When Rick and Linda Lacy Clayton decided four years ago to retire on a sailboat, they didn’t do it with the intention of becoming environmentalists. But what they’ve learned since is that their very survival — and their finances — depend on their ability to sustain themselves with minimal fuel, power, and water.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with the Claytons to learn how the experience of living on their sailboat, Sojourner, has changed their daily habits and taught them to keep a small (wet) footprint. The Claytons hail from Dallas, Texas, where Rick retired as a policeman, then spent eight years as a truck driver, and Linda retired from a career in marketing. This is part one of a two-part conversation. — Julia Wasson and Joe Hennager
BPGL: What a life you have! How did you decide to live on a sailboat?
RICK: We both had some experience sailing. The first vacation after we got married, we chartered a sailboat down in the British Virgin Islands for a week — the two of us on a 35-foot boat. Of course, I knew I was going to love it. On the way back, Linda said, “How soon can we sell everything, buy a boat, and take off?”
That was music to my ears. We were both in our 50s, and love doesn’t always come that great that late in life. So we sold our house and sold our cars and had a big garage sale. We just took off from Galveston where we had the boat and began cruising in December of that year. We live on the boat full time and anchor in various places just about every night.
BPGL: Did you think about trying to reduce your carbon footprint by selling your house and cars and living on a sailboat?
RICK: We did this just to enjoy life and have fun. Leaving a small footprint is kind of the result or the by-product of our lives; it wasn’t really the motivation for what we’re doing. But we know that cruisers out here make a much smaller footprint on the environment than people who have homes and cars and jobs.
Putting the Sun and Wind to Work
BPGL: How do you power your lights, your laptop, and so on when you’re at sea?
RICK: We have both a solar panel and a wind generator to charge our batteries. The boat is a 12-volt system, like the current in a car, so we have to constantly keep our batteries filled. If we can do that by wind and solar, we don’t have to run our engine to produce the electricity.
If there is no wind, or we have real cloudy skies, and we’re dead in the water for a couple days, we have a small, gasoline-powered Honda generator, which uses about a quart of gasoline an hour. While that’s running for a few hours, we can heat our water and recharge our batteries. We use the bare minimum of fuel. We actually use less fuel than the average person who is just riding to work and back. We try to use as little fossil fuel as we can, just because it costs money.
BPGL: What kind of wind generator do you use?
RICK: The brand name of our wind generator is AirX Marine. Three years ago, when we did some research and bought the unit, that seemed to have one of the highest outputs. With 15 knots of steady wind, we get 3 amps per hour in our batteries. The wind blows quite a bit in the Bahamas. As the Trade Winds pick up late in the season, they keep our batteries at a level that we don’t have to run our engine.
BPGL: What about your solar panels?
RICK: Our solar panel is called a Sunsei. It’s a 100-Watt solar panel. On a sunny day, we get about 3 amps per hour. When we have no clouds and 20 knots of wind blowing, we have a nice input of amps into the battery, and it compensates for what we use on the boat on a daily basis.
BPGL: How do you store fresh foods on Sojourner?
RICK: We have what’s called an Adler Barber refrigeration system, which is our refrigerator freezer. And while it’s fairly small, in comparison to a standard household refrigerator-freezer, we can store a couple of weeks’ worth of meat in the freezer and a week full of fresh vegetables and milk and things in the refrigerator. The nice thing is it runs on a 12-volt system.
Some sailboats have a refrigeration system that runs on a household current — 110 volts. And that type of a refrigeration system would need a generator, which would mean you’re running a generator to cool your food; you’re using more fossil fuel than a 12-volt system that can cool your refrigeration needs with the battery.
The whole concept of this is just keeping the batteries charged. We have about 500 amp hours in the three batteries we have, and we use probably anywhere between 70 and 90 amps per day.
BPGL: So you have to keep regenerating.
RICK: Yes. It’s a continual process, and of course the refrigeration runs about 5 amps per hour. It cycles on and off, about half the time. It’s running about 12 hours a day. You’re looking at 60 amps just in keeping our food fresh and cold. And we need to keep our water frozen for those ice cubes for the sundowners. [He laughs.]
