New Steering Wheel Adventure: Part 3

Clark August 3rd, 2015

After many deviations, diversions, and delays, the steering wheel project is finally finished (see part 1 and part 2). What started as buying a new steering wheel on Ebay turned into rebuilding the entire teak console, re-wiring much of the boat, servicing and adjusting much of the steering system (installation of the new wheel changed the geometry of things just a tad), building a new instrument panel, and all new senders on the engine to go with the new instruments.

I’ve blogged about instruments, senders, and instrument panels before (see Gauge of Confusion), but now we’ll go in a little deeper.

The fist thing to keep in mind is that the instrument panels from the engine manufacturers are often a rip off. You can build your own using better components for much less. More importantly, it will be exactly the way you want it. People are figuring this out, and aftermarket panels for various engines are all over the Internet.

I built mine with idiot lights, analogue gauges, a bilge monitor console, and seven fused switches to control other stuff for about $275, but I kept a few of my old instruments. In my case it’s a very customized shape and size for my boat, and I wanted to cram a lot of stuff into the this small piece of real estate:

The next thing to keep in mind is the material of the panel: Never, under any circumstances, try to make it out of anything thicker than 1/4-inch. Switches, gauges, lights, etc. are all built for thin panels, and if you have something thicker you’ll be in for a lot of frustration. See my old panel for examples of futile and unnecessary adventures with a chisel…and see how trashed my old panel was. I just couldn’t put it back looking like that:

I have lately built all my instrument panels out of black, 1/4-inch Starboard. It’s easy to cut and drill, I think it looks good, and it’s got a matte texture that hides dirt and fingerprints.

As to engine instruments and senders, they’re just as confusing as they’ve always been. I’ve learned all about these things, and I still ran into trouble. Check out this email from VDO, a quality international gauge manufacturer who I’d bought three new gauges from. I’d spent hours on their website and just could not find what I needed:

Good Morning Mr. Beek,

Thank you for your inquiry.

This instrument is designed to work with the OEM sender that’s also a 220F Temp gauge. VDO does not manufacture a corresponding 220F temp sender. If you require a replacement, parts that may work can be found at;

Standard Ignition: TS-6 1/2′-14 thread
KEM Manufacturing” TW-3 12′-14 thread and TW-106 M114X1.25 thread
Autozone(Duralast): TU201, 3/8′-18 thread

Please let us know if we can further assist you.

VDO Sales Team

Kudos to them for at least telling me who I could buy the right bit from. As I said in Gauge of Confusion, the right sender for the gauge must cover the same range as the gauge, vary its resistance in the right range for the gauge, and be the right size to fit an existing hole in your engine. Drilling a new hole would take a leap of faith and risks a mistake that you’d be too embarrassed to share with others.


Looking at the right side of my instrument panel, we’ve got my good old mechanical tachometer, which has worked for nearly 50 years, so why change it? Next to that we’ve got the engine gauges for water temperature and oil pressure. Below those two gauges is the idiot light/buzzer for water temp and oil pressure. If that alarm goes off, I quickly check the gauges to see whether it’s high water temperature or a drop in oil pressure that has caused the alarm. I think it’s important to have both the idiot lights and the gauges: the gauges for precise readings and data over time; the idiot lights to actually alert you, unless you happen to be looking at the gauge when something goes wrong.

Under the tachometer is a second idiot light/buzzer. This one is for the new Aqualarm raw water flow sensor I installed:

After many years of fretting about my engine, it occurred to me that this flow sensor, attached to an alarm, could be key. You could have a complete raw water flow failure (failed pump, broken hose, blocked intake) and it would take several minutes for your engine to heat up enough to trigger the water temp idiot light. In the mean time you’re frying an impeller, melting your exhaust hose, and maybe damaging the engine itself. I wired it to a second idiot light/buzzer because it was a bit complicated and fiddly to have three different devices connected to the same light/buzzer and keep them straight. My flow sensor is just before the exhaust injection elbow, so it would tell me if anything had gone wrong in the entire raw water circuit.

Along the bottom of my panel are seven switches and fuses, which aren’t labled yet, but they are: Bilge blower, instrument lights, compass light, spare, windshield washer (yes, call me crazy, but when the salt gets caked on this will be a Godsend), port wiper, and starboard wiper.

