Category Archives: Frugal Boater

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!

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!

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


Batteries Replacement Day

Today, we replaced our “house” batteries. These batteries are to us, what the electric company is to “normal” folks. They store all the power from our solar panels, and supply ALL of our electricity for lights, information, entertainment, and even cold beer.

What does this picture represent?

500+ pounds of batteries pulled out of a hole in the floor and moved to the salon (living room). Then carried up a seven step ladder to the cockpit (driving area). Lifted from the cockpit and moved to the aft (rear) deck. 250+ pounds of batteries then lowered five feet into the dinghy (little boat) because it took two half mile trips to get them to shore. Once ashore, lifted from the dinghy and placed on land. Finally, 500+ pounds of batteries loaded into a car.

After a 4 hour round trip to Miami, reverse the procedure to get 500+ pounds of batteries back into that hole in the floor. (Add some depletion of bank accounts and wrangling of very thick electrical cables).

Please don’t get me wrong, we love this life, but it’s not all about sipping umbrella drinks and watching sunsets. Sometimes it’s about overcoming obstacles and being as self sufficient as we possibly can.

If you’ve read this far hoping for techie details, Pearl Lee uses 6 volt golf cart batteries wired in series pairs to give 12 volts.  We have four 12 volt pairs, each rated 215 amp hours for a total of 860 amp hours. These are broken  Our new batteries are Sam’s Club labeled Duracell but actually made by East Penn.

Frugal Boater: A Household Refrigerator For Our Sailboat

Our old Norcold 6.5 cu ft refrigerator was slowly on it’s way to the graveyard. Mind you, it was at least 10 years old, so it’s hard to blame Norcold. The 12v board burned out, so we were running it on an inverter. No parts were available for such an old model. The seals were leaking causing excessive frost build up. It was using at least double the power it should. It was past due for a replacement.

After looking at direct replacements from Norcold and others we found it hard to justify $1400 – $2000 for a 6.5 cu ft refrigerator. It was time to get creative.

After lots of measuring and internet shopping we found that 9.9 cu ft home refrigerators had a pretty standard form factor and would fit (just barely) the space we had. We spent a lot of time measuring, planning and calculating.

One nice thing is that home refrigerators have an energy label with estimated annual power usage in Kwh. I initially planned for an energy star model, but in this size there just wasn’t enough difference to justify the cost. Ours was rated 392Kwh, so that meant 1.07Kwh per day. Less than our old one was using. If you’d rather think in terms of Amp Hours simply divide Watt Hours (1070 in this case) by 12 to give you 89ah at 12 volts. There’s also a little loss in the inverter, so we figured 100ah.

When a refrigerator we liked went on sale it was time to pull the trigger. We delayed our departure from West Palm Beach so that we could use the free town dock, plus nearby Uhaul and Home Depot.

Our day started with pulling our the old refrigerator to make sure there were no surprises, and mainly to make sure we only needed one trip to the hardware store. After determining bulkhead thickness and other details it was time for a ride in the Uhaul Truck.

Everything went smoothly at Home Depot. We purchased the refrigerator online to make sure it would be in stock. They had the refrigerator waiting and we had a list of necessary bits and pieces to do the installation.

Back at the dock, with the new refrigerator waiting in the truck, it was time to evict the old refrigerator. This operation had been planned carefully. It started with removing/folding out dodger out of the way.

We rigged a block and tackle, borrowed from our dinghy davits, to the main boom for use as a crane.

After removal of our companionway steps, we moved the old, 100 lb refrigerator to the spot they used to occupy. From here we would pull the refrigerator straight up to the cockpit with the hel
p of our 6:1 tackle.

Just a little padding to the protect the teak woodwork and it worked like a charm. Then it was a matter of swinging the boom, with refrigerator, out over the dock. Everything was going to plan.

Time to get the new refrigerator out of the truck. After temporarily removing the doors from the new unit it we simply reversed the process to put the new refrigerator inside the boat. The real grunt work was over, so it was time to get to work and make this new unit fit.

First, after more careful measuring we had to cut the hole to size. Our little Harbor Freight Multi-Tool made short work of the cutting, including a cut flush with the floor. Next was a “shelf” to support the refrigerator. This is mostly an installation aid, since it won’t be the sole support. You can’t see it in the picture, but the shelf is supported by brackets rated at 1000 lb plus steel strapping added to stop flex.

