DIY Electric Outboard: Sparky Jr is Born

It’s been over a year since I started dreaming about an electric outboard. Life gets busy and as you might expect, and the outboard project has gone on and off the back burner. I have made some progress over the past year and figured it’s time to share.

Donor Outboard Leg

Thanks to the great folks at Seapower, I was given a 1967 Johnson 5hp Sea Horse. The powerhead had seized a long time ago, but the lower end gearbox is in perfect working order. Sparky Jr is finally coming to life.

It turns out that the 1967 Sea Horse has some KISS design details that are quite beneficial for this conversion compared to a modern outboard. On this outboard, there is no reverse! If you wanted to go backward, you simply turned the engine around, and backwards you went. What this translates to is a simple direct drive to the propeller. The propeller itself is also a more efficient, simpler design.

KISS Design Benefits

Simpler Gearbox Configuration

Modern 5 HP outboards have gear shifters with a cog system in the gearbox. That cog system is similar to that of a 10 speed bicycle hub. If you pedal the bicycle backwards, the cogs disengage, and the pedals can turn freely in the backwards direction. When this happens, no power is transferred to the wheel, the bicycle just coasts. For the outboard motor to transfer power to the propeller in the forward to and reverse direction, the gearbox must be shifted so the cogs can engage and drive the propeller. In practice shifting from forward to reverse often requires the operator to turn around and look away from where they are heading to reach back and operate the shifter. This is often done just as you are approaching a dock or another vessel, creating an opportunity for an impact that can cause damage.

Since the direction the new electric motor spins is controller driven, a simple flick of a switch and the motor spins in the opposite direction. No extra mechanical shifters are required, and the operator does not have to take their eyes away from where they are heading.

Propeller Design

Another perk to the old Sea Horse is the propeller design. Modern 5 HP outboards funnel the engine exhaust down the leg and out vents in the center of the propeller. Because of this, the center of the propeller is larger in diameter.  This creates more drag and reduces efficiency. The old Sea Horse does not have vents in the propeller, the center hub is smaller and thus reduces drag and theoretically improves efficiency.

The simple propeller and direct drive design of the old Sea Horse adapts very well to a modern electric powerhead.


Battery Pack

The battery pack build is still in process. I was able to score some secondhand LiFePO4 cells from Cameron at TransMarine. The secondhand cells originally boasted 73 Ah of capacity, and after testing I discovered they still have 67-70 Ah remaining. I am very excited about this because getting new lithium batteries shipped to NZ is prohibitively expensive. It also falls perfectly in line with our sustainability principles, Renew Reuse Recycle!

Battery Chemistry

I chose the LiFePO4 chemistry because it doesn’t have the fire risk of other lithium chemistries. What they sacrifice in energy density is made up for in cell stability and that is very important in the marine environment. The cells I will be using were part of a battery pack that failed due to improper use. The cool thing is, even though the pack failed, there were still enough good cells in the pack to have a second life as Sparky Jr’s power supply!

Size and capacity

The new 15 cell battery pack will take up as much space as a typical 20L petrol tank and weigh somewhere between 40 and 50 lbs. In theory this battery pack should let us run approximately 50 minutes at wide open throttle. That should be plenty big enough for our application.

The Build

After removing the old powerhead from the Sea Horse, I started by making a composite adapter plate that converts the motor’s bolt pattern to that of the Sea Horse leg. 

A big thanks to Ted Cary on this one! Ted helped us by not only giving us shop space to work, but also providing endless guidance in all things boat building, thanks Ted!

After the epoxy cured on the adapter plate, I took the outboard leg, new electric motor, and old motor drive shaft to Opua Marine Engineering. At OME, Mark and Carl cut the original drive shaft and welded on an adapter. The motor output shaft now connects to the drive shaft, Sparky Jr is born.

Once the physical motor linkage was sorted, I set about to wire up the motor controller and throttle. The RoboteQ motor controller I chose for this project is highly configurable and can drive many different types of motors. They have free software available that allows you to see/program a whole list of parameters. The software even charts them live so that you can see the input/outputs of the controller in real time.

It’s not the most intuitive software, but it doesn’t take too long to click around and understand how to use it.

Another benefit to RoboteQ controller is that it can operate from 12-60V. This means it can take a wide variety of batteries. I was able to do the preliminary configuration with a standard 12V battery at Ted’s Shed.

Sparky Jr v1.0

In the new shop space, and thanks to Terry B Unlimited, we now have two 48V power supplies to continue testing/development. One power supply is can spin up the motor to 25% of its output. If we wire the second power supply in parallel, we can simulate to 60% of Sparky Jr’s max output. 

Another big shout out to one of our new flat mates, Ben. Ben helped me come up with a good solid mount solution for the controller inside the outboard cowling. 

As I was testing the motor the other day, I noticed it was not spinning as fast as I expected it to. After a day of reading and troubleshooting I discovered that I had one of the motor parameters configured wrong in the software. Once set properly, the noise from the motor and excessive current draw has gone away and Sparky Jr v1.0 is alive and functioning properly!

The motor itself is very quiet and the controller only produces a slight hum. The drive shaft adapter seems to be the loudest component of the outboard. Since noise is loss, I imagine the next iteration of Sparky Jr will involve a more precise adapter plate. Some sort of rubber adapter to manage the slight misalignment of the drive shaft to the motor would also be helpful.

Stay Tuned for the battery build and sea trials!

DIY Electric Outboard

All this time in lockdown has me scheming up new ideas, and I keep finding myself coming back to one – the electric outboard.

We absolutely loved our experience cruising and the South Pacific on renewable energy.  It’s clearly the best option for the frugal sailor on a limited budget.

In the interest of continued improvement, I have been reflecting back  on our experience and trying to identify areas that could use improvement.

The Sailor’s “Car”


The dinghy is vital to all cruising sailors. It’s how you get to and from shore to get supplies. It’s also how you get out and explore the areas around you, areas where the mothership just can’t go.

When we were gearing up for our voyage, we were looking for a good sailing/rowing dinghy that kept to our renewable energy, low carbon footprint mantra. Tinkerbelle was our solution.

Tink is an old Tinker Tramp, an inflatable sailing dinghy that was made in the UK. Tink rolls up and stows on deck and came with an optional life raft kit, she is perfect for a small voyaging yacht like ours.

Tinker Tramp Sailing

Unfortunately, Tinker is no longer in business, but there are many small roll up or take-apart dinghies available on the market. As with all dinghies, they don’t move themselves! If you want to check out that beach two miles away, you have to get there somehow.

Being broke, young, and full of vigor, our solution has mainly been a set of oars. Over the last three years I came to find myself enjoying the art of rowing. My back stayed strong, and oarlocks can be found or jury rigged pretty much anywhere.

The downside?

Just try to convince yourself to row for miles when you are already standing on a perfectly beautiful beach.

Our limited range kept us from snorkeling passes and exploring those farther off places, unless we joined friends who had a dinghy with a powerful outboard.


