All posts by svpearllee

Frugal Boater: Keeping it Cool

Although we have air conditioning on Pearl Lee we don’t often go to marinas and don’t want to run the generator and air conditioner 24×7. Any HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) professional worth his salt will tell you that three factors effect our comfort. Air temperature, humidity and velocity. Without running the air conditioner we can’t control the first two, so we work on the third, velocity.

Pearl Lee has four hatches and 21 opening ports, all with screens. In the summer,  inside temperature is rarely more than a degree or so warmer than the outside air, unless we have to close up due to rain. When there is just a light breeze our Davis Windscoop helps a lot.

We also have fans, lots of them. We’ve installed six of these little oscillating fans in strategic locations. We have two more that clamp on for temporary use. They work well, even though they only have one speed, but the oscillating action can be turned on or off. Our oldest fans are about 5 years old, with one year of full time living aboard, and still going. We also have a 10″ O2Cool fan in each stateroom. They work well, but I can’t recommend them because a recent revision has made them 9 volt fans instead of the older 12 volt model.

Our biggest problem was a lack of ventilation where we sleep, the aft stateroom. Hatch airflow is mostly blocked by the cockpit and mizzen mast. Although there are six opening ports, they don’t catch much breeze either. So, inspired by another cruiser, I built this hatch fan.

It’s a 16″ radiator “pusher” fan rated at 1400 CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute) of airflow. That’s a lot of air, but at the price of noise and power (about 10 amps). So I added a PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) controller. This little device controls fan speed by turning power on and off 15,000 times per second. Speed is controlled by regulating the ratio of “on” time vs “off”. The box is just a plastic project box, shown here open. I drilled the side holes for ventilation because PWM’s do give off a little heat.

With the fan dialed back from “landing helicopter” to “pleasant breeze” the fan only draws about one amp and is whisper quiet. We can dial in any speed we like, and even flip the whole thing over for use as a whole boat exhaust fan. Our retractable internal screen still works, so bugs stay out.

We use a two conductor trailer plug for quick connect/disconnect, and the entire thing can easily be deployed from inside the boat. One last tip, when buying from Advance Auto Parts you can usually get a discount by purchasing online and then picking up the order (often right away) at your local store.

Here’s to summer breezes, both natural and artificial!

Demoplis, AL to Mobile, AL

(10/23-25/2016)

That sense of urgency we were feeling after Fulton, MS was kicking into high gear now.  After Demopolis we were leaving the Tombigbee to join the Black Warrior River, the final river on our trip.

Leaving Demopolis Yacht Basin we started seeing alligators. Lots of alligators! They seemed to be everywhere, just enjoying the warm sunshine. This is pretty exciting stuff for a couple of yankees on a mastless sailboat!

We passed the remains of the US 80 (Rooster) bridge, where the tugboat Cahaba was caught by the current and capsized while being swept under the bridge in 1979. Miraculously there were no major injuries, but I suspect everyone needed clean underwear.

Thanks to advice we received from locals in Demopolis we spent a peaceful night anchored in the mouth of Bashi Creek.

Pressing on the next morning, the excitement of the day was going through our LAST lock, Coffeeville. After all the locks we’d been through, or in some cases over, this was a big milestone. From this point forward tides would begin to effect the water, and it would get increasingly salty as we moved south.

We anchored for the night in the Alabama River Cutoff, just over 50 miles from the Black Warrior River’s mouth.

Our destination for the day is Mobile, AL! In fact we were both focused on being at Turner Marine by nightfall. As we approached Mobile Bay we encountered a lot of tugs and ships.

This is a very busy port, with international shipping, Naval yards, tugs going in every direction, and that’s before you get to the bay! We had definitely become the small fish in a big pond.

Once we got into Mobile Bay things settled down a bit. Not due to fewer ships, but much more room. We were off the channel the big guys use, so it was pretty peaceful. Dolphins welcomed us to the saltwater as we chugged along to our destination. What could be better?

