It has been 24 years since I launched Fiona, my Westsail 42, which I bought as a hull and deck, and finished over an eight-year period in the backyard. In some ways she might be considered old-fashioned, for example, I like a sturdy gallows to drop the boom into, and she is heavy — I added extra reinforcing in many spots.
Since launching, she has racked up about 240,000 nautical miles including two circumnavigations, once each way, and trips to the north and south high latitudes. This arduous schedule has afforded me a chance to discover just what gear really performs and what holds up. Not too much of the equipment which I originally installed has survived to the present day.
Fiona is a cutter-rigged sloop, the usual inventory consists of a 105-percent Genoa jib, a Yankee jib, a spitfire jib which hanks on the forestay, a staysail, a fully battened main and a storm mainsail. The Genoa has a high-cut foot, designed to maintain a constant angle to the sheet fairlead from the clew as the sail is reefed using the roller furler.
The staysail is club-footed and originally the lower hanks were attached to a jack line so that the sail could be raised without jamming. This arrangement made the staysail difficult to reef; now the staysail is hanked on the forestay in the conventional manner and the clew is attached to the outhaul car by a small tackle, which is eased when the sail is raised and then hardened when the luff is taut.
The full-sized battened main is only used in temperate latitudes; for high latitude sailing the storm main is bent on. It has only two reefs but the second is very deep and when rigged the sail is virtually a storm trysail. I did have a storm trysail but it is too much bother to set it in heavy weather.
On average the sails last about 20,000 nautical miles before they become too worn for economical repair, but some sailcloths last a lot longer than others, regardless of the weight. When repairing a tear at sea I mark the area with a fiber pen and cut a patch to size and then seal the edges of the patch on the stove burner. It is then glued in place with contact cement; I use wooden blocks and C-clamps to get a good bond. When dry, I complete the repair by stitching near the edges on the sewing machine.
Mast and rigging
The 50-foot aluminum mast is stepped on deck. Four shrouds on each side provide lateral support using one spreader. The shrouds are 5/16-inch diameter. Fore-and-aft support is provided by the headstay, forestay and backstay. The forestay wire is similar to the shrouds but after breakages I increased the diameter of the head and back stays to 3/8 inch.
The headstay is fastened to a 4-foot bow platform braced by a bobstay. I do not use running backstays, care must be taken to prevent chafe of the mainsail on the after shroud when running. In addition it is possible to bend the mast out of column if the forestay is tightened too much. I always set the after shrouds to a very high tension to offset this tendency. The presence of the forestay has undoubtedly saved the mast from collapsing on at least two occasions when the headstay broke and another couple of times when the bobstay let go. The original specification for the bobstay called for 7/16-inch diameter wire but this started to shred on my first circumnavigation and I replaced it with 3/8-inch stainless chain. This chain snapped unexpectedly in relatively mild weather during an Atlantic crossing; now I use 1/2-inch stainless chain.
I use slab reefing for the mainsail. All the cleats, cheek blocks, etc. are on the port side of the boom; this has the minor disadvantage that the boat must be on port tack in order to reef the mainsail. If on starboard tack we generally jibe over and then jibe back after reefing. With practice, a good crew can accomplish the maneuver and be moving again with the shortened sail in 15 minutes.
The topping lift and outhaul are connected to 2:1 purchases inside the boom and fed to jam cleats at the mast end. The halyards are all 3/16-inch flexible stainless wire and usually last five to six years, although breakage is not uncommon due to fatigue at the sheaves. When reeving a new line and swaging a thimble on the end, the cut-off wheel on the Dremel tool yields a perfectly squared end for pushing into the sleeve.
The halyard winches are the old-style reel type, unfortunately no longer available. I know these types can inflict a nasty knock to the operator if the ratchet brake is slackened with the handle still mounted when lowering sail. The cure is emphasizing the correct procedure to the mast hand. In all the years we have used them only one person got clobbered, fortunately without serious injury, although he had a sore wrist for a week.
