Our new-to-us J/109, like most production boats, came to us with an electrical system, installed in 2004, that is not even close to ABYC compliant. Said system also had some dangerous defects.
And on top of that, the system as installed by the builders, while adequate for the light usage they envisioned, is horribly inefficient, and will be very frustrating, not to speak of environmentally destructive, to live with once away from shore power for more than a few hours—think running the engine for hours, and often, to charge the batteries.
The same applied to our previous boat, a McCurdy and Rhodes 56 that we owned and mostly lived aboard for 30 years, and the one before that, a Fastnet 45.
The Way It Is
But here's the thing, our experience is the norm, not an aberration, and the older the boat we buy is, the worse the system will be, so there's no point in wasting time pissing and moaning, rather, we need to fix it.
Two Tips For Buyers
But before we get into that, two tips for those of us buying a secondhand boat, as we did:
- The boat will almost certainly require significant rewiring and electrical upgrades, so we better budget time and money to do that.
- The survey will probably not warn us of this impending expense and hassle, so even with a clean survey we need to leave money in the budget for this project.
A Survey Won't Save Us
On the second point. Yes, I know, most surveyors claim to be ABYC trained and claim they survey to that standard. And maybe some do.
But the fact is that, during the process of buying our J/109, I read through three surveys on the class—two on the boat we bought, and one on another boat—and not one even pointed out that the batteries were not fused, a fundamental code violation and a potential boat-burner.
I also read through several other surveys on other types of boats, and not one had more than one or two trivial mentions of ABYC-compliance violations, and all completely missed problems and omissions that I could see at a glance in photos, like the one at the top of this article.
A North American Problem?
I'm guessing, but do not know, that the situation in Europe, and probably Australia and New Zealand, will be better, at least for boats built comparatively recently, both because in those countries regulations are backed up by the rule of law, rather than just being recommendations as ABYC's are, and because it seems that surveyors in these countries are, as a rule, more thorough.
But even so, our experience and what we are doing about it will still be of use to those of you in countries other than North America who are buying boats that are over about 10-years old, or boats that have suffered from electrical system modifications from a series of owners equipped with a lot more enthusiasm than knowledge.
So what the heck are we supposed to do about this state of affairs?
What about hiring a boatyard to fix the problems and upgrade the system to ABYC? Generally a bad idea for three reasons:
- Most boatyard staff are woefully ignorant of basic electrical theory and the applicable standards; yes, including the ones that are ABYC certified—the courses they take are a joke.
- Even if the yard has a person who does understand ABYC or CE, the likelihood is that they will have absolutely no idea how to make the system more efficient for cruising away from shore power.
- High cost. More on that in a minute.
How bad are the first two issues? Really, really bad. For example, I know of only one guy here in Nova Scotia and one in Maine who I would trust to rewire my boat to be both compliant and efficient.
Gotta Take Responsibility
Given the deplorable state of training and knowledge among most boatyard "professionals" and even boatbuilders, particularly in North America, even if we can afford to delegate the actual work, we owners have to get at least a basic understanding so that we can check it's being done right.
The other problem is that even if you can find someone competent (look for independent contractors, not boatyards), you will probably have to wait ages before they can help you. The good people are invariably snowed under.
Don't believe it's that bad? Well, read on for a couple of examples: