Mailboat Letters

When It Rains, They Sink

Your April magazine was timely, as usual; another scupper event happened to me when I pulled our 16-foot aluminum boat for the winter and pulled the drain plug. Over the winter, leaves covered the drain hole, resulting in rain water freezing and damaging the transom enough to leak.

Regarding floor hatches, our 26-foot power cat has two that are two feet by six feet with a foam-rubber gasket, and even though there are troughs for drainage, every rainstorm there is a substantial amount of water in the compartments.

My last three boats, all purchased new, had very haphazard (emphasis on hazard) wiring;  the latest, a 2016 22-foot pontoon boat for saltwater use, was the worst. It had six wires on the positive post, no battery off/on switch, and battery service required removal of a glued-on seat (which I modified with a hinge and clampdown fixture), and a bundle of wires from the engine that passed over a sharp aluminum edge — after a week of occasional use, it was already showing wear.

The industry has to make a standard for itself and follow it and issue some kind certification. I'm sure the public and BoatUS would benefit and safety would be served.

Our pontoon boat cost $44,000. Can you imagine a car being sold with these issues and the manufacturer still in business?

Editor: Fortunately, the industry does have standards for boatbuilding. The majority of boats are made by companies who belong to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), who certify that their boats are built to American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) standards. The issues you cite on your new boat would all be in violation of those standards, and would have to be corrected under warranty. The bad news is that not all builders, especially smaller ones, are NMMA members. Pontoon-boat manufacturers have in the past had spotty reputations for quality, though that is changing as more of them build to ABYC standards.


Boat cover

This is how I cover my boat every night, even if there's no rain in sight. This picture was taken just after a major storm in Ruskin, Florida; my boat made it through with no problem.

Check Your Sospenders

I'd like to tell you right off that I enjoy reading Seaworthy as soon as it hits my mailbox. The things I learn from the articles absolutely blow me away.

I came across a little something not long ago and thought I just had to share it with your readers. I do a lot of flats fishing, and I'm a safety nut, never going without everything in working order. I've seen too many news reports of fishermen lost and stranded on the water all because of not taking proper safety precautions ahead of time.

With that in mind, I took out my two sets of Sospenders PFDs and found that they had both self-inflated due to a leaky, nonwatertight, compartment. This was not the first time this had happened, so I had extra charging kits ready. While pulling the dead CO2 cartridge out, I felt a second cartridge on the opposite side (I didn't know it was there!). This live cartridge was so rusted that it was stuck to the fabric of the PFD and almost impossible to remove. After finally freeing the cartridge, I was shocked to see the condition it was in. I've had these PFDs for several years and never knew the second cartridge was there (my error in not knowing my safety equipment). This was true for both my PFDs. I am including a picture of one of the rusted cartridges.  I can only imagine what would have happened if they had explosively discharged while wearing them.  Please feel free to share the photos with your readers so they may avoid a serious problem later on.

Editor: We contacted Coleman, who is the parent company of Stearns, who made Sospenders, and learned that before Coleman bought the company around 2002, some models were made with two cartridges. If you have an older Sospender model, check for a second cartridge. Better yet, a 16-year old inflatable life jacket might be due for replacement or at least testing.

More on Lightning Protection

While sailing through lightning storms in Central America, we always dragged a heavy battery cable from the mast base to the water to help divert heavy electrical current to ground should lightning strike our boat. Our boat was never hit through numerous storms we encountered. Let me emphasize, our experience proves nothing about the effectiveness of our strategy.

My working theory is that grounding the mast in this manner assures it is close to the electrical potential of the surrounding water.  If a mast becomes charged to a higher potential before a strike, it would seem the lightning would find it an easier path to follow. But the cable ground may in effect provide a continuous path to reduce mast charge buildup. Akin to the phenomenon that lightning strikes are often seen to hit mountaintops and the tallest masts in an anchorage — events we have witnessed several times.

James Coté responds: Dragging a chain or battery cable in the water will not prevent a strike. The metal surface of the chain or cable in contact with the water will provide a minimal level of grounding.

Also, if the chain or cable is attached to a chainplate and a strike does occur, the strike current may flow through the stainless steel shroud or stay, possibly damaging it. (The conductivity of stainless steel is about two or three percent that of copper).


Thank you for the article entitled "Modern Lightning Protection On Recreational Watercraft"  I have long sought an answer to a seemingly simple question regarding lightning safety and oil rigs. As I regularly fish a 26-foot boat near oil rigs up to 50 miles off the Texas Coast, lightning can quickly become a serious matter.  In the summer, afternoon thunderstorms can form and then dissipate rapidly and will occasionally pop up so as to surround the boat and then close in when there are no routes of retreat. Obviously, the best advice would be to avoid getting into such a situation. That said, I have long wondered whether there is any safety advantage to staying very near to (or perhaps far away from) an offshore rig during a lightning event?

Simply put, if given no option of wholly avoiding a lightning storm, should a small boat run to or away from a nearby rig? If running to the base of the rig is a good idea — is there a specific distance or formula for the best distance to maintain from the legs?

Also, I believe there is a significant typo in the article. The author states that "All objects inside the imaginary sphere will NOT be protected by the air terminal, which means the area protected often differs in size and shape from the cone of protection model." I assume this should read "will be protected."

James Coté responds: A tall metal oil rig with a large metal surface in contact with the water would provide excellent lightning protection for any vessel completely within its "zone of protection."

With regard to the "significant typo," this is not the case. The sphere is not centered on the air terminal, but rather refers to a large imaginary "rolling ball" that rolls along the surface of the water and comes to rest against the air terminal. This rolling ball represents the "lightning strike danger zone" [conceptually, the lightning strikes from the center point of the sphere or ball]. The air terminal's zone of protection is the boat side of the area outside of the rolling ball as it leans up against the air terminal and then all around it.


I read your recent article on lightning protection and have long thought about installing some protection on my 40 foot sport fisherman. I have an aluminum radar arch, which would serve as the top of my cone. I was thinking that if I ran a #4 wire down from it to my two bronze rudders they would serve as better grounding plates than anything I could install on the bottom since their total wetted surface is much higher. My engines also have ground plates but I doubt they are sufficiently large enough. Has anyone, to your knowledge, used their rudders for grounding and were there adverse results? I suppose there would be some risk to frying the stuffing boxes but I wondered if this has been tried.

James Coté responds: Actually, metal rudders without fairing are acceptable as lightning grounding points with the caveat that a long horizontal wiring run to the grounding point (or points) is not desirable. Also, please ensure that the lightning down conductor is attached to the rudder posts, not the rudder tube. Finally, since bronze propeller struts would be more forward than the rudders, these may make better sense. 

— Published: August 2016

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