This geek adventure platform is a bit different from those of my earlier (and more athletic) technomadic years. I spent over two decades with three versions of a computerized recumbent bicycle, toured on various kayaks, built an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran, and moved up to an outlandish 3-ton rocketship of a tri… but I now find myself piloting an 18-ton steel pilothouse cutter with 60-foot bridge clearance and a 77-horse turbo diesel auxiliary. Sheesh. I do have a tendency to go for extremes, I know, but even this is a bit off the charts for one who has always been a multihuller and human-power purist.
Only recently have I been able to imagine myself at the helm of what I would have once dismissed as a lead mine. Stopping this baby in tight quarters takes finesse at the helm or some Dock Angels quick on the cleats, and it’s a far cry from my relatively lightweight Corsair 36. I could hop off an ama with bow and stern lines in hand, lead her obediently to the desired spot, and bring her to a stop with ease… and the sleek human-powered Microship that preceded that was based on a kevlar canoe, an order of magnitude lighter still. But piloting “36 thousand pounds of angry steel” (as I grimly quipped while trying to park in the raging Swinomish without involving insurance companies) is another matter entirely.
Crazy it may be, but it was a solo venture to Desolation Sound in the Corsair that launched me in this direction. Fast, geeky, and sexy, she was a real head-turner… very much in the spirit of the preceding decade of development work here at Nomadic Research Labs (so much so that she was nicknamed Microship on Steroids). But practical for an extended expedition, or a full-time survival platform? Absolutely not.
Unwilling to go quietly to the dark side, I turned my attention for a while to catamarans… but never found one that was at once affordable and aesthetically appealing to me while also providing adequate headroom for the 6’4″ body that I should have gotten bonzai’d as a teen. (Even the monohulls that I began to consider presented problems in that department, although one honesty-impaired Seattle broker tried to convince me that insufficient headroom is a good thing: by using my head and neck muscles to brace in a seaway, hey, I could have both hands free!)
Once I thought it through, the eventual selection criteria for my escape pod were surprisingly clear: quality construction, less-than-absurd draft, a stout steel hull, excellent serviceability, pilothouse, survival tools like a watermaker and solar panels, room to add extensive geekery without having to destroy a work of art, and the ineffable rightness that ya just know when ya see it. After much research, I found the Amazon 44.
So… welcome aboard! Let me give you a look around…
Nomadness is a 44-foot steel raised-salon pilothouse cutter built in 1987 to the Grahame Shannon “Amazon 44″ design by Dieter Pollack of SP Metalcraft of Vancouver, BC. She had a major refit in 2002, and has covered both coasts of North America including a couple transits of the Panama Canal. I believe I am the third owner.
Steel boats cover a very wide range, and to some extent have gotten a bad rap since so many are homebuilt… with a corresponding uncertainty about the quality of materials, welds, and coatings. Even insurance companies are somewhat wary of them, and I had a thorough survey. The plating thickness is .2″ with very stout structure and deck backing, and the foamed insulation stops properly at the waterline. (Foam all the way to the bilge is deadly as it can trap moisture.)
Nomadness was built in a real shipyard, and has been well-maintained with robust coating systems above and below waterline, along with careful attention to galvanic action. The rig, blessed by Brion Toss, includes a Hood in-mast furler that allows all sailing operations to be handled from the cockpit… with massive Barient 35 winches for the furling headsail. She’s actually cutter-rigged, though the inner forestay is currently stowed along with the corresponding jib.
Ground tackle includes a Lighthouse windlass, 300 feet of chain, and a 65-pound Bruce claw anchor… a nice combination that has only failed me once (I also carry a smaller stern anchor as well as a backup). During the 621-mile shakedown in the late summer of 2008, we anchored in a wide variety of settings, rafted a couple of times, picked up a few mooring buoys, and poked our way into a dozen or so marinas. The latter was the hardest, which brings me to one of the very few things I don’t like about the boat.
