“I feel much closer to our boat by taking it apart.”
Last fall, we decided to take another look at a power catamaran. Laurene has always viewed this platform as making a lot of sense for many reasons. Open living spaces suit her, and its advantages were more important to me than a saloon rich in teak or maple. The cats I’ve been aboard seem more like spaceships than traditional boats, and that is part of their charm.
Spitfire is a 2007 PDQ 41, hull number 8 of the 11 built by PDQ Yachts before it closed its doors in the failing economy. We’d been aboard them at the shows, and I did a boat tour of the Richardsons’ Sleigh Ride back in 2008 (see “PDQ 41,” PMM May/June ’08). Our 41 was the first boating experience for our newly rescued puppy, Annie, when we went for a ride with friends Dick and Carol Tuschick of Rhumbline Yacht Sales. I recall standing on the forward edge of the wide foredeck as we ran along at 18 knots near the St. Lucie Inlet, a pair of dolphins swimming up to us in the beautiful water.
The previous owners of the boat, Tom and Dorene Sutton, had taken wonderful care of Kudu. And the couple made some nice changes that proved worthwhile. We could move aboard and take off.
A LIST OF THINGS WE NEEDED TO DO…OR NOT
After a successful sea trial in the Indian River off Ft. Pierce, I drove back to Annapolis, my mind racing with all sorts of things I had to do right away. Annie would need a ramp, of course, to get on and off the boat, as the side decks are 6 feet off the water, and there is no way she will round the transom to use the steps. So in the six weeks we waited for Yanmar to finish improvements to the engines that required removal from the boat, I made myself crazy working on this and other projects. (As it turned out, my mental anguish was for nothing, as Annie jumps on and off the boat with ease—I don’t need no stinkin’ ramp!)
I’ve never known a problem-free boat, and on our trip from Ft. Pierce to Stuart just hours after signing the paperwork, we lost the flybridge Raymarine E120 chart plotter. It began to flicker and went blank. Bummer. “Why didn’t this appear in the survey?” Laurene asked me. “You are supposed to know these things!”
Her first time at the helm, with Dick as instructor, Laurene quickly got the hang of it. We motored slowly around Manatee Pocket, and just as he told her we should consider a second depth sounder (as the fishfinding sounder is not very good in shallow water), it, too, went blank. Good for fishing in deep water, not so good for reading the bottom. It was added to the list.
Within a week, the freshwater pump quit. It powers all of the water in the boat, including deck washdown. What? There is no saltwater washdown for anchoring? Guess we’ll have to replace that pump, and a proper washdown system will have to be done before we leave.
But these issues were very much overshadowed by discovering so many wonderful things about our new Spitfire. We enjoyed our first evening sitting on the flybridge at dusk with a nice bottle of wine. I turned on some switches for the first time. We have courtesy/mood lighting on the flybridge? How romantic. And then we noticed speakers on the underside of the arch, so I went below and turned on the stereo. We had music around us, the view outstanding. It was magnificent and we felt so lucky to be in this moment. The shower in the master stateroom turned out to be the best I’ve ever used. With the large hatch open overhead, really strong water pressure, the experience was almost sinful. So what if it used lots of water…we had a watermaker.
Every day before we took off we learned new things about the PDQ. And the carload of stuff we’d brought down with us seemed to disappear. With so many stowage places and neither of us telling the other where things were, we simply forgot in those frenetic first days. (It would be quite some time before we learned where stuff was or should go. The under-cushion locker I originally thought was a good place for my tool bag turned out to be under Annie’s favorite spot on the saloon settee. The bag still gets moved around today. It will take time.)
I think it was our fourth day aboard when I told Laurene that I had found something I really hated about the boat. Laurene turned to me and asked what that might be. I said the mirror in the head makes me look fat. She shouted, “Me too!” She said she had noticed that right away but thought it was her vanity. We both howled.
I knew the existing anchoring gear wasn’t up to how we’ll use this boat, as a 35-pound plow seems too small for a boat of this size. So I replaced it with a 75-pound Rocna, and more chain is going into the chain locker as well. With its shallow draft, I relish the idea of anchoring next winter in 3 feet of Bahamian water. But elsewhere the water is deeper.
