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.

New Steering Wheel Adventure: Part 2

Clark March 30th, 2015

In Part 1 we discussed how I got myself into this mess in the first place. Now we’re into the heart of the mess. Upon reflection, this is the most serious marine carpentry project I’ve ever got myself into. I’ve taken on some big marine carpentry projects, but they were large areas to be fiberglassed or painted, so there was more room for error. In this project, rebuilding the teak steering console, everything will be varnished and in plain sight, so there is really no room for error: Every joint must be perfect.

The old console was still structurally sound, except for some rot around the base that I saturated with epoxy and glassed over years ago. But cosmetically it was too bad to put back into place. The nearly fifty-year-old teak veneer on the plywood had peeled back in many places:




And there were a few things I didn’t like about the old console: It had many holes cut into it for various gauges, instruments, and outlets, some still in use, some not. One of these was an AC outlet about six inches above the cockpit sole, meaning it would be soaked in even a minor cockpit flooding. Also, at the bottom of the console was a (non-watertight) door, and behind that door was the main electrical panel, and at the very bottom, in what was a continuation of the cockpit sole inside the console, were the main battery switches. All of this stuff could have been catastrophically soaked in a cockpit flooding. During a ten year circumnavigation through a tropical storm, multiple tsunamis, a Horn rounding, and two crossings of the Drake Passage it never got flooded, but it could. Therefore, this project will involve largely re-wiring the boat, but we’ll save that for Part 3.

So I was off to MacBeath Hardwoods to buy myself a sheet of 3/4-inch teak fronted plywood. I only needed a half sheet, but a half sheet was $180 while a full sheet was $220, and I’m no fool. But here is where I learned my first lesson about fine plywood: I had to have them cut it in half to fit it in the Subaru, and their panel saw took the veneer off in places:

It’s a known thing among finish carpenters that the factory edges on plywood are always straight, but seldom useable: You figure your 4 x 8 foot piece of plywood will have to lose an inch or so all around to get clean edges.

So, how do we get a nice, clean edge on our teak-fronted plywood, without chips missing, and without “shag?” We use a table saw, for starters, and put on a new, fine-toothed blade:
On top is the course blade; below is the fine, new blade I’ve just swapped out.

Cleaner cuts are made by lowering the blade so it just barely cuts through the top of the plywood, thus cutting the plywood at a shallow, oblique angle:

There are other tricks, but I found after a few cuts that the new blade at a low angle gave me good results. I’ve read that you can put masking tape over the line you’re about to cut, but then I’ve read that the tape can lift up the veneer in places. I was also advised to score the surface with a utility knife, right along the cut line. I tried this and it worked, but not much cleaner than just cutting with the good blade.

From the pieces of the disassembled old console I copied, as best I could, each section. I thought I’d been very precise, but with this kind of carpentry, even 1/32 of an inch can change the geometry or be unsightly. In this vein, another little trick I figured out is to angle the blade a little while cutting. On most table saws you can change the angle of the blade, so I just gave it 5 or 10 degrees. In this photo it’s slightly exaggerated to make the point:

To show it in practice, a crude diagram, in which the angles are also exaggerated:

The outside corner is the part that will show. Obviously this is still a butt joint and we want reasonable surface area of contact, but there are no right angles on boats, so if something is a little off, as it invariably will be, it’s better that gap is where it doesn’t show rather than where it does. Unfortunately the blades on most tables saws only angle one way, so you have to think this through before you make your cuts.

Once you cut your teak-fronted plywood it should be treated with great care. All it takes is a casual swipe of one of the edges at the wrong angle and you’ve got splinters and shag hanging off and a piece unfit for installation (I know this).

Back to the boat. The two sides of the old console were tabbed in with fiberglass, so I repeated this with my new sides:

I had to put the middle pieces in place temporarily, just to get the geometry right:

I was very happy with this day’s work, and I’d got all cleaned up and ready to leave, when I fit a couple of the neighboring pieces of teak into place and realized the whole mess was canted way over to starboard. Luckily the epoxy was still wet, or this would have been a catastrophic error in judgment, and much of my hard work would have had to be ripped out. I had to use the boom vang tackle to crank the whole magilla way back to port, and left it under tension overnight while the epoxy dried.