Enter the Electric Outboard

Torqeedo Travel 1103 C Outboard Motor w/ FREE Travel Bag Set – Wee ...

We have seen a few small Torqeedo outboards during our travels, but none of the cruisers we met were in love with them. They are light, maintenance free, and packable, what’s not to love?


Simple as that.

We want to go fast! Forget that we don’t have to row. Forget that there is no maintenance. Forget that you never have to carry gasoline. Forget that you never have trouble starting it. It’s hard to brag about all of these positives when you are wallowing in the wake of the neighbor’s dinghy that ripped right past you.

What’s on the Market?

There are companies offering more powerful products. Elco, Torqeedo and ePropulsion all have offerings that can get a tender on a plane. They appear to be quality, well designed systems, but I haven’t actually seen any of them around. Unfortunately, they are all outside of our budget.

On the cheap end, you can find offerings from Aliexpress, Karvin, and Golden Motor. But based on their websites, I can’t reason sending them upwards of a thousand of dollars with my fingers crossed.

If anyone is willing to donate one of the above to us, we will happily test it and do a full review

Project Outline

Build an electric outboard for small, folding inflatable dinghies. Ideally, the outboard will fit Tinkerbelle and get her planeing for an hour or more on a single battery charge. As with Cinderella’s Manta Drive, it must be affordable to the budget sailor and robust enough to handle cruising in remote locations. I also want to build my own LiFePO4 battery bank that will supply power to the motor. The system must charge easily from our current solar panels and I’d like to test the feasibility of using the outboard as a hydro generator.


  • Power – enough to drive a small inflatable on a plane for over and hour
  • Reliability – use robust components to mitigate failure
  • Affordability – cost less than a new gasoline outboard
  • Ease of Charge – must be easy to easily charged from Cinderella’s current system
  • Hydrogeneration – determine feasibility as a yacht hydro generator.

Parts List/Cost Breakdown

Donor outboard engine $0
Montenergy ME1716 Motor $600
Roboteq Motor Controller $345
Contactor $50
Breaker $50
Throttle $50
Fuse Holder $20
Safety Kill Switch $35
48V – 5V DC-DC converter $16
Misc wires/connectors $50
Total $1,216
Roboteq BMS $495
Breaker $50
60Ah LiFePO4 cells $880
Misc wires/connectors $50
Case $100
Total $1,575
Outboard and Battery $2,791

I’m hoping we can see the performance similar to that of a conventional 5 HP outboard. A brand new Tohatsu 5 HP retails at around $1800. While our project will cost about twice that, I’m hoping that we see the ROI in the form of free fuel (from the sun) and lack of maintenance.


As with the Manta Drive, we will share our experience while making the plans free and open source. If you want to help speed the project along, please consider donating to our cause!

Cinderella in Latitude 38!

Thanks Latitude 38

The May issue of Latitude 38 has been released, Ava and I are featured!

We would like to extend a big THANK YOU to the crew at Latitude 38 for helping us share our story and show others how easy and affordable it can be to sail sustainably.

You can find the full article in Latitude 38 here

If you want to read up on our full conversion to electric drive, you can find that here

Budget OpenCPN Chartplotter

Before we left Seattle, we picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro for $150 at a computer recycle shop and loaded it up OpenCPN.

It was the first chartplotter I have ever had on a boat! We paired it with an AIS receiver, VHF antenna splitter, and a GPS dongle. Before long, we were off to the races (or rather, cruises).

We now have a navigation station down below that can overlay weather and AIS data relative to our position.


After spending all those eerie nights sailing around the Puget Sound trying to make out dimly lit logs in tow or listening to fog signals, THIS IS HUGE!

While OpenCPN took a bit to wrap our heads around, we really came to like it. You can find free charts of the world (of varying accuracy), and overlying weather data on those charts is very easy. If you have a multiplexer, you can even feed your ships instruments into OpenCPN, putting all of this information on one screen. This can be a big pro when passage planning or making sail adjustments on long passages.

Prior to OpenCPN, I purchased and used the Navionics app on my iPhone and iPad. This is great for close quarters sailing, but if you are tracking long passages, phone or tablet battery life quickly becomes an obstacle.

We have had two iPads and an iPhone that have come to meet their makers due to saltwater intrusion. Waterproof cases aren’t waterproof if the charger is plugged in.

I prefer to have both systems aboard. OpenCPN down below is always tracking and overlaying weather/AIS information, it also has a built in anchor alarm that helps us sleep easier. Navionics gives us accurate charts, in my had as I’m at the tiller sailing into unknown harbours all around the world.

**I’m not happy with the Navionics customer service experience, but I am a fan of the product. I wish I could say I was happy with both**

Cinderella’s Navigation System Evolution

This is an area that has undergone continual change. We have been actively cruising around the Pacific Ocean for the past three years on a pretty meagre budget. Cost and availability are two big hurdles we have been dealing with. I would love to have a new Raymarine, B&G, or Garmin system, but we just can’t justify making such a big investment. Especially after a single wave took down our old KVH system.

Instead, we have kitted out the computers we already had to do the job, and eventually purchased a 12V mini computer that we installed in a dry locker away from salty air and accidental spills.

Our budget OpenCPN chart plotter is part of a larger marine onboard network I have been actively tinkering with and developing.

Microsoft Surface Pro

Ava already had one she bought in Seattle before we left. It was actually a really slick machine. It had a large touch screen and we were able to mount it at our nav desk.

The Surface Pro ultimately suffered from saltwater intrusion that caused it to consume too much power and slowly lose touchscreen functionality. The charger was also destroyed, but since the computer ran on 12V, I was able to wire it to the ship’s house battery bank.

The surface lasted about a year; we took it out of commission in Tahiti. It was still functioning, but only just.


  • Large touch screen
  • 12V computer can run on the house batteries
  • plenty of processing power
  • relatively low power draw


  • No waterproof case
  • Exposed ports
  • Microsoft updates occasionally cause issues
  • Repairs not possible

If we had a larger, dryer boat I imagine it would have lasted much longer. The lack of waterproof case options and exposed USB/charging ports eventually killing the internal components and they are not replaceable.

2010 Macbook Pro

I purchased a 2010 Macbook Pro at the local computer repair shop before we left hoping to have a tool to edit videos on. It was an older machine, but I was intrigued by the Apple ecosystem and wanted an inexpensive way to learn. Along the way, we ended up with a second one. They were our “work” computers that let us organize our media, write, and access the internet. I loaded OpenCPN and the associated drivers onto them just in case something happened to the Surface Pro and we needed a backup.


  • More stable OS
  • Plenty of processing power
  • Already had it, so it was a free backup
  • Theoretically repairable


  • Big, it took up the whole desk
  • No waterproof case
  • Exposed ports
  • Old technology with large power draw

Both of these Computers eventually died. One in Tahiti as Ava was doing web design work, the other on passage to Palmerston as the boat lurched and my coffee spilled all over it. In short, the Pacific Ocean is hard on electronics.

