off the grid
- why live off grid
- rain catchment
- no refrigeration
- data storage
why live off grid
People choose to live off-grid for self-sufficience, resilience, or ecological reasons. For us, to live off-grid, is most of all letting go of the numbing culture of convenience. When anchored in a foreign country, far from everything and everyone, you depend on your own self, your vessel and what's on it. When something breaks, it falls onto you to fix it. Electricity becomes a finite resource, limited to the amount of solar panels on deck, and to the size of your battery bank.
This way of life is not necessarily restrictive, you might find that learning to live in communion with your vessel offers a peace of mind previously unimaginable.
Maslow's pyramid of needs positions as most basic, or most crucial, physiological needs, like water, food, warmth and rest, followed closely with security and safety. Meeting these basic needs, while living aboard a sailboat, takes but some planning and time.
Aiming to reduce our footprint, by learning to live according to the sun and the wind has been an excellent exercise toward mindfulness, something we much needed to better navigate today's attention economy.
It's easy to forget that water is not inexhaustible when it flows so readily by the turn of the tap. Living on a boat certainly helps to develop a deeper connection to this precious resource. Depending on where you are, you'll have to treat it, catch it, carry it or pay for it.
Basic needs are covered with a mere 10 liters of water a day per person. A person needs between 2.7 and 3.7 liters of drinking water each day. When anchored near a port, once a week, we would ferry four bins of 10 liters from shore to the boat. To conserve water, our sink faucet is operated with a foot pump, where each push draws out 60 ml of water, allowing us to measure our usage.
On passages, we carry extra Jerrycans of water, enough to sustain two people for a few more weeks than the length of our trip. Having separate bins makes for a more resilient system, if salt gets into one tank, it won't corrupt the entirety of your supplies. A sure way of preventing contamination, is to check all o-rings and tanks for leaks before leaving. We chose not to have a desalinator aboard Pino, and have managed well without it. It's a device that is expensive, high maintenance and power-hungry.
Rain catchment is a good way to top-up your tanks. Some sailors set up tarps to catch and lead the water into Jerrycans, others have the water flow directly into their main tank — I don't recommend doing that unless you've got a good filtration system. When it rained, we'd collect water trickling down from our aft solar panels into a 20 liter bucket. We collected this extra water for showers, laundry and washing dishes.
While the rain itself might be safe to drink, it carries dirt or whatever may be on your tarp, or deck. And depending on where you are, the rain may have environmental pollutants mixed in. For these reasons, I recommend using rainwater for purposes other than drinking and cooking. If you are to drink it, it's important to boil it first for at least 1 minute, or to run it through a good two-step filtration system.
Even if you don't plan on drinking it, it's a good idea to treat the water you catch. The easiest way to do this is to add chlorine bleach to your supply. This is something we've done, and continue to do. The suggested ratio of chlorine to water is 2 drops bleach for 1.15 liters (1 quart). The above ratios are for bleach containing 5.25% Sodium Hypochlorite. This amount depends on the concentration, the ratios will be different for 5.25% than for 8% chlorine bleach (1 drop: 1.15 l). Only use regular, unscented chlorine bleach products that are suitable for disinfection and sanitization, as indicated on the label. A good way to remember these ratios, is this saying:
“You must be 21 to drink”.
2 drops bleach per 1 liter (quart) water, easy to remember. Note that 1 quart is slightly less than 1 liter.
Coastal locations like marinas and public beaches often have fresh water showers for local swimmers or marina guests. Usually free, or available for use at a nominal fee (1-2$ for 5 minutes).
We use a pressurized sprayer as a shower, it uses little water and can be found in most hardware stores. We don't use soap.
When water is scarce, we bathe in salt water, and rinse with fresh water.
To know how many solar panels we needed, we made a list of our indispensable electric systems and their energy requirements, that included lighting, appliances, laptops and more. We looked up their power usage in watts, for example, my Macbook Pro draws 60w, if I were to use it for 6h, it would draw roughly 360w a day. Adding up the wattage gave us a rough estimate of our daily use.
