Five years ago I made a very rash decision.
Actually that is not the whole truth. I have been making rash decisions for most of my life; some work out well, some not so well. But it is never worth wasting time on regrets.
The particular rash decision of five years ago I am referring to was when I decided I had to own a keelboat. I had grown up sailing and had always intended to own a keelboat. I’d got as far as owning a Laser dinghy for a few years.
My intention had always been to adopt a cruising lifestyle in retirement. After three seasons crewing on racing yachts and borrowing them to helm in the women’s regattas, I decided my boat ownership plans had to be brought forward. Life is too short and if I was to develop the skills I would need in retirement, I wanted to start now.
As with most of my rash decisions, once I decide something has to be, it becomes highly unlikely that it will not. A new job and a new accountant doing my tax returns made the possible a probable. I began eagerly searching boat sales sites.
In choosing my boat, it had to meet a number of conflicting criteria: it had to be fun to sail and race; I had to be able to handle it with a mixed crew, an all-female crew and double-handed; it had to be capable of Category 1 ocean racing; it had to be comfortable enough to take away cruising; iIt had to fit the budget.
Setting the scene
At first I thought I wanted a cruiser-racer and tried out a few, including a Northshore 38. After growing up on skiff dinghies and crewing on an Archambault 35, a Reichel Pugh 48 and a Reichel Pugh 52 all of the cruisers felt steady, but slow.
I had my eye on an Elliott 10.5, but it failed to meet the last and all important criteria. After a number of months the owner dropped the price, agreed to a test sail and, after five minutes on the helm, I was sold.
You can steer this ‘skiff-on-steroids’ with your little finger; she spins on her keel, manoeuvres well under motor even in reverse and had competed in numerous Cat. 1 events during her history. Downstairs she is more spacious than many larger boats, with accommodation for six and a spartan but serviceable galley. She even had a toilet!
Four months later I fronted up to the start line for the first time as an owner-skipper on my latest rash decision, with an eager crew who had mostly sailed with me previously in women’s regattas on borrowed boats.
The next three years were a steep learning curve, both on and off the water. Maintenance, upgrades and pockets that seemed to have developed large holes made the initial outlay seem less of an issue. Attracting and retaining crew was a constant work in progress. Working my way up from the back of the fleet to the front took time.
When, finally for the first time, I was able to enter a regatta with every crew member having sailed on the boat at least once before, we were all thrilled to take out Division 2 of the Australian Women’s Keelboat Regatta in 2014. It gave me a huge sense of accomplishment and gratitude to my crew who were amazing, but also highlighted the need for a break from racing.
I had been campaigning for three years, racing up to three times per week and I’d loved every minute of it. But I was fast becoming attracted to being on the water again purely for the sheer joy of it, without the added pressure of competition.
Sailing for me is a bit like meditation, when Iam on the water everything else drains away and I can just be in the moment. My best memories from childhood all involve being on, in or near the water. It is a very strong emotional connection.
So I joined the cruising group at the yacht club and we had some unforgettable weekends, including the winery tour sailing from Williamstown to Martha Cove then indulging in a tour by minibus to sample the local beverages. Queenscliff Music Festival and a dog-friendly cruise to Brighton’s leash-free beach were also favourites.
The clincher was the Geelong Wooden Boat Festival on my partner Richard’s timber yacht Terra Novae. On the way back from Geelong, as we turned to port to head home, I gazed longingly towards Port Phillip Heads, vowing that before too long we would be heading out and beyond.
Two weeks later, I began planning the adventure.
I am lucky enough to work for an employer that embraces flexible working arrangements and work-life balance. Working remotely and lifestyle (unpaid) leave are two of the employee benefits that allowed me to plan a twelve week escape from Melbourne’s winter during 2015.
The original plan was to take Children of Phoenix up the coast as far as Coffs Harbour, then across to Noumea to visit friends then back home. I counted a month to get there, a month to visit, and a month to get home. It turned out that decision was not just rash: it was overly ambitious.
We ended up going for plan B at Coffs Harbour: taking the boat further north to Bundaberg then returning only as far as Brisbane and leaving the boat there as a floating Queensland holiday house, which we have been enjoying one weekend a month since.
In order to do the trip, my spartan racing yacht needed some modifications. I had already added a V-berth in the forward peak for cruising weekends. I’d also started taking the boat up to Docklands and sleeping on board a few nights a week to be close to work, so a TV had been installed. Do not ask me why, I don’t have a TV at home, so why I thought I needed one on the boat is somewhat perplexing.
However, twelve weeks away necessitated further transformations. The immediate need for the original plan A, was to be able to carry enough food, water and fuel to do a passage of at least eight days. I hoped the crossing to Noumea would not take that long but I was allowing extra time.
Extra water bladders were added and plumbed under the settees and tie-downs for jerry cans of both fuel and water were bolted into the generous aft lockers in the stern. I had already added an autopilot for double-handed racing but added an extra house battery and invested in an Aquair generator, a dual mode tow generator/wind generator, for extra power.