On the left side of my panel I’ve got an Aqualarm Bilge Monitor, which I really like. Next to that is the old engine hour meter, which has the recorded hours on it, so I wasn’t about to change it. And next to that is the transmission pressure gauge, which always says the same thing no matter what, but I guess it would tell me if I lost my transmission fluid.

The big red thing at the lower left is a switch that silences the alarms, but the red thing would have to be sticking up like a sore thumb with the alarms turned off, so I won’t be able to forget. This way, when I’m starting the engine in the early morn I don’t have to wake everyone up with the alarms, as they will go off for 10-15 seconds until the flow switch gets triggered and the oil pressure comes up.

As to the wiring on the back of the panel, it looks like a rat’s nest, but it’s pretty simple:

Each gauge has three connections on the back, labeled +, GND, and Sender. The GND just goes to ship’s negative. The + should connect to the accessory tab on your ignition key, along with the regulator. Sender connects directly to the appropriate sender on your engine. Since your engine is grounded (negative in most cases) the sender makes or breaks, or varies the resistance of, this second negative connection to the gauge.

Each gauge also has a light, which needs positive and negative, so now we’ve got five wires connected to the back of each gauge. Many things on the backs of instrument panels can be daisy-chained together: Ship’s negative can hop from one negative connection on the back of a gauge, then the negative connection to the light on the gauge, and on to the next gauge. Same with positive from the key switch, which can go to all the gauges, and to the positive sides of the idiot lights. It’s okay to crimp up to three wires into the same ring or slip-on terminal.

You need circuit protection for your panel, so a fuse in line with the key switch is simple.

My bilge monitor is largely separate from the other stuff on the panel, and my row of seven switches has a separate feed and it’s own fuse.

The only problem with all this brand new teak and varnish is it makes the rest of the boat look like crap:

Man Abandons Burning Boat to Save His Dog

Clark July 13th, 2015

This is the saddest, but most heartwarming, sailing story of the year. Something tells me the sailing community is going to rally around this salty hero (but in the mean time we should respect his wishes and save the questions and Monday morning quarterbacking for later, if ever). It’s all over the news, but here it is in Mr. Kanafoski’s own words, from his public Facebook page:

As im sure you all know by now my boat and everything i owned was on there. i All my tools, clothes, identifications, green cards everything was lost. I left Apalachicola on Wednesday afternoon heading to tampa to pick up my son from the airport on sunday for 6 weeks of sailing fishing and diving. Caught an amazing sunset leaving the cut in Apalachicola on Wednesday. Sailes and fished all night and all day Thursday. Filled the freezer with 1 amazing bull mahi. Friday morning, yesterday the wind had died around 10 am. I motored around and was bottom fishing ans swimming around the middle grounds. 80 miles offshore. Around 2 my outboard stalled and would not crank. I replaced the fuel filter and both spark plugs. Good spark and no fuel. The primer ball was mushy.. i had an inboard motor still inside with the fuel pump for that engine on the fuel tank plumbed to the outboard. I flipped on the electric fuel pump and was able to get the engine running.

