Duracell’s Refit for Cruising

Duracell refitDieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

On a hot October afternoon, Janni Petersen and Matt Steverson take a break from the Duracell refit that will give Mike Plant’s iconic Open 60 another lease on life.

Matt Steverson and Janni Petersen, experienced cruisers in their mid-30s, are restoring Mike Plant’s first Open 60, Duracell, in Port Townsend, Washington. They document their doings on their own YouTube channel to create income, attract sponsors, and build a fan base that follows the project, with some offering free help. Previously, the couple had cruised the West Coast, Mexico, the South Pacific, and Hawaii on Louise, a seaworthy sloop, and Steverson competed as crew in the first Race to Alaska.

Louise was a pretty small 40 [12.2m] cruiser,” Steverson said. “It is an excellent boat for a couple, but adding crew or guests, the boat became cramped quickly.” In 2015, Louise was the ideal getaway vehicle after they ditched their day jobs and sailed south. En route in San Francisco Bay, they anchored at San Francisco Maritime Historic Park off Ghirardelli Square, rowed ashore, and walked to City Hall to get married. They honeymooned and settled into the cruising lifestyle. On the side, they freelanced—Petersen as a middle-school science-curriculum developer, and Steverson as an independent boatbuilder who knew how to fix what others broke. Serendipitously, one of his gigs also set them on course to intersect with Duracell.

Duracell refitOnne van der Wal

Mike Plant works at the mast as Duracell charges along on a reach in her erstwhile racing configuration, which
included a small doghouse and a very different cockpit layout.

“I didn’t need to look for work, but when the opportunity arose, I jumped at it,” Steverson said. “I did a few deliveries during the cruise, and captained a couple charter boats while in French Polynesia when the local charter base was desperate for captains. While in Hilo, I got to help rebuild one of the traditional Hawaiian voyaging catamarans, similar to Hokulea that was being built to train local kids to sail.” That meant meeting and working with designer and builder Chris Morejohn, a good learning experience, according to Steverson, and the contact that introduced him to Rodger Martin, the late designer of Duracell (see Professional BoatBuilder No. 193, page 14).

Duracell refitTematai Bordas

Steverson and Petersen pose with feline
mate, La Paz, during a stopover in Port Phaeton, Tahiti, in 2018 with their first cruising boat, the 40′ (12.2m) sloop Louise.

Steverson called the boat “a small 60-footer,” but it’s still a couple of sizes larger than Louise. Once the refit is done, she will be a step up in speed and comfort as well, with the capacity to accommodate children and/or sail-training students on board.  Beyond that, faster is always better for someone who loves racing and wants enough horsepower to outrun weather and reach anchorages before dark. As for the challenge of tackling a big project, Steverson, who hails from Idaho and holds a liberal arts degree from Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, is a professional boatbuilder. He’d worked at CSR Marine in Seattle for three years before going independent. The complete refit of a 60 (18.29m) racing yacht is indeed a big undertaking, not just in size but in expenses and logistics, but he’s confident they can swing it. “Janni and I enjoy challenges and trying new things, and this project is putting us out of our comfort zone but also documenting it for the world to watch.”

Petersen, who grew up in the Bay Area of California and in Norway (her father’s home), is adding videography to her skill set as a middle school science educator. She posts an episode every week, taking cues from other successful YouTubers, including Leo Goolden, whose replica project—the Albert Strange–designed cutter Tally Ho—is a 10-minute drive from their compound. Petersen admitted that they were kicking around the idea of a YouTube channel for a couple of years before starting it. “We felt we had to do it, but the Internet can be a scary place full of trolls,” she recalled, and it felt especially daunting for these two self-described introverts. “It’s surprising how many talented people around the world come forward and offer their help [with refitting Duracell] and how much positive feedback we get. I had to reexamine my attitude toward [YouTube],” Petersen said. She also seems to enjoy recording Steverson doing what he loves. “I’ve never seen him so committed. He lives and breathes [restoring Duracell],” she said. “He has a twinkle in his eye, a bouncy step, and that goofy grin on his face.”


Duracell refitCourtesy Rodger Martin & Associates

The boat’s sail plan in racing configuration also shares the particulars. As a cruising
boat Duracell will have a shorter rig and less external ballast.

