Ok, you finally got some time off from work and you are heading out with the family on your first great escape with the boat. What could possibly go wrong? Well, there are a few things, and you need to be ready for them and know how to deal with them quickly so you don’t ruin your precious time off. The tips and reminders here will go a long way toward making your getaway as good as it gets.
More Power to You
One of the most common mistakes infrequent cruisers make is failure to ensure proper battery system management. That “click, click, click” sound coming from the starter motor as you try to get the engine running to head out to your next port can be a really disheartening sound.
The bottom line here is that, when you aren’t plugged into shore power with a battery charger running, you have a finite amount of battery reserve power available. Things like 12-volt DC/120-volt AC refrigerators, stereo systems and maybe even a TV powered by a DC-to-AC inverter can use up your battery power quickly. Ideally, you need to make decisions before you leave the dock about how much usage time you actually have available; techies call this “load analysis.” Basically, the amount of time you have will depend on how much current the different devices use (think amps here) and the amount of time that you want to use them without a battery charging source running.
So, the plan is to dedicate one of your batteries for starting, let’s say battery No. 1. Reserve battery No. 2 for the house loads. But make sure ahead of time that the amp-hour capacity of the No. 2 battery or combination of batteries is enough to run all of your onboard equipment for the amount of time you expect to be away from a charging source or not running the engines. Also, make sure the dedicated No. 1 starting battery or batteries have enough cold cranking amps to get the engines started. Keep in mind that discharging the No. 2 house bank of batteries below about 50 to 60 percent state of charge on a regular basis will reduce their “cycle life,” or the number of times they can be discharged and recharged. Now all you need to remember is to keep that battery switch on No. 2 when you’re out on anchor or hanging on a mooring. (Or install a voltage sensitive relay [VSR] and let technology switch for you.)
As for power usage, high-watt stereo systems can pull a lot of power. DC-powered refrigerators are another major drain on batteries. So if either of these systems is on your boat, heads up: They can suck the life out of batteries very quickly.
To figure out when to replace the batteries, use the installed voltmeter that is part of virtually every boat instrument package. What you are looking for is how well the battery will hold voltage (after it’s been fully charged) with a load on it. A quick check can be done when starting an engine, which will typically draw quite a bit of current. Keep a close eye on the voltmeter and watch carefully as you attempt to crank over the engine; if the voltage drops below about 10.5 volts as the starter engages, it’s time to think about replacing the battery. Remember to make sure that you perform this task with each battery or battery bank. (Test battery No. 1 and then switch to battery No. 2 and repeat the steps.)
Also, you need to consider, if you or a previous owner have added a lot of electrical accessories to your boat since you bought it, that the factory-supplied alternator on the engine may not have enough output to keep things running and recharge the batteries simultaneously. The three-step voltage test can help figure this out for you. Again, use that dash-mounted voltmeter. With the engine off, but the key turned on, take a voltage reading. Write it down, and remember that here, tenths of a volt count. Next, fire up the engine and run it at 2,000 rpm. Take a voltage reading and write it down. Then turn on all of the battery-powered electrical items on your boat and watch the voltmeter. If it reads at least 0.5 volts above the reading you took initially with the engine not running, the alternator has enough output to keep up with all of your electrical loads and to recharge the battery(ies). If that final reading is less than 0.5 volts higher than the no-run voltage, you should consider stepping up to a higher output alternator.
That Sinking Feeling
Many boaters think that the installed bilge pumps on their boat will actually save their bacon when they accidentally hit a submerged log and punch a hole in the bottom of their boat below the waterline. Nothing could be further from the truth. The exact rate of water flow into your boat will vary depending upon the diameter of the hole and how far below the waterline the hole is, but suffice it to say that the volume of water will be far more than any bilge pump system can deal with. Bilge pumps are not intended as damage control pumps. They are installed to pump out incidental amounts of water that might accumulate in the bilge due to rain, washdowns and the slow drip from a propeller-shaft stuffing box. As for the big numbers you may see on the pump touting 500 or 1,500 or 2,000 gallons per hour (gph), consider that those ratings are based on the flow immediately at the pump discharge. Once installed and plumbed into place, you can expect to lose on average 50 percent of that capability; so 1,500 becomes 750 gph. That still may sound like a lot of capability, but understand that is not even close to enough capacity.
