For my part, neglecting my boat’s aging electrical system was a gamble I was forced to take. My fiancée Mia Karlsson and I have been tirelessly outfitting Arcturus, our 1966 Allied Seabreeze yawl, for a trans-Atlantic voyage towards Sweden, ultimately striving for Stockholm, close to Mia’s hometown and family.
In all our refitting efforts, our focus was to make the boat simple and seaworthy — we’d carry nothing we couldn’t fix ourselves.
Like most older boats, Arcturus’ electrical system was a spider web of confusion. Old and new wires sprouted from the back of the main panel. Some lead somewhere and actually work, while others simply terminate in a wad of sticky tape and apparently serve no purpose.
When we bought the boat three years ago, most of the cabin lights worked, as did the running lights, mast lights and VHF radio. The battery charger was new, and the engine had a fairly stout alternator, which also seemed to function just fine. The previous owner, Ben Weems (now a close friend of ours) had installed speed/depth and wind instruments, an old Loran receiver and a new main breaker panel, all of which seemed to function reasonably well.
One of the things that attracted me to the boat initially was its simplicity — Weems had redone all of the boat’s cosmetics and had her looking like new, yet left out most of the fancy systems, namely refrigeration, air conditioning and an autopilot. Mia and I had decided early on in our refit that we’d keep the boat simple, as Ben did, and only add what was necessary to get us across the Atlantic safely.
The first thing I installed before moving onto the boat full-time was a stereo with an iPod dock. We then traded the Loran for an old GPS receiver that had previously done duty on my dad’s Allied Princess ketch, and which had navigated my family safely to the Bahamas and back in 1993 (when I was just 9). We left the rest. But in my ignorance and impatience, the stereo job was far from professional. I ignored the rest of the sloppy wiring, which had survived all those owners and all those years.
The trans-Atlantic trip
The obvious goal for the Atlantic crossing is to make the boat as sound and seaworthy as possible. By my definition, that means a stout rig, sturdy sails, reliable (and therefore mechanical) self-steering, proper sea berths, a decent stove and a heat source (considering our northerly route). And all of Arcturus’ systems must be easily repaired by Mia or myself while at sea. Finally, if it’s not absolutely necessary, it didn’t make the list. We simply don’t have the resources for fancy systems, and I personally would rather do without their inevitable failures and the accompanying headaches.
For our refit, we decided to break down the electrical system into four areas: 1) mast wiring, 2) interior wiring, 3) engine wiring and charging and 4) electronics. We wouldn’t have time or money to complete a total renovation of the entire electrical system, so we chose the most critical areas in each.
Before our first haul-out in July (most of the real work had been done this past summer), we had the mast unstepped. While we had it down, we thought it prudent to renew the wiring. My experience from Southbound Cruising Services provided the confidence I needed to tackle the project, and it was an easy place to start. At this stage of the game, we hadn’t yet considered the rest of the electrical system.
At the masthead was an Aqua Signal tricolor/anchor light combo. It was joined by an old VHF antenna, plus an electronic wind indicator (which we removed entirely, opting instead for a good old Windex). At the spreaders was the steaming light.
I started by stripping everything off of the mast in preparation for the re-rig (which included everything down to the rigging tangs and spreader bases), and removed the lights and electronics as well. The old bundle came out of the mast in a heap, actually pulling a real bird’s nest along with it. Many of the wires were cracked and brittle, some of them showed exposed copper, and none of them were covered. I was smart enough to attach a messenger line to each one before removing them, which would come in handy later.
Before reinstalling the mast lighting, I sourced new LED bulbs from West Marine, which would fit the original Aqua Signal fixtures after a recommendation by my friend Micah Sauntry (who owns a 1962 Alberg 35). We then ran an Ancor Marine triplex wire to the masthead (white/green/ black), and fished it through the middle of a 12-inch-long piece of a quarter-inch diameter Dyneema braid. The Dyneema would create a finger-trap effect on the wire, and with a stopper knot at the top end, act as elegant strain relief at the masthead (one of the many tricks I learned at Southbound). Then I terminated each wire with a heat-shrunk ring connector, with an additional piece of marine-grade heat shrink sealing the connection, and I attached the rings directly onto the fixture contact points, thereby eliminating an unnecessary butt connection. The steaming light was rewired in the same fashion, with a red/black duplex wire.
I purchased a new Shakespeare VHF antenna that installed in the original mount, and got a length of coax cable and new connectors. At the masthead, the connections were also heat-shrunk, in a “stepped” manner — one smaller piece of heat shrink over the wire, followed by a larger diameter piece over the wire and the connection. Where the VHF wire entered through a hole in the mast, it was also heat-shrunk with several layers in an effort to prevent chafe.
When we stepped the mast, it took some trial and error to correctly reattach the new wires to the old bus bar at the mast base (I had foolishly not labeled them when we disconnected everything). We decided not to run new wiring from this bus bar back to the main breaker panel, as all of the lights and the antenna worked. This was one area we could save money and time, so we left well enough alone. And in the event of a future failure, I’ll know right away where to look first. The new LED’s draw only 0.1 amps each, and have been a real boon to anchoring out. Ours is now the brightest star in the anchorage.
One of the two lights in the vee berth didn’t work, and the light in the head was out. The worst, ironically, was my stereo installation. Speaker wire hung loosely beneath the settees, and the unit was powered from a bus bar that simply hung in space in an area behind the galley, uncovered and unprotected. I had only myself to blame for that.