Duracell is not just any old 60-footer. Plant built the boat himself to a design by Martin with the explicit goal of competing in the larger and more competitive Class I in the singlehanded nonstop Vendée Globe Challenge, first run in 1989/90. He was already a household name in singlehanded ocean-racing circles after winning Class II (up to 50/15.24m LOA) in the BOC Challenge in 1986/87. His new ride was “sturdy as a brick outhouse,” as Martin allegedly said, built of fiberglass and vinylester over Airex foam, with Kevlar reinforcements in the bow. Luck did not smile on Duracell and skipper Plant, as he had to pull into an exposed anchorage on Campbell Island, south of New Zealand, to repair rig damage. To help save the boat when his anchor dragged, he accepted outside assistance from two scientists stationed on the island. Plant dutifully reported the incident, and he was promptly disqualified, according to the rules, but still finished the course to a hero’s welcome in France and also set an elapsed-time record for U.S. circumnavigators. Next, he refitted the boat and modified the rig to compete in the BOC Challenge 1990/91, another singlehanded round-the-world race but with stopovers. The only American in this contest, he finished fourth in Class I, unable to match the latest generation of wide-stern Open 60s the French sailed. While Duracell’s conservative design—with a 15 (4.58m) beam she is 20% narrower than modern IMOCA 60s—did not finish in the money in the BOC, it helped her secure second and third leases on life later on.

The yacht, which had been sailing as Northwest Spirit, became available in 2019. Her previous owner, John Oman from Seattle, bought her in the early 1990s, when Plant was building his next Open 60, the more radical but ill-fated Coyote. Here’s the note he posted to advertise his intention of letting Duracell go:

“My plan was to do my own, non-racing, solo non-stop circumnavigation. After bringing her to Seattle (through the canal) and winning the Pan-Pacific Race, I brought her solo back from Japan as a shakedown. My circumnavigation was cut short by losing the top 50 of the mast in a collision with a freighter down by the equator. Putting her on the hard next to my home, it was my intention to put it back together and return to sailing. Shore life got in the way with business and family obligations and now age and health issues. I no longer have the means to chase that dream. So what now? I love that boat. I can’t imagine a more easily handled, seakindly, safe, proven, shorthanded boat capable of sailing anywhere on earth. So, a refit for a solo circumnavigator? Or shorthanded go anywhere? Move the helm aft and replace the short pilothouse with a long coach roof, build in creature comforts for a fast, shorthanded cruiser or six-pack charter boat? A Salish Sea, sailing/whale watching boat sailing out of Deception Pass?”

I met Steverson and Petersen last summer for a walkthrough of Duracell‘s refit with some local boatbuilding and design luminaries, including designer Tim Nolan and composite fabricator and tooling expert Brandon Davis. The sticker price was zero dollars, a suspicious amount that hides the true cost of a used boat, but youth, talent, and determination are valuable assets for such an undertaking and can make up for subsequent monetary challenges. “Of all the things that came off or out of the boat, a few notables are four petrified rats, lots of 1990s electronics, 25-year-old sea­water in the ballast tanks, a Yanmar engine, and a Balmar generator,” Petersen wrote in Cruising World. The hull survey did not indicate damage such as excessive moisture or delamination, so the couple has confidence in the structural integrity of this 34-year-old boat.

Duracell refitDieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

(From left) retired naval architect Tim Nolan; Brandon Davis, principal at Turn Point Design; and Steverson, shown here in the future saloon, discuss design and construction. Note the painted mural, which will be preserved.

About a year after they made the first cut, much visible progress broadly followed the direction Oman had suggested, e.g., replacing the tiny doghouse with a more substantial one, and ripping out the original cockpit, the tiller steering, and the three-cylinder water-cooled Yanmar 3JH auxiliary diesel Oman had installed. Rather than merely follow drawings, Steverson also mocked up cockpit seats, twin steering wheels, and the coamings, so he and Petersen could try out and agonize over sheeting and backrest angles, dimensions, and the best stand-over height to operate a few of those 11 massive Lewmar winches that came with the boat. He had already modified the transom and installed chainplates for backstay attachment. “For the cheeks, which carry the composite chainplates, I used 1 [25mm] Bluewater 26 Coosa board, while the chainplates themselves are 40 layers of 1700 biax glass, with about 10 more layers inside and out to distribute load,” Steverson said.

Crowdsourcing Outside Help for Duracell’s Refit

Duracell refitCourtesy Evan Gatehouse

Canadian naval architect Evan Gatehouse assisted with the engineering of the backstay chainplates.

Two advisors, good Samaritans, offered free and welcome design and engineering help. One is Evan Gatehouse, a naval architect with a background in mechanical engineering, who is a project director/senior naval architect at Robert Allan Ltd (Vancouver, British Columbia), where he designs small commercial workboats. He also has serious chops in racing-yacht design (e.g., at Farr Yacht Design) and in bluewater sailing as a circumnavigator on his family’s 40 Richard Woods foam/glass catamaran. “I watch lots of YouTube videos of sailing, and it’s marked as an interest, so the early episodes caught my eye, especially because I knew about Mike Plant and Duracell’s origins. I decided to offer some help because, I said to myself, ‘Here’s a guy doing an interesting project who clearly doesn’t have a huge budget and could probably use some free advice.’”