We wound our way through a long narrow channel that was deep enough for us and finally reached Turner Marine. At first they were putting us on a dock with no finger pier, but with our dinghy on the back of the boat, and a tall bow pulpit at the front, this just wasn’t going to work for us. After a bit of “negotiating” they directed us to a side tie area.

Although we somehow beat our masts there by a few days, we eventually became a sailboat again. We stayed here a bit to rest,  see the sights, take a trip to New Orleans by car and watch the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

Tupelo, MS to Demopolis, AL

(10/20-22/2016)

With fine weather we left Midway Marina in Fulton, MS and pushed on south.  We were starting to feel some urgency. In our minds, Mobile, AL was our river destination. In Mobile we would start a new trip… with masts… as a sailboat… in saltwater!

It was an uneventful day and we spent the night anchored off the Blue Bluff campground near Aberdeen, MS. We were able to take a nice walk through the campground and chatted with other boaters as well as campers.

We had another beautiful sunset, and slept to the sounds of owls and coyotes in the distance.

In the morning we were eager to move along and got an early start.

We had a nice view of the Tom Bevill dam from inside the lock. Otherwise it was another peaceful day of churning our way down the Tombigbee.

We spent the night anchored in an ox bow off the Tombigbee.

The next morning we were met with very low river fog. It was interesting to watch the tiny vortexes form and break apart as we headed out for the day.

Of course the sun quickly took over and the wisps of fog were gone. It was a beautiful day to see the white cliffs near Epes, AL. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we weren’t disappointed.

If you click to see this picture enlarged, you can see a couple fishermen to give you a sense of the scale of these majestic white cliffs.

The cliffs have some mysterious features, and we’d love to learn the full history. They continue for five miles or so. What a beautiful area to cruise through in a slow boat!

You can see the fall colors just starting to pop out. This far south I don’t know if they get much more, but it seemed about perfect to us.

We kept humming along, making miles before nightfall. We had a very tricky refueling stop due to a large tug blocking most of a narrow entrance, but we made a plan and the plan worked. We docked for the night at Demopolis Yacht Basin where cruising boaters have a nightly meeting to discuss the state of the river ahead. This is the last marina before Mobile, AL 200+ miles away.

 

Frugal Boater: Pearl Lee Solar 2.0

On Pearl Lee we make our own electricity, mostly from solar. Occasionally we found ourselves falling a bit short of our needs and supplementing our solar with a generator.  This was mainly during the short days of winter, but also during periods of high use. We don’t have an “electricity budget” as many cruisers do. My goal is to have enough power without any worries. Hence, Pearl Lee Solar (PLS) 2.0.

Our PLS 1.0 configuration consisted of two  Hyundai 280 watt solar panels wired in series and mounted on our dinghy davits (hanging over the back of the boat). Power from these went through a Midnite Solar Classic 150 controller which charged our eight golf cart batteries with nearly 900 amp hour capacity.

We found a solar panel dealer in Miami with very competitive prices, so for PLS 2.0 we decided to add two Suniva 280 watt panels. Bonus, our Suniva panels were made in the USA. The new panels are mono-crystalline, 60 cell panels to match our Hyundai’s as closely as possible. They look different because the backing material is black instead of white.

Initially my plan was to mount these over our bimini  (canvas cockpit cover). The problem I ran into was the mounts to do that would raise the panels dangerously close to the boom, and cost as much as the panels themselves. While searching for a solution, I found some very reasonable mounts at McMaster Carr. This meant removing the canvas and using the solar panels themselves as a hardtop. Pro tip: When drilling the frame slide a piece of scrap between the frame and panel to avoid hitting the panel when your drill breaks through.

This location is impossible to keep in full sun throughout the day, so our goal was a 50% increase in electricity production. Early results are showing a bit more.

