Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Coward's Guide to Preparing and Outfitting for a Transoceanic Voyage

2011 07 10


Our first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, not really completed yet as we are only in the Azores, was filled with all the uncertainty and trepidation you would expect.  We are not fearless aboard Meredith and as faithful readers know our Family Motto is "Run Away".

As it turns out running away, especially in advance of trouble, is very effective navigation strategy and we highly recommend it.

So here is the coward's guide to how we prepared and planned.

Boat and Equipment

For the year prior to leaving we replaced and renewed equipment that was perfectly acceptable for light weight coastal cruising.  Here are the things we did:

  1. sails were examined thread by thread and repairs effected
  2. all standing rigging was replaced.  It was 25 years old and while showing no signs of failure was too old to trust.
  3. all running rigging was examined and every damaged sheet and halyard replaced.
  4. batteries were replaced - our old 325 AH Surrette battery was 5 years old and showing the signs
  5. mainsheet traveller replaced - the old Schaeffer required a mallete to move the car across the track, not acceptable on the open water
  6. rigid boomvang installed - this was a luxury but we needed the topping lift for a HF antenna rig
  7. Bottom was scoured, sanded, dressed and painted with good American poison.  We should be good for 2 years and will not have to worry about using the wimpy Euro formulations
  8. Our aging but working VHF radio was replaced with an AIS capable radio
Every single one of the above items contributed to a successful voyage.  There is not one major expense we incurred in this regard that we would not do again.

One item not on our list that might be on yours would be a full engine inspection by a qualified mechanic.  Only two years old and maintained strictly in accordance with factory specs the diesel had our full confidence.

When everything was replaced and renewed we had a survey done.  Not an insurance survey a real survey in which we told the surveyor to pull out all the stops.  If something was amiss we wanted to know.  The survey came back clean except for some simple housekeeping matters but it was good to know.

In spite of all of this and even though we did not travel through storms we suffered failures: the exhaust hose decided to show rot and separate from its thru hull about 12 days out, the battery ground wire arced and developed a fluctuating high resistance which gave us two and a half days of grief and serious worry.

Why No Water Maker?

Watermakers are very expensive, finicky to use and demanding of their owners.  They suck power out of your system like nobody's business. 

Instead we relied on Meredith's one hundred fifty gallon fresh water tankage to carry us across.  It was more than enough.

Meticulous measurement has pegged our consumption at something close to 4 gallons a day.

Rather than a watermaker we used substitution and conservation.  One of the "at sea" projects we undertook was the resurrection of our seawater pump, a hand pump at the galley sink that pulls water right out of the ocean.  Instantly we had all the water we needed for rinsing dirty pots, washing dishes and cooking.

Most vegetables and pasta are cooked with salt in the water anyway.  Seawater is a bit too salty but 50/50 works very well.  Potatoes cut and cooked in half sea are absolutely delectable on their own.


Our choice was to make for Bermuda first and only if that voyage was a success carry on.  We would not do this again.  By the time you are seven days out you have already decided the trip is a success. Otherwise you would have turned about and gone home.

Bermuda is not a great stop.  It is clean but very expensive.  Food and drink is ridiculously dear and dock space in short supply and of poor quality.  It cost $35 per person to enter the country and current legislation, not in force yet, is raising this to $250 per person.  Ridiculous.  Bermuda does not offer enough to justify even $35 each for admission.

In future we would leave from a higher latitude than Norfolk, or make our way north far more quickly, up to at least 36 degrees North latitude and 38 degrees would be better. Crossing the Mid Atlantic requires that you maintain a high latitude even though there is increased risk of storm.

The Atlantic is dominated by the mid Atlantic High, a high pressure cell that centres on the Azores.  Because wind flows clockwise around a high you want to be on the North side of any high pressure cell or ridge of cells.  That way the wind is at your back.  This is why you want the high latitude.

