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October 26, 2001

Small Boats Across Big Oceans

We took our small boats across 1,350 miles of Pacific Ocean. Here's our adventure -- plus the insight you need to plan your own trips to exotic fishing.

At last year's Barta/IGFA Blue Marlin Classic held at Walker's Cay in the northernmost Bahamas, a 24-foot catamaran came all the way from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, a distance over 1,000 nautical miles, crewed by a man and his young daughter. Most people expressed great surprise that such a small boat would have traveled so far. But the captain said, "If you plan correctly, not only is the trip easy, but it's a terrific adventure. I wouldn't pass sharing this opportunity with my daughter for anything."
Adventure - that struck me as the key word. I know plenty of capable boat owners who would love to take their small or mid-size boats someplace exotic for the winter, instead of laying it up under a tarp in the snow. They just figure that getting their boats to such places is impossible unless they spend a fortune to put it on the deck of a ship. Not true!
Recently, Glacier Bay Catamarans president Larry Graf asked if I'd be willing to help skipper two of his 26-foot outboard-powered cats from Oahu to Midway Island, a distance of some 1,350 nautical miles across the Pacific. To add to the adventure, the trip covered totally isolated territory with no shipping lanes, no aircraft corridors, no commercial fishing to speak of and little human life. In other words, we would be completely on our own, crossing a vast expanse of open ocean in a pair of 26-footers. Yet, the confidence level ran high because we planned for every conceivable contingency.
Obviously, making sure your boat is up to the task of serious offshore passage-making is paramount. It needs to be strong, seaworthy, relatively dry, and a proven design and construction. Though monohulls can certainly fill the bill, catamarans handle larger seas more comfortably.

How much fuel does the boat use and how far will it be between fuel stops represent the two most critical questions for anyone contemplating a passage. Running to the Caribbean from the East Coast, where island-hopping provides frequent fueling opportunities, isn't as difficult as from California to Cabo San Lucas or from Oahu to Midway. Without long hauls between fill-ups, custom fuel tanks won't be necessary. Our trip provided only one planned fuel stop in the course of 1,350 miles.
Each boat manufacturer dictates maximum load for every model it builds. Glacier Bay rates its 26-footers for 2,500-pound capacity. Graf figured that each 650 pounds of additional weight lowered the boat an inch deeper into the water.
Knowing how heavily we could safely load these boats, Graf determined the hulls could safely handle about 500 gallons of fuel, plus three people, their gear, food and other equipment. A full load of fuel weighed 3,120 pounds (525 gallons of gasoline at 6 pounds per gallon).
Knowing our maximum fuel capacity led us to the next question: How much fuel did we need? Adding sandbags and 55-gallon drums of water to the boat to simulate loads, we tested five sets of propellers at almost empty, half-loaded and with a full load. We took fuel-flow figures off the FloScan gauges at each rpm reading. This gave us the answer as to which propellers offered the best fuel economy, as well as how much fuel was ultimately needed to make the trip.
Our testing showed that at cruising speed with both engines running, we would burn between 1 and 1-1/2 gallons per mile. But we also determined that trolling speed on one engine (5 knots) improved our fuel economy from 1 mile per gallon to roughly 4 miles per gallon - quite a savings. Running at trolling speed on one engine at night has other advantages, too. Even in the most remote ocean waters, junk that can damage or sink you lurks at or just below the surface. Hitting it at speed can be extremely dangerous.
Glacier Bay chose new Honda 130 hp four-strokes with programmed fuel injection for both boats. Graf's previous experience taking one of his cats from Virginia to Bermuda went well, thanks to the impressive fuel economy of the four-stroke power. Passage-making becomes much more difficult if your engines guzzle fuel like a camel drinking at an oasis.
Even running on one engine at night wouldn't allow us to reach our destination using the standard 180-gallon fuel capacity on the Glacier Bay. The factory replaced the in-deck fish boxes with aluminum auxiliary tanks that bolted in, then sealed the deck hatches above the tanks. They also fabricated an additional saddle tank for each boat. On our cabin boat, cushions were fashioned atop the 200-gallon saddle tank, and a walk-through afforded easy passage fore and aft. The center console's saddle tank fit perfectly in the walk-through to the swim platform. All totaled, our cabin boat carried 510 gallons of gasoline, the center console about 480 gallons. Both vessels performed remarkably well, even so heavily laden. The catamaran's wide beam retained a stable base.
Figure how far a full load of fuel will take you from the starting point. Then find a place at least 10 percent closer than that, and figure that as your most distant possible refueling stop.

