Bobby White from Sailing Doodles sails around the world in their 30-year-old sailboat and have documented what living off-grid means for them and most other sailors out there! Follow along as Bobby takes you step-by-step through all the things you need if you want to live on your sailboat off-grid. Check out the video or the transcript below to learn more!
“Most people dream of the glamorous vagabond lifestyle cruising around the world but there is a lot of planning preparation and sweat equity to get to that point. We are going over everything that you need on this boat to truly live off-grid and what living off-grid means on a sailboat.”
So I’m gonna start you off with the heart of the boat which a lot of people think is the motor. It is the batteries. Under the floor is our main mechanical area of the boat where we have our motor, generator, and of course our batteries. Down here we have two battery banks. We have nine 105 amp-hour 12-volt AGM batteries in total.
Different Battery Types
There are lots of different ways you can go with batteries. You can go to lithium, you can go to AGM, and you can go lead-acid. For power maintenance, AGM is probably the cheapest way to go without any maintenance. Lithium would be better, as it’s all about your discharge depth. AGM batteries you shouldn’t take more than about 60-70 percent below their total amp-hours. We have approximately 900 amp-hours of battery so we never want to use more than about 300 amp-hours because if you take the batteries below that depth of charge it’s harmful every time you recharge them. But lithium batteries can be taken down to 10-20 percent remaining so you can discharge them much lower. Considering that we have 900 amp-hours of AGM we could do more with about 600 amp-hours of lithium because we can discharge them lower.
Cost Of Batteries
An AGM battery is about $150 for 100 amp-hours whereas a lithium battery is going be closer to $1000 for about 400 amp-hours. Lithium is the way to go to get batteries that last longer but they’re a lot more expensive upfront.
Lifespan Of Batteries
AGM batteries can be replaced every four years whereas you can get 10 years or more from lithium.
We have eight batteries dedicated to the house bank, which runs all our refrigeration, lights, nav instruments, and more, and then we have another battery that is dedicated to engine and generator starting.
Get An Inverter
So you have your power but you need a way to use it and a way to charge the battery. What you need to have is an inverter on your sailboat. An inverter converts the 12-volt DC to 110-volt AC so you can plug stuff in. A lot of the equipment on the boat runs on 12-volts so it does not require an inverter but household type items like laptop chargers require an inverter. Our inverter is rated at 2000-watts. You can get one for less than $2,000 dollars and it also allows you to charge the batteries when on shore power. When you’re plugged in, shore power is converted to DC power and then charges your batteries. When we are not on shore power we have our 9 kilowatt-hours (9,000-watt) Northern Lights generator to charge. It runs about a half a gallon per hour of diesel fuel. However, you don’t want to rely on that because it can break and it uses fuel. Unfortunately, fuel is a consumable item and you cannot be off-grid if you have to keep purchasing fuel so you want to have enough solar or wind or some other way to get power to your batteries.
Prioritize Your Power Usage
Some boats have enough battery power to run air conditioners and heavier use equipment. Like most cruisers, we’re not one of those boats so when we run the generator we can also turn on our air conditioner, run the icemaker, and other things which are nice to have but those items should be reserved for when you have shore-power or access to fuel as they are a luxury, not a necessity. It is important to prioritize what equipment on board is allowed to run off your batteries when a recharging method is hard to come by.
Propulsion Always Wins
Propulsion always wins the power allocation debate. The great thing about sailboats is that propulsion is free! (As long as there is wind).
When there is no wind or you’ve got to go somewhere you can’t use your sails we have a diesel motor that we can use to motor around and the alternator on it can also charge the batteries at the same time. Our engine is a Ford Lehman 135 horsepower diesel motor. This motor has 4,000 hours on it and should be good for 20,000 hours whereas the generator has about 7,000 hours on it and it’s at the end of its life pretty soon. Under motor, we can do about 7.5 knots on flat calm seas maybe 8 knots but generally, we are getting about 6.5 knots because we are going into the waves.
When we do have wind we use our sails as our source of propulsion, our mainsail, mizzen, and headsail are from Precision Sails and look and perform amazingly. The change in sailing after swapping old sails for new ones is astounding. Check out the video below for some great views of our sails:
Monitor Power Usage
Our electrical control panel lets us see what things we have running on our DC current and which things are using our inverter for the AC current. This is also where we switch to shore power when connecting to the marina’s power. Our control and monitor area for the solar tells us how many watts the solar panels are producing and how much they’re charging so we can monitor our battery usage.