I traveled due east trolling to the edges of the 120 ft mark. The motor died again. I reached for the fuel pump switch and flipped it and the bilge blower fan switch together. Boom. The back port hatch blew open with a massive fireball. The fire blew the dog off the boat and me out of the cockpit down into the companionway. I was dazed i could amell burnt hair. I jumped up and as the ringing in my ears subsided the roar of the fire became clear. I also heard a splashing. Dogs in the water. I immediately reached into the burning hatch to grab the fire extinguisher mounted next to the fuel tank. h burned arm. I discharged the first fire extinguisher and thought the fire was out. I grabbed the main sheet line and jumped overboard after the dog. The sails were up and the boat was slowly moving. The sheet was my lifeline. I grabbed the dog and swam back/pulled myself back on board. I got onboard and saw a small flame ao i popped extinguisher 2. I immediately started opening hatches and removing companionway atairs for access to the bilges and engine room. While i was looking around i found another small flame under the access hatch to the stuffing box. I grabbed fire extinguisher 3. When i hit the lever all i heard was a swoosh but no familiar yellow powder. The can was caked. The wind gust from the tank blew the small trash fire thru the entire fan tail sending little embers everywhere. I started the wash down pump and grabbed the remaining 2 extinguishers out of the v berth. By the time i got to them and dug them out from under the pile of tools and clothes and returned to the back of the boat it was too late. The flames were coming from the lose fiber stands of fiberglass resins that are laminated the floor to the hull. I pointed a full stream of sea water at 65 psi and discharged 2 more extinguishers. 5 in total. There was snoke but i saw no fire. I called the coast guard imformed them of my situation. I told them about the fire and how it was now out. 10 15 20 minutes passed and i had cleaned all the yellow powder out of the cockpit and started to try to find the sorce of the first explosion. Still amoke no fire. I went into the vberth to grab my multimeter and some tools. As i was digging in the tool bag whsn i heard a lite roar coming from the rear of the boat. I ran to the back to find the entire port hatch in flames. The same hatcn that was holding a 13 gallon plastic fuel tank half full. I pointed the water hose at the fuel tank, rurned OFF the bilge and called the coast guard back. But i was getting no response back. Within 30 seconds of calling i realized i had to abandon ship. I put out a mayday gave my position. Drift bearings, boat info, and name. No response just static. I started looking for the bailout bag. And started grabbing anything i thought i might need. And threw it between the book bag i had and the ditch bag. I called mayday again no response. Cabin was full of black smoke and the dog was missing. I threw the ditch bag over board. I then tied a life jacket to the bookbag and threw it overboard as well. I couldnt find the dog and there was only about a ft od clear air near the floor. I knew if i didnt find her quick that the smoke would get her. I tossed the entire vberth into the cabin floor so now i was tossing everything back on the v berth. I found her and she was ok. Terrified but ok. I opened the forward hatch to go out of the front of the boat. As soon as the hatch opened the black amoke rushed out and the flames followed the smoke right onto the right side of my arms and face as i was goign out the hatch. The dog had her wiskers and eye brows burned. My right arm and a little of my face were flame kissed. My beard and hairy arms were scorced but just the hair. I grabbed the dog and jumped into thw water. Swam to the back of the boat to untie the dingy. Then had to climb back on the boat to get into the dingy. Walker bays are piece of shit. You cant get into that boat from the water without sinking it. Me and dog are nownin dkngy i started collecting the stuff i thre overboard. Bags water towel hat. Bookbag. Etc. I couldnt find the ditch bag. It sank. I had no radio no gps no flares and no way of knowing if anyone even heard the abandoning ship mayday i never heard a respose. The boat burned fast and the sharks were there within minutes. They weren’t lying when they said sharks come to fuel oil and burned boats. They were small but there were 3. Thank god the Coast guard jet flew over within an hour and within another hour i was in a basket getting snatched out on the water. i didnt know if anyone heard my call. I made peace with my maker during the search thru the smoke for the dog. I though i was going to suffocate looking for her. I was thinking of my kid. Also when i was drifting. I realized my call may have not been heard. I was 70 miles offshore and vhf only runs about 30. I said a prayer and thought about the best times i had with my son. I mentally prepared myself to die not once but twice yesterday. I was adrift in a dinghy. I could barely breatha and had no water or shade or even a paddle.

Dire situation 1. Dog in water or flames. If i would have stayed onboard and sacraficed the dog the outcome would have been different. No regrets tho

#2 i opened all the hatches looking for fire and left them open. Unfortunately that is what lost the boat fresh air was being fed to the flames.

#3 ditch bag. I had vhf gps and flares first aid in the ditch bag. It was not a floating bag.

4# no automatic fire extinguisher in the fuel compartment.

Anyway. Im done. I would rather not talk about it for now as all i have been doing is crying when i think back on it and that bullshit isnt getting me anywhere. Save your questions for next week. Im at a thrift store trying to find shoes. Im walking out of st pete up 19 north. If you know anyone heading north tell them to stop and grab the guy carrying the dog and lifejacket. Im sure im the only one. i was able to receive a small wire transfer last night so i ate fed the dog and split a room with a street walker. Now im waiting on the thrift store to open and in trying to figure out how to get to rome georgia. Or anyplace safe to rest my burned feet.

Boarding Bummer Off SoCal

Clark July 10th, 2015

Read here for this story from this month’s Latitude 38. It relates to my endless squawking about Coast Guard Boardings, but in this case there’s not much to be said or done: Someone crossing an international border (or its maritime equivalent) has no rights and is open to search. Even on land, the 100-mile border zone is called a “constitution-free zone.” However, on land U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who operate under many of the same laws and exceptions as the Coast Guard, seem to fall under a higher standard of courtesy and accountability, and a delay of five hours, during which the detainees weren’t allowed to use the bathroom, would be considered out of line.

The only thing I wonder about in this instance is the initial boarding by the Orange County Sheriff. Under normal circumstances only the US Coast Guard has boarding authority for a suspicionless search, but maybe when a vessel is coming from abroad it empowers other law enforcement agencies?

Boat Wiring: Distribution Panels and Circuit Protection

Clark July 9th, 2015

The wiring phase of this project started with re-terminating cables and adding big fuses, then moved into battery switches and distribution. Now we’re into the final leg, which is the main distribution panel.

In the photo above you’ll see what I went with. Most distribution panels in the marine world use breakers, like this:

That’s what I thought I was going to end up with, and the exact one above would have been just peachy, but I ended up going with glass fuses in fuse blocks for a few reasons. First, they’re way cheaper. Second, I’ve already got so many things aboard that take glass fuses that I’m pretty much stuck with them anyway. I’ve got this blast-from-the-past sub-panel with nine circuits, original equipment from England in 1967, which still works great:

I built this new instrument panel, which has glass fuse holders for all the switches, which is often the done thing with instrument panels. And the bilge monitor console, on the left side? Glass fuse:
In fact, all bilge pump consoles seem to have glass fuse holders:

And there are lots of other glass fuses hidden here and there throughout my boat – in the autopilot, in the HF radio – so I figured if I was going to be carrying a bunch of glass fuses anyway, I might as well go big and continue to use them on my main distribution panel. Also, the breaker-as-switch function on breaker panels is often unnecessary, and is in fact unnecessary on all the circuits on my distribution panel. If you’re going to turn on, say, your spreader lights, then the breaker-switch on the panel makes perfect sense: It’s providing your switch and your circuit protection all in one. But if you want to turn on a cabin light the “Forward Cabin Lights” or “Starboard Lights” switch on the panel doesn’t need to be there as a switch; it just needs to provide circuit protection. IE I don’t want to have to flip two switches when I can just switch one to turn on the bloody light.

Ergo, the glass fuse panels: When the batteries are turned on, everything served from the panel is energized, just the way I want it. If I need to do maintenance on a circuit I can just pull the fuse.

Finding quality fuse blocks proved a challenge and I ended up with my old friend the Blue Sea Systems 5015 and 5018, which I’ve recommended as an electronics sub-panel before in this article for SAIL:

The 5015 has a negative bus and the 5018 doesn’t, so I used two 5015’s and one 5018 because some of my circuits just needed in-line fuses, like the ignition feed to my regulator. I like these products because they are tinned, and seem to be the only tinned glass fuse blocks in the industry. Rather than buy an untinned fuse block with the right number of holders, I daisy-chained two of these together to give me 12 circuits with positive and negative. This whole arrangement was less than $100, where a breaker-switch panel would have been around $500. It goes without saying that I will build a beautiful teak cabinet to house this arrangement, and on the front of this cabinet will be my new Victron battery monitor and other gauges and switches, but for now it’s functional and inside the main cabin, which was the whole point of this exercise:

Car *Almost* Falls Off Ferry

Clark June 30th, 2015

Things are usually pretty tranquil at our 100-year-old family business, the Balboa Island Ferry. Despite our best efforts, every once in a while this happens:
Sigh. Full story here.

Boat Wiring: Battery Switches and Distribution

Clark June 5th, 2015

Above is what the main cabin ends up looking like when you’re in the middle of a project like this.

In my last installment I covered battery cabling and big circuit protection. Now we’re to the next stops down the line: the battery switches and core distribution.

