Preparing for Live-Aboard Cruising on my J/34

Four parts-

Part I- Preparation
Part II- First Month
Part III- Cruising Bahamas
Part IV- Bahamas Redux

By Glenn Cooper

glenn  pam

In early spring 1997 we bought J-34c hull #30, renamed her Colette (the name of my daughter) and sailed her from Maine to her new home north of Boston. In 1996 I decided I wanted to try "the cruising life", including passagemaking. During the summer of 1996 I started looking at cruisers that would be seaworthy and comfortable for a couple. All the boats I had in mind were of the "hefty" offshore variety. Boats like Cape Dorys, Pacific Seacrafts, and Island Packetts were catching my eyes. In fact, by early fall, I had visited a Cape Dory "36" that started tugging at my heart.

In November I took a course on blue water sailing that included participating in a delivery of a 40'er from one of the above manufacturers. We planned on a 6-7 day cruise across the Gulf Stream direct from Norfolk to Marsh Harbor in the Abacos. While at the Norfolk marina, prior to leaving, both another crew and me had to make trips up the mast. It took two of us on a winch to get someone up the "stick" even though both of us going up weighed no more then 170 lbs. We also did plenty of climbing to help the guys doing the cranking. Because the sails were all so small the winches, sized, accordingly, made getting to the masthead very difficult for two people to accomplish.

On the voyage south, after a bouncing few days following the passage of a deep cold front, we met 10-15 knot winds that kept us close-hauled. It was rare that we weren't motor sailing. The Master of the boat, a very well known cruiser and ocean racer (he writes for several of the main sailing magazines and gives seminars) chatted with me about my ideas of having a sturdy and comfortable cruiser, and my preference for sailing over motoring.

He (for obvious reasons it would be unfair to use his name) told me about a recent Bermuda trip he took on a medium sized J-Boat (a "105" or a "35", I recall), " ... it was mainly heavy weather sailing the whole way and I couldn't imagine any boat providing a faster, safer and drier ride. It was a ball ... nothing like what we're experiencing now." At one point I asked, " ... knowing my "dreams" what kind of boat would you steer me to?" The answer: a medium sized "J" cruiser. A week after returning from the Abacos I started doing some research and contacted Rich Hill who represents J-Boats, in Marblehead, to ask him to find J-34c's to look at.

Pam Rickard and I have lived in the same apartment complex for several years. In the spring of 1997 she left for England to help prepare a 53' sloop for a double-handed cruise across the Bay of Biscay to gunkhole the coasts of Spain, Portugal and on to Gibralter. Pam is an experienced cruiser and has participated in blue-water deliveries. She owned a Freedom "32" which was lovingly kept in the Newport, R.I. area as well as larger boats.

Going across the Bay of Biscay Pam and her partner hit a series of gales, the first of which ended the life of the windvane. Steering for 90% of the passage was by tiller. Imagine tiller steering a 53' boat that suffers from too much weather helm! Two hours on and two hours off. Clearly Pam was either headed for the cruising life, or the World Wrestling Federation!

This past December Pam and I started talking about living our cruising dreams together. As Pam had owned a TPI built boat she at least knew mine was a well-constructed yacht, but sailing on it was months off. And of course there was the issue of space. Pam, like myself, gets a wider grin when the engine is silent and the prop is feathered. We've been out for several mini cruises this spring in all sorts of weather. Pam now thinks she's suspended on the sea surface by eagle's wings.

When we really thought about it "Colette" was constructed for offshore and coastal life but the onboard gear really limited us to being out for only days at a time. Could we make Colette comfortable and self-reliant for two-week visits to secluded destinations on the Bahama bank? What did we need to do to provide for our safety?

The J-34c has shallow bilge's and "cramming" all we needed onboard would certainly be a challenge. Between reading other cruisers' narratives, kicking ideas around between ourselves and consulting our Yard (Crockers in Manchester-By-The-Sea) we have decided on the following bits of gear and modifications. At this point 95% of the changes have been made. So far no regrets but the acid test really lies ahead!

We'd like to share what we've done and welcome any thoughts and suggestions you may have. We'll be at the "J" cruising rendezvous later in August and look forward to having you "kick" Colette's tires and checking out all the "goodies" we have aboard.