The batteries are all original, which means they are five years old. How lucky did I feel? A little voice told me they must be on the edge of darkness. We subsequently made the trip north with no battery issues, but a month later one of the engine-starting batteries failed to start the engine. One day it was fine, the next it was toast, no warning whatsoever. I immediately replaced both Group 24 starting batteries.
Dick spent two days with me, going over the various systems and how to use them. But anyone who has ever bought a large boat knows it all goes mushy after a while. I remember Burr Yacht’s Ray Currey explaining how he introduces owners to their new Fleming over time, as he finds it impossible to force feed information across such a wide spectrum of gear in one sitting.
When we finally left Palm City, Florida, for the trip north, I had not all that much time at the helm, spending the majority of my days doing maintenance, looking for seacocks, or working off the list. Minor things would have to wait, and there were some lights and gear we had yet to use, spaces we hadn’t seen.
After one last trip to Publix (love their Cuban sandwiches!) we took off our lines, stowed the fenders, and began our journey up the ICW, some 1,200 miles to home. No amount of reading or wondering is quite like getting away from the dock, assistance no longer within arm’s reach. There is a great line from the movie, Captain Ron, where the captain says, “If anything is going to happen, it is going to happen out there,” pointing out to sea. Oh how right he was.
BOAT HANDLING REVISITED
All of my travels on power cats have been somewhat benign, except for a planned three-day passage on a new 50-footer that was so not fun we decided to change plans and go somewhere else. (I never did write that story.) A couple of PDQ flotilla trips were truly delightful. Generally I find that power cats are stable boats. The snappy motion that people associate with cats occurs in certain beam seas, such as when a sportfishing boat blasts close by at 30 knots. If I don’t steer into his wake to change the angle, the closest hull lifts with its crest and then drops into the trough just as the other hull lifts, totally out of sync. This quick and exaggerated motion is uncomfortable and can break things not tied down.
But I’ve found if we take waves or boat wakes at angles other than on the beam, life mostly remains smooth and comfortable. When I imagine a clock face, any wave action coming from the 10-to-2 o’clock position or the 4-to-8 o’clock position doesn’t really phase a power cat unless they are steep and close together. I learned this while working north in the ICW, where there isn’t always open space along the waterways and numerous powerboats sped by us following the magenta line. Later I would often reflect on better ways to handle some of the situations we found ourselves in. Such is getting to know a new boat.
We were on our way north up the Alligator River on a blustery day with winds behind us, gusting to 30mph and higher. We wanted to make the Alligator River Bridge because we were told it would be closed to boat traffic when winds hit 35mph. Tired of a long day when the forecast didn’t match the weather, we headed for the Alligator River Marina just beyond the bridge. Making it through the opening span, I turned hard to port to run beside the bridge to reach the marina alongside Route 64. I had to spread my feet far apart to stay at the flybridge helm, Spitfire rolling from side to side as the following seas were now directly on our beam. It was most uncomfortable as we rolled for what seemed like forever to make that distance to safety. It would be ugly for any boat without stabilizers. I have since realized a much more comfortable course of action would have been to continue past the bridge for some distance before turning around and heading toward the marina entrance, taking the waves off the port bow at 45 degrees. I’ll know this next time.
When we stayed a couple of days in a fun little town with much to see and do, the break gave me time to sit back and find out more about the systems we were now using. It pleased me to see products from the Italian companies Steve D’Antonio and I visited in Italy a few years ago. We have Quick water heaters, windlass, and warping winch, Vitrifrigo ice maker, and Indel refrigerator. And they all work well.
Spitfire’s 18-foot beam proved not to be an issue. We were always accommodated at a marina. (We stayed at marinas during this trip as Spitfire did not yet have a dinghy, and we had our little Annie aboard.) Sometimes we’d be out at the end of a dock, which made us walk a little longer to shore, but we could use the exercise.
One of the big advantages of a power cat is its fuel economy, and while I’m still playing with the numbers, it appears we burn about 2gph at 8 knots, and about 10gph at 18 knots. With 360 gallons of diesel, we might even be able to make the trip between Stuart and Annapolis without buying fuel if we stayed at 8 knots. That would certainly be an eye-opener with today’s fuel prices. But running the cat at 18 knots is wonderful, so we didn’t.