For a quick trip to the masthead or the spreader I mounted ratlines on the lower starboard shrouds made of 1-by-1 1/2-inch ash, grooved at the ends to fit the wire and seized with stainless wire. These proved useful in high latitudes for stationing an ice spotter. They are also handy when the occasional failure of a jib sheet happens: I simply bring the sail near the ratlines using the remaining good sheet and shinny up to tie a new line because the clew is not accessible from deck level. Above the spreader are steps. These are great halyard snaggers and I rigged small lines from the steps to the upper shroud to prevent a halyard getting caught behind a step when it might flail around as the sail is lowered.
I fitted a roller furler for the jib several years after I started cruising on Fiona, I had begun to wonder why I was always wet; I guess it took that long to figure out that the wettest job on the boat was changing headsails. There is no doubt that with this gear the crew and I are considerably drier. The downside is that when it fails it is usually a major headache to fix.
I now have my fourth roller furler fitted; before the last cruise I was so fed up with the set screws working out of the foil couplings that I drilled them out and tapped in aluminum pins that were then welded in place. This worked fine and I never experienced having the swivel jam halfway down when lowering the sail. Of course, the problem with this approach is that the foils don’t come apart very easily if one needs to be changed.
On my circumnavigation via the Capes, 2002-2003, the lower unit split vertically into two: the drum above and the foil bearing a 3-inch gap below. A call to the dealer on Iridium confirmed it was not repairable on board, but they offered to replace it under the warranty — small comfort with Cape Horn 2,000 miles downwind. The replacement unit is now showing distinct signs of suffering from the same problem after about 40,000 nautical miles: it is caused by wear in the circlip mating groove.
Probably my most dramatic horror story is the one about the furler that demolished the headstay. We were heading up the Atlantic from the Horn and stopped in Brazil. On a masthead inspection I noticed that a couple of wires were broken on the headstay. Well, that left 17 wires still intact and I figured we would get home. I didn’t realize that the upper bearing of the topmost foil had come adrift and the top 6 feet of the tube were unsupported. As we sailed north, a V-shaped slot developed at the top of the foil and as it was rotated it behaved like a pipe cutter on the headstay.
One day halfway between the Cape Verdes and Bermuda we rolled up the sail and suddenly the headstay fell towards the deck, held up only by the halyard. We had to jettison most of the gear overboard, make and rig a new headstay and convert the jib to hanked on sail using every shackle on the boat. That took two days and a lot of masthead time for me in a bosun’s chair. The headstay failed again a few years later because the rigger making the replacement stay over-swaged the tang and partially cut through the outer wires. Now I use screw together compression fittings with no failures to date.
I bought the engine, an 85-hp Perkins diesel, when I got the hull. In 2005, I pulled it out for a major overhaul after about 12,000 hours of running. The oil pressure had dropped to 20 psi and it was using a quart of lube oil every 12 hours. When the engine was disassembled, the mechanic showed me the reason: the bushing had seized onto the oil pump shaft and was happily machining away the housing.
During the 22 years of service prior to that, major failures include disintegration of the fresh water pump, and failure of the injection pump and the starter motor. The fresh water pump failed shortly after I fitted a high current alternator, I think the extra tension on the pulley to prevent slipping was a factor as both share the same belt. I elected to have the engine rebuilt instead of fitting a replacement. Small improvements were made during the rebuild, such as fitting spin-on filters instead of cartridge type for the engine-mounted lube oil and fuel filters.
By far the major cause of the many hours I have spent toiling in the engine room is dirty fuel. I suspect this was the culprit in the failure of the injection pump. Because I have an engine-driven cold plate freezer, the engine is operated almost every day during cruises for periods of 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the cabin temperature. Although this lightly loaded running is reputably bad for the engine, the valves and injectors were still in good shape when the engine was stripped. I did not notice any significant reduction in sea miles per gallon after all those years.
I was punctilious about changing lube oil and filter every 100 hours or so. When I started cruising I was unaware that the engine is fitted with a sacrificial pencil zinc, this fact is not mentioned in the manual, and after two years the core plugs started to leak. One near the air intake leaked a fine water spray that got ingested and blew a head gasket, fortunately with no other damage. Every month I check the zinc, and on average it needs replacing every two to three months.