Solar: Our Main Alternate Power Source
We recently upgraded to a set of 4 235-watt solar panels. They provide almost 1,000 watts of solar the problem with this boat is a lack of real estate to put these big ones. So we have two on either side of the Bimini and then we have two that live on the rails. I have them set up so we can swing them up and out of the way when we’re not needing them if we’re at a dock. It is not the best solution but it’s the only one we currently have to be able to get enough solar power.
Alternate Power: Wind Power
Another way of generating power is by using a wind generator. However, we have found that it doesn’t generate enough power compared to the solar panels. On the high end, the wind generator is doing about 400 watts but that’s at a really brisk breeze, at normal wind speeds they’re only generating a few hundred watts. It is handy to have overnight as it can help replenish some of the battery usage that that isn’t being replaced by solar in the evening.
Another downside we have noticed with wind generators is that they can be noisy and you have to have space for it. On this boat, there’s really no ideal space for a wind generator because of our ketch rig.
Alternative Power: Water Turbines
There are a few other ways you can generate power on a boat that are not as common. You can use a water turbine so when you’re sailing along you lower the water turbine into the water and it spins and generates power as you’re going. It does create a little drag on the boat but I don’t think it’s noticeable depending on your boat’s size.
Now let’s talk tankage. You are going to need water and fuel storage on your boat. We have two new water tanks one on each side of the boat. Each can hold 145 gallons so we can carry almost 300 gallons of water. That will last a good amount of time for two people conservatively using the water.
Dishwashing is a major source of water wastage on our boat but we have a plan to be conservative in our water use. We will dive into that in a minute.
How To Get Fresh Water
There are three main ways you can get fresh water. You can have it filled at a marina. However, we have had problems in the past not getting clean water (In the Dominican Republic) and we all got sick from drinking it. Be careful where you are getting your water from when at the shore. We also use a Rain Man water maker to filter seawater. This is an electric high-pressure pump that pushes seawater through a very fine membrane filter which filters out all the salt and all the impurities and then puts fresh water into our tanks. This system can do about 36 gallons an hour so we can top off one of our tanks after running for 3.5 hours. You can get them in a variety of power forms, 110 volts, 12 volts, and one that’s powered by its own little electric engine. These pumps can be a bit pricey but if you really want to be self-reliant and off-grid and not dependant on somebody else for water it’s the way to go. Rainwater can also be a great source of fresh water if you have a collection system setup.
Conserve Fresh Water By Using Seawater
We do have two raw seawater pumps as well. So if we’re really trying to conserve water and we want to wash dishes there’s a little foot pump down on the floor we can push and then seawater will come up so we can do the pre-wash and then just rinse it with fresh water afterward. We do have a water pump pressurizing our freshwater as well.
Diesel And Propane
We have 2 125 gallon diesel fuel tanks so we carry about 250 gallons of diesel which with our motor runs about 1,000 miles just on the 250 gallons that we have here. We generally try to sail and only use the diesel if we need to motor around or are using it for the generator. So we could go for 3 or 4 months on the 250 gallons if we stretched it. It’s up to you to determine how long off-grid you want to be and what that means for fuel usage.
We do have propane for our oven and cooktop. One thing you want to take into consideration with propane is it is heavier than air so if you have a leak in your hose or a fitting all that propane will sink down and go into your hull to start building up. The last thing you want is a spark in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have a propane controller in which a solenoid turns off the propane (of course there’s a manual valve as well). The aft deck is where we keep our 4 tanks. 2 of them are 5 gallons and 2 of them are 10 gallons. We store them outside so that if they leak they don’t leak into the boat.
Parts, Tools, And DIY Repairs
Spare Parts And Tools
One thing you’ll find yourself doing constantly on a boat is fixing things, so you definitely need a full stock of spare parts and tools. Spare water pumps, belts, hoses, and clamps are incredibly useful to have on hand. When you’re at some anchorage in an exotic location you can’t just run to the store and get a part right away so you need it on the boat already or be able to get by without it until you can get it. We carry a lot of spare parts and tools on board. Think of it this way, anything you would have in your garage especially if you’re a handy person you need to have on the boat. Another great thing to have onboard is a sewing machine. Do yourself a favor and get yourself a Sailrite sewing machine. The material you are working with is not clothing, it’s a lot thicker stuff like canvas and plastics and you’re sewing through that so get yourself a nice quality sewing machine. You will use it more often than you think.