Duracell refitJanni Petersen

On the stern, Steverson marked the position of the split backstay’s heavily reinforced composite chainplates.

Gatehouse said that aside from his interest in assisting with sailing-related engineering projects, he also tries to educate participants by showing calculations and giving explanations so they can learn why he makes certain suggestions. In Duracell’s case, he collaborated with Steverson on the design of the chainplates for a split backstay. But so long as a new (used) replacement mast is not locked in, they have to hedge their bets. “It’s hard to install bent metal chainplates that line up with a masthead that isn’t known yet,” Gatehouse said. “We’ve settled on a multiple-pass Dyneema lashing through a reinforced solid-glass insert in the transom. This will align nicely with any backstay orientation and is a lighter and corrosion-free option compared to metal. As [Duracell] is using an adjustable backstay, the small amount of movement with a Dyneema lashing is okay.”

More voluntary support came from Piraeus, Greece, from Markos Thiraios, a naval architect, yacht designer, marine engineer, and hazmat expert with a degree from the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, U.K.), where he wrote a thesis paper about converting a diesel-powered passenger and car ferry to fully electric propulsion. He also is the cofounder of Odisea Catamarans, which builds and markets a 48 (14.63m) aluminum performance world cruiser; and he’s managing the conversion of a retired Greek Coast Guard interceptor into a 25-passenger luxury day boat.

Duracell refitCourtesy Markos Thiraios

A rendering by Greek naval architect Markos Thiraios, who connected with Steverson via the YouTube channel, inspired the cockpit modifications with added settees and dual wheels.

Thiraios confessed his love for sailing, which he began at an early age, and yacht design. “When I found out about Matt’s channel, I was very interested in helping him by creating a 3D model of his vision. Duracell is legendary and a huge technological milestone in sailing history; hence I wanted to get involved. I believe the most crucial [factor] for converting a singlehanded racing boat to world cruiser is the water ballast the boat needed for singlehanded sailing. Due to the large sails and the large heeling forces, these ballast tanks were necessary, but a cruising vessel with less sail force and less heeling angle [doesn’t need them]. Also bear in mind that these tanks occupy a lot of interior space as well; hence, it is important to remove them to create more volume.”

The boat originally had five ballast tanks, one in the bow, which Steverson removed, and two on each side, which he reduced in size to make room for cabinets. He thinks he’ll store 250 gal (946 l) of potable water in each.

Bulkhead Builds

Creating more space for a crew of two and guests was the primary aim for the deckhouse and the cockpit, which now has an open stern and twin-wheel steering farther forward. “The old vessel needed [only] enough space for one person…, which meant it had to be very efficient in terms of size, weight, air resistance, and protection from the elements,” Thiraios said. “The new superstructure and cockpit have to accommodate more people with much more comfort.” A topic of conversation in the walkthrough was the aft bulkhead separating the companionway and cockpit, which will have to be watertight and has an oval opening for a door. What kind of door will fill it is still open to debate. “It’d be cool to have it lightweight so it’s not this big, heavy thing that can crush someone,” Turn Point Design’s Brandon Davis suggested, but Steverson entertains a different vision: “I’m thinking about a Dutch door, where I can open the top and the bottom separately, especially at sea.  If there’s potentially water coming in, I can close the bottom half.”

Duracell refitJanni Petersen

Mocked-up settees are shown against the new traveler bulkhead with windows and an oval companionway opening. Steverson is contemplating a Dutch-door-style closure.

Invasive fiberglass surgery in the interior was the next frontier for Duracell’s refit and Steverson, who said he’ll keep the forward locker for sail storage, lines, and fenders and put a stateroom where the original sail locker used to be, promising to keep the murals painted on the hull interior by a friend of Plant. The boat also needs a good-size galley, a real head, and extra accommodations for guests, which represents significant up­grades to the austere racing interior. So far, he’s chosen 1700 biax pretty much exclusively for ease of use and because he’s familiar with it. He’ll want lighter weight materials for interior cabinetry, which he’ll make from foam-core construction. “PET would be great even for the benches, where you’re not really worried about hitting a dock,” Davis suggested. “Divinycell is a lot better [against] impact, as it has a lot more elasticity.” Another important factor is cost, which is much lower for PET foam. “I’m going to buy a pallet of 1⁄2 [13mm] recycled PET foam and probably 12-oz [407-g/m2] biax or similar weight cloth,” Steverson said.

