Sunday, March 20, 2011

That boat ain't right, a primer.

I'm currently doing a typical job installing electronics on a new boat. It's a 26' T-top center console boat, and it embodies all of the things I wish the owner had looked for before buying it. This boat is mid range priced, and is really no better, or worse than most of them. I'm not going to show you a picture of it, but I have gathered some examples from other boats to demonstrate some of the issues I perennially complain about in boats of this size and style.

I have never actually timed it, but I think that pulling wires from A to B is at least half of the cost of installing electronics, and in many cases, even more so. So it begs the question, why do boat builders make this task so difficult? The other issue involved is why builders seem to have such a difficult time anticipating what kind of equipment their buyers might install, and provide some accommodation for it. This really shouldn't be too hard to do, or are there cosmic forces at work here I just can't fathom? So today I'm talking to the buyers of these boats, and the intent is to help you avoid the worst of these problems in advance, or at least know what the warts will be when you buy your new toy.

So let's start with the T-top, and what to look for. Ninety degree pulls should be avoided if possible, and where you find one, you will typically find two. These turns are difficult to make with wiring. So stand back, and imagine you, yes you, will have to pull a 1/2" radar cable from the electronics box up top, and into the console. You can then also think about how you are going to install the missing pull wire in the first place. Long hemostats, shop vac, magnets, a skyhook?

The next picture shows you what can happen to a cable pulled through a sharp ninety degree turn. Just imagine the havoc two hard tuns could create, if you are not very careful with the pull. Either you take a lot of time creeping inch by inch, or you risk cutting the cable.

Now the next thing to check, is the condition of the pull holes, and this requires you to undergo some physical danger. Clamber up to the electronics box, and carefully stick your finger into the pull hole, and feel the edges inside. A Boolean AND/OR sort of thing is going to happen here. The first scenario is you can't get your finger into the pull hole at all, and you already have a problem we will get to in just a minute. The second scenario is the inside feels like it was gnawed by angry beavers with corundum teeth, leaving razor sharp edges that will slit your wires open in a heart beat. You know you can actually buy a deburring tool for about $15.00 that fixes this problem, yes just $15.00 for a good one. The other thing you might find is the hole was cut into the pipe with a 1000 megawatt atomic torch leaving all types of sharp spurs that hang up your wires. Oh yes, while your still up there look for the pull wire the builder left behind when they pulled the wires in, and check if they have a pull installed on the other side of the box. Nope? Ask why they didn't bother?

Now lets look at the other "OR" part of our Boolean exercise. You couldn't get you finger into the pull hole. This must be because the builder didn't think you were actually going to be able to afford the electronics after buying the new boat. Look at this hole, and tell me how to get a radar cable through it. It's gets worse, if you look closely, the hole into the T-top tubing is much smaller than the hole in the fiberglass. Maybe with a gallon of grease, and a two ton winch, but in the real world, the existing cables would have to be back pulled, the holes at both ends enlarged, and all of the cables pulled back in. By the way, you can have the Boolean "AND". This means the hole was gnawed by beavers, is too small, and it already full of wires. So the question of the day is "How much more would it have cost to make a larger hole in the first place? The answer is it wouldn't have cost anything more, so why don't they do it?

It is certainly possible to do this right, and the builder in the picture below gets it. A smooth sweep out of the electronics box, and another into the console, with a hole the same size as the pipe on the other side. The interior surfaces were chamfered smooth. This couldn't have cost much more to do it right, and the cables just slid on through. Two things to check left, and we are through with the T-top. First, did they install a plate to mount a radar, and if you put on a radar, will it be taller than the anchor light requiring you to install a new light? One last thing, look for the tube that the wires will pull through, and follow it up to the top where wiring from GPS's and the ilk will pull down from the top. Now slide your hand under the canvas, and see if there is a hole there to install a pull wire, If there isn't one, the canvas will have to be removed, and a hole drilled costing you some additional change.

Buyers should do their electronics shopping mentally, before running out and buying the new toy. Visit retailers and look around online. Get the dimensions of the electronics you might want, and make sure you have the depths of the units, and then add a couple more inches for the cables that will stick out behind the units. Carry your tape measure with you while boat shopping. With this in mind, you will have a hard time getting adversely bit by the no space syndrome. The console below has about three inches behind it at the top and about four inches at the bottom. I got the stuff to fit, but not without some heroics to do it. Many consoles look commodious on the outside, but inside they can be very shallow. So take a look behind the console, and check for both access, and depth. You can't get there without removing a large bulkhead? Ask the dealer to remove it while you watch it happen. This will tell you how long it will take me to do it, and the effort required to get access. The dealer won't do this? Find another one.

Good, now check the internal infrastructure available for hooking up new electronics. Is there a fuse block installed, that isn't already filled with existing equipment? It's okay if it isn't there, just ask the dealer to point out the large red power lead in the console that is capable of thirty amps or so, that was installed to support a new fuse block, and just add the additional cost to buy it, and have it installed. What no power lead? It has to be installed and pulled from the battery switch? Also check if there is room to mount black boxes used by sounders and other devices. Make sure that a pull wire to the transom has been installed there, and is hanging in plan sight. Oh, check the transom area to make sure the other end is there too.

Walk around the boat and take a good look. Will you want an anchor winch? Now is the time to think about this, because on many boats this is not possible, without a major investment in reconfiguring the craft. Open the anchor locker and see how much rode it can hold. Remember safe anchoring requires a scope of about 5 to 1, and in 100ft of water you would need 500ft of rode. I wouldn't settle for a locker that held less than 300ft of rode. Boats owners with no anchor/bow pulpit often have to resort to lightweight Danforth style anchors (give me a Bruce style anchor any day of the week) because you, again you, are going to have to haul it up from the side of the boat, and drag the wet rode and anchor back into the locker.

I'm almost done with my personal bugaboos. Check where the batteries are. Is there a battery switch, and at least two batteries? This should not be an option. Could you actually change the batteries yourself, or do you have to hire a bodybuilder to do it? Find the access to the bilge, and other assorted pumps in the boat. Open it and see if you can get to, and change or repair any of these items. Look, and open all hatches. Do they fit well, and have dams to drain water away from the bilge? Console doors open and close with out binding, and can lock? Is there a drain inside the console? See any stress cracks in corners, especially in the transom area? Ask if there is wood in the transom. It's okay if there is, at least you know to be doubly careful to well seal the below waterline fittings and fasteners, but no wood is better.

Look under the hull. A boat builder that is paying attention will not place water pickups on both sides of the hull, which insures that the transducer will have a turbulent water flow, instead of a smooth laminar flow. It's best if the water pickups are all on the port side.

Just a couple last pieces of advice. All boats water test well on a nice day, see if you can do yours on a blustery day. This will really show you how dry the hull is, and if it is a new boat, pay the extra money to buy as much extended warranty on the engines out as far as possible. When modern engines really break, you will have to really pay to get them fixed, and it will improve the resell value.

Don't be fooled by shiny surfaces, and colorful Corinthian Naugahyde esque materials. Ask questions, talk to other boat owners, use the web to check forums, and remember that beauty is only gelcoat thick, poor construction and lack of forethought goes straight to both your keel, and wallet. The installer thus speaketh, don't get smited.

I an working on another version of this story covering vessels from about 30' to 60', I can't wait. Bigger isn't alway better. If you have pictures of these types of issues send them to me, and I will collect them put them up in groups with attribution. Max size of about 500K will do, and close ups only. I won't identify the manufacturer, it's not productive, and I don't want a contract put out on my hide. "Installer found dead. Stabbed with fiberglass shiv". Nope, not me.

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