Live-aboard voyagers Dick and Ginger Stevenson discuss the equipment issues they face while exploring the world

Dick and Ginger Stevenson have been live-aboard voyagers for the past six years. Ginger was a first grade teacher and Dick a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst. They started sailing together on a family-owned sunfish, bought their own Cape Dory Typhoon, then a Sabre 28, then a LeComte Northeast 38 designed by Bill Tripp. They sailed this boat many times back and forth from the East Coast to Bermuda. After their children went off to college, they sold their house and bought their current boat, a Valiant 42 called Alchemy. Aboard Alchemy they have cruised the Bahamas and the Caribbean and including Honduras, Belize and Mexico. In 2006 they crossed the Atlantic via Bermuda and the Azores to spend their first European winter in Portugal. Last summer the Stevensons sailed the length of the Mediterranean to Turkey where they spent the winter. They greatly enjoy the voyaging lifestyle and intend to cruise indefinitely.

OV: Which approach do you take to voyaging: equipping your boat with sophisticated gear, or do you prefer the simple approach and get by with less?
D&GS:We take generally the simple, get-by-with-less approach, but, while saying that, the boat is our home and we are in no fashion camping. We want a boat and equipment around us that we do not have to worry about. We have enough of a challenge worrying about ourselves.
 Our choice of boat, a Valiant, reflects accurately our approach to equipping. It is tried and true, does everything well and is very well executed while at the same time it is not sophisticated (no carbon fiber or cored hull for example). Gear is the same. We try to buy excellent equipment that, once set up, we can largely forget about. We have considered more sophisticated gear, but frequently find ourselves rejecting most of it. For example, we are not convinced that integrated/interconnected instrument systems enhance our safety or comfort. We have a lot of data we can draw upon, but the systems delivering this data remain discrete and therefore more simple to troubleshoot and reliable to use. Along similar lines, our main is not roller-furled. With pre-marked lines one person can reef in 90 seconds or so. On the other hand, some of the speed and ease of reefing relies on Antal sail slides, which I suspect are in the sophisticated realm.
That said, we have sophisticated gear that brings great pleasure and functionality: our computer combined with a Pactor modem and an SSB radio, freezer, watermaker, carbon spinnaker pole, freestanding AIS, belowdecks autopilot, and DC genset to name a few. Most have spares/redundancy and over the years, as failures have occurred, we have confirmed that we can continue to voyage safely and have a great time without the sophisticated gear. We remember from more than 25 years of voyaging what being with bare bones equipment was like.
OV: How extensive a supply of spare parts do you carry? How do you decide on what spares to bring along?
D&GS: We have extensive spares and, handily, we have a boat that can absorb a lot of gear without paying much of a price in boat speed or handling. In our computerized inventory data bank, spares consist of 553 items. These range from a quite small bolt for the windlass that I regularly manage to accidentally flip overboard to a starter motor for the engine.
The advice we received before going farther afield was that FedEx (fill in the blank with your favorite courier) goes everywhere so not to worry overly. Getting spare parts has frequently proven to be much more complicated than this. Countries often make bringing in parts/supplies a huge headache. Generally, the notion of free clearance for yachts in transit is useless. In two recent countries, Portugal and Turkey, the prevailing wisdom among voyagers is that if you want a significant part, particularly from the States, the best route (and maybe the cheapest) is to get on a flight to wherever the part is, put it in your luggage and fly back to the boat.
Perhaps the most important reason to carry spares, bought when you have time and access, is that you can duplicate the equipment exactly. Swapping a pump with the same footprint, mounting holes and hose sizes is a no-brainer. Mounting another brand with different fittings etc. is often an ordeal entailing jury-rigging and/or multiple trips to local hardware/chandlery stores when they even exist.
A good practice for many spares is to swap equipment when it is aging but still functional, putting the used item (refurbished if warranted) into spares. On our engine we have done this with starter motor/solenoid, injectors, high-pressure lines as well as lots of other equipment. If done oneself and it is a first time job, you can do it under supervision of your mechanic and have a big leg up when a need to make a swap arises while voyaging.
Additionally, one important item that many voyagers neglect to have on board are the original computer discs for all programs in case you need a new computer.
OV: How much repair work do you attempt yourself? What kinds of repairs do you think all voyagers should be able to do?
D&GS: We do a lot of the repairs and all maintenance. Good maintenance means fewer repairs and a good maintenance manual is a valuable assist for aging memories. With the caveat in mind that one of the wonderful things about voyaging is that there are few “shoulds,” a rule of thumb for voyagers might be that they should be able to keep themselves going, staying safe and cruising, enduring or repairing most damage and breakdowns. Those that can do so seem to have the most fun. Waiting for servicemen, parts, etc. leads to being stuck in marinas for long periods, missing weather windows, and a general dependence that undermines confident cruising.
Repairs are frequently much easier than first imagined. Add to patience and good reference material a reasonable amount of supplies, spares and tools and there is little that cannot be tackled. By good reference I mean the usual excellent general guides, plus individual instructions and yacht schematics. Schematics are too often out of date if they exist at all and can make or break easy diagnosis. A great rainy day project would be an electrical schematic of all wiring. Then do the plumbing. Tackling many problems is almost impossible without this essential tool.
We can take a stab at repairs that take experience or a developed skill (such as matching paint or fairing-in), but we are more likely to put these aside for skilled help. Most voyagers are widely talented but not deeply experienced in any one area. For example electronics are beyond us, but we don’t despair until we have given the insides a spray of electronics cleaner/water displacer. It can work miracles. Spares are the answer to the equipment that is important but not repairable (by us) in the field, such as a spare alternator.
