All posts by svpearllee

Frugal Boater: The Cost of Living on a Boat

People are often curious about what it costs to live on a boat. We’d love to give them the clear answer they seek, but asking what it costs to live on a boat is no different than asking what it costs to live in a house. Really! It varies that much because we’re all different. So first, let’s have a look at the major expenses of living.

What we spend on groceries, entertainment, clothes and general shopping probably varies more by person than any other factor. On the water you’ll still have the same likes and dislikes you had on land. You’ll eat the same foods and have the same desires. Remember, you’ll still be you, just on a boat.

One important consideration is owing money. Debt payments, whether for your boat/home, or anything else, make up a large portion of the budget for many people. We got off the hamster wheel of debt. For us, that was a big factor in lowering our bills and making this lifestyle possible. That means not getting everything we want, and often waiting for what we do get. It’s satisfying though, to know that everything we have is “paid for”.

Health care expenses probably won’t change much whether you sleep over land or water. Many find a boat to be a more active, healthy lifestyle. When traveling, you may have to use out of network providers, so factor that in. In many of the countries boaters tend to cruise to, health care charges are so small that most boaters simply pay out of pocket. Often the total cost is comparable to their co-pay in the US.

Do you own a car? If so, registration,  insurance, fuel, maintenance and parking become part of your budget. When we were actually cruising, we used bikes, buses and Uber. Now that we’re stationary for a while, we decided to buy an inexpensive, used car. A car can add mobility and convenience if you stay in one area a while, but as always, convenience costs. 

Since I mentioned maintenance, how much of your own maintenance and repairs do you do? More importantly, how much do you spend paying someone else to fix things for you? Learning to be your own mechanic, plumber, electrician, carpenter, etc. can save you lots of money while also making you more independent. After all, when traveling by boat, the repairman may be very far away.

None of the above will change significantly simply because your new home floats, but what about boat specific expenses?

If you choose to keep your boat at a dock, marina fees can add up fast. In some areas they may equal or surpass your old mortgage or rent payment. Docks charge by the foot, so size does matter. Most long term docks also charge separately for electricity.

You’ll find that size matters a lot with boat expenses, from marina fees, to bottom cleaning to oil changes. As boat length increases, maintenance seems to go up exponentially. Bigger boats have bigger everything from rigging and anchors to engines and props. In addition, every comfort and convenience item on your boat requires maintenance and occasional repair or replacement. This really isn’t different than a house, but it’s something to think about when choosing your boat.

If you and your boat are more self sufficient you can eliminate or minimize dock expenses by anchoring. This relies on your own skills, judgement and equipment to keep you safely in place. It also means a dinghy ride to get to shore. At a dock a dinghy is an accessory, at anchor it becomes your second most important piece of equipment,right behind your anchor system. In some places you may still need to pay for use of a dinghy dock, but it will be far less than docking the mother ship. In many places you can find spots to access land with your dinghy at no, or very minimal, cost.

Communication might be a little different from your house. Obviously there will be no land lines unless you’re at a dock. Most people have mobile phones these days, and they generally work as long as you can see land. Of course in some remote areas they don’t work on land or water. Your phone needs to be able to “see” a mobile phone tower. While anchored in the Everglades we found that hoisting our phone up the mast allowed us to send and receive text messages.

For Internet access some boaters use free wifi at coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Some boats have wifi boosters to pick up those signals from the mothership. We have unlimited data plans on our mobile phones that work well for us in the US. So factor in your communication expenses, whatever they may be. Some people don’t mind minimal, or even no, communications at times. Others have to be connected all the time. Be honest with yourself about your needs and wants.

In addition to “normal” communications we have a couple more.  We use a $5 per month sim card from AlarmSim for our alarm. This allows our alarm system to notify us of intrusion by people or water. We also use an old phone with an anchor alarm app. A Freedom Pop sim with no monthly charge lets it notify us if the boat moves farther from the anchor point than it should..

In our modern world a land based address is sometimes a necessity. Mail forwarding services can fill that need for a small fee. St Brendan’s Isle gives us a permanent mail “home” and they will forwar mail whenever and wherever we request. For additional fees they can even scan your mail and email it to you. Having a Florida “address” allowed us to become official Florida residents. No more state income tax!.