Of course, the energy coming from solar panels fluctuate based on the angle of the sun, the cloud coverage and other obstructions. Our own power usage aboard can also vary a lot from day to day, depending on what we choose to do that day. While on passages, our capability to capture sunlight is reduced to keep our windage low, but our energy consumption is equally reduced for not much else is drawing power than our navigation electronics like the AIS, the wind meter, and at night, the lights.
An anchored board will orbit its anchor according to the wind, and rarely stays in the same spot and so it is difficult to position panels to guarantee an optimal draw. We've had many cloudless days with the mast casting a shadow covering a large part of our panels. On moments such as this, or cloudy days, we adapt by using our appliances less. We live according to the weather.
Instead of scaling our battery banks to our needs, we chose to adapt our needs to the available space for batteries and surface for panels. It's also important to consider that more solar panels often mean more windage.Having a complex system exposed to a harsh environment like the sea, creates opportunities for things to break. Saltwater corrosion is a very real threat. Nowadays, many electronics, or 'smart' systems, use proprietary parts, making them difficult to repair. We've encountered many boats, stuck in port for weeks and weeks, waiting for parts to arrive. An over-reliance on convenience products may bind you to services on land, in a way that you may not want.
Aboard Pino, we carry a small portable generator as a backup to our solar. Our Honda’s 1,000-watt generator is compact, fuel-efficient, lightweight, and can run for 7.1 hours on 2.7 liters (0.6 gal) of gas. We also have our engine's alternator, which we use to charge up batteries. We consider these options as backups, as redundancy to our main source of power, solar.
While modern grocery stores can be found in larger cities, these can often be far apart. In smaller towns, fresh vegetable and fruit markets are seldom open everyday, most only once a week. We picked up the habit of buying food in large quantities. We stock many types of whole grains (buckwheat, whole wheat, cornmeal, oats). Different grains offer different nutritional profile, and meal options.
Canned, dried or shelf-stable foods are a good alternative to refrigeration. Choosing canned foods is something worth experimenting with. Buy an assortment, find ones which suit your tastes. We usually look for unsalted ones, without corn syrup.
Our favourite canned vegetables are mushrooms, mixed beans and tomatoes. Our favourite dry foods are nori, oats and cornmeal. Our favourite shelf-stable foods are tetrapak tofu, spicy sauces and various japanese condiments.
We buy flour in bulk, and keep it separate jars (each accommodating a 2 kg bag). Keeping some types of flour separate helps to avoid problems, like weevils. If one batch is contaminated, the other might be fine.
Most city-centers will have a hospital, ones out in the islands - south pacific for instance- tend to be good and cheap, but in most cases you must be self-sufficient. That includes a well-stocked medical supply and the know-how to fix yourself up. We carry a general assortment of plasters/band-Aids, non-stick dressings, bandages, adhesive tape, non-latex gloves, alcohol-free moist wipes, scissors, safety pins, tweezers, painkillers, antihistamines, seasickness meds etc
In case of a serious injury, you must have the means to get yourself to the nearest clinic. We use DAN Boater, a repatriation insurance that covers helicopter/transportation fees.
We find that medical apps for mobiles, and FM armyfield manuals, are helpful when dealing with minor burns, cuts and various aches.
While books are great they take up a lot of space, are prone to mold, and in warm countries, they ultimately attract insects. To protect them from moisture, we have resorted to keeping them in ziplock bags. In cold weather, if your boat is kept warm and is well-ventilated you won't have to worry.
Amongst sailors, and likely other types of nomads, books and movies are a trading currency. Social hubs will often have bookshelves inviting you to take and leave a book. We have found countless gems in those.
Most of our books now, are on our Kindle Paperwhite, which takes little battery and allows us to read at night.
Internet access is the woe of any working nomad. Internet is sometimes spotty, and data in some countries is slow, expensive, or limited to small blocks at a time. While circumnavigating the Pacific, we amassed sim cards, pocket WiFis, and have often used connections from businesses on land. Overtime, we found ways to lessen our dependence on internet, and to save on bandwidth.