The best anchorages are often near reefs with salt spray in the air and exposed contacts and plugs will eventually corrode. This solidified the idea that the ship’s navigation system should be a dedicated system tucked away from the elements.

The big takeaway I want to stress here is that ANY laptop you carry aboard can be loaded with this free software giving you redundancy in the event of a failure.

MINISFORUM 12V Mini Computer

Ava and I were fortunate enough to spend lots of time in Tahiti. We found a community where we fit in, and we once again had access to online purchasing. I did a bunch of research on small, low power draw computers and tablets that could run OpenCPN. I eventually decided to give the Minisforum 12V computer a try.


  • Low power draw
  • Small size allowed it to be tucked away in a dry cabinet
  • USB ports
  • 12V computer can run on the house batteries
  • Plenty of processing power
  • Familiar OS
  • Cheap


  • Microsoft updates occasionally cause issues
  • Repairs not possible
  • External screen and keyboard required

We have been really happy with this little PC as our dedicated navigation computer. We run Teamviewer, zyGRIB, and OpenOffice alongside OpenCPN expanding the system’s capabilities.

Teamviewer allows us to broadcast the PC’s desktop to all of our devices connected to Cinderella’s WiFi network. OpenCPN and all of our ship’s instruments, location, and AIS information are accessible from our phones and can be monitored easily by the crew from the cockpit or in a berth.

ZyGRIB allows us to easily download weather GRIBS and overlay them on OpenCPN. Unfortunately, we need to have internet access to download these.  We use our phones as a hotspot when we are near land, but if you had an SSB and Sailmail you could get them while at sea.

OpenOffice is free word processing software that we use to access and modify ship specific documents like our maintenance log and cruising guides.

Cost Breakdown

As I said, a small budget was a big factor in the system we ultimately came up with. Here is a breakdown of all of the components our system uses and their current prices.

Total Cost                                  $525.37

This is a few hundred dollar less than Raymarine’s most basic chartplotter screen. THE SCREEN ONLY!! That’s not including charts. It’s not including AIS integration. It’s not including weather data integration.

Amazingly, If you are only looking for an AIS receiving chartplotter, that would bring the cost down to $391! The cost savings comes because you don’t need to purchase the NMEA multiplexer.

Future Ideas

I have included the cost of the NMEA multiplexer we purchased, but unfortunately our old Airmar instruments were not NMEA 1083 compatible like I thought. We have yet to integrate the depth, wind direction, wind speed, boat speed, or water temp transducers. When we haul out for bottom paint, I hope to install an Airmar DST800 Smart™ Sensor Thru-hull. Not only should it work with OpenCPN, but we should be able to feed this info into any major brand’s marine network if we ever end up getting marine displays for our cockpit again.

I would also like to install an AIS transmitter at some point. It is HUGE to receive AIS and have information on the vessels around you. But it would also be nice to transmit our location to the vessels around us, making collision avoidance that much better.


As with all of the projects at Sailing Cinderella, we will share our experience while making the plans free and open source. If you want to help us continue, please consider donating to our cause!

Cinderella Gets New Rigging!!

Dyneema Rigging, Jury Rig,

As you can imagine, after losing our lower shroud on passage from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus (about 500nm of clear beautiful ocean) we have been timid and untrusting of our old Navtec Rod Rigging.

It had to go.

But what will we put back up in it’s place?

Cinderella, of course, is a special girl. Her rig is far from stock. She was refitted with the mast out of an Express 34 back in the 90’s. Her new rig was built outside of Santa Cruz by Ballenger Spar Systems. It’s a high-tech, custom made, 150 lb aluminum noodle.

Tahiti sailing, Jury Rig, Dyneema

Back then, Navtec Rod was the cat’s meow! It was lighter than stainless steel cable and way thinner. It stretched less, created less windage, and was less prone to corrosion.

Sounds good, right?

The down side is that you rarely see signs of failure prior to a big, loud, BANG!!

It’s a terrible experience, let me tell you.

Rod Rigging Failure

Trying to avoid this, we took everything apart twice to inspect it. Once before we left Seattle and again in Costa Rica before we crossed the Pacific.

It turns out, the open ocean is just hard on stuff. By the time we arrived in Tahiti, we knew of four separate boats that had a rigging failure of some sort since leaving Central America. Every instance was due to corrosion or metal fatigue. Two of the boats had even been re-rigged in the past 8 years!

(Thats the insurance accepted age range for boats crossing an ocean. )

Cinderella was way overdue. I could just hear it ringing in my ears “cruising is just boat maintenance in exotic locations.”

What rigging options exist for us now? How do we get them to Tahiti?

Two very big questions that make you feel very small and far from anything. So we did a little research.

We had options, replace the Rod, change the rig fittings to use stainless steel wire, or buy fittings to splice some new synthetic fiber onto.

I emailed around and got quotes. There were two riggers on the island, and I requested quotes from four riggers back in the USA. At the end of the day, we had three realistic options, all of which came in right around $4,000.

Rod Rigging

It had to be shipped, nobody on the island had the capability to make it. It was also the easiest option, no modifications to the rig were required. It did last a long time before it broke, but I don’t like that it’s nearly impossible to inspect. Navtec has also since gone out of business and there is no telling how long the current supply of rod would last.

It’s also not possible to carry backups due to the coiling limitation. The smallest the rod can be coiled is 48″. For the same reason, it’s expensive to ship to remote places.

Wire Rigging

You can find 1×19 stainless wire almost anywhere. It was adopted a long time ago because it’s a lot stronger than hemp line. It’s common and inexpensive to replace (you do need special compression fittings or a swaging tool) . A big perk is that it will usually show signs of failure prior to snapping. (One or two strands will start to break)

It does weigh the most, and weight up high works against you in a sailboat.

Unfortunately, going to wire, we would have to add custom fittings ($$$) to our mast, and take a loss in sailing performance.

Synthetic Rigging

This was the most intriguing solution to me. After being towed 70nm into the atoll by our dear friends on Blue Spirit. (Thanks so much guys!) We used Cinderella’s dyneema lifelines to replace the broken lower shroud. It is very easy to splice and stronger than wire (of the same size). We proceeded to sail on it the next 300 nm to Tahiti…

Very cautiously.

It turns out there are a bunch of options in the world of synthetic rigging.  If you are interested, this article describes them in more detail. Carbon, kevlar, Vectran, PBO, Dyneema, a bunch of fancy sounding names for some very strong lightweight fibers.

The only option that came in at the $4000 ish price-point (like rod and wire quotes) was Dyneema. But not just any Dyneema, not the stuff you buy at the local marine supply. The particular type of dyneema used in standing rigging is called DynIce Dux. It is patented and manufactured in Iceland by Hampidjan. It is heat set, and that process makes it 30% stronger than standard Dyneema and removes all of the structural elongation.

Where does that leave us?

Before we were set to leave, I did some more digging on Dux rigging. I checked the forums. I read on boatbuilding websites. I asked around. Everywhere I looked, one name kept coming up.

