Category Archives: howto

How to Quiet the Noises on a Sailboat

One of my favorite things about cruising is the silence. True silence is rarely experienced in normal life – even in a quiet marina or town, there’s always background noise of distant cars, machinery, or appliances. On the water in a wilderness location, we sometimes find silence so deep that your ears strain just to find something. The call of a bird, or the wind in the trees. But in between there’s nothing. The sound of silence. 

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ~ WB Yeats

The quiet resets the auditory senses and after cruising for a while we start picking up dozens of subtle sounds we normally wouldn’t notice – specific bird calls, running water from a creek or waterfall, the THUMP THUMP THUMP of a humpback fin slapping miles away, the KER-PLUNK splash of a salmon, the nasally exhalation of a sea lion. Even the sound of a herring ball flashing is something we’ll always recognize now.

One thing non-boaters might find surprising is a sailboat is actually quite noisy at times – wind at anchor can make it sound like you’re in a hurricane, if you don’t do the right things to quiet the noises. On our second boat we applied many of the same noise control techniques we used on our first boat, and also had to invent a few new ones. 

Scenery Cove, Thomas Bay AK

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How We Learned to Fish From a Sailboat in Southeast Alaska – Techniques, Lures and Gear

Fishing from a sailboat isn’t quite as simple as on boats purpose-built for fishing. Yet, it can be really rewarding and we found it’s amazingly fun in Alaska, where fish are plentiful. In 2 of our 6 seasons cruising WA and BC we fished occasionally but never caught anything. It took coming to Alaska to finally learn how to fish.

From April thru August 2021, we caught 47 fish over the course of about 50 days with active fishing effort. Some days we’d spend a couple hours out in the dinghy, catching nothing. Other days we’d go out and catch something within 15 minutes.

    • 13 Halibut (all 18-25” except for one 51” monster!)
    • 21 Salmon (13 silvers, 7 pink, and 1 sockeye)
    • 6 Pacific cod
    • 7 Rock fish
    • 28 Dungeness crab (we stopped crabbing around July when we switched to focusing on fish)

Fishing requires knowledge, patience and skill. It can be very frustrating at times (like when sitting in the cold rain not catching anything, or when we lost gear to the bottom). Yet it can be rewarding – other than being vegetarian, I think catching your own protein is one of the most sustainable ways to live in a remote area.

Catching our own food gave us a much deeper appreciation for the sacrifice made, motivating us to respect every fish caught – safely releasing ones we didn’t keep and carefully filleting the ones we did keep to maximize use. Meat (and groceries in general) is quite expensive in Alaska, especially in the small remote villages we visit when cruising by boat. Many of the small towns get their groceries by barge just once a week, and most of their meat is frozen – we found frozen beef with “packed on” dates from over a year ago!

Buying groceries in the store means lots of fuel was burned to ship it there (container ship, barge and truck) and refrigerate it. When catching fish we could be sure that it was as fresh as it could possibly be and processed in the most optimal way. Fish is also extremely healthy, packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

The first salmon I ever filleted (a sockeye). An imperfect filleting job, but I got better after this.

We had a lot of fish tacos and also numerous other delicious preparations.

Fishing Advice

A few caveats – we’re not experts and there are certainly people that know a lot more! (like all the sport charter fishing guides and commercial fisher-people). Fishing isn’t a science and sometimes stuff that should work doesn’t (or vice versa). Fishing is very seasonal and I’m not going to cover that or other things you can easily learn from existing online resources.

Also worth noting – in the fishing world many people are protective about their fishing spots and can be secretive or even hostile towards newbies. This is quite a contrast to the sailing / boating world where there’s a culture of helpfulness, especially towards newcomers. Certainly not everyone takes this position (we met very helpful people too!) but some people who fish believe that additional people fishing will “steal” their fish or deplete the prime spots.

I don’t buy this argument because beginners who are truly interested in learning fishing will learn to do it whether you help them or oppose them. So it seems much better to me to be helpful and sharing of information. In the modern era of Internet and social media, there are no truly “secret” spots anymore anyway.

And for those who think an additional sport fisherman is going to deplete the availability of fish for themselves, they should consider that industrial-scale commercial fishing operations are harvesting far more fish than a sport fisherman, well before it gets to their preferred spots, with a lot of bycatch (unintentionally caught fish which are often wasted).

The Dungeness crabs can be very big in Alaska – often 8-9″. (Note: I have a proper crab ruler but it doesn’t go this high – that’s why I pulled out the tape measure).

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Learning How to Sail in Southeast Alaska

Sailing, actually sailing (not motoring around everywhere in a sailboat), is unquestionably difficult in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Winds aren’t consistent, narrow straits and channels mean a lot of tacking or gybing, strong currents cause the water to kick up into rough, sharp waves, and land effects plus weather systems cause the wind to vary greatly from one area to the next.

