Making a Good Boat Better - Part 2 - Power

In my last post, I covered some basic preparations for getting a cruising boat ready for sea. My emphasis was on sailboats, as I reviewed my article on preparing a performance cruiser for an Annapolis to Newport race. Some of those upgrades are relevant to cruising powerboats as well, such as additional hand holds, removing junk out of bilge areas and lockers, and getting weight closer to the center of the boat.

But there are many additional steps that can be taken to prepare a trawler or motorboat for making a trip offshore. I am not talking about crossing oceans, but rather long coastal runs, or hops to the islands. The kind of boats most of us own that can do Alaska, Mexico, the Great Loop, Maine to Bahamas and beyond. Grand Banks 42, Monk 36, Marine Trader, Krogen 42...you get the idea. If you are looking to loop the world (now THAT is a great loop), you are playing a different ball game. What I am talking about here may be relevant to that discussion, but crossing oceans is beyond the aspirations of the majority of power cruisers. Dozens cross oceans, thousands cruise everywhere else.

It is important to begin with a systems approach to inspecting your boat as you get ready to head offshore. Can you successfully identify all of the single points of failure in your boat's systems? What I mean is to find the one component in your system (whichever system you are looking at) that if that piece were to break, clog, leak, or no longer work, it takes down the rest of the system.

The fuel delivery system is a good example. If you have just one fuel filter, and it clogs from dirt and particulates or water stirred up in rough seas, it will starves your engine and shut it down. You are adrift until you can replace that fuel filter element and bleed the system to restart your engine. Having dual, switchable fuel filters is the solution to this, of course, which eliminating this single point of failure, although that may take some creative thinking in a small engine space, such as found on most cruising sailboats. Hopefully you can locate them in an easily accessed location. While this is basic power cruising stuff, I still am amazed when I see a single filter with lame reasoning that a builder or owner feels he has his bases covered with the on-engine filter and a second filter on a bulkhead. Steve D'Antonio and I spent time aboard a brand new, $1,800,000 trawler yacht built in British Columbia, and the builder's lead engineer (with an automotive background) gave us that answer in response to our questioning. We just shook our heads. There is no reason to not spend the money to do this right, as it is such a basic requirement of a reliable diesel engine propulsion system.

You should get into the habit of checking all electrical and hose connections every six months or so, a procedure prescribed by the merchant marine. The majority of failures in electrical and electronic systems are the result of loose connections and ground wires. That certainly is true is my experience, and it is especially true if there is more than one wire on a terminal strip post. Four or more wires on a single post is just asking for trouble, as the movement of the boat and any vibration will eventually loosen the terminal nut over time...guaranteed. I have had navigation equipment, such as a chartplotter, flicker and shut down, only to find later a wire was loose.

 It is not difficult to imagine that some of these wired connections will work loose, with such a jumble of connections and overlapping wiring. A mess that needed to be cleaned up, which we did.

It is not difficult to imagine that some of these wired connections will work loose, with such a jumble of connections and overlapping wiring. A mess that needed to be cleaned up, which we did.

The same is true with hose clamps. On my current boat, a Hunt Harrier (no, it is not a cruising boat, but is a fine interim day cruiser until we buy or build our next cruising boat), the problems I have had all relate to hoses working loose due to hose clamps not being tight enough. Over time, hoses get hard, or in my case, running the boat at WOT, which caused a different vibration from high rpms, and the hoses worked loose on two occasions. So I make it a point to check them frequently.

And when these hoses came off, in both cases a bilge pump saved the day. But it would have been extremely helpful if the bilge pumps set off lights or audible alarms to let me know they were pumping water out of the boat. On most boats one can't possibly hear a bilge pump located some distance from the helm, or drowned out by a running engine. That needs to be changed if one is going offshore, as an early warning system.

If I planned to do a nonstop, multi-day passage offshore, even if I am not necessarily crossing an ocean, I would look into installing additional instrumentation. If I returned to Annapolis by way of island hopping from the BVIs, I would look into installing Murphy Swichgages to my engine room, especially those mechanical gauges that let me check my engine oil with having to shut it down at sea. Mechanical gauges are available to check oil pressure, engine coolant temperature, transmission oil pressure and temperature, and coolant and oil levels. When I consider the routine engine room check under way, engine oil level and coolant temperature are my first priorities. These gauges are not expensive and are utterly reliable. Steve Dashew told of an electronic alarm that went off at the helm, but when he checked the Murphy gauge for the same function in the engine room, he determined the electrical alarm sensor was faulty, as the mechanical gauge told him all is well. I want that kind of reassurance offshore.

