John Kettlewell – Voyaging Interview

John Kettlewell has been voyaging and living aboard a variety of sailboats for about 27 years. In fact, he’s owned eight very different voyaging sailboats and says, “I love trying out new boats.” These boats have ranged from an Angus Primrose-designed, flush-decked cutter to a classic Aage Nielsen wooden double-ender, a 32-foot French catamaran to his current craft of choice, Minke, a 38-foot Finnsailer motorsailer. Kettlewell has lived aboard a series of boats for more than 12 years in a row, including several cold New England winters. Now in his second year of ownership of Minke, Kettlewell and his family have sailed the boat from Rhode Island down the East Coast to Florida and then across the Caribbean to Panama and now Colombia.

Kettlewell and his wife Leslie first began voyaging while doing research for Chart Kit. Together they designed and edited for many years those well-known chart books. They eventually went out on their own, creating the Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk to Miami. They also edited many volumes of Reeds Nautical Almanacs, and then came up with the ICW Chartbook: Miami to Mobile. Along the way Kettlewell has written for many boating magazines, including Ocean Navigator and Ocean Voyager. His most recent “real job€VbCrLf was as the publications director for the Adirondack Mountain Club, located in upstate New York.

Kettlewell and Leslie have two children, Ian and Heather. They’ve been homeschooling them for the past couple of years, and they say it is hard work! Heather, 10, loves the cruising life and anchors the Cartagena Cruisers radio net one day a week. Ian, 13, is the computer guru in the family, though he is more likely to be found building a civilization on the computer than downloading a weather chart. John says Leslie is the networker in the family – whenever Minke is in port, Leslie is in the thick of organizing social events, potlucks, charity activities and family outings.

OV: What is your approach to voyaging? Do you equip your boat with as much sophisticated gear as possible, or do you prefer the simple approach and get by with less?

JK: I basically prefer the simple approach to equipping my boat, but I have added various bits and pieces of sophisticated gear over the years. I think there are many sophisticated items that are very simple and reliable, and therefore fit aboard a “simple€VbCrLf voyaging boat. An example would be GPS units. We began voyaging prior to the widespread use of GPS, and we made offshore landfalls using a sextant and an RDF in some cases. I still carry those items and the almanac, sight reduction tables, chronometer, etc. However, they are now relegated to backup status. I have three relatively basic GPS units: one fixed mount Furuno unit, a Garmin handheld and a little USB-powered unit that works with my laptop charting program. None of these GPS units have built-in chartplotters or any of that stuff. My approach to electronics is to avoid networking like the plague. I don’t want the failure of any single component to cause failures throughout the system. So in this case, I think I’m using a sophisticated technology in a simple way.

I use the same approach with electronic charts. I don’t rely on them as my sole means of navigation, and I always have the appropriate paper chart out and I use it too. The laptop with the electronic charts is more of a backup for the paper charts. However, it is handy to watch a continuous track of my position while approaching an offshore hazard or when approaching a harbor entrance. It provides additional information that I can’t get by plotting out periodic GPS positions on the paper charts, which I also do. The best thing about electronic charts is the ability to carry large numbers of charts on board that one might not ordinarily carry. When we were headed south from Key West toward Panama we did not intend to stop at Providencia Island, but I had an electronic harbor chart that I could use with the laptop program, and I could print out a paper chart too.

Voyaging boats have become so sophisticated, and so loaded with gear, that the average person starting out simply does not have the skills to maintain all this stuff. I think this is the No. 1 cause of people finding the cruising lifestyle not to their liking. All of this stuff, which many consider essential, breaks down at some point and most voyagers can’t afford to pay professionals to fix or replace it. So costs mount hugely, and then when you sail outside of the U.S. or Europe it is very hard to even find parts for the stuff, let alone find someone who knows how to fix it. It is said that voyaging boats spend around 90 percent of their time at anchor, and I think about 90 percent of that anchor time is now spent making repairs. That is my main argument against so-called sophisticated gear – you have to be more sophisticated to keep it working, and you have to spend a lot of money to do so.

