October 31, 2014

The best sailing books of all time: Adrift by Steven Callahan

Adrift, by Steven Callahan (1986)

adventure sailing book
       Adrift is a great book to read if you need to put your troubles in perspective. You may think you're having a bad day because traffic was brutal on the way to work and then this thing happened in the office and now you have to rewrite a super long email - but unless your day ends with you being left to die on a small piece of plastic in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, then you're not really having too bad a day. 

      In January 1982, Steven Callahan left the Spanish coastline in a 21 foot sailboat with the intention of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He'd already made this journey once before, so his confidence was high. He was travelling solo. Unfortunately, during this crossing, fate was not smiling on his humble sailing craft.  6 days out from the Canary Islands, Steven's small boat sank for unknown reasons. He collided with some unmovable object, possibly a whale. In a panic, he scrambled into his tiny inflatable raft and cut the cord with his sinking boat. Thus began his harrowing, slow-motion drift across the majority of the Atlantic Ocean. 

        For 76 days, Callahan survives on wit and cunning alone, hand-spearing fish, fending off sharks, distilling potable water from the ocean. As the north equatorial current slowly pushes his flimsy raft towards the Caribbean Islands at 10 miles per day, Callahan is left with plenty of time to ponder life and death and, apparently, collect material for a phenomenal Sea-faring adventure book.

   Adrift spent 36 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It's a riveting read and if nothing else, it will encourage you to double check the quality of your emergency raft before you make your next ocean crossing.

October 29, 2014

Sailing from Catalina Island to Santa Cruz Island

   We recently sailed my Newport 30 (1976) to the Northern Channel Islands. When you're departing from San Diego, this is quite a journey. We stayed a few days on Catalina, then made our crossing to the Northern Channel Islands.

sailing to avalon
Avalon casino looking good, as ususal
     Making the jump from Catalina to Santa Cruz Island takes some planning, as it is a long day of sailing. Make sure you're weather window is clean. The winds can get strong coming down from Point Conception.
      We left Two Harbors at 3 am, then sailed North all day and arrived in Smuggler's Cove on Santa Cruz Island just as the sun was setting.

Heading north, leaving Catalina Island in our wake.

    We sailed close enough to see detail on Anacapa Island. I am regretting that we didn't attempt to anchor and explore Anacapa, but she will be waiting for us next time.

sailing to anacapa island
Tacking past Anacapa Island

  Despite the electrial problems I was dealing with on my sailboat, I was beyond stoked to drop anchor in Smuggler's Cove on Santa Cruz Island. The sun was beaming and we had nothing to do for the next few days except explore the island. 

westsail 32 on anchor
A beautiful Westsail 32 anchored next to us in Smugler's Cove

For more detail on sailing logistics (distance, time required per leg of trip) for this journey, please see my recent post.
Distance and time for each leg of sail trip: San Diego to Santa Cruz Islands

If this information was helpful for you, please share the post on the social links below. Thanks!

October 26, 2014

Spearfishing halibut in Catalina

spearfishing California halibut catalina
I hand speared this California Halibut in between Avalon and Two Harbors

We anchored the Alize' in a secluded bay just north of Toyon Bay on the leeward side of Catalina island. After snorkeling around for a few minutes, I spotted this gorgeous California halibut, Paralichthys californicus, trying to hide in the sand. Fortunately, I had my Hawaiian sling on me and put the trident tip right through its flat head. The fillets fed us for many days.

If you're planning a similar fishing trip to Catalina, make sure you have at least one cruising guide on board. Fagan's book is the standard, authoritative guide for sailing Central and Southern CA. They have a very thorough section on anchorages between Two Harbors and Avalon on Catalina Island. This resource should keep your boat off the rocks and in safe harbor.

For boaters that are thinking about making this journey in their boat...I've posted some good distance and travel time info. for San Diego to Catalina

Sailing from San Diego to Catalina Island: distance and time for a sailboat trip (Mission Bay, Oceanside, Dana Point, Avalon, Two Harbors)

and also boating info for making the LA to Catalina journey...