Ground tackle
The reality is once in the Bahamas we expect to be anchored 95% of the time. When we took possession of Colette the ground tackle inventory was a 10 lb. Fortress and a 12 lb. Hi-Tensile Danforth, each with 5' of chain and 200' rodes. Beefing up our anchoring capability was a no-brainer. It may be the only way for a cruiser to acquire cheap insurance.

glenn1We did two things: First we invested in much heavier ground tackle in the form of a 35' CQR and a large Fortress stowed in a bag which will be the primary storm anchor in sand. The CQR is backed up with 30' of 3/8th inch chain and connected to a heavy nylon rode with a large swivel (if we had the displacement we'd prefer an all chain rode). The swivel keeps chain kinks to a minimum and makes it easier to get the gear past the roller furler drum and into the chain/rode locker. We don't have a windlass.

Then, to complete the anchoring system, our yard built up the boat's stemhead. To begin with we felt the anchor roller set-up undersized for the stresses (especially with the bigger anchor) we can expect to face when anchoring in a blow. Moreover a CQR is always more manageable if it can be secured on the bow roller with a husky clevis pin passing through the anchor and the roller assembly.

The second part of getting heavier ground tackle in place required cutting the original anchor roller protrusion off and replacing it with the bigger one maximized for our new CQR. We were concerned about damage to the fore deck with all the heavier gear rubbing on the non-skid surface. To protect it we've had a stainless plate laid down to protect wherever chain or anchor parts are apt to scrape. To cover all the area adequately the bow pulpit was partially lifted so the plate could be slipped under. We think the arrangement is pretty neat.

Our boat has a starboard anchor locker on deck. This is now the home of our small Fortress. With Colette's moderate wind profile we look forward to getting lots of use from our "lunch hook". Manually getting a 35' CQR on and off with 30' of chain ain't nothing like playing with a yo-yo!

The electrical system
When Colette joined the family she had a 55 amp. alternator, a two stage regulator and two six year old flooded batteries rated at 170 amps. capacity. Since we would be adding refrigeration and using accessories far more than in the past boosting the onboard electrical system was a no-brainer. Deciding what to do, however, was a brain "burner".

You can't imagine how confused we got before deciding on our present system. We investigated typical marine flooded batteries, golf cart systems, gel cells and absorbed glass-mats. On top of this was a system to keep the charge of, and whether we should have a separate starter battery? We have, and still do, chat about solar panels and wind generators. At one point we were close to checking into the availability of a 2000 mile shore power cord!

The first key decision concerned which battery technology to choose? Our choice has been to go with sealed absorbed glass mat batteries. We saw a Federal Express study on the Internet which tested these against gell cells and traditional flooded batteries. Fed-Ex was having a problem keeping charge in batteries on planes that were taking off and landing often, on short hops. They, following extensive testing, went with the "AGM's". The far lower internal resistance of AGM technology permits them to recharge far faster then even gel cells. Fed-Ex also concluded AGM's discharge far slower when at rest.

Here's what we finally did about our electrical system and why. After reading this some of you might conclude we should have followed up on the 2000 mile power cord! We relegated the original 55 amp alternator to the spares bin and replaced it with a 100 amp unit. That gave us a shorter charge cycle, meaning less engine time. Step two was scrapping the batteries that we inherited and in their place creating one bank of 315 amps. and another of 105 amps. The larger one is used by us for everything including starting. The second is a back-up, saved for starting the engine, should their be a problem with the larger bank.

The key is to carefully monitor the state of charge in the two banks, and to keep it simple. Here's the controversial part: since we expect to be using the engine fairly often, more so then most yachts use their motors, we stayed away from a "smart" three-stage regulating system. Instead we have a simple two-stage system like is typical with commercial vessels.

We came to this conclusion after consultation with our yard. They support the local fishing fleet as well as many of the Manchester-Marblehead-Salem yachting community. They told us how many more electrical problems the yachties with their computerized "smart" systems were experiencing compared to the fishermen. Since we have such a high priority on dependability - aside from a hefty dose of bafflement for anything having to do with electrical systems - we went "simple". Who knows, maybe we'll catch more fish!

