On The ‘Soft’ In St. Marys

Low tide!
Rocky’s floating dock

January 4-25, 2018

    As it turns out, in addition to learning more and more about sailing every day, we are enrolled in a full-time and never-ending curriculum of diesel mechanic, electrician and plumbing training courses aboard Exit.

     Obviously, the more we can do ourselves, the more confident we become in our own abilities to deal with whatever may arise (typically at less than opportune moments), not to mention the amount of money we save if we don’t have to pay someone else to come aboard and sort things out for us.

     However, with that comes the responsibility to recognize and acknowledge when something is far deeper in scope than we have any business delving.

     If something is already broken, the risk of digging into it to see if we can sort it out becomes much less concerning.  If it works, the last thing we want to do is break it.  If it doesn’t work, we still have to be careful that we don’t make things worse, resulting in even more expenses than we were facing before.

     As was the case with our refrigeration upgrade in Annapolis, sometimes the best we can do is to research the shit out of something, trying to educate ourselves as to how things work as well as learn what equipment and technological options exist.  Then, after multiple conversations, turn things over to a qualified expert that we trust (usually based upon someone’s recommendation) who can actually see things through to fruition.  

     In these situations, the key is to ask lots of questions and, as much as is possible, help along the way (or at least watch closely) so we better understand the system and are far more likely to be able to do maintenance and/or troubleshooting ourselves, when needed.  

     We are learning quickly that, while technology can be learned, equipment installed, and systems understood, there are always going to be variables, unknowns and unforeseen challenges that will crop up.  Sometimes experience is the best, or even only, tool that will get the job done right.  This can be especially true when modifying, “upgrading”, or changing entire systems out.  

     Our entire motivation for reaching St. Marys was to hook up with an electrical engineer, named Tom Chalkley, who we were going to work with to equip Exit with solar power.

     The vast majority of boat owners either rely on plugging into shore power at the end of the day or use an onboard generator to recharge their battery banks.  We didn’t want to be slaves to either.  Solar was imperative for us as live aboard cruisers.  We wouldn’t be at marinas to plug in, and running our main engine, or the $10,000 genset, for a few hours every day solely to charge batteries was an expensive prospect when you calculated the cost of diesel, maintenance, and wear and tear.  Solar panels could give us the ability to keep our batteries charged all the time without ever starting up the engine or genset.

     Ultimately, our goal for solar self-sufficiency was both environmentally and economically based.  

     We are reminded of the economic incentive every time we fill up our 200 gallon diesel tank.  Diesel isn’t cheap and we have to burn diesel to run the engine or genset. 

     Environmentally, the goal is to get off the grid as much as possible… reduce our overall footprint incrementally regarding both consumption as well as waste. 

     From the standpoint of practicality, we learned an important lesson about our need for solar charging during our first offshore passage.  Though we had  experienced the luxury of being able to sail without needing the engine for twenty two hours, sixteen hours into that we found our electronics (especially important things like the radar and chart plotter) starting to cut out.  Our battery banks had depleted to the point we had to fire up the generator while underway to recharge the batteries.  Hopefully, the solar panels would alleviate just such a problem. 

     Tom had worked things out with Rocky, the owner of St. Marys Boat Services (both a boat yard and a virtual community of dozens of sailors on the hard working and living on their boats), to allow us to tie up to their dock while Tom did the work.

      Rocky was quite the enigmatic character.  While always incredibly hard working and polite enough, it was two weeks before Kris finally coaxed a smile from him.  Make no mistake though; his hospitality in allowing us to stay at his dock, even after the two to three day project had extended beyond two weeks, went above and beyond.  Reluctantly, he took less money than we would have paid for one week on a mooring ball anywhere else.

Morning fog on the North River
Georgia afternoon in January


     I’m pretty sure the boat yard will retain the title of “most unique dock space we have ever used” for quite some time.

     It was one of the last yards to haul out at and do extensive refits that actually let boat owners do their own work.  It was amazing how essentially a small community of sailors, living on their boats on the hard while they did various repairs, had emerged here.

     Some, like us, were “short term” residents, counting our stay in days or weeks (we were one of the few boats that wasn’t hauled out).

    Others were either working on intended long-term projects, or had fallen prey to the spiraling trap of a re-fit black hole, never seeming to launch due to an always growing list of things that needed doing.  The lucky ones were still counting in months; one very nice couple we befriended had been working on their catamaran four years.

     Nestled behind a tiny grass covered island less than 200 feet by 50 feet in size, the boat yard dock was accessible only at high tide via a very narrow channel that approached the dock from about five hundred feet out and had to be followed for about one thousand feet when departing.  During low tide, exposed mud on either side of the island increased the size of the island by nearly three-fold and restricted the channel to dinghy use only.

