We Are Wind and Sunshine...and Other Stuff
Our recent episode with our batteries discharging has got me thinking about energy and how we manage it, not only here aboard Camino, but in the greater world around us. It is de rigueur to point toward renewable energy sources as the future for our energy needs. And they are now, and will be, important assets feeding our moving-things. But as we found out on Camino, there are limits. Even on a 38-foot sailboat we cannot flout the laws of physics.
Who would have thought that there would be so many rainy and cloudy days in the Caribbean? Who would have thought there would be a two-year, worldwide pandemic? Who would have thought Russia would invade Ukraine? (Okay, we all figured this day was coming.) The point is that nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.
On Camino, we have a mix of energies: wind, solar, gasoline, propane (or butane here in the French West Indies), and diesel. Our four solar panels generate 400 watts of power. We won’t get into a heavy, formula-based discussion here, but on sunny days they—along with our twin wind generators—top off our three, 165-amp AGM batteries around 11 a.m. As I write this it is partly sunny out, and the wind is blowing around 18-20 knots, and the batteries are being fed between 5 and 7 amps of current by the controller.
So far, that has been enough for us live off, and by that I mean that our electrical load includes the refrigerator (smaller than the one I had in my dorm room at the University of Maine), the cabin lights at night (five small LEDs), the VHF radio, bilge and fresh water pumps, the anchor light (also LED), and our charging needs: laptops, mobile devices, the handheld VHF, headlamps, tablets, and Kindles.
Many sailboats have alternate energy generation for when the big yellow thing in the sky fails to cooperate, and we did, too. Until we took it over to the Big Marina to get it fixed and discovered it had rotted from the inside out. Bigger boats have something called a Genset, which is a small diesel generator which charges the batteries. On our sail down from Newport, RI, to Florida, our captain ran the Genset twice daily. In the Caribbean, many people run theirs when they are making water or doing other energy-intensive things—or when there are too many rainy days.
We can also use the alternator on our engine to charge the batteries, but this is not ideal. When we are motorsailing we are getting a full charge on the batteries, but otherwise we need the sun and the wind, two commodities that are available to us 98% of the time. As you can see, we have already moved away from the notion of a sailboat as “fully energy independent.”
I mentioned the refrigerator, which is full of wine and beer and cheese and butter and a little food. But what do you do with that food? Cook it! On what? The gimballed stove, of course. And that stove gets its fuel for cooking from the propane tanks stored on deck. We have two propane tanks—a 20 pounder and a 5 pounder—plus a butane tank, should we need to refill in Martinique. (The rest of the Caribbean uses propane, but only butane is available here.)
Filling your propane or butane tanks can be anything from easy (in the French islands, you just walk over to the local store or gas station and exchange yours for a new one) to a royal pain in the arse. In Grenada, they had to be dropped off with one of the mobile merchants servicing the cruisers at one of the marinas on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, and picked up the next time the guy dropped them off. We have seen people with sun stoves, but now you are back to depending on the sun. Unless you are on the raw diet, you are going to need portable fuel.
Speaking of portability, there is our dinghy. Our 8hp Yamaha Enduro outboard needs two different expressions of fossil fuels to operate: unleaded gasoline, and two-stroke motor oil. The dinghy is a critical piece of equipment because it enables us to go to the chandleries and overspend on things that have the word “marine” in their names. It also gets us to the grocery store, the gas station (to get more gasoline for the dinghy), and the bars. Here in Martinique we pay in the vicinity of $8.00 per gallon at the pump.
Diesel is a little less expensive, and there are creative ways of getting the price lower. Like clearing out of a country, then going over to the fuel dock and filling up to avoid the duty. In Martinique we can probably get the price down to $4.00 per gallon by doing this.
Here on Camino, we adopt a policy of reduction. At night, when there is nothing but perhaps some wind maintaining the batteries, we avoid charging our devices—which, surprisingly, can gobble up lots of amp hours. Chantal is the only one allowed to open the refrigerator door, unless I’m getting a beer, because she is the only one who knows where things are located. If we are hot, we jump in the water. If we can, we walk over to the public beach and use the showers there. (It’s fun showering naked with strangers!) And we unplug the inverter, which takes our 12-volt system and converts it to 220 volts.
Reducing our energy requirements—on Camino, and around the world—is the low-hanging fruit that we can all employ to reduce energy needs. While we will always need the juice, taking it for granted can only lead to rainy days.