You’ll need some fuel, but again, how much depends on you and your boat. Is your boat power or sail? How big and how fast? If sail, are you sailing purist, or do you start the engine when the wind dies? Do you plan to have a motor for your dinghy or row row row your boat? Do you run an engine to supply your electricity? These are just a few of the variables, and some might change depending on your current situation, location or time of year.

Since we paused our cruising to get jobs we find our expenses have crept up. I think that’s natural due to a car, work clothes, more laundry, etc, but of course the net dollars are still positive so it’s all good.

So, what does it cost? If you read this far you’ve probably figured out that there is no simple answer. What works for us, may not work for you, or vice versa. We know boaters who live for well under $1000 per month. We also know boaters who spend $4000 or more per month. For really large yachts that wouldn’t even pay the marina bill.

Whether on land or water, you can live the lifestyle of Henry David Thoreau or Robin Leach. Only you, and your wallet, can decide where in that spectrum you fall.

Frugal Boater: Sail Cover Painting

Since our sails and sail covers were off, it seemed like a good time to do something I had wanted to do for a while. Adding our name to our mainsail cover. Although the process was a little slow, it was fairly straight forward and simple.

What you’ll need: A sail cover, computer, printer and paper, tape, acrylic paint, paint brushes, and carbon paper. You’ll also need poster software. I used “Easy Poster Printer“, it’s free for PC’s.

I used the same font we used for the name on our stern. Of course you can use any font you want. If you’re looking for the easy button choose block lettering. I then blew it up to the appropriate size using “Easy Poster Printer” for PC’s. Just print, and tape the pages together. Carefully position the paper on the sail cover, then slip some carbon paper under it and trace with a stylus. I used a pen with the ball point retracted.

Once you have the design transferred, it’s a matter of taking your time and painting inside the lines. If you had some minor shifting of the pattern as you traced it’s easy to fix during the painting stage. I used acrylic paint because it adheres well to fabric without hurting it. I have used it in the past to restore sail insignia. It holds up pretty well, and you can always touch it up. I’m no sign painter, but I managed to stay inside the lines most of the time.

I like the finished product, especially since our Mack Pack covers are usually on display even while we’re sailing. If your boat sits at a dock, this makes it easy for people on the dock to identify your boat.

So the next time you have some time and want to add a little custom touch to your boat, go for it!

Hurricane Preparation and Aftermath, Hurricane Irma

Forgive me for making such a long blog post this time. I have a lot to say about our hurricane preparation for Hurricane Irma. ~ Tom

hurricane preparation for Hurricane Irma
Hurricane preparation in the mangroves

We live on our Endeavour 43 sailboat, Pearl Lee, so we keep a close eye on tropical weather systems. Watching Hurricane Irma since well before she was a hurricane was almost a hobby for us. As she strengthened we became more concerned.

Since Hurricane Irma looked most likely to go up the eastern seaboard, our concern was mostly for friends in her projected path. Boot Key Harbor was expected to be effected, but due to distance, was predicted to get only tropical storm force winds. We were prepared to stay on our mooring with just a bit of hurricane preparation. Knowing that food and water might be hard to get immediately after the storm, we stocked Pearl Lee accordingly.

On Monday, September 4 the computer models changed drastically. Suddenly Hurricane Irma was headed right for us! We thought about it all day as we anxiously checked every update. By the end of the day we made the decision to activate our hurricane preparation plan.

To understand hurricane preparation, you should understand a bit about hurricanes. Damage from hurricanes is by two modes, wind and water. Wind force goes up exponentially with velocity. Doubling velocity, results in 10 times the force, and reports for Hurricane Irma at this stage were in the 150 mph range. That’s 100 times the force of 37 mph wind! Storm surge is caused by the wind and low pressure, making artificial tides that can be far higher, or lower, than normal. I have read that after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, all of the keys were under water due to a 20 foot storm surge. Wind driven waves can also be immense. Because hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise the direction of the wind depends which side of the storm you’re in, and will change as the storm moves. Pearl Lee is a good, strong boat, but even aircraft carriers avoid major hurricanes.