When we have a reliable internet connection, we gather copies of all the online material we will need. We keep offline versions of entire websites, writing guides, articles and even whole sections of Wikipedia. If we find ourselves without a connection, we can still solve our problems by using our offline mirrors.
To reduce your bandwidth usage and battery drainage, install NoScript, and uBlock on your browser; or use a text-only browser like Lynx.
We research our destinations ahead of time to make sure we'll have a reliable connection when we need it. This means we'll be spending less time in secluded areas, and more time in city centers near a cell tower or WIFI signal. With some planning it is possible to have both paradise and connectivity, we found such a place in Huahine in French Polynesia, and again in Fiji. Internet access will only get better as far-flung island nations gain purchasing power.
We try - as much as possible - to send periodical location updates to our families - we use a satellite phone operating on the Iridium satellites network to do that. The Iridium Go satellite phone costs around about 100US$/month and allows us to keep in touch with our friends and families via SMS & emails, from anywhere in the world - even the middle of the ocean.
Since connectivity can be rare, and far apart, the time that we do have online is spent wisely. Uploading backups, responding to requests from users, updating our friends and families with our new location.
Some countries require visas in advance, most do not, this also depends on your nationality. The visas are generally free, unless you require an extension for your stay. Upon entry into a new country, you may need to pay the immigration, customs, health and quarantine officers.
Upon leaving, a departure tax and varying amounts based on the size and weight of your vessel might also need to be paid. These fees can sometimes total up to 200US$. We find Noonsite to be a good up-to-date ressource for country-specific information on fees.
Not all places have ATMs, but always have a bank nearby that will take a VISA card. In the islands we prefer to pay in cash, a lot of places, like fresh food markets, don't accept credit anyway.
Better make sure that your credit card will not be blocked when used in foreign countries, and that it will expire at a location that will allow for you to receive a new one.
Provisioning can be expensive in certain countries, so stocking strategically with cheaper stores, ahead of time, can help to save money.
A rule is, if you're shopping and you see something you like at a good price, buy tons of it; chances are you won't be seeing it again on your next visit (turn-arounds are quick in some stores, and won't re-stock the same items necessarily).
Canning is essential when traveling on a budget, a pressure cooker and glass jars will save you money and will help reduce waste. Preparing your own stores, also means that you choose what goes in it, therefore reducing your intake of added salts and sugars.
For cooking, we carry two tanks of propane. Our main tank is 9 kg (20 lbs) and lasts us for up to 4 months, and our second smaller backup tank is 5 kg and ideal for when our main tank unexpectedly runs out.
Waste is always a tricky topic for boaters, because it's something you've got to deal with yourself. Keeping surrounding waters clean and free of contaminants is important. The primary environmental concern with sewage is not the urine, which is sterile, but feces which contain bacteria, pathogens, and nutrients, and should not go overboard. The septic tank may only be emptied, from at least, 3 miles from shore.
Pump-out stations will help you get rid of waste, but are only available near a handful of cities. Composting toilets might be a good option for those who do not want to haul anchor and head offshore to flush their tank. Having a composting head aboard frees up much-needed space. It also means no holding tank to empty, no smelly hoses to unclog, and little to no maintenance. You can build your own composting head or buy one of the many models on the market.
Most models have a urine diverter, separating the liquids from the solids to ensure contamination-free composting. Some models also have fans, to help the solids dry out and remove odors. In composting heads, urine accounts for ~85% of the waste volume in tanks. Having a diverter is great because it increases capacity for solids, which means not having to empty the tank as often. The ideal medium for processing your waste into compost depends on how you plan on using your toilet and vary between sawdust or peat moss. C-head wrote a very good article on the subject.