Thankfully, the main panel in the galley was labeled properly, and it was easy to trace everything. The interior cabin lights were wired to two separate breakers, port and starboard. It didn’t take much sleuthing to figure out what was wrong with the light in the vee-berth — the wires simply hung limp from the fixture, going nowhere. I ran a new wire back to the panel and it solved that issue. We quickly found a break in the wire to the head fixture, and replaced the whole run. I cleaned up the stereo installation, running the wires through conduit and zip-tying them in place where they belonged. We got rid of the airborne bus bar and led the power wire directly to the panel.
Engine wiring & charging
Micah Sauntry works at a local boatyard in Annapolis specializing in Swan and Hallberg-Rassy sailboats. He’s become quite an expert in all manners of boat repair, and played a crucial role in helping us get the work done this summer. He also happens to be an engine guru.
This fall, just before Arcturus was hauled for the winter, Micah and I spent a few days taking the engine off its mounts. The old 30-hp Westerbeke ran like a champ, but needed some love — at least one new mount, all new hoses, a good cleaning, a paint job and realignment. We reckoned it’d be easier to complete in a more open space, so spent one chilly evening in December with a block and tackle and hoisted it onto the floor of the main saloon.
We discovered, to my chagrin, a disorienting array of wiring going to and from the engine, most of which terminated in a sticky mass of old electrical tape and connected to nothing. The battery cables were not heat shrunk and somewhere along the line the alternator had stopped charging, thanks to an unidentified broken wire. With the engine removed, I was presented a perfect opportunity for rectifying all of this.
However, that’s as far as we got. I’ll be returning to Arcturus in the spring for the final push, the last few months I have to tidy the entire project up before setting out towards Halifax, and ultimately Sweden.
The engine bay needs a thorough cleaning, and while I’m at it, I’ll paint the bilge. The stuffing box needs repacking, so I’ll tackle that as well — it will never be quite as accessible as it is currently. But the biggest job, the one I hadn’t counted on, is going to be making sense of the wiring. Thankfully, the Westerbeke received a new wiring harness last summer, so at least half of the equation is solved.
Unfortunately, the electrician who installed it never removed many of the old wires.
We have to rewire the batteries and figure out why the selector switch doesn’t isolate them. I’ll be sure to use proper heat shrink on all connections this time, rather than the electrical tape the last person used. I have to organize the wires coming off of the panel, now easily accessible from the portside cockpit locker. This will entail mainly just removing old wiring that was clipped and never discarded, and checking that all the connections are properly heat shrunk, most of which currently are not.
When the Westerbeke goes back in, my hope is that we have a newly organized, cleaned and painted engine bay, with an organized, professional array of wiring.
The batteries are in good shape. Arcturus has three wet-cell golf cart batteries, two on the house side and one on the engine side. They take a full charge, and with our limited draw due to our simple systems, we can go a full two weeks at anchor before having to run the engine. This is thanks mainly to our LED lights, found everywhere from the masthead to the galley, drawing only an amp or so total when we’re fully lit up. We have no fridge and only a manual foot-pump for getting water from the tanks. We do have an electric bilge pump, but two large manual pumps, one below and one in the cockpit, supplement it.
For the crossing, I cannot expect the engine to provide any sort of propulsion — our fuel tank is simply too small. I hope to get several days out of the batteries, and will use the engine primarily as a generator. We may send the alternator away to get tweaked so it puts out more amps. I’d like to install a simple solar panel to supplement the engine charging system, but time and budget will dictate that.
My dad bought us a new Standard Horizon AIS/VHF combo for Christmas, which will easily be the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment on the boat. I expect it to plug-in where the existing VHF is mounted in the saloon.
The aforementioned GPS is mounted above the icebox, which doubles as a chart table, and is wired into the boat. It’s going on 20 years old at this point, with a simple grayscale display showing only our latitude and longitude and some simple boat stats like speed and VMG. No chartplotters here. I have an additional Garmin handheld GPS unit, which runs on AA batteries, and of course my bronze Tamaya sextant and sight reduction tables. I’ll have a full compliment of paper charts, and am happy to plot my own positions, even if I have to use the sextant to find them.
I’m considering installing a basic radar unit, as our route will be taking us through New England and the Canadian Maritimes, notoriously foggy in summer.
However, with the addition of AIS and our limited battery bank, this is unlikely — I believe I’d never be able to use the radar if I installed it into the current setup, and I don’t want to revamp my entire battery system at this point.
After the summer, my skills as a rigger increased exponentially. I’m comfortable working aloft for long hours, and can climb most masts unassisted. I know how to build a furler and draw up a rig design, and I can splice all kinds of line. And I’ve a basic understanding of wiring, at least from the deck level and up.
What I hope to have done on Arcturus is clean up an already functioning electrical system, renewing what needed attention and leaving what worked. I’ve added the one item I’ve been coveting — the AIS — and hope to include a solar panel before setting off this spring. With a bigger budget, one day we may opt for a larger battery bank and install radar, but that day is a long way off.
Mia and I have rebuilt almost every major system from the rudder to the masthead. When we set sail towards Halifax this spring, I’ll sleep well at night, confident that I know the boat inside and out, including the electrical system.
—Andrew Karlsson has worked as a yacht rigger at Southbound Cruising Services in Annapolis, Md. He is also a USCG Master Mariner, and holds his RYA Yachtmaster Oceans certification.