John Franta.

I reached out to him and the crew at Colligo Marine.

John was a structural test engineer in a past life, and decided to apply that to his love of sailing. (I liked him already) He designed and manufactured a slew of fittings to utilize Dux on nearly any mast, and runs his shop out of Grover Beach, CA.

We made it a point to stop in and say hello when we made it back to the USA.

Our Choice

Colligo Marine, Dyneema Dux, Dynice Dux, Dyneema Rigging

If you couldn’t tell, we decided to go with Colligo Dux.  It’s just simpler.

It’s freakishly light. We can wear our whole rig as a necklace! It packs easily into a checked bag, and we can carry extra length to replace any shroud that we are worried about in the future. Less weight aloft also means a better sailing boat. (I am very, very excited about this)

The line itself does not corrode in saltwater! And Dux, like wire, will show signs of degradations prior to failure. Moving forward, routine inspections will prevent that blood curdling BANG!

We are very excited to get back to Cinderella and get her sailing again with fresh new Dyneema rigging from John and the folks at Colligo Marine!

Cinderella’s Solar Setup

Sailing around the world on 100% renewable energy. It really rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it. Well, our message here at Sailing Cinderella is not only that it’s possible, but anyone can do it.

But how?

By harnessing that giant thermal-nuclear reactor in the sky! With solar panels.

Aboard Cinderella we have a little more complicated electrical system than the typical sailboat with our electric drive system. But in the end, it isn’t very complicated either. Below is a schematic of our solar charging system onboard . We will continue to improve the system and report back on our findings.

If you read one of our earlier posts Planning Your Solar Install you will learn why we chose the components that we chose. We are going to dig a little deeper now.

Before that, I would like to say upfront that…


I understand the principles of electricity and I have researched the standards that exist for sailboats. I recommend all readers do the same before attempting an installation of a solar array.

Before I got into the wiring bit, there were a few questions I had to ask myself

What size wires are required?

Thanks to Ohm’s law we know V=IR. Basically, the lower the voltage the higher the amperage, and the bigger the wire diameters that are required. Bigger wires cost more money, and it will be harder to feed them through the tight crevasses of a boat. Fortunately there are charts to help us here. I always use the chart to find the wire gauge needed.

How much input voltage can the charge controllers handle?

This is the maximum voltage coming from the solar panels. For basic PWM controllers this is lower than their MPPT counterparts. All charge controller will have this stated in their manual. The MidNite Solar Kid we used on Cinderella can handle up to 150V coming in from our solar panels. We can even programm it for 12, 24, or 48V battery banks.

Will the panels see equal shading?

If the panels see equal shading, it may make sense to wire them in series. If the shading is very different, parallel may be the better option.

On Cinderella, both of our Solar World panels on our bimini are the same. This allows us to wire them in series or parallel. We decided to wire them in series giving us a high enough voltage to charge our motor battery bank.

The smaller solar panel that we installed on our dodger is wired to its own PWM controller. Since it is wired to its own controller, we do not need to worry about how it will affect the other panels. 

Is there space near the battery bank for a controller?

The wire run from the controller to the batteries can carry a very high amperage. Since amps = heat, these wires will need to be a large enough to handle the heat created by the resistance of the wire.

The longer the wire run is, the bigger the wires need to be. Big wires don’t bend easy, and they take up lots of space. The closer you can keep you controllers to a clean dry battery compartment the shorter the wire run, and the smaller they need to be.

Note: charge controller can get pretty hot when they are operating near maximum capacity. Make sure the installation area has some sort of ventilation.

Our Plan

cinderella's solar schematic
Cinderella’s onboard solar charging schematic

The goal was to wire our two SolarWorld 345w panels in series and install them over our cockpit. The power from the panels will run through a switch where we can select to charge either our 12V or 48V battery bank.

Each bank will have its own dedicated MPPT charge controller to handle the 80V coming in from the panels.

Our solar panels are capable of producing more power than our MidNite Kid can handle when charging our 12V system. This means we will max out the controller when the sun is shining high in the sky. This also means that we will miss out on some available power.  Hopefully we won’t need it.

When we are charging our 48V system, the Midnite Kid can easily handle all of the power that our panels can produce. This is because the V=IR. As voltage is increased, the amps (heat) are decreased.

Since the Midnite Kid could be configure to charge at 12V and 48V, we decided to purchase two of the same controller. Using one for each system would give us redundancy in the event of a failure. 

Since Cinderella came with a Morningstar 10 amp PWM charge controller, we decided also to get a smaller flexible panel to put on our dodger. I figured it couldn’t hurt to supplement our 12V bank and the panel was relatively inexpensive at the time.


The ideal mounting system for solar panels is definitely a dedicated robust arch. Track down your local marine welder and I am sure they could come up with something that not only functions, but is aesthetically pleasing. 

If you are on a budget, craftier options are required. Many sailboats already have a folding bimini frame of some sort. A few supports in key areas really opens up the square footage for a solar install at a minimal cost. 

Bimini Mount

Cinderella was a sleek racer, she came with no bimini. I knew the cost of a quality tubing bender’s time was outside of my budget, so I kept my eye open for ideas. I ended up finding a used bimini frame on Craigslist and figured I could add some structural support bits from and Bosun Supply. The resulting arch cost me about $500. 

Dodger Mount

We added the flexible panel I bought from Amazon to our dodger using canvas turn fittings. We got crafty with a soldering iron/hot knife to make clean holes in the Sunbrella fabric. The knife also worked perfectly when widening the holes on the solar panel’s plastic backing. 

Solar Panel - Dodger Mount


SolarWorld Panels

In order to charge a battery, you must apply a voltage higher than that of a battery. Simple enough, right? Most “12V” solar panels actually produce 18V. 

Cinderella has both a 12V battery bank and a 48V battery bank. Therefore we must produce more than 48V to charge both battery banks. Our large Solar World panels produce a maximum voltage of 47.8V. This is not enough to charge a 48V battery, so I knew we would have to wire them in series.

I installed breakers on the positive feed to provide safety to the system. I also installed a selector switch allowing me to select which battery bank I wanted to charge with these panels, either the 12V house bank, or the 48V motor bank. 

**This constitutes high voltage DC and you should take proper precautions**

HQST Panel

This panel I added on the dodger as a separate charging source since we had a PWM charge controller and the panel was relatively cheap. My hopes were that this panel could offset the house loads while we were charging our motor bank. 

Unfortunately, the Morningstar PWM charge controller fizzled out after it was splashed by saltwater. A wave pooped us on our first night in the ocean off the WA coast dumping several hundred gallons of seawater in into our cockpit and about a buckets worth down our companionway. By the time we replaced the charger with a matching cheap charge controller, the panel had worn out. 

I would not recommend cheap flexible panels, or the cheap charge controllers found on Amazon. While these may be fine for hobbyists, on ocean going vessels I have found it’s best to spend a little more money on quality equipment. 