Knowledge Is Your Best Friend
You also need to be familiar with your boat and everything on it in case you need to fix something. YouTube is a great resource for DIYers as long as you have an internet connection. Having some books and manuals onboard can definitely lend a hand.
Keep Daily Tools On Hand
I keep our most commonly used tools in a little box under the stairs because trying to go dig out a screwdriver from our storage can be a nightmare. We break this thing out almost every day and each item is used often enough to justify it staying in the box.
Navigation And Communication
Obviously, if you are going to be sailing around you need to know how to get around and be able to talk to people. You will need navigation and communications equipment. Currently, we have two older Garmin Chart Plotters that we use. We keep one downstairs and one in the cockpit at all times. Think of it kind of like Google Maps, but with the addition of your depth. You can also use an iPad to run some great navigation apps. We are using Icom radios for local and long VHF communication. It is always a good idea to have backup paper charts on board. Satellite phones are becoming increasingly popular with cruisers to stay in touch. We are using the Iridium GO satellite phone with unlimited text messaging and unlimited data. The data is extremely slow but can be useful in a pinch.
Fishing And Provisions
Fishing is a great skill to have when living on your boat. If your not fishing or are not great at it you are going to need to supplement with provisions. Having one or two fishing poles on board is something I cannot stress enough. We have a lot of small cupboards and nooks and crannies around the boat which we use to store our provisions. Under the couches, in the galley, and anywhere else we can fit something is being used. We store food, equipment, parts, oil, canned goods, and of course… beer.
Another important thing is refrigeration on your boat. You need to be able to keep things cold and make them last a long time. Our refrigerator is a top and side loading one in which we keep all of our produce and drinks (if we have spare room). The freezer is separate and is just a little portable freezer which doesn’t very much. We are planning on upgrading to a larger and more efficient one when we are back stateside.
So it is a luxury which is not required to be self-reliant… but boy is it nice to have onboard. It does take quite a bit of power but what we do is run it when we have more then enough solar or are running our engine and dump the ice into our freezer so it is always on hand.
If you really want to be off-grid on a boat you’re gonna be a long way from hospitals sometimes. We keep an emergency first aid kit right under our stairs for easy access and have a ditch bag that has even more stuff in it right underneath our couch cushions. In an emergency, it is easy for us to grab our kit, our ditch bag, and get out. In case you are going to ditch also have an eperb on hand which sends out a radio and GPS signal if you take it with you. Ours is located by the stairs for easy access. Once we have our bag and eperb we have to go inflate our life raft. Our raft is a six-person raft, and all we need to do is pop it off and drop it in the water and it will inflate automatically.
Want To See More Of Our Boat?
If you’d like an actual tour of the boat where we show you all the nice features and everything about it you can watch the video below. You will meet Taylor as she shows you around on the boat and shares some history about it.
Dinghy And Scooters
One final thing that you really need to get around and be self-reliant is a dinghy. Ours is pretty old but the motor is the key to getting the most out of an old dinghy. Ours is a 20hp motor. I know a lot of people don’t like the extra weight of having a big motor but we can do 20mph in that thing whereas you see a lot of other people with 4-5hp dinghies and they’re doing like 5mph and it takes them forever to get anywhere.
Some marinas will have rental cars available for you to zip around town in but we have these little electric scooters which are great for getting around. We can charge them on the boat and they take up very little room, and they allow us to be independent of others wherever we go.
Don’t forget to bring some toys. Paddleboards, beanbags, hammocks are all great things to have on board. One thing we have on board which is a ton of fun is our snuba. It is a little gas-powered air pump you can hook up to and go snorkeling/diving under the boat!
Make Your Own List
I hope you found this informative, obviously, this is not the ultimate list and every cruiser is going to have their own subtle changes. If you think there’s anything we missed leave me a comment on our YouTube video. If you’d like to see more of our daily vlogs about us living on the boat please check out our channel: Sailing Doodles