We are in Ludington, Michigan. We’ve been here for three days waiting on weather. Before that we spent four days in Charlevoix, Michigan. When we decided to go to Beaver Island and then on to Charlevoix we knew the long windows of good weather could well be coming to an end. Fall weather on the great lakes is frequently like this. A day or two of good weather to travel separated by a few days, or more than a few days, of inhospitable weather. We’ve had a few days that were probably doable though likely not comfortable. Throughout this year whenever we’ve had a day when we could go but it might not be fun I’ve tried to err on the side of not going and having pleasant travels when we do travel. We’ve had that luxury.
Sitting in Charlevoix, looking out at Round Lake, a beautiful and tiny little lake before Lake Charlevoix, I spent some time reflecting on the last thirteen months of travels. People frequently ask me how it has been. I know they expect that I’m going to say it’s been great and that almost any answer I give is going to sound a little cliche. My usual answer is that it’s the trip of a lifetime. It truly is the trip of a lifetime. I frequently try to remind myself how fortunate we are that we’ve been able to do this trip at 40ish years old. I know that we’ve failed our children in giving them perspective. I don’t think they have any clue how fortunate they are to have been able to have this experience. I think Molly gets it a little more than Maddy. Chalk that up to age and a little bit of personality type.
One of the single strongest endorsements of the time we’ve had is that no one is in a hurry to get home. Madelyn will pay lip service to wanting to get home and see some of her toys but there’s no conviction to it. Molly, Laura and I are all very interested in continuing to travel the way we have. We’re trying hard to figure out a life that allows us the flexibility to continue to go to amazing places and have amazing experiences.
I’ve had the opportunity to learn a few things about myself. When I thought of this trip I thought of time spent in the cockpit (the back outdoor area of the boat, not where you drive from, I can’t explain boating terminology, but that’s what it’s called!) with my feet up drinking a beer and watching the world go by. We’ve done that some but the reality is that with two children and my personality that hasn’t been what the trip is about. I thought I would relax more than I have. I thought I wouldn’t be able to find sources of stress. The reality is I can find things to stress about in any situation, I’ve been able to prove that this year. The other reality is that I don’t relax all that well. What I can tell you is that I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do for nearly every minute of the last thirteen months. I love tinkering, figuring things out, fixing things, keeping things running, making things better. The boat is a very large collection of things. They all break, they all need all of the above. I dread the thought that there may come a time when I don’t have the time to spend doing what I love. I dread that I may have to go back to paying someone to fix and maintain the boat because I don’t have time to do it. That will be hard for me if I have to do that.
Some months ago I participated in a very lively debate about the merits of the Great Loop. A member of the boating community and owner of a prominent boating service who has done the Great Loop posted about what awful boating most of the Great Loop is and how poorly suited it is for many of the people who set out on the trip. I was a very vocal defender of the loop. It’s a remarkable trip and pretty amazing to think of all the places we’ve been and the experiences we’ve had. One thing that debate made me think about was the point made about the amount of unfamiliar boating and the fact that some of that boating is quite stressful. This resonated with me. We left on August 29th, 2016 and made a left at the confluence of the Little Calumet and the Illinois Sanitary and Ship Canal. About five miles downstream from there we were in waters we’d never been in before. That continued until September 23rd, 2017. Almost 13 months of unfamiliar waters. Each day brought new and unknown challenges. Some of the days I thought would be the hardest turned out to be quite easy and some days I never dreamed would bring any challenges brought many. I think one of the senses of achievement that comes with finishing this trip is the knowledge that regardless of where we go from here we will likely never again have the same level of sustained new and very frequently technical boating. If we go back to Florida it will all be familiar. If we go back to the Bahamas even if we explore new parts we will know so much more about what to expect and how to navigate those waters. The same is true for almost any of the boating we will do in the future. In addition to boating in unfamiliar waters for the year we boated in many types of water we’d had very little experience with. We’ve primarily been Great Lakes boaters. The Great Lakes bring about their own challenges but typically depth, tides and current aren’t among those challenges. We now have a lot (and in some cases more than we’d ever wanted) experience with those and many other types of boating and challenges. I hope to go through the Panama canal and explore some of the West Coast. That will bring many new experiences but even that trip will also encompass waters we’ve been down before and we will know so much more about the types of boating we will encounter.
A moment about the boat. I’ve written a lot about this boat this year. We have tested this boat much more thoroughly than the vast majority of recreational boats are ever tested. We took a boat we bought to cruise the Great Lakes evenings, weekends and a few weeks a summer and lived on it 24/7 for thirteen months. We bought this boat with 400 hours on it in 11 years. In the three and a half years we’ve put 1150 hours on it, about 800 of them in the last year plus. The boat is made to make day trips and weekends very comfortable. It has made us extremely comfortable for over a year. It has taken every bit of use (and the occasional sand bar) with general aplomb. We’ve been comfortable, the boat has been extremely reliable and it has kept us very safe. We have also found some of the limits of this boat. Many of them we knew about before we left and some we discovered during the trip. We now have a very strong idea about what we’re looking for in our next boat. One of the discoveries we’ve made is that for the first time in owning boats and looking at different boats we are unlikely to improve upon large parts of this boat. We have just about no complaints about the interior accommodations of this boat and in fact think we will struggle to maintain the comfort we have now.