Duracell refit©Onne van der Wal

In Duracell’s original spartan interior, Mike Plant is at the workbench above the water ballast tanks in an area that served as sail locker and storage for tools and provisions.

A critical piece of Duracell’s refit is the new main bulkhead at the aft end of the new coach roof, which has to support 6,000 lbs (2.7 t) of static sheet load in 30 knots of breeze and shock loads as much as four times higher in case of an accidental gybe. It was engineered with the help of Randy Neureuter (chief naval architect at Delta Marine, a builder of large custom luxury motor­yachts in Seattle), who, like Gatehouse and Thiraios, is a fan of the Duracell video channel and in his spare time pitched in with engineering calculations and finite element analysis.

“Matt and I connected through Insta­gram, where I occasionally share a bit about my own refit project of a 1982 Frers-designed 38 IOR One Tonner [@sv_white_lightning], but the Duracell project is bigger and much more ambitious,” Neureuter said. He grew up sailing on the Great lakes and prior to moving to Seattle studied naval architecture at Webb Institute, where he raced in many of the classic East Coast offshore regattas. Today Neureuter cruises a converted raceboat heading north to the San Juan and Gulf Islands. “It is the best reminder of why I love designing and just messing around on boats,” he said, adding that “volunteering to help Matt was a fun opportunity to do some light design work on a sailboat other than my own for once.”

Naturally, Neureuter knew about Duracell’s and Mike Plant’s story, but had no prior connection with the boat, which spent decades in Seattle. But the mix of the yacht’s history, its proximity to Seattle, the ambitious venture, and the relation to his own sailing projects captured his attention in a way that other refits have not. His day-to-day work requires a diverse set of traditional NA skills, Neureuter explained, but his forte “is the design of large composite structures and motor­yacht hydrodynamics. In both areas I focus on using advanced simulation software with the goals of improving performance, efficiency, strength, ease of construction, seagoing capabilities, and the client’s enjoyment of the yachts.”

Duracell refitCourtesy Randy Neureuter

The traveler position on top of the companionway bulkhead required finite element analysis of the laminate strength ratio in an assumed crash-gybe scenario.

Steverson did the initial calculation of expected mainsheet loads of 6,000 lbs (2.7 t) using a standard formula of Harken’s mainsheet loading calculator, assuming the full (estimated) mainsail area in 30-knot winds. Neureuter said they agreed that reefing the main much sooner than 30 knots would be prudent, but it is also important to have some buffer just in case. Steverson built this new traveler bulkhead, which ended up much stronger than his own original design. Neureuter engineered it to carry 24,000 lbs (10.88 t) of shock loads (4 x static load). “The shock loading is tougher to predict [and] the loads in a crash gybe can be extremely high,” he explained. “We felt the 4 x static load gave a comfortable margin over the published breaking load of the traveler car and blocks Matt plans to use. There is [also a] suitable margin in the bulkhead structural design that some component of the mainsheet system would fail prior to the composite structure.”

Duracell refitCourtesy Randy Neureuter

The schedule for a stout laminate of the traveler bulkhead.

Following the numbers of Neureuter’s calculations and assisted by a cruising friend and an online supporter, Steverson laminated and vacuum-bagged the bulkhead in multiple steps with nine layers of 1700 biaxial over 1 5-lb/cu-ft  (80-kg/m3) H-80 foam core on both sides, overlapping at the top with six layers of unidirectional carbon. Additional strength is derived from four vertical straps that each comprise six layers of unidirectional S-glass.

More bulkhead work can be seen in Episode 47 of the YouTube channel, which details installing the partitioning of the new forward stateroom, separating it from the rest of the interior. First, Steverson built the starboard half by gluing the 1 PVC foam and then laminating and vacuum-bagging two layers of 1700 biaxial on both sides. He said he applied a slow-curing epoxy mixed with colloidal silica. Once the bag was in place, he sped up curing by building an oven around the piece while the laminate was still under vacuum. He was eager to fit this half of the bulkhead, which came out at 42.5 lbs (19.25 kg). In the video, Steverson also said he tries to minimize waste by carefully removing the plastic film and the perforated plastic from the vacuum bag to reuse them.

Duracell refitJanni Petersen

Steverson vacuum-bagged the starboard half of the stateroom’s bulkhead with two layers of 1700 biax on each side over 1″ (25mm) PVC foam core.