The mounts worked great and the panels went on easily. Due to the curve of the top bows, I added some inner rails made from aluminum angle to support the outboard edges where I wanted them. They’re cambered a bit for rain runoff.

Wiring was pretty straight forward, the new panels are wired in series and the new and old strings in parallel. This may not be optimal, but it’s the best our present controller, a Midnite Solar Classic 150, can do.

We’re still working out some aesthetic details like properly joining the panels to our dodger (canvas cover/windshield at the front of  the cockpit). I’m also planning to extend the sides out and down a bit to mimic the protection our canvas bimini gave us.

Pearl Lee Solar 2.0 is working well, but needs a few finishing details. Meanwhile, we already have the design and materials for PLS 2.1. Stay tuned.

Related Articles:

Solar Panel Basics

Charge Controller Basics

Pearl Lee Solar 1.0

 

Frugal Boater: Solar Charge Controller Basics

With all but the smallest of solar panels, you’ll need a charge controller. A charge controller goes between the solar panels and the batteries. It’s job is to limit, or control, the power your panels put into your batteries.  This keeps you from destroying expensive batteries by overcharging. There are two types charge controllers.

Power Width Modulation (PWM) controllers are relatively inexpensive. They work by literally switching the panels on and off very rapidly. That works fine as long as your panel voltage is fairly close to your battery voltage. If you’re a weekend boater who just wants a small panel to keep your battery topped up while you’re away, a PWM controller might do the job. Using a PWM controller will limit the size panels you can use because they don’t have the capability to change the voltage, only turn it on and off.

Multi Power Point Tracking (MPPT) charge controllers are a big step up in performance  and price. These controllers actually adjust voltage/current in an attempt to wring the most power out of your panels. They also have the capability to step the panel voltage down to whatever your batteries need. An MPPT controller takes the 60 volts coming in from our panels and steps it down to our battery charging voltage (around 13.5). When the voltage comes down the amps go up, so very little power is lost in the controller.

Beware of cheap “MPPT” found on Ebay and the like. Some are actually PWM  controllers with “MPPT” printed on them. Since the charge controller is the heart of your system, and could prove dangerous to you and your batteries, it’s best to stick with a quality unit from a reputable manufacturer.

A standard system with one MPPT controller is striving to optimize all panels, meaning that during partial shading some panels are running higher and some lower than optimum. No panels are really performing their best because the controller is working with an average. This is where MPPT optimizers on each panel can be useful. In an environment where shading is unavoidable, this allows each panel to work independently for optimum results. Obviously no two systems and shade scenarios are identical, but tests with optimizers show that during partial shading power output can be increased by 15-25%. In an environment where partial shading can’t be avoided, and space is limited this can be important. That sounds a lot like a sailboat doesn’t it?

Related articles:

Solar Panel Basics

Pearl Lee Solar 1.0

Pearl Lee  Solar 2.0

Frugal Boater: Solar Panel Basics

Solar panels convert solar energy to electricity. A panel is a collection silicon wafers called “cells” wired together to get the required power and voltage. Ideally, all your panels should be exactly the same. In our case they are not, but they’re “close enough” since our old and new panels are all 280 watt, 60 cell panels.

A little spot of shade on the corner of a panel, or a thin line of shade from a rope might not seem like much, but it can drop the power output of the shaded panel significantly. This is because the voltage of the shaded cells drops, rendering them nearly useless. In older panels this shaded area can actually suck power from the sunny cells. Luckily newer panels have bypass diodes that disconnect and bypass the shaded area. The bad news is panels have only three or four bypass diodes, so even a small shadow can result in a large drop in output. This is a big problem on sailboats with masts and rigging casting shadows. I’ve even seen panels mounted with straps over them!

We use mono-crystalline panels because they perform slightly better under less than ideal conditions. You can recognize mono panels because you can see the individual cells which are actually thin slices of a silicon ingot. Multi-crystalline panels are poured, so the entire panel will be one continuous sheet of  silicon, often with some multi-color light refraction. The performance difference is pretty slight, so don’t be afraid of multi-crystalline panels if the price is right.

