Solar Power! And, Our Take on the Frib 360 Foldable RIB Dinghy and Suzuki 15HP 4-Stroke Outboard Motor…

Putting Sol to Work for us…

Our four SunPower 100 watt solar panels, mounted on our dodger and cockpit awning with Loxx Grommet Snaps

At long last, we have solar power! Our new SunPower Panels deliver 100 watts each of solar energy to our heavily tasked batteries. They are semi-flexible to a maximum bend of approximately 35° and weigh 4 pounds apiece. The performance of these panels is quite remarkable; and while they’ve only been in operation for a few days, we’re happy with them. We have actually watched the charge level of the batteries rise even as we drew power from them to run laptops, charge small appliances, and the like.

The Victron MPPT Charge Controller App on my Mac laptop…we’re utilizing 382 of our available 400 watts…10.3 amps per hour is going into our batteries!

The really neat part of this system is the Victron Charge Controller. The controller regulates the charge going to the batteries from the panels, allowing more current to flow into the battery cells when it’s needed and slowing it down when the batteries are fully charged. When the batteries are charged, the regulated current ‘floats’ the charge so the batteries stay fully charged, as long as the power draw doesn’t exceed the panel capabilities. There’s an app that we can monitor the charge activity through our phones, iPad and laptops. So far, in the early spring Florida Keys sunshine, we’ve seen an average of 6-8 amps flow into the batteries for several hours through day and for a short time early one afternoon, we had nearly 12 amps per hour moving into the batteries. Of course, as the days grow longer, so should our ability to ‘harvest’ more of the sun’s energy.

The SunPower 100 watt semi-flexible solar panels are the most efficient semi-flexible panels available

Of course, the downside of solar is the sun must set. And, there are overcast days – although on the few incidents where we’ve been shaded by clouds, power, albeit somewhat reduced – continues to flow. So far, we’ve had enough power banked so that overnight we only discharge 30% or so of the total battery charge. Pretty dang cool!

I’ll write a more in-depth review after we’ve lived with the system for a few months, and in varying ‘solar’ conditions. Certainly, we have no complaints. We’ll keep you posted.

The Dinghy Dilemma – Solved?

Another small victory for us is that we seem to have resolved what we called, ‘The Dinghy Dilemma.’ Aboard a small cruising yacht, the dinghy is a vital piece of equipment. It is the way the yacht’s crew gets from the boat to shore. It is how groceries get from shore to the yacht, how laundry gets done, and how spares and provisions are brought aboard. It’s also what gets the crew to all the great beaches, sandbars, and diving/snorkeling locations. It can serve as a towing vessel, when the yacht may have engine issues for example, or as a scouting vessel when entering an unfamiliar harbor.

The Fatty-Knees Hard Dinghy

The real part of the dinghy dilemma for us was finding a functional and suitable dinghy that would meet all of the needs listed above, and then some. However, it also had to be easily handled by one or both of us in and out of the water, tough and durable, and as safe as is possible.

We looked at all manner of dinghies; fiberglass rowing and sailing ones, inflatable ones which rolled up for stowage, inflatable ones which folded up for storage, and RIBS – rigid bottom inflatables – which typically could not be rolled or folded due to the rigid hull, usually made from fiberglass or aluminum. We owned two or three of the inflatable types, including one dead and dying RIB, which came with JO BETH when we bought her. We rowed a variety of hard dinghies. Yet, the dilemma persisted. The biggest issue we had was where to stow the dinghy aboard JO BETH when we wouldn’t need it. The space available was limited, and the smaller dinghies which would fit were too small and too light to function as a cruiser’s ‘dink.’

Add to that Lisa’s desire for a sailing dingy. We looked at 8’ and 10’ Trinkas and Fatty Knees (hard dinghies) but they are too big to fit anywhere on deck. We considered the Fatty Knees 7’ that would just fit on the cabin top between our traveler and the mast, but it wasn’t really big enough to carry us and gear plus several water jugs, etc. So, Lisa can only stare longingly at the Trinkas that sail about the anchorage on sunny light-wind days.