With the help of our friend Jeremy, who drove down from Fort Lauderdale, we began hurricane preparation on Tuesday, September 5. The entire harbor was abuzz with activity, as many prepared for Hurricane Irma’s arrival. Here’s a run down of what we did, and why:

  • We removed all sails. I believe this was essential to saving the boat, and the sails. Even a furled sail, or a sail cover can represent a lot of drag with hurricane force winds. Many damaged boats litter the harbor with remnants of tattered sails still blowing in the wind.
  • Our solar panels were all removed. Being horizontal, our solar panels don’t catch much wind, but in a hurricane the boat will sometimes be sideways to the wind. At that point she’ll heel (lean) allowing wind to catch those big flat surfaces.
  • Canvas and frames were removed. By now you’re getting the idea. Even the one inch tubing of our dodger and bimini frames can add significant load during hurricane strength wind.
  • We removed both booms. Not a problem with a head wind, but we knew Pearl Lee would get hit with some side wind.
  • All running rigging (ropes), were taken off to reduce windage. We kept the running backstays, feeling the extra support for the masts was more important.
  • We moved Pearl Lee to our predetermined hurricane hole. With our 5’6″ draft we were somewhat limited in our choices. I picked a 90 degree corner in a canal for the best possible wind protection. A narrow canal that you can tie to both sides of would be better, but we didn’t have that option here.
  • We tied into the mangroves with seven lines, each from a different hard point on the boat and going to different mangroves. Spreading the load is important. All lines were a minimum of 50′ long to allow for storm surge, and each was tied with a bowline knot around several large roots.
  • Of course we  used chafe protection on all lines. We had a few bits of fire hose, but also used 3/4″ garden hose. Both did their job effectively. We had no visible chafe on our lines. That may have been because Pearl Lee was pushed into the mangroves most of the time.
  • We set bow and stern anchors to help hold us off the mangroves and land. More would have been better, but time and materials didn’t allow it. We had the anchors but not enough rope.
  • Since our topping lifts attach at the mastheads, we wrapped a halyard several times around mast and topping lift to keep everything secure.
  • Cleared the deck of everything that could become a projectile. We both gave the deck a final walk before leaving, making sure everything that could be removed was, and everything else was secure.
  • We closed through hulls to minimize chances of sinking. Anything can happen.  Through hulls are big valves that let water in or out for drains, engine cooling, etc. Closing these simply removes some catastrophic possibilities.
  • The refrigerator was emptied and turned it off to preserve battery power for our bilge pumps. We actually turned off power to everything except our bilge pumps for two reasons. Fire safety in the case of water getting in or wires chafing, and to give our pumps the best chance of running until our return if necessary.
  • We stored our dinghies in the concrete marina building. If we hadn’t had this very convenient option, we would have filled them water, sinking them for later retrieval.
This aerial photo was our first evidence of Pearl Lee’s condition after the storm.

It was a lot of work, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking THIS could be the detail that saves Pearl Lee from Hurricane Irma. At about noon on Wednesday, September 6 we left Pearl Lee hoping we had done enough, and for some luck, as we headed to safety in Alabama with Jeremy’s family.

Friends and family supported us the whole time, offering their homes and any other help they could. It was truly incredible. We are truly blessed to know such wonderful people.

On Sunday, September 10 our hurricane preparation was put to the ultimate test. Hurricane Irma hit the keys as a Category 4 storm about 25 miles WSW of Boot Key Harbor. The most dangerous NE quadrant of her eye wall grazed Boot Key Harbor with winds near 150 mph. She was the most powerful storm to hit the Keys in half a century.

Each number represents a mooring that had a boat attached before the storm.

Here is a picture showing the part of the mooring field that Pearl Lee is normally in, after the storm. Each number represents a mooring, and they were all full before the storm. Unfortunately the boat that occupied “our” mooring is gone.

Our second Pearl Lee sighting came when NOAA released satellite images of the area.

So, how’d we do? Approximately 80% of the boats in Boot Key Harbor were total losses. Many of our friends and neighbors, on water and land, lost everything. Pearl Lee survived with no structural damage. Pearl Lee’s port side has a lot of paint rubbed off from the mangroves Hurricane Irma pushed her against. A mangrove branch punched out a portlight (window) in our head (bathroom) and damaged the headliner. A lifeline stanchion was ripped out by pushing against the mangroves as our boat heeled (leaned)in the wind. Our bow mounted fender holders were bent, but repairable. One was ripped off and found six feet away on a mangrove branch. We found scuffs of her bottom paint on mangrove branches five feet above the water. All in all, I’ll give us a B+.

