Electricity Part 1- Battery box and wiring

I met Milou about two years ago back in November of 2013. It was early in the relationship but even then I knew we were going to have to deal with a lot of issues. One of the big ones was that Milou’s original batteries had been neglected/damaged to such a degree that when I first turned on the battery switch the batteries began to boil acid out through the vent holes and tried to light themselves on fire… not good.

F's cabin. Yeah torn fabric.

F’s cabin. Yeah, torn fabric.

Original evil batteries. Acid. Smoking.

Original evil batteries. Acid. Smoking.

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing I did after the boat made it to Wisconsin was remove both of the 135 lb group 4D batteries. I carried them, wet and slimy with acid, out of the starboard aft cabin up the companionway and up to the side deck. At this point I was so mad I wanted to simply drop them 10 feet to the ground below, but Deb urged restraint and John (marina guy) safely lowered them down with his forklift.

It was winter and the boat was three hours away from our home. I thought I would be able to clean up the acid mess and put in some new batteries in one trip. Looking back over my notes, it took four trips.

Almost cleaned uo

Almost cleaned up.

New shelf and temporary batteries.

New shelf and temporary batteries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I removed all of the burned, acid-soaked wood, which included the shelf the old batteries were sitting on. I thought I would neutralize the acid with some baking soda, which made a cool angry hissing noise. After neutralizing the acid, I coated all of the exposed, burned wood with epoxy. On trip number three I made the new shelf; then I brought it home and covered it with fiberglass so I could install it on trip four.

I was working on this in December, so if I wanted light after 3:30pm I needed to have some sort of battery hooked up. A cruising boat has two different electrical systems, DC (batteries) and AC (extension cord or generator); all of the lights on Milou are DC. I installed two used-but-decent traditional lead acid batteries. We ended up using these batteries for the entire first year on Milou. During my winter boatwork trips, I would schlep a battery home and charge it up, then bring it back to Oconto to use for a weekend. Before I could install new batteries, I had to replace the battery switch and battery cables, as they had all been severely corroded by the spilled acid.

Most boats have two batteries or two banks of batteries, the “house” battery and the starting battery. This helps to ensure that a charged battery is always available to start the engine.  Most boats out there have a switch that looks something like this:

onetwoall_

The idea is that you select battery 1 to start the motor, drive around, and when you stop you turn the switch to battery 2. That way, if you blast your tunes all afternoon and run down battery 2, simply turn the switch back to 1 so you can start the motor and head home. If battery 1 happens to be low you can combine both batteries by selecting 1+2. I know exactly how this switch works and yet every time I reach for it I have to think about what I am doing–this switch is not at all intuitive. Added to this, if you start the motor on battery 1 and want to switch over to 2 to charge up the house battery, you will destroy the regulator on your alternator. If you turn this switch with the engine running, an expensive important thing breaks.

IMG_2136

I feel that this is a superior set up: three separate switches. I made this board and mounted three simple on/off switches. One switch for the starting battery, one for the house bank and the one in the middle will act as jumper cables if the starting battery ever goes dead.

 

 

That was it in the beginning: new shelf; new switches; new battery cables; scrounged-up free used lead acid batteries; and a small 20 watt solar panel to keep the batteries topped off while we were away. Next up is a real snoozer; I call it “energy storage” or “battery chemistry”.

End of an era

Our cast-off date has been set for June 12, but there are so many little departures along the way that make us nostalgic in advance.

Garlic curing in the attic

Garlic curing in the attic

For the last eight years, we’ve been privileged to garden with another family, building our joint endeavor to five 20’x20′ community garden plots as well as onions, corn and over a thousand heads of garlic grown on other friends’ land. We’ve also expanded our tiny initial front-yard garden into something more elaborate in the backyard, including fruit trees and raspberries, perennial herb beds and more lettuce than one person can possibly eat.

We’ve shown our kids where their food comes from, exercised in the fresh air, and eaten as well as possible for very little money. At peak production, we’ve filled over 200 jars with canned goods, and kept two chest freezers brimming with produce (and the occasional half-pig from farming friends). Most of our gifts to family and friends have come from our garden. For a few years, my garden partner and I even had a plant sale business.

Plant sale!

Plant sale!

For a couple of sailors, we’ve been deeply attached to the land.

Bounty.

Bounty.

That’s coming to an end now, or at least a hiatus, as the frost takes down the last of the lemon verbena and threatens the parsley. There are still leeks and Brussels sprouts to harvest from up at Troy, and the kale will hang out through most of December, but I won’t be planting garlic this fall. I could get some spinach in the ground for spring, but I know it will feel like a burden instead of a gift in the chaos of our final few months here. It’s time to take a break from being rooted, and find adventure elsewhere.DSC_0403

Anchors aweigh

Parked at the pier.

Parked at the pier.

On the water, there are really two options for parking your boat: at a dock, and at anchor. Docks have lots of benefits: they usually offer the best protection from wind and waves; it’s easy to provision or work on the boat if you have easy access to land; and often, they’re attached to a marina, with luxuries like hot showers and laundry. They also cost money–as much as two or three dollars per foot of boat. While there will be times we expect to be tied up to a pier, we plan to spend almost all of our nights at anchor.

Anchoring can be great–more privacy, fewer bugs, nice cooling breezes–but your security depends entirely on how well your anchor holds to the bottom. Milou was a bit of a dock queen; she came set up with a beat-up danforth-style anchor, maybe 100 feet of moldy line, and a bent bow roller. It wasn’t the type of equipment we wanted to ensure peace of mind through the night.

Anchored to the living room rug.

Anchored to the living room rug.