The plan is to make sure you have provision on board to plug the hole — even if only temporarily until you can get an emergency haul-out at a marina. This advice comes with two recommendations. Most marine supply houses carry a line of tapered wooden dowels to hammer into a seacock fitting if a hose or the through-hull fitting itself breaks. You need to make sure that you have one of the appropriate sizes located right next to each through-hull fitting on your boat. Also, make sure everyone in the crew knows where all of the through-hull fittings and seacocks are located on your boat. While you’re at it, make sure all the seacocks actually work and can be easily opened and closed. Seacocks are often ignored or forgotten and frequently seize in the open position, rendering them useless in an emergency.
A Type IV PFD boat cushion can be a big help here. You are required to have at least one throwable device on board anyway, so rather than a life ring, why not make it a cushion? The cushion can plug a hole; the life ring can’t. All you need in addition to the cushion is a rigid backing and something to wedge it into place long enough to get you to the nearest travel lift. A piece of plywood, galley cutting board or companionway door slat can help save the day here. Some folks even carry a rubber collision mat on board that can be unrolled and set over the hole when needed. Think about using snap-in carpeting in the same manner. Also, remember that if your boat is a planing hull, and depending on where on the hull the obstruction punched its way through, it might just be possible to run the boat up on plane and effectively get the hole above the waterline long enough to get you to the nearest travel lift or trailer.
Finally, if you are a bit savvy mechanically, you can actually use the engine’s raw-water intake hose in an emergency. To do this, first close the seacock for the engine’s raw-water cooling. Disconnect the hose that is connected to this seacock and use it to suck up any water getting past your temporary patch job. No matter what, the bottom line is not to assume the bilge pumps are going to save you.
Every modern cruising boat is going to be loaded with electronic equipment. Multifunction displays (MFDs) are now the norm and act as a chart plotter/GPS positioning device, maybe with radar overlay and a separate screen with fish finder/depth-reading capability. This same unit will also have trip and fuel-log data and perhaps engine data displays selectable. So what could go wrong? These units are complex, microprocessor-driven devices. Most anyone who has used a computer for more than six months has probably had it freeze up on them at one point or another. If all your boat’s information is running through an MFD, well, that can become a problem.
One of the tricks that tech folks have taught me over the years is that sometimes, when a strange error message on the screen or a lockup occurs, the best thing to do is what is known as a “hot reboot.” I’ve had to do it with my cellphone a few times. Basically, with the cellphone it involves opening up the back of the unit and, with the phone turned on, pulling out the battery, waiting a minute and reinstalling it. The problems will magically disappear.
The same technique can work with marine electronic equipment. Most boats have a main switch on the power distribution panel labeled “electronics.” If you suddenly see an error message or get a screen lockup on the MFD, try a hot reboot. With the device turned on (at the unit), turn off the master power feed labeled “electronics” and wait a minute before turning it back on. Repower it and let the unit come back online. Odds are good that your problem will go away, at least for a while. Follow up with a firmware/software check with your equipment manufacturer and follow its instructions for updating the unit if needed. Lots of time firmware will correct these glitches for good.
The Fishy Fish Finder
Of all the electronic devices most power boaters will typically have at their helm stations, the fish finder is probably the most sensitive to voltage fluctuations in the onboard electrical system. This can cut in either direction, meaning that both excessively high or low voltage can make the display on a fish finder go crazy. This will show up on the display screen as a bunch of fuzzy globs or a series of diagonal lines or a mix of both shooting across the display.
So, what are the causes here? Well, if you are at anchor or drift-fishing without the engines running, you are running on straight battery power. If the batteries discharge to a voltage point below the unit’s minimum threshold, this will probably show up as the fuzz or squiggly diagonal lines on screen. If this happens with the engines running, it can mean either a faulty voltage regulator in the charging system causing the overvoltage condition or possibly a failed charging system causing voltage to drop. Either way, attention to the battery/charging system is going to be needed. The three-step voltage test mentioned earlier can be used to confirm a low-voltage situation. As for excessively high voltage, consider 2.5 volts or more above the no-run voltage described earlier excessive. This indicates that you need a new voltage regulator.