The boat has neither bow nor stern thrusters, and I find they aren’t needed. Having engines spaced so far apart gives us a huge advantage when maneuvering in close quarters. I quickly learned to appreciate having such confidence-building control, and I can put this boat anywhere, and turn her in her own length—even move sideways when necessary.
RELEARNING OLD HABITS
When the second Raymarine chart plotter started to blink on and off in light rain just north of Charleston, South Carolina (we swapped the non-working flybridge unit with the one at the lower helm), I wondered if we might be on the verge of losing electronic navigation. I’d asked a technician before we left Florida what would be a good backup system, and he suggested the Garmin 740S without hesitation. Self-contained with an internal GPS and preloaded charts, it could do all we needed and more. So when this E120 started flickering, Laurene called ahead to Osprey Marina on the Waccamaw River to find where the nearest West Marine was located. She then called the Myrtle Beach store and they agreed to hold the one unit they had in stock. When we arrived at the marina, the dockmaster graciously drove me 10 miles to the store and when the three guys working at that West Marine saw the marina truck, they were ready for me with smiles and offers of assistance. One of them even gave me a piece of StarBoard in case it would help in my installation. It was a great customer service experience. I was able to temporarily install the compact Garmin plotter in short order. In the process I apparently tightened some loose connections on a power strip as the Raymarine E120 never blinked again. (The first E120 did, indeed, require a new power supply, and it was replaced after we got home. It has been fine ever since.)
Buying a boat that is already fully equipped takes some getting used to. I got into boats when living in Seattle, and I learned from friends to plan routes and anchorages ahead of time, often in the home office or at the dining room table. With our previous boat, Growler, I did this on a laptop running Coastal Explorer, and I became comfortable using it as my primary navigation tool.
On Spitfire, we drive the boat from the flybridge and there is not yet provision for a computer and sunlight-readable display, so I use the chart plotter. But I find creating routes on plotters tedious and not worth the effort, and I haven’t figured out a solution other than navigating as we go, with Laurene reading cruising guides and other chart books under way to determine the day’s route in real time. And that seems to be how others do it around here. (A quick survey of my friends makes me wonder if this is an East Coast/West Coast thing.)
By the way, Laurene found that the four guides were never fully accurate or in agreement, at least two of the four would be wrong at any given time. Even the Navionics electronic charts were not without fault, and several times I stopped looking at anything other than what was around me to navigate. Always following the ICW’s magenta line on a chart will lead you to certain distress. I hope in the future to find a way to install a computer system so I can get back to using Coastal Explorer. Rose Point’s Jeff Hummel tells me I can download CE routes from my computer to the E120, but I have yet to try that as my laptop is in need of a new motherboard.
I’m also having a difficult time letting go of my need for deep water, as the shallow draft of this boat provides a whole lot of slack in a waterway. And a real bonus of adding that second depth sounder is that now with one in each hull so far apart, I can navigate in a narrow waterway such as the Rock Pile with more precision. Seeing 9 feet under one hull and 12.5 feet under the other hull is very useful when you want to stay centered.
THE MMSI/DSC DEBACLE
The boat came equipped with a Standard Horizon VHF radio, with a RAM mic on the flybridge. It has an MMSI number assigned to it for use with DSC service. I wanted to update the contact information associated with this MMSI number, which I thought would not be a big deal. What transpired was an unbelievable example of idiocy, as the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard obviously never thought through the MMSI process.
When a boat changes hands, it is important that any changes to the vessel name, owner, description, and emergency contact information be updated for the MMSI number assigned to a radio on that boat. But the original owner must initiate the change, because database access requires a username and password in whichever system the MMSI number resides, as there are several organizations that assign and manage MMSI numbers. I found I can’t simply request a change via BoatU.S.
The previous owner did not recall how he got his MMSI number, nor where it came from, and he certainly didn’t recall a username and password from five years ago. Kristin Loyd of BoatU.S. spoke with her contacts at the FCC, the USCG, and Sea Tow, and I talked with the radio manufacturer. This isn’t new, and Kristin is frustrated that no one really thought about how the MMSI database information would be managed when a boat is sold. BoatU.S. hopes to change the process, as there is no need for tight security—this is not about Homeland Security. It should be much easier to update information. But I was told I must either return the radio to Standard Horizon to remove the MMSI number so I can input a new one, or get the previous owner involved, which wasn’t likely.