Ideally, solar panels should be at a right angle to the sun’s rays. Doing so gathers maximum solar energy per square foot of panel. Static installations can easily approximate this, but on a moving boat it’s quite a challenge. I’ve seen a few articulated panels, but  to be effective they take some baby sitting. Most boaters just deal with less output from un-aimed panels.

Solar panels are usually wired in series (+ to -, – to +) to create “strings”. Wiring in series increases voltage, but not amps, so wiring is cheaper and easier because higher amps requires thicker wire. Although there used to be problems with shade on one panel having a negative impact on the entire string, bypass diodes effectively fixed that issue. Strings are then wired in parallel (+ to +, – to -) at the charge controller to keep voltage at manageable levels.

Related articles:

Charge Controller Basics

Pearl Lee Solar 1.0

Pearl Lee Solar 2.0

 

Becoming a Lock Expert

We started our trip from Racine, Wisconsin to Mobile, Alabama with some trepidation about going through locks. After a lot of reading, we still had some lock anxiety. All that melted away after a few, and now we think we have a pretty good idea what we’re doing.

After going through more than 20 locks as high as 57 feet, we think we have it down. I hope this helps ease your anxiety.

Step One: Call the Lock Master. Never assume he knows your intentions. It’s best to call as far ahead as possible. If he’s busy with barge traffic, he’ll let you know and you can slow down or stop for lunch. Sometimes he’ll say “come on ahead, I’ll have it ready for you”. Either way you save time and fuel. Important: All crew on deck must wear personal flotation devices (PFD’s). Ialso recommend a Cubs hat.

Step Two: You will also know by now if there’s a required side to tie on. Usually they let us tie on either side, so we took our preferred starboard tie. Have plenty of fenders out and just loop your midship line over the bollard. Do not tie to the bollard, just put your line around it and back to the boat. This is a floating bollard which floats down, or up in its channel as you move. Keep an eye on it and be ready to release your line in case it jams. Ours never had a problem. We only had two fixed bollards during the trip. In that case you have to adjust your line as the boat goes down or up. Floating bollards are easier, but even the fixed type aren’t really a challenge, they just take more attention during the process.

Step Three: The lock master will close the doors behind you, and signal when the water level is about to begin changing. This is all done with valves and all you do is tend your boat. Here you see Kristi using a boat hook to keep our boat straight. I’m doing the same at the stern. This is necessary because our sailboat tapers at both ends. Boats with straighter sides tend to lay along the wall better.

Step Four: After the giant whirlpool stops… Just kidding! It’s really not very dramatic, the water level just slowly goes up or down and you float with it. Depending on several factors this takes around 10 – 20 minutes in most cases. When the doors open in front of you wait for the lock master’s signal that it’s safe to move. If you’re sharing the lock it’s simply first in, first out unless you’ve made other arrangements. There typically is some turbulence on the downstream side,but it’s not terrible. Just power through it and go on to the next lock.

Here’s a look around just after we dropped 31 feet.

I always half expect King Kong to be on the other side of these doors.

And finally, a boater who obviously did it wrong. Just follow the simple rules above and you can avoid this.

Bonus Step Five: Your fenders will get very dirty in the locks. Barkeeper’s Friend will clean them very efficiently.

 

Pickwick Lake to Tupelo, MS

(10/18-19/2016)

After our refreshing stay in the waterfall cove we bid Pickwick Lake a fond farewell. We joined the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom) and headed south with fall colors starting to come out. The Tenn-Tom was a huge public works program by the Tennessee Valley Authority. As the name implies the Tenn-Tom joins the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers. Completed in 1984, more earth had to be moved than for the Panama Canal! The waterway has a minimum width of 300 feet and minimum depth of 9 feet for it’s 234 mile length. This greatly shortens travel for commercial shipping going to places like Nashville. It’s also more accommodating to recreational boating than the lower Mississippi.