Since we had to expand our electrical panel to accommodate additions under consideration we took the opportunity to install an accurate digital voltmeter. This is how we watch the two banks. Just to make sure we were getting all the juice possible around the system and to solve a small problem of voltage drop we also put in a new battery switch and heavier gauge wiring between the alternator, the switch and the batteries.

By the way our yard had to build us a platform to accept the new batteries. They did it close to the original battery location out of marine plywood and covered the box in epoxy. Perforated to permit as much air circulation as possible the box is a neat looking work of engineering and woodworking.

Organizing space
We decided that we would like to take along scuba diving equipment, golf clubs and bicycles and a cool weather wardrobe along with one more fit for the tropics. After figuring out our best storage arrangements we realized we had to buy a bigger storage locker for the scuba gear, the golf clubs and the bikes, and leave them behind! If we wanted to take a "wardrobe" of any size we had to live with our lifelines looking like the clothesline at a tenament Hong Kong.

No matter how we cut it there were going to be some things we would have to do without. However, not being minimalists and wanting our pleasures along - we were determined to make more space. Here's where Pam's engineering background really shined. My contribution was to promise not to throw my clothes all over the cockpit sole.

The first step and easiest fix was to add shelves wherever we had lockers that could not be filled up to the brim. A perfect example is a space under the sink. By adding a shelf we more then doubled the area. We looked all over and did the same with the space under the nav table and -still to be done - the space under the cockpit seats aft of the quarterberth. Another "touch" has been to rig mini hammocks fore and aft where they don't interfere with traffic. Along with creating extra space a key is to make things more accessible. By putting fresh fruit, snacks and everyday use stuff in the hammocks this "getting-to-things-pain in-the-butt" is reduced.

Maybe the biggest "space" frustration on a boat is the icebox, especially if they are top loading. Ours had a sliding fiddled shelf with some flat space between it and the hull side. Here's where Frank Lloyd Pam really shined. She re-designed the whole box. The sliding shelf was retired and the flat space on the outboard side was made into two zones using Plexiglas that's 3" high. Nothing tumbles around no matter the point of sail and the small jarred things put there are highly visible through the plexiglas.

We didn't modify the main cavernous portion instead we nosed around kitchen shops until we found two sizes of stackable plastic boxes. Using about six of these gives us a very well organized icebox. Instead of pulling things out one at a time we just lift the various boxes. The process is quick which saves "cold", and none of the food rests on each other. It's neat!

We didn't have refrigeration. We do now. Adding this capability has been another no brainer, except we did bounce around between engine driven versus DC powered. On a new boat we'd probably get the engine driven system but for our needs we took the DC route. The draw is about 4 amps per hour on the average and the costs of unit and installation are far less then an engine driven model.

Our compressor is installed on a shelf in the huge port cockpit locker up against the galley bulkhead. It is enclosed in a finished plywood box that is perforated for ventilation with fiddles on top. One more place to stow small things. As the finish on the refrigeration box matches the quality of the new battery platform entering our cockpit locker now is like visiting a subterranean Chippendale factory.

On other J-34c's I'll bet the cockpit locker is the most underutilized area, and the most difficult storage space to get to the bottom of. We've turned ours into a walk-in closest. Once again I.M. Pei Pam gets most of the credit. The main tools of organization are threefold: with washers and nuts we used the bolts joining the deck to the hull to rig sturdy plastic loop hangers which lock; just below the shelf where the refrigeration unit sits we've screwed on a row of stainless hangers (kind of like coat hangers); and lastly on the top inside of the cockpit lockers two locking plastic clamps are mounted on shims to hold the emergency tiller.

As a result we hang all docking lines, fenders, anything damp, etc. in the locker as well as most heavy duty cleaning stuff, and other sailing things we want handy such as preventers, spare anchor rodes, extra life vests, etc. At the bottom is the storm anchor in a bag (Fortresses can be disassembled). Everything stays clean and well organized now, and getting stuff out doesn't require a gymnast's handstand!

We also store a liferaft and deflated Zodiac in the locker and still there's room to crawl around get at the engine, batteries, instrument pods and steering mechanisms once a few of the larger items are lifted into the cockpit. The cockpit locker space on a J-34c is huge, and getting it organized sure lessens the storage issues elsewhere in the boat.