The closer you get to a high pressure cell the lighter the winds get.  You want to be two isobars away from the centre of a high as a general rule.  This ensures reasonable wind.

Our trip was near windless until we inched our way North to 40 degrees North latitude.

Weather and Forecasts

Anticipating the need we purchased a weather routing service from Chris Parker of Caribbean weather fame.  We never used it.  Available information was more than adequate.  It was reassuring to have the ability to call Chris and speak with him if there was ever a question in our minds.

There never was.

If you have a SSB or Ham Radio or even a short wave receiver you can pick up the surface condition weather faxes along with 500 mb charts  and 24 and 48 hour forecast charts from Boston, station NMF on frequency 12950.  You really do not need any more information than that.

Good forecasts and a record of barometric pressure will see you across the Atlantic out of storm's way.

A truly great weather reference book is "Weather at Sea" published by Fernhurst.  This book enabled me to undertake hours of projects to improve my weather forecasting.

Herb Hilgenberg suffered a serious injury to his back just before we left Norfolk and we understand he will be retiring at the end of this year.  Listening to Herb was not only informative but entertaining and each day found us huddled around the radio to see what progress the boats around us were making.


Simply enough there is little communication amongst boats at sea.  VHF has too short a range and SSB or Ham takes a lot of power.  Scheduled contact is possible but this summer the sun spot activity was (is) the worst in 25 years and propogation, a measure of the ability of atmosphere to carry the signal, was similarly degraded.

Satellite phone, at least the Inmarsat Isatphone Pro, was totally inadequate, contininuing a performance profile that began the day we purchased the unit.  Our experience was not unusual and we arrived in Horta to find a band of bitterly disappointed Isatphone Pro users, or, more correctly, wannabee users.

In fairness Chris Parker warned us that North of 30 degrees North Latitude the Isatphone Pro would need an expensive permanent antenna installation and that North of 40 we could expect questionable performance.  He was right.  The problem is that the Isatphone Pro uses a geostationary satellite for communications. Any geostationary satellite must be located over the equator and so the further from the equator you are the further from the satellite you are.  Add to this problem with distance the fact that as you move north the satellite lowers itself on your horizon so you must point the phone ever lower on the horizon until finally you just can't "see" the satellite any longer.

Weather Software

At the very least you should take with you a SSB with Pactor or other HF modem or shortwave receiver with a sound jack so you can  run the output into your laptop sound card.

Airmail is excellent free software that will convert the output from an HF modem or a laptop soundcard into weather faxes, 24 hour forecasts, Navtex text broadcasts on your laptop.  It is fool proof and bulletproof, two very good qualities in software.  Airmail will tune the weather fax station for you if you have a controllable HF radio (like the Icom 802).

Jim Corenman and a group of sailor/computer geeks has made a major contribution to safety at sea with his Airmail software.


We took with us seventy gallons of diesel and ten gallons of gasoline.  We did not use half of either of it.

Our diesel tank holds 50 gallons and we carried twenty in deck jugs.  The twenty gallons was a reserve not to be touched until we were within 150 miles of Azores.  The high pressure area which centres on those islands all summer long almost guarantees you will have no wind for the final one hundred to one hundred fifty miles of your voyage.  Twenty gallons of diesel is just what the doctor ordered to make landfall with no worries.

The gasoline powered our Honda generator to keep batteries topped up and we used 5 gallons from Norfolk to Horta.

Our diesel was run on two separate occasions totalling nearly 30 hours as we tried unsuccessfully to move our boat north to a latitude with wind.   When the weather was too rough for the Honda to sit on deck and run we used the diesel to top up batteries.

In the end we used about 25 gallons of fuel.


The Budget Committee speaks on this one.

Here was our big mistake:  Anticipating food would be more expensive in Europe we stocked up before leaving North America.  Boy were we wrong.

Food in Bermuda was hideously dear and we purchased almost nothing there.  Food in Azores is so inexpensive as to be unbelievable.  And it is all fresh.

