Jeff and Raine Williams interview: Fitting out an offshore boat

Jeff and Raine Williams bought Gryphon, a J/40, in 1997 specifically for their world cruise. Following a significant refit, the couple set off from Newport, R.I., in October of 1998. Their route took them to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, and along the Coconut Milk Run in time for the 2000 America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand.

They spent the next two years cruising the island countries of the South Pacific, including Tonga, Vanuatu, Wallis & Futuna, the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia — the latter an especially poignant time, as Jeff was able to retrace many of his father’s footsteps from World War II. For the past year Jeff and Raine have been coastal cruising eastern Australia while planning their next escape.

OV: The amount and complexity of equipment on voyaging sailboats seems to increase every year. Where do you stand in the trade-off between complexity and comfort versus simplicity and reliability?

J&RW: In this voyaging life, our main pursuit is the fun side of the experience, traveling in foreign countries, experiencing exotic cultures, and enjoying the journey along the way. We can’t do this while we’re head-and-shoulders in the bilges repairing pipes or tinkering with a rat’s nest of solder joints in some inaccessible cranny behind the starboard nook.

On the other hand, we appreciate the comfort, convenience and safety associated with certain relatively complex equipment. I understand, of course, how people did all this before GPS and watermakers, for example, but I don’t envy them, and I have no desire to emulate them.

In a boat, much more so than a land-based home, each piece of equipment has to be considered as a part of the system as a whole. Even something as benign as a book adds weight and takes up space — not that any one book makes a critical difference, but the library sure does. When you think of the boat as a self-contained and self-sustaining system, you realize that each piece of equipment has far-reaching consequences, however minor.

When we fit out Gryphon for this voyage, we judged each piece of gear prior to purchase: Can we afford it? Do we need it, or just want it? How much energy will it take (if any)? How much time will it take to install? To maintain? Where will it fit? What about spare parts? If, after all the questions were answered, we decided it was something we needed, then we added it. And the key then became installing the equipment in a manner that would be sturdy and secure, and convenient to hand.

As an example, we have two solar panels that are mounted permanently to the coach roof either side of centerline, parallel to the boom. The placement is not ideal when judged solely by production efficiency: One panel is often shadowed by the boom; the angle is rarely ideal, and the boat swings at anchor without regard for proper sun alignment.

But the panels are mounted secure from damage caused by boarding waves or high winds; they add no windage to the boat; they are wired to the electrical system with waterproof and strain-relieved permanent connections; and they require absolutely no thought or attention through any wind or sea conditions.

In other words, we chose to compromise maximum efficiency for minimum maintenance and maximum reliability.

OV: How involved do you get with maintenance and repairs? Do you learn the technical details of your equipment (auxiliary engine, generator, watermaker, etc.) and maintain and repair them yourself, or do you rely more on boatyards and other outside help?

J&RW: We tackle all onboard repairs for which we have or can borrow the proper tools (and knowledge). We built our own shrouds and stays using Norseman fittings. We have rebuilt our Volvo diesel from the bearings up; the wind-generator and primary alternator have both been rebuilt, the watermaker completely serviced. On the other hand, fiberglass repairs beyond the simplest dent or ding are something that we leave to the experts.

The advantage of doing things yourself is a better understanding of failure modes, being able to recognize the onset of problems, and knowing what parts are commonly needed for repairs or maintenance. If the repair is something that we can learn from a book, then we’ll most likely attempt it ourselves. If it’s something that requires an artisan’s touch, then we have to make the judgement call of whether we’re up to the task or not and what the consequences would be if we judged it wrong.

OV: How extensive a supply of spare parts do you carry? How do you make the decision about what parts to bring along?

J&RW: We carry a complete inventory of consumables: light bulbs for all fittings, fuses, pump diaphragms, impellers, belts, filters, etc. — in quantities sufficient to our intended cruising grounds (typically, one year’s worth). If a maintenance schedule was not available, then we guessed on the quantity.

We also carry a rebuild kit for as much of our equipment as is practicable: all water pumps, alternator, watermaker, wind generator. If the manufacturer offers the kit as a well-defined package, one might infer that a certain need exists.

Clearly the learning curve helps here. The raw-water pump on our engine, for example, has been a source of continual wonder and an excellent learning opportunity for us. That is to say, we now carry spare cams, bearings, seals and covers for that pump, in addition to the usual impellers. Oh, and we have a whole spare pump ready to go, too.

That’s one we couldn’t have imagined ahead of time. Fortunately, the air courier service DHL knows no bounds, and we’ve had obscure parts delivered to equally obscure destinations when all our planning failed us.

OV: What types of tools do you consider to be essential for the voyager to have onboard?