Disposing of the waste requires a bit of planning. If near a city, partnering with someone on land with composting facilities is ideal, but otherwise, bringing the solids to the trash in composting bags is the next best thing. When full, it's possible to empty jugs of urine into public toilets. If there are no facilities nearby, capping it off to dispose of later, and replacing the jug is a good option.
Being in good physical shape is important, wether you need to run, jump or lift something heavy without injuring yourself. Knowing how to tie solid knots is paramount, knowing how to tie a good bowline knot could save your life.
A good stainless-steel knife, a spindle of paracord, a phone-size ziplock bag, a waterproof flashlight and a good drinking bottle for fresh water will go a long way.
Following a plant-based diet while traveling is possible. Planning provisions ahead is important, a lot of the places may not have specialty items. Nutritional yeast, miso, dried legumes, quality wholegrain flour, flax seeds and B12 supplements, are especially hard to find.
Buying a large supply of shelf-stable tofu is always a good idea; it's a product that is high in protein and low in calories, that can be used to make sauces and sautees, while providing calcium (makes sure it has calcium sulfate or calcium chloride in the ingredients list). For iodine, carry iodized salt, or seaweed (wakame or nori). Other essentials, like omega 6 (LA, linoleic acid), can be found in pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds for instance, omega 3 (ALA, alpha-linoleic acid) can be found in linseed and chia seeds (about 1 tbsp a day).
Staples like nut milks and oats are found everywhere, varying in price and quality. There will always be fresh vegetables available, but the selection can be poor at times. Carrying cans and and dried version of those foods can help, for example: canned and dried potatoes. Canned spinach may not be appealing, but in a place where there are no leafy greens available, it's better than not having any at all. Canned is not ideal, because it has a lot of added ingredients like salt and sugar, but if you plan in advance you can buy brands that have little additives.
Eating frozen, can help in a bind, a lot of frozen vegetables don't lose their nutrients, like Brocoli for instance. Most places will carry frozen goods, and it's generally cheaper than buying the same item fresh. If like us, you lack a fridge, get a bag with insulation or a cooler and keep it in there with other frozen goods. It won't keep forever, but it helps to slow the thawing process.
Refrigeration is a modern convenience we choose to do without, we prefer to limit the use of energy-guzzling devices and to educate ourselves on proper storage of ingredients. We try as much as possible to pick produce without defects or bruises, and that have not previously been refrigerated.
We look at our inventory of fresh foods daily, and eat items with a shorter shelf life first, like fresh herbs and greens. Then, we move on to tomatoes, eggplants, and onto carrots and beets. In the end, we're usually left with onions, garlic, cabbage, potatoes and pumpkins. Potatoes and onions will last months if kept in a dark dry place, and some fruit will last a while if wrapped in towels, foil or newspapers. Most condiments like vinegar, soy sauce, mustard and peanut butter do well in cupboards. Molasses, maple syrup and jam will also keep for many weeks.
Relying solely on the selection of local and seasonal produce from farmer's markets makes us discover new ingredients, while it encourages local vendors, and cuts down on emissions from transport. Alternatively, making preserves and pickles allows us to enjoy some foods out of their season. In New Zealand, a friend once gave us feijoas that we processed into chutney which we had the following season.
Leftovers we eat the next day, incorporating it into other meals to offer some variety. Preparing food in the pressure cooker, and letting it rest unopened will help preserve the food. If left overnight, it can be reheated in the morning and will keep well until lunchtime.
When at anchor, it can be difficult to stay focused. The weather decides all. It determines whether or not we can work. If the weather is foul, we are on anchor-watch to make sure we don't drag.
Waves also makes it hard to do simple tasks like writing, or drawing. Depending on the direction of the wind, we need to move the boat and that too, takes focus and time away from work. Calm and sunny days, are distracting in other ways: when the water is clear and teeming with colourful fish, it is difficult to resist jumping off. All in all though, we welcome these interruptions, as it ensures we take enough work breaks.
Our work schedule is tied to the weather, as we depend on solar energy to power our computers. By looking at the forecast, we can determine when we will get the most work done: consecutive days of sun grant us enough power for video editing, while overcast days are reserved for low-power work, like writing, coding and planning.