But in the past 3 years (primarily in BC) we figured out how to sail in these waters, doing about 70% of our miles under sail. We do this because it’s what we enjoy – sailing a sailboat just feels right, uses less fuel, it’s quieter, and makes us feel more connected with nature and wildlife. I talked more about the reasons and tactics in my 2018 article “Cruising the Pacific Northwest by Wind Power.“

But now that we’re in Alaska we’ve had to relearn how to sail here. Alaska has a reputation for being a place where most sailboats generally do no sailing at all – many people say they never even took the cover off their mainsail! That’s very sad since you might as well have a motorboat then – with more comfortable accommodations and less vestigial weight and cost (from the unused rigging and sails).

The good news is it’s definitely possible to sail a lot in southeast Alaska! It takes effort, just like the Inside Passage does, but a few things make it a bit more challenging:

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Adding Cellular Internet Enhancement to Our Boat (Something We Never Expected to Do!)

For a long time now we’ve avoided adding fancy electronic networking to our boat to build out a wifi network. One of the best things about sailing is disconnecting from the outside world – sailing and anchoring in remote areas where Internet service is weak or non-existent. Time away from the pressures and stresses of the normal world was always one thing we loved most about cruising.

Without Internet, there’s no news, no Facebook, no bills to pay, and overall much less time spent on the computer and more time appreciating nature. So losing Internet access has always been a feature of cruising to us, not a bug. It feels kind of crazy that we’re now working on adding Internet augmentation to our boat.

But we’re in our 3rd year of semi-full-time liveaboard cruising, and things have changed a bit – the fact we can no longer sail long distances north into Canada has meant we have a lot of time on our hands sitting in the same handful of anchorages. Washington inland waters span only a couple hundred miles, which isn’t really enough to consume all of our time for a 6-month season.

So we’re spending a lot more time on the Internet (see my San Juans Cellular Map for Boaters), and looking into taking on some remote work jobs now that it’s becoming more of a thing.

To cut to the chase, the simple, easy solution we decided on (for now) is a Netgear Nighthawk M1 LTE router – by plugging a data-only SIM into it, we get a device that provides a better wifi network than our phones did, because it can be positioned with better visibility to the cell tower.

The LTE router we ended up buying

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How to Grow an Herb Garden on a Boat

We’ve been meaning to try growing herbs on our sailboat for a while now, and with the coronavirus pandemic sending us into full-on social distancing mode in March, this year was the perfect opportunity. We knew we might not be able to get groceries as often, and keeping store-bought herbs fresh for more than a week or so is very difficult on a boat anyway.

In past years we’ve bought some pretty sad cilantro in remote areas of British Columbia – by the time it makes it to the grocery store it’s spent weeks on trucks and boats, getting less fresh by the day, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t last that long after we buy it.

With some planted herbs, we could harvest what we needed whenever we needed it. We chose to go with cilantro, basil, and mint. Cilantro is one of our most used herbs since we make Mexican food a lot (tacos, quesadillas, guacamole, enchiladas). Basil and mint were chosen because they’re easy to grow and don’t need much space or a large pot.

Other herbs or plants could be grown onboard too. For example, rosemary is easy to grow, but almost every roadside on islands in Puget Sound and the San Juans has that already, and we don’t typically use a lot of rosemary. Lettuce or tomatoes might be nice, but they require a lot of space and don’t produce very quickly.

There are a few unique challenges to overcome with growing plants on a sailboat:

  • Sunlight – Sun can be rare at times in the Pacific Northwest spring, and a sailboat is constantly moving (spinning at anchor, or while sailing) so it can be challenging to keep the plants in the couple hours of sun we get some days in April and May. Many things can block the sun – our dodger, sails, mast, boom, etc. So until the plants got mature I usually moved them around to prime sun locations during the day when we were at anchor.
  • Movement – our boat heels to 15-20 degrees going upwind (and we’re upwind a lot) – close to toerail in the water but not quite. So it’s important to be able to secure the plants so they don’t tip over and spill out dirt (which happened once while crossing Rosario Strait tide rips!).Our cabin top below the dodger was the best place to do this, but we could also stow them inside if we expected things to get really rough.
  • Saltwater – Salt is death to plants, so it’s important to make sure no wave spray hits them. Our dodger is very watertight so this worked well for that purpose.

The seeds were started indoors in peat moss pods and then moved outdoors

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Cruising Guides and Sailing Books We Use Onboard

Recently some other Pacific Northwest cruisers have reached out to me asking which cruising guides we used for our passage north last year. It can be tricky choosing cruising guides because the older ones tend to get out of date quickly, and some have spotty coverage or a different cruising style than ours.