Next it was on to the slanted box thingy that houses the steering chain. Of course I’d removed the rusty, crusty, 48-year-old steering chain and let it soak in diesel for about a month.

This is where things got weird. Nothing was square. Even the fiberglass front of the cockpit slopes a bit. The chain box has to meet this sloping surface, mate with the rest of the console perfectly, then exit the cockpit through the cutout in the hatch to port. I thought I’d copied the old pieces closely, but for this kind of work close isn’t enough. It has to be a perfect fit. I trimmed things here and there with a belt sander, but 1/64 of an inch shaved off in one place would change the geometry of the whole box once again. The front of the box even tapers: you’ll notice the inboard end, which mates with the console, is skinnier than the outboard end, which exits through the hatch. Nothing was square! I’m not even sure if the laws of gravity applied.

It may not look like much, but that was a whole afternoon’s work just to get that box thingy to look right.

Next I painted the inside of the console with gray bilge paint. Why do we paint parts of boats that will never been seen or see the light of day? I don’t know:

Next I mounted the customized, rebuilt, and repainted steerer in the front of the console, hooked on the chain, and mounted it:

To crown it all is the woodwork around the instrument cluster and throttle/shifter, which looks simple, but it’s actually twenty different pieces of wood. I used the old pieces, where possible, but had to build most of it from scratch, and this took me three separate visits to the boat. I’ve got two babies at home, so boat work is done in stolen chunks of 1-2 hours, if I’m lucky. Remember how I said that 1/32 of an inch makes a big difference in the geometry? Here’s where things getting a little off, from old to new, comes to a head:

I had to shave down that tapering piece of teak, about 1/8-inch at its thickest, to make up for things gone wrong elsewhere. The instrument cover wouldn’t close without it, but as long as the cover is closed the patch won’t show.

And that delicate edge problem with teak? I managed the bang this piece once it was in place, so I’m just going to live with it. I’ll think of some creative way to patch it, something better than wood putty, I hope:

Here is the new (another story we’ll save for Part 3) instrument cluster in place:

As far as the carpentry part, the console is done except for plugging all the screw holes with teak plugs, sanding, and finishing, which I’ll phase in with re-doing the wiring. I’m pretty sure I started this project in earnest in December. It’s now almost April. Sigh.

New Island Formation In Tonga

Clark March 17th, 2015

The formation of this new island, Hunga Tonga, is getting worldwide publicity. In the diptych above you can see two unconnected islands in the image to the left, now nearly joined by the new eruption in the image on the right. If you haven’t seen the photos taken by GP Orbassano, an Italian expat who lives in Nuku’alofa, you can see them here.

All along I thought this eruption/new island must be the same as one that made the rounds years ago. In 2006 a cruiser, Fredrik Fransson of s/v Maiken, motored through a sea of floating pumice, then came upon the eruption, and the nascent island. He sent back striking photos and an account. If you haven’t seen those, you can see them here.

It turns out I’m not keeping very good track of my newly-formed Tongan islands: The 2006 eruption was at Home Reef, about 150 miles away. Home Reef has erupted and surfaced, only to be washed away again, several times in recent history. I can’t seem to find any information about it’s current state. They say Hunga Tonga might wash away too. It looks pretty substantial to me, but not substantial enough to buy a timeshare.

NASA photo of Home Reef:

The earth is alive!

New Steering Wheel Adventure, Part 1

Clark March 16th, 2015

Let’s cut to the chase here: If you’re going to buy a new steering wheel, make sure it fits your boat, cuz making your boat fit the steering wheel is a big deal.