48V Motor Bank

Making our 48V battery bank for Cinderella was pretty straightforward. Take four standard 12V batteries and wire them in series. The result is a 48V battery bank. 

When I first installed the system, I used the cheapest marine/starting batteries I could find at the local auto parts store. All in all, the cost was about $300 and I was able use the boat to race and daysail locally for two seasons. It was a cheap, easy solution, but I killed them in two seasons. 

Before we left Seattle to go cruising, we replaced those batteries with four 115 Ah DYNO deep cycle batteries. This suited our budget and almost doubled our range. DYNO is a Seattle company, and we got the chance to tour the facility before picking up our batteries. At their facility, DYNO recycles old batteries and uses the lead to make new ones. How Cool! This is definitely a perk to the older lead acid technology, local recycle-ability. 

I really hope that along with any new battery technology, there is equal thought into how to manufacture/recycle it sustainably. 

12V House Bank

Firefly G31 Carbon Foam Battery

Cinderella was a very simple race boat when I bought her. She had two 90Ah AGM batteries wired in parallel to run her house systems. Not only were these two batteries ageing, but I knew they were not up to the task of handling cruising sailboat loads. 

I started reading about these Oasis Firefly carbon foam batteries. Nigel Calder, author of many marine reference books, seemed to speak highly of them, that was a good sign.

Two big factors that convinced me to use Firefly for our house systems were their ability to handle deep discharges without drastically shortening their life, and how well they handled extended periods of time at a partial state of charge.  Other pros are that they are maintenance free and seemed robust enough for offshore cruising.

Our charging system was going to be 100% renewable and I wanted to be sure we could handle cloudy days with little sunshine. We ended up purchasing two 116Ah Firefly Energy G31 batteries. They could live in the same footprint of the two AGM batteries we already had, and should give us more useable power. 

Future Improvements

As battery technology advances, I expect the cost to drop. I would love to upgrade our motor battery bank to a Firefly or LiFePO4 batteries. Will be cruising, and will not have access to plugging in at the end of the day. A battery that can handle extended periods at a partial state of charge could be very beneficial. 

I would also love to link both the 12V and 48V systems together. Currently, we can only charge one battery bank at a time using our selector switch. Ideally we will connect both banks together with some sort of DC-DC charger, allowing the panels to charge everything at the same time. 


I hope this post helps you figure out what you need for your system. As you can see, there are a few factors to consider, but the end result can be decades of energy freedom.

If you like the open source information we continue to share, please consider a donation. Every little bit helps keep the Sailing Cinderella dream afloat!


Planning Your Solar Install

Choosing Solar Panels, Solar panes, solar charge contrller, MPPT

Sailing around the world on renewable energy. The concept is as old as sailing itself. Ever since the first sailors raised canvas, sailing around the world on renewable energy was a natural evolution.

It’s wasn’t until the first steamships appeared in the 1800’s that we actually moved away from renewable energy. So no, it isn’t a novel concept. But I’m not talking about the days of kerosine lamps and canvas sails. Fast forward a couple hundred years.

In our everyday lives we enjoy certain “luxuries” that help us feel like we are living a modern life in the 21 century. Running water, lights, phones, computers, tablets, fans, rice cookers, blenders, microwaves, these are all things that we have grown accustomed to in our everyday lives. Are we really willing to live without them just because we decided to go cruising? Camping is one thing, but let’s face it, most of us want creature comforts.

Sailing around the world on renewable energy is a little different in modern day. Cinderella is not bare bones, we have the luxuries aboard that most people have in their home (minus the microwave and flat screen tv), she is our home after all. And we power all of it with solar.

But where did we begin when sizing our solar system? This can be tricky. You might be tempted to break out the calculators and try to add up all of the energy draw aboard, use estimators to narrow down just how many hours of sunshine you expect to see, size you battery bank to make sure you don’t deplete it by more that 60% each day and so on.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that… I’m saying there is an easier way.

Tips on Selecting Solar Panels

Realize that there is no harm in having too much power.
When sizing Cinderella’s system I started backwards. How much space do we have aboard for solar panels?

Most modern sailboats (unless you have a very specialized raceboat) have lots of real estate behind the boom of the mainsail. That space is typically covered with a bimini of some sort to protect the people onboard from the sun. This is an excellent place to install solar panels!

On Cinderella, we measured the space from the end of the boom to her stern. We then measured the width of the boat in the same area. Once we had an idea of the available real estate, we went online to research what our options were.

It turns out there are three major options: rigid monocrystalline panels, rigid polycrystalline panels, and flexible panels.

Rigid monocrystalline panels are the oldest. They have been around for decades, and are getting better and better every year. Rigid monocrystalline panels produce the most power to area of any panel.

Rigid polycrystalline panels are newer than monocrystalline panels. They don’t produce quite as much power per area as monocrystalline panels, but they are far superior when it comes to shading. If the area you have available for panels has lot of shading, polycrystalline panels may be the way to go.

That leaves flexible panels. Flexible panels are the newcomers. They are light and flexible. They don’t produce anywhere near the power of rigid panels, but they can be mounted almost anywhere. Most marine brands also have the charge controllers built in, so you can wire them directly to your batteries. The biggest perk is that you can walk on them, so in theory you can open up quite a bit of real estate. Unfortunately thus far, I have not met very many cruisers that are happy with their flexible panels. They don’t seem to last as long as their rigid counterparts.

Knowing that we are not only running our home, but also charging our electric motor battery bank, I opted to go with the rigid monocrystalline option. The more power the better. Since we don’t have a wind generator, or a radar dome, there is nothing to shade our panels except for our thin backstay.

After measuring the available space (about 80″ x 90″) I started researching brands online. There are lots of threads on this subject. you will find brand diehards, you will find people talking about dollars to watts, you will find enough information to make your head spin.

I again offer a simpler solution: study at the spec sheets. All solar panels are made up of solar cells. These cells are wired together to make different voltages, but are roughly 6″ x 6″ regardless of their efficiency.

That translates to a standard width to all solar panels (with the exception of very small panels). Whether they are 190w or 360w, all of the panels are roughly 40″ wide.

Knowing that, we took that 80″ x 90″ area and decided to fill it with as much solar panel as we could. This came to roughly two 265w to 360w panels depending on brand and efficiency.

So, now that you have an idea of what you want based on your area to cover, where do you find them?

You may be tempted to go online and try to find the cheapest price, but you will quickly realize that shipping a 40″ x 80″ panel costs just as much as the panel! This may be ideal for covering a home roof, but not when you only need one or two.

Go to your local electrician’s supply! They exist in nearly every major city. In Seattle, it was Platt Electric.

I walked in to Platt with my tape measure and told the staff what I was doing. They led me into their warehouse and showed me the options. Since they basically buy full pallets of panels for resale, they were excited to cut me a deal on the leftover panels on each pallet. After looking through a few pallets, I found two 345w Solarworld panels that measured 40″ x 80″. the panels were $250 each, so I got 690w of solar for $500!

