Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The top ten things that make my life difficult.

These are the things that grate on me. Although the numbers are very difficult to get at, I would estimate that annual North American sales of marine electronics related gear is about $800,000,000 per year. My guess is about 15 percent of the sales costs are required to install all of this gear. This works out to about $120,000,000 a year. Of this number easily half is spent working around poor boat design. That's $60,000,000 in annual costs to owners that good boat design would have saved.

Lets look at a small typical new boat package. Chart plotter ($2500), radar ($1000), VHF ($150), sounder module ($500), transducer ($200), VHF antenna ($80). This totals $4230. Using the 15% rule, installation costs would be about $635, this would be about one man day plus or minus to install the system. The wasted cost to the buyer is $317.00, This is a small system, and not an extreme case, of which there are many. So right out of its shrink wrap the new boat is already costing owners lots of real money. 

The incapability of most boat builders, both large and small in understanding even the basics of how their customers will use their boats, and what they might want to install on them astounds me daily. Why are the water pick ups on both sides of the hull insuring I can't install a properly working transom mount transducer? Did you think this might be important, or you just don't know any better? It was purported by marketing to be a offshore fishing boat, but there is no mounting plate to install a radar, and no way to get the cable down to the chart plotter. The three hours it took to pull the transducer wire to the console because the 2" piece of PVC pipe pretending to be a grown up conduit is already packed to the max. The boat with no place to install an autopilot compass. A console interior with no mounting blocks to install gear. No fuse blocks, power leads, documentation, wire pulls, and many others round out the list.

# 1 The wire pull.

I chose this picture from the many I have illustrating this point. This is a name brand boat owned by a multi-billion dollar parent company. You now can't get a human hair sized wire through this hole, much less the radar cable that I wanted to install. The sad thing this is all to common. Multiple 90 degree turns, sharp as a razor un-chaffed holes that are all too small to do the job. Certainly you can afford a larger drill bit can't you?

While we are on the subject, there is this stuff called conduit. I think most boat builders are unaware of this tubular material because I don't see it often, or maybe they are used to draping the stuff inside the hull before the deck is attached. It's a very rare boat that can't improve on this problem.

#2 Accessibility, the manger has no room.

This breaks out into three broad sub-categories. You're looking first at the "Blivet." This is 30 pounds of marine gear shoved into a 20 pound space, making usable console real estate more valuable then Trump's Park Avenue penthouse. Two trim tab pumps, Mercury power steering pump, two batteries, battery switches, water tank fill hose, waste pump out hose, and plenty more. You couldn't design in another place to put some of this stuff? Really?

If you look down in the bottom right hand corner you can see the autopilot pump peeking out. I cut a ton of tie wraps to move that big bundle of white wires enough to get the pump wedged under the water fill pipe, and barely fitted onto the floor of the console. This was the only place to put it. There is a third battery under the console. I don't know why they didn't stick the other two batteries there also. Hey, I'm happy, I'm not complaining. I can get three of the four needed pump mounting screws into the floor, and the waste pump out hose helps pin it in place.

The second group covers a variety of sins that include equipment only accessible through a plate allowing you to touch it with one hand, or look at it, but not both. These I call the "Braillers." The other scenario is you have to remove the water maker, and the hot water heater to get at the cheap plastic pump that broke.

The third category is the no infrastructure accessibility for you. This is the inverse of the first. There are no locations for you to mount anything. Paper thin bulkheads that insure screws protrude into the next compartment, and no power for you, at any rate.

#3 Documentation, or the lack there of.  

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I don't understand why boat builders can't provide anything more than a bag stuffed with a random assortment of product information, and call it documentation. No wiring diagrams or labeling, no layout drawings, and no bill of materials detailing what was installed on the boat, and where you might possibly find it.

I think in many cases as built wiring diagrams may not exist for many boats. A contractor designs and builds a wiring harness, and Bob at the plant knows what plugs into what, but maybe not why.