First, the battery switches. I blogged once before that I like basic battery switches. These big, basic switches from Cole-Hersee have been around for at least sixty years, maybe longer:
My boat already had two that were original equipment and still fine, but the threads were stripped on part of one of the posts and they’d seen a lot of dousings and abuse, so I replaced them, and added a third for the starting battery. Part of this project is to move all the key electrical stuff out of a cockpit compartment, where it might be subject to flooding, and put it in the main cabin. Here are the new switches, right above the trash can, now in the main cabin:

I’ll add some labels at some point, but for now I know the one on the left is Battery 1, the middle is battery 2, and the one on the right is the starting battery. Turn the switch one way and that battery is connected to the main bus for supplying power or to be charged. Switch it the other way and it’s disconnected.

A 1-2-Both-Off switch or a Blue Sea Systems Dual Circuit Plus battery switch doesn’t allow me to do those simple things:

These battery switches are great for switching two battery banks, and combining them, but not three. In practice my Bank 1 and Bank 2 will usually be combined and treated as a single bank, but not always, so I’ve got them on separate switches. The way I’ve got it now I have to remember to connect the starting battery to the main bus to charge it, and disconnect it after I kill the engine so I don’t run it dead. At some point I might add an Automatic Charging Relay or Balmar Digital Duo Charge, but for now things are cheap and simple.

Now to the other side of the bulkhead, in the engine room:

You’ll see the three switches, with the big cables from each battery coming up from below and connecting to the lower post on each switch. Along the top I’ve used a piece of copper bar to connect the three switches, forming a main bus. Using copper bar allows these switches to be spaced tightly together. Trying to connect them as is with cable would be impossible, and connecting each to a separate bus with cable would create a rat’s next.

To substitute copper bar for cable, figure out the cross-sectional area of the cable size you’re trying to emulate, then get copper bar of the same or greater cross section. In my case I wanted the same current carrying capacity as 1/0 cable, which has a cross sectional area of about 54 square millimeters, or 3/32 of an inch. 3/4″ x 1/8″ copper bar has the same cross section, and is the right size and shape to suite my purpose, but I overkilled it slightly and ordered two feet of 3/16″ x 3/4″ copper bar from There’s nothing more exciting than two feet of copper bar arriving in the mail.

To the left of the three switches you’ll see a Blue Sea System’s Power Post Plus, which is connected directly, with a large cable, to the battery side of the battery 1 switch. This is because there are a few things that need to be connected directly to a battery, whether the battery switch is on or off: bilge pumps, and the memory circuit for the stereo. You want the bilge pumps connected directly to the battery so they’re always live. If you don’t have your stereo memory connected, you lose your preset radio stations every time you shut the boat down.

In the photo I haven’t connected any of these things to the Power Post yet, but I will. What I do have connected are the two outputs from the alternator. I thought a dual output alternator was a good idea back in the day: It isn’t. Just get a single output alternator. We have better ways to charge multiple banks now. Anyway, I connect the alternator outputs directly to the battery side of the switches so there’s no risk of somebody switching off the batteries with the engine running and blowing the alternator diodes. (If alternators don’t have somewhere to send their charge, bad things happen.)

I added the Power Post Plus because all these things are too much to stack onto the post of the battery switch: You’ve got the cable to the battery, the alternator outputs, the bilge pump, and the stereo. That’s already too many to fit, and exceeding ABYC standard (you’re only allowed to cram four on a terminal). Plus I know there will be a connection to a battery monitor, at some point, and other things I haven’t thought of, so I just needed more real estate for direct connections to battery 1.

All of these battery connections and copper bar adds up to a lot of exposed, live metal, so I’ll be making a cover out of Starboard that will protect all this from dumb guys in the engine room.

To pan out, we can now see the whole magilla, on the bulkhead forward of my engine:

Mind you this is mid-project and all those wires will get tidied up. In the upper right hand corner are the battery switches. At the lower left and right are the positive and negative main buses, with a few red and black cables connected. In the case of the positive bus, it’s an extension of the bus I made with the copper bar, giving me more big, 5/16-inch posts to connect stuff to.