Another factor I feel is very important is the ability to manhandle your boat and the systems on it. Many older voyaging couples now sail in boats in the 40- to 50-foot range, and they depend on things like electric windlasses and electric winches to do so. If you have a 65-pound anchor on the end of 200 feet of heavy chain, the average man and wife crew will not be able to pull that in by hand when the wind gets above 20 knots and the engine isn’t working. Picture pulling more than 100 pounds straight up from the bottom in a 40-foot deep anchorage. And electric windlasses are a high-maintenance and high-breakdown item. Here in Cartagena there seems to be at least one or two boats rebuilding windlasses at any given time. Yes, you can carry a spare motor, but that won’t help you at 3 a.m. when the anchor is dragging and the motor has packed it in.

So, I think there is still a very strong argument for the “go small, go now€VbCrLf philosophy made famous by Lin and Larry Pardey. Smaller boats with simpler gear can be more easily manhandled when things go wrong. I think our 38-footer is nearing the maximum I would want with a two-person crew. Many will disagree, but I see a lot of older cruising couples out here who basically motor short hops to the next port, but only when there is no wind, so they can avoid having to do anything physical on their big boats. They have too much boat to handle. In my mind, a good way to decide is by trying to imagine yourself waking up one night with a sudden wind switch making your harbor a dangerous lee shore. Of course, both the motor and the windlass are not working, but you have to set heavy air sails, get them up, get the anchor up and beat out of the harbor to safety, and then you have several days of ocean voyaging to get to the next protected harbor. This is a real scenario that presents itself to many voyagers in the Pacific Ocean.

OV: How extensive a supply of spare parts do you carry? How do you decide on what spares to bring along?

JK: My philosophy on spares is that every spare part I bring means one less thing that will break – in other words, only the things you don’t have spares for will ever need replacing! That is almost literally true. You can never have enough spare parts, and you will always need something you don’t have. I tend to carry spares that are useful for many different types of projects. For example, we carry a ton of hose clamps in all different sizes. Carry lots of caulking of different types. Carry lots of nuts, bolts and screws.
Bring a ton of high-quality duct tape (the black Gorilla tape is particularly good). Carry plenty of spare line, including enough to replace all your halyards. That last item indicates the type of spare I need: one that can keep a critical system going. I don’t worry as much about spares for less critical systems, like the refrigeration unit or even the stove. I do carry a fairly extensive collection of engine spares, including at least one complete alternator. However, I don’t feel the need to bring a spare starter motor, as they rarely fail, they are very expensive, and when they do fail they can usually be rebuilt in almost any civilized place. Many things can be repaired cheaply outside the U.S. because labor is very cheap. For example, here in Cartagena, fairly skilled laborers make much less than $20 per hour. Many people make less than $5 per hour. However, parts tend to be very expensive, so it is often more cost effective to pay someone to do things like rewind the rotor in an electric motor than to purchase the new motor, as we would in the U.S.

In general, if the lack of a spare part might prevent me from leaving port or reaching port safely, that is a spare I want to have. Of course, cost is always a consideration. I also try to weigh durability of the original. For example, I’ve never bent or broken an anchor, but that is something I would not leave port without, so I carry at least three anchors that can hold the boat in any normal blow. I wouldn’t leave port without a working GPS, so I carry three. However, I would leave port if I had an old sail that might be on its last legs. I can always sew a ripped seam, or I can limp along with other sails in my inventory. In other words, I don’t need to carry a complete spare mainsail, but I do carry the stuff I need to repair the main.

OV: How much repair work do you attempt yourself? What kinds of repairs do you think all voyagers should be able to do?

JK:I try to do all repairs myself, except for ones that require specialized machinery or testing equipment. For example, I can’t repair a GPS, but I have three. Voyagers must be able to repair almost everything on board, except for non-critical items like cameras or other entertainment items. As I’ve said above, most of our time out here is spent repairing things, and most of us do 95 percent of our own work. The major exception would be hiring low-skilled labor for help with things like bottom cleaning or painting. Probably most voyagers don’t make their own sails and many don’t make their own canvas work or cushions, but we all repair this stuff.

