Sunday, July 9, 2017


So a big powerboat got tossed into the water last Friday, one that has been sitting in the yard since we had tucked Kintala into her slip. Having never been tasked with doing anything on that particular boat, I had no idea of what was being done or when it was supposed to be finished. Nor did I really care; not my circus, not my monkeys.

Kintala tucked into her slip next to the power boat shed

Once it was in the water, Boss-not-so-new pulled me off the mast I was rewiring. I don’t know the whole story, but my guess is the owner of the boat told us to splash the thing.  I’m sure it was suggested to him that might not be the best idea since there were several leaks that had yet to be addressed. For some reason he insisted, and thus was I handed a bucket of monkeys in the guise of making sure the bilge pumps were operating. Apparently, it is bad form to have a boat sink at the dock even if the owner insists on putting it in the water. I have trouble getting my head around that, but what else could be done? There is no law that says a yard can’t launch a leaking boat. If we insisted on not putting it in the water wouldn’t we, in some fashion, be stealing it? We get paid to fix boats, not protect owners from themselves. And, come to think of it, that might be a good thing. I don’t know if there is enough money in the whole world to cover the costs of protecting - some owners anyway - from themselves.

The first challenge in any boat is to find the appropriate controls and switches to make the things happen that one wants to happen. Old boats tend to collect switches that have no labels, switches that are labeled to do one thing when they have been rewired to do something else, and switches that, though labeled, don’t actually do anything at all. Not only did I have to figure out how to work the pumps, we had to know, for an absolute certainty, that the batteries were being charged from the shore power. Not as easy as one might suspect since this boat has no switch marked” battery charger”. It does have one that says “converter” which did the trick; verified by checking the actual voltage that hit the batteries when the “converter” was turned on.

The boat has a set of circuit breakers that “arm” the three bilge pumps to come on automatically with the activation of a float switch. It also has three switch/circuit breakers that just turn the pumps on. Little lights next to the breakers and/or switches indicated that the pumps are armed and/or that that they are on.

Not actually true. The lights simply indicate that there is power on the breaker panel end of the wire. If the wire is broken or the pump itself inoperative, the little light will happily glow just the same. With the boat leaking, trusting little glowing lights was likely not what Boss-not-so-new had in mind. Thus I crawled my way into the various places where the pumps were located, all switches in “manual run” and verified that each pump was, in fact, pumping. Then I went back to the panel, turned all the pumps to “armed”, and crawled back down into the various places to check that the pumps came on with the float switches activated. Two did, but the forward one, the one whose place was deepest and hardest to reach, didn’t.

Of course.

The first check was the float switch itself, since the pump worked. Actually not the switch so much, since the wiring to the switch appeared to be pulled apart, kind of, not really cut. Not sure how that could have happened but hey, take the easy way out first. It only took a few minutes to do a temporary patch on the wires, just to see. Which was good since, even wired up, the switch didn’t work and the pump didn’t run.

These switches normal fail “open” meaning that they don’t put power to the pump motor even when the water gets deep and scary. But this one tested as having failed “closed”. This was not good since that meant the pump should think that the water was deep and scary and be running, which it wasn’t. Since the switch was clearly toast, changing it was the first order of business. The new switch didn’t make the pump run though, truth to tell, I was hoping some kind of electrical magic would happen. So now the challenge was to figure out where the electrons were going astray between the control panel and the pump.

The wire off the back of the circuit breaker was a pretty purple. The wire at the motor was an ugly black…with a butt splice already in it. As usual there was no hint of a wiring diagram or schematic anywhere. Still, the only reasonable assumption (given that the circuit breaker shouldn’t be doing anything other than powering up the bilge pump) was that the wire should go directly from breaker to motor. Clearly this circuit had been butchered, at least one wire spliced in that wasn’t there when the boat left the factory. There is no telling where in the boat this particular butchering took place, and the work day was running out.

So I butchered it some more. At the moment the “Manual” switch powers up the pump through the float switch. No one is going to be on the boat this weekend, and Boss-not-so-new is fully aware of what I did to keep the boat from sinking. (Note: Fatty Goodlander would say that the boat wasn’t sinking, it was leaking. IF the pumps failed, THEN it would be sinking.)

Poking around also revealed that most of the circuits on this boat, including the other two bilge pumps, are put together with wire nut, not butt splices. Wire nuts are fine, if one is wiring a house. When one is wiring boat circuits that are likely to end up in the water (like bilge pumps), wire nuts are, well, just nuts. I hard wired in the forward bilge pump because I couldn’t make my fingers do anything less. But no one was going to pay me to rewire the rest of the bilge circuits and, well, I work for money. Not to be too blunt, but if you insist on putting a boat in the water that is “leaking” then I don’t really care if it sinks, only that it doesn’t sink because of something I did.

At one point, while working on the forward pump, I realized that the center pump had quit working. I realized this because the water at that pump had gotten deep enough to float its switch (the one I had tested before) but the pump wasn’t running. As it turned out there was a single butt splice in the center pump’s power wire, a splice that had never been crimped shut. My moving around in a tight place had pulled it loose, disabling the pump. An easy fix but…seriously?


Donald Strong said...

I love these posts. They make me believe that my 37 year old Catalina sail boat has been pretty well cared for.
Regards, Don

Matthew Richter said...

I agree, these posts are great and really make me love my old boat more and more! Fortunately for me the previous owner of my boat DIDN'T do many of the things I read here.

James said...

" Not my circus, not my monkeys " - I haven't heard that before, classic! I love your posts and sense of humor, keep it up!

Tod Germanica said...

Witnessing so much marine folly makes you keep a cool rational eye on the joy of boating, no pay no work. Quite right. Your funny stories are often how-not-to-DIY. They make us other nautical duffers feel better-a little bit.

Phil Gow said...

Yikes! Interesting insight into the workings of the marine industry and its patrons. My wife really likes, "Not my circus, not my monkeys". She did literally laugh out loud.

PhilipW said...

The general standard of electrical wiring I've seen on recreational boats is appalling. I've spent much of my working life in the industrial automation field and I have to say I'm just underwhelmed by most of what I am seeing.

The sad part is that there are many commercial or industrial components that would do a much better job without adding significant cost. The big cost is labour, so spending a bit extra on the parts needed to do the job right should not be a deal breaker for most people.