thinking about power usage. So, I wanted to make the generator control fully automatic.
The generator is a 12kW Northern Lights unit, and has a pretty manual panel — you have to hold the preheat button for a few seconds, then hold the start button until it catches, then keep holding the preheat button for a few more seconds until it’s running nicely, then you can let it run until you press the stop button. Being a fully-manual two-handed operation, automatic generator start/stop wasn’t going to be as easy as it was on the Onan generator from our last boat, so I had to go digging.
I found an affordable unit by Dynagen, the TG-410, which you can see mounted in the picture above in the monitoring/observability section, that allowed custom generator control basically through plugging the oil pressure/water temp sensors in as inputs and then running the start/stop/preheat outputs through relays. Setting it up was fairly trivial, once I reverse-engineered the current generator wiring harness and made a new plug-and-play harness to the Dynagen that would let me fall back to the stock controller in a few seconds of swapping a big 8-pin connector. Getting the preheater timing, start-detection conditions, and sensor curves right took a little while (and I still don’t have the temperature one quite dialed in yet), but now it starts and runs without a hint of complaint, and stops when you ask it to. The next step was external control based on battery conditions.
The Dynagen supports taking an input where 12V = generator should be running, ground = generator should be stopped; and its job is to make those conditions happen. The Cerbo GX actually supports a complicated automatic generator management system via conditional setup that, in the end, powers a relay on or off. By putting 12V on the NO and ground on the NC lines, I ran the common output to the TG-410 and it worked right out of the gate. The Cerbo GX supports standard conditions like SOC-based low/high levels for start/stop, but also quiet hours, emergency low/high levels for during quiet hours, and even time-based runs (i.e. it’s been too long, please run).
After a few days on anchor to tweak the settings, I’ve settled on 40-90% runs during the day, and 20-30% runs for emergency night settings. With these settings, ideally I essentially never have to touch the generator myself, though I’m sure I’ll keep fine-tuning this for a bit.
A couple weeks after I got the main power setup working, the WS3000 alpha hardware showed up in the mail and I added it to the system.
It’s been a really interesting device to tweak. I’m still working through a bunch of learnings with Wakespeed, and we’re learning as we go. The bidirectionality is a nontrivial problem to handle. You need to detect when voltage falls below a threshold and immediately switch to pulling current from the high side to feed the low side up to a setpoint, but when the voltage rises above the setpoint on the low side, you get to pick when to try pulling current off it to charge the high side. But how quickly do you pull current off? Too quickly and you drop it below the setpoint and then you need to fill back in, and get in a really awkward cycle. Too slowly and you’re letting the alternator “charge” a full battery and wasting potential charging. So there’s a bunch to tweak.
After working through a couple major early kinks, we quickly got off to the races of a working system for the basics, and getting to the finer-grained tweaking. So far we’ve largely been playing with the hysteresis between charge points, and what to put the setpoint at to maximize charging from the low side but also keeping the voltage high enough to actually put current back into the low side battery in case you overrun the 3000 watt converter and pull some capacity out of the low side battery.
A really interesting problem we discovered early on was that the preheaters on the Yanmar diesels in this boat are hungry. Each engine pulls ~200 amps from its start battery for ~5-8 minutes after a cold start. The alternators are only 80 amps each under the best of circumstances, and I mostly measure around 45 amp output at idle, leaving a huge current shortfall for the batteries to fill. The WS3000, of course, tries to fill in for the shortfall, but it can’t quite keep up, so it does draw some current down from the start battery every startup. So we’ve been tweaking the voltage setpoint to make it so that it will charge back up after the preheaters turn off. 13.2V was not enough to get anything appreciable back into the start battery, but 13.6V has been a good compromise so far.
Similarly, when raising anchor, we have double the problem, since we have 200 amps of preheater on the port battery plus the windlass pulling 300+ amps as well, vastly exceeding the WS3000’s capacity. This is causing voltage dips in the whole house setup, causing some devices on the NMEA 2000 setup to freak out whenever the windlass is powered, so I’ll need to address that pretty soon with a buck-boost converter expressly for the NMEA 2000 setup.
Next, at 13.6V, you’re pretty close to the alternator output voltage, so it’s way harder for the WS3000 to figure out how much current it can pull off to send to the 48V batteries. So we’ve found that, at 13.2V, it can pull twice as much current than at 13.6V, so we have some competing interests here in the settings.