 The Murphy L129 Series Level Swichgage attaches to the crankcase drain or auxiliary plug to allow you to see the crankcase oil level without shutting down the engine. This mechanical instrument also can be attached to an alarm to alert low oil levels, or high level alarms if overfilled or water seeps into the crankcase.  

The Murphy L129 Series Level Swichgage attaches to the crankcase drain or auxiliary plug to allow you to see the crankcase oil level without shutting down the engine. This mechanical instrument also can be attached to an alarm to alert low oil levels, or high level alarms if overfilled or water seeps into the crankcase.  

Look at your fuel, water, and waste tanks. How well are they secured? If you buy a Nordhavn, Selene, or Krogen full displacement trawler, you are good to go, as these were built to go offshore, and it is very unlikely they will have issues. However, especially in older trawlers from the Far East, such as the venerable Marine Traders and that genre, how secure are the tanks 40 years later? Personally, I would remove those perforated sheets and insulation that cover all that up and take a good look at how things are holding up to keep tanks from moving in a seaway. Metal brackets and fittings and screws may not be as strong as they were when first installed. We've all seen pictures of corroded screws and bolts where the visible portion on the fastener looked fine, but the body of the screw or bolt was all but eaten away.

 On an older trawler, especially, it is worth getting to the tanks to check their condition, and how well they are secured after years of use. It would be hard to maintain a relaxed state of mind going offshore without looking deeper into my engine room. What if steel brackets have rusted and are ready to break if a big wave rolls the boat? BTW, it also is a dandy time to clean, paint, and renew with modern materials. Piece of mind is priceless.

On an older trawler, especially, it is worth getting to the tanks to check their condition, and how well they are secured after years of use. It would be hard to maintain a relaxed state of mind going offshore without looking deeper into my engine room. What if steel brackets have rusted and are ready to break if a big wave rolls the boat? BTW, it also is a dandy time to clean, paint, and renew with modern materials. Piece of mind is priceless.

This can be especially troublesome if the tank is large and not massively held captive. On some Marine Traders and others, the large water tank is under the aft master berth, and contributes to the stability of the boat. The fuel tanks on my 2006 Hunt are secured by screws, and after her sea trial, I noticed the metal strap securing one fuel tank came loose as the self-tapping screw popped out of the stringer. For a small day cruiser, no big deal, I simply replaced it with a longer screw. But for a motorboat going to sea, I would want something much more substantial.

Many trawlers have provision for emergency steering. Rather than relying on a jury-rigged approach to steering, I suggest checking the primary steering system thoroughly. If a sheave is worn, or rusting chain, or frayed cable, replace it. Check for any signs of leaks if you have hydraulic steering. Hydraulic fluid does not evaporate, so if your reservoir is low, find where the leak is. It should not be difficult to find.

A couple died on their Hatteras when an electrical fire started in the engine room. The man went into the space to turn off the master battery switch to de-energize the ship's electrical system, and was quickly overcome by toxic fumes. His wife went in to help him and succumbed as well. At a boat show a company set up a booth to showcase their new gas mask-like hoods for just such a situation. That is a good thing to have on board, but it misses the point, in my opinion. We have harped on this for years, and I simply can't understand how builders continue to ignore this potentially danger to boat owners: MOVE THOSE MASTER BATTERY SWITCHES OUT OF THE ENGINE ROOM!

 Battery switches in the back of the engine room are a terrible idea. Imagine navigating through toxic fumes of an electrical fire...this is so avoidable! Move these switches outside the engine space where you can access them easily and safely. Boat builders need to think about crew safety, not just where it is convenient to install battery switches. 

Battery switches in the back of the engine room are a terrible idea. Imagine navigating through toxic fumes of an electrical fire...this is so avoidable! Move these switches outside the engine space where you can access them easily and safely. Boat builders need to think about crew safety, not just where it is convenient to install battery switches. 

(I was on the board of directors of ABYC for several years. ABYC sets the guidelines for boat building and construction practices for the U.S. recreational marine industry. I could never understand why this practice was not included in the ABYC Guidelines. In many cases, it is simply a case of drilling a couple of holes through a bulkhead for the cables to pass through and flipping which side of the bulkhead the switches are mounted.)

Okay, by now you can see you will have climbed all around and inside your trawler, sailboat, or cruiser. Guess what!?! You now know your boat so much more than when you started. And that is perhaps the best preparation for going to sea there is.

In the next and final Part 3 of this thread, I will cover things that are common to both power and sail. Things like batteries, wet exhaust systems, fuel tank venting...and coffee pots.