I depend on four filters to deliver clean fuel to the engine. I have seen installations, mostly on powerboats, with two duplicate filter systems, selected by a Y-valve. When one clogs then use the other, but I simply don’t have the room. The system on Fiona evolved as problems arose. Fuel from either of two tanks is selected via shut-off valves and fed to a small-wire mesh filter that can be disassembled and cleaned quite quickly. From there the fuel is led to an electric pump that is usually switched off, but which can be used to pressurize the system when purging air or refilling a filter when a new cartridge has been installed.
The next filter is a combined cartridge-type filter and water separator. The water collection bowl at the bottom of the filter has two terminals connected to an electronic alarm which signals a warning if the resistance between the terminals drops below a preset level due to the presence of water. I usually fit 10-micron cartridges in this filter and 2-micron units in the other filters. The filter/separator is followed by a conventional filter, which incorporates a manual pump. After that the fuel is led to the engine lift pump, a vacuum gauge is teed into this line. After the lift pump the fuel passes to the engine-mounted high-pressure filter, also fitted with a 2-micron element. From there the fuel enters the injection pump.
In normal operation the electric booster pump is off, the lift pump produces suction to pull the fuel from the tank and the vacuum gauge shows how hard the lift pump is working to get the fuel through the low-pressure filters. Typically the gauge indicates less than 5 inches of Hg when the filters are clean. As the filters become contaminated the vacuum will rise, I clean the mesh filter and possibly replace the first filter when the vacuum hits 10 to 15 inches.
Above 20 inches the engine is in danger of stalling due to fuel starvation, if it does stop almost certainly air will be drawn into the fuel system and a lengthy purging may be needed to get it going again. The vacuum gauge does not indicate the condition of the high-pressure filter after the lift pump. When the injection pump failed I suspect I had allowed this filter to become too dirty and particles broke through causing the problem. Replacement on a routine basis is the only cure; injection pumps are expensive.
Like most things on the boat this has grown in complexity over the years, I shall try to keep the description simple. The main engine-driven alternator feeds two battery banks that are isolated from each other. One is used solely to start the engine; the other runs all services including the anchor winch, heater, refrigeration, etc. The batteries are lead acid; three batteries can be connected in parallel via switches if needed. Two of the service batteries are intended for golf cart use, but even so there is a noticeable drop in capacity after two years. Both battery banks can be connected by a bolt-down link in an emergency. I have had to use this feature a few times in high latitudes to get enough oomph to turn over the engine in very cold weather. While under sail an alternator driven by the freewheeling propeller shaft keeps the system charged enough to support the refrigerator, lights and the GPS receiver. There is a built-in battery charger that is used with shore power, but a 1,000-watt AC generator mounted on the engine can also be used to power the charger if the main alternator fails, although I carry a spare alternator.
At sea I use an inverter rather than the generator to obtain 115-volt, 60-Hz power at a nominal 1,000 watts. The newer synthesized models have proved rather unreliable and I have replaced the inverter several times. I have a small inverter of low power, 300 watts, which uses the older style switching power transistors and a step-up transformer; it is the backup for the synthesized kind.
Incoming shore power is directed to a transformer, rated at 200 watts, so that 115-volt or 230-volt sources can be connected to the battery charger. The major problem in keeping the electrical system serviceable on an oceangoing yacht is not equipment failure but corrosion of all exposed conductors. Terminal strips and plugs and sockets are vulnerable. Use plenty of grease and WD40 to keep that creeping green slime at bay. I carry plenty of spare wire and crimp terminals and a good meter. A problem with modern digital meters is that they draw virtually no current to operate, they may indicate that 12 volts are present on an open circuit that will not energize a load due to a resistance further back, often caused by corrosion. A bulb with clip leads is a better way to track down a failure.
More details of Fiona’s voyages can be found at www.yachtfiona.com
Eric Forsyth is an Ocean Navigator contributing editor and the winner of the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal in 2000.