Finally, the solar setup on the boat was originally plumbed into the 12V side, but with the WS3000 in there now too, it was getting confused with multiple different devices vastly changing voltage levels and sending current in and out, so I ended up moving the solar up to the 48V side pretty quickly to simplify things for the WS3000.
I’m sure we’ll be tweaking settings for quite a while to really dial in the last effective charging nuances, but the system is already working really well, and I’m sure this will be a great addition to other boats trying to follow in my (and the other few alpha testers’) footsteps. Hopefully this writeup gives other people the confidence to come play in these waters!
It’s been a long road, but in a Marie Kondo world, this setup brings me joy. We have the battery capacity to run the A/C all night on anchor, wake up, take a shower with hot water because we just leave the hot water heater on, then turn on a crockpot for dinner that night, run a load of laundry, throw some lunch in the microwave, and spend the day playing video games on a power hungry desktop computer. On an extreme usage day like that, we only need to run the generator for a few hours to top off again in the evening. Working full time in more normal fashion, each of us separately taking taking daily showers, spending all day on our computers on video calls, cooking meals, and watching TV all night, we can easily go two full days on anchor before running the generator to catch up. If we were really being frugal, we could go a week or more in between topoffs. And this is before I even add real solar.
Over the coming months, I expect to keep tweaking things pretty steadily. I still have a lot of optimizing to do to get our power loads down while we’re on anchor — right now, I’m running a ton of electronics all night until I dial in a good anchor alarm setup that gives me confidence. And we tend to leave things plugged in all night because we can just be lazy now and not really think about it. This is really the real measure of success here — Hannah doesn’t even slightly think about power usage, and I only barely think about it, thinking less with each passing day. Living aboard and working full time while boating brings enough challenges, we don’t want to also be dealing with power management all the time.
I was originally planning on diving right into an enormous solar setup — my measurements say I can easily get around 3000 watts of solar onto the roof and still have walking access for maintenance. I’ve wired in a new (Victron, obviously) charge controller sized for it, all plumbed in and configured. But once I saw just how long we can go on the setup without generating, I pumped the brakes and haven’t gotten around to even picking which panel to buy yet, much less getting 8 of them delivered somewhere. The ~800 watts on the roof help quite a bit on good days, so I know that quadrupling the generation should make us essentially never need to generate. So I’ll get around to it. Just not as immediately as I thought I would.
I hope this inspires others to build setups like this on their boats, and I’ll keep updating the blog as I make improvements throughout the year. Feel free to reach out blow with comments/questions, I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts.
We finally wrapped up most of our projects, and got to see a launch (ish), so we decided it was a good time to set out northwards for our second attempt at the loop.
We had everything stowed away and were ready to set out for New Smyrna, where I hoped to actually get some time at the beach! There was a bit of wind as we were heading out of the dock, and as I untied the last line and hopped aboard, I saw that the other side of our swim platform was currently destroying the piling behind us. I quickly sprinted over to push us off. However, I neglected to fully pull the stern line aboard, and unfortunately as we were backing out of the slip, it fell into the water and promptly got entangled around our prop. Luckily David felt the vibration, right around the time I said something along the lines of “oh no, it’s really bad” and he stopped applying throttle to that propeller. Unfortunately, we discovered that a catamaran does not go straight when it only has one prop working. Nor does it turn in that direction. After a panicked 15 mins of drifting around the marina, we finally managed to get ourselves tied up to the outside of the breakwater near the entrance of the marina. After calling and leaving messages with about 10 divers in the area, we finally got a call back from someone who was available to free the prop later that day. He arrived, suited up, and in about 5 minutes had freed the line. This is totally my fault, and I’ve learned a valuable lesson about line handling in the new boat!
Though delayed, we were able to leave later that afternoon and headed towards New Smyrna. We have decided that we can never return to Cocoa Village Marina, what with all the delays getting there, the constant stream of packages “filling up” (except not really) their mail room, and then the leaving disaster, we think that they must hate us!
We arrived at New Smyrna right before sunset, and since this was our first night on anchor with the new setup, we decided we didn’t want to leave the boat. We also looked at the weather and the next day was set to be pretty strong winds, so we decided to see if we could arrive at our next stop, Palm Coast, a day early, rather than stay in New Smyrna. So, no beach for Hannah :(.
