Do We Still Need to Keep it Simple?

For many years, this cruising couple espoused the philosophy of KISS — “keep it simple, stupid” — but with the purchase of their latest boat, they’ve broadened their horizons with new gear and technology.

Tarek Abdel-Hamid sails his Contest CS 45 in the Mediterranean.
For many years, we sailed boats of absolute simplicity, but that changed when we decided to embrace new technology while commissioning our Contest CS45, Mabrouka.Courtesy of Tarek Abdel-Hamid

In a sailing career spanning 30 years and the ownership of four lovely sailboats, we’ve always been ardent proponents of KISS — the “keep it simple, stupid” credo. Not only did we talk the talk, but we zealously walked the walk. For example, when, in 1996, we built our third sailboat — a semi-custom Alden 45 sloop — we specified one manual head and no generator, electric winches or freezer.

KISS is a design philosophy coined in the 1960s by the U.S. Navy that exhorts the virtues of keeping ship systems as simple as possible and shunning unnecessary complexity. While originally intended as an engineering principle for large naval warships, the KISS mindset was, nevertheless, widely and enthusiastically embraced by recreational sailors worldwide. Its widespread diffusion can be partly credited to its almost universal endorsement by the small but growing cadre of adventurous globe-trotting sailors like Lin and Larry Pardey and others who were already crisscrossing the world’s oceans.

These intrepid sailors were often hundreds of miles from land and largely on their own when needing to make repairs at sea. For them, every “essential” piece of equipment needed to be designed to provide simple, straightforward and carefree voyaging. In their widely followed chronicles — in magazines such as Cruising World — they enthusiastically drummed the virtues of keeping it simple, which further promoted the KISS gospel. We, like many fellow sailors, embraced it fully cognizant of the inherent trade-off: A simple boat invariably means a less comfortable boat.

That was the paradigm of the 1980s and 1990s. The question now: Is it time for an update?

A Paradigm Shift?

When choosing a new boat and its essential equipment, most prospective boat owners continue to struggle with the fundamental conflict between the desire for low maintenance and low risk of failure and the urge to be comfortable. Even today, many of us remain stuck in the 1980s mindset, stubbornly striving for absolute simplicity. This, we believe, might no longer be warranted.

The optimal balance between absolute simplicity and overboard complexity is obviously a personal choice, reflecting one’s sailing style and objectives. But it is important to understand that optimal balance is not static. Rather, it is (or should be) a moving target that continuously resets as technology matures.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, the KISS option was understandably the safer and preferred one, even for coastal sailors, because back then, many boat systems (such as watermakers, freezers, etc.) were still immature technologies, relatively unreliable and a headache to maintain. Since then, though, we’ve witnessed huge advances in technology.

So, while the inclination for absolute simplicity may still remain perfectly reasonable for those contemplating a circumnavigation or, say, a sail to Antarctica (where one expects to sail in marginal conditions and for prolonged periods in relative isolation), it probably isn’t for most of us. Sailing to exotic faraway destinations may still be what many of us dream about, but it is not what we actually do. Unfortunately, an all-too-common mistake sailors make when equipping a boat is to set unrealistic goals.

We confess: We are repeat offenders. Like many fellow sailors, we selected and equipped our previous boats with the dream of crisscrossing oceans and sailing off to the ends of the earth. We never did. And after thinking hard about it, we really do not want to.

For our latest boat, we finally took the trouble to honestly articulate our true cruising goals. Surprise, surprise … a circumnavigation was not among them. What we really wanted to do was spend each sailing season extensively cruising one of several destinations on our bucket list (the Med, Scandinavia, the Caribbean). This did not mean we didn’t expect to occasionally venture offshore. We certainly will. But the occasional offshore passage (when/if needed) is only the means to deliver the boat to the season’s designated cruising destination; that’s where the bulk of our sailing will lie.

With scaled-down expectations for venturing offshore, our tolerable complexity threshold proportionately increased. A new willingness to increase our boat’s equipment list, we do understand, invariably increases the risk of breakdowns, but we reckoned that risk is significantly lower today than two decades ago. This is for two reasons: 1) maturing technology, and 2) given our intent to cruise in destinations like the Med and Caribbean, we could count on always being in reasonably close proximity to professional help if required.