The rule we used for provisioning was this:

  • Calculate the food needed for a 22 day voyage (2200 nm at 100 nm per day).
  • Add 50% for contingencies
  • Double the result

Had all gone well our voyage, Norfolk to Azores should have taken twenty seven days including five days in Bermuda.  It took thirty four so we were eight days overdue which is thirty percent longer than planned.

In the end we purchased the same food and quantities of food as if we were setting off on a three month tour of the Caribbean.  In the Caribbean of course there are innumerable places to pull in and resupply.  Not so the midAtlantic.  You must carry it all with you from the get go.

Planning food stores is further complicated by the problem of temperature.  Cold rough seas require soups, stews and hot meals;  tropical humidity suggests salads, cold meat and smaller meals.

For our part we anticipated cold temperatures and were totally incorrect.  Hot humid and windless were all that we sailed in.

For such circumstances potatoes and pasta are excellent.  Boil a potato and you have a hot meal.  Let it cool, dice it up with onion, egg and mayo and you have a potato salad.  Same with pasta.  Add pesto and it is a tasty filler of stomachs  served cold in hot weather or hot in cold.  If conditions are rough add tuna or chicken for a full meal that can be served in a single bowl in any conditions.

Spices are basic aboard Meredith.  Buy in small quantities because the moisture will destroy them all by the end of the trip.

When the boat is lurching, and the BOAT IS ALWAYS LURCHING, spicy dishes will obtain nothing but digestive distress.  Plain food in modest quantities are the rule.  Even my bolognese sauce, standard fare on land, caused the Rolaids to appear.   Salt need be added to nothing to enhance flavour.  Every comes with salt already added.  Curmudgeon commented last night that even his cigars, kept safe in a sealed humidor, were coated with salt.  That did not stop him from smoking them.

Fancy is not appreciated at sea, Simple and timely are.  You are feeding guys here, guys on a great testosterone fueled adventure.  Leave the crusts on the sandwiches.  Today's lunch was Supreme de Cinquo de Julio.  I took everything cooked and uneaten (left over) from July 5 til last night (the 9th), threw it in a pot, added handful of olives and a handful of mozzarella.  Mashed pototoes (instant), pasta with pesto, red sauce with meat all went into the pot.

Reaction from the crew: "Are there seconds?"

Learn to make bread.  It is easy, appreciated and how else will you fill your day?

Meals are best served on a very regular timetable and likely earlier than you do on land.   You may not be hungry but that may have more to do with gyrations than lack of calories.  Be late with dinner and the crew will feed itself.  It can get ugly.

It is important also that crew be fed in time to permit an hour or so of quiet cockpit time for digestion, circumstances permitting.  Remember eight o'clock is boater's midnight.

When you are selecting foods use the modern convenience of "instant" whenever it is offered.  We use instant mashed potatoes, premixed pancake mix, canned sauces.  Flavours are not as good as fresh but guess what?  No one cares at least not very much.  And the amount of time spent lurching around your galley is greatly reduced.

Cooking in any galley is a challenge.  As the seaway builds the chef's job becomes hazardous and then some.  Pots should never be more than half full, less if you can do it.  Use your pressure cooker in heavy seas, even for simple heating of foods.  Pressure cookers have lids so when the pot does a jumper it will not cover you in scalding beef broth.

We use "Creepy Skin" our name for that rubbery fabric out of which they make placemats.  This stuff is great for keeping things in their place - like knives and cutting boards.  Put a placemat of this wonder material under the cutting board and you can set your knife down on the mat and grab another potato or onion or move a pot off the heat without worry that your knife and cutting board will run away.  When dirty the placemat just goes in with the dishes for a washup.

