Switch Position Decision

Cables illustrationIllustration: Bill Roche

Would you please help me wire/connect my T-top stern light to my running lights on my 20-foot center-console Sea Craft? I can connect the red and black wires to my new fuse box currently servicing my VHF radio, but this requires adding an on/off switch up top. Before my boat was repowered with a new wiring harness, the stern light was tied to a four-pole rocker switch on my instrument panel, allowing its use as an anchor light or running lights. How do I get there?


John Adey: As much as I'd love to come out and help you with this project, without seeing your boat, all I can offer is how it should be wired. The multi-position switch has the ability to energize either the anchoring or running lights. To do this, the anchor light is energized alone by one pole of the switch, and a combination of bow/stern (anchor) lights are energized by the other pole.

This said, you need access to the back of the switch, and to find the pole that is active in the configuration you want. Then use the appropriate quick connect terminal to match the switch connector and splice in your stern light. The negative should be hooked up to the nearest negative bus bar you can find (NOTE: ABYC only allows for four ring terminals on one screw/stud, so choose wisely).

My favorite tool here is a 12-volt test light; looks like a screwdriver with a pointed tip and a wire with an alligator clip coming off the handle end. With the clip attached to ground, poke the connectors with the pointed end; if the light lights up, you have 12 volts. It's an easy, inexpensive tool available at auto-parts stores and many hardware stores.

Getting Kinky

I have a 25-foot Wellcraft with windlass. I have approximately 300 feet of half-inch anchor line with 16 feet of chain. On a typical day, I usually pay out about half. The line is twisting and hanging up in the windlass. I can go below deck and pull on the line while my first mate hits the switch and it works fine, but if there's no tension from below, it hangs up. Is the solution new line or paying it all out and untwisting it? Or does the line have a memory now and will never be good for anything but to be cut up for docklines?


Tom Neale: First, I'm impressed by your anchor rode! Too many people skimp on that and regret it later. You haven't said what kind of windlass and windlass line handler you have, or the type and brand of rope, so I'll have to assume it's a good windlass and that you're talking about typical nylon, three-strand anchor line. It isn't unusual for nylon line to twist and hang up after a lot of use. As they say, "nylon isn't forever." I'd pull it out and lay it along the deck, straight, and work out all the kinks, turning the length of rope as needed as you do, then let it "rest" there awhile. Usually this will restore it to good behavior. We even do this with our chain (we have 200 feet on one rode). It will settle down as the bow jumps around at sea and often kink. A similar tactic will straighten that out.

After that, if there's a way you can somewhat neatly coil the rope down in the locker when it goes back in, it should behave better until you eventually need to lay it out again. As to reuse in other applications, if the rope isn't too old or stiff, you probably can when the load isn't as important, if you can't restore it to usefulness as an anchor line. But remember that kinks in a line under stress weaken it. There's also the possibility that your rode has reached the end of its useful life span. If it's stiff, this is a good indicator. It seems there's more cheap line out there that gets hard and kinky quickly. Buy quality rope from a known and reputable manufacturer.

Some people recommend using fabric softener for old rope, to make it easier to handle, less likely to kink, and more like new rope. I have grave reservations about whether this weakens the rope. Some even wash nylon line in washing machines (don't do it). Search the Practical Sailor website for "clean rope" for all the ways to not clean your rope.

Hungry Beaver Breaks Boat

On my pontoon boat, the battery cables either corroded and touched the aluminum or were bitten through by a beaver — most likely the latter. I've had a problem with him also chewing my speedo tube. Rather than replacing the cable and harness, which has many offshoot relays, can I just cut and splice the cable using butt-splice kits? The harness is $350 and the splice kits are a dollar.


John Adey: Certainly you can splice them, but not with the part you mentioned, which is for solid cable; you're dealing with stranded. ABYC standards don't allow for a screw-down connection to bear directly down onto the conductors; it will break the strands, causing resistance and eventually failure and/or a fire. Instead, you need a stranded-cable butt splice and should rent a crimp tool for larger-gauge cable. Ancor makes a large-gauge butt splice. The problem with it is that it needs a crimp tool similar in design to a set of bolt cutters. Our local auto-parts store rents one for battery terminal ends. You'll want some heat-shrink tubing with waterproof goo in it to finish the job.

Bellows Below

I have a Sea Ray with a Mercruiser I/O. When I started the boat this year, I noticed water dripping from my lower shift cable. What's causing this?


