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Lots of boats come to Oriental, some tie up at the Town Dock for a night or two, others drop anchor in the harbor for a while. If you've spent any time on the water you know that every boat has a story. The Shipping News on TownDock.net brings you the stories of the boats that have visited recently.

Sean D'Epagnier and SV Alexandra
Home is a small, engineless sailboat
November 8, 2018

hipping News stories usually begin with a boat in the harbor. Readers know they’re in for a tale of a peculiar vessel or unusual cruiser. Sometimes both.

In April, the weathered and rust-streaked Bristol 27 Alexandra brought a sailor unlike any other into the harbor.

Sean and Alexandra
S/V Alexandra and Sean.

Her deck looked disorderly; metal pipes lying on either side of the cabin, what might have been a bed sheet or sail cover (or one in the same) bunched between oxidized turnbuckles and portlights. A purple hula hoop. A green bucket. Several small, carefully potted plants. At the stern, a weathered tree limb lashed to a metal cradle – the arm of a sculling oar. There was no motor. The transom was partially obscured by a wind vane and Alexandra’s years of exposure to the elements were on full display.

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Alexandra’s collection of items.

The distinct stains on the hull – three vertical lines of rust extending to the waterline – were familiar. Oriental had gotten its first glimpse at Alexandra early one morning in January. The boat slowly, silently glided up the inner harbor, a lone sailor at the helm gently sweeping a long sculling oar, the smooth movement a contrast to the rough and battered look of the hull. Briefly tying up at dock, town saw little of the sailor before he sculled back down the harbor and dropped hook in the anchorage.

Sean and Alexandra
Oriental’s first look at Alexandra in January.

Soon after, word got around that Alexandra had sailed through the Great Dismal Swamp, the motorless vessel breaking through ice in the channel when a polar vortex swept across the east coast. The rumors turned out to be true…confirmed when Sean D’Epagnier returned with Alexandra in April, this time for a longer stay. Few cruisers would attempt to sail in the Great Dismal Swamp. Most think it’s better handled with a motor. But then Sean isn’t most cruisers.

Alexandra and her crew of one were counting down their 48 hours at Oriental’s free Town Dock when TownDock staff caught up with them.

Sean and Alexandra
Sean D’Epagnier.

Sean has the look of a castaway. Trim frame. Slightly sunburned appearance. Blond hair and beard sun-bleached, and at a length suggesting several months at sea. He greets us from a cockpit cluttered with wires, bits of solar powered lights, and a pressure cooker.

In the cockpit, amid all the clutter, a line runs through a block on the starboard side, loops around the tiller, and takes several turns around a pvc pipe before closing the circle back at the block. The pipe is endcapped by a plastic bottle enclosing a small motor. But this motor isn’t for propulsion, it’s for steering. Sean explained the setup: it was an autopilot he had built using a windshield wiper motor, gyroscope, television remote, and a Raspberry Pi – a palm sized computer costing less than $40. He has spent the last several months coding and testing the software that runs the autopilot.

Sean and AlexandraSean and AlexandraSean and Alexandra
The autopilot setup: block and line on the left, motor with water shield on the right.

Sean bought the 1973 Bristol 27 from an online ad in 2009. He was in his early twenties, traveling the western states on a bicycle. Alexandra was the first boat he saw advertised. He didn’t go into detail about his previous sailing experience, but said it did not prepare him for the trip he was going to attempt.

Sean left San Francisco for Mexico, making adjustments to Alexandra as he sailed along. Eventually, he turned west to spend a few years sailing the Cook Islands, New Zealand, and Indonesia.

Posting on sailing forums, he looked for ways to make Alexandra unsinkable. Creating a thread about flotation foam, rubber tubing, and even styrofoam, Sean and others hashed out the efficacy of the materials, modifications, and cost. Some replies were skeptical, others mocking. A few contributors wondered why he’d bother in the first place. But he did it. His forum posts suggest he added styrofoam and 2 part mix-and-pour foam to help make her less sinkable.

Sean and AlexandraSean and AlexandraSean and Alexandra

Concerned about keeping water out, and wary of thru-hulls, Sean took more radical steps. He patched close any entry point between Alexandra’s hull and the ocean around her. In the cabin, that meant getting rid of the head, sinks, and seacocks.