In the middle is a Blue Sea Systems Safety Hub:

I’m not a shill for Blue Sea Systems: They just seem to be the only manufacturer who makes quality electrical components for small boats. The Safety Hub is meant to be a main distribution panel/fuse block for a much smaller boat, but for me it served as the most compact way to to get four AMI fuse blocks, and some additional negative bus terminals, in a small space. It also has six ATO/automotive fuse slots at the bottom, which I won’t use.

AMI or MIDI fuses seem to be the best way to protect circuits from 30 to 200 amps (glass fuses only go up to 30 Amps), and I have four such circuits I needed to protect. My boat has sort of a convoluted early version of a distributed power system, with four distribution panels spread about the boat, so each of these bigger circuits serves these four distribution points.

In the next installment we’ll cover those…

Boat Wiring: Reterminating Cables and Adding Big Fuses

Clark May 28th, 2015

This is the project that started with a new steering wheel, but I’ve drifted to far from the new steering wheel that I’ve almost forgotten that that’s how I started. There is a running theme to this project run amok and it goes like this: After disassembling things to get done what I needed to get done, the disassembled components were in such sad shape that I couldn’t, in good conscience, put them back. This started with peeling wood veneer, which necessitated rebuilding the entire steering console, and now I’m into the wiring. It’s a bit of a cobblers children without shoes scenario: Here I am a marine electrician, but much of my boat’s wiring was a mess. This is attributable to several factors:

1. I’m still finding original wiring, as in, installed in England in 1967, and I thought I’d routed all of it out by now.
2. I’m still finding wiring done by former owners of the boat, like with lamp cord, and I thought I’d routed all of that out too.
3. I redid a lot of wiring before I set out to circumnavigate, but I wasn’t the electrician I am now. I didn’t do anything I’m too embarrassed about – everything was electrically sound – but good wiring, like good computer code, should be both functional and easy to read. My wiring was very functional, but not easy to read. And I worked around the original buses and other components, which I should have just ditched. Better stuff is available now.
4. The ABYC standard has changed, and things that were allowed before aren’t allowed now.

One of my nasty, 50-year-old bus bars:

I find with these major wiring revamps it’s best to start big and work toward the small. So, start with batteries, battery cables, and battery switches first, then something like the wire to the reading light over the port pilot berth would come last.

Looking at my battery cabling, most of which I replaced about 18 years ago, all the wire was still in good shape, but many of the lugs were looking sad:
If I cut off the old lug and stripped the wire back, the 18-year-old wire was indistinguishable from brand new wire. And since this is all 1 gauge, 2 gauge, ad 1/0 gauge, which costs around $5 per foot, using the old wire saved hundreds of dollars:
On the left is 18-year-old wire; on the right is brand new wire. If it weren’t for the slight change in insulator color, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Simple process: lop off the old lugs, strip the wire back, crimp on new lugs, seal with heat shrink tubing, and that’s it. This is why we should always leave “service loops” in our wiring, to have that little extra so you can lop off a few inches and still have enough to get from A to B.

New lug:
And new heat shrink tubing:

This is also a good testament to tinned wire. Marine wire must have several properties: it must be stranded, instead of solid like home wiring, so it will be flexible and not fatigue with the endless cycles of flex and vibration on a boat. It must have flame retardant water and fuel-proof insulation (in jaunty colors). And it must be tinned. Copper is a much better conductor than tin, but the tin coating is well worth the minor conductivity loss because the tinning makes the wire much more resistant to corrosion. Pure copper, in the marine environment, will turn to green dust in a few years, even inside good insulation. Tinned wire seems to last a long time – at least 18 years anyway.

The heat shrink tubing is very important too. Without it, moisture can find its way into the insulation and track down the wire. I credit heat shrink tubing partly with my wire’s longevity.

There is one other good thing about tinned wire. In my ABYC accreditation class a lively debate sprang up about the best way to crimp lugs. The right answer for the test was “a box crimper,” some thing big and cumbersome, like this:

The founder of Ancor marine was in the class, as he was a member of the ABYC standards board and he had to get recertified himself. He showed us that an impact crimper does every bit as good a job of crimping a lug, and under the intense pressure of a well-crimped lug, the tinning on the wire actually cold welds to itself and the lug, making a very solid, low resistance connection. He crimped a lug that night, sawed through the middle of it with a hack saw, and brought it to class the next day. Indeed, it appeared to be cold welded.