The venerable steering wheel on my nearly 50-year-old boat is tired. It’s made of of aluminum and coated in Bakelite, or some such substance. The aluminum is bubbling and corroding through the coating in several places, and black electrical tape covers the horrors and protects my hands from injury.
I’d had my eye out in second-hand chandleries, and online, because new steering wheels are expensive. The cheapest you can posssibly get a brand new basic 24-inch (my size) stainless wheel is about $700, but if you want a little bling, like teak around the outside, you quickly get up over $1200. I once thought I wanted a classic teak wheel, for my classic yacht, with the spokes and handles – full Gilligan’s Island – but the handles can cause mischief. My dad once had the pocket torn out of his windbreaker by the classic teak wheel on our family yacht when our dutiful autopilot made a hard turn to starboard. And classic teak wheels, new, are also very expensive. This one, in 24-inch diameter, runs about $2300 from Edson:
So a destroyer wheel it would be, and when I found this one on Ebay for $200 I pounced:
It was advertised as having teak accents, but I think it’s actually rosewood, or some other kind of dense tropical hardwood. I was very happy with my bargain hunting. There was one little thing I didn’t pay much attention to, the hub or taper size (the size of the hole in the middle). I figured, from the photos, that there was plenty of meat in the hub of the new wheel, and if it needed to be altered it would mean a quick trip to my local machine shop.

Au contraire. The hub was indeed the wrong size. It was a 3/4-inch taper and my old wheel takes a 1-inch taper.
I popped in to see my machinist and he broke the news to me: “Thats’ actually not so simple.” It appears they do it on a lathe, and lathes don’t have enough room for something 24 inches across. I thought they would bore out the middle with a tapered reamer, like this:

Tapered reamers cost about $200, and I guess your average machinist doesn’t happen to keep a variety of them. I thought about buying one myself, as I’ve got access to a mill, but the reamer would cost as much as the wheel, and there was a good chance it wouldn’t work: The machinist said that because the keyway was already cut in the hub of the wheel the reamer might go all lopsided, or lock up, or just not work out. Just buying the reamer was dicey, because they’re measured by size and pitch, and I wasn’t terribly confident in my ability to measure whether I had a 1-inch, 7-degree taper vs. a 1-inch, 12-degree taper.

The machinist suggested removing the “steerer”, the part the wheel fits on, with bearings and a sprocket, and turning the shaft from the steerer DOWN to 3/4-inch. This would be a major project, as the steerer is well-attached and buried in the 50-year-old console on my 50-year-old boat. Replacing the steerer with a new one was also about a $700 proposition.

A steerer:
He also suggested cutting the hub out of the wheel, then turning it in a lathe, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to weld it back into my wheel exactly straight. Sigh.

I finally got hold of the biggest, baddest machine shop in the region that does all the big ship propellers in Alameda. They said they could do it for about $200 on their lathe, which was big enough to accept something 24 inches across, but I’d have to give them the steerer too, so they could confirm the fit. Sigh.

If the steerer had to come off the boat, I’d try to save myself $200 and turn it down myself, and thus began a fairly overwhelming boat project, which has rendered my boat a construction site and unusable till summer, if I’m lucky. To skip ahead, the project got out of control because to remove the steerer I had to largely disassemble the 50-year-old, crumbling wooden console, and in the process I decided to rebuild the console. Here’s what it looked like a few weeks ago. There was a steering wheel there once, and my boat could actually sail places:

…but back to that steerer.

I removed the greasy, rusty, filthy, 50-year-old chain and got the steerer out, then disassembled the steerer to extract just the tapered shaft, the part that would need to be turned down. Of course I would completely rebuild the steerer, regrease it, repaint it etc., which is just one small and relatively painless facet of this project gone awry.

Then I approached The Beast:
The lathe at my work weighs as much as a Ford F350 pickup, and is bolted to the concrete floor with 3/4″ studs.

I’ve always used it to turn plastic, which is relatively forgiving, with little black curlicues flying everywhere. This would be my first try with steel. If I destroyed the shaft it would be minor catastrophe, because replacing a shaft from a steerer built in England fifty years ago isn’t going to happen.