Over the last 4 years of cruising we’ve found some good ones that work for us. Finding good educational books on sailing and boat maintenance is also tricky (there are so many!) so I’ve included a few recommendations on those too.

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Winterizing a Boat in the Pacific Northwest

Surprisingly few large boats are winterized on the hard in the Pacific Northwest, as is standard practice in other areas where the water freezes (New England, the Great Lakes). We have the luxury of not having to; the relatively steady ~50 F water temperature prevents engines from freezing or harbors icing over. And we have the option of year-round sailing – although much of the winter is pretty rainy and dark, we always have some stretches of sunny, 45-55F weather (positively balmy!).

Yet there are some advantages to storing your boat on land (“on the hard”) – less bottom paint wear, no dock line chafe, etc. So this year we went this route, given we’re traveling for the winter and won’t be able to use our boat. Debating the pros/cons of storing in the water vs on the hard, it was hard to find much information specific to the PNW.

Even though many boats never leave the dock in the winter, their owners still choose to leave them in the water, paying significantly higher moorage costs. This is perplexing, but I guess it boils down to convenience – it takes a bit of work to winterize a boat, and there isn’t a huge surplus of winter storage yards in the Seattle area.

Perhaps another deterrent is that most storage yards have a couple neglected, derelict boats that have been there for years. In some cases, yards are where boats go to die – and this can be very hard to see (not to mention the concerns over their boat catching on fire next to yours). Leaving our boat is a scary thing because not only have we put thousands of hours of work into it, it’s our home now too.

At the end of September we spent several days working to prepare our boat for storage on the hard. There are many articles on winterization (SailriteWest Marine, Discover Boating), but I’ll cover some things we learned that weren’t mentioned elsewhere, and the checklists we used so we wouldn’t forget things.

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Our Rainwater Catchment System

While cruising for extended periods in remote areas, refilling our water tanks is often the limiting factor in how long we can go between marinas. We’re a “water light” boat, with only a 29 gallon tank plus about 12 gallons in jugs on deck. This easily lasts us 1 1/2 to 2 weeks on our water-light budget (using about 3-4 gallons per day).

Our 41 gallons is far less than most long-distance cruising boats carry though – on the order of 75 to 150 gallons. Our boat was originally equipped with 75 gallon capacity, and I thought I’d have to add back one of the removed water tanks, but we’ve found it not to be necessary. More water adds a lot of weight, takes away storage space, and decreases sailing performance – a priority for us.

But sometimes we want to go a bit longer between marinas, such as when cruising from the North Coast of BC to the south of Haida Gwaii, areas with no convenient marinas. Some boats buy expensive watermakers which are infamous for being a maintenance headache. Here in the Pacific Northwest though we have a free, frequent source of pure water – rain!

For a while I’ve thought it’d be great to be able to catch some of it, but it’s not as simple as it seems. The main problem is catching a lot of it, and getting clean water that is free of salt (our decks are usually covered in salt) and other contaminants.

During three days this May holed up in Clark Cove while a gale blew through, bringing near-constant rain, I tried out a few improvised ideas, using only what we already had on the boat.
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What to Buy a Sailor for Christmas

Buying gifts for a sailor for the holidays is easier than you might think, because they’re always in need of gadgets to make life onboard a little easier or more comfortable. Recently I’ve discovered several low-priced products that have made our life as liveaboards easier. Now it’s hard to imagine we went so long without these things!

Yet, as aspiring minimalists we don’t want to acquire too much stuff – storage is always an issue on a boat. So we try to ensure anything we get has a useful purpose.

Here are a few ideas of items we’ve found useful:

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Oops, We Bought a Project Boat!

It’s winter, and for us that means it’s project season. Nearing 3 years of too many projects to count (but also a lot of sailing), I’ve been asking myself – did we actually end up with a project boat? While shopping for a boat, the one thing I was sure of was we didn’t want a project boat!

I had heard of people buying project boats and spending years working on them without sailing. I have a lot of admiration for people who do that, but for us sailing and cruising was always the number 1 goal. If a project boat meant we couldn’t cruise, we’d be better off continuing to charter and sail in clubs.

I’ve written before that eventually I realized all boats are project boats (“What Exactly is a Project Boat Anyway?“). And even though living aboard has made it easier to work on projects, the project list hasn’t gotten any shorter. For every project finished, we discover one or two new ones.

[Note: I’ve added a Projects page to the site, listing most of the major and minor projects completed]

Haul-out in June 2015

Another reason I didn’t want a project boat was I understood that boats are expensive but not in the initial purchase cost – an old boat is only as much as two new cars, which many middle-class families have (and if you told them two cars are a luxury rather than a necessity, they would probably disagree). The real budget killer is in the carrying costs – yearly moorage and maintenance.

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