The island at high tide

     The main dock was only about fifty feet long, so Exit pretty much took up the entire length of it.  

     Fortunately, it was a floating dock which raised and lowered with the tide changes, some ranging as much as eight feet.  This made it much easier considering our lines were tied to the dock cleats, and otherwise would have needed to be adjusted constantly.

     Unfortunately, the dock had less than five feet of water under it.  This meant that twice a day, at low tide, the floating dock stopped floating and merely rested at a tilted angle on the mud.  Tied alongside, Exit likewise followed suit, twice a day listing slightly to port as she rested awkwardly on the mud.  At times, there couldn’t have been more than a foot of water under our starboard side (facing the dock), and we were actually able to see our through-hulls, which should have been under the waterline.  

     One sailboat (still floating but totaled by Hurricane Irma), tied to a dock directly astern of us, stood strangely upright, even as the water disappeared at each low tide, leaving only mud underneath it.  It should have been listing over at almost a forty-five degree angle, except for the fact that it’s keel was embedded firmly in three or four feet of mud.

    Nearly six months ago, we had spent weeks on the hard in Deale, MD before launching Exit; subsequently, we had spent weeks at anchor working our way south; now we would spend weeks “on the soft” in St. Marys! 

     Despite its’ quirkiness, we came to feel quite welcome as the new kids on the block at St. Marys Boatyard Community.  The fact was, we were just just a couple of additional odd-ball cruisers who seem to fit right in.

     We had heard rave reviews and only the highest of praise regarding Tom Chalkley’s work.  As an electrical engineer who had worked for the power company, his electrician credentials were solid.  He had done numerous solar installs on yachts already, owned a sailboat himself, and could do all the aluminum frame design and fabrication that would be required.  His work was meticulous and well designed; and, as we learned, he was incredibly laid back and easy to get along with.  Talking to people in the boatyard, if we mentioned that Tom was doing the solar work for us, we always got the response, “Good choice.”

     With solar collection, one of the biggest concerns is that of potential shading.  Any shadow across a solar panel, even only a small portion of it, can render the panel almost completely ineffective.  This makes it essential to place the panels away from things like the the mast, which can cast a very large, hard shadow.

    Our bimini has plenty of space on top, but we wanted to retain the ability to remove the cover once we reached more tropical climates, as well as maintain a line of sight from the helm to the sails and top of the mast.  This required us to  allow the solar panels no further forward than the backstays.

     The massive aluminum stern arch was an absolutely perfect structural support for a solar panel frame.  However, the radar, five antennas, stern navigation and transom deck lights, all attached to a vertical strut assembly mounted at the center of the arch, concerned us in regards to the potential shadows they would most likely cast.  Yet, options to redesign the mounting strut, shorten it, or change its’ angle all seemed to create additional logistical complications, marginal gains, or aesthetic issues above and beyond the overall nightmares that would inevitably accompany any relocation process.

    After much discussion revolving around equipment options, energy needs and conservation, space constraints, budget limitations, and design considerations, we came up with a plan that would net us 920 watts of solar panels (four 180 watt panels plus two 100 watt panels) –  plenty to keep our batteries fully charged if we showed some energy-use restraint.

     In the end, simplicity won out over grandiose re-design…

Fabrication work in Tom’s shop

     …no modifications to the existing structures and minimal additional holes; four fixed panels mounted on a sturdy aluminum frame above the bimini, between the stern arch and the backstays, integrating smoothly into the existing boat lines; and two additional smaller fold-out panels mounted to the aft railings to make up for any potential shadows cast by the radar.

     …minimal intrusion and maximum wattage of panels that can be fit in.

Art.. or early signs of going stir crazy?

     As is often the case, the design phase took longer than expected.  Tom’s keen attention to detail and desire to fabricate not just a generic, utilitarian mounting frame, but rather a custom-designed as well as aesthetically pleasing frame engineered specifically for Exit’s layout, meant that a lot of ideas and options bounced back and forth.  We appreciated this, as it allowed us to fine tune many details before committing to something that would be hard, if not impossible, to change or modify at a later stage.

     It also meant pulling off panels we had never been behind in order to determine wiring routes, and eventually run the wiring, from the access points on top of the arch to the battery switch locker belowdecks in the salon.

     Once the design was essentially finalized, and the cockpit and aft berths were chock full of gear from the aft deck and interior lockers we needed access to, Tom set to work on the aluminum fabrication.

     After numerous reassessments, rough assemblies, and final fittings, the actual structure of our new charging system began to take form on Exit, piece by piece.  Slowly, our solar vision began to physically materialize.

The main solar panel frame takes shape

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