BPGL: Do you also have a TV and other electrical draws?
RICK: Yes. As far as a TV and VCR, we have a 12-volt TV that has a built-in DVD player. The entire unit is 12 volts. We can turn the TV on and watch a DVD, and it will only use a little over 1 amp per hour.
And we have an inverter, which converts battery power to 110-volt household current. But the only time we run the inverter is to charge our small appliances. We have everything hooked up in the boat’s electrical system and plugged in. I charge my electric shaver. We have a little rechargeable dust buster. We have a laptop computer. They all stay plugged in, so anytime we turn the inverter on, everything gets charged at once.
We run the inverter for maybe an hour or two every day. It might draw a few amps out of the batteries, but it keeps all of our 110-volt necessities charged. Those sorts of things take very little amp draw. Lights and fans take very little amp draw. And, when we’re done using a light, we turn it off.
The only real draw we have overnight is that we have an anchor light that’s required by Coast Guard regulations. Our anchor light is at the top of the mast, and it uses about 8 hours overnight at about 1 amp per hour. We run it in the dark 8 or 10 hours.
BPGL: So no big boat runs over you.
RICK: Yeah. We want to be seen out there! If we’re in a crowded anchorage, everyone has an anchor light on, so we feel a little safer. But if we’re out there by ourselves, we want to make sure that somebody sees us.
BPGL: You’re using renewable energy, like everybody should be doing here on dry land.
RICK: If people went to wind and solar, even personally, it would help the environment and reduce the use of fossil fuel. But it’s still an industry that’s in an expensive stage. There’s a company, Ferris, that makes wind and solar products for boats and homes. You look at our wind generator. It was over $1,000 for that unit. The solar panels were about $900. And that’s just to put a few amps in. So, if you were going to power a full-size house, with full-size needs, with wind and solar, buying the small product that I bought for the boat would not be cost-effective.
RICK: We do also have a small Honda generator on the boat. It’s portable and has a one-gallon fuel tank. You can run it for five hours. It takes about a fifth of a gallon per hour in gasoline. That is one thing that supplements us. When we do that, we don’t have to run our boat’s main engine to produce power. The main engine does consume about three-quarters of a gallon per hour. It’s a diesel engine.
Even though we have sails, all sailboats have a small auxiliary engine to supplement their speed or to propel them when there’s no wind. In fact, we’re very careful about running that, and we don’t run it unless we’re moving. We don’t run that just to charge our batteries, because it is more costly. If I’m going to wear an engine out by running it, I’m going to wear out an $800 engine rather than a $50,000 engine.
LINDA: Are you interested in how much fuel consumption we’ve used?
LINDA: I always keep a running tally so I know from one year to the next what we’re doing and keep up with our budget. From December ’08 to November ’09, for gas (the only thing we use gas for is our Honda generator and our dinghy), diesel (the engine on our big boat is a diesel), and propane (we cook with propane on our stove and oven, and we also have a propane grill) — all of those items, all of our gas, diesel, and propane use — averaged out $28 per week.
BPGL: What is the price of diesel at a dock?
RICK: Actually, the diesel costs are more expensive in Florida, because Florida has a state sales tax of an additional 7 cents per gallon on diesel. But even with that, we have a 36-gallon fuel tank in our sailboat, which is about the size of an SUV, a large Expedition or a large Escalade. We’re going to spend probably $3 per gallon for diesel most places.
We’ll spend $120 to fill the tank, but when you think about it, somebody will burn through a tank of diesel going to work in less than a week. A tank of diesel lasts us a month to sometimes two months, because we sail, and we may come into anchorage and sit for two or three days.
The cost per diesel might be a little more, because the marinas will charge you more than you pay on the highway. A marina is considered a resort facility, and you always pay more in a resort. But we probably use $1 a day for fuel, where most people would probably use several dollars a day for fuel in their lifestyle.