Many people need help from time to time, but that help is often found within the voyaging fleet and not from shoreside businesses. In general, outside of the U.S. and Europe there are not a lot of skilled services, and they tend to cater to charter fleets and wealthier individuals. More and more we are seeing firms that simply don’t want the business from budget-conscious cruisers – they are geared for the wealthy owner, often ensconced back in his office where he can make money, offering a blank check so he can jet down for a weekend in some exotic spot. The profit from those folks is high, while the cruiser who wants his water pump rebuilt, but please use as many old parts as possible, is not a desirable customer.

Voyagers need to be self-reliant, and they need to love it. If you don’t like doing the repairs, you won’t like voyaging.

OV: How extensive a tool kit do you have aboard? Which tools do you consider essential?

JK: One can never have enough tools. I carry a very extensive list of tools – not just a “kit.€VbCrLf You will need every size and type of socket wrench, open-end wrench, adjustable wrench, screw drivers, allen keys, saws, chisels, drill bits and several drill motors, hammers, etc. The list is endless. This is one reason I think it is ridiculous to set off voyaging on a new (to you) boat. You really should sail that boat for at least two years to learn its systems, how to best set it up, and what parts and tools you need. For example, my current boat came with a 2-foot-long screwdriver, which is essential for reaching the bilge pumps deep in a difficult to reach spot. Who could have guessed that ahead of time?

Some of my favorite tools include a small accurate micrometer for measuring parts, a dental mirror on a long handle (for peering at the underside of various unreachable parts), a rechargeable electric drill, a tiny ratchet handle that has various screwdriver bits for difficult right-angle work, a one-handed hacksaw handle for tight spaces, several large half-round rasps for making holes bigger, a 100-foot tape measure for measuring sails and rigging, a heat gun for removing paint and varnish, a large vice for gripping things, various sizes of vice-grip pliers (including tiny ones), super-sharp carpet knives, and a small sledgehammer for when things get really tough.

OV: Do you use wind vane self-steering gear or do you rely on an electronic autopilot?

JK: We are in the midst of a self-steering crisis. Our boat’s old (1979) built-in electric-hydraulic steering unit packed it in, and we decided to go with an Auto-Helm wind vane steering system. We liked the fact that its auxiliary rudder would give us an instant backup and it would work with our hydraulic steering. So far, that promise has not been met. The unit steers an accurate course for a while, then tends to wander off, no matter what we do with sail combinations. We believe that the gradual slippage in the hydraulic steering causes the rudder to gradually overpower the vane. We are currently in the process of replacing the main hydraulic steering cylinder in hopes of reducing slippage.

I also have a small electronic tiller pilot that can adjust the auxiliary rudder and maintain a compass course, but that unit is also eventually fooled by some aspect of our hydraulic steering.
Ideally, I think a voyaging boat should have a wind vane steering system with some sort of inexpensive electric backup for when the wind dies.

OV: Do you have a watermaker on board? How easy is it to use and maintain?

JK: I do not have a watermaker and have never had one. Instead, we’ve rigged up our decks as a water catchment system. After the decks have washed off a bit, I can flip a couple of valves from down below and the entire deck drains into the water tanks. We have caught as much as 70 gallons in an hour, and it is easily possible to fill our tanks in a heavy rain lasting more than a few hours.

OV: How do you use computers while voyaging? Do you base your navigation on a laptop running electronic charts? Do you use your computer to track spare parts?

JK: I use computers for chartplotting, e-mail via the Iridium telephone, my work as a writer and photographer, for e-mail, for banking and for information gathering on many topics. I do not use it for inventories, as I don’t keep them – I find the inventory gets out of date so quickly that it is more of a nuisance to maintain than the search for the missing item. Besides, I try to organize parts and such into logical groupings so I can search through all the engine parts easily, or all the spare electrical bits. And, as I said earlier, one rarely needs the spare part that is on board anyway – only the other items break!

