Changing Batteries on a Sailboat

So the initial opening of the boat had finally come. It was a moment of intense concern. Would the bilge be overflowing? Would there be leaks? Would it be a garden of mold? All of our worries slowly evaporated as we climbed down into the fumes of formaldehyde and dusty but faint smell of mold and saw that Sundowner was essentially in the state that we left her.

There were no obvious sources of water intrusion. There wasn’t mold all over everything. The items we’d left in bags to protect them were still protected and looked good. Even the open containers of vinegar and bleach we’d left around the boat were still there, still not evaporated and still doing their thing. Relief flooded through us as we realized that no major disaster had taken place.

There were some of the usual small issues though. The side decks had sitting water for so long that our water based nonskid Kiwi Grip that we had painted on right before we left peeled up. In some places.

The batteries had finally died for the last time. I’d left the solar controller hooked up to keep them going but they hadn’t been watered in 10 months and they were old and weak when we left. So at some point they must have dipped under the 8 or 9 volts required to keep the solar charge controller running and at that precise moment, their death knell sounded. The boat was completely and totally dead.

To complicate matters, I’ve noticed quite a bit of corrosion in the junction boxes on the solar panels themselves. It doesn’t appear to be that bad but the junction boxes are clearly not weather tight as they were advertised. The solar problems were of serious concern because if they are dead we’re out of luck on power. We’ll get to that soon enough though.

Some of the other issues we immediately noticed… Wasps had taken up residence in various places. They built nests on curtains which seems to have left unremovable stains in places. They’d built nests on the fire extinguishers. They’d built nests under the boom. And to my amazement, there was a truly massive but extinct next hanging from one of the flag halyard blocks. That nest when it was function was probably the size of a 1 gallon jug. I was happy to see it was extinct because whatever built it was probably not of the small harmless mud building variety but instead of the “I’ll sting the hell out of you” sort. It is still up there. I expect it to fall down once we get under sail.

And finally, there was the old shifter.

I’d long deemed it suspect, what with its copious amounts of rust and troublesome throw. I had sat up many a night back in the refit days contemplating its replacement. But at the time with so much going on, I always had higher priorities. In the end, in a last minute decision, I ordered a new shifter but put it away as a “spare”. It was good that I did. I moved the shifter and felt an ominous “give”. It had broken. The gear selector part of the shifter had finally given up the ghost. Thank God something in my gut had told me to bring a spare with me. I guess a year sitting in the boatyard broke its crumbly little heart. However, the best place to break anything is a boat yard, so there was that.

First things come first. Power. Everything revolves around power. Without power we have no fans and with no fans we are miserable down here in the heat. And so day one in the boat yard was day one of changing the old batteries out.

When those old batteries went into the boat, there wasn’t a lot in the engine room and access was better. So it took a while just to get to the point that we could remove the old ones. I had to remove the “big” cockpit hatch, then pull the battery box out far enough to get clearance to lift them out of the boat.

This is easier said than done. The battery box weighs approximately 320lbs. It sits on a shelf in a corner and if moved incorrectly would fall onto the engine doing whatever damage it could.

To move it, I found one of the large wood blocks they put under boats on the hard and rigged a “temporary support” upon which I could drag the box out some.

I also had to remove the cockpit scupper drain on the starboard side and some other small things to make way for this behemoth. With the box in this new position it was possible to lift the batteries out. So out they came, one by one.

I removed all the old cables and our battery watering system and transferred it to the new batteries that Emilio had brought us from Pricesmart (The Panamanian equivalent of Sam’s Club). All of our house batteries are 6v golf cart batteries. There are 4 of them. 2 sets are wired in series to make two 12v batteries of about 220amp hours each. Then these two sets are wired in parallel to give a single bank @ 12v with 440amp hours of power.

The process of getting the box back into position was just as delicate as it was moving the old ones out. We used leverage and a tow strap to pull all back into place and reconnect the wires and fuses. Then we threw the switch and the boat lit up. Everything was energized and I was relieved to see it so.

After the onerous house bank, the starter battery was a piece of cake by comparison and we had it changed out in short order. It is a standard 12v battery like that you would find in a car and the port side had better access for removal and installation.

It was a nice to turn on a fan. I checked the battery monitor and it showed a couple of amps going in and so I knew at least one solar panel was working. I’ll leave it at that for now and go into more details next time.

