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Simple Systems Aboard

This sailing family decided to forgo many of the common systems aboard modern cruising boats to keep things easy and affordable.

February 18, 2021
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Ben Zartman
Paper charts require no wiring. Courtesy Ben Zartman

One of the most common observations people make after they meet my little family and see Ganymede, the 31-foot boat that we once called home, is, “How very simple everything is!” We are mistakenly taken by some as pioneers of simplification, as bastions of off-the-grid living. And we are, I suppose, in a way—but it’s purely accidental.

For starters, the reason we went to sea without a 12-volt electrical system is mostly because I can’t stand the ­constant upkeep and ­bother they entail. To be perpetually cleaning contacts, running wires, changing fuses and poking multimeter leads everywhere would put a crimp in my relaxed cruising style. Not having batteries, of course, cuts down on all the lovely and useful gadgets they normally power, but there again my reasons against them were purely practical. Even if I had the money to buy and maintain lights and chart plotters and refrigerators —which I didn’t—there’s nowhere they could have gone. It was enough of a challenge trying to stow three children and all their necessary gear on a smallish sailboat without having to make room for battery banks, inverters, chargers and solar panels.

It was the same with galley plumbing. A sink would have taken up space I needed for my full-size chart table, and hoses, tubing and galley pumps need to go somewhere—and that somewhere didn’t exist.

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A plastic tub tucked discreetly under the counter served for dirty dishes, and washing up was done in the cockpit with water drawn up in a bucket. Neither the easiest nor most convenient way, especially in colder weather, but it’s one of the many small things, taken together, that allowed us to be out cruising at all.

doing the dishes
Doing dishes in the cockpit eliminates the need for a sink and plumbing that would eat up valuable space down below. Courtesy Ben Zartman

Now, I’m not against conveniences: I would have loved to have a double sink with hot and cold running water, a full-size refrigerator, and while I’m at it, a laundry with washer and dryer. But all those had to wait until we took a break from seafaring to live on land. With our boat and budget, they simply were unattainable.

Nor am I saying that I begrudge the simple lifestyle. The glow of our kerosene cabin lamps was a source of constant joy; rowing the dinghy, casting the sounding lead and cranking the windlass kept me in shape; and I loved the mental exercise of actively piloting and navigating the boat rather than giving those tasks over to a computer.

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Please don’t think we denied ourselves any necessary safety or navigational gear—I wouldn’t be the sort to set off with nothing but an hourglass and astrolabe even if I didn’t have a wife and three children to be responsible for. Though they took up lots of room, we carried five compasses, two sextants, all the necessary books and a current nautical almanac, and we were always careful to have good chart coverage of any area we might be going. Not only that, but three handheld GPS units, a VHF and an EPIRB rounded out the supply of electronics not requiring a 12-volt feed.

There were times, to be sure, when a radar and an AIS receiver would have been most comforting, but those times were nothing a careful watch and diligent forethought weren’t sufficient for.

There are those who love simplicity for its own sake, and while I see their point, I’m not really one of them. The reason we followed simplicity in many things is because it was the only way we could put to sea at all. A bigger boat with more equipment might have been possible if we had waited longer, saved more, worked harder—but it would not have been when we were ready to go, and who knows whether a dream bigger than Ganymede would have even gotten off the ground. As it is, she was all the boat we comfortably cared to handle, and about all we could afford to decently maintain.

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I’m not against conveniences: I would have loved to have a double sink with hot and cold running water, a full-size refrigerator, and while I’m at it, a laundry with washer and dryer.

Eventually we outgrew the boat—the children and their things weren’t getting any smaller—so we moved ashore into the untold luxury of electricity and running water. There’s a refrigerator, internet connection, and even an air conditioner for the two weeks of New England summer. But we don’t think about those things; they’re just there, a natural part of ordinary land life. We’re grateful for them, of course, and enjoy them immensely (did I mention the AC unit?), but what we enjoy the most is getting out on Ganymede again.

We’ll go out and mini-cruise for a couple of days from time to time, anchoring any old place we happen to sail by as dusk falls. The greatest thing for the girls then is to sit at the saloon table around a guttering oil lamp, playing card games while the boat swings gently to her anchor, without even a thought for hot showers, movies, ice cream or any of the comforts left on shore. Their only regret is that in a day or two we’ll have to head back home. Looks like it’s time to put to sea again.

Ben Zartman is a boatbuilder, sailor and occasional CW contributor.

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