Posted by: wrmcnutt | June 22, 2015

12 Volt Man

With apologies to Jimmy Buffet, I’ve been working on the electrical system of “Charleston Lady,” my West Wight Potter – 19, for the past couple of weeks.  East Tennessee has blasted into the 90’s as summer has arrived in the South, so I’ve only been able to work for a couple of hours a day.

It all started early last fall when I took it into my head to voyage downstream from my home waters on the Tennessee River, past Loudon Dam, with the goal of transiting the lock for the first time, overnight-ing on the boat, and returning the next day.  While there were challenges to be overcome, as there are in all voyages, this tale begins after I selected an anchorage, found a spot, got my hook set, and prepared dinner.  As the sun set over the riverbanks of the wildlife sanctuary I’d chosen for my overnight anchorage I took it up on myself to light my anchor light.

For the non-boaty types among my readers, the anchor light is a required safety feature that transforms your boat from a large, black object sitting in the middle of larger, blacker night, into an illuminated, picturesque vessel drifting gently with the current at anchor on the river.  This, theoretically, prevents a boatload of drunken college students doing forty knots in a ski-boat daddy paid for from running  you down on their way back to their anchorage/dock from the beer run.

I was deep, deep within a side-branch of the river, a good sixty yards from open water and wildly unlikely to be run over.  But rules are rules, and good habits gained now may keep me from getting chopped to chutney later when I’m anchored under less favorable conditions.  So I leaned over to push the toggle that would turn on the anchor light.  The fifteen year old plastic switch shattered under my finer.  The mounting tabs broke off, the case split in to small fragments, and whole mess turned into small shards of plastic.  In a Quality Assurance Meeting, this would be referred to as a “negative outcome of the standard procedure.”

Now, there had been a small problem with panel ever since I bought my boat:  the switch labeled “depth finder” did nothing.  If the main switch was on, I could operate my depth finder regardless of the position of the panel switch. So the short term solution was to disassemble the panel and re-wire it, routing my anchor light to my depth finder switch.  A quick test and:  the anchor light was now controlled by the depth finder switch and I could still operate my depth finder, regardless of the setting of the switch.

I’ll just swap out that switch over the winter.  Or maybe even the whole panel – after all, ALL of those switches are 15 years old. If one went bad on me . . . Yeah.  I’ll get that done before Christmas.  (Quit laughing!)

They’re laughing because they know what happened.  There are ALL SORTS of things that are more interesting and more fun than working on a boat electrical system, and the summer sailing season was upon me before I knew it.

As it happened, I had a mom and the Small Child overnight-ing on the boat.  If you have a Small Child in your life, you know that bedtime includes Story Book Time, and that means there needs to be sufficient light.  In addition to the problems detailed above, two of my cabin lights had died.  Well, the light was insufficient in the remaining light to properly execute Story Time.  Uncle Bill’s boat has officially been LAME.  Well, I may be closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, but be that as it may, THIS kind of lame will not be permitted to happen again.  So off we go to West Marine, for we need “marine grade” electrical components, lest corrosion set in.  While I was there buying new switches (because, of course, it couldn’t be loose connections, oh no, it had to be the most EXPENSIVE component of the cabin lights . . .) I noticed the fuse panels and thought, “oh yeah, I need to take care of that.”

And then I heard a siren song.  “Pick me,” she sang, “in addition to the four switches you need, I have TWO ADDITIONAL 12v sockets to plug in accessories.”

So I grabbed the little hoyden off of the hook and added her to my swag bag of electrical doodads.

Well, of course, the switches were a little too large, so I had to grind out the stainless steel fittings just a little.  The screws STILL aren’t the right size, so one of the light mounted a little wobbly. I need to get a larger screw the next time I’m at West marine.  But now I can turn to the simple swap out of those two fuse panels.  I opened the package.

“Um, cutie-pie.  You’re not a fuse panel. You’re a breaker panel.”

“You should have thought about that before you put a ring on it honey.  You’ve broken my seals and lost the receipt.  Besides, check out my 12v accessories sockets. You know you want me.”

Step One:  Remove fuse panel from hull-liner.  “Wow!  Look at all those wires.  And they’re going EVERYWHERE.  It’s only four circuits.  How many wires can they POSSIBLY need?”

Step Two: Mark ALL wires and where they came from.  Because I’ve done this dance before.

It got both a little easier and a little weirder at this point.  Roughly a third of that intimidating nest of wires turned out to be jumpers for the illuminated switches.  That it, they went from point to point ON the old fuse panel. I didn’t need to do ANYTHING with them.  So, win.

But the actual wiring got weird on me.  For starters, I had a whole mess of red wires.  One wire, used as a bus, ganged them all together.  Same for the black wires.  Then, each black and red wire attached to a prong on the fuse box. But I also had white, brown, and a single blue wire going off into the ether, Somewhere Into The Boat.

I’ll skip all the research I did.  It’s all very technical.  Well, actually, I retained NONE of it, and ended up with the old “monkey push the wire” approach.  I hooked it up every way I could think of until it all appeared to work.  “Trace every wire on the boat from one end to the other” is now on the “Boat List” for this fall when I can tolerate crawling around those tiny spaces.  But that, as they say, is another story.

I put the boat back in the water this weekend, so the final mounting of the (currently functional) breaker panel may wait a bit.  It was time to go sailing.


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