The thing that drives me even crazier are interface blocks with no information. Lots of tiny wires with bright colors connected to lots of other colorful pretty wires, and not a wire tag to be seen. What's connected to what? Who knows without taking the time to play Sherlock Holmes. There is a magical machine called a label maker that makes my life easier, or a real wiring diagram would work well also.
#4 Pull string, it's not just a theory. 

I'm not going to belabor this but the factory used a pull string, or it's relative the pull wire to haul wire bundles through the boat when it was built. Why don't they pull a new string with it? Is it too costly? Or are they trying to break the Guinness world record for the largest string ball they're creating behind the plant. Pennies at the most to have a second pull string taped on before the pull, often saving me many hours struggling to fish the two ninety degree turns. with a vacuum cleaner and the special hemostats.

#5 Hey, they will never see this stuff.

Sloppy work just bothers me. I see a lot of it, especially in hidden locations. Things screwed down in the closest place that can be reached, if screwed down at all, Wads of extra wire heaped up into a piles. In the case of this boat, I think the wiring harness for their fifty footer was being used on their forty footer, and the excess had to be heaped up somewhere.

Also included in this less than esteemed category are unfinished surfaces gleaming with fiberglass spears eager for your blood, and ragged cutouts gnawed open by rabid beavers.

#6 You can have way too much tech.

Whats the difference between a boat and a Toyota Corolla? Toyota will make a make more than a million Corollas this year. If they design a piece of high tech gear to use, a factory is built somewhere in the world to manufacture a million of them annually. That's about 4000 a day or about 500 an hour.

It's funny, I can't think of a single boat company that does a million of anything even in their wildest dreams. The Point? Low volume custom high tech has a high costs and a very short support life.

An example of this is the power distribution panel above. Take a simple thing like a circuit breaker, attach it to a computer board with a relay, control it with a computer, and it instantly becomes expensive, and much less reliable. Do boat marketing marketing gurus think the buying public has become so flaccid that the average boater can no longer turn on a switch? Oh Buffy, I'm exhausted from the effort it takes to turn on a light switch. I do wish we had a touch screen like Dave has to turn on the lights.

I stare at the custom made all digital panel that makes the gang plank automatically extrude itself out of the hull. "It's broken," I tell the owner. "Well replace it," states the owner. "I can't. It came from Italy and is not made anymore," I aver, "but I could make a nice little panel with four buttons. One will say in, another out. The other two will say up and down. I will wire them directly to the hydraulic pumps. It will last for years, you just have to hold the buttons down to use it instead of having it operate automatically." "Make it so" is the owners response, "will it have a LED display?

Levitating TV's, complex AV systems, joystick controls and touch screens switching panels are all fine with me if you want to pay for them. Just make sure there is a back up in place when things go array, and be sure your pocketbook can endure the long term repair waltz.

#7 Stuff that's just darned inappropriate.

I find this type of stuff all the time. Start by looking at the ground block in the second picture up above, and bounce back. It's the block with all the black wires attached to it. This is a brand new boat, and they have already broken a big ABYC fashion rule. Yellow wire for DC negatives is now the new black. This sort of stuff bothers me at a subliminal level.

The iron nipple attaching the the two bronze parts together. A long term accident looking for a place to occur. Dissimilar metals, rust potential, and I have no doubt it was discovered to ooze liquids shortly after the boat hit the water. The white stuff is 3M 5200 used a "Leak Stop" goo.

Also on the list are standard flooded lead acid batteries located in places that insure they will never get their water levels checked very often. This makes it a sure bet I will be struggling them out of the boat prematurely, and replacing them with sealed batteries. I've never seen a dealer install anything less than the cheapest batteries available in a new boat unless the owner knows enough to write a check for something better. Throw into the mix prodigious usage of sealants to make sure things can never be separated for all time, and destroyed screw heads galore left for me to deal with.

Now it time to harp at owners, but fear not, it's a short list.

#8 Make sure you put all of that stuff back.