Of course, that doesn’t even count the money that they’re spending on their electric bill, their water bill, their gas bill. We spend well less than $2,000 a year for our entire energy costs and transportation and everything. That’s where the advantage comes in environmentally for a sailing lifestyle versus having a home, two cars, maybe even jobs you’ve got to transport yourself to everyday. We’re fortunate that we’re able to go where the wind goes.
BPGL: What do you do for a toilet and shower on the boat? Do you use fresh water?
LINDA: Our particular toilet system operates with seawater. We have a holding tank, and there are places to pump out the waste. Our shower is about 2 foot by 2 foot. It’s a gymnastics endeavor just to take a shower. [She laughs.]
RICK: We have solar shower bags, like campers have. We can fill them with three to four gallons of fresh water, seal it up, and the sun heats it. A shower bag is clear plastic on one side and black on the other side. You lay it clear side up, and it’ll heat your water to gosh-darn hot.
We take the bag and hang it up on the boom and run the nozzle down into the head — the bathroom — and gravity feeds us the hot water. After we get wet, we stop the water supply and lather up. Then we turn the water back on and rinse off.
On a sailboat, you never really stand under running water, because running water is such a precious commodity. It’s like your lights: You turn them off when you’re done using them. We use about a gallon and a half, maybe two gallons at the most when we shower.
BPGL: Do you capture rainwater?
RICK: After we’ve had an inch or so of rain, when the decks are all clean, and the salt film has been washed off, we’ll open the scuppers, which are the fill holes for our water tanks. We lay a clean towel across the deck like a little dam, so water will run down in the water tanks, but won’t run past the towel. We collect rainwater for fresh water every chance we get.
BPGL: Do you use the same water for drinking water?
LINDA: We have a PUR water filter. And we filter all the water through that before we drink with it or cook with it. We’ve always felt like the water’s safe. Also, because we do have these tanks, we will put a tiny bit of chlorine every once in a while, in each one of our three water tanks, to kill whatever’s in there.
RICK: Everything that is pumped out of our tanks is pumped through a water pressure pump from the sink. Our boat capacity for water is about 100 gallons. And we have about a 20-gallon water heater on the boat. We also have four 5-gallon jerry cans that we keep lashed down on deck. If the boat runs out of water, I can put the jerry cans in the dinghy, then dinghy ashore and get 20 gallons of water. Our water consumption averages about 7 gallons a day, and that’s fairly consistent. That includes showers, cleaning, cooking, everything — just 6 to 7 gallons per day for the two of us.
BPGL: How much can you use seawater? Can you capture and filter out the salt?
LINDA: Once we get to the Bahamas, primarily what they have there is a reverse osmosis system. Typically, when we get hot water in the Bahamas, that’s what we’re using. Many cruisers do have a saline conversion system on their boats. The larger ones, those that are 40 feet and up, have what’s called Water Makers. We do not. It takes up quite a bit of space, and we’re a smaller boat compared to the ones that typically have it.
A Real Sense of Community
BPGL: I’m amazed at your boldness in completely changing your lifestyle and leaving everything and everybody behind.
RICK: One thing we learned after we began was the real sense of community with other cruisers. There’s a whole community of people out here that are doing the same thing because they enjoy sailing and traveling. This is a level of travel we would not be able to afford if we lived on land and had to buy plane tickets and rent cars. We would definitely be back in Texas.
BPGL: Don’t take this wrong, but you probably don’t want a lot of people to learn how inexpensive it is to do this, or everybody will be doing it.
RICK: Quite the contrary. We always enjoy the company. Besides, there are some drawbacks to this that would keep a lot of people who want to save money from doing it. The lifestyle is more primitive than all the modern conveniences of the 21st century.
I’ve often likened it to living in a home in the 1950s in Middle America. You don’t have a dishwasher. You don’t have a garbage disposal. You don’t have a washer and drier. Sometimes you don’t have cellular telephone service. There are $20,000 boats, and there are $2 million boats with all the conveniences of the 21st century. Everybody manages to find a lifestyle and a level of convenience that they can live with within their budget.
End of part one.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
Part 1: Small Footprints – Cruising with the Claytons (Top of Page)