Foods and food products we have found to be very useful and surprisingly successful:

  • Good quality instant mashed potatoes.   This trip we used Idahoan brand purchased in Norfolk VA.  No they don't taste like real mashed but they are fast and easy and the taste is pretty good. When you are making shepherd's pie you will be surprised at how well they are received.
  • Krusteaz Pancake Mix: bought at Sam's Club in Norfolk we have a 5 pound resealable bag of Krusteaz pancake mix.  This product makes unbelievably tasty pancakes, better than Capt Curmudgeon would make from scratch for Sunday brunch.  Five stars for this item from both of us.  This product has to be Krusteaz.  They really are special.
  • Soda Stream Home Soda maker.  We have enjoyed reasonably flavoured carbonated beverages daily for a month and we could continue to do so for three or four more if necessary.  For $99 this machine is terrific.
  • Tortillas: These thin flour rounds are versatile and hardy.  They will make up a wrap in no time, lend class to any egg scramble you want to make (spoon the mix into the tortilla, add cheese, salsa, sour cream, green sauce, whatever, return to the pan and heat) and you cannot kill them.  Best before date on the packages we have is after August of this year.

Quantities of a few stock items with which we left Norfolk and in brackets how much was left over on our arrival at Flores.  There was a complication here in that initially I provisioned for 3 crew in all but the third crew (son in law) was unable to join us.  These stores were to meet the tastes of the people I was feeding.  Your tastes will vary but the quantities may help you plan:

20 pounds of fresh meat: 10 pounds frozen, 10 pounds sausage (5 chicken sausage, 5 chorizo) (half left over)
6 pounds of prepared meat: pulled pork, brisket (2 pounds pulled pork left, brisket is all gone)
20 pounds of firm cheese (8 pounds left over)
60 oz of shredded Parmesan (30 oz left over)
3 dozen eggs (all used and could have used more)

20 pounds of rice (13 pounds left over rice)
8 pounds pasta (3 left over)
30 pounds of flour (20 pounds left over)
40 flour tortillas (10 left over)
5 pounds instant mashed potatoes
5 pounds Krusteaz pancake mix

10 pounds of potatoes (used them all and could have used more)
5 pounds carrots (used them all and could have used more)
10 pounds onions (3 pounds left over)

4 pounds butter (2 left over)
60 oz canola oil (30 left over)
4 litres olive oil (2 litres left over)
1.2 litres Soy Sauce (half gone)
.5 litre Worcestershire (half gone)


1 pound dry milk (1/2 lb left)
2 pound sugar (mostly gone)
1 pound brown sugar (less than half left)
1 pound cocoa (untouched)
1 gallon vinegar (half left)
2 pounds yeast (half left)

Sauces and Spreads

44 oz mayo (22 oz left)
160  oz salsa (60 oz left)
35 oz Tomatillo or Green Sauce (8 oz left)
20 oz Sriracha sauce (all used)
4 x 18 oz spicy brown mustard (1 left)
12 oz catsup (most left)
12 oz Frank's Red Hot Sauce
15 oz A-1 sauce
1.5 litres Cheez Whiz (all gone and much lamented by Curmudgeon)


10 cans tuna
10 cans chicken breast
14 cans mushrooms
7 cans baked beans
4 cans black beans
4 cans refried beans
3 cans kidney beans
2 jars stuffed olives
15 cans tomato paste
12 cans diced tomatoes
2 cans whole tomatoes
12 cans tomato sauce
2 cans spaghetti sauce
1 can roti
1 can chipotle peppers
3 jars pepperoncini
2 jars pesto
1 jar patak curry sauce
2 jars of bovril, chicken and beef
12 cans corn
6 cream of chicken soup
1 can cheddar cheese soup
4 cans tomato soup
6 packages dried soup mix

5 pounds peanut butter
2 litres raspberry jam
35 individual serve instant oatmeal

Goodies Bag

5 pounds peanuts in shell
3 pounds dry roasted peanuts
5 pounds individually wrapped dark chocolate pieces
5 pounds trail mix bars
2 pounds red licorice
10 sleeves Lay's Stax potatoe chips (8 untouched)

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