Talking about how to choose an anchor is a religious conversation for a lot of sailors; people become very loyal to their chosen anchor philosophy. Our goal was to find an anchor smarter that we are. Anchoring is not something Michu and I have a lot of experience with, and we didn’t want to spend our time switching between The Best Anchor For Mud and The Best Anchor For Grassy Sand. We decided to upgrade to a 45-pound Mantus anchor–a “new-generation” anchor that should set in almost all bottom conditions.

That's not going to work.

That’s not going to work.

Of course, our new anchor wasn’t going to fit on our tattered bow roller; we’d need an upgrade. Michu did most of the work on the bow roller in the early spring of 2014.

New bow roller; faux anchor.

New bow roller; faux anchor.

Fortunately, one of the benefits of our Mantus anchor is disassembly. Instead of trying to wield a 45-pound monster on the skinny end of an icy bow hanging 15 feet above ground, Michu was only wrestling with about 20 pounds of steel bolted to a wooden template.

Mmmmmm...chain.

Mmmmmm…chain.

Rope wasn’t our preferred rode to connect the boat to the anchor, either–we wanted chain. Rope can chafe over rocks and coral; chain will not only withstand more abuse, it will add weight to ground tackle, laying down on the bottom and helping the anchor to stay set. The benefits don’t come cheap, though; the chain alone can cost over $1000, and then there’s shipping costs. So…how can we save on shipping? Shop Amazon, of course! We found a great deal on chain and had it shipped up to the boat for free.

Anchor: check. Bow roller: check. Chain: check.

Anchor: check. Bow roller: check. Chain: check.

Next on our anchoring to-do list: a windlass. We were feeling young and strong, and also pretty broke after buying all that chain, so we were leaning toward a cheaper manual windlass that we’d winch up by hand–until we checked in with our friend and boat guru Eric. In his experience, sailors invariably run into times when they’ve put down their anchor and then thought the better of their situation. Maybe the waves are bending around a point in an uncomfortable way; maybe you’ve not left enough swing room to allow sufficient distance to your neighbor. With an electric windlass, you can fire up the motor, pull up the anchor and choose a better spot while still holding your rum drink; with a manual windlass, the chances are pretty good you’ll convince yourself that, really, the set is fine, you’ll never run into those rocks, your neighbor is actually miles away…and that’s how you get to a situation where your boat drags in the middle of the night. That absolutely sounded like something we would do; so, electric windlass is was.

It's...a shelf!

It’s…a shelf!

 

Michu fabricated a shelf for the anchor locker to seat the windlass, and we spent a day wiring thick cables from the aft batteries to the bow. It was a lesson in communication for us both, with Michu back by the batteries, feeding cable to me in the saloon:

Michu: "Ok, pull"
me: *pulling*
me: *still pulling...nothing is happening*
Michu: "Ok, pull again."
me: "Uhm. I was still pulling from the last time." *pulling...cable moves three inches...more pulling*
Michu: "Ok, pull"
me: "I never stopped pulling! You need to tell me when to stop!" *horrific swearing*
kids hanging out in the bow: *mom is in serious trouble from all of that swearing*

We worked it out, but the interim between the initial pulling and the final “Pull–ok, stop–ok, pull” system sounded like an excerpt from some terrible couples therapy. Michu finished up the wiring in early August, and with a rope snubber and a Mantus chain hook, our new anchoring system was complete.

Shiny new boat jewelry.

Shiny new boat jewelry.

We like the way the capstan sticks up through the anchor locker; nice to have one electric winch on board!

We like the way the capstan sticks up through the anchor locker; nice to have one electric winch on board!

Since those desperate days, we’ve been able to put our anchor to the test–especially during a three-day stretch this past August, with winds gusting up to 30 knots as we bobbed on the hook fixing our engine starter. The chain is louder than we expected; in the v-berth we can hear it clinking around as the boat swings during the night. Other than that, we are completely happy with how we are set up–the anchor deploys easily, so far it sets on the first try, stays put, and comes back up when we need to leave. It was a big investment, but we’re hoping it pays for itself with nights away from pricy marinas.

On the masthead

Admiral Ackbar for navigation; Yoda for lightning protection.

Admiral Ackbar for navigation; Yoda for lightning protection.

Totally not panicking.

At some point in the late summer, 2014, we looked around out boat and said out loud to ourselves, “If we had to, we could leave tomorrow. Sure, there are things we would like to be nicer, and it would be great to get the freshwater systems done before we go, but really, this boat is pretty great for living aboard.”

That’s hard to keep in mind these days.

So much time available to us...right? Right?

So much time available to us…right? Right?

Our lists have lists. There are so many projects to be done, we can’t even keep the big ideas of the tasks in our heads, never mind the minutia of all the steps.

One school of thought when it comes to buying a cruising boat is to buy it at the last minute, work really hard for a month or two to get it into shape, and head out–without having incurred the costs of storage, insurance, etc of years of ownership. We’d planned to be that kind of boat purchaser; but it turns out that hoarding every last penny without having anything to show for it gets really depressing after a few years; as soon as we had the money for the initial purchase, we pretty much spent it. The benefits to our impatience are many–we’ve gotten to know our boat, the kids are more comfortable aboard, we’ve been able to suss out some great deals on gear we need, and Michu’s had the time to do almost all our boat work himself; but it’s also led us down a path of twisted perfection. Maybe we DO need the best possible autohelm money can buy! What about our communications–maybe we need a WiFi booster AND Iridium GO, plus a new VHF with DSC and AIS and a house WiFi adaptor to broadcast all that info to our iPad… It’s a never-ending pit of potential, and it’s difficult to protect the cruising kitty in the face of sweet new refrigeration systems.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and the money is rushing out the door. We only have a limited number of months of income before we become People Living Off Of Savings.

So: Restraint. Organization. Clarity. That’s what we’re working on over here this week.

So well organized.

So well organized.