We broadcast live video of our return to our Facebook friends. You can see that video here.

Here are some things I think we did right:

  • We had a hurricane preparation plan in advance. We made our plans when we were calm and had plenty of time. Part of that was scouting out locations, so we knew where to find shelter and enough water depth.
  •  Once our decision was made we didn’t look to see what everyone else was doing. Confident in our plans and abilities, we moved ahead rather than relying on group think.
  • We were educated, if inexperienced. Literally decades of research, plus talking to hurricane survivors gave us the confidence to make a plan and stick to it, regardless of what those around us were doing. Still, imagine how we felt doing things we’d never done before that we hoped would save our home.
  • We weren’t concerned with overkill. After a hurricane, no one ever says “I wish I hadn’t done so much hurricane preparation.”
  • I was scared. Fear is a great motivator, and I think it was an asset. We didn’t bother listening to the people saying it wouldn’t amount to much, we acted quickly and thoroughly to save our home.

Just after climbing aboard I made this short video of the apparent damage. We had not yet found the broken port, and the port side of Pearl Lee was still against the mangroves.

As for lessons learned, we have a few.

  • Pack your bags before taking the boat apart. Once we stuffed all the equipment from above deck down below, it became nearly impossible to access the things we needed.
  • Ditto for the through hulls. I’m also going to tie open four that are attached to our cockpit drains. In my haste, I closed one of those.
  • Keep our bottom and prop clean, even if we don’t plan to move. Ours was a bit fouled, and that can limit how far we can move the boat as well as effect our maneuvering ability.
  • We need more rope! We lost a couple 50′ dock lines over the last year, and I was slow in replacing them. I won’t let that happen again.
  • I’ll buy and set up spare anchor rodes (ropes) ready for our spare anchors. This would have allowed us to set a couple more anchors. That might have saved us some paint, or maybe not.
  • Our two bow anchors have 5/16″ chain making them very hard to set out with the dinghy due to weight.  I really need to be set them from the mother ship before we tie in.
Untieing lines deep in the mangroves.

We also learned that we are “abnormal” enough that government agencies can’t understand us. While we are self contained, making our own power, and with water and cooking gas for a month or more the county commissioners refused to let us back in until utilities were restored. This was nerve wracking, due to possibilities of damage that needed immediate attention, and looting. They finally let us, and all Marathon residents, back in a week after the storm. Five days after FDOT said the roads and bridges were passable.

Unfortunately at least one family lost their home/boat when it sank at their dock after the storm, but before they were allowed to return, due to no power to run the bilge pumps.

Questions we’ve been asked:

  • Why didn’t we take Pearl Lee and run? That’s pretty simple. Hurricane Irma was a giant storm, hundreds of miles wide. All of Florida was within her possible path. Anywhere we ran, we risked running right into her teeth, and in unfamiliar territory at that. Pearl Lee goes about 7 mph, and at that point Hurricane Irma was traveling at 15 mph. Outrunning the storm just wasn’t possible.
  • How did you know where to put Pearl Lee? We made plans months ago. Kristi (Keg) and I spent a day exploring by dinghy, checking depths and scouting out locations. This way we knew exactly where we wanted to put Pearl Lee in the Boot Key Harbor area. We also identified backup spots in case someone beat us to our first choice. We even scouted some sites near Key Largo and a couple on the mainland.
  • Why didn’t you stay on your mooring? That’s a good question since Boot Key Harbor is the best protected anchorage in the keys, and the moorings here are hella strong. The answer is simply, other boats. With hundreds of boats moored, anchored and docked here, every one of them had the potential to break loose and turn into a battering ram. They can then break other boats free to be more battering rams. In fact, that type of chain reaction is exactly what happened, destroying boats and docks.
  • If you had a do over, would you change your hurricane preparation? Apart from the lessons learned (above), no. I’m satisfied that we did the right thing. Hurricane survival requires a bit of luck, but with good hurricane preparation, I still believe you can put the odds in your favor.

Here’s a video, shot by friends, showing what Boot Key Harbor suffered. Keep in mind that most of these boats represent someone’s home, hopes and dreams. As you can see, our damage is comparatively trivial.


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


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


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.