I have to say that being back in Panama and the boat after so long away has given Dani and I a very different perspective on cruising life. There is a different feel. Back when we worked on the boat during the big refit, everything was by the book, had to go smoothly, needed to be perfect. Two project managers smashed together in a small boat shovelling away. Now, after this first day of work, there was a very mellow vibe. Less rush and less expectation and instead a steady pace mixed with expected competence and support. I think our RV trip chilled us out a lot. I also think that coming back to the boat we had so much stress and low expectation of the conditions that we were ready for the worst. Ready to deal with a lot worse than we found.

Other things are better too. Having a room to stay in while we work with a shower is nice.

The bugs aren’t as bad this year. It isn’t as hot as we remembered it. Dani and I are both strong personalities. When stuff goes wrong our inclination is to ask why. This can become accusatory. It can be stressful to have your wife or husband asking hard questions about why something is screwed up. It can escalate. We dealt with it in the past by designating project ownership and taking responsibility. This alleviated our problems. This time we didn’t. We just both started working and helping one another.

There were inevitable screw ups. “Why is it this way?” But instead of it getting toxic this time we turned to each other with support and smiles. A common saying aboard, “This sucks, but we’re going to the islands. We’re going to little tropical deserted islands.” I’m not sure why, but everything seems smoother now. Like our time away made us appreciate not only the boat life more, but each other more now that we are back. Life is good.

(Dani’s note: Tate forgot to mention that He did all this battery work on the day after we arrived, his Birthday. My handsome husband made 35 the day the boat got power again. We celebrated with a steak and old cruising friends that are still in San Blas.)

Check out our new video where we show the inside of the boat for the first time after almost a year and also document the battery change!

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Return to Panamarina

It has been an interesting time for us lately. Travelling back to the boat has been quite an undertaking. There were many weeks of gathering equipment to bring back and lots of visiting with loved ones before the final day arrived to put most of our worldly belongings into bags and get on a plane that would bring us to Panama, customs, immigration, and a boat we’d left behind over 10 months before sitting in the wild Panamanian jungles.

I had visions of monkey poop piled up on the cockpit and Dani fretted about the mold and mildew situation inside of the boat. We’ve heard many horror stories in the past of people returning to their yachts to find a veritable garden of mold and mildew running amock inside. Without ventilation and in the tropical heat mixed with lots of rain, a boat can become an ideal green house for certain undesirable spores to take root and flourish.

Our hearts were full of both longing to return home to Sundowner but our heads were pounding with trepidation as we left the United States for what could be the last time for a very long time. Leaving was somewhat stressful, but not so bad. We had to go through the usual unsavoury business of proving to our airline that despite not having a return ticket to fly home, we wouldn’t be taking up residence in Panama. Some airlines get really fussy about this. So we had to parade all of our boat documents, receipts, and other paperwork proving we did in fact have a yacht there before a cranky airline attendant who had just been in a very serious argument with a German woman about a bag that was 2 lbs overweight. Great, the stickler. She actually had the gall to tell the German woman that the bag weight was important due to the safety of the bag handlers who were used to 50lbs all day and if something was 52lbs they might throw out their back. This is despite the fact that travellers regularly pay overweight fees and have bags heavier than 50lbs. Is she stupid? Does she think we’re stupid? Is this the airline’s word? I don’t know, but I can tell you that while you’re in the US airports, you’d better walk a straight line and dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s. Otherwise, brother, you’re in trouble.

So we prove we’re not heading to Panama permanently. Then come the bags.

We’d measure the weight of all of them except our bag with two sails in it. I dutifully hoist each one onto the scale and it just so happened that each one was heavier than the one before. 42lbs, 44lbs, 44lbs, 45lbs, 46.5lbs, 47lbs. Finally the sail bag. I gulped. It measured a fortuitous 49.5lbs. A half pound under the max weight. I can tell you that I was glad to be past “the stickler”. We made it through the TSA without being probed, prodded, or strip searched, though I feel that we were close because I managed to leave a BIC lighter in one of my bags. I somehow slipped through undetected, like a smooth criminal.

The flights were uneventful with the exception of a disturbing rust stain over the top of one of the jets we flew in.

Panama was what we expected. We went to Immigration and they asked why I hadn’t put an address on my customs declaration card. I said because we live on a boat in the islands. STAMP. Moved onto customs. Same question and answer then they made us put all of our bags through a huge conveyor belt machine which as far as I can tell does absolutely nothing. I surmise this only because we had every imaginable container, device, piece of hardware, and even pounds of pipe tobacco in there, all of which probably look suspicious. Also you can only bring 2k dollars worth of goods into Panama without being taxed and we had 7 x 50lb bags. However, all of these facts were blissfully overlooked and we passed out of the lines and into the humid and hot air of Panama.

