Want to Get Out Cruising? Don’t Be a Pioneer

JHHGH1-1020462Sure, diesel electric drives, lithium ion batteries, unstayed carbon masts, and composting toilets are fun technology and interesting too…well, no toilet is that much fun.

Some might even be a better way to do things. And if you want to experiment for the fun of it, that’s cool too. In fact, we really appreciate it, since that’s how the gear we use gets improved.

But if your goal is to actually get out there cruising as soon as you can for a relatively reasonable amount of money, we recommend that you only use gear that has been in wide general use for at least 20 years. Here’s why:

Low Volume Equals Lots of Bugs

In a low volume high complexity business like providing gear for voyaging yachts, it takes an inordinately long time to get new gear debugged, hence the 20-year recommendation.

You Will Be The Tester

Most new voyaging gear is really, really, buggy because low volume marine manufacturers do not have the budget to test properly and, even if they do have a budget, simulating the environment of an offshore boat at sea is hard to do. So you, who buy the new gear and go sailing with it, will be the tester. And being a tester and paying for the privilege is just not a lot of fun, at least in my experience.

At Sea is Different

Just because a piece of gear works well in a shore-based application does not mean it will work well offshore. In fact, after you add in salt water, violent and continual cycle loading, low and fluctuating voltages, and lots of humidity, I can near guarantee it won’t.

At Sea Consequences Suck More

Consequences are worse offshore. If your car’s lithium battery has a melt down, you stop and get out of the car. On a boat half way across the Atlantic…

Even if it’s just that your new-tech battery bank fails half way across, that’s very different than the same thing happening to a car owner close to a dealer.

It Might Be A Better Idea…But

Even if a piece of kit has been around for over 20 years but has not come into the mainstream of offshore use like, for example, unstayed carbon  masts, I recommend you avoid it if your primary goal is to get out there and particularly if you don’t have really deep pockets.

Sure outlier gear might be a better way. And maybe it’s not in general use because sailors like me are a bunch of old stick-in-the-muds. But what if there is a good reason? Do you want to find out the hard way what that reason is, instead of enjoying the cruising life? And what about the resale value of your boat equipped with a major system that’s not in mainstream use?

(If you have and love an unstayed carbon mast, please don’t have a melt down and write to me to tell me I’m a total idiot who has never been to sea with an unstayed carbon mast and knows nothing. You will be right, at least about the experience part, so let’s just stipulate that. My point is simply that even after several decades since the first ones appeared, unstayed carbon masts are still a rarity in the offshore voyaging world.)


All that seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But I can’t tell you the number of times I have forgotten to not be a pioneer, almost always to my cost. If your primary goal is to get out there cruising, try and be smarter than me.


How about you? Let’s have your new-tech horror stories. Sharing them will make you feel better. I should know. Please leave a comment.

Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

37 comments… add one
  • Dick Stevenson Oct 25, 2013, 3:24 pm

    Hear Hear!
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Bob Groves Oct 25, 2013, 3:33 pm

    I agree with everything stated in this article. I love to be on the leading edge of obsolescence . While we built our own boat and rigged her in a very simplistic fashion, we followed in the wake of the initial developers and testers. No great problems combined with maximum cruising time was and remains the primary goal. Oh yes, we sailed with two unstayed masts and no motor until recently. We now have a small diesel engine. The masts are still working well with a junk rig that has proven itself over and over again. Now to get back out sailing for the winter!

  • Chris Oct 25, 2013, 5:17 pm

    And don’t even get me started on the, “app for that” crowd. We’ve nearly been hit twice by boats skippered by people staring at 50×100 mm “chartplotters.”.

  • Ken Page Oct 25, 2013, 8:16 pm

    You had to mention toilets! I’m ready to “poop”can the whole tried and true technology that you mentioned , albeit with a slight snicker. We’re planning to replace the whole kit and kaboodle of a holding tank system, macerator, vented loops, deck pump out and all the crap that goes with that tried and true system….. with a bucket and peat moss. That’s KISS pioneering!