Preparations and Modifications
I debated making this it’s own blog entry. I have received a lot of feedback from people who read our blog. The feedback is split about 60/40 with 60 percent of the people who read my posts telling me that I use way too much technical jargon and provide too much detail on such items. The other 40 percent tell me how much they love the technical detail and to make sure I keep posting about it. If you’re in the 60 percent camp you may want to stop here. You’ve been warned!
Before we left for the trip I spent many months preparing the boat for our trip. I had the luxury of devoting a lot of time to preparing the boat and I jumped in with both feet. I made quite a few modifications to the boat, installed a lot of new equipment and changed around things I thought would make us more comfortable. It’s interesting after a year of running the boat hard to look back at those changes and think about what mattered and what we might do differently now that we know more.
The single biggest change we made to the boat was the Seakeeper. It’s a really impressive device and changes lots of characteristics of the boat. I’ve written about it a lot previously but what it comes down to is that the physics are such that it has hugely improved some of the bad habits of this boat but there are others it can’t affect. To live on the boat for a year with crew members prone to motion sickness as well as a crew member who is freaked out by lateral rocking the addition of the Seakeeper was huge and made the trip so much more comfortable.
We made quite a few interior modifications as well. We swapped out a table and two chairs for furniture with storage built in. We removed the cabinet for the original tube television and replaced that with a cabinet with storage on one side and an additional fridge on the other. Both of those changes were critical to living on the boat for a year. A seven and ten year old come with a lot of stuff and if I’m honest so do I. The additional fridge space gave us enough space that we always had enough room for food even if we had to go a long time between provisioning stops.
I also revamped the navigational electronics on the boat. Surprisingly this was an area of what I would describe as more mixed success as judged by how much I used the elements installed and how much value I’d place on them. When I did the install I thought a lot about how I’d used the boat around Chicago and tried to extrapolate that out to a year of cruising. Based upon that and the fact that I was incorporating some upgrades I’d previously done on the boat I ended up with one large and one medium plotter at the upper helm and one large and two small plotters at the lower helm. I installed AIS for vessel identification, SiriusXM weather and audio, a 12kw open array radar, an additional VHF radio, new instrument displays and many other small changes. Previously I’d replaced the autopilot and installed a couple of the plotters I mentioned above. If we change boats I will not do as full of an electronics refit. One of the things I learned during the trip was that I relied upon apps on iPads more heavily than I would have expected. The rapid updates of those applications, the ease of use, the multiple sources of cartography and integration with data services like Active Captain made them extremely useful. For the past 8 months or so I’ve run every mile with both Garmin Blue Charts and Navionics Boating HD running on two iPads at the helm. I also discovered that the relatively expensive SiriusXM weather just isn’t worth it. It doesn’t provide any more value than I get from free weather on a phone or iPad. SiriusXM audio on the other hand has been one of the most used features on the boat.
Before we left I’d also changed out the house batteries for 6v golf cart batteries in pairs. The hope being we’d be able to run refrigerators and other house loads for extended periods of time without running the generator. After two stops on the rivers to buy additional batteries we were successful in that goal. Before we left I installed a battery monitoring system that watches all the power consumed from the batteries and reports on their voltage, amps used and state of charge. This turned out to be one of the most valuable systems on the boat. Just ask Laura sometime about how much time I spend staring at the app for it. We didn’t install solar power on the boat. I’m not sure if this was a mistake or not but I know that we won’t leave on another trip without it. The ability to replenish or even slow the rate of descent of the house batteries without running the generator would be huge. Currently we have to carefully manage the amount of power we use and then manage the amount of time the generator will have to run in order to return that power to the batteries. Days when we are away from shore power we have to run the generator between six and eight hours a day. With solar I think we could get that down to less than three and even more if we attacked the inefficiency of some of our fridges and freezer.
After we left there have been a couple of things that we’ve tackled. Before we left we’d anchored for the day and never overnight. Our anchor sometimes held and sometimes dragged. After anchoring a few times on the rivers in current we realized our anchor was just not sufficient. We replaced our cheap plow the boat came with for a Rocna. That was a night and day change. The Rocna has never failed to set and held in some impressive winds. We also added a shore power booster to deal with the low voltage seen in some marinas.
One of the biggest things we added to our equipment after we left was headsets. Headsets are frequently referred to as marriage savers. They allow Laura and I to talk to each other easily in normal conversational tones. Previously the only way to communicate was to shout. This led to frequent issues when shouting to be heard was confused with shouting in anger. On a boat our size it was probably foolish to think we didn’t need them. We wouldn’t do without them now that we have them.
Overall we’ve been quite pleased with what we brought and left at home. There have been less than a half dozen items on the should have brought and the shouldn’t have brought lists. The next time we pack for a trip like this I think we’ll be able to get even better.
As we think about this trip coming to an end I think it is the thoughts of next time that get us all through. We have enjoyed this trip so thoroughly that we know there will be a next time. We’re asked very regularly about our plans from here. We don’t know. We will have to see what opportunities are available to us and how we can make it all work. Right now we have more unknowns than knowns and that makes planning very difficult.
Kellirae and Bill here… we just finished reading and enjoying your blog entry, Ben. Nicely written. So happy to have been a part of your travels along the way. We certainly felt fortunate to be able to keep right on going after we crossed our wake and can’t wait to hear about your next cruising adventure. It’s a whole different way of living, eh? Much love to Laura and the girls.