Note: in many anchorages in the world and especially the crowded Bahamas/Caribbean a shout on VHF16 will find someone who has already tackled that particular repair challenge and will bring a number of replies and new friends. It may also be nice to have a consultant that is email accessible for more ticklish questions. Your boatyard manager may be a good one as he knows the boat, has access to yard experts in various fields, and you already have a relationship with him.
OV: What tools do you consider essential to have in your boat’s tool kit?
D&GS: Most of us have a good supply of tools and there are good lists of essential tools so we will cover two areas often neglected as well as a few discoveries that have become essential on Alchemy. The first neglected area is in the paperwork arena and includes good schematics and instructions of all systems and equipment as well as a good maintenance log organized by days, weeks, months etc. covering all systems and aspects of the vessel.
The second neglected area is very hard to anticipate until you need the tool. These are the tools that are peculiar to each yacht. For example, we need a deep-set 14 mm socket for an overly long bolt and hidden nut. Removal is almost impossible without this small but essential tool. Spending downtime working through projects that might require specialty tools will be time well spent. Think particularly about accessibility. You might have the right box-end wrench for motor mounts and easy access to three of the four, but no room to swing or get to the last unless you have extensions and a ratcheting socket wrench.
Other unusual tools we rely on include a headlamp, dental picks assortment (for o-rings removal, cleaning, scraping and on and on), heat gun (makes plumbing removal and installations much easier by softening hoses) and diagonal cutters (such as a pair of Xcelite 175M, so electric ties do not leave a razor sharp edge).
OV: Do you use wind vane self-steering, or do you rely on an electrically driven autopilot?
D&GS: We have both an electric belowdecks autopilot and a wind vane. The Alpha electric autopilot has been so accurate, parsimonious with amps, easy to use and reliable that we use it most of the time. That said we would not be without wind vane steering. It provides a more comfortable ride (in upwind conditions especially) as it responds quickly and powerfully to waves as they exist and not to algorithms and therefore does not bash so much. I would also not be without a wind vane as a backup if we have a serious electrical mishap (most likely lightning).
OV: Do you have a watermaker on board? How easy is it to use and maintain?
D&GS: We have a Katadyn 160E and for five years now it has worked without a hiccup. It has no bells and whistles and does not have the best amp to gallon ratio, but is drop dead easy to use and maintain, and since it is small it was easy to install. To use we just turn one valve to get flow into a hose and, after a short period (depending on how long since last usage), we use our taste buds (sophisticated gear) rather than instruments to tell us when the water is ready for the tank. When not needed or wanted, putting the unit to bed for up to a year takes five to 10 minutes. The filters need checking occasionally and we have yet to get to the hours where an overhaul is recommended. It makes six gallons of water an hour, which is plenty for us. It has been a real addition in both the Caribbean and Europe since we never have to worry about where we can fill up with good fresh water; as well, we enjoy unlimited showers to rinse off after swimming.
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?
D&GS: The computer is just another tool, but what a fabulous tool and we use ours a great deal. We carry two laptops, one as a backup set to move in for essential services like Winlink (weather forecasts and email). A short list of how we use our computer, not in any particular order, is: email through Winlink, weather collection (Winlink, GRIB, weatherfax, RTTY, internet), navigation and route planning, internet and Skype when Wi-Fi is available, Alchemy’s database, printing documents for officials. Add to those functions all that a home computer is used for, (including storage of all music), as Alchemy is our home, and the laptop’s importance becomes clear.
At this time (and especially in the Med), we find ourselves relying on electronic navigation on the laptop almost exclusively. Almost all tasks are quicker and more accurately done. Common sense must still be brought to bear, as the system is not infallible and we carry and use paper charts.
Spare parts data (name, part number, manufacturer, description, number on board, the system the part is for, and storage location) is kept on a spreadsheet program that has proved immensely useful. We have found it too hard to track parts as used (we forget) and solve this by storing parts together; in this way when a filter is used, it is apparent how many remain and if low, a note is made. We also have lists of hard to procure items to replenish when visiting the U.S. or well-supplied ports of call.
OV: What kinds of communications gear do you use while voyaging?
D&GS: The trusted old party line of VHF and SSB are still the most used for voice, while SSB email (with a Pactor modem and computer) is checked at least once per day. We use this gear in all waters. Cell phone use is very common here in the Med where you are often close to towers, and are taking over from many former VHF functions. We have adopted this as it also makes shoreside tasks so much easier. We have an unlocked GSM phone and buy SIM cards in each country we visit, which is much cheaper than roaming with a U.S. service. We also have a rarely used Globalstar satellite phone that is sometimes handy, though coverage is limited. Wi-Fi is the blossoming communication gear, especially voice over Internet (VOI). Wi-Fi varies country to country but is generally becoming available in many marinas and, with a powerful antenna, in some anchorages. Burgees still are a lovely and quiet way to communicate to others that you share a common club or association (like SSCA) and a great way to extend your community.
OV: What new gear do you plan to purchase for your boat and why?

D&GS: Most astonishing to us, we have no new gear planned. We regularly covet certain items but have yet to be convinced they would enhance our lives. When another voyager talks of just hearing Car Talk on his satellite radio we get a twinge of envy but our goal is to be out there, wherever there is at the time, and not to carry the U.S. with us. The same thinking ends up with us rejecting a worldwide satphone and data set up. We have achieved all the communication we desire in other ways. The new gear we are most fond of is a stand-alone AIS unit, a substantial safety improvement in the crowded Mediterranean. We also covet vision equipment, image stabilized binoculars, new radar with MARPA, solar panels on an arch, but remain unconvinced they will enhance our safety/enjoyment enough to warrant their purchase. At this stage in our voyaging, stuff has to work hard to earn a place.  

By Ocean Navigator