Here's something else we've discovered to "create" more room: minimize the amount of cotton and wool garments on board. Wherever practicable we use soft polyester (like the stuff called "Cool-Max") and polar fleece garments. They are lightweight, they dry quickly, don't retain dampness like cotton and wool, and pack very tightly.

Style is a bit lacking, I'll admit. Colors and patterns are limited and the shapes of some of the garments sure aren't meant to make you look like someone in the Bolshoi. In fact, when I put on fleece pants, Pam claims I look like one of those Chinese dogs with all the rolls of skin. Come to think of it most of my clothes look that way.

The Head
On a J-34c the sleeping quarters are between the head and the holding tank. The choice is to borrow John Glenn's old space suits to sleep in or make a commitment to keep the system clean and tight. We found out that Colonel Glenn is difficult to reach on the phone.

Pam has a more sensitive nose then me. Maybe because it's longer? To start making the area livable we got the head re-built and started using the chemicals that cause "nice" smelling little critters to populate the system, even when mixed with sea water. This chemical, called "K.O.", is flushed from the bowl into the holding tank after each time the tank is emptied. It's important not to use any chemicals to clean the bowl that might neutralize the "good-guys".

To also eliminate odors and to prepare for life where pump-out facilities don't exist we had our yard install a manual pump that allows us to pump the tank directly overboard. While we should have done it when the pump was installed we're also planning to pull out all the old sanitary hose and replace them with "fresh" ones. Can't hurt. By the way I understand the first "rule" of cruising is always get someone else to work on the head whenever possible ... I always try and obey the rules.

The pump is mounted on a bulkhead right under the forward sleeping area. It's bullet proof: stick the handle in and pump away. They're no valves of any kind to manipulate.

The Main Sleeping Area
We've converted this forward area from the ambiance of a World War I trench to a space that now looks like a fashionable bed and breakfast from the Costa Rican rain forest (we've never been there). We had form fitting mattress pads, sheets, big backrest pillows, and comforters made. For warmer weather, or to layer for cold snaps, we also had polar fleece (lightweight and dries very fast) sleeping bags sewn that zip open to become covers. These provide extra warmth for really cold evenings and are light covers when used alone.

The polyester comforter (warm when wet and dries fast) and matching form fitting backrest pillows are very colorful; lots of birds of paradise and bright flowers. Actually the backrest pillows are also great for use in the main salon when stretching out and reading, or listening to the stereo, on the settees. They make lazy time and rainy days a lot more tolerable.

We feel a key is utilizing materials that are comfortable yet relatively easy to keep dry.

The Propane Locker
Before we started adding weight to Colette the propane locker vent rested just above the water line. Adhering to good practice it was not located on the transom but on the starboard side. Our water line is creeping up as we make our boat more of a long-term cruiser so the vent had to be moved, which we've done, by moving it up 3' from it's original position. The old aperture is now sealed.

If any of you have added to your boat's weight we suggest you check to see that the propane locker vent is still in safe territory.

The Rig
For the first time the rig was left on the boat over the winter as we planned to do a real rig check out late this summer. In addition to looking for any corrosion, crevice or otherwise, or other signs of impending rig failure, we also plan to install a combination masthead tri-color anchor. As we might be sailing at night offshore on the way South we like the idea of being more visible to other boats, hence the masthead tri-color.

This arrangement is sometimes more confusing to other boaters in inland situations or when maneuvering so we plan to keep our deck level lights and keep them separated on the electrical panel. We also found a neat light in a catalog that has a photoelectric cell and draws only about .3 amps. We plan to use it as a low anchor light (sometimes safer in the Bahamas where small fishing boats don't see the raised ones), and to luminate the cockpit for nighttime eating and lounging. It plugs into one of the cigarette lighter type outlets.

Water
In our minds this is our scarcest item. All over the Out Islands of the Bahamas getting potable water means lugging it by hand and dingy, and paying 25-50 cents per gallon. Colette carries 40 gallons in her tank, not much. We don't want to take up space with another tank. We need some room for food!

Our next boat (a J-42 or 44!!!) will definitely have two small DC water-makers. We've talked to several experienced cruisers and this appears to be the best solution. "Branch" water for the bourbon, fresh water showers every day ... ahhh! Unfortunately the cruising "kitty" and the available space just ain't there.

