Living Aboard a Boat The A to Z Challenge

K is for Kayak and Other Things That Make Living Aboard Easier

Wednesday, April 13, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA

During the month of April, we're participating in the Blogging From A to Z Challenge where every day (excluding Sundays) we'll be posting to the blog . . . alphabetically. The overall theme we've chosen to tie all the entries together is living aboard a boat and cruising – things we've learned along the way: our thoughts, reflections, and tips for those just starting out or who are interested in this lifestyle.

Let’s be honest. Living aboard a sailboat with less than 350 square feet to call your own can be challenging at times and finding ways to make it easier is an important part of the process . . . something we’ve taken a few (hundred) stabs at over the last 15 years. While we like living simply and off the grid, we also like to be comfortable and aren’t averse to filling the boat with the latest and greatest gadgets (even ones that take up too much space or power). So, what are some of the things that make our lives on the water easier? Here’s our latest list:

Solar Panels
It goes without saying, but installing a solar panel array on Cambria was one of the best (if not the best) decisions we made over the last 15 years. During the summer months, they produce 140 to 150 amps a day and save us from burning fossil fuels to compensate for our desire to have a freezer, a heater, watch movies or use the computer. But equally as important, David’s a free man and is no longer held captive by the boat for hours at a time while he recharges the batteries – most days, the panels do the work for him.

Hydronic Heating System
The first thing David did when we arrived in the PNW eight years ago was have a heating system installed. Even during the height of the summer, mornings can be cold up here and a little heat circulating through the boat helps keep things warm and dry. In addition to making life more comfortable aboard, it has the added bonus of extending our cruising to year-round (though we prefer to tie up in the winter to work on the boat and rejuvenate).

AIS (Automatic Identification System)
AIS is a new addition to our boat and another one of the best pieces of equipment we’ve added over the years. We only receive data – the vessel’s name, speed, angle of approach, destination, estimated time of passing and whether or not we’re on a collision course – all of which shows up on our chart plotter. It’s no substitute for looking outside the cockpit, but the information makes sailing through shipping lanes a lot less stressful and is a great way to see around the “corner” in foggy conditions (but in no way a substitute for radar).

Portable Freezer 
Being an offshore boat, it was surprising that Cambria only came equipped with a fridge cooled by a freezer box, similar to what you’d find in a dorm refrigerator. For ten years we lived with what we had and every three weeks or so, we’d find a place to re-provision. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. Then when Sally, our former dog, got sick and was no longer able to digest regular dog food, I had to cook for her and our time frame dwindled down to two weeks . . . at best. So, we revisited our options and decided to go with a portable freezer over a built-in one – the installation was easier, the cost was lower and the units were more efficient. Having a freezer aboard has completely changed the way we cruise and made our life on the water so much easier. We’re now able to go four months or more without buying meat and no longer have to plan our destinations around provisioning stops.

LED Lighting
With high consumption gear aboard like heaters and freezers, we need to save power wherever we can. One of the best and easiest changes we made was switching out our halogen bulbs for LED ones. We had a lot to replace (21) so rather than go for quality (at prices ranging from $10 to $25 a piece) we went with cheap Chinese imports that we found online (25 for under $50). It was a gamble, but they were so inexpensive that if it turned out to be a mistake, we wouldn’t lose much. A few had quality control issues, but they’ve been running four or five years now without a problem or complaint. We also installed LED strips for ambient lighting and switched out our anchor light.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but we only joined the smart phone generation a couple of years ago, making the switch after finding ourselves in the middle of a lightning storm and in need of a live weather radar picture. Now we’re able to pull down a full complement of weather (complete with text, synoptic weather charts and satellite photos) quickly and efficiently whenever we have a signal. And with T-Mobile as our carrier, we have unlimited data in Canada so I can update the blog more regularly, throw in a Facebook post in every now and again and Skype my mom so she doesn't worry about us too much. 

iPad with RAM Mount 
From e-books to weather data to chart plotting, the iPad has turned into one of the most useful tools we have aboard. AND it makes life easier. 

A Good Camera 
Cruising in one of the world’s most beautiful areas (if not the most beautiful) requires a good camera. For us, it's the Pentax K-5 Digital SLR. Of course there are some times when it isn't practical to bring an expensive SLR and that’s where our everyday cameras come in. We have a small Panasonic Lumix (DMC-TZ3) that we can just throw in our pocket without fear of losing or getting wet.  And a more advanced Lumix Superzoom (DMC-FZ150) that’s larger in size but still lightweight and more portable than the SLR. Neither one is water resistant (which would be an excellent feature) but both were chosen for the quality of their lenses (Leica). 

Heated Mattress Pad 
I know what you must be thinking; but in this damp climate, it’s a godsend. On cold, rainy days when we have to run the generator, we plug in the mattress pad and heat it up. We may not go to bed until hours later; but when we do, it's still warm and dry. 