Not bad considering that has covered our “power bill” for over a year now and allowed us to be fully off the grid, fully sustainable with all of our “luxuries” plugged in.

Selecting your Battery Bank and Charge Controllers

Once you have your panels selected it’s time to have a look at your battery bank, and what controller you will put between the panels and your batteries.

Charge controllers come in two basic types PWM or “pulse width modulation” and MPPT “Multiple Power Point Tracking”.

Both of these use electronic circuitry to prevent the panels from destroying your batteries. The circuitry is how they differ.

Pulse Width Modulation is an older technology that works by breaking up the DC current heading to the batteries with a series of switches. These switches open and close so fast that the battery doesn’t even notice it. Using a set charge curve for the battery type, these charge controllers very the width of the energy pulse from the panels to meet the battery’s ideal charge voltage. This leads to an efficient charger that doesn’t boil your batteries.

Multiple Power Point Tracking is a newcomer. It is more efficient that PWM and it was designed for passive energy like solar. MPPT chargers work by a neat little trick discovered by Nicola Tesla, the transformer. The chargers invert DC power to AC power using electronic circuitry. All of that AC energy can then be transformed from very high voltage to the exact voltage the battery needs. The AC power is then converted back to DC power and fed to the batteries.

What does this mean? It means that you can feed very high voltage to an MPPT Charge controller and the controller can take the extra voltage and turn it into useable amperage that won’t boil batteries. Since higher voltages have less energy losses, we can send more useable power to the batteries! And use smaller diameter wires to do it.

Obviously, we went with the MPPT charge controller option.

Next step: Sizing the charge controller

Charge controllers are essentially sized by the amount of heat they can dissipate. In the world of electricity, amperage is heat, so we can say that charge controllers are sized by the amps they can handle.

Since our panels can produce 690 watts, we can divide 690 watts by 12 volts and get almost 58 amps. Thats quite a bit! It’s more than most standard alternators output. But that is also the theoretical best case scenario. I assumed that we would normally produce about half of our maximum, so I found a charge controller that could handle 30 amps.

I chose the Midnight Solar Kid. The Kid was reasonably priced at about $350 and was designed for the marine environment. They also have the option of paralleling, so if I decided I wanted to utilize the most from my panels, I could get a second Kidd and wire them together to handle the extra amps.

Since the Kid could also charge a 48V battery bank, I purchased a second one to charge our 48V electric motor drive. This also gave me redundancy at sea. If anything happened to one, we have a backup onboard to get us to the next port.

The last piece of the puzzle: the battery bank!

The battery bank is where you store and draw power from when the sun isn’t shining. There have been huge improvements in battery technology over the past few years, and it seems like the prices of the new technology is always dropping. Since I purchased our house bank for Cinderella over a year ago, we have noticed that the prices have dropped by about 30% on LiFePO4 technology!

We again sized our battery bank based on the space aboard Cinderella. She had two tired old 110ah agm batteries when I bought her, so we replaced them with two new batteries.

At the time Lithium was out of my price range, and I didn’t see a huge benefit to the weight difference in just two batteries. Although the new LiFePO4 technology looks very good.

Fortunately, there was a new carbon foam battery technology in the market. A company called Ocean Planet Energy partnered with Caterpillar and brought us the Firefly Oasis Battery. They coated standard lead acid plates with some type of carbon foam that prevented sulphation, a lead acid battery’s arch nemesis. This resulted in a battery with lithium like characteristics, at much lower prices.

We purchased two of these carbon foam batteries from Fisheries Supply in Seattle, and have been happy with them every since. Unlike standard lead acid batteries, we could discharge them almost completely without damaging their lifespan. We essentially got four 110ah batteries in half the footprint.

There you go! I hope this helps you design your solar system from Mercury to Pluto.

Obviously, its best to have a plan before you purchase all of your pieces. If you are curious how we wired our system click here.

DIY Marine Onboard Network



We have been cruising for a full year now! After a year of cruising, you really get a chance to dial in your systems and realize which projects on that endless list are most important and which ones can wait until the next major port.

One that keeps rearing up its head is deep in that dark world of…IT.

From ship navigation systems, to where you store all of those priceless photos it a boils down to a mess of wires all a bunch of 0s and 1s. Can/should it all be linked?

Most cruisers spend lots of time far away from WiFi and even farther from our precious Netflix. Yet we all crave a bit of digital entertainment from time to time, and let’s be honest, where would we be without music on those long passages.

What we plan to do aboard Cinderella is create an onboard wifi network with a dedicated media server. The server will house all of our music, videos, TV shows, movies, and photos. Along with a dedicated media server, we will update our navigation computer and tie it to our ship instruments. The end result will be something like this.

I know, I know, it looks like a lot. But we, along with pretty much all of the boats we have met cruising already have most of the gear!

Let’s start from the top. What I called the Marine Sensor Network. The Marine Sensor Network alone can cost thousands of dollars to replace. Cinderella came with an old KVH system installed in the late 90s. The Airmar sensors still work, but all of our marine displays have since fried. One wave off the Washington coast a one year ago decided we didn’t need them.

Although it may look complicated, it’s actually quite simple. All of our instruments were designed for the NMEA 0183 standard. This standard was created in the marine industry so that different instrumentation could talk with each other. NMEA 0183 is an old standard that requires a separate channel for each input. Basically, if you wanted to interface four instruments to you computer, you would need four separate connections. It can be done, but if we use something called a multiplexer we can funnel all of the instruments through one channel to the PC.

In our situation, using a multiplexer is nice because we can also feed this NMEA information to our autopilot giving us the option to steer by the wind angle, rather than just compass direction. The NMEA multiplexer we purchased was from Quark-electric and was $144.

We purchased it while we were in Mexico, and have yet to install it. Hopefully, this project will re-ignite my drive to have ship instruments again.

Where are we so far?

We used a device called a NMEA Multiplexer to compile inputs from all of our sensors and eventually feed it to our navigation computer or what some people like to call a chartplotter. A chartplotter is basically an expensive, basic “marinized” computer that plots your boats location on a chart. Think Tom-Tom for the water. The difference between Tom-Tom and a chart plotter is usually at least crisp cool boat unit ($1000).

On Cinderella we have come to realize that marine instruments, no matter how waterproof they seem to be, aren’t. Water will eventually find it’s way inside, killing the expensive chartplotter and leaving you in a pickle. We opted instead to utilize a program called OpenCPN to handle our chartplotting needs.

OpenCPN is FREE software designed by boaters that allows you to turn any computer into a chartplotter. The perk here is that ANY computer you have onboard can now be used as a backup navigation computer after you install the application. Every computer we have onboard has it installed, though we only rely one when we are on passage. Being that it is computer based, you still have that pesky water problem to deal with.

We get around the water issue by leaving the navigation computer in the cabin at all times. As part of this ship system upgrade, we will relieve our trusty Microsoft Surface from chartplotter duty and build a custom, cheap, and watertight navigation computer.

