The successful boat project is truly an art form. A boat is a peculiar assembly of fiberglass, metal, electrical, and engine components. Especially in a cruiser or live-aboard class of boat, there are many systems that provide the comforts of home, including heating, ventilation, cooling, cooking facilities, wastewater handling, plumbing, shore power, and many other systems. This results in a complex “medium” to which you are applying the artistic skill of a boat project.
We come from different walks in life, and all have different talents, and the skill level of each individual differs, and this must be taken into account before attempting any project. When undertaking a boat project, there can be serious risk of your personal safety and permanent damage to the boat if done incorrectly. The task of wiring a new electrical outlet in your home is simply more complex when done in a boat. I too have my own limitations – I do not like tinkering with engines. That kind of work I leave to the marina’s staff.
Therefore, it is essential that you assess your own knowledge and skill level to ensure that the boat project can be done correctly. It would be an unfortunate thing to damage your boat or create an unsafe condition by attempting to improve it. Obviously, a simple boat project, such as installing upgraded stereo speakers is less risky than installing an air conditioner, and a good approach might be to limit yourself to these projects as you gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities to tackle the more difficult ones.
The project you do may not be your own. Many of us buy used boats, and as a result, there may be projects that were done without the full understanding of what needed to be accomplished. So your first project may be the correction of a problem, or the completion of deferred maintenance by a previous owner. However, this "damage" is probably not irreversable, and may easily be corrected.
I intended the projects to be more of a story, rather than technical step-by-step instructions. In this sense, I'll cover areas such as what you might find as typical of a used boat. I'll mention previous owners, marinas, dealerships, and other such persons, places, and things. In keeping with the story idea, these are generic entities, which may or may not have actually occured - but rather enforce a point or concept. During the storytelling, the idea of finding a boat that the previous owner had mis-wired and you have to fix is simply a generic example of what one may find on a boat, and not necessarily specific to my boat.
The point of all of this is that a project can be done incorrrectly, and when done previously on a used boat, when discovered - becomes a project in itself, and should be immediately corrected when safety or the integrity of the boat is at risk.
The three primary tools you need for ensuring the project is done correctly is research, research, and research. Whether you use the internet or find the information in a book, manufacturer’s application guide, or other source, the first task in any project should be to research how to do it correctly and safely. After this is accomplished, the project simply becomes a matter of applying what you have learned. A secondary goal in doing a project should be to learn something new - which can be as rewarding as the improvement itself.
The most critical aspect to the boat project is obviously to keep the boat safe. Especially when you make changes or additions to the boat’s electrical system, power plant, or fuel system, there is the potential to create a hazardous condition. Even something as simple as drilling a hole through a bulkhead into the engine room to install a loudspeaker could result in exposing fuel vapors to a potential source of ignition.
You as the boat owner must take ownership of this risk, and must have the personal responsibility to ensure you do not create a hazard. Even if you are following someone else’s instructions, you remain responsible to ensure it is correctly done. I have done all of the projects that I have written about on my own boat, and my experience level is limited to the knowledge I have gained within this specific situation. As boats differ, the safety requirements vary, so these projects should only be used as a catalyst to get you thinking about doing your own project. The reader of these projects must acknowledge that they are not a step-by-step set of instructions. For this reason, the project undertaker must themselves ensure everything is done safely.
The US Coast Guard has published a set of safety standards regulations for boats, which includes many detailed specifications, including some wiring selection and installation practices, fuel systems requirements, and even topics such as proper battery placement within engine rooms. These regulations are within the US Code for Federal Regulations 33 CFR 183 - which is actually federal law. There are two very good publications available from the US Coast Guard that can be downloaded from the Coast Guard’s website. I am not providing links to them, since links tend to change over time. However, they can be found with one of the internet search engines. The publications are:
Both publications only deal with the safety aspects of boat construction, and detail the requirements of 33 CFR 183. They do not address other matters, such as corrosion or maintaning a waterproof hull. The intended audience of the first publication is the boat owner, and the second is the boat manufacturer. They are written quite well, and even though the Boat Builder’s Handbook is intended for manufacturers, anyone attempting a boat project should posses the skill-set to comprehend the information. If you cannot fully understand this information, for your own safety, you should hire the project done.
The construction of the fiberglass hull in many of today’s boats consists of many materials, often including some form of coring. You can think of the hull as a sandwich of fiberglass, coring, and more fiberglass. The coring is typically encapsulated within layers of fiberglass, and sealed from water intrusion. Coring is typically used to add strength, rigidity, and save weight, so many boats have at least some coring in them.
Unfortunately, the coring may not in itself be waterproof, so when you drill a hole in the side of the boat, you expose it to certain water damage. Therefore you must seal the hole, or you risk extensive and permanent damage to your hull from the hole you drill. It is always worth the extra time it takes to do a good job by properly sealing any hole you drill.
Another significant issue that can have safety ramifications is corrosion. Anytime two dissimilar metals are in contact with each other and in contact with the water, galvanic corrosion is occurring. The severity of the corrosion, and which metal receiving the corrosion is all dependant on the characteristics of the materials involved and their environment. All metals can corrode, and damage could occur to underwater fittings, electrical wiring, or engine components if the potential for corrosion is not considered in the project. Again, research is in order, and if there is any risk of corrosion, the project should include a thorough understanding of this issue. There are some very good books on the topic of boat corrosion that can be found in the book section of any well-stocked marine store or mail order house.
In conclusion, do not be afraid to do that boat project. Do the research, ensure you maintain the safety and integrity of the boat, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
The Boat-Project.Com team