The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Priorities In Preparation


Phyllis and I were in the throes of preparing Morgan’s Cloud for a voyage to the high latitudes a few years ago. As usual, we were splitting the many tasks—I call this stage of voyage preparation “death by a thousand details”—between us, based on our individual skills. I was once, in the dim and distant past, a computer technician so the tasks that have to do with electronics have fallen mainly to me.

I was installing a new AIS transponder with integrated screen and GPS, a task that I had budgeted a single day for. Three and a half days later I finally finished fighting antenna and interfacing problems and got the damned thing working and playing nice with our computer based chart plotter.

While I was messing with the AIS unit, Phyllis finished reviewing our medical kit and then serviced all of the six winches on the mast and boom. Three of which are critical to our ability to reef quickly and efficiently. Not only that, in the process she found wear on two that could eventually result in a winch failing under load. An event that would not only be inconvenient, but could result in someone getting seriously injured.

So, the question is, which one of us was making a greater contribution to a safe and seamanlike voyage in those three and a half days?

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Solomon wouldn’t touch this one…

Verena @ GalleySwap

Of course Phyllis is! The AIS is nice to have but a prudent mariner should never depend on electronics alone. 🙂

Stan Carlyle

A couple on a boat are a team! To put one person’s efforts and value above another’s devalues part of the team. I am sure that either one of you could not imagine accomplishing your incredible adventures without the other one. Shame on you for even thinking like that!

(I am sure that your question was “tongue in cheek”. I am always impressed with what two can accomplish compared to one and I always enjoy a day’s chores with my teammate nearby even if we are not working on the same project.)


As a computer tech myself, I dread installing all the integrated electronics of today and have chosen to go the simple route at present. Maybe I’ll change my tune later down the line…

I think you both score serious kudos for your efforts over that three and a half day period!


Ummm… I don’t think the answer, to which of you performed the task most important and vital to a successful voyage, is so easily answered.

Things to ponder before replying:

1) Does the captain know celestial navigation and is good with a sextant and charts?? If so, the fancy “electronic bells and whistles” are cool but, not life or death. If, on the other hand, the captain relies solely on electronic navigating——hands down, he’s the winner.

2) Now the medical kit. How in-depth is the kit.?? If you’re talking full surgical capabilities, ie. re-attaching the finger that was separated from the hand when the winch failed. Uhhh— I could sail around in circles for a couple of weeks until I hit a landmass, in exchange for having my finger back. She wins (but only if she remembered to pack alot of Novocain and serious pain killers, too). On the other hand, if she just replaced a couple of “flat” aspirin and exchanged brown band-aids for bright colored ones with smiley faces—–no, she gets zero points for that.

3) There is something to be said for a winch flying across the deck at a hundred miles an hour—(alot like a cannonball shot across your bow, I’d imagine). But, it kinda depends on when and where the said winch lets go, doesn’t it?? Let’s think about this—o.k., say you’re in the Bering Sea in a force 7 gale with 30 foot seas—–winch failure, yeeahhh—that could be a real vacation buzz cramp. On the other hand, the dog that never stops barking (on the vessel next to you at the marina) is “taken out” by that 100mph winch, well—“Ahh, jeez.. Sorry about that, man…Who woulda thought, what are the odds?? Gosh, we’re gonna miss your dog, too.”

So, the winch is really the deciding factor on which of you provided the most important tasks in the past 3 1/2 days, isn’t it?? But, I don’t like to take sides, so I’m not voting!!

conny harlin

John, Just curious. What brand of AIS did you buy?? I bought a stand alone unit “Simrad” showing a rough map screen, instead of the “NASA radar screen”. This one also has ports for computer hook-up.
Looking forward to your reports up in the cold water this summer.

ken Page

The boat, and all its physical tools—the winches, running rigging, anchors, etc.—come first without a doubt.
Second is the human factor, navigation skills and or equipment.
Third is the safety equipment.

Bob Tetrault

Seems Phyllis gets the star, she tended to the important toys. I have a question and pet peeve regarding my AIS transponder. When installed a couple years back Class B Transcievers hadn’t been approved very long. Being one of the first to install a transceiver I ran into two problems, one was never resolved. My unit was built in England, the English version of WAAS wasn’t fully activated so the Transciever option for WAAS was defeated. Of course to activate WAAS it had to be uninstalled and shipped back to the programmer. I activated the WAAS because the speed and Course was found to be somewhat erratic as compared to other GPS’s on board. Further investigation proved that there is no averaging just a bit of raw data transmitted at regular intervals. Why is this important? I use the AIS integrated with my electronic charting (MapTech). When AIS is enabled the software defaults to the AIS GPS data. My plots are erratic now and the speed and heading lines reflect the vessels actual motion so differ as to what side of the wave you were on when it transmitted. I do not believe the default can be defeated. I’d be curious to learn if you have a similar experience. I much prefer a little averaging of the data. Another drawback, I was hailed once as the vessel on a course of XXX and a speed of 12kts.! It was rough so I understood what happened. I recently purchased a stand alone automatic antenna switch and may opt for a stand alone AIS display if I cannot get used to the lack of data averaging. I also learned that the older Class A transceivers are not capable of processing all of the Class B data, that’s why that ship didnt hail me by name. He only saw the MMSI number and nav data.