There are, in our opinion, three basic requirements of all navigation computers. One, the computer must know where YOU are. Two, it must know where the boats around you are. Three, it must not draw too much power.

Nowadays, these basic requirements are pretty easy to satisfy. To tell the computer where we are, we have been using a cheap USB GPS dongle. We carry two in case one gets hit by water. Here is a link the the one we use on Amazon, it’s about $30.

To tell us where other boats are, we use an AIS receiver that receives signal from our mast mounted VHF antenna. In order to use both the VHF and AIS with a single antenna, we needed to install a splitter. Anyone who remembers the days of clunky color TVs might remember what a splitter looks like. Here is the one we have installed onboard Cinderella, it was about $70.

We really liked the Microsoft Surface for use as our navigation computer. It has a large touch screen monitor, it has a nice fold down keyboard and a neat bluetooth mouse. Unfortunately, that wave that killed our marine instruments also got to our Surface, and ever since it takes a little TLC to start it up and keep it going. It had a hard year, and it’s time we come up with something new to replace it. We are currently looking at simple 12V computers like the RasberryPi or Odroid. They are both small, low power, and can be sealed into a watertight box and stowed in a small cabinet.

Along with the computer, we will need to find a low draw 12V monitor and a simple bluetooth keyboard and mouse, but I believe the new navigation PC could be had for $200-$300.

So now we have our boat instruments connected to our navigation computer, but one major piece remains. The media! What about the music/TV shows/movies? The last piece of the upgrade is the NAS or Network Attached Storage server. What we will call the Cinderella Cloud.

The Cinderella cloud will be essentially made up of three pieces, a hard drive (where the media will live), a NAS server (means to organize the media), and a router (means to share the media with all of our devices).

We have had a small router onboard since before we left Seattle. I read a cruising blog a long time ago and decided to purchase a WiFi extender so that I could pick up WiFi at the marina from far away. Along with the WiFi extender, I purchased a 12V router to allow all of my devices to utilize that WiFi.

We plan to buy a 12V NAS server from Odroid, and pair it with a large capacity, low draw hard drive.

These hardware components don’t mean very much alone, but with the help of neat media software (Plex or Kodi), we should be able to connect to the Cindy Cloud and scroll through all of our movies, TV shows, or music at any time from any device and stream away. It will be like our own little onboard Netflix!

If everything goes to plan, we should have an entire onboard network integrating marine instruments, a navigation computer, and a media server, all for less than the cost of a standard chartplotter!

Sailing in Southern Mexico

Sailing Southern Mexico, Electric Sailboat, Puerto Angel, Zihuatanejo, Zipolite, Mazunte, San Augustinillo

Southern Mexico

We were told that boats don’t sail down here. That large fuel tanks were a cruisers best friend and that we should expect to motor the whole way. Well… that’s just not our style!

If you look at GRIBs, the southern Mexican coastline is void of breeze. It’s a wind deadzone that waits for hurricane season before it blows at all.

I’m here to tell you, its all wrong. You CAN sail here, and with a bit of patience, it can even be fun!

After leaving Zihuatenajo, we experienced one of the best passages we have had on the entire trip. No, we were not making record miles per day, but 100-120 isn’t bad for our pequeno barko. And we really wanted to see Oaxaca after everything we have heard about it.

It did not disappoint.

Almost all of the winds that we have experienced down here are diurnal. During the day you can expect the sea breeze to blow up to 15kts, though mostly in the 8-10 range, and at night the land breeze kicks in, but it’s a little calmer. The best part, flat seas. The cherry on top, sea turtles everywhere!

On the stretch from Ztown to Huatulco, those breezes are on the beam! The beam! Cindy sat at a nice easy 6kts for most of the day just cruising along. At night, the wind died for a couple hours between 9 and 11pm before the land breeze started to blow and we would jibe the kite.

The flat seas meant that cooking was easy and the experience aboard was really pleasant. We had an opportunity to tackle some of those projects that are on that never-ending list, and even work out! And they told me you couldn’t sail here!

We made two stops in Mexico after Zihuatanejo, Puerto Angel and Huatulco.

Puerto Angel was one of our favorite places in all of Mexico. We find that we get along well with the local fisherman everywhere we go, and this tiny, beautiful spot was well off the beaten cruiser path. If you stopped to take a look

We stopped along the way to try some local Mexcal

A short camineta (cheap public transit truck) away was a breathtaking coastline of a series of beaches. Zipolite, Mazunte, San Augustinillo.

…. We took advantage of the inexpensive transit and explored to our hearts content. Through a friend we met, we even got a tour of the local University! (more on that in another blog)

Huatulco was a sleepy tourist town, very dependent on cruise ships for income. There are several bays that you can anchor in, but it was HOT and we were antsy to see Costa Rica and Central America.

The biggest challenge we have experienced down south is the heat. Being PNWerners, we aren’t use to it.

Without shade and cold beverages it can be downright dangerous. Ava is struggling with it a bit more than I am, but I attribute that to all that time I spent in hay lofts stacking bales of hay in the miserable summer heat back in Indiana. At least here the dolphins keep us company and I am not inhaling all that hay dust and pollen that caused even the strongest of immune systems to have allergic reactions.

It took us a while to adopt our schedule and learn how to live down here, but after a few weeks of deliriously sweating we are starting to figure it out. We started to adopt rules to make life better.

#1 Hydrate Hydrate Hydrate. I am so glad we stocked up on gatorade and tea mixes before we left and installed our watermaker. Water is going through us like crazy. The sweet additives have the effect of making you crave drinking more, and otherwise I just couldn’t drink enough water. We always try to keep two bottles of something in the fridge.

#2 No cooking! No matter what, no cooking during the day. It is not wise to stoke the hell-fire, and any extra heat in the cabin could be what causes heat stroke to set in. We have become mediterranean in our cooking habits, we wait until the sun goes down and have late dinners. If we can, we make enough to have leftovers the following day for lunch and that gets us through the day. Thank you Poseidon for the fresh fish that allowed for fresh poke lunches.

#3 Shower and shower often. For us this means we break out trusty ol bucky (our rubbermaid bucket) and pour a few gallons over ourselves. We headed South for warmer waters, and it feels amazing to get a nice ocean-water shower. I wish Cindy had a swim step…

#4 Sleep when it’s cool. We have adjusted our watch schedules to allow each of us to get some sleep in the cooler hours. If not you will simply go mad. Waking up in a puddle of your own sweat and dehydrated is not the making for a pleasant watch.

As I write this, we are 4 days into a 760nm passage to Costa Rica from Huatulco, MX. It’s 7am and we are sailing hard on the wind at 5.5-6kts exactly on our rhumb line. Yesterday we freed ourselves of Mexico and the Gulf of Tehuantepec. By tonight, we should be sailing in El Salvadorian waters.

