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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sea Gypsy Hardware

Looks like old Dimitri will be getting his new diesel boat engine after all. His fund raiser is doing well. It's not how I'd have gone about it. Instead of a nice new diesel engine I'd have put some kludge together with spit and duck tape. Then again, I would not be stuck in Boston harbor either.

So it got me thinking: who are the true Sea Gypsies?

First some background. Ray Jason, the Sea Gypsy Philosopher, came up with the idea of people bugging out to the sea. The idea is that during a time of upheaval, be it war, plague, economic collapse or whatever, people could find safety in sailboats. His idea is that a group of people could sail 50 miles off shore and sit out most problems. He figured that 50 miles was far enough to be beyond the reach of pirates who use small fast petroleum powered boats. Cruising sailboats are normally well equipped and designed to go weeks or months without outside support. It's a tempting idea.

Most boats could easily go a few weeks unsupported, so with a little planning several months would be easy. My big concern is that most cruising sailboats are very complicated machines. They have refrigeration, water makers, and a whole hose of electronic devices. That requires a robust electrical system often consisting of big alternators on the boat engine, separate gas generators, windmills and solar panels, along with a hefty battery bank.

Ray rightly points out that those systems could be extended a number of ways. For example, once the fresh food runs out, shut down refrigeration to save energy. Collecting rainwater is much lower tech solution than running water makers.

So I got to thinking about some of the most talented engineless sailors out there today: the Haitians. They may have the largest fleet of engineless working boats in the world. Day in, day out, they ply the Caribbean seas, fishing, trading, and smuggling. If they are lucky they may sails make of actual sailcloth instead of old tarps. They operate with few of the modern systems that your average cruiser would consider essential.

Anyone remember Kevin Costner's crazy movie “Water World?” It was a silly movie, but something from it stuck in my mind. At the beginning of the movie Costner's character was on a high tech catamaran sailboat. It was a miracle of modern materials with winches and cables running everywhere. At the end of the movie he'd lost his high tech boat, but built another that Polynesians from 500 years ago would have felt comfortable sailing.

It's Okay to start out with high tech, but to be a real Sea Gypsy you also need the skills of a Haitian sailor. Some boats are more suited to low tech operation than others. I've seen sailboats abandoned because their electrical generation systems were down. Sailboats! Turns out that without electrical power to operate their electric winches and wire driven systems they are dead in the water. Some even rely on gyroscopes to keep right side up.

The trick is to find boats that were built as sailboats first. They may have engines, but they are auxiliary engines. Fortunately there are a lot of older sailboats built that way are are available for small money. Many of the new boats are floating condos first, motor boats second, and sailboats last of all. Choose wisely.

If you want to know what's possible on a small older sailboat boat check out Matt Rutherford's solo unsupported sail around the Americas. Just about all his high tech systems eventually failed, but he kept on sailing and finished the voyage. There is no substitute for seamanship.



  1. Thanks for making me aware of this. Any books on the subject to recommend?

    1. Ray Jason just put his essays on the subject in book form, so that's a start.

  2. I hate it when I write a comment, hit publish and the void eats it. So trying again.

    Thanks for the links! Much food for (uncomfortable) thought there. Gonna take a bit to chew on and digest.


    1. Blogger is getting glitchy again.

      Chew away and I hope it sets well.

  3. The only means I have of floating on the water is an ultra stealth way, a canoe.

    1. I grew up in canoes and still love them. Really good way to disappear into the back country.

  4. Along the Texas Intracoastal Waterway, there are some fishing shacks situated in the middle of the channel. No utilities, simply a covered structure on a small 'wharf' (not sure if that is an appropriate term) and thats it. The inside are pretty spare - a couple of bunks, a counter or simple cabinet and that is it. Great way to get away from it all.

    I've seen people fishing from these, using a gas generator to supply fishing lights to attract fish. Pretty nifty - a fixed 'houseboat of sorts.

    One of Les Stroud's TV shows had a similar community that was fixed on the water. Definitelyl low tech, but the people appeared happy. I'

    I'm sort of thinking of purchasing a sea kayak, the south Texas Gulf Coast is pretty friendly for those.

    Thank you Sixbears for the topic - it is a very interesting one to ponder.

    1. By all means that kayak. It'll get you into places most other boats can't go.