OV: What kind of communication gear do you use when voyaging? How important is staying in touch when voyaging?

JK: Our communication gear includes a VHF radio and an Iridium telephone for e-mail and occasional voice. You might also count the laptop computers for e-mail and information gathering when we’re ashore and especially when we can get WiFi access. I don’t yet have an SSB radio, though I plan to install one some day. I would like to be able to access some of the useful “nets,€VbCrLf particularly for weather info, though in general I am very happy using downloaded (via e-mail) government forecasts and occasionally grib files for weather maps. I have no desire to contact one of the weather gurus out there, who many seem to find useful. I have listened to their forecasts, and I believe they try to be more specific than the facts allow. The gurus are predicting micro events using macro tools, and it just doesn’t work a lot of the time. Frequently I notice people heading out into what I would consider a bad forecast, only to find out that so-and-so said that the weather would be perfect. On the other hand, I have left port with everyone asking me what I was doing as so-and-so was predicting less-than-perfect conditions for crossing. I find I arrive places just as quickly and safely as do others who are paying for guru-weather, so to me it doesn’t appear to be worth it.

I do love the ability to view very detailed weather on the computer before departing port, and that is very useful. I also think e-mail has just about revolutionized voyaging. One can now view bank balances, stay in touch with dad, order spare parts, or even make cheap Internet phone calls from just about anywhere in the world. I think this is all great, but it does get frustrating when the computer breaks, and that is one of those things I can’t usually fix myself.

Staying in touch is very nice when voyaging, though in general we don’t stay in touch that much when offshore. I’m not sure I want the daily schedules that most SSB voyagers seem to prefer. However, I do enjoy downloading e-mails on a calm day and reading about what my dad is doing half a world away. I think today’s cruisers are way too dependent (at least mentally) on having nearly constant radio contact with each other. I see two major problems. First, there is the issue of “group think,€VbCrLf which is very hard to resist. If five other boats want to leave on Friday, and you’re all set to go on Wednesday, it is very hard to leave ahead of the pack. And “group think€VbCrLf can be dangerous. I have heard people spend much time calling for assistance in some emergency rather than taking care of the emergency themselves. I prefer to think that I am on my own, with my family, when I head offshore, and we have the means and inclination to handle almost everything ourselves. If the weather turns nasty, I prefer to think that my own judgement of the situation is better than someone’s advice beamed to me from a thousand miles away.

The second major problem is related to “group think€VbCrLf – it’s the garbage-in, garbage-out syndrome. People love to talk, and radio people love to talk even more. Sometimes they fulfill this itch by broadcasting really useful information on everything from earthquakes to hurricanes. But, a lot of the time the information is unedited, unresearched and uncertain. It’s basically a lot like the Internet, but even more of a Wild West rumor mill. There’s great stuff out there, but it is hard to tell what is good and what is not.

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

JK: There are some things I would like to get for my boat. First, I’d like to try either a Rocna or a Spade anchor. I hear great things about them and they look right to me, but they are expensive and hard to get. Before I left I tried to purchase first a Rocna and then a Spade, but they both had long waits for delivery so I ended up with my third choice, the Bulwagga. I really like the Bull, but I can also see it has some shortcomings, so I look forward to trying one of the others.

I’d also like to get a light air cruising spinnaker or a large drifter. Our motorsailer is short on sail area to begin with and it really lags in light air, which we see a lot of as we are searching for good weather and not storms.

I want to beef up my solar charging capacity and get bigger and better batteries. Solar is the most reliable and quiet means of charging, but we can’t quite keep up with our daily needs right now. Ideally, I’d like to be able to stay at anchor indefinitely without running the engine for charging. I have used wind generators in the past, but they are noisy and not all that reliable. The more reliable ones don’t seem to put out much juice.

Hand in hand with the solar panels I would like to replace my two refrigeration systems (12-volt) with one much more efficient 12-volt system. My existing boxes are small, poorly insulated and use old equipment that sucks up lots of amps. An improvement in this area would bring us closer to the goal of staying at anchor without running the engine. 

By Ocean Navigator