Our passage through the Gulf of Tehuantepec, or the “devils mouth” as some refer to it was one of the slowest we have experienced. Down here the winds are calm and it seems like the only bit of wind anyone wants to talk about. “How are you going to cross the Gulf?” “You mean you can’t just motor across?!” “Have you seen the lates Tpeck forecast?”

The Venturi Effect caused by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is said to produce hurricane force winds, BUT if you stay near shore (which you can) that wind doesn’t have enough fetch to create the seas that make hurricanes so dangerous. You just get lots of wind, the GRIBs say 50kt gusts. These gusts are enough to blow tractor trailers over on the highway. Put it this way, you want to avoid it.

Although the racer/adventurer in me would have been excited about blasting across the Tpec testing myself and Cinderella, the conservative engineer in me realized this boat has to last us all the way around the world, and pushing her hard is how things (and people) break. We waited for a lull and crossed when the winds were light.

And boy were they light!! The lightest and most fickle we have yet experienced. Not only were they light, but the lagoons and estuaries that line the bay produce strange currents and counter currents that really put the brakes on.

On our third day out of Huatulco, we were sailing along close-hauled in about 10-12kts of breeze. Cindy was fully loaded up and somehow we were only going 4.5-5kts. In those conditions, we should expect to see 6.5-7kts, so I knew something was up. Sure enough a few hrs the fickle wind died and we were drifting right back down our rhumb line at 2kts, heading back into the Tpec’s danger zone. Damn!

We decided to motor straight to shore. One thing that is nice about this gulf is that it’s basically one giant beach. The beach has a gradual slope to shore, and about ½ mile offshore you find yourself in 30-50ft of water, and you can simply anchor anywhere. Being that we don’t trust the charts, and we like having sea room, were were sailing only a couple miles offshore. Close enough that we could tuck in if a Tpecker kicked up, but far enough away to give us some sea room.

Our plan was to throw the hook down until the breeze picked back up. That way we could avoid losing any ground. As we neared shore a very interesting thing happened, the current began to ease. We were both exhausted. The relentless heat was only quenched when we had a breeze, and there was none. The thought of anchoring and getting some sleep was the only thing that kept me going.

As we neared shore, we could hear that ominous sound of crashing waves grow louder and louder. According to the charts we should be in 30ft of water, but the sounder said 80 and wasn’t budging.

Something doesn’t seem right. The moonless sky was pitch black and all we could see was the blanket of stars above our running lights. Louder and louder that ominous breaking-wave sound grew.

We were about ½ mile from shore now and the depth was finally starting to drop, the current had oddly subsided and sure enough, we started to feel a light breeze. Just as the sounder started to read 50, we had 6kts or so of land breeze.

Once again we adjusted our plan, out came the sails and on we went, keeping just ½ mile from shore. That sleep would have to wait. 6 kts on the beam meant 3-4 kts of boat speed, and the less time spent in the Gulf of Tehuantepec the better.

As I sat in the cockpit looking up at scorpio bold as ever, I realized that we are sailing in that place everyone says you can’t. They say you can’t probably for the same reasons we struggled in the heat for weeks. It’s not what we are used to.

If Mexico has shown us anything, its that we need to be open to change. Don’t let ourselves get locked into the idea that all sailing should be trade winds sailing. Or that our typical way of doing things is the only way. Open your mind, be open to change, and you never know what you might find.

Actually Sailing the Sea of Cortez

Most blogs you read about sailing in Mexico describe the amazing things there are to see and why it’s worth spending a few seasons there.

This is about the sailing experience.

In the Sea of Cortez, the wind either doesn’t blow at all, or it blows like crazy from exactly where you want to go.  In the lulls you drift aimlessly in circles, listening to sails flog. When the Norte blows, you have 30+ kts on your nose and it’s a bashingly numbing ride. For about 4 hours a day, you have perfect sailing conditions. Just time it with the tides…

What I’m saying is, it’s a motor boater’s paradise.

The first major city heading north, La Paz, even closes their harbor when they see 15kts of breeze from the North. 15 kts!! No boats are allowed in or out. I don’t think the weekly regatta has been allowed out to sail once with a decent breeze. Quite a different vibe compared to the race boats in Santa Cruz that come screaming back into harbor under big powerful kites in all but treacherous conditions.

The Sea is amazingly beautiful, Jacques Cousteau fittingly described it as ‘The aquarium of the world,” and It’s absolutely worth every minute you spend there exploring. We swam with sea lions and floated over schools of vibrant tropical fish. We ate delicious fresh ceviche, fish tacos and sashimi all from a few hooks hanging over the stern. We love it here in Mexico.

Ask almost anyone who participated in the 2018 Baja Haha how many hours their motors were running when they were up in the Sea. That should give you an idea of what it’s like to sail here.

The sailing itself, sucks.

We attempted sailing North in both a Norte and without a Norte. Both are trying.

A Norte is a strong northerly wind that seems to occur once every week or so and last a few days during winter months. Sometimes they occur back to back and they last for nearly a week. If a Norte is blowing, expect square 6-8’ waves to build, as the fetch from the Northern Sea is nearly 400 miles. That mass of water moving south also tends to push a sizable current.

In the Norte, you are taking hundreds of gallons of water over the bow and watching your tacking angles  get worse and worse. But hey, there is wind! The trouble is trying to sleep when you are getting air  in your berth as the boat pounds away.

When the Norte doesn’t blow, all predictions are off. Sometimes the wind is blowing from the south, sometimes the west, sometimes the east, but never over 10 kts (on rare occasion you might see 15). Expect lots of lulls and lots of drifting.

While we were here, we did not find any wind prediction software to be accurate, nor the charts for that matter. We tried PredictWind, Sailflow, Windy, and NOAA’s GRIBs, but none of them were accurate when a Norte wasn’t blowing.

All of the tall volcanic islands and hills in the area seem to confuse the fickle winds and make prediction difficult.

Our trick was to wait until well after the Norte shut off and  use a honed skill of… looking out the window.

When the light wind starts to blow in the early afternoon, we would weigh anchor and ride the puffs North. Ideally we landed in any of the hundreds of majestical, calm anchorages before the wind shut off for the night.

If we timed it right, there wasn’t any swell, and we would be hunkered down in an amazing anchorage while the Norte kicked up for a few days. After things chill out, you can weigh anchor and keep going… slowly.

If you have a typical “cruising boat” that is heavy and doesn’t point high, expect to fill those diesel tanks often!

Fortunately for us, Cinderella is a great light wind performer, and though wet, she can pound her way to weather if need be.

Either way, actually sailing in the Sea of Cortez, as with anywhere patience is key, and schedules will make life painful.

Expect to develop monk-like patience here if you attempt to experience the Sea under sail as daily passages tend to be roughly one third to one quarter the mileage you experienced coming down the West coast. For instance, 20 miles may take you all day. But don’t worry, there are plenty of perfect beaches to help you find heart’s center.

Don’t let the sailing discourage you, it is trying, but the experience here more than makes up for it. We wish we had more time to stick around and spend a few seasons really exploring.