John Adey: Likely it's the shift cable bellows, the black rubber accordion-looking piece that seals the entry of the shift cable into the boat. Depending on age, it may be time to replace all three bellows — exhaust, U-Joint/driveshaft, and shift. To check, run the drive all the way up into trailer mode and use a flashlight to inspect the bellows. If they're cracked, it's time to replace! It isn't uncommon to replace only the shift bellows, but have an expert tell you the condition of the others; these can fail and sink boats.

A Ribbon Runs Through It

In the bilge of my 1989 Monk 36 trawler is a 3-inch-wide, paper-thin copper strip that is separated in places and attached in other places to thru-hull fittings. This strip ran from the rudder to the bow when the vessel was new. Now there are remnants here and there, some partially connected. Is this strip of copper necessary? Should I try to replace it or just remove it? If I need to replace it, should it be attached to the thru-hull fittings and to what else? Is this a ground for the entire boat?


Don Casey: Copper ribbon has typically been used in boats to connect a high-frequency (SSB) or ham-radio transmitter to onboard metal components, and/or to a submerged ground plate on the outside of the hull to serve as a counterpoise. Ribbon is used because the current it's intended to carry is RF (radio frequency), which travels on the surface of the conductor. If you have a high-frequency transmitter that doesn't seem to have the range it should, the problem may be the deterioration of this ribbon conductor.

It's possible that the ribbon was also intended originally to connect the various metal components in the boat for lightning protection or to put underwater metals at the same potential to ward off galvanic corrosion. ABYC recommends tying together all underwater metals electrically for corrosion control, but notably doesn't require it. Other knowledgeable experts hold the opposite view, opining that the negative consequences of this stratagem can outweigh the theoretical benefits; I'm in this camp. As for lightning protection, copper foil is too fragile. I wouldn't restore the ribbon for either of these purposes. If lightning protection is a concern, you need a more substantial conductor for bonding and grounding.

Uncovering Your Boat

A boat I'm considering buying has been shrinkwrapped and stored for eight years. Will the engine be OK if it was winterized? What about the gas tank? Will the gas need to be pumped out?


Beth Leonard: The answer depends on how the engine was prepared before it was left. If properly winterized, including fogging the cylinders well, it may run just fine. If not, and water condensed in the cylinders, you almost certainly have rust and pitting that will cause significant problems. The only way to be sure is to try it, have a mechanic go over it, and do a compression test. Even if it does run fine, you'll have to replace impellers, bellows, anything with rubber in it, and probably have to replace most of the gaskets that will have deteriorated with age and dried out. If you do it yourself, that won't cost much. If you hire a mechanic, it gets expensive quickly. The fuel will have to be pumped out of the tank and disposed of, which will be costly, and the tank should be steam-cleaned. A boat shrinkwrapped for that long might have other issues, such as mold and mildew below. If you go aboard and find a large amount of mold and mildew, it's likely that the engine will have moisture in it. If the boat seems relatively free of mold and there is no unpleasant odor, the engine may well start right up, assuming it was winterized properly. 

— Published: October/November 2014

Meet the Experts

Photo of Beth Leonard

Beth Leonard
BoatUS Magazine's technical editor, Beth Leonard, grew up powerboating, waterskiing, and fishing on Lake Ontario. Since 1992, she and her husband have completed two circumnavigations on two sailboats, doing all maintenance themselves. They also installed the systems on their 47-foot aluminum sloop. Beth has written The Voyager's Handbook, the how-to bible for offshore sailors, and hundreds of technical articles.

Photo of Tom Neale

Tom Neale
He's cruised long distance with his family for most of his adult life. He can take apart and fix almost every system aboard, has written two books, filmed a two-set DVD on East Coast cruising, written for top marine magazines, and has won nine first-place awards from Boating Writers International and many awards for his technical writing.

Photo of Don Casey

Don Casey
One of the most consulted experts on boat care and upgrades for 30 years. He and his wife cruise their 30-footer part of the year in the eastern Caribbean. His books include Don Casey's Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual, and the recently updated This Old Boat, the bible for do-it-yourself boaters.

Photo of John Adey

John Adey
The president of the American Boat & Yacht Council, John has been in the industry since 1990, with experience from a yacht brokerage and boatyard to owning a marine supply store. He and his family sail their classic 1976 Irwin ketch, a boat he completely restored.


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at WestMarine.com
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!