Shortly after leaving Pickwick Lake we had to travel through the Divide Canal. This 25 mile section of the Tenn-Tom is 100% made canal. There is no stopping allowed in this section, so be prepared. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s also necessary.

Because we wanted some time to explore Tupelo, we anchored for the night in Natchez Trace Recreation Area. This way we could get to the Tupelo area early enough for some land fun.

On the way to Tupelo, we had to go through the very impressive John Rankin Lock, taking us down 31′. Those are the entrance doors towering above us just before we moved out on the other side.

We docked for the night at Midway Marina in Fulton, intent on getting to Tupelo. They have loaner cars, so no problem right?

When we got in the car we found a note that said the car is to stay within Fulton city limits. Being pirates, we found a way and got to have a brief visit at Elvis Presley’s birthplace.

It was very illustrative of just how poor his family was during his formative years. There was also lots of Elvis memorabilia from every stage of his career, but we found his home to be the most interesting.

Only two rooms in total, the other being a simple bedroom. We didn’t get to see Paul Thorn though, so I was a little disappointed.

Iuka, MS and Lake Pickwick

(10/13-17/2016)

We had a lot of fun meeting people and generally hanging out at Aqua Yacht Harbor.  Since they have loaner vehicles we got a chance to see the surrounding area, including Shiloh National Military Park. Of course we also found some other fun  and mischief.

We found a shark, even though we were still on the rivers. After looking around we decided this wasn’t the place we were looking for.

On down the road we found a wonderful little place, apparently owned by Big Foot(or is it Sasquatch?), but we weren’t sure what he was doing. We didn’t ask. The food and service were great though and the place had a very woodsy feel.  It’s on Highway 57 across the dam. You can’t miss it, just look for Big Foot.

 

AssWhaffle Yacht Club members Terry and Marlane showed us their beautiful motor yacht, treated us like family and gave us a boat tour of the area. This lead to a little detour for Pearl Lee, as you’ll see.

Wayne and Beth just “wanted to see what the sea gypsies were up to”. That chance encounter became a weekend of fun, laughter and several docktails. The boating community is full of wonderful people.

We really enjoyed our few days here, but eventually it was time to move on. However we had one more thing to do. A slight detour and one more night in the area was in order because Terry and Marlane showed us a hidden gem of an anchorage on Pickwick Lake.

A tiny cove with a waterfall. Completely protected, and even at winter pool it was 14 feet or so deep! Here’s a 360 degree video just after we anchored.

As you can see, being late in the season, we were the only boat here. Terry said it fills up on summer weekends though. This was such a beautiful spot we really hated to leave! There was even a steep trail to the top  the falls.

The night was lit up by a full moon. How perfect is that? It was like we had a full day of Zen.  We had a brief visit from a small power boat and a visit from a jet skier who just wanted a few minutes watching the water. What a place! Thanks Terry and Marlane, this was an awesome gift.

I’ll close with a video we shot from the base of the water fall.

Shiloh!

(10/13/16)

While staying at Aqua Yacht Harbor we decided to take a short trip to Shiloh National Military Park.

If you go, we highly recommend the CD audio tour. It lets you see the various battle fields in chronological order while explaining the what’s and why’s.

Although the orchard is no longer an orchard and other vegetation has changed you get a clear idea of what went on.

Particularly interesting to us was the naval bombardment from the river, which we had just come down in Pearl Lee.

History comes alive in places like this. Although the cannons don’t thunder, and men don’t scream, the ancient echoes still seem to linger. Seeing places that you’ve only read about gives a much greater sense of what transpired here than any book or movie ever could.

The Shiloh National Cemetery is here as well. It’s good to go to places like this and reflect on our history and what so many of us owe to so few. This is hallowed ground and hopefully will be treated as such for generations to come.