When we purchased Spartan, we knew that it was rigged primarily for summer seasons on the great lakes. To take it south, there would be several upgrades to make. Here’s a list of some of the things we’ve done or decided not to do to get ready for a year in the Caribbean.

A Good Anchor is the Best Pillow

Your head has just hit the pillow. All is well in the world. Your eyes are heavy with sleep. And then you remember that your entire house could be quietly drifting towards destruction. If the hook you stuck in the sand a few hours ago decides to go for a walk, bad things happen. Welcome to living “on the hook”.

A good anchoring package is of critical importance to any boat planning a trip like ours. For both safety and piece of mind, it’s one area that you can’t skimp on. We could have renovated a bathroom for the money we spent on a 44lb anchor, 200 feet of high grade steel chain and the installation of an electric windlass to raise and lower it all without breaking our backs.

Situational Awareness

Imagine you and your mate are walking at night in a very large, relatively empty field. There are no lights in this field. I mean NO lights! No city glow, no moon, just limitless blackness. You step gingerly. You listen closely. You know there’s more field ahead, but you can’t see it at all. Your brain is unfamiliar with how to process such a lack of visual information. It’s disorienting. Welcome to night sailing. You hear the water rushing by, you see the seafoam passing close by your boat, lit red or green by your navigation lights. On a cloud-covered night, that’s all there is to see.

Now imagine that all that blackness is white. A sea of white is passing in front of your eyes, seeming to move in a circle around you, giving you vertigo and making you believe you are turning when your course is steady. Welcome to sailing through fog.

To help enhance our situational awareness at night and in fog, we’ve installed radar, AIS and a new plotter on which these info systems are displayed. Total cost: About two years of a deluxe cable tv package. We can point our radar into the sky to distinguish between the black sky of fluffy, harmless clouds and the black sky of an approaching squall. We can also point it to the water to determine whether there are rocks or other objects ahead.

Objects detected by radar show as pink chart overlay at left.

Of course, nearby ships have lots of lights, so they are easy enough to see in the night. But it can be very difficult to interpret their lights. It’s often very difficult to make out their heading and impossible to know their intentions without some help. So, we’ve installed AIS – a system that uses satellite communication to gather and publish information about every ship, everywhere. Our plotter displays an icon for each ship nearby. We can see the name, speed, bearing and other info about any ship. Our plotter will also alert us if it thinks we are on an intercept course with a ship. And, since we know the ship’s name, we can hail them easier.

Each grey triangle is a nearby ship.

More Power, Baby!

While we will never be away from land for more than a day or two, we will be at anchor as often as possible. That means we need to make our own electricity, store it, convert it to household voltage, and monitor our usage. We’ve learned a lot about power systems along the way. In fact, I now share with others a tool I made for calculating solar system needs. We’ve added 420 watts of solar panels to generate power, replaced all the lights with LEDs, added a 1000w inverter so we can run most household appliances, a new alternator, and a state of charge monitor to keep track of our power in and out. Before we leave, we also plan to upgrade our batteries to have more storage capacity. Total cost: About the same as a new set of kitchen appliances.


We bought a new mattress and it feels like total decadence. It was custom made to fit the weird shape of our berth. We also replaced the normal head and sewage management system with a composting toilet. Total cost: about the same as a decent chesterfield set.

A Dinghy is a Station Wagon

When you are living on the hook, your dinghy is your station wagon. It’s how everyone and everything is getting onto and off of your boat. We installed high quality davits to store our dinghy on then bought a cheap used dinghy and a small outboard motor off craigslist. We may end up deciding that we need a larger dinghy at some point as ours is extremely small.

Safety Items

  • Jack Lines – lines made out of safety belt material that you clip into before leaving the cockpit when the waves are high.
  • Garmin InReach – A handheld device that will radio our position, give us weather and texting capabilities when offshore.
  • Life Raft – Something you pay for and hope to never, ever use.
  • PFD Upgrades – Our life jackets don’t currently include crotch straps and some say that a PFD is pointless without them.
  • Subscription to Chris Parker – Chris is the guru of East Coast weather and we will be taking his advice when we cross the Gulf Stream.
  • Propane Sniffer – The boat came with a sniffer that has three different sensors mounted in the bilge. We will be replacing the sensors or the whole unit.
  • Propane Tank Recertification – You didn’t think this was a thing, but it’s done. We have 10lb tanks that look new, but were out of date. They were expensive to replace, so I went to the only place in Ontario that recertifies tanks. Good as new, now!

So, in total, the amount we’ve spent on upgrades could have bought us a second boat – not quite the boat we have, but something good enough for sailing weekends on the Great Lakes. Even though it was all planned out in an elaborate spreadsheet before we bought the boat, seeing it all listed out this way makes me wonder whether we shouldn’t have just bought a boat in Florida. Many people, after having spent a winter in the Bahamas, sell their boat in Florida rather than sail it back to their home port. Oh well. Next time.

One comment

  1. I love the comment about the station wagon 🙂 When I first met the Therriault clan the family car was a station wagon…


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