In the constraints of expensive cellphone data, uploading large files can be made possible by offloading heavy-lifting onto remote servers; having your server build and upload your projects instead of using your laptop batteries and broadband.
There is no solution to uploading videos to youtube, it's a costly and lenghty process. We have made the decision to keep our videos under 5 minutes to help reduce upload time.
In the 60s, there was a group of French writers who would create works using constrained writing techniques, like replacing every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. They did this to inspire ideas and creativity. Living and working aboard a sailboat was for us a constraint, it liberated our imagination by eliminating possibilities. We work less, by keeping our needs small. We both cannot deal with working within rigid schedules, and we both know that we find our best selves when working close to nature.
The things we struggled with when setting up our studio, are also what taught us the most. Our frustrations with software resulted in us building our own. With limited internet, we became more independent. When hardware failed, we learned to fix them. Lacking power, we had to re-imagine our studio and projects, to calculate usage and optimize our setup to do more with less.
Tools like Offline Wikipedia, digital encyclopedias and dictionaries a great assets to have aboard. Recipes can often be devised from dictionary descriptions of foreign fruits and vegetables.
In the case of a nomad programmer, having the current programming language documentation & various source files is an asset. Prior to going offline for a few days, we often rip entire sites, or capture specific pages as webArchives. The same goes for drawing references, we plan projects ahead and gather references while a good internet connection is available.
We use a GoPro Session4 as well as a Sony a6000 to film our travels. The GoPro has the advantage of being light and waterproof - making for a perfect everyday-carry camera. Shooting with the SLR requires more planning as it can only used in fair weather.
We film as much, and as often as we can. At the end of each month, we watch our footage and write a summary of that month's events. We plan the monthly capsules ahead, and we gather footage based on what is needed. While one is busy recording the narration, the other writes music, the two tracks are then edited together (using Blender) with the collected footage. We have our respective tasks when it comes time to edit, but both of us take part in the filming.
In rough weather, we prioritize our own safety above all, and so we rarely have footage of rough seas.
When access to power is limited, we do our daily tasks with limited drain on our batteries by using Raspberry Pi computers as workstations, with Raspbian Lite and dwm.
Devine also has a Macbook Pro 2012, and Rekka has a 2011 model. Both are still in use and maintaned as we prefer to repair than to purchase new dev, as discarded electronics don't always get recycled properly, and clog up landfills. We both run Elementary OS on our Macbooks.
Computers are subject to water intrusion and saltwater corrosion, but with some care they can survive in a normal marine environment. We solved most of the problems by cleaning external connections often, and by storing them in a sealed box with some desiccants after each use. The main issue with computers on boats, is that it is difficult to source parts when they break. To make matters worse, many modern machines have non-replaceable batteries, proprietary storage, and soldered-in RAM. The parts that fail the most are power connectors, external connections and batteries.
Leaving a port with spare parts is a good tactic, but leaving with backup PCs is even better. There are many good inexpensive computers on the market, like notebook processors (Pinebook, EeeBook) and single-board computers (Raspberry Pis, Pine64). We carry 3 extra Raspberry Pi computers as backups to our main laptops, as they are inexpensive and small. These computers run on lower voltage, which lower overall power consumption. By consuming less power, the system will be less expensive to run, but more importantly, it will run much longer on existing battery technology.
Carrying a spare battery isn't a great idea as you may not use it right away, and that its literal age also affects performance. Computers are rated for a limited number of cycles. If you drain the battery completely and recharge it every day, it'll be spent after 3 years. Keeping a laptop battery fully-charged is important as it draws a lot more power at half-charge, the last few percentage points are much lower wattage to float/top it off. Enabling the various power states in your computer settings can also reduce power consumption, which in turn spares your battery. If available, enable 'eco-mode' or 'low power mode'.
