Thursday, January 12, 2012

Houston, we have a problem

"Okay Houston, we've had a problem here." "This is Houston, say again Albin 13." "We have had a navigation instrumentation power failure." "Copy that Albin 13, let me talk to the engineers about a work around. Stand by please." "Albin 13, the engineers want to know if you have any wire and connectors?" "Roger, Houston, there is old wire I found in the garage, some split bolt grounding connectors, and wire nuts" "We copy Albin 13, the engineers want to know what is the size of wires, and do you have any electrical tape?" " Houston, we have a piece of old black wire that is about pencil sized, and some smaller red wire. There is also a package of multicolored electrical tape that came from Harbor Freight." "Roger that Albin 13, stand by for instructions." 

"Albin 13, Houston over." "Albin 13 copies Houston." "Albin 13, the engineers want you to cut two six foot pieces of the black wire, and you are to wrap one of the wires completely in red electrical tape. Then take the two pieces of wire and tape them together every six inches" "Houston we copy, stand by please." "Houston, we have the wires wrapped and taped together." "Copy that Albin 13, now cut a four foot piece of the red wire, and wrap it completely in yellow tape." "Roger Houston, confirming the red wire is now all wrapped in yellow tape."

"Albin 13, now pull the large red taped up wire, and the black one, from the primary power buss panel, to the navigation auxiliary panel." "Roger Houston, we have the wire pull done." "Good work Albin 13, engineering wants you to now strip about one inch of insulation away from the ends of the wire you just pulled." We copy Houston, the wires are stripped, and how much longer will this patch take? We are a little anxious about not having navigation capability." "Roger that Albin 13. Engineering is preparing an estimate, their slide rules are doing overtime. They think it won't take much longer. Just keep checking your position out of the port hole. You have to keep the moon in view. In the meantime take all of the black grounds, and using the split bolt connector attach them to the black cable."

"Roger Houston, but I can't get all of the grounds into the connector." "Copy that Albin 13, engineering says to get as many as you can in, and tighten the connector. Then go down eight inches, and strip one inch of the cable insulation away, and use another split bolt connector to attached the rest of the ground wires to the cable, along with the yellow tape wrapped wire, and advise when competed." "Houston, the grounds are attached. Should we attached the red wire to the auxiliary navigation panel? "Albin 13, that is affirmative, use the split bolt connector for that, and attach the yellow wrapped wire to the network box ground. Engineering says to use a lot of electrical tape to wrap up the connections so they won't short. Do not, and I repeat, do not use the duct tape, we may need it later." "Roger Houston we understand, no duct tape." 

"Albin 13, do you copy?" "Rogger Houston, what's next?" Engineering wants you to cycle the power off on the primary power buss panel, and attached the red wrapped cable to lug H2, and the black cable to lug G3. When you're done, cycle the power on and do a systems test." "Houston, this is Albin 13, we have green lights across the board, and are good to go. Thank engineering for us." "We copy Albin 13, have a safe journey."

If this had been a patch you had to do on a desert island, and these were the only materials available, it would work. But this was the biggest kludge I had seen in a long time. A sea of electrical tape, wire nuts, split bolt connectors, and non-marine wire that was stiff as rebar. This is a pretty Albin trawler, and the original factory wiring work is well done. At some point in the past the original navigation systems were replaced with Raymarine gear, and a six breaker Blue Sea panel was installed in the console to feed the new gear. This is where everything went awry.

The reason I ended up on the Albin was because it had a cranky Raymarine DSM 300 sounder module. One of the things that can make this box act up is insufficient power. So when I pulled the panel up, as much as I could to see what kind of connections there were. I was confronted, and confounded by golf ball sized wads of electrical tape, and a mishmash of  stiff as a cob wiring. You couldn't see a single connection. A utility knife and about twenty minutes of time revealed the eclectic choice of components.

All of the wonky stuff was ripped out, and a new feed for power and ground was wired into, gasp, proper terminal blocks. The old grounds were rerouted to the new terminal block, and a new power feed was pulled to the Blue Sea panel via its new terminal block. If something new is added, power will be easy to access, and it won't be hidden under miles of old black tape. The Blue Sea panel can now be lifted up, and out of the console because it is no longer held in place by rebar. I just can't imagine why someone would take all of the time, and trouble to wrap these wires up in colored tape. You need red wire? Go by some of the right type. Everything needed to do it right was $36 at West Marine. The red wire was wrapped in yellow tape because I sure the guy just ran out of black tape. Go figure. The Raymarine DSM is still cranky, but not as much. A software upgrade for it is next on the list. 

Want to read a portion of the Apollo 13 transcript that has the now famous line? Click here.


  1. OMG. Split bolts????? Just when you thought you had seen it all...

  2. I've never seen split bolt connectors. They're not normal marine equipment are they?

  3. Robert, and She:Kon, I was flabbergasted, and no they are not typically used on boats, but they might be used in some rare cases for really large vessel bonding system. They are usually used to connect together two larger copper ground wires such as buried pool bonding systems, and lightening ground wires, not six or more varying sized conductors. The last time I looked, you could not find them at West Marine, but you can buy them at Home Depot or the ilk. It was the golf ball sized balls of tape that drove me nuts. You couldn't tell what was connected to what until you got the miles of tape off.

  4. Bill: You still need to get a copy editor. Grammar, spelling, etc.

    "you're", not "your"..."roger" not "rodger"...etc.
    Perhaps you could hire Rwidman from The Hull Truth to proofread?

    1. I know Karl, and thanks for spotting them. With slightly over $300 in blog advertising revenue in 2011, the budget for an editor is a little on the thin side. I do all of my writing very early in the morning, due to having a real day job. The hardest thing to spot is my own errors after I have written them. My brain, and eyes fool me all the time. My pilot friend George Flavell, comes in a day or two later, and finds most of the ones I miss. Thanks, I will work harder at it. Bill

  5. I've found that older Sportfish boats built by Ocean Yachts used a split bolt on the green wires (A/C ground) behind the main power panel with lots of green tape to hold this together.