    • Alan Teale Oct 26, 2013, 6:35 am

      Ken, you make a very good point concerning the toilet department. That said, I entirely agree with the overarching principle underpinning John’s thesis. I wonder does John have a particular reason to include composting toilets in the avoid list in the context of this specific post? Alan

      • John Oct 28, 2013, 7:53 am

        Hi Alan,

        No particular reason, other than they are new on boats and have not yet built up a track record. I have heard that it is difficult to make them work well if you are a full time live-aboard, since they are, after a time, overwhelmed by use and don’t have time to process.

    • John Oct 28, 2013, 7:56 am

      Hi Ken,

      I agree that bucket and chuck-it is the ultimate simplicity. However, I have never been a fan. The potential for really nasty situations at sea if there is any sort of weather around during the chuck-it phase is just too horrible to contemplate.

  • bruno Oct 25, 2013, 10:32 pm

    Hi John,
    definitely ! keep openminded and curious, but keep it basic and trustfull,

    funny, i re-read yesterday yr comments on the McGregor 65, long, narrow, sleek, just polyester, light but strong enough …, easy to handle, fast, empty inside … basic and fun !
    Go simple go now !

  • Matt Oct 25, 2013, 11:31 pm

    Designing, testing and manufacturing new stuff is HARD.

    Most of today’s automakers have decades, if not a century, of experience in their respective specialties. All of them still have dozens of safety recalls a year, and all of them still spend millions or even billions of dollars developing stuff that turns out to be complete crap. Consider how much money Toyota, Ford and others must have burned through over a decade of R&D before creating commercially viable hybrids; after that, it still took eight years and about four million units sold worldwide for these systems to become fully accepted in the mainstream market.

    By the standards used in aerospace or automotive fields to determine when something is fully tested and proven, almost every piece of specialized gear on an offshore boat is experimental. There just aren’t that many boats carrying any given piece of gear, and most of them aren’t putting many hours on it.

    So, erring on the conservative side and sticking with well-understood, predictable equipment is a very justifiable position.

    Even if we do that, though, we may end up testing the limits of all sorts of supposedly well-understood gear, in conditions the manufacturer hasn’t simulated. Sailors’ reports of exactly what broke, how, and under what conditions, can help them improve the next generation of stuff if we make the necessary details available.

    • Eric Klem Oct 27, 2013, 5:38 pm

      I think that car makers also have another major advantage over marine gear places, they tend to get better feedback on how their products are holding up. During the warranty period, they have excellent data as most people have things fixed in one of their dealerships and once the car is out of warranty, they still have decent data. For boats, there is no great way to compile all the data as most work is done by small yards and individuals.

      This is a problem not only for the companies making the products but those of us who are buying them. It can be really tough to figure out whether a product you are about to buy is any good. There are products that have been basically unchanged for 20+ years that are still junk and some that are unchanged because they are very good. In general, stuff that has been around for a while is usually decent but I always find it really hard to tell.


    • John Oct 28, 2013, 7:58 am

      Hi Eric and Matt,

      As usual those with the engineering training and experience cut to the chase. Thank you both.

  • Laurent Oct 26, 2013, 9:58 am

    I guess the easiest way to get out quickly at reasonable cost is to buy an appropriate second-hand 5 or 10 years old boat from a reputable builder with limited wear and most needed equipments.

    If you are not satisfied with this solution, you might consider a more expensive one, like ordering a new Boréal 44 or a cheaper one, like building your own Benford Dory like Bob and Kathy Groves “Easy Go”. Those 3 solutions are very different, I guess we could try to draw some kind of plotting charts like cost vs. functionality or delay vs. costs for all the solutions that are considered as acceptable in this domain (many US guys love that kind of charts…).