J&RW: Nearly all repairs have been handled with a relatively conventional toolkit: hammer, wrenches, screwdrivers, bigger hammer, that kind of thing. Two luxuries that have found their way onto the boat are a Dremel tool and a cordless drill.

Again, we try to buy high-quality gear, given the foreknowledge that the environment it must survive in is challenging to electrical and mechanical equipment.

Two considerations in the tool-related area: sealants and electrolysis protection. If you use the right sealant for a job, later repairs are easier. We always carry a polysulfide sealant for use where adhesion is undesirable (3M 101); we use polyurethanes or silicones where we want adhesive properties, too. Also, any time stainless-steel bolts or hardware meet aluminum alloys, use a product like Duralac or Tef-Gel to protect against dissimilar metals action. This makes any repairs easier to perform and less likely to result in further damage that requires professional (machine shop) help.

OV: What gear do you have for communications? How did you arrive at your current setup?

J&RW: We have an Icom M-58 VHF that came with the boat and an Icom M-1 handheld. The handheld is a bit of a luxury, but it’s good to have communications at the helm sometimes, or occasionally ashore.

We use an Icom M-710 for HF communications, weatherfax reception and email. An SCS PTC-II modem for fax and email. Originally, we bought and installed an SGC-2000 single-sideband radio and tuner. Even after factory warranty repairs, its operation was unreliable. Our frustration with the equipment and the company’s responses grew in proportion to the failure rate. In spite of the expense, we bought the Icom. It has been solidly reliable for the two years since installation.

We use the SSB daily for weather broadcasts — voice and fax. We added email in 2000 as the networks matured and broader coverage became more conveniently accessible.

OV: What is your strategy for dealing with computers onboard? How extensive is your reliance on computers? How do you make repairs when you are at sea or in an area without access to computer parts?

J&RW: A computer is an integral part of our electronics system. We have the equivalent of a docking station for our Toshiba laptop inside the chart table; a flat-panel display is mounted with the other electronics, and an external keyboard and mouse provide user access. GPS and SSB modem connections are permanent. The installation is secure offshore and comfortable to use underway or at anchor.

We rely 100 percent on the computer for weatherfax reception and email connectivity. While we carry a simple weatherfax modem as a backup in case the SCS PTC-II fails, and we have a spare, receive-only HF radio; the computer remains a single point of failure. Until recently we thought we had covered any eventuality by carrying an older laptop as a backup, but through disuse and corrosion, it is no longer functional. We’re considering buying a used laptop to carry as insurance, although, honestly, neither weatherfax nor email can really be considered critical, since voice weather broadcasts adequately cover the areas we’ll be sailing.

We have not had to deal with a computer failure (of the primary anyway), although our experiences have shown that worldwide couriers can reach some pretty obscure destinations. Certainly we’ve had to deal with various software problems and system crashes, and these we have to solve ourselves. Experience has been a great teacher in this regard. Isolated from the Internet, at least viruses are not a concern.

Although we use electronic charts constantly and love the convenience they provide, we do not rely on them — we normally carry paper charts of all areas sailed, and we plot positions regularly while on offshore passages. The ramifications of a navigational oversight or mistake can be too severe to depend on 100 percent availability of the electronic charting system. (In spite of reports to the contrary, we have never seen a case where a GPS-derived position plotted on an electronic chart was any less accurate than one plotted on paper charts.)

Recently — while cruising coastal Australia — we chose to purchase only electronic charts. Since we will eventually cruise about 50 percent of the Australian coastline, we needed a broad suite of charts, and the digitized charts were considerably less expensive in volume. And we reasoned that we would never be far from population centers where we could effect repairs as necessary. We supplement the digital charts with cruising guides and specialized locality charts. Before long trips, we print “chartlets” of the route and assemble our own Trip Tik. So far this method has served us well and it will seem a bit anachronistic when we set off across the Indian Ocean and start to draw crosses and circles with a pencil again.

OV: What types of gear do you plan to purchase next for your boat and why?

J&RW: We originally thought we had spec’ed out a good system during the refit. There’s nothing like 12 months and 12,000 miles to point out the flaws in the plan! We made some changes in New Zealand as a result, but in the three years since then, it’s been mostly maintenance or equipment replacement rather than new gear.

We’re pretty comfortable with the way Gryphon is set up now. Oh, we dabbled with bicycles once, and we talk about the niceties of having an Iridium satellite phone, perhaps, but in reality we feel like we have a thorough and manageable inventory of stuff as it is. Besides, we don’t really have the space for the dive compressor and the bigger dinghy. Or the fuel to feed them. It’s taken some time to get this balance point, and we want to enjoy it for awhile before we make any big changes.

By Ocean Navigator