Flexible Illumination For Your Boat

Story and Photos By Bruce W. Smith

An easy DIY project — adding rope lighting to your lockers and hidden-away corners.

Fumbling around in the boat at night with a flashlight in your mouth while trying to untangle a fishing rod in a locker or searching for that special lure box under the gunwale is certainly frustrating. Those little surface-mount courtesy lights aren't much better, lighting up a small area but leaving the rest of the locker a black hole of mystery. Consider, instead, installing flexible LED strip lighting. LED strip lights have come a long way over the years. The prices have come down to the point that they've become the lighting of choice for many anglers and recreational boaters looking for an inexpensive way, with long life and very low battery drain, to evenly light large areas of space.

Clemens Marina, a large Oregon boat dealer, knows all about LED lighting. The company caters to both freshwater and saltwater boaters — the majority of them anglers — who don't let their boating fun end when the sun goes down. Mark Meeker, the manager of the Eugene store, says that Clemens has a number of customers who hit the water before daylight and return well after dark, so accessory interior lighting is an important part of the marina's rigging regimen.

  • LED testing

    LED strip channel

    1. Joe Eckroth likes to test the LED strip lights before he starts the installation by touching the hot and ground leads to the boat's 12-volt battery. This boat is getting Cool White, but the LED strips can be ordered in a variety of colors depending on the boater's needs. White and blue are the most common colors.

    2. The flexible strip lights are about 3/8-inch wide and fit snugly in the plastic track used to mount them to flat surfaces. Eckroth says the strips have a backing, which he advises to leave on for this type of installation.

    Eckroth carefully presses the strip light into the T-H Marine plastic channel. The LEDs are encased in a soft, flexible clear resin, so they're water resistant.

  • Trim LED strip

    LED strip taping

    3. If the strip is too long for the space, it can be easily trimmed using scissors or side cutters. Be sure to cut only at the designated spots along the strip, which are noted by scissor emblems (arrow) placed on the strip about every two inches.

    4. Once the lights are cut to the desired length, Eckroth lays down a strip of the 3M double-sided tape on the back of the mounting channel. Then he carefully removes the backing to expose the sticky side.

  • Place LED strip edge

    Boat wire split

    5. Once the sticky tape is in place, the LED strip channel is lifted and stuck into position. Place the lights where the boater won't have to look directly at the LEDs; Eckroth says the ideal location is under a lip. This indirect lighting maximizes night vision while providing softer illumination.

    6. Use sheathed marine-grade stranded tinned wire. In addition to other benefits, the sheath protects the wires as they pass over/around sharp edges.

  • Crimping connections

    Adapter wire

    7. Eckroth always uses shrink-type butt connectors for this type of light installation. The shrink-tube seals the connection from moisture. A heat gun handles the sealing part in seconds.

    8. After removing the switch panel, Eckroth uses a spade adapter so both power and ground leads from the two locker lights can be connected to the same accessory light switch. There's very little amp draw with these lights, so it's perfectly acceptable to run both sets of lights from the same circuit.

  • Plug to switch

    9. The two-wire spade adapter slides onto the switch pole. Another way to wire the lights is to use a momentary-on door-type switch under the rod locker lid, so the light comes on only when the lid is opened.



We stood over the shoulder of Joe Eckroth, a veteran marine tech with 33 years of experience, as he installed a pair of six-foot T-H Marine LED Rope Lights in a 20-foot Smokercraft's two rod lockers for a customer who plans to use the boat for both night fishing and waterfowl hunting. The installation took less than an hour and didn't require a single hole drilled or any modifications to the boat: Eckroth used an existing accessory switch to control the lights and attached the LED strips to the underside lip of each locker with 3M automotive-style double-sided tape. He uses the same procedure when he does larger boats. We found that this type of light installation is easy enough that even a novice boater can handle it — and the end result is a wonderful and even light illuminating an otherwise dark or dimly lit space. 

— Published: Spring 2016


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