Sailing to Catalina Island: distance and time from Los Angeles

October 25, 2014

Humpback Whale tail slaps in Icy Strait

Icy Strait hosts an incredibly vibrant biological community. Long summer days and nutrient rich upwellings of cold Pacific Ocean waters keeps each of the trophic levels well fed. The whales come here to gorge on small fish and invertebrates- then migrate to Hawaii for breeding. They are so satiated from their feast in Icy Strait that they don't eat while procreating in Hawaii. Not one luau - nothing.

Ryan, Micah and I were overwhelmed with the level of whale activity in Icy Strait. This whale was slapping the water like it would never have a chance to slap water again. Apparently, this is a feeding technique. The tail slaps sends out shock waves into the water. The shock waves then disorients the schools of fish they are harvesting, making it easier for the whale to scoop them up.

The whales at Point Adolphus tired us out and filled up our memory cards. After an incredible afternoon, we left them alone to continue slapping tails, blowing, breaching and fluking without us.

October 22, 2014

Perfect winds in the Straights of Juan de Fuca

Josh Newman, Ryan Kitson and I had a few great wind days heading out to outer Vancouver Island.

October 15, 2014

Light Autumn Air in San Diego

sailing in light air with Gregg

San Diego is many things to many people. For sailors, it is also many things for many people. 
Pleasant is one of those things. Warm and comfortable are other things. 

Lately, I have been looking for a bit more thrill in my afternoon sails. 
I haven't been getting much thrill. 
But I have been getting lots of pleasant. 

I don't want to sound un-grateful, but - enough with the sunshine and light air.

Cloud cover and 10-20 knots would be very much appreciated.
Whenever you're ready SD, I don't want to rush you...

October 6, 2014

Solar panels for boats: an easy installation guide.

Marine solar panel installation

article updated: November 2022

In this article, I provide simple instructions for mounting solar panels on sailboats or powerboats.

When I first started sailing, I often found myself stranded at sea with a dead battery and no way to start my diesel engine. This is not fun or safe... I was using too much electricity and dragging my 12 volt battery down below 10 volts.

Finally, while sailing north to Alaska, I fixed this problem by installing this basic, solar panel boat system.

This boat is now docked in Mexico! With this help of this solar panel, I navigated my boat into the Sea of Cortez.

I love the idea of people generating their own energy - so I'm thrilled to see that thousands of people visit this page each year.

I installed the following set-up a few years ago, and everything is still working great (it's now 2022 as I update this article). I update this page each year, to make sure all my recommendations are accurate and relevant.

Below, I'm writing basic 'Do-It-Yourself' instructions to install solar panels for boats. All parts total cost me about $240, which is a great price to mount solar power on your boat. And it should be noted that I haven't skimped on quality, all the gear I use is well-respected, long-lasting stuff.

If you plan it right, you can have this project finished in one weekend

Ok, a few quick disclaimers:

  • I am writing the following instructions for boat people or RV campers. 
  • I describe a basic set up that provides a charge onto your 12 Volt DC battery bank.
  • If you want to use this system to power your home, then you'll also need an inverter to switch the 12 Volt DC electricity to 110 Volt AC.

The set up I describe is perfect for keeping batteries topped off while you're disconnected from shore power. This means that while you're out fishing, sailing or anchored out for the evening - you can run your electronics (cell-phone charger, navigation lights, stereo, cabin lights, bilge pump, depth-finder, GPS ext...) and still have enough power on your batteries to start the engine and get you home.

Ok, here's my simple DIY instructions for solar installation on a boat or an RV camper.


How to install solar panels for boats

installing a solar panel on a boat
my 30 watt solar panel on the stern railing of my boat

Step by step guide for installing a solar panel boat system

First I list a quick summary on how to put this together. Details will follow after these instructions.