We plan to lash a six-ten gallon container in the cockpit locker, several tall containers of about four gallons each bungied under the dining table, a six gallon Sunshower lashed down on deck, and a water catchment system built into our cockpit awning. There'll be plenty of seawater baths in Joy, some foul odors following the crew around, and constant searches for marinas with showers.

Rule number two of cruising: "any time you can shower ashore, do it."

Canvas and sails
Toddling around New England with its short summers and temperate zone sun angles doesn't require an awning. Once you move aboard and are exposed to the sun every day - especially down south - makes overhead sun protection a necessity. We are now right in the midst of buying an awning and while we're at it also sketching and pricing out weather cloths, lee cloths and a riding sail.

We have decided what we want and have talked to two local canvas lofts and a few catalog companies. We're astounded: for equal items the pricing has varied from less then $700 for all of the above to almost $3000! The big item is the awning.

We want a unit that will cover the entire cockpit and dodger. That keeps us covered and cools a big portion of the main cabin (especially the galley). Other features we need are flaps side and aft to shed rain and low angled sun rays, a water collection capability, and an awning sturdy enough to stand up to 20 knots or so of wind, that way we don't have to take it down every time we go ashore.

One of the lofts came up with an idea for providing storage we never thought of. The cockpit weather cloths can be built double layered so they form pockets. The tops can be sealed with, for example, velcro. Once again, better use of the limited space we have. What a great place to keep snorkeling gear, sun block, books, etc. handy.

In 1996 our boat had a new genoa and main added. The original 130% jib was cut to 110% and the new headsail was enlarged to 150%. The main was built with a far larger roach then the main that came from Shore Sails. The previous owner did most of his sailing in the middle of the day in Maine in a area notorious for very light summer air. In light air these mylar miracles transform Colette into the stealth ghost boat. Other sailors can't believe were not under power.

In the Bahamas last winter 25 knots of true wind would be called a light breeze. Anticipating strong prevailing breezes down south this winter our 110% jib seems fine as an all-purpose jib. At the moment we think we may leave the 150% headsail in the storage locker and find a used, heavy weight 100% or 110% furling jib we can have cut into a 90-100% "yankee". Also being discussed is the necessity for more of a storm sail, perhaps something that can be affixed around an already furled jib and hoisted via the spinnaker halyard.

Actually, we may even leave the new, larger, main behind and re-commission the original one. Why depreciate the new stuff if - to be honest about it - we're lolling about on the hook most of the time, and "ghosting" in light airs (for our boat 2-5 knots), is rarely an issue? We also have a five year old asymmetrical efficient from 75 to about 130 degrees of apparent wind which we'll probably hold in reserve for days when there's nary a ripple in sight.

Safety
When we take off we plan to carry the following items for safety. One of us will take a red cross CPR course and our doctor will provide some further advice and a "cruiser's" ditty bag of tools and pills. Gear on the boat will be an offshore life raft in a valise (we feel it is easier to store and launch on our boat ... and lighter); a modern EPIRB, a lifesling, a horseshoe buoy with a large strobe attached on a short line, an overboard bag with a hand-held VHF and GPS, water and a means to keep covered.

A key of course is never falling overboard. We keep our jacklines always rigged and recently we invested in automatic inflating harness-safety vest combos (not Coast Guard approved). We think they're safer then what the Coast Guard currently does approve of.

Underway the helmsperson can operate like a true single-hander (we don't have a wind vane but do have a wheel pilot). This is a huge safety factor to us, especially the great control we have over the mainsail. I'm amazed how many "just-for" cruising boats don't allow the helmsperson to easily luff and trim the main during hard puffs. Pam or I can catch up on rest while the other manages all cockpit chores during moderate conditions. Not being fatigued is another huge safety margin factor.

The previous owners had a rope to wire halyard to hoist the mainsail. We've replaced it with a low stretch spectra one. Our reason had to do with safety when going aloft. With the rope to wire arrangement you simply clipped on to the bosun's chair with the shackle used for connecting to the main. With the all rope halyard we can tie on with a bosun's knot and then double up by attaching the shackle. It's a lot safer in our eyes.