On the center console, sleeping accommodations presented a problem. No cabin equals no bed. Graf glued together two twin-bed-size pieces of 3-inch-thick foam and carved out the rough shape of his body in the upper half of one, then covered the whole thing in a soft vinyl. I found that when I lay down, this sucked me down into it, and it kept me from rolling or bouncing while underway. It proved a most comfortable solution, though one I didn't rely on, since the Glacier Bay I skippered had a cabin with a lovely, large double berth. Had I more time, I would have added lee cloths to my berth. An old sailor's trick to keep you from rolling out of your bunk attaches a canvas lee cloth beneath the mattress of the berth, brings it up along its edge, then attaches it to the overhead with clips.

You're no longer running "just a ways up the coast." A trip like this is the big time, so you'll need a full complement of electronics and back-up systems aboard. Our 26 Coastal Runner boasted a full Furuno navigation and communications package, including a 1610 GPS chart plotter with Navionics cartography, a 26-mile radar, a single-sideband radio, VHF radio, Cetrek 700 autopilot, 406 MHz EPIRB and a portable satellite phone. The latter worked extremely well since it connected us with our central clearinghouse for voyage information (Mrs. Graf) and our Midway contacts when we were unable to raise them on the single sideband. I had rented an EPIRB from BOAT/US. If you don't plan to constantly run offshore far or often enough to warrant ownership of an EPIRB, you might want to consider this route since it only cost about $30 for two weeks.
I also brought back-ups for some of the systems. For example, I had a Magellan Nav 6000 handheld chart plotter which uses C-Map cartography. It's amazing how even in the most remote spots such as the open Pacific, both chart plotters worked perfectly, making navigation so easy anyone can do it. Add to that a submersible hand-held VHF radio and a PUR manual desalinator, and we were truly prepared for a worst-case scenario. Fuel-flow gauges qualify as some of the most important electronics you can have. We relied on our FloScan gauges more than on tachs, speedos and nav equipment, as they played the most significant part in determining our best speed.

Medical Kit
Injuries at sea can be deadly. Cuts can easily become septic. Since running to an emergency room won't be possible, a complete medical kit is imperative. Your kit should include rubber gloves, scrubbing solution such as Betadine, oral and topical antibiotics, antihistamines for allergic reactions, suturing material, antiseptics, pain killers (serious pain killers) and seasick medicine, as well as scalpels, splints and bandages for large and small wounds.

Food and Water
Obviously, bring whatever you want to eat, but remember that ice weighs a ton. Try to plan on easy-to-eat food that doesn't need refrigeration. Augment your diet with fresh fish. Cooked rice put into Zip-Loc bags can be mixed with the fish and eaten cold with soy or other pre-made sauces. Those who like sashimi should bring plenty of wasabi and soy sauce, as this can make for very easy, filling meals.
Plan on one to two gallons of fresh water per person per day. Square gallon jugs stow easily but add weight to the boat. PUR makes the only desalinators for outboard-powered small boats. They have exceptionally compact and lightweight four- and eight-amp models, which can supply you with all the fresh water you could want, without making a dent in your battery power supply.

Each boat had a six-man inflatable Switlik life raft that we kept out, accessible and ready for deployment at all times. In addition, Stearns supplied inflatable life vests in belly packs to each voyager. Traveling by boat in the deep tropics can be hot, especially when heading downwind. Wearing life vests all the time would simply be too uncomfortable. These belly-pack models are made for good security without the sweat.
Obviously you'd never make a trip like this by yourself. The people you choose to accompany you can be one of your most critical decisions. Each must be a capable navigator and driver of reasonable temperament (and not prone to neuroses), and each should have a pleasant personality that won't drive you around the bend before you reach your destination.

Find Your Weatherman
Making a voyage like ours shouldn't be a crapshoot. Rather than hoping the weather will be good for your passage, stack the odds in your favor. Find a personal weatherman and study your travel area. In our case, Graf chose Walter Hack (908-322-1215), a private commercial meteorologist who consults for commercial shipping. Though Graf's based in New Jersey, today's satellite technology allows any weatherman to track and predict conditions in any part of the world. Hack studied the records from the Pacific area we were going to travel through. From records over a 30-year period, he determined that the two-week period between August and September historically had the best weather. Based on his forecast, that's when we planned to go. We also called him on the satphone daily to confirm that nothing unexpected loomed over the horizon. He was right on the mark: The weather proved to be perfect throughout our trip.
Don't expect to find a private weatherman in the Yellow Pages. They function through word of mouth. You can find meteorologists such as Hack and weather services through the weatherman's Boston-based trade organization: The American Meteorological Society (AMS), 617-227-2425.