Then we met our driver and provisioner, Emilio. He bought about 1000 dollars worth of parts and groceries for us before we arrived and transported us back to Panamarina where Sundowner slumbered.

This is no small feat. We had our 7 huge bags, he had 5 batteries of approx 80lbs each, and a lot of groceries and supplies. But somehow we packed it all into his Ford Explorer and safely made it to the marina. I estimate that the vehicle had no less than a half ton of gear in it. Once at Panamarina…

We knew we couldn’t sleep on the boat right away. The heat is too much and without batteries in operational condition, it would have been misery. There is also the not so minor issue of working where you’re living. A bad combination. So we rented a room for 25 dollars a night and “moved in”. It has made a world of difference in comfort despite the lavish expense. It is the FIRST time we’ve paid to stay somewhere in over a year. Yikes. I guess if you’re going to break a streak you’d better have a good reason to do so.

And finally, there was that moment where we saw Sundowner for the first time in months.

The first time we climbed aboard. And the first time we opened the main companionway hatch to discover what was waiting inside. But maybe we can go over that next time.

You can check out Emilio Lau for provisioning services here:
EMILIO LAU Professional Ship Suppliers
email: Emilio at
phone: +50766167531

Enjoy these beautiful sights from our 100km drive across the country of Panama from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

Also of course we have made our first new video in our sailing series. It took us 48 hours to finally upload and cost about $30 due to issues with cell providers way out here including a tree that fell across a critical line during our upload. Dani also (poor thing is sick too) had her final video edit deleted when she got online with the video editor open causing her to basically have to remake the video. But we have it out and we enjoy watching it, we hope you will enjoy it too. Hopefully future uploads will go smoother. Next post will be about boat work…in paradise.

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Back to the boat in 5 DAYS!

Tate and I are flying back to Panama on November 2nd, next Wednesday, only 5 DAYS AWAY. Holy Smokes have we been busy. Once things get settled down in Panama we’ll update the blog more on what it took to get here but for now chew on these sounds bites:

We sold the RV, motorcycle and all extras for pretty much what we paid for it minus a couple thousand. Tate goes into the cost a bit more in our last video, which we have just finished making see below:

Sundowner has been moved from the storage yard to the boat yard already and we are getting them to sand the bottom ($30 a day!). We’ll inspect and buy paint after we arrive.

November 2nd is actually the Day of the Dead and everything will be shut down once we arrive…

Back here on land we been visiting with family and buying all kinds of things including ALL NEW CAMERA/COMPUTER GEAR (thanks PATRONS!) and we plan to start shooting our travel Vlogs in 60 fps.

I have been working on a side video project for my sister Frances and her husband Jason which is a travel vlog series for their trip to Ireland. These are more home movie type productions so please be kind. I was SOO happy to be able to get some of these videos out before we leave because I won’t have the bandwidth down in the tropics. If you want to see Ireland through the eyes of a funny mid 30’s couple check out their videos on my personal You Tube page here in this playlist.

I can’t believe we are about to leave land again. We have a little bit of boat work in the yard before splashing. Stay Tuned!

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Spending August at 8500 feet


No tags :(

Our cabin owner friends rented a raft and took us 12 miles down the Snake River in Wyoming. The scenery was breathtaking and it was great to relax for a few hours watching the mountains slowly pass by. Afterwards we cooked up some Delicious Jambalaya before saying goodbye to our now dear friends…Hopefully we’ll see them again soon, in Panama.

We soon expired our time camped on free Shadow Mountain and after 16 days camped there we headed a bit further south looking for another free campsite in a different National Forest. Unfortunately the aftermath of recent forest fires filled up our prospective camp sites with emergency personnel so we had to keep on driving, all the way to Utah. We had wanted to stay as far north as possible to soak up the cooler temperatures but as luck would have it we found a nice campsite 300 miles south in Duck Creek Utah which forecasted mild temps in the 70s and 40s. At 8,500 feet it escaped the heat of the land below.

This campsite also happened to be 40 miles from both Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks! Antelope roamed free and I enjoyed the flat, albeit high altitude jogging and biking.

Check it out!
Tate and Dani

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