COFFEE: In Search of the Perfect(ly stable) Boat Brew

On day nineteen of last summer’s passage from Hawaii to San Francisco, Moli suffered a critical systems breakdown.

We had been climbing into winds of 25 knots for several days. Seas were steep and breaking. On that morning I rose at the usual hour and made my coffee in the usual way: cone with paper filter balanced atop a ceramic cup, the ceramic cup swinging on the gimballed stove.

In 20,000 miles of solo passages, this teetering miracle has never failed me.

Until this morning.

I filled the cone with hot water. Moli then dropped off a wave and immediately lurched into another. Suddenly hot coffee grounds, cup and filter launched themselves toward the opposite bulkhead with the following, disheartening result.


Next day, same.

I’m not so bright before the morning’s brew, but even to me, it was clear a better system was needed if I am to survive the Southern Ocean appropriately caffeinated.

Once home I began searching for alternative technologies that would satisfy the following requirements:

  1. Keep hot water and grounds captive.
  2. Be easy to use in rough weather.
  3. Be a durable design.
  4. Make coffee I like.

Besides the paper filter, there are three means to a cup of Joe: instant coffee crystals, the percolator, and the French Press.

I’ll admit that instant is the obvious answer to coffee on a passage-making boat as it avoids the brewing process altogether, and while I keep a generous supply aboard for quick fixes and emergencies, the flavor leaves much to be desired as a day-in-day-out solution.


Percolators are another obvious choice, especially the wide-bottomed, stove-top designs like the Coleman Enameled 9-cup percolator. But the process–the lengthy pumping of hot water over grounds–is a shameful waste of propane. Moreover, the flavor of “cooked” coffee is not a favorite.

(Added February 8th, a comment courtesy of Charlie Doane of WaveTrain: Your post does not discuss the bestest way to make coffee at sea, IMHO. The espresso mocha pot (or moka pot, as some call it).

Image may contain: indoorMakes very strong flavorful coffee. Center of gravity is low. Coffee grounds are contained and absolutely secure throughout the entire procedure. Water is contained as well during boiling process and is only vulnerable to being flung across the cabin at the very end of the process, when it becomes coffee at the top of the pot.) 

This leaves the French Press. For many, this is the ideal technology for the blue-water boat. Durable stainless steel and thermos versions are available in many sizes; the brewing system is simple and self-contained; it requires no fiddly-bits like paper filters; clean-up is but a brief rinse, and the press makes what many regard to be the most cultured of beverages.

Problem: the fine, stainless mesh filter is not fine enough. Even the best presses allow through a quantity of grounds, and I just don’t relish chewy coffee.

Now, current evidence to the contrary, let me hasten to point out that I am not finicky about coffee; I am particular. What’s the difference, you ask? A finicky cat will refuse canned tuna, but a cat with particular taste will eat the tuna with pleasure and then rummage your fridge for the foie gras while you’re at work.

Just so, I’ll drink with joy whatever I am given, but left to my own devices, I much prefer four tablespoons of fine, fresh, paper-filtered grounds to my 12 ounces of 190-degree water.

Enter the AeroPress and the It’s American Press, both contemporary updates to the French Press which look to have solved the chewy coffee problem and whose simplicity of design and durability show promise for the boat in a seaway.  


In the next posts, I’ll look at each more closely.


14 Comments on “COFFEE: In Search of the Perfect(ly stable) Boat Brew

  1. Oh dear, Mom took one look at the American Press, and out came that Amazon Visa card!!! She said: “Great Morning Coffee trumps all!”

  2. There is a very rare clear plastic filter funnel made for Stanley thermos bottles that has a tube out the bottom that fits the thermos mouth and prevents any tip-out so long as the thermos itself doesn’t go flying. We got one at a thrift store years ago. Perhaps it is still made in one form or another.

  3. Better than an attempt with an expresso stove top maker I bought in Thailand but was made in china. U can imagine. Yes, it exploded with a dramatic explosion similar to Krakatoa and grounds from ceiling to floor and on the upholstery. You will have to report back on your new fangled toy. Me? I give up on coffee at sea and revert to tea!

    • Tea? I’d say “how very un-American of you, but then…well…! I’ve not had the pleasure of exploding galley parts yet, though the pressure cooker did jam up on me once.

  4. I go for the stainless thermos French press. Isulated because %95 of the time once you’ve got the hot water poured you’ll have a pressing issue to tend. Nice for it to be at least close to hot by the time you remember the coffee. A lanyard to the handle and throwing overboard makes for safe groundless clean up. Buy two and extra screens.

  5. I’m glad to see you are giving the appropriate amount of consideration to the most important piece of marine gear, the liquid black gold. There are other things that are somewhat as important, such as a life raft, radio, and toilet paper, but those items are for naught if you don’t have the morning cup of coffee.

    I still remember a fateful morning years ago. I was on a backpacking trip, and had carried in a coffee percolator. In the morning, I got out the percolator, water, and stove, and then, miles from anywhere…well, then I realized that I had forgotten the coffee grounds.

    It was the only time I had cried in the wilderness.

    • LOL. Great story. First tears of sadness; then tears of pain as the hand of god reaches into your brain and squeezes. Fearing just such a predicament, I also carry caffeine tablets…in the first aid kit and the ditch bag.

      I will admit some trepidation at posting articles on coffee quandaries and not (yet), as you say, on other essential items like life rafts and epirbs, not to mention real food. But the shear number of responses here and on FB indicated that I am not the only one to hold your “black gold” with a reverence beyond reason.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. Hi Randall, we generally use the aeropress on Ada. The only tricky part is getting the hot water in the aeropress tube which is a two handed operation unless you have a good place to wedge the aeropress in the sink. Cleanup is quick since you can just eject the compressed coffee puck so it just needs a pump or two of water. Much easier than our French press which is a pain to clean at sea in my opinion. I also think the aeropress makes the best tasting coffee of the coffee making devices we carry.

  7. Pingback: Boat Brew Trials: The AeroPress – The Figure 8 Voyage

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