And what I needed to do involved a little guesswork. If you look at my crude diagram, you’ll see I knew where I needed to be at the fat end of the taper, and at the skinny end of the taper, and I knew how long the taper needed be, IE the distance from the fat part to the skinny part. I could measure all of these from my new wheel. And a bit of good news, the threaded part at the end fit through my new wheel, so I wouldn’t have to turn that part down and cut new threads.


A modern lathe can be programed it to do these things – I need to get from A to B at a 20-degree angle – but this feature was not available on the lathe at my work. As you can see, it was built in 1956, long before programmable anything:


If I wanted to do some math in my head I could figure that for each 1/1000th of an inch I went to the right I’d go .3/1000 inboard, but this would have been tedious and more prone to mistakes, methinks, so I planned to just take it slowly and remove the shaft from the lathe to check the fit with the wheel frequently. With trepidation and fear I approached The Beast, a machine capable of ripping off a human arm in a nanosecond.


A good trick I learned is pressing a flat file on the work while it’s turning in the lathe: this takes down the ridges and evens things out. After an hour or so of turning, it was a decent fit to the new wheel, but this was only the beginning…

Colin Firth to Play Donald Crowhurst in Biopic

Clark February 10th, 2015

Talk about a long wait. The book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, was completely out of print for some years, but a cult favorite and the subject of many late night cockpit ruminations.

It tells the tale of Donald Crowhurst who, along with the likes of Bernard Moitessier, Robin Knox-Johnson, and Chay Blyth, entered the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968, the first singlehanded, non-stop round-the-world race. Indebted and under intense pressure to succeed, yet woefully unprepared and inexperienced, Crowhurst never made it farther than the South Atlantic. He faked his positions to appear he was in the lead, then went mad and committed suicide. The story has come back into vogue, just from the passing of time, or somehow reflective of our current fascinations and insecurities.

The excellent documentary, Deep Water, came out in 2006, telling the story with excellent original footage and interviews. I give it my highest recommendation:

But now the story is hitting the big time, a full Hollywood production: blue chip director, blue chip writer, and Oscar winner for best actor, Colin Firth, playing Crowhurst. You’ve got to admit they really look alike:

I can’t wait! I’m very excited to see how Hollywood spins the tale…or completely botches it. Please, please, oh pleeeeeze don’t blow it with the sailing stuff. Hire a simple technical consultant – any one of us will do – to consult on the film so the sailing bits aren’t rendered ridiculous to sailors, like All Is Lost, The Perfect Storm, or pretty much every other movie about sailing or the sea. Please don’t have white squalls materializing out of nowhere, 100-foot waves swallowing boats, vicious sharks chewing on rudders, or people dangling from rigging for no good reason with lit cutting torches with no hoses attached to them.

I wonder who’ll play Sir Robin Knox-Johnson? I’m going with Geoffrey Rush.

Wire Fraud Cruisers Nabbed in Bahamas

Clark February 9th, 2015

The Winberg’s second attempt to flee justice aboard a cruising sailboat has been foiled. The couple faced trial for wire fraud, and decades in prison, if convicted.

The couple and their seven children tried to flee the country in early December, but ended up sinking in Galveston Bay, Texas. Their infant wasn’t breathing, but was revived with CPR. The locals knew something was up when they fled ASAP, and abandoned the boat. It turned out they’d given fake names.

Now, two months later they almost got away with it again…almost. A different boat, a different coast, and they were off to the Bahamas, where American tourists promptly recognized them, and alerted the Bahamian authorities. They are now in Miami and the children are being assessed by Child Protective Services.

The Winbergs obviously didn’t know quite what they were doing when it came to sailing, per the incident in Galveston. I guess when it comes to fleeing the country one doesn’t have a lot of options, if wanted by the law. If you get on a commercial flight you’ll be nabbed. Driving into Mexico, and points beyond, is an option. Sailing off into the sunset is another, but they probably should have gone farther than the Bahamas, and maybe hid out somewhere a little more off the beaten path than the Staniel Cay Yacht Club.

More here.

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