    Looking at those kind of charts, it looks easy and appropriate to add other technical solution which might be fit, even if they look more debatable. Personally I would add some adaptations of 1850 pilot schooners, because I think that those boats where well engineered and I think that modern bermudan rigs and sails are not very appropriate for long range cruising (much too stiff, which makes them fragiles, short lived and expensive…). I would also add some green-energy-freaks high-tech boat with diesel-electric plugin capable optimized aux propulsion etc… because it “looks” fashionable.

    Then, why not consider some kind of hybrids, like an adaptations of a 1850 schooner with a few non-critical stuff borrowed from that green-energy-freaks boat. The result might be technologically more mature than Morgan Cloud when you look at the wind-engine and clearly less so if you look at its auxiliary-engine. I guess that the average “technology level global scores” might be very similar.

    Generally speaking, it looks like the current economic system is somewhat in crisis those days, and I guess that part of this crisis at least is due to inappropriate, or not appropriate enough, offerings by industrialists and services providers. The classic response is : “let us go toward more modern stuff”, but this response has been tried for 15 years or more, without success. A more recent response is “let us go toward less modern stuff”, but this answer seems controversial and extremely difficult to sell according to established handbooks. So I humbly suggest that the right answer might be neither more modern or less modern stuff, but “more appropriate stuff, the modernity ratio beeing kept at usual level”, even if this implies seriously reconsidering technical options which seem to have been definitely decided #60 years ago, like modern bermudan rigs…

    I understand that people who mostly want to get out quickly at reasonable cost will prefer buying an appropriate second-hand 5 or 10 years old boat from a reputable builder etc…, but this point is not , and has never been, debated.

  • Mil Oct 26, 2013, 11:01 am

    Composting toilets listed as high technology?? I used composting toilets on the farm 50+ years ago. I’ve had one on my boat for 10 years. That’s old technology with modern improvements.

    • John Oct 27, 2013, 5:32 pm

      Hi Mil,

      Just to clarify, nowhere did I say, of even imply, that composting toilets were high-tech. All I said was that they had not been in general use on sailboats for 20 years.

      • Ken Page Oct 27, 2013, 8:38 pm

        Just to clarify John, neither has the cedar bucket! In this department of technology……we have been led astray like sheep.

  • Bob Morris Oct 26, 2013, 1:21 pm

    We like to keep it simple but love the iPad for navigation. Keep it in a waterproof bump proof cover and have a back up battery pack so in that respect it’s SIMPLE as it’s independent of all other systems. (We do have AIS displayed via a wireless router but failure of that system would not affect navigation. ). There are degrees of simplicity.

  • Deb Oct 26, 2013, 2:02 pm

    We don’t have a new-tech horror story, we have an old-tech nightmare. We have plenty of 20+ “proven” systems, but we’re stuck on an anchor right now repairing one. Again. If we had the money we would buy the newest tech we could find. At least that way we could lay on a beach while someone ELSE did the work.

    P.S. our two iPads are the most incredibly valuable technology we have onboard. Navionics has been DEAD ON in every piece of navigation we’ve used it. We keep one as a backup and have it on our Androids and laptops as well.

    S/V Kintala

  • Dave Benjamin Oct 26, 2013, 2:12 pm


    I don’t understand your concerns about composting toilets. We installed one in our vintage Amel Maramu and were very happy with the decision. One of my customers, who coincidentally retrofitted an old Spencer 42 with a custom Sponberg freestanding rig, was one of the reasons we went ahead with the composter. He and his wife had been cruising for a few years with their composting toilet ranging from Canada to Central America so we had some excellent firsthand feedback.

    If I were building a boat, (no plan to do that ever BTW), I would specify a composting toilet without hesitation. I think it would be less expensive as there would be no requirement for below the waterline thru-hulls, holding tanks, valves, plumbing runs, and all the associated hardware. The only things required for a composting toilet are power, typically 12/24VDC, and a vent to the atmosphere. Peat moss or coir store compactly in zip-locs, taking up a fraction of the space of a holding tank. In our case, over a years worth of supplies could fit in an otherwise unusable bit of space against the hull.