Matt Marsh

I’m with Richard on this- it’s not nearly so clear cut as it sounds.

If you (John) were puttering away over the electronics and the winches and first-aid kit got ignored completely, that would be a problem. But it doesn’t matter who does these important tasks, as long as they get done properly. Since both of you have the skills to maintain the boat, more things can get done properly in less time- and, therefore, you have the time to add additional safety gear such as AIS (which, frankly, is becoming something of an essential as the shipping lanes get more crowded and the commercial lines try to squeeze more and more productivity out of fewer crew).

As for interfacing problems… There are plenty of things to rant about here, but I think a lot of them can be summarized as this: Gadget manufacturers, as a collective, need to get it through their heads that boaters do not buy exclusively from one brand, and that we don’t have the space or the technical resources of a development lab. Whatever uber-gizmo you sell me, it had darn well better be able to speak in fluent N2K with everything else on that network, without having to spend a day sorting through 400 pages of online documentation. (One thing I’ll never do is be an early adopter for gadgetry; I’d much rather wait for it to become widespread, cheap, standardized and reliable.)


From what I have gleaned in digesting these posts for the last 18 months at least, Phyllis votes for your effort and you vote for her effort hands down…this reinforces Stan Carlyle’s view of this post and the critical importance of your teamwork to the success of your passaging…this has been my experience bar none…richard in tampa bay: cavu’s skipper


Just thinking (with some guilt) how organised you are…I’m normally still welding bits on and trying to make sure the rudder stays attached…

Recently I just installed the same unit on a workboat in Japan (now unfortunately sunk and upside down). I couldn’t get it to interface properly either (very frustrating!). But we had much more important things to attend to – like trying to get at least one of the bilge pumps to work. The joys of deliveries…

My vote goes to team “Morgans Cloud”, for a sterling 3 days of work. But the winches and first aid kit do seem a higher priority…


Interfacing woes are the reason that I buy all of my electronics from a single vendor, and since there are so many vendors that offer complete lines of electronics, from GPS units to autopilots, I don’t feel that doing so limits my choices significantly.

Heck, even Raymarine has difficulty integrating their own stuff sometimes! On my current boat, I have a Robertson autopilot and Raymarine chart ploter, which are interfaced via NEMA. It works mostly. On my previous boat, I had all Raymarine equipment, and the integration was very good. At least the autopilot could follow a route!


John, Any feedback on how the Vesper Watchmate turned out ?


Just curious to get opinions on how much of a priority having self-tailing winches would be for a boat (33′) planning to go offshore. The boat has adequately sized non-self tailers, but I have an offer to purchase four slightly larger self-tailers to replace my jib sheet winches and mast halyard winches (halyards are not led aft, but end at base of mast). Small boats have, of course, sailed for years without self-tailing winches. From what I gather, on cruising boats, self-tailers are primarily a labour-saving device —making it easier to sheet in a jib, or raise a sail. But, as I get older, and contemplate offshore cruising with my wife (who isn’t tall or particularly strong, but is fit and able!), I’m wondering if having self-tailers is important —to free up a hand while at the mast reefing at night (no need to tail with a self-tailer), etc. The issue for me is cost —four used self-tailers would cost me $3,000, which money could instead be used for solar panels and perhaps a jib furler…in short, how to prioritize, given a budget and given the plan to go offshore! Self-tailers, or no? I’m thinking perhaps just self-tailers at the mast, where they’re arguably more of a “safety” device (allowing you to raise sail and hold on to boat with other hand? Thoughts?

Marc Dacey

I have self-tailers (Barlow 26s) on my 40 year old 33 footer, a Lake Ontario boat with brand-new rigging and a keel-stepped mast capable of sailing on blue water…but with insufficient tankage and a gas inboard engine with pitiful range!

Were I to in fact take her from the Great Lakes to, say, Newfoundland, which is coastal by definition but pretty harsh in practice, I would very much swap in some nice Lewmar 44s in place of the Barlows. Self-tailing on a lake is optional; it becomes a near-necessity and a safety factor offshore when the smaller crew is facing a three-hour trick in 15 blowing 35 with the chance of squalls. Of course, padeyes and jacklines allow a more rapid sheeting movement as well for the go-go watchstander.

Speed and strength are sometimes ignored factors by the older sailors contemplating stepping up with a smaller boat to “offshore”. Right-sized self-tailing winches are a good investment and cheap insurance against breaking the “one hand for the boat” rule because you have to grind and tail at the mast when the boat’s being thrown around in big greenies.

If you can afford it, go for it. Just remember to put in nice circular backing plates under the coamings for the new sheet winches. While you’re at it, transfer the old non-self-tailing primaries to where the old non-self-tailing secondaries are…they can migrate to the boom!