The new refrigerator is really supported much like the old one, with a flange screwed into the bulkhead. We used aluminum angle mounted flush with the front of the refrigerator. It’s held by #8 screws about every 6″, both to the refrigerator and the bulkhead. It should be pretty strong. Final details include hook and eye latches for when the boat is in motion. We still have a little aesthetic work to do. We plan to paint the aluminum black to match the refrigerator, and a trim panel will be added to the top. Other than that, we’re pretty happy.

We have a larger, frost free refrigerator for about a quarter the cost of an AC/DC marine/RV unit. Power consumption is manageable for us and the beer is ice cold!


Frugal Boater: Pearl Lee Solar 1.0

In order to maintain our independence and lifestyle, we added a solar power system to Pearl Lee. While solar power can make you more independent you must consider power generation, storage and consumption as a complete system.

We started by cutting our power consumption. We found LED bulbs for our original interior light fixtures on Amazon. These cut power, and interior heat, a real win-win for us.  We wanted to keep a warm glow similar to incandescent lights, so we stuck with “warm white” or 2700k color. One bulb is brighter than the other. That’s no accident, it allows us warm, soft light when one is lit, but nice, bright light when both are lit.

We were also be able to find LED bulbs for navigation lights. This was a bit more time consuming since we had to have bulbs as close to original as possible. That means 2700k color temperature because that matches the incandescent lights they were designed for. For equivalent brightness look for an LED bulb between one quarter and a fifth the original incandescent bulb. The toughest part was finding LED replacements with equivalent dimensions. If done correctly, there is no reason LED’s can’t be effective replacements in incandescent fixtures.

Solar power panels
Our (dirty) solar panels

Solar power really starts with solar panels. Solar panel size/shape may be dictated by the mounting locations available on your boat. They must be as shade free as possible. Even a line of shade from a line can significantly reduce output. On our ketch the only reasonably sunny spot was to mount them on our dinghy davits. It was a rainy, cloudy day when I took this picture, so I hadn’t bothered to clean them. Normally keeping them clean will help output a lot. After all, dirt is shade. Normally, while they’re still wet with dew I just squeegee them off.

Our panels are Hyundai 280 watt, 32 volt panels measuring about 39″x64″. Because of the size, shipping is expensive, so it’s best to find a local dealer or do a group buy with some power panel mountingWe have two panels, totaling 560 watts, but keep in mind that’s under theoretically ideal conditions. Our mounts don’t even have a way to aim them at the sun, so we’ll never achieve that output. We simply mounted them flat on our davits using angle aluminum, which also stiffens them for the rough ride they get on a boat.

The next item in a solar power system is a Charge Controller, which is a battery charger powered by solar panels. We needed a controller solar power controllerwith the capacity to handle both the volts and watts from our panels while delivering the right voltage to our batteries. There are two types, Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) Multiple Power Point Tracking (MPPT). PWM controllers are less expensive, but can’t regulate output voltage. Because of this, a PWM system requires solar panel voltage to be near battery voltage. MPPT controllers may be a little more efficient, but they big news is they step down higher voltages to what our batteries need.

For us, the higher cost of an MPPT controller was more than offset by the savings of having two large panels, which put out 32 volts, rather than many smaller panels. We chose the Midnite Solar Classic 150 due to features and reputation. Note in the installation above there are appropriately sized breakers between panels/controller and controller/batteries.

One thing we like about the Midnite Solar Classic is that the p1000612control panel can be remotely mounted. This allowed us to “hide” the controller, breakers and wiring while still keeping tabs on our solar production. I too this picture on a very overcast day, but we’re still making a little solar power. So far our best days have been a bit over 200 amp hours (2.5 kilowatt hours), not bad. You can see by the voltage that our panels are currently mounted in series, but we can change to parallel easily should we wish to experiment.

Finally, we need to store all this solar power. Our system charges eight Crown CR-225 batteries. These are heavy duty, deep cycle, 6 volt golf cart batteries. Our batteries are wired  in series/parallel configuration. That means every pair is wired in series to give 12 volts, then the pairs are wired in parallel to give us a total of 900 amp hours. Since you should never go below 50% that gives 450 amp hours (or 5.4 kilowatt hours) of “useable” storage.

Our solar power works pretty well, but sometimes struggles to keep up during periods of high usage or low solar, such as the short days of December.

Related Articles:

Solar Panel Basics

Charge Controller Basics

Pearl Lee Solar 2.0