Irritating it is to deal with loads of other peoples crap that's in my way. The owner however is paying the bill to use my skills in this way. I heave the stuff out trying to ignore the black mold at the bottom of the pile that's dining on sunscreen thats oozed out of the tube. When I'm done I heave it back in. I just wish I didn't have to deal with it in the first place.

#9 Darwin is always at work.

"I don't understand why the boat's breakers keep blowing every time it rains."

"I thought duct tape would work."

"If it's good enough for my house, it's gotta be okay on the boat."

"It was just a small leak."

"I thought that lamp wire would work okay, I used wire nuts you know."

#10 The maid is on vacation.

Yeeee, there are places on some dirty boats that are akin to that cargo hold that Ripley's cat disappeared into. Forget the cat Ripley, it was trying to smother you in your sleep anyway. The alien is hiding in there! Stay away.

It shouldn't take a wearing a Tyvek hazmat suit and boiling your hands in Clorex afterwards to work on a boat. Sheesh, you don't know what soap is, do you?

That's my top ten, and don't get me started on the other things like anchor lockers that are hard pressed to hold more than fifty feet of rode, curvaceous foam dash surfaces designed to prohibit mounting anything, extensive use of out gassing fuzzy monkey fur, colorful pleathers that promptly degrade in the presence of any sunlight, and snow white leather furniture and carpets that will stain just by bringing a bottle of Merlot on board. They'er supposed to be boats, not Liberace's parlor. I got a lot more of this you know, aargh.

Many thanks to Rick Laporte for suggesting the story. I have added links to his blog M/V She-Kon, along with TJ, and Deb's Retirement Project, and Steven Robert's geek driven Nomadness.


  1. This sounds like the basis of a good presentation at the big builder attended boat shows. Miami perhaps?

    I'll bet the office doesn't always know what is happening on the factory floor too.

  2. Tidy this up, and you have the basis of a hell of an eyeopening article...but aside from PBO, ON and PS, I don't know who would have the stones to publish it.

    It's very instructive to read, however, even if, as the refitter of a custom boat, I have given a lot of thought to labelling (I gots me a Dymo Deluxe!) and access to all critical systems. The price I pay is a small reduction in absolute usable space, because I haven't crammed every terminal block or critical bit of plumbing behind glassed-in cabinetry or in the scary part of the bilge.

    Wait...no part of my bilge is scary. I must be a weirdo.

  3. Bill, ditto to the other comments. This has to be one of the best spot-on installation articles I have read and also highlights several of my key complaints with boats. Do you think these shortcuts also might also have an impact on long-term reliability (where sting theory is replaced by cluster theory)?

  4. A whole heap of thanks Bill. I really appreciate the insight. I plan to print this up, large format and post it inside the boat as I put her together. Thanks for the blog plug as well. :-)

  5. The uppermost photo is astounding, particularly the guillotine arrangement. I'm not sure what that bar is attached to or what it does, but if anything pushes it upward it's bye-bye wires. As well, with workmanship of that level, what's the fuse situation? Assume nothing when confronted with something so crappy and unimaginative.

    1. DB, the bar has a bolt you can't easily see behind the wires that attaches the AL hardtop to the boat. There was a screw up in design I think that required it to be cut off in order to pull any wires at all. I used a rotozip to surgically excise the fiberglass away enough to enlarge the tiny hole in the AL tube behind the glass. I cut apart a coke can and wrapped it around the wires to protect them while I performed the frontal lobotomy. There was no hole in the hard top, so I had to do some dead reckoning downward to intercept the AL tube being careful not to cut into the wiring just below. It took about six hours to fix/make holes, and pull the radar cable an inch at a time.

  6. LOL! As a guy who worked for a boat dealer for a bit, I can relate. Well done! :)

  7. Linked over at my blog http://c-shel.blogspot.ca/2013/12/boat-builder-blunders.html.
    Great article. Thanks.

  8. http://conceptboatswiring.blogspot.com/


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