When parts fail on our boat we repair them, and we do the same for our PCs. Nowadays it is commonplace to trash a device when it stops working, contributing to the growing problem of e-waste in the world. Replacing broken components is important, as manufacturing a new PC makes a far bigger ecological footprint than manufacturing a new replacement part. If you must get a new PC, look for product longevity, including upgradability, repairability and modularity. In today's climate, making electronics last longer is crucial.
Software has a big impact on productivity, they need to be reliable and fast. Those that require heavy updates, that have a high CPU usage and that need frequent connectivity to function are problematic for us. Much of the software on the market is designed by people living on the grid with unlimited access to internet. Tools locking up at sea, asking for a connection to continue working don't float on a boat. Adobe products are a good example, as they require an internet connection periodically for subscription validation. If away from big cities, you may open your computer in an atoll to find that you no longer have access to the tool you need to get things done. Choosing a tool that doesn't require a subscription is essential for working nomads that don't have a reliable connection.
Have a look at cpulimit to learn how to throttle running software and control the battery drainage rate.
In our first year, we struggled to download 10gb software updates on slow Polynesian internet. Processor-intensive software or apps is a strain on limited power and bandwidth, but it doesn't have to be that way. The way developers write them can affect the power consumption of the resulting product. Chat rooms and bare bones text editors aren't supposed to be process-heavy, and yet the popular communication platform Slack requires outrageous amounts of ram and CPU to function. This is because Slack is embedding the entirety of Google Chrome in their app. Making software this way is costly to off-grid users, or those on slow connections, but luckily there are many alternatives.
Our computer batteries should not need to grow ever larger only to support these bloatwares, nor should we need to add extra solar to power them. Just as you would look at the nutritional content of food products at the grocery store, find out how much energy your apps are consuming.
Hardware failure is common on boats due to the hostile environment. Saltwater to electronics is what kryptonite is to Superman. This is why it is important to backup data often to avoid losing work. There are advantages and disadvantages with all methods of data storage.
Cloud storage. For a fee, you can back up your data online and sync files from your desktop. This method doesn't eliminate physical storage as data can't be synced to the cloud without a connection. Offloading data storage to a centralized service is problematic in other ways, because services have rules and owners and processes which can complicate things. For instance, country politics have made it that Google restricts access to some of its business services in certain countries or regions, such as China, Crimea, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Whatever data you have stored with Google Drive, if traveling to any of these countries will not be accessible. As conflicts arise, more countries can end up on that list. We keep documents we don't need regular access to on the cloud, with copies on hard disks.
Hard copies. Paper is a stable and widely accessible material, unlike digital devices which are subject to breakages and obsolescence. There's a good reason books and other documents from centuries ago are still readable today. We like to keep printed copies of websites and other online reference materials, such as grammar guides for writing, or language manuals for coding. Keeping data like this means we always have access and aren't limited to our computer's battery.
External hard drives. A hard drive is the the best balance of practical and reliable for storage. However, hard drives are rated for a limited number of read/write cycles, and can be expected to fail eventually. To prevent data loss due to HD failure, it's a good idea to store the same data across multiple hard drives.
Offline databases. Keeping an offline collection of websites on computers or HD ensures constant access, and reduces the energy associated with re-loading them repeatedly. It's possible to save web pages with most browser. We keep offline databases full of notes on a variety of subjects to refer to when there's no internet.
Keeping files on the cloud, on hard drives and hard copies gives our floating studio the redundancy required to ensure reliability.
Living at anchor - that is, in a bay somewhere tethered to the earth with ground tackle, is usually free. Some bays will have moorings installed, that can be used for a small fee (often around 10-15$.) Marinas often have guest docks with power, wifi and showers, for a medium-to-high cost (400$-600$.) The longer the boat though, the bigger the cost. Some marinas though, charge per dock space rather than boat size, beware of these places.
We prepare each meal aboard Pino as it is cheaper than eating out. We usualy don't stint when it comes to buying ingredients for recipes or parts for maintenance. When we make repairs we get quality materials, as lesser metals or wood will fail early on and may put us at risk.