For the portside half of the bulkhead, he used virgin PET structural foam, which has similar properties but is cheaper and heavier than PVC foam core. With a laser determining the location of the forward face of the bulkhead, he then tented off the area to grind the hull and deck areas where he would eventually tape the bulkhead in place. For shape, he employed the tick-stick method using a batten to draw the cutting curves from the tick board. While this bulkhead primarily divides the forward space for accommodations, Steverson has more work to do around the mast. He said that when the time comes, he’ll install carbon fiber chainplates between the two aft ring frames for a 22° sweep of the spreaders of the yet-to-be-acquired rig.

Follow the bulkhead lamination in this episode

Friends and Role Models

Much will depend on what kind of mast he can find to replace the original, which came down in the mid-ocean collision with a freighter when Oman owned the boat. Steverson said he likes the idea of a double-spreader cutter rig that can use a reduced staysail as a storm jib. When the winds are not blowing, he’d like to use a diesel-electric hybrid propulsion system, and—because the boat’s twin rudders won’t get much propwash—a bow thruster to help maneuvering in tight spaces.

Al Hughes, Steverson’s friend and mentor, suggested a sturdy solution for cruising. As Hughes won the single­handed Transpac multiple times, his judgement carries weight, especially because he campaigned Dogbark, aka Jarkan Yacht Builders, an Open 60 of the same vintage as Duracell, designed by John King and built by Kanga Birtles in Australia for the Vendée Globe Challenge and the BOC 1990/91. That boat was later raced on the U.S. East Coast as Margaret Anna before moving to Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina and starting a new life as Prime Time America. But the boat was never campaigned by the previous owner, so Hughes bought and refitted it for his singlehanded ambitions. “I renamed her Dogbark but did not have an instruction manual, so it took some time to figure her out,” he said. “I did the singlehanded Transpac on her in 2004, 2006, and 2008. I did terrible because I went too far south and had poor sleep management, but still got line honors.”

Duracell refitCourtesy Rodger Martin & Associates

Conceived for singlehanded round-the-world races, Duracell’s interior was taken up by 3.4 t (7,500 lbs) of water ballast, storage, and systems.

Hughes said he thought about converting the racer to a cruiser but ultimately decided that job might be in better hands with Graeme Esarey, a known local sailor with family, who also crewed alongside Hughes and Steverson in the first Race to Alaska, in 2015, which they won on a 25 (7.62m) Farrier carbon fiber trimaran. Anticipating Steverson’s project with Duracell somewhat, Esarey took over Dogbark, added two staterooms for his kids, and cruised her to the South Pacific and far north to attempt the Northwest Passage in 2019 but got stuck in Prudhoe Bay because of ice. Hughes also discussed the happy mix of speed and strength, which served him well on Dogbark. “The boat is super sturdy, because Kanga built it so. He told me he could not afford a shore crew and support team, so it had to be stout.”

Duracell refitJanni Petersen

The original keel’s bulb has a flattened tail, while the fin shows a crack in the fiberglass sheathing where the lead bottom joins the steel top.

Stout is also the operative word for Duracell’s keel, currently a lawn ornament in Petersen’s and Steverson’s driveway. The keel has two parts—a stub from Corten steel and a lead fin and bulb bolted to it. The fin’s fiberglass sheathing has cracked at the joint, indicating that all is not well. Steverson has time to decide what he’ll do, mainly because it will depend on the rig the boat will carry. With water ballast, the original boat’s righting moment was 635 kg-m (6,227 N-m), he said. “And we’re going to get it down to about 400 kg-m [3,922 N-m] [with a shorter rig and a shorter keel]. When the boat sailed originally without water ballast, it was 385 kg-m [3,776 N-m].” Steverson maintained that these were Rodger Martin’s numbers for sailing at 1° of heel.

Duracell refitCourtesy Rodger Martin & Associates

The two-part keel of lead and Corten steel may or may not be reusable.

Ideally, he’d like to reuse the Corten steel stub if it is serviceable, and recast the lead to a bulb that then gets bolted to that stub. Another option could be a welded steel bulb filled with lead, but designer Tim Nolan advocated for a lead bulb because lead is soft and better suited to absorb grounding impacts. Or it could be cast into a bulb with a flat bottom, so the boat could also stand on its own keel when hauled out.

The walkthrough included a review of the paper plans Steverson received from Martin, which revealed in great detail the design ideas and the fine drafting skills of Martin and his associates, who included Jeremy McGeary. “This was right at the time when they started doing computer drawings,” Steverson said.

While designer, builder, and original skipper have sailed for Fiddler’s Green, Duracell endures. As her new custodians, Steverson and Petersen intend to add another chapter to her storied history, and Petersen, as the documentarist, is doing her best to make sure the world can watch.