See that huge gap between the prop (at the trailing edge of the keel) and the skeg-hung rudder? It’s over 12 feet, and that translates into zero “prop walk,” something most boats use to kick the stern sideways when in reverse. This means I need significant steerageway before the helm responds.
Backing and close maneuvering in any significant wind or current are, to put it mildly, tricky. I’ve learned not to enter a tight space unless I am certain that there is room to turn around and head back out, and the inability to bring the bow to wind at low speed has almost gotten me in trouble a few times. Lots of dockside conversations about this with other sailors have revealed that this behavior is not uncommon, but I had been spoiled by the ease with which my trimaran could cruise in reverse or turn in little more than her own length (though she would occasionally dance around in a most disconcerting fashion when swinging at anchor). Old salts assure me that it’s just a learning curve, but I dunno… I’m designing a deployable Redneck Bow Thruster that should do the job for a lot less than the $13,000 the boatyards quote to install a Lewmar tunnel thruster!
She has a pilothouse, which is a wonderful thing, allowing control from inside when the weather is unpleasant. This one is a compromise; the design is sleek and sexy, but visibility through those low and sharply angled forward windows is not always as clear as I would like. With radar and the upcoming suite of video cameras, though, I suspect that will become less of a concern… and when things are tricky, like picking my way through a sea of fishing floats, I can just saunter to the bow with the Bluetooth wireless remote for the autopilot.
Still, the default operating position is the helm back there at the stern, and the big change back there is a 420-watt solar array that interfaces with the stout radar arch. This adds solar and antenna mounting space, increases the sense of security, and provides weather protection for the helmsman… not to mention providing a major power source for the Outback charging system when off-dock.
The aft cockpit, like everything on a boat, is a trade-off. The well introduces serious head-bangers in the aft cabin (sleeping quarters only… gymnastics are out of the question), and for some reason there is very little exterior stowage space on this boat… just a tiny lazarette under the aft seat at the helm. A custom deck box will probably be added on the foredeck (impacting visibility from below, but in practice that’s already hampered by mast, kayak, and other gear). The later addition of a hard dodger will have the compensating effect of an “upstairs” pilothouse, increasing stowage and living space dramatically.
The arch is a key structure, and carries the dinghy that hangs from the davits whilst underway.
That dink is a Gig Harbor Navigator with forward-facing rowing system, a surprisingly capable sail rig, and a pair of Dinghy Dogs to provide flotation when most needed… and she is quite a delightful little sprite. I also carry a Hobie i12s inflatable pedal-kayak, but as any cruiser will tell you, the dinghy quickly becomes the “family car.” Most folks have a motor affixed to the transom for added practicality, and I have little 2.5 horse rig… but really, rowing is less hassle and I hardly ever use the outboard. (NOTE: in the photo above, I have the Dinghy Dogs installed upside-down… please don’t copy this! I need a good photo with proper installation.)
Let’s duck through the companionway and go below for a quick look. When I was first boat-shopping, I was more obsessed with accommodations than such details as length overall or even the type of rig, since a primary criterion was room for a proper lab. This had me looking mostly at 50-footers and up (even one monstrous Rhodes 65), but fortunately I came to my senses before buying something that would have been a maneuvering nightmare. With the “raised salon pilothouse” design, Nomadness actually crams quite a bit of useful geekspace into a modest 44 feet, while giving a sense of generous open space below.
I should mention a fundamental trade-off in interior design. Some boats have custom joinery that’s so freakin’ beautiful that the thought of tearing into it to make modifications is completely intimidating… like taking a Sawzall to a fine piece of antique furniture in order to convert it into a cabinet for a PC. At the other end of the spectrum is plain fiberglass with plastic doors and RV-scale fixtures; hacking into that is almost a pleasure because anything would be an improvement. I wanted something in between.