Therefore, I will always use the much cheaper and more compact impact crimper, and my 4-pound sledge (of the broken thumb):

So, new lugs on all cables, using mostly the old cables.

The next item was to protect all the high amperage cables with fuses. In the good old days we didn’t do this. The standards allowed the cables between batteries and battery switches to be unprotected and 90% of the boats I work on are still this way. There are several cases where you’re allowed to have an unprotected wire under the ABYC standard, but they’re few. In general, every wire should be protected.

Obviously it doesn’t make sense to fuse, say, a wire like this:

When you look at the statistics, boat fires are a common way to lose a boat. More than half of boat fires are caused by faulty wiring. Anyplace a fuse can blow instead of letting a wire heat up to red hot is potentially a fire averted.

As a marine electrician I’ve seen enough fried wiring, shorted cables, and a few blown-up batteries to have the bejesus scared out of me. A short in a big battery cable would be terrifying and catastrophic, so big fuses on each positive battery cable, and on the cross-connect cable from my starting battery to my house banks. I can’t remember exactly why, but in my ABYC class Kevin Ritz, the Papa Bear of marine electrical systems, cast aspersions on ANL and AMG fuses, the other options for high amp fusing, and recommended only the robust and fabulously-expensive Class T fuse for this purpose. So I went with Class T fuses and fuse blocks at about $40 per fuse block and $25 per fuse, but these are fuses you hope you’ll never blow.

Class T fuse and fuse block in place:

Some still debate whether you should fuse your starting circuit, that is, the connection from your starting battery to your starter. There’s no debate: you should fuse it. The ABYC allows an exception here, but the ABYC standard covers boats up to 100 feet, and some of these big boats have big engines with big starters, which can take 500-1000 Amps to crank. There’s no practical way to fuse something for over 500 Amps, and this is why they allow the exception.

For the rest of us mortals our starting loads won’t be anything like that. There may be a transitory spike, but this will only last milliseconds, and these big fuses would take a second or two to blow. I’ve got my starter wired with 1/0 wire and a 350 Amp fuse. To blow a 350 Amp fuse, something would have to be catastrophically wrong, like dropping a wrench across the two terminals on the starter. Since I’d be the guy dropping the wrench, probably wearing a bathing suit, and initiating the shower of molten metal and exploding battery acid that would scar me for life, I went with $75 worth of protection.

The standard says the fuse should be within seven inches of the battery terminal, or it can be within six feet if the wires are run within a protective sheath. Within seven inches means stuck to the battery box, in my estimation, so that’s what I did. The covers are just as important as the fuse blocks, because once you got one of these things on the side of a battery box, that’s a whole lot of surface area of live juice, just begging for an errant swing of a wrench:

So if I’m starting with the big stuff and moving toward the small stuff, I now have solid connections between my batteries and battery switches, via re-terminated cables with new lugs and new heat shrink tubing. And each of these connections is now fused with a high amperage class T fuse.

Tragedy At Alabama’s Dauphin Island Race

Clark April 27th, 2015

Apparently a nasty front blew through toward the end of the 57th Dauphin Island Race, while boats were still finishing. Reports say an initial blast of 60 knots was followed by an hour of 30-50 knots. Several boats capsized, leaving several sailors in the water, and several dead and unaccounted for. The Coast Guard has been searching for missing mariners all weekend, and the search continues.

This video, taken in the harbor, gives an idea of what conditions were like:

A firsthand account is here

Full story here and here.

Sailboat Threading the Needle

Clark April 20th, 2015

I have a new hero. Note what they still have to miss even after threading the needle:

Life Is Too Short to Use Cheap Paint

Clark April 16th, 2015

A wise man once told me this, and I took it to heart.

While traditional enamels are still around, most modern boat paint is linear polyurethane (LP). Among LPs there are one-part products and two-part products. Two-part products cost a little more, but last longer. When you consider that 80-90% of any painting job is prepping, sanding, fairing, and masking, and this is all fairly onerous work, why use paint that won’t last as long?
AwlGrip_Paint - 400perfection

Probably the best known two-part products are Awlgrip and Interlux’s Perfection. If you paint the topsides of your boat with one of these products it will look good for about ten years, give or take, depending on environmental conditions and crashing into things. One-part products, such as Interlux’s Brightside or Petit’s EasyPoxy, will apply like a dream and look great, but the gloss will fade after 3-5 years. Again, for the relatively minor price difference and the relatively easy step of measuring two liquids accurately and mixing them together, why not use the good stuff?