A tech-savvy friend (thanks Bill) helped me finally get around to integrating the new autopilot course computer with the old B&G instrumentation via a multiplexor. This proved invaluable for downwind sailing, allowing us to sail to fixed wind angles rather than waypoints and avoid crash-gybing our way up the coast.
We borrowed a life raft (thanks Andy) and exchanged my minimum weight anchor for one of Richard’s heavier-duty ones, plus commandeering his dinghy and outboard. I bought some charts and borrowed others (thanks David) and we began planning the itinerary and plotting courses.
These essentials were only the very beginning though; we wanted the trip to be a bit of a sea-trial, we wanted to use it to decide whether we really did want to adopt a cruising lifestyle. Whether we could live on a boat together and also, if push came to shove, whether we could do it on my boat.
So the plan was not just to camp on a racer for twelve weeks, we needed to make the experience as close as possible to what it would be like if we were to choose the path more permanently.
Once gain, a strict budget had to be worked around and many compromises made. We tried to choose wisely and carefully, in some cases the choices were a little misguided but mostly everything we did was highly worthwhile.
So how do you go about converting a racing yacht to a ‘comfortable’ live-aboard?
First, keep in mind that everything is relative and manage your expectations of ‘comfortable’. Realistically, cruising on a racing yacht will only ever be like camping.
Second, find yourself a soulmate, preferably an ex-boatbuilder, who shares your cruising dream, your love of simply ‘being’ on the water plus also has a workshop full of materials and a bag full of skills and tricks.
Third, plan the conversion so that it can be reversed. A racing yacht is a racing yacht, if I or any future owner ever wanted to front up to a start line again it would need to be without all the additional weight on board.
After months of planning and hours of work (OK, Richard did most of the work), here is our top ten modifications. Costs are indicative, Richard had lots of timber, paint and fibreglass in his workshop and he (or is it me) prefers to think of his time as a ‘labour of love’ rather than ‘slave labour’.
Engel 40L fridge freezer ($750)
Children of Phoenix already had an ice-box under the chart table, but no fridge. The cost of converting the ice-box was significantly higher than adding an Engel and would have reduced the internal volume due to the additional insulation that would have been required.
Using the Engel as a freezer, we were able to take prepared frozen dinners and freeze down plastic bottles of water for the ice-box so that it stayed cool for other supplies. Plus, the Engel could be easily removed.
During the conversion process, I was still participating in club racing. Interestingly, the Engel was the one weight addition which was met with broad grins rather than raised eyebrows by the racing crew. Could it be that their priorities lay with cold beers at the end of the race?
Galley bench ($5)
One of the biggest frustrations in preparing, or even just dishing up, meals on the boat was the lack of bench space. A fold-away bench added at the end of the sink created a U-shaped galley, tripling the available area.
Timber, paint and glue were sourced from Richard’s workshop. Using a cheap Bunnings piano hinge was not such a great idea, not marine grade stainless steel. Rust stains quickly became an eyesore.
Having commandeered Richard’s inflatable dinghy, an immediate problem presented itself. Children of Phoenix had no stern rail, only life-lines strung between corner pushpits; where were we going to stow the outboard?
Having a new custom pushpit manufactured was beyond the budget. Once again, friends came to the rescue (thanks Steve) and a removable stern rail system was devised and welded, which catered for both the outboard
and the tow generator gimbal.
I actually would not go back to the old arrangement now; it is a much more secure feeling at the helm having a stern rail to hang on to on such a wide-beam boat when tacking or gybing in a big sea.
Anchor and electric windlass ($1500)
Anchoring was not something I had much experience with as a racer. For compliance purposes, I had an anchor on board but no deployment system.
The only time I had dropped the pick on Children of Phoenix was returning from the Boxing Day Dash, anchoring for a few hours off McRae, my old childhood sailing club, to go ashore for dinner. It involved manhandling the anchor from its stowage locker under the starboard settee to bring it up on deck along with all the chain, lashing the end of the warp around the mast, lashing the spinnaker pole to the forestay and running the warp through the beak as a make-shift bow roller. A highly questionable practice?
Having more prior anchoring experience than me, or maybe just in the interests of self-preservation knowing he would be the unhappy deck-hand, Richard’s first declaration was that we needed an anchor deployment system complete with electric windlass. I initially scoffed at the idea; could we not bring it up by hand? Did we really need an electric windlass?
After the first night of anchoring in Oberon Bay, I was ready to bow to his superior wisdom. By the end of the trip we had anchored a further forty times, there is neither a dollar of the outlay nor a gram of the extra windlass weight that I now begrudge.
In any case, the anchor locker itself is the only permanent fixture and adds minimal weight. The windlass, bowroller and timber/stainless bow fitting that supports it can be removed for racing.
New high density V-berth mattress ($140)
Although I had already installed the V-berth, I’d done it as a trial with a cheap, low-density foam single mattresses. By the time we got to Brisbane, Richard was almost crippled with back pain.
A trip to the local Clark Rubber store and a small investment in a queen size high-density mattress made the world of difference.
Never underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep; whether it is to recover from a hammering in Bass Strait, or simply to sink into a comfortable bed after navigating through tricky passages, being able to recharge personal batteries is just as important as recharging the house batteries.