Alexandra’s interior is spartan, lacking basic amenities most cruisers deem necessities. There is no galley, no head, no sleeping berth. Other than the quarter berth to the right of the companionway, most interior structures have been removed. The forward berth appears to be another large storage area divested of its compartments.

A computer monitor is mounted to the port side hull in place of a settee and storage berth. Wires, tools, electronic components and computer parts lay on the floor in front of the monitor. Small plastic boxes with digital displays are attached to the walls, wires running between them and other electronics in the cabin. For Sean D’Epagnier, these are the necessities.

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A minimalist life below deck.

Sean is a programmer, a fervent believer in free open source code – software programs available to the public to use and/or modify free of charge. His only computer is the Raspberry Pi he uses to code and control his autopilot, which he calls pypilot. Sean is also a programmer for and regular contributor to OpenCPN Chart Plotter Navigation, free open source software for cruisers. “I mostly write the graphics or the way it draws the chart, but a lot more than that, like how it draws the weather patterns and how it can calculate routes, like you should sail this way.”

Sean and Alexandra
Sean shows the raspberry pi computer he uses to code.

He speaks passionately about the importance of open source code: the ability for users to see and make changes to the software they use. His pypilot software is free, though like Open CPN, he does take contributions.

Sean talks about free versus open source software. Martijn Dijkstra listens intently.

Sean is entirely self sufficient, and lives on very little. He says he lives on a boat to travel and to avoid debt. “Like 80% of the people cannot own a house. They will always be in debt,” he said. “I’m kinda worried about where is all this going. How’s it supposed to work? Why has it gotten to this level where everyone’s always in debt?”

Sean and Alexandra
Relaxing in the cockpit, Sean talks about future uncertainties.

Sean offered an array of concerns about the state of the world. “A lot of people seem to think they’re not going to allow traveling by water much longer,” he said. “They want everyone to go through the same security system and it’s too expensive for them to have to deal with people on boats who can sail anywhere.” Cruise ships are another creature altogether, he says. Security measures are already in place there.

When asked about himself or his travels, Sean is shy and hesitant. His go-to phrase is “I don’t know…” sometimes repeated in quick succession when he seems unsure of what he should say. Yet when asked about the more unusual items on deck, he speaks animatedly about the experiments he conducts and the things he has made.

There is a solar oven he created from a small satellite dish and a broken mirror he bought at a dollar store. He took it to his boat, painstakingly cut it into small rectangular pieces, then glued it into the inside of the dish. It is not to be left unattended; when the sun is hitting it, it bounces back a lot of heat, like a laser. On deck, it has burned things in its path.

Sean and AlexandraSean and AlexandraSean and Alexandra
Sean’s handiwork.

Sean uses that focused light energy to cook and sometimes to help power the tiny steam engine he built. He’s working on making a still, not for alcohol, but to make tar from chips of pine. In between all of this, he continues to perfect the pypilot.

Sean stayed in town for about a month making repairs, cleaning up Alexandra some. He also collaborated with Martijn Dijkstra of Prinses Mia who agreed to try Sean’s autopilot on his 25 ton, 50’ steel sailboat. He used it for his ocean crossing from Norfolk, VA to Ireland. Martijn reported it sailed true.

Sean and Alexandra
A pypilot setup on the Prinses Mia.

Sean doesn’t know if living aboard is a good idea though he’s been doing so for almost a decade. “I don’t know what else to do. It might be a problem. You can get stuck, people can get stuck in things.” He’s considered getting another boat. Not necessarily a larger one. He references Martijn who has been sailing for decades, in recent years on Prinses Mia, which is several times larger than Alexandra. “For me,” Sean says of Prinses Mia, “it’s too big. Not too big for him.” He’d like to build a boat to his own specifications and his own unique needs. Preferably one that is smaller than his Bristol 27, which he says has “limitations.”

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Sean departs the free dock as it begins to rain.

His next stop was north, to visit a friend in Chesapeake Bay. Sean is testing his autopilot on the friend’s boat next, experimenting on a vessel with hydraulics. He has a website dedicated to the pypilot posting tutorials, videos, and troubleshooting tips for the system. He thinks people can pull the components together themselves, but if not, he does offer the complete system for purchase. The software is free, of course.

Unsure of Alexandra’s continued ocean-going capabilities, Sean said he’ll stick close to the east coast for a while. Until he finds, or makes, a boat with fewer limitations.

Related Information

Posted Thursday November 8, 2018 by Allison DeWeese

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