Since our plans changed and we now had a Sunday to spend at Palm Coast, I did a little bit of hunting and discovered a local waterfront winery not too far from the marina. It turned out to be an 8.5 mile distance, but we decided to give the Scooters a true run for their range. (If they died on the way home, it wouldn’t be that far to walk or grab an uber). We decided to limit our speed and loaded up the chargers in the hopes that we could plug in at the winery. It was a lovely ride along the water front. Unfortunately the winery didn’t have any outdoor outlets, and wouldn’t let us charge inside (despite it being empty!), so we put them into “limited” mode, which sets the max speed to ~9mph, and puttered our way back. We knew there was a brewery near the marina and since our return trip took so long, we decided to stop for dinner (both down to 1 bar of battery!).
The next morning, we woke up to a louder-than-usual humming noise coming from upstairs, which turned out to be the air conditioning compressor for the master bedroom stuck on and coming close to freezing itself (down to 39 degrees), so chalk another thing up on the broken list. I’m getting pretty sure that we’re going to replace everything on this boat before we get much further north, at this rate.
After a work day at Palm Coast, we headed out for a morning cruise to St Augustine, which is our boat’s official “home” port. (We have registered this boat in Florida and had to choose a city). This is our third time here, and we know we like the town, so we planned to stay through the weekend, so we could further visit. The first time we were here, it was the first day of the Covid lockdowns, and the second time we stayed only for weekdays and didn’t get to do anything.
We found a craft-distillery a block away from our Marina that’s open for late-night cocktails and has a cute patio and live music, so we were able to go out for drinks one night. After the sun sets, it gets a little colder here, and we’ve both become Floridian snowflakes, pulling out our puffy jackets and hats when it’s in the high fifties! On Friday night, we re-visited a favourite restaurant (Preserved) and had a lovely dinner in their garden (with a heater pointed at my chair!).
For the weekend, we booked a walking tour of the city, which was very informative. We returned to the boat and David wanted to do work on a few projects (of course!) that were still remaining. The alternator on our port engine had not been working, so he tried to do a replacement. We had a lot of trouble trying to take apart the old one, to transplant the pulley to the new one, so David jury-rigged the new one up on a single belt for now, in case we were able to leave in time. Unfortunately, after putting the new alternator on, it still wasn’t working, which devolved into an hour of debugging the engine wiring harness to eventually find and repair the true problem.
After all that fun, he also looked further into the source of an oil leak that we have on that engine as well. The one hour of project turned into several hours as the oil leak turned out to be worse than expected, and we realized that Sunday would be easter with potentially even fewer shops open than normal for finding everything we’d need to continue with the projects. Since we’d intended to leave on Sunday and now were sitting with an unusable engine on Saturday night, we called the marina and extended our stay one more night.
The next day, we went on a scooter around town to Home Depot and West Marine, and bought basically every o-ring kit we could find for the oil leak issue and a big impact driver for the alternator project. I made David stop at BBQ for lunch on the way back, which then required rolling us the rest of the way home.
Returning back to the boat, David was able to immediately get the alternator pulley swapped out using his new toy! However, none of the o-rings helped with the leaking issue, unfortunately. The leak was pretty bad at this point, so we didn’t trust going anywhere without losing a ton of oil, so we’re not going anywhere until we can get this fixed. David placed several overnight orders for other parts, and we resolved to call the nearest Yanmar dealership on Monday morning.
On the bright side of things, we’ve been selling older parts one by one that we’ve been replacing with our new projects. Living on a boat, it’s been an adventure getting some of the larger items to the post office. The scooters have been taking it like a champ, though. And the yoga studio (skylounge) is finally emptying out, bit by bit.
This morning (Monday), we extended our stay in the marina again, and David was able to scooter to the Yanmar dealer, who amazingly had the part in-stock. Unfortunately, the o-ring doesn’t even slightly fit in the groove, so David ended up taking apart the entire area of the engine to get better access, and in doing so sheared the head off of a valve-bolt. So, we aren’t going anywhere right now. We made the cutoff for ordering next day parts by 2 minutes, and with luck, tomorrow afternoon we’ll get the new valve bolt and fix that problem. Later on, David thinks maybe with the better access he made another o ring fit properly, and maybe the oil leak will be fixed, but we can’t run the engine until we get the new fitting, so we won’t know until tomorrow…
In the mean time, we are trying to enjoy our extra few unplanned days in St Augustine, and we hope to be on the move again on Wednesday!