Cupboard doors ($50)
As a spartan racing yacht, Children of Phoenix began life with open lockers. For the weight-nazis, this is as it should be including all lockers remaining empty of any non-essential items which add evil grams. In other words, the lockers may as well not exist, they should remain empty.
Children of Phoenix has a four metre beam and a big, roachy main. When she heels, she likes to heel to reduce her wetted surface, it is at a steep angle. Empty lockers are fine, but when they are full of food, crockery, cooking utensils and other essential cruising items, open lockers quickly result in dangerous objects flying around inside the cabin.
One of Richard’s early modifications, which did lead to many raised eyebrows amongst the racing crew, were doors for all the cupboards.
He even got artistic on the hanging lockers!
LED Voltmeter ($0 - thanks Bill)
My tech-savvy marine electrician friend decided that our old analogue voltmeter, which did not give an accurate reading, had to go. He donated a new LED one as a parting gift.
With the generator not really pumping enough power to be useful and having decided not to invest in solar panels for the trip, running the motor became the primary means of recharging the batteries. Children of Phoenix uses about a litre per hour so that was not a huge drama, but the LED voltmeter with its accurate reading gave us the confidence to know when it was needed.
With the recharging requirements of all the electronic equipment on board: laptops, iPads, iPhones and not to mention the navigation gear and autopilot, power needed to be monitored constantly.
The point of the trip, apart from sea-trialling the lifestyle, was to escape Melbourne’s winter. That meant going somewhere warm (read: hot).
Air conditioning did not even factor into conversion considerations. That meant a hot cabin. That meant sleepless nights, which meant a grumpy Kathy.
Richard’s four-sided wind scoop created out of an old spinnaker saved my, or maybe his, sanity.
Boarding ladder ($70)
Hot climate equals swimming. Getting off the boat is easy if you are prepared to take the plunge (literally) and jump.
Although I only swam once on the trip with the turtles off Moreton Island, there have been numerous dips since. When we have come up for weekends I have greatly appreciated the boarding ladder I insisted Richard install.
I do not have much upper body strength, so hauling myself up using the stanchions is not a possibility. I don’t really want to practice man overboard retrievals just to go for a swim, so a little fold-down ladder with a handle on the sloping stern was a really handy addition.
Bean bags ($60)
There were a host of other modifications, some minor/some major, that could compete for tenth place.
The TV was definitely a non-essential, but it did allow Richard to crow arrogantly when watching the All-Blacks thump the Wallabies for the World Cup Final. The towel rails were great in the bathroom, but I suppose we could have hung them over the life lines to dry.
In the end, we never used the generator in tow mode, the motor was on too often to bother. We tried it in wind mode a few times when anchored up for more than a day, but probably due to my dodgy extension of the cable to reach the 12V socket, it did not generate as much power as we hoped. In hindsight, solar panels would have been far more useful.
The toothbrush holders provided much amusement when it was discovered they were a new design for an inclinometer, making it tempting to pencil in the heel angles on the bathroom wall. Once we installed the handles in the companionway, people stopped clutching the sides and inadvertently turning the auto-pilot to standby, so that was definitely helpful.
The two extra ten kilogram gas bottles Richard plumbed were also essential; the old 2.5kg bottle would not have lasted very long.
But, in the end, the vote would have to go to the two bean bags. When we had crew on board, they were the item in hottest demand.
During our forty hour ordeal crossing Bass Strait in 45 knot headwinds, it was the waterproof bean bags on the cabin floor that Richard and I would collapse onto during our off-shift time, not bothering to remove our wet weather gear.
With no comfy seating on the Elliott 10.5 racing deck, wine at sunset after a long day’s sailing just would not have been the same without them.
When the orange one was tragically lost overboard between Nelson Bay and Coffs Harbour, it was reported to the local Volunteer Marine Rescue base, in case someone came across it at sea and was concerned about the safety of the vessel it had originated from. It was without doubt the loss which created the most consternation aboard and steps were taken immediately to have a replacement shipped from Melbourne. We even ordered a spare one!
By the time we arrived in Mooloolaba three weeks later and took delivery of the new blue bag, we had become acutely aware of just how essential an item it was. A very long dinghy ride down the suburban waterways and a fairly long walk to the local shopping centre and back were a small price to pay for polystyrene beans to fill the bag.
I am sitting back in one as I write; it is sunset and I have a glass of Sauvignon blanc beside me, having just enjoyed a freshly caught and pan-fried whiting fillet. I glance at Richard and reflect that yes, the answer to our first question is that the cruising lifestyle is most definitely where we want to be.
Children of Phoenix may not be the ideal boat: the lack of a dodger in Bass Strait and the lack of a bimini in Queensland were both major draw backs. The wide beam and light displacement make her tricky to handle in a following swell. The V-berth is about a foot too short for a tall couple and, with no oven, Richard can not bake his legendary cupcakes.
But with her speed, she certainly gets you where you want to go fast. A willing and worthy companion for our first forays into cruising.
- Kathy MacFarlane