Enter the FRIB…

Meet Frankie…

One chilly night in our Savannah apartment, while JO BETH was being repaired from her Hurricane Irma damages at the Hinckley Yacht Services yard in Savannah, Lisa stumbled across the FRIB while reading posts on a sailing forum. The FRIB is an inflatable RIB, with a fiberglass bottom, that folds for storage. Built in and distributed from England, the FRIB was available in a variety of sizes. With dinghies, generally speaking, bigger is better. Bigger dinghies can carry more weight, stay drier in rough conditions, and can be powered by larger and more efficient outboard motors. In Lisa’s increasingly enthusiastic research on these boats, she discovered that the 360 model, which is nearly 12 feet long when fully deployed, folded to essentially the same dimensions as the much smaller 9.5’ model, the 275. There was roughly 5/8” difference between the two when folded and stowed.

Soon, we were watching YouTube videos posted by FRIB owners around the world. We decided to inspect one at the closest dealer to us, Dania Beach, FL, when we travelled to the FL Keys to spend Lisa’s birthday with friends. The FRIB had to pass a variety of tests; could we fully deflate it, fold it, and repack it by ourselves; could we pick it up and carry it when inflated or deflated – it weighs just under 100lbs – and after seeing one, would it work for us? The short answer to all of these is, we returned with the FRIB 375 – and a few accessories. Even better, a friend of ours in Savannah is a Suzuki outboard motor dealer. Gillis Marine made us a deal we couldn’t refuse on a brand new 4-stroke Suzuki 15HP outboard motor!

Lisa taking Frankie to shore

Fast forward to now. One of the lessons we learned, a lesson which all cruising sailors learn, is that everything is a compromise. Dinghies are no different. The FRIB – or Frankie, as we’ve taken to calling her – is fantastic in the water. She’s carried us and our stuff with no complaints; she’s kept us (reasonably) dry and comfortable in rough and choppy conditions, and she’s weathered our bumping into docks, pilings, and even JO BETH like a champ. But on deck, folded up, she’s a beast. Hence, the name ‘Frankie’ – short for Frankenstein’s monster.

Of course, this is not Frankie’s fault, but merely the nature of life aboard a small boat. Space is limited and each piece of gear must earn its keep. Frankie has certainly done that, and more. We tried to develop a routine for launching her from onboard. Inflating the pontoons is no big challenge, but once she’s fully inflated she simply has to be shoved about until she more or less falls overboard – she’s longer than Jo Beth is wide. And while we love the Suzuki outboard, it’s another 100lb beast which has to be wrestled from its stowed location on the stern rail and lowered to Frankie’s stern where it’s secured and locked – without it or us going in the drink. Getting her back aboard is a bit easier, but still has its challenges. Peace finally settles when Frankie’s deflated, folded, and lashed securely on the sea hood, just forward of the canvas spray dodger, and aft of the mast.

(We don’t have any photos which show Frankie folded and stowed..we’ll post some soon.)

The Suzuki DF15A 4-Stroke outboard motor has, thus far, performed flawlessly. The motor can be started electrically, or manually with a pull-cord. We opted for the manual start, as we don’t have a place to safely store a starting battery when the dinghy and motor are stowed. The motor has plenty of power to get Frankie up and on plane quickly, and the fuel economy is amazing. Most of our time has been spent in harbors or no-wake/minimal wake zones, so we’ve not been able to really ‘open it up’ yet. We carry a portable three gallon tank for fuel in the dinghy and a five-gallon jug with spare gasoline on JO BETH’s deck. Our only concern with the motor is that it’s too heavy - just so - for the mount on JO BETH’s stern rail. Building a more robust mount is on our project list.

So far, so good. Frankie’s served us well during our time in Marathon and elsewhere in the Keys. But, is the ‘dinghy dilemma’ resolved? Really resolved?

Probably as much as it will ever be.