Standard Horizon’s Jason Kennedy suggested a third, simpler solution. Just buy a new radio and get a new MMSI number for Spitfire. He was right, but how silly does that sound to you?
Kristin Loyd did at least get the FCC to delete the original MMSI number to minimize database clutter. So I bought a new Standard Horizon GX2000 radio, which we installed on the flybridge. We considered replacing the existing radio at the lower helm, but found the installer glued the radio in place, rather than using the mounting kit, apparently because it is located too far from the nearest access panel. Even worse, when we cut a hole for a new access port into the front of the helm to get closer to the electronics at the lower helm, we found the radio’s inline fuse just inches away from the back of the radio. No one could possibly have reached this fuse. I guess the installer never planned that he would have to do any maintenance or repair on his installation!
Installing the new radio gave me the opportunity to mount a Morad 10dB VHF antenna I purchased some time ago when Bob Lane and I visited the company in Seattle. It is an awesome and expensive antenna. My friend Howard Brooks also helped me upgrade the original antenna for the lower helm radio to one of Morad’s HD 6dB antennas on a 10-foot extension. We replaced all existing skinny RG-58 coax cable with Ancor’s mil-spec RG-213 coax and all PL-259 connectors were soldered and tested. We did it right and these projects got me inside lockers, behind bulkheads, and removing overhead panels. I feel much closer to our boat by taking it apart.
As familiarity develops, sometimes the boat speaks to you. One morning we cruised quietly along, enjoying the morning view of the Low Country when we heard the sound of a bolt bouncing off fiberglass. It then fell onto the flybridge settee. Laurene and I exchanged glances…where did that come from? A quick inspection revealed it came out of one of the bimini fittings, so over the next half-hour I walked around the bridge tightening bimini hardware. I never thought to check them.
TROUBLE DOWN UNDER
While still in Florida, as we continued in the serpentine ICW near St. Augustine Inlet, an engine alarm went off on the port engine display: water in the fuel. We slowed down and I called Dick to ask about this alarm as we crossed a rough inlet on a busy Sunday afternoon, hundreds of boats all around us. He was surprised, and told me I needed to drain water from the on-engine filter. Hmm, why is there water in the on-engine filter? What about the switchable, dual Racor 500 primary filter assembly? I shut down the port engine and Laurene drove the boat as I went down into the engine room to determine how to drain this filter. There was water in the bowl of the selected Racor 500 filter, but it wasn’t close to being full.
I found it a bit of a mess to drain the on-engine filter as I could only feel the drain plug, not see it. Whatever liquid is in the metal filter bowl drains onto the back of the engine and there is no way to control it other than try to slow it to a dribble onto a rag until the fluid turns to diesel, then screw the plug back in.
When this happened again several hours later, I started questioning what was going on. From that point forward, and for the remainder of the trip north, we went through this drill several times a day. The alarm would sound as we traveled along, and depending on our circumstances, I would shut down the port engine and repeat the process of draining the on-engine filter as well as the dual Racor 500 primary bowls, which by now I had switched to bring them both online. I got very comfortable in this engine space and the procedure became routine without anxiety or stress. And Laurene got used to driving the boat running on one engine.
Finding water in the fuel, and the looming question of how it reached the on-engine filter, took us down a road we never expected and changed our plans for the season. It is too interesting to be brief. But as it isn’t entirely resolved, I’d like to wait to give you the full account.
Despite the above mystery, I’m really thrilled with Spitfire. I still haven’t visited every nook and cranny, and each new wrinkle brings me closer to knowing this boat inside and out. She is incredibly dog and people friendly and a joy to run. And after being clobbered by short-period, steep waves at the mouth of the Potomac River into Chesapeake Bay, I know this boat is well designed and strongly built.
It is fun to show her to friends who have never been aboard a power cat, and I have learned so much in the last few months with these projects. We plan to cruise south this fall and explore the Bahamas again, retracing the 2003 Pokie Run, but without the hosting responsibility. And next summer I want to head north to see what we’d hoped to explore this summer. In a couple of years, who knows, maybe back to the Pacific Northwest.
Forming solid relationships isn’t always easy. It takes time to develop that bond. But I know Spitfire will take care of us if we take care of her, and I’m committed to that.
I hope to meet you along the way. I’ll give you a salute with our new horns, but that’s another story.