Nomadness is closer to the former, with her teak-holly sole and beautiful finish work… but much of the structure is beefy marine plywood. This makes additions relatively easy, even though I’m starting out with something that is quite lovely already. Here’s the original inside steering station and DC power panel, with Furuno Radar in between:
Actually, there’s a lot that is changing there… an instrument cluster at the upper left where that lone GPS is mounted, providing AIS and a window into the NMEA 2000 network including a Simrad autopilot… the old Robertson Autopilot that dominates the panel is being replaced by a sunlight-readable LCD for the nav Mac… and the power panel is being completely re-done with Blue Sea and Outback hardware. But this photo gives an idea of the interior finish work. The current state of the consoles is documented (with photos) on its own page.
I should back up a little. When you come down the companionway steps, you land in a big open space that combines piloting, engine room access, power management, nav station, and galley to port. Behind you through a door to starboard is the large but low sleeping cabin called the Cave; forward and down three steps is a hallway with dinette and entertainment area (along with a shower cabin and washer/dryer); further forward still is a classic V-berth cabin with its own head compartment. Here’s the wide-angle view upon entering the boat (this photo was taken by the listing agent before I came along):
The galley is immediately out of frame to the left, and in addition to that marginally adequate power hog of a DC refrigerator, there is a powerful AC cold-plate system with a top-loading fridge under the counter and a top-loading deep freeze under the chart table. It works so well that in the 2.5-month 2008 shakedown cruise, we had no trouble keeping staples like Haagen-Dasz, bagged ice, and frozen fish in stock. I have since added a stainless Breville espresso machine to the counter wing.
The “navigation station” forward of the galley came with some vintage electronics, including B&G Network wind and depth display, an ancient Furuno sounder, another GPS, and an Icom marine VHF radio. That area is becoming the Internet alcove, with the ship’s server and all the networking hardware… with the Zone of Hackage located under the hinged nav-station desktop.
The original salon forward is becoming the lab and studio… with a desk that carries wrap-around rackmount consoles including a communications bay packed with radio gear, audio production tools, test equipment, and more. A full-size digital piano pulls out from under the desk, and the area across the hall is a standing workbench with good lighting and power tools. Here is the new desktop and integrated tool cabinet, before rack installation:
In the power domain, all management is handled by networked Outback gear, including a solar charge controller and system monitor display. The battery bank (690 amp-hours plus dedicated start batteries for both engines) is under the floor below the pilothouse table, and the two Yanmar diesels (77-horse turbo for propulsion via 3-blade Max-Prop, and a 3-cylinder 7.5 kW generator) are below the sole on centerline. I would prefer a real walk-in engine room for easier access… but those are a bit rare on boats this size. And I’ve made service more difficult by adding a Little Cod wood stove off the end of the galley counter:
One of the things I am learning here is that living on a boat is an exercise in contortionism… a challenge for my bad back. Working on the engine is now incrementally more awkward, but it’s worth it… that cute little stove is a real powerhouse with 28,000 BTU capacity and the ability to serve as an auxiliary cooktop.
Indeed, comfort is a huge issue here. Gizmological urges aside, the ability to relax and feel cozy is of central importance when it’s cold and blustery outside… or even when you have just finished a hard sailing day and want to kick back and nurse a drink. This boat is a little marginal in that department, with lots of rather hard surfaces and stiff cushions. I’m making adjustments where I can.
Most of the control surfaces in the pilothouse are getting increasingly geeky, and systems, sensors, and video cameras are finding their way into almost every corner. There will, however, be a blinky-free zone in the forepeak… which has become known as the PENFA Suite. We were chatting with fellow owners of an Amazon 44 (rare birds, as I think only 9 were built), and strayed to the topic of maintaining relationship sanity in such a small space. “The pointy end’s not far away,” quoth Cindy in reference to the challenge of getting far enough apart on occasion, unwittingly generating an acronymic moniker for the Nomadness forward cabin.
There’s a lot more to talk about, but at this point the introductory tour ventures into rigging details, tankage, electronics, and other technical matters… I’ll save those for other articles in this series as well as the Nomadness Report. The bottom line is that she is a very solid and reliable substrate for the technomadic adventure tools, and performed well during the 621-mile shakedown adventure shown in this detailed map derived from the GPS datalogger and Google Earth. The next phase is system integration… then the real journey begins.
Cheers and fair winds from Nomadness…