Hacking Your Boat

Make that boat your own.

Hacking Your Boat

You don’t own something until you change it. Women intuitively know this, which is why they nag us and constantly redecorate, and possibly why they’re obsessed with buying shoes.

Yet “she who must be obeyed” — the woman who calls me her husband and the most determined female I know — is hard-pressed to make changes to many things in this modern world. It drives her nuts and she’s not alone. The things we buy are, in the words of engineers, “fully realized.” They are so dense with integrated bits that to mess with one part screws up the whole package. In other words, you’re stuck with what you buy.

As a backlash, there is a new underground movement of “hackers”: the few, the bold, the ticked off enough to tweak the things they buy to suit their needs, and to fix what’s broken rather than throwing it away.

Their manifesto: Void your warranty, violate a user agreement, fry a circuit, blow a fuse, cut your fingers, poke an eye out.

I like it. People have become too afraid to tinker, but they shouldn’t be. Take me: I’m not handy at all. Yet I’ve built a boat that gets 103 mpg and a gun that shoots potatoes, and I can fix almost anything that has a shop manual. I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ve found the courage to accept that I’m as likely to improve things as I am to screw them up. Which is no big deal because I’ll always be able to find an expert to fix my mistakes. Luckily for us, there is nothing better to start hacking on than a boat.

Boats are relatively primitive structures, made up of easily discernible separate parts. Nothing intimidating here — they beg to be worked on. And if it’s a new boat, don’t worry; it will probably need some help too. It took my friend Dave one year to get his $2.5 million Eurocruiser dialed in. It was either that or wait two years for the builder to do it. So don’t be timid. Cut, chop, hack, plumb, wire and reconfigure. Go ahead: Be like a dog and (metaphorically) whiz in the corners to make that boat your own.

The best place to start is with the electrical system. Mostly because that’s what’s probably going to give you trouble first, and it’s an easy place for a builder to cut corners and not be obvious.

Don’t believe me? The suggested standard for minimum voltage drop between the battery and a critical component such as a bilge pump or running light is 3 percent. I’ll bet yours is more. Which means you’ll need thicker wire. And are all wires supported at least every 1 foot 6 inches, and are the connections secure and waterproof?

I could give you all sorts of guidelines, but it's more instructive to see good wiring for yourself. Look behind the helm console of almost any offshore go-fast. Now look at yours. If you're afraid of sparks, take an American Boat and Yacht Council course (410/956-1050). We audited one and it's great. Or get the book it's based on, Boating magazine's Powerboater's Guide to Electrical Systems, by Ed Sherman.

Your boat may also benefit from remote battery-recharging posts, a battery selector switch or a better sound system. The idea is to find your inner hacker, and to remember that you won’t irrevocably screw things up. Plus, when you’ve finished, the boat will be yours in a way that no registration card or payment stub can attest to. Just ask your wife.

That’s why the next time I see you outside the inlet, I hope you’ll have learned to keep your butt connectors sealed, your voltage drop low, and your wing nuts screwed down tight.