 1.   Mount your panel on your stern rail (see photos/details below).

 2.   Attach marine grade copper wires to the panel. These are DC wires for a 12 Volt system, so you need 2 sets of wires (black and red). Black (negative) and red (positive). If this set-up is for a RV camper then you don't need to spend more for these marine grade wires.

3.   Run the wires into the main cabin (this usually means drilling a small hole in the cockpit).

4.   Attach the wires to a solar panel controller (see photo below)

5.   Attach a new set of the same style of marine grade wires from the controller to your battery.

6.   The red (positive) goes on the Positive terminal, the black (negative) goes on the Negative terminal.

7.   Crack a beer and relax while the sun tops off your batteries!


FAQ: What size panel should I get?

When I was planning what boat solar gear to buy, the consensus opinion was that a 30 watt panel was sufficient for my boat. My electrical needs are considered 'light'. My electronic guru friend in Seattle pointed me to the 30-Watt Solar Panel featured in the photo above.
Size-wise, it's compact (13x24 inches), which is nice, since it doesn't take up much space on the stern rail.

In regards to the power my 30 watt supplies...

If you average 5 hours of sunlight/day X 30 watts = 150 watt-hours per day.


You can also think about energy in terms of current (Amps.)

A 30W panel will give you about 1.8 Amps for 5 hrs a day. That is 9 Amp hours a day.

(sunlight hours will vary based on weather conditions)

I have used my 30W panel in Seattle and San Diego, so the whole range of sun/cloud conditions and the 30 watt output has provided enough juice for me to use my electronics (stereo, GPS, depth-finder, cabin lights, cell phone charger, ext.) and keep my battery bank topped off.
(I've got two 12 Volt batteries in my battery bank, a deep cycle and a starter).

FAQ: Which brand of solar panel is best?

Now, in regards to what panel to install... there's currently a bunch of high quality solar panels on the market. The industry is changing pretty fast, panel technology/efficiency keeps improving. Earlier this year, Jan 2018, as I was updating this page, I surveyed my boat and RV friends to see what panel they like best right now. Maybe 80 percent of them said they still like the Renogy panels. These panels are rugged, which is good for boats, they withstand stormy conditions. Plus you get a high quality panel (Amp. output) for the price.

If you're like me, a 'light' energy user, then go with the Renogy 30 Watt Solar Panel 

Now, that said, many boaters would fall under 'moderate' energy users. These folks would want to run some kitchen appliances, maybe some fans, perhaps a water heater, ext...
In that case, go with a 100 watt panel. Their 100 Watt Solar Panel is the preference for mid-size boats with moderate amperage needs.

Campers/RV or folks who have an off-the-grid cabin also seem to like this model.

Size-wise, the 100 watt panel is only about 45 inches by 20 inches. So, it should fit fairly well on your stern rail or RV rooftop.

And....if you want even more juice from the sun, then get a pair of these 100 watt panels and wire them together. Each panel yields 100 watts, so mount 2 for 200 watts total. Last month I helped a friend put a 100 watt on his 38 foot sailboat. We mounted it on the railing that sits on top of his canvas dodger (over the cockpit). He's happy with the output. We used the compatible solar panel mounting bracket set to lock the panels onto his boat.

Here's the 100 watt panel on Amazon.

FAQ: Do I need a controller?

Yes. The controller is necessary for controlling the charge coming off the panel. It is a small circuit panal that is installed between the solar panel and your batteries. It enables the charge to be fed to the batteries at the right levels. It also prevents your batteries from leaking charge back out to the panel and it also prevents over-charging the battery. You need a controller, its not optional.

It's a simple device, but it's critical and you want a good quality controller. My guy at Fisheries Supply in Seattle told me to go with the Morningstar SunSaver-10, Charge Controller, 12V. I've had it in use for 6 years and it's worked flawlessly for me (see photo below).
There's no moving parts here, its just diodes and fixed circuits. When the sun is shining, you get a green LED light on the top of the controller (see photo). This indicates that charge is going onto the batteries.
I'm expecting this controller to last me another 10 years. As you can see, it mounts easily inside your boat with 4 stainless steel screws. I placed mine right above my chart table.

solar panels for boats and RV campers
the SunSaver-10 controller mounted in my cabin

Here's a link to that controller.