The rub is that you can’t put the good stuff over the cheap stuff. If you have ever painted your boat with a traditional enamel or a one-part LP product, then paint over it with a two-part product, the solvent in the two-part product will dissolve the previous coatings and make a disaster. Or will it?

From the the Interlux Perfection label:

“Can be applied directly over two-part catalyzed coatings, that are in good condition.” and “Do not apply over conventional paints or flexible constructions.”

The paint companies will tell you that you absolutely, positively cannot put a two-part product over a one-part product without first removing the former coating, down to the gelcoat. There is definitely some truth to this, and the paint companies should keep advising this, but you can get away with it.

I might add at this point that if your boat has never been painted – it’s still got its original gelcoat – DO NOT EVEN THINK about painting it with a one-part product. Slap yourself across the face, recalibrate your plans, and use a two-part product. Your boat will then be on its way to an lifetime of easily re-coating with additional two-part products, without ever having to worry about the substrate.

In my case my boat had been painted with one-part paint, all over, decks and hull. For the topsides I went to all the trouble of completely removing all the prior coatings, right down to the gelcoat. With advanced modern technology, the old coatings can be removed using a…two-inch paint scraper. That’s right, a paint scraper. There are some chemical removers, but most boat yards still go with a motivated worker with a scraper. This only takes like a thousand years. For the decks and superstructure it was just too much: all those curves and corners were not meant for a paint scraper.

I put two-part over one-part. There, I said it.

It’s like this: If you’ve got old one-part paint on your boat that’s been there a while, and it’s not peeling up, it can be considered a solid substrate. Sand and feather where it’s peeling, but everywhere it’s consistent and smooth, even if old and chalky, this can be considered a good enough for our purposes.

The two-part product, say Awlgrip, Perfection, or Petit EZ Poxy two-part, will have a two-part primer, usually an epoxy-based system that uses the same solvent as the top coat:


Once you’ve sanded, faired, and prepped your substrate, put on (brush, roll, or spray) your first coat of primer. Contrary to what they say, it will not peel up all the substrate. The substrate will peel up or crinkle here and there. If you are spraying an 85-foot hull in a high end boat yard, peeling and crinkling here and there is totally unacceptable, but if you’re painting the decks on your own boat and saving yourself hundreds of hours of heinous manual labor to remove the old coatings, you can live with a little peeling and crinkling.

Once dry, sand and fair the peeling and crinkling parts, which will usually be around the edges of the old coating, where the solvent can creep under it. Spot prep and re-coat the peeled and crinkled areas with the primer. Do this as many times as you need to, until you’ve got an even coat of primer with no peeling or crinkling, then put on additional coats of primer, per the manufacturers recommendations. Once you’ve achieved this, eureka, you’ve broken the rules and gotten away with it. You can consider your older, one-part coatings to be entombed forever. Go on with the process, sanding and fairing the the primer, and apply the two-part top coat.

It probably goes without saying that if you defy the advice of the manufacturers like this – it says not to do this, very clearly, right on the can – you can forget about any kind of warranty or support from the manufacturer. You’re on your own.

I painted the decks and superstructure on my boat, in this manner, about five years ago. Does it look as good as a professional, sprayed-on job, done in a boatyard? No, it doesn’t. I did it all with rollers and brushes and the results aren’t perfect, but pretty darn good. Where I went to extra effort, like around the cockpit, it’s pretty much perfect. Also, I used a flattening agent, to make the paint a little less glossy, and this is somewhat more forgiving:

For deck and superstructure a gloss finish can be blinding. Also, for the same reason, I went with an off-white. The topsides are full-on glossy white.

After five years a one-part product would already be showing its age and need to be recoated. My decks and superstructure have at least another five years of looking good, and when it comes time to repaint them, I can recoat with two-part products without starting from square one again.

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