Work Smarter, Not Harder

Simplify, prioritize, and spend money to save money--and much aggravation--over time

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It takes up to six weeks a year at a boatyard to keep Morgan's Cloud functional. Here, Phyllis works on the rudder in a Norwegian yard.©john Harries

When I became a full-time voyager aboard Morgan's Cloud, our 56-foot McCurdy and Rhodes-designed aluminum cutter, I was stunned by the enormity of her maintenance challenges. Despite having owned sailboats for 35 years, during which I'd sailed about 30,000 offshore miles, I still was overwhelmed by how much time, effort, and money it took to keep her operating efficiently. However, after living aboard for six of the last seven years and sailing 40,000 more miles, Phyllis Nickel--my partner in sailing and in life--and I are learning that much can be done to minimize the maintenance burden on a boat that's on the move.

Our maintenance challenges aren't simply a function of Morgan's Cloud's size. Most voyaging sailors, on both small and large boats, say their preliminary time and money estimates for maintenance were way too low, often by 100 percent or more. It's no wonder that seasoned voyagers say, "Cruising is working on your boat in exotic places."

Time spent on servicing and repairs shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, a modern voyaging sailboat is a container filled with complex machinery that’s shaken vigorously and immersed in a corrosive solution--hardly a recipe for durability. The more miles a boat puts under its keel each year, the more serious and plentiful the problems. Worse still, much of this equipment was designed for seasonal and weekend use in sheltered waters, not for the demands of full-time offshore cruising.

The biggest surprises while voyaging during the past seven years have been that we haven’t had more time for maintenance and we haven’t enjoyed the upkeep process more. In fact, the opposite is true. By the time we cope with day-to-day living tasks in a strange place, not to mention actually sailing somewhere, we have less time and energy for boat chores than before we went cruising.

Not only that, but there’s more to do, since to extend our reduced income, we do many of the tasks ourselves. When I worked in a high-technology industry, boat tasks were a therapeutic diversion from my business life. Now they’re my primary job, and as such, they often feel like chores that cut into our time for more enjoyable activities.

The Right Boat
Selecting the right boat and layout is your most important ploy before going cruising. However, some of the features that will help control onboard repair and maintenance may not be immediately apparent. Here are the significant maintenance considerations aboard Morgan's Cloud: Engine room and workbench: The two most important maintenance-related attributes of Morgan's Cloud are a proper engine room and a workbench. In a smaller boat, you'll have to sacrifice a greater percentage of space to incorporate these features, but I believe that an accessible engine space (preferably separated from the accommodations) and a workbench with a vise are requirements for a well-found cruising yacht, regardless of its size. At the end of a day of struggling with some piece of equipment, Phyllis and I can slam the engine-room door on the project and enjoy some attitude adjustment in the serenity of our saloon, without being constantly reminded of the day's frustrations.

Unfortunately, few boats are built with a separate engine room and a place to work, but a bit of forethought when selecting a production boat can pay off in big dividends. Many designs have quarter berths on either side of the engine compartment, and by removing one or both of these, a decent engine room and a small workbench can be contrived. Such modifications will contribute more to offshore cruising pleasure than a larger saloon, two heads, or extra berths.

Complexity tolerance: When selecting a cruising boat, consider your complexity tolerance. The more equipment you put on a boat, the less sailing and the more fixing you’ll do. While Phyllis and I think hot showers and cold beers are necessities (and we’re willing to pay the price of more maintenance), we do resist what we believe to be unnecessary complexity. We have no watermaker, chart plotter, electric winches, air-conditioning, internal mast reefing, or bow thruster. We do have rod rigging and a hydraulic vang, but they came with the boat; otherwise, we wouldn’t have them, either.

As relatively simple as Morgan's Cloud is, she has 12 pumps, if you include those on the engine and generator. Assuming that each pump should be serviced annually and each session will take at least two hours, then it'll take the better part of a workweek each year just to do routine pump maintenance, and that's before any of them break.

Installation: A Yachting World magazine survey found that the majority of cruising-boat equipment failures are caused by poor installation. In addition, the findings revealed that having equipment installed and maintained by professionals doesn’t always solve the problem. I suspect this is more the fault of customers than of the professionals, since somehow it turns out to be easier to dig deep to pay for a shiny, new piece of gear than it is to spend as much for a proper installation.

On Morgan's Cloud, we solve this problem by doing almost all installations ourselves. The key is that we don't buy new equipment from discounters but rather from full-service dealers who've done many such installations before. We often pay more, but it's worth it: As part of our sales agreement, the dealer advises us during the job and checks our installation before we commission the item. In this way, we get the best of both worlds--the experience of the professional and the time and precision Phyllis and I will apply, in the knowledge that we will be the ones who suffer from any slipshod work.

Simplify: During that one year in the last seven we didn't cruise, we took an air chisel to our teak decks and a circular saw to our teak toerails, and we painted our teak handrails and hatch surrounds. Now welded aluminum and paint have replaced teak and varnish. We still have some varnish in the cockpit, but on a new Morgan's Cloud, Phyllis and I would consider an unpainted aluminum boat with no exterior wood.