Before delving into what (complex) systems we wanted to incorporate in our new boat, we first had to find one. That search started in the beginning of 2014 and lasted for approximately nine months. We were looking for a high-quality boat that was small enough for one couple to handle but large enough to accommodate two couples in great comfort. And it had to be pretty! After an extensive search, numerous boat tests and several transcontinental trips to boat shows, we found our perfect boat: the Contest 45CS.

With the boat selection done, our next task was to specify its essential equipment. Below, we discuss four items that are particularly revealing because they are all items we had previously considered when we commissioned our Alden 45 20 years earlier but, as KISS devotees, had always shunned. The first two examples were chosen to enhance liveaboard comfort, the second two to facilitate better boathandling.

Watermaker

Our cruising style has always been to alternate between stays in marinas and anchoring out. When anchoring for three- or four-day stretches, abundant fresh water for showering, washing and cooking is obviously a boon to life aboard. But we also figured that having the capacity to make our own water and arrive with full tanks when visiting marinas is a big plus. The reason: Access to fresh water of drinkable quality is not always assured. For example, in some Corsica marinas, water was turned off for many hours to conserve water. In Mallorca, there were no conservation measures, but because the water quality was suspect (too chlorinated or outright raunchy), it was suitable only for washing, not for drinking.

And so we decided to install a watermaker. In our search for one, we were particularly impressed by the performance and reliability of the latest generation of small DC units, and selected a Spectra Newport 400NP-MKII-400S.

We were not alone. Yachting World magazine’s 2014 survey of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) fleet centered on water — its production/collection, stowage and use. The overriding advice from the 193 respondents to the YW survey was to fit a watermaker. Almost 60 percent of the fleet did.

In retrospect, we can also report that our watermaker proved to be of great utility when venturing offshore on our 2,300-nautical-mile trip back from the Med to the Contest yard in Holland. On several occasions on this long trip, we were pummeled by Force 7 winds, monstrous waves and boarding seas. After conditions settled, we were left with a lot of salt on deck. When salt is everywhere, it gets on your hands and in your clothes and keeps everything damp and sticky. Having a deck washdown spigot and the capacity to replenish our water supply allowed us to hose the deck and avoid getting salt down below.

Generator

We designed our boat to be relatively efficient. For example, we use LED light bulbs throughout and added foot-­operated water pumps in addition to the electric ones. Still, given our desire for espresso and croissants in the morning, ice in our cocktails and the ability to whip up a quiche in the microwave, we expected our power needs to be high. They were. Without recharging, our house battery bank (a 24-volt system with 340 amp-hour capacity) regularly dropped to 60 percent of full charge at day’s end. That’s too low for the long-term health of the batteries. It meant our battery bank did indeed need to be recharged daily.

We looked at many of the new clean-power systems available, but ultimately decided that an AC genset was the best bet. Our choice: a Mastervolt Whisper 3.5.

As with the watermaker, our generator was a definite boon when sailing offshore. The power needs when at sea (for navigation, autopilot, watermaker, fridge, entertainment, fans, etc.) do add up. Our generator — smaller, quieter and more efficient than the main engine — was an asset we greatly appreciated.

Bow Thruster

For our many years of sailing our home waters of San Francisco Bay, we managed quite well without a bow thruster. But, we figured, cruising to foreign destinations, especially the Med during the peak summer months, is an entirely different ballgame. Indeed, it was! Often we needed to dock in tightly packed marinas, and on many occasions with an extremely difficult crosswind to boot. That’s a much more stressful exercise than easing into our private slip back in San Francisco. So, thank heavens for our bow thruster. It saved our egos!

In making the decision we looked at three things: our cruising grounds (the Med), the close-in maneuverability of our vessel (challenging because of boat size and a relatively high freeboard) and our crew size (two 60-year-olds). The answer: bow thruster, bow thruster, bow thruster. Our choice: a 10 hp 24-volt Sleipner.

