Something around 10,000 miles and 6 years after we purchased our boat, I thought it might be time to share some of the good, the bad and the ugly of our boating gear experiences. Having worked in the marine retail market for many years, and then progressing to owning my own marine outfitting business, I probably have a more in-depth background of the almost countless choices of gear and gadgets for the cruising boat, but there is really no substitute for the real world experience of living with equipment every day and seeing how it holds up to our expectations.
It may seem strange to start this post talking about a toilet, but to many boaters this may be the most despised piece of gear on the boat. There really isn't much worse than having to repair or replace a toilet that has stopped working in mid-function. As far as the Lavac goes, it's simple, foolproof, and works. The Lavac is not very well publicized, otherwise I don't see why any of the other current choices would still exist.
We have one of each on board, and they have both worked great. Our slightly oversized Manson worked well for several years, and we switched to a Rocna only because we got a too good to pass up deal on a larger sizer. Function and performance are about the same and we don't see enough difference to recommend one over the other, but more than enough difference to recommend either over most of the other choices.
Ours has seen daily service, at least several times each day, with very little issue. Our particular model has three stovetop burners and a thermostat controlled oven without the broiler option. We've heard people having issues with the sparker to light the burners, and ours has been a bit stubborn at times, but that is the only issue we have. On occasion the flame level will drop on a particular burner, so I carry a set of tip cleaners used in the welding industry, and a couple quick passes into the burner brings the flame back to full output.
Alternative Charging Sources
We have three 50 watt solar panels and a Rutland wind generator on our boat. I would love to have more solar capacity, but that is what fits on our current stern arch and our electrical needs are pretty modest compared to most cruising boats. Solar is a great "set it and forget it" piece of gear. Initial purchase costs are high, but once they are installed there are no further costs or maintenance. Wind generators are all a compromise, trading space requirements or noise for power output. Our particular model is small and very quiet, but has relatively low output. It doesn't provide enough power to satisfy our power demands, but works as a good supplement to our solar panels, making enough power between the two sources to keep up with our energy demands.
Wintering in Alaska allows ample opportunity to appreciate a good heater. Sigmar makes several different models (ours is the 170) which are also similar in looks and function to the Dickinson models of bulkhead mount diesel heaters. Having a well insulated steel hull helps keep the heat in, but our heater has no problem keeping the inside temps in the 70's even when it's well below freezing outside. We enjoy the added advantage of having the heater mounted low enough in the boat to gravity feed the fuel from our main tank, meaning we don't need an electric fuel pump. We use a small Hella fan mounted on the overhead near the chimney to distribute heat throughout the boat, and this is the only electrical part of our heating system, so the power demands for heating are very small.
Garmin GPSmap 276C
If you would have asked during my first year of ownership, I would have had nothing but good things to say about this little chartplotter. The screen is small at just 3"x2", but the image is sharp and the colors are vivid making it easy to use the optional Bluechart software for navigation. Unfortunately my high opinion didn't last through a summer of cruising in Alaska, where the GPS receiver began randomly losing it's signal. This quirk had nothing to do with blocked signals or interference from other devices on-board, but looked to most likely be a software issue. We have talked to several other owners of Garmin products from this time period that experienced similar issues. Numerous calls and emails to Garmin were no help, and they finally stopped responding to my inquiries, leaving me bitter and resentful about all the good things I've said in the past about Garmin customer service.
Lifeline AGM Batteries
These came with the boat when we bought it, and were only months old so I know how they were treated throughout their life. Unfortunately, their life was pretty short. Our energy demands on the boat are small, and with two 8D sized batteries wired as one bank, they were never discharged more than ten percent and were recharged regularly at the dock with a good quality charger. Thus it was surprising to find that one of the two batteries went dead and was un-revivable after less than two years. Lifeline had no answers, except to imply that I either did something to kill the batteries or was lying about my treatment. It's bad enough when a company won't stand behind their product, but to blame the customer is really bad form. I have installed hundreds of batteries on customers boats since then, and have always been able to find better options for every installation so I don't have to give Lifeline any of my business.
Both Nicole and I have been using West Marine foulies for the past few years, me a jacket and Nicole a jacket and bibs. All these products are their mid-level "coastal" models, which are waterproof and breathable with many of the features found in higher priced gear. The first few seasons they got occasional use and seemed to work as advertised. During our four month trip to Alaska in 2009 we both started to experience failures in the waterproof coating. These failures increased to the point where both of Nicoles items are unusable and my jacket is only wearable in light rain and for short periods. I might have shrugged off the failures to exceeding the lifespan of the gear, but my bibs are a different brand, have seen the same use as our other gear, and show very little wear and no failure in the waterproofing.
I realized after starting this post that we have things to say about much of the gear on our boat, too much to put in a single post. I'm going to start another section on our blog, similar to the "cruising guide" section, where I can organize all the gear review posts as they appear.