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| Morgan's Cloud's two greatest maintenance attributes are her workbench, with its proper, permanently installed vise, and the spacious dedicated engine room.* * *|

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| Working Smarter
Time allocation: With experience, Phyllis and I have further reduced our maintenance burden by learning to work smarter, not harder. Most important, we're now realistic about how much time we should allocate for maintenance and repair, and we build this into our cruising plans. Morgan's Cloud isn't a new boat full of bugs but one we've owned for 10 years, yet it takes from four to six intense weeks a year at a boatyard, plus an average of 15 person-hours a week while cruising, to keep her functional and safe.

If these servicing times seem high, consider that almost every task takes substantially longer now than it did when we were able to return to our home port at season’s end. Now we must get used to a new boatyard every year and maintain a complex machine in an unfamiliar place where we don’t have a car. When we were in England--where I speak the language--it took me an entire day to track down a piece of 3/16-inch brass rod to ream the engine heat exchanger.

Prioritizing: When something breaks, we time its repair according to its importance relative to other projects. On a cruising boat, there’s always something broken or requiring service, so it’s easy to slip into constant boat-work mode, which we try to avoid. If the broken item affects what we call the Big Five--keeping the crew on the boat, the water out, the mast up, the steering working, or the keel side down--we work on it immediately.

Otherwise, the task goes on our next intensive-maintenance-period list, for which we designate a few days when the repair sheet gets too long. In this way, we feel less oppressed by the boat’s needs.

Replacement: We have a two-strikes-and-it’s-out policy: If a piece of gear gives serious trouble more than once, we replace it. This sounds extravagant and wasteful, but each time we’ve broken this rule, it’s cost us money and aggravation: the top-end rebuild on the old engine, replaced two years later, for example, or the four attempts at fixing our autopilot that cost half the price of the new one that replaced it.

I’ve concluded that most rebuilds and many repairs are a waste of money, costing the cruiser huge amounts of time and frustration. Having a professional rebuild your diesel engine, for example, will cost at least half the price of a replacement. For this, you often get no warranty or, at best, one for 90 days. Contrast this with buying a new engine with, typically, a full-parts-and-labor warranty of 2,000 hours or two years. If you go the rebuild route, the mechanic is unlikely to be there for you when the engine dies halfway around the world. But buy a power plant from a reputable manufacturer, and, under the warranty, you can avail yourself of a worldwide dealer network.

The signs pointing to equipment replacement are often subtle, and it’s tempting to ignore them, but do so at your peril. In the spring of 2001, we were in England preparing for a cruise to Norway when we broke an intermediate shroud while crash-tacking during a man-overboard drill. It would’ve been easy to replace that shroud and carry on with our plans, but close inspection showed evidence of crevice corrosion, so we unstepped the mast, performed a full rig inspection, and replaced all the standing rigging. This was expensive and time-consuming, but a lot less so than a dismasting.

Specialists: We use professionals when their experience will enhance the reliability of our boat, and the ones who really help are the technicians, who are rarely found at boatyards. One can't expect a jack-of-all-trades mechanic to be an expert on all modern cruising-boat systems. Thus, when we installed our new engine, we did it under the tutelage of the master distributor for the entire state in which Morgan's Cloud was docked. When our refrigeration was misbehaving and the solution was beyond our capabilities, we called a commercial refrigeration and air-conditioning technician with 15 years of experience. He not only got it working more efficiently than ever before but also provided us with a concise course in refrigeration. These people don't come cheap ($50 an hour or more in the United States), but in the long run, they save us money and aggravation.

Tools: Have good tools. Not having the right tool for a job is a huge waste of time. Our policy on Morgan's Cloud is if we need a tool, we buy it. I'm amazed at how often I see a boat owner whaling away on some part of his boat with a hammer and a block of wood when a claw puller would remove it in seconds. And how few bluewater skippers own a torque wrench. Both of these tools are relatively expensive, but ring off a bolt or bend a shaft and see what it costs you in money, lost cruising time, and frustration.

Manuals: We try to carry the reference publications for every item we install--not just the operation books, but also the shop manuals and parts catalogs. Without the latter volumes, you risk standing at a pay phone making an expensive, long-distance call trying to describe which doodad among several nearly identical options you need air-freighted to your boat.
Schedules: We are scrupulous about the maintenance of mechanical systems and safety equipment. We're never late with oil changes; we do comprehensive rig, safety, and steering checks before every ocean crossing; and we religiously observe manufacturers' recommended routine maintenance schedules.

Now that we’re full-time voyagers, maintenance isn’t a hobby, it’s a job, and as with any job, some days we don’t want to go to work. But looking at the bright side, maintaining a boat that can take us anywhere in the world gives us unparalleled job satisfaction.

As we went to press, John Harries and Phyllis Nickel, after wintering in Tromsø, Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, were bound for Spitsbergen, above 77 degrees north latitude.