    It’s not a 100% perfect technology and you have to monitor moisture level but it’s far better than conventional marine toilets. To control moisture level, you simply add water or peat moss / coir depending on whether you want more or less moisture content.

    • RDE (Richard Elder) Oct 26, 2013, 6:50 pm

      My Cape George built about 30 years ago is gong through her third head transformation. I equipped her with a SL Skipper— the one with the indestructible pump design and two foot long handle. That was too much work for the second owner so he installed an electric Sea Land Vacuflush with attendant pumps and holding tank that took up about 25% of the interior storage area. The young couple who are now refitting her for a voyage yanked all that crap out, threw it in the dumpster, and replaced it with a composting toilet. Progress!

  • John Rushworth Oct 26, 2013, 4:58 pm

    I may only be on my 3rd boat, so I don’t have the AAC level of cruising experience.

    However I have had 48 motorcycles over the last 45 years and funnily enough for mission critical adventures, most off road, alone, mud, snow, ice and desert, I came to the conclusion that retro proven tech is good.

    My motorcycle of choice? Evolved Honda technology over many decades, single cyclinder, SOHC, 4T, low state of tune, dry sump with oil coooler, simple carburettor and my concession to modernity – electronic ignition.

    No matter what your adventure, sea, land or air – then I think John’s rules apply. As contributors here and some readers here may know, my boat is pure electric propulsion. Rest assured the world needs early adopters, but I and many others are not naive enough to think it is volume, tried tech.

    Still somone has to do it. So whilst you RTW cruisers are out there, some of us weekend/summer break sailors may be sailing your childern’s futures.

    When we’re ready we’ll let you guys take the risk out in the wild blue yonder.

    Thank heavens for AAC sailors. Just make sure you come back and let us know how you got on.

  • Marc Dacey Oct 27, 2013, 1:55 pm

    People ask me “why did you stick a rebuilt Atomic 4 in your 40 year old sloop”?

    A) Because it fit.
    B) Because to stick in a diesel would require expenditures that exceeded the resale price of the boat.
    C) Because for short-haul sailing and for 10-minute “dock to head to wind” engine runs, a low-compression gas inboard is more appropriate than a diesel.
    D) Because the captain is the mechanic and is capable of fixing most things on it without waiting for a “real” mechanic who might 1) never show, or 2) do a worse job at excessive cost.

    While my steel boat is more modern, there’s a lot of foot pumps, Lavacs and non-turbo, non-iPhone stuff on there as well. I am on the verge of ordering a W-H autopilot. It looks like a freight elevator controller from the ’80s, but it works.

  • John Oct 27, 2013, 5:26 pm

    Hi All,

    Sorry to have been absent from the comments. I have been on the road for two days on the way back from two weeks work on MC in Maine.

    Who knew it was composting toilets that would get everyone going. I would have bet on unstayed masts!

  • Dave Benjamin Oct 27, 2013, 5:32 pm


    I don’t know if I ever mentioned it but I used to own a Freedom 39 cat ketch with not one, but two nice unstayed carbon fiber masts. Very cool boat with a Ron Holland designed hull. I’m actually a fan of freestanding rigs and they are quite well proven. While it’s an expensive undertaking to create them and certainly not appropriate for the Adventure 40 project, they have their place.

    • John Oct 27, 2013, 5:35 pm

      Hi Ben,

      I never said anything against freestanding masts. Actually I think they are very interesting. All I said was that they had not generally caught on and become mainstream on ocean crossing sailboats.

  • paul Mills Oct 27, 2013, 11:08 pm

    I really like freestanding masts, and nearly bought a Freedom 39 myself a few years ago.

    Some of you (John’s age and older :0 ) might remember when aircraft wings were supported by lots of bits of wire…. . Well, guess what, they haven’t been for years and yet they seem to work and cope with massive stresses and strains often for many thousands of hours…



    • John Oct 28, 2013, 7:47 am

      Hi Paul,

      Yes, I like the idea of freestanding masts too. They certainly fit into my general liking for things that simplify our boats.