FAQ: How did you mount your panel on your stern rail?

DISCLAIMER: Every panel design will require a slightly different mount. The Renogy panels I mentioned above come with their own mounting brackets. This is probably preferred since their mounting brackets are only 10$.

But, apparently I like to do things the hard way. I went the 'Do-it-yourself' route and built my own mounting brackets to fit my stern rail. If you want to do what I did, here's how I did it.

My panel has an aluminum rail on the perimeter. Drill holes in this rail and attach 2 aluminum flats to serve as a center mounting rail. Attach these strips of aluminum with stainless bolts and nuts. To prevent galvanic corrosion (aluminum touching steel) use plastic washers. Then, attach these white plastic rail mounts to the new aluminum flats (or something similar). The beauty of these plastic rail mounts is you can adjust their tightness on your boat's stern rail. Therefore, you can push the panel around it's axis so that the panel is facing the sun throughout the day.

installing solar boats
the backside of my solar panel showing stern rail mounts

FAQ: How do you wire up the panels/controller/battery?

Okay, let's assume your panel is now mounted.
Next thing is, connect the panel to the controller (the controller will be installed inside the boat).

Get yourself some Marine Grade copper wire. Get at least 30 feet of black and 30 feet of red. These are the marine wires I use....

If you're doing this install in a RV or cabin, save some money and do NOT buy the marine grade wires/terminals. You don't need it, just get the regular stuff.

sailboat solar
marine grade copper wire for 12 volt DC electronics

Decide which terminals are best to use and attach wires to the bottom of the solar unit. There should be a contact box with a surrounding waterproof lid on the underside of the panel. To protect the circuit you can add a fuse on the positive wire, just downstream of solar panel.

Then I use plastic zip ties to snug up the wires to the rail and down to the cockpit. Then find a small hole in your cockpit (or drill a small hole) and run the wires into the interior of your boat.

marine solar panel installation
zip ties snugging up the wires to keep them from getting fouled

Okay - the rest is simple. Lead the wires to the mounted controller, then attach the incoming wires to the ' Solar + and - ' screws (See photo).
Then attach a new set of wires on the ' Battery + and - ' screws. Run the battery wires to the battery terminals.

sailboat solar panel mount
one set of wires coming in from the panel, another set going out to the battery

And of course, use marine grade ring terminals to fit over the battery posts. As has been pointed out to me by some experts, you also want to include a fuse on the positive wire just before it hits the positive terminal on the battery. This makes for good protection of the circuit.

sailboat solar panel mount kit
incoming positive wire attaches to positive terminal...

Well, that should finish up your solar panel boat installation project.

FAQ: How much will this whole solar panel project cost?


Solar power for boats price breakdown

Morningstar SunSaver-10, Charge Controller, 12V
about $60

aluminum rails/plastic mounts/bolts/washers/zip-ties
(or do it professional with the Renogy mounting Z Brackets)
about $20

marine grade wire (red and black) and terminals

Price-wise, you should be just around $230 and you haven't skimped on quality products.

It sure beats getting towed back to port...

Okay - Good luck with your marine solar panel installation! 

 Capt. Curran

Oh and by the way...

If you are unsure about your electrical diet (aka. how much energy you require), I also wrote up this page on how best to determine your solar panel wattage requirements. It's basically a guide to estimate how many watt/hours you'll be requiring on a typical day or week on the water. Once you've figured out how many watt/hours you require, you can then determine how large a panel you'll need.

Once you have the foundation of your electrical circuit established, then you can thinking about adding on a solar panel. I also like this review from Cruising World.
Good luck!

October 5, 2014

When the wind just dies...

     Often when the wind report calls for 5-10 knots, you head out with some expectations.

Then when you find yourself a mile offshore and floating in a dead calm, you remember the problem with having expectations.