Hydraulic Mainsail Furling

We remembered well how handling the 700-square-foot mainsail on our Alden 45 was by far the most formidable task aboard the boat, so we had been watching with great interest developments in mainsail furling. When first introduced, in-mast furling systems seemed quite unreliable and inefficient, but they’ve now been around long enough for manufacturers to work out virtually all their kinks.

While considering in-mast furling we certainly weren’t blind to its potential drawbacks. The two biggest are the loss of some performance (because of a hollow leech) and the risk of jamming. In recent years, sailmakers have learned how to mitigate the inefficient sail geometry by installing full-length vertical battens to add roach and give the sail a much more efficient aerodynamic profile.

The second major concern is a jammed sail. After talking to many people and reading plenty of articles, we concluded that the major cause of in-mast jams isn’t typically the sail or the mechanism but user error due to owners and charterers not being familiar with the furler’s nuances.

So, we bit the bullet and made the decision to install one. Our choice: Seldén’s stowaway hydraulic system.

We are now unabashed fans of the in-mast furling mainsail. Not only because it significantly lowers the burdens of sailhandling, but because it allows us to sail more — a lot more. Our Seldén in-mast furling system essentially flipped the dreaded 80-20 rule. Instead of motoring 80 percent of the time and sailing only 20 percent, we now sail most of the time.

We also find in-mast furling to be a great benefit when sailing offshore, especially when double-handing. It helps keep us safe and in the cockpit instead of wrestling with sails on deck. And on night watches, it’s easy for one of us to set and shorten sail with little chance of a problem.

Drawing the Line

After living with our choices and logging more than 4,000 miles in a wide range of conditions, our unfettered advice: It is OK, even wise, not to KISS in the Med.

But embracing, not cringing from, modern proven technology does not mean overindulging. There is no escaping the fact that higher complexity invariably increases the risk of breakdowns and, with it, the burden of maintenance.

There were two items we considered but decided we could do without: a washer/dryer and hydraulic furling for the jib. We chose not to install a washer/dryer because, for us, the negatives far outweighed the benefits. We planned on a simple wardrobe — basically swimsuits and T-shirts — so our daily load of laundry is easy to wash in a bucket or sink. On the rare occasion when we have a larger load, we can always use a marina laundromat. On the negative side, adding a washer/dryer would have robbed us of valuable storage space. But the decision is personal. A washer/dryer may be very beneficial for couples cruising with young children — indeed it may even be essential.

We chose not to install a hydraulic jib-furler system because the added benefit — assisted sailhandling of our 100 percent jib — was minimal. And we felt it would be prudent to have a separate and independent system for the jib in case we lost the hydraulics on the mainsail (though that probability was very low).

In Conclusion

We took delivery of our new Contest 45CS in April 2016 at the Contest yard in Medemblik, Netherlands. To test and debug our new boat, we took it for a three-week spin of the Ijsselmeer. In mid-May, the boat was shipped to Palma by Sevenstar Yacht Transport. We were back on board June 4, just in time to participate in the Contest Owners Rendezvous — a three-day affair of partying, socializing and racing. After the rendezvous, we were ready and eager to embark on a three-island odyssey circumnavigating Mallorca, Corsica and Sardinia.

In October, after four months of continuous cruising, the boat was sailed back to Medemblik for winter storage. That was a rough trip via Gibraltar, Portugal and the treacherous Bay of Biscay. All in all, we logged approximately 4,000 miles over a six-month period, the equivalent of what we historically sail in four years.

Our relatively complex boat resulted in a more comfortable, less arduous cruising experience, and we can happily report that the added systems created minimal maintenance problems (we had to change the watermaker’s filters and service the generator at 50 hours). It was a wonderful and successful experience that we attribute to two things: 1) a sensible selection of equipment that made life aboard a lot more comfortable and handling the boat a lot more manageable, and 2) the skillful shipwrights and engineers at Contest Yachts, who made it all work flawlessly.

MIT graduate Dr. Tarek K. Abdel-Hamid is a professor of information and services systems at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and the author of three books. When not teaching or writing, he and his wife, Nadia Mansour, are usually on the water, these days on their Contest 45CS, Mabrouka. This article first appeared in the January/February issue of Cruising World with the title "Executing a KISS-Off."