      The thing is though that despite repeated experiments and several production boats equipped with them, they have never caught on for offshore use. I guess that makes me worry that in real, day in, day out, use, in the ocean there may be substantial drawbacks—windward performance in any sort of a seaway? Stress problems at the partners that build up over time offshore? Difficulty in getting a tight jib luff for performance and to make roller furling work well? I really don’t know the reason, if any, but that still means that they violate my “get out there” rules.

      And Paul, what do you mean my age? Just because my buddies Wilbur and Orville…

      • Derek Mitchell Oct 30, 2013, 10:13 am

        I bought a Freedom back in the 80’s after a succession of sailboats with stayed masts…. the freestanding carbon fibre mast was a welcome change without the maintenance issues I had experienced before – and guess what??? NO CHAINPLATES to leak!!!! If I had it to do again I would not hesitate to go the same way again.

  • Dave Oct 28, 2013, 1:03 pm


    There are a number of Freedom and Tanton yachts with freestanding rigs that have cruised for tens of thousands of miles without issue. Nice thing is you remove chainplates and standing rigging from your list of things that can go wrong.

  • Erik de Jong Oct 28, 2013, 1:51 pm

    I personally have the following rules for selecting our gear:
    – We need to be able to repair it with the knowledge, tools and parts that are on board.
    – Repairs need to be of such nature that they can be done in less than 24 hours.
    – If you have to repair something twice: throw it out and get something more reliable.

    If it does not meet those requirements, I will not take it with me to sea. Unless it is about non critical items. If a camera, microwave or fridge quits on me, I will raise my shoulders and move on. But I do like that this new technology is available with a much better efficiency compared to 20 years ago. So I would not want to miss it to make live easier and more comfortable.

    • John Oct 28, 2013, 7:57 pm

      Hi Erik,

      Great rules, and very much like our thinking. Like you, we break things down into mission critical, and not, and will experiment with newfangled systems that are not. Having said that, it’s amazing how much time I have wasted on gear that was not mission critical but still grabbed my attention and energies that could have been better used in other better ways.

      I find this is particularly insidious with high tech gear that almost always screws up in some intermittent hard to troubleshoot fashion. Here is a classic example. An AIS transmitter is by no stretch mission critical, but human nature being what it is, or at least my nature, I still spent a good 50 hours, to date, trying to get the damned thing working reliably. Do that too often and you have no time for the stuff that really matters.

  • Nick Kats Oct 29, 2013, 7:19 am

    Agreed John, totally!
    And yet it can go the other way – to leave the old to embrace the innovation. The biggest example for me personally are anchors. I remain astonished that so many sailors, including some very very good ones, have yet to embrace the new generation anchors. I don’t know how long the Spade has been around, but guess the Rocna has been for 10 yrs or less.

    • John Oct 29, 2013, 8:46 am

      Hi Nick,

      Wow, that kind of shoots a hole in my basic theorem, since I bought my first SPADE when the design was only two years old! That was about 17 years ago, and I have never regretted it.

  • Craig Nov 18, 2013, 6:24 am

    Absolutely agree. My issue is the gadget obsessive in me can’t resist sometimes!
    I am a technician by trade and everytime something ‘new’ and different comes out it appeals to the gadget guy in me. I have to remind myself to focus on the big 5 🙂

    • John Nov 18, 2013, 9:03 am

      Hi Craig,

      As a fellow technician, I know the feeling well!

  • Frode Jun 29, 2018, 6:50 pm

    No new-tech horror stories from me. I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum. However, I generally agree with the stated principle: If you feel most comfortable with (at least) 20-year old technology, you should not be a pioneer. You should leave that to those of us who are always ready for something that appears to be an improvement over yesteryear’s technology.

    A 20-year old charger will not take really good care of your battery bank, even the tried-and-true flooded lead-acid. Your 20-year old inverter will be inefficient, noisy, and provide anything but a pure sine wave you get from today’s quite, efficient units. The three-stage, external, electronic alternator regulator sure beats the performance of an internal, automotive-type one. Should I go on?