Inflatable Kayaks 
Clear decks are important to us and inflatables allow us to have all the toys we want without cluttering them up. They’re also more stable in the water and easier to get in and out of from the transom of a boat. They may not be as efficient through the water as a traditional kayak, but we’re going nowhere fast and don’t mind a bit. 

Satellite Radio  
We never thought we’d actually pay for radio, but it’s turned out to be one of our favourite sources of entertainment on the boat. Sure. We have an iPod full of thousands of songs, but most of the time we prefer to leave the DJing to the professionals. It’s a great way to get my daily news fix or to just kickback in the cockpit watching the sun go down while the sound of electric blues fills the air. And because we’re currently cruising the Pacific Northwest, we have service whether we’re anchored in some of the world’s largest cities or in the remote wilderness – all without commercial interruption or channel surfing! It’s also flexible enough to meet the demands of our lifestyle: We can cancel coverage any time we like without paying a penalty and start it back up just as easily. We’re also big fans of Pandora radio but find ourselves out of cell phone coverage so often that it’s not something we can use regularly.

Fender Mini-Amp and VOX
One of David’s hobbies is playing the guitar and he has three aboard, two of which are electric. Carrying an amp, pedals and computer-based recording equipment is a big ask for a sailboat (believe me, we’ve tried!) so he recently purchased a Fender mini-amp that runs on a 9 volt battery so whenever we have friends over and he wants to jam, he can be heard. He also added a VOX AC30 Guitar Headphone Amp which emulates pedals and allows him to practice “electrified” without disturbing me. Both units are compact, use very little power and can be easily stored. A win-win for everyone aboard!

Folding Dock Cart  
On those long walks to the grocery store or laundromat (or even those not so long ones), the dock cart makes the job easier without taking up much space. 

Window Shrink Film Insulation
In this climate, condensation around ports and hatches can be a real problem (especially if you have aluminum frames like we do). A few years ago, I finally got around to installing window shrink film to help insulate them. We still get wet during the coldest months, but we’re no longer wiping down windows every morning and it’s even a little warmer inside (at least we haven’t had ice on the inside since then).

Melitta Cones Coffee Filters
After David lost the filter screen to our French press overboard, we decided to try something new and opted for the Melitta Cones. They’re plastic, compact and inexpensive but, more important, they’re easy to clean and don’t leave coffee grounds in the bottom of our mugs.

Now it’s your turn. What are some of the things you have aboard that make life easier and more comfortable? You can leave a comment below or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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  1. Wow, what a great list! We have a pretty similar list (how did we live aboard for 8 months without our little engel freezer?!). We have inflatable paddleboards instead of kayaks. We both had 15 ft kayaks that we loved and I miss them tons, but the paddelboards are fun and easy to store. - Lucy

    1. If we were cruising in warmer water, paddleboards would be a must -- they look like so much fun. But I really wouldn't want to fall in here (and trust me, I would fall!); on a good day, it's 65 degrees. Brrrr!!!!

  2. Sounds very exciting. Really happy for you. Continue to enjoy life on the water. It wouldn't be for me - I'd be wretching the whole time :) Thank you for sharing a super post.

  3. The inflatable kayaks are really intriguing me. Kayaks would be a great addition, but we also like to have clear decks, so there wouldn't really be any place to stow hard sided ones. An AIS receiver is also something we're thinking about getting. I still need to change out our light bulbs to LED. I've been putting it off because I can't decide whether to go with the cheap Chinese ones (I hear mixed reviews) or splurge and get the more expensive ones.

    Cheers - Ellen

    1. We really do like our kayaks. We can't take long trips in them, but they're a great way to get up close and personal with some of our surroundings. I've had mine since 2002, so they're durable as well. We lucked out with the AIS receiver. It's been something we thought would be useful but never got around to buying. A friend of ours replaced his receiver with a transmitter/receiver and gave us his old one last year.

  4. My husband loves kayaking. He fishes. His friend is an adventurer who kayaks, too, but doesn't like to fish. He hits the water and rows for miles. So they go "kayaking together," but it doesn't sound like they're any better off than if they went separately!

    1. I know exactly what you mean. I like to explore and David's more of a float around and absorb your surroundings kind of guy. So when we go kayaking together, it's really a separate affair!

  5. Our solar panels and wind generator were definitely a great addition to our boat, together with the AIS receiver, which made navigating so much easier and safer! unfortunately, we never had any toys on board and our conservation efforts with water had us taking a shower in the ocean, rinsing off with a sunshower for eight years. Yes, we could have made our lives much easier and thinking back about it, I wonder whether we would have stayed on board longer.

    Liesbet @ Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary

    1. That's an interesting question, Liesbet. I could definitely live without the water maker (though the added independence is nice) but not the toys. In the PNW, there aren't as many opportunities to get onshore to stretch your legs or hang out on a beach, so the kayaks are a good way to explore. Besides, David would go crazy without his guitars and I'd be lost without my cameras!