    When I compare my Garmin chartplotter, with its electronic chart cartridge, and a 5″ monitor, with my dual, 22″, touch-screen monitors, connected to dual Raspberry Pi computers, running OpenCPN, or even with the 11″ android tablets (I carry four of them) all running Navionics, with the latest charts from around the world, I feel privileged. I wonder how the previous owner got around using that Garmin unit. I feel incredibly fortunate to live, and cruise, at a time where so many new items are being developed for cruisers, or for other industry segments that we get to take advantage of (such as battery technology).

    My Iridium Go! complements my old M710 SSB radio. Even though both work well, one offers a much easier path to downloading weather info. My current-year GNSS receivers, capable of receiving signals not only from the US GPS satellites, but also the Russian GLONASS (currently being upgraded), the European Galileo, and the Chinese BeiDou, will soon (on my boat) be providing centimeter-level accuracy in all three dimensions – this sure beats the receivers just from 10 years ago. Despite the capabilities of these new devices, had the LORAN-C system not been decommissioned around the world, there would probably still be sailors preferring that to the modern GNSS.

    Yes, my boat is outfitted with lithium (LiFePO4) batteries. It has Victron inverters, connected in parallel, controlled through another Raspberry Pi computer. My boat has LED lighting with remote control dimmers, which requires no gimmics to make them work, as the boat’s DC voltage is so steady. It uses ultrasonic tank level senders. It’s equipped with a broadband radar, and will soon have a LIDAR, which will effectively allow me to see in complete darkness and fog.

    My vessel’s bottoms (two – I have a catamaran) will be coated in a high-tech bottom paint that requires no touch-up for at least 10-15 years. I have no desire for attempting to find a place in some remote area of the world that can both haul me out and procure a paint with such an outdated approach that I’d need to reapply in another year or two.

    So, why am I doing this? And, why is this the right thing for me, while quite possibly not being the right thing for you? I’m a progressive engineer. I’ve always created new paths; tried new approaches; invented different ways of reaching the desired goals. I am comfortable dealing with any problem that arises, and confident there is virtually nothing I cannot deal with, successfully, on my own.

    I am extremely well versed in, and comfortable with, the concept of agile development. Quickly summarized, this approach has you develop a product that performs its most basic functions, well enough, in its initial release. It’s known to have shortcomings; it’s known to have bugs; it’s known to be far from the desired, ultimate goal. We know that the fastest, indeed the ONLY way to get this product to reach its full potential is to start using it, as intended, long before it’s complete, and then make gradual, incremental improvements. Failure is a natural step towards learning, towards excellence.

    Once you realize that the core concepts required to go cruising include having a boat that doesn’t take on water (from any source or direction), has means of propulsion, and allows you to store or gather freshwater and food, as well as having the necessary aids to navigation to prevent you from running into things (and other things from running into you), as you find your way from one place to another, you’re set. Everything else just provides additional levels of creature comfort.

    So, I’m cruising, greatly assisted by all the newfangled technology. And, I find, the modern stuff breaks no more often than the traditional, VERY tried-and-true, approaches – in fact, it’s often quite a bit more dependable. My self-designed, fully digital flush control, for my Raritan Atlantes heads, is vastly better than the solid-state circuit board Raritan stuffed into the toilet when they sold it. Probably still have a box of burned out, or otherwise failed, control boards.

    As always, there’s no one way that works for everyone, and we all have to do what we’re most comfortable with. The most important things are to be able to enjoy life, go where you want to go, and have the experiences you desire.

    • John Jun 30, 2018, 7:31 am

      Hi Frode,

      Good analysis, with the key point being your last: each of us need to select tech that we can live with. The real tragedy, that I so often see, is people who are not comfortable with technology and have no training ending up with horribly complex boats that are a constant source of frustration to them, just because they got sucked into wanting the “latest thing”.