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What Were They Thinking?

With the back of the electrical panel open, Zaricor encounters a true head-scratcher.

With the back of the electrical panel open, Zaricor encounters a true head-scratcher.

What Were They Thinking?

Doing a little work on your boat? It’s possible you’ll see a few things that’ll flat-out astound you. Or worse!

You’re not going to believe this, maybe. While installing oodles and oodles of brand-new PEX tubing and Sharkbite fittings on board my 30-year-old boat, I discovered that the vent hoses from the two poly water tanks did not discharge overboard in the conventional manner, i.e., through proper fittings on the hullsides.

“You wanna know where the overflow goes?” I asked my friend Jerry when he stopped by to check out why I was yelling. Jerry thought for a moment and then suggested: “The bilge?”

“No,” I replied, “not exactly.”

What a previous owner had done—or commissioned— was to simply run very short vent lines and dump them inside (as opposed to outside) the hull, right behind the water tanks. So while lots of freshwater overflow would indeed find its way into the bilge and get pumped overboard by the bilge pump (a troubling prospect in its own right), a good bit of the stuff would also collect behind the outboard stringers under the water tanks and just lay there like it was in a pond, breeding all sorts of bacteria, mold, bad smells, and other nastiness.

“You gotta wonder what they were thinking,” Jerry marveled, shaking his head. Then he told me a story about a boat he’d once owned with even dicier vent lines. The lines, he said, had originated from a set of fuel tanks but, instead of exiting the boat via proper fittings in the hullsides, they’d been simply plumbed into another set of hoses that served as vents for the holding tanks. “Can you imagine what could have happened with this kind of mess?” Jerry suggested. “The fuel tanks and the holding tanks were essentially connected—one could have cross-contaminated the other. It was crazy.”

Of course, tank vents are not the only onboard components that can be goofily jury-rigged. Electrical systems, especially on older vessels, often provide surprises. Again, on my own boat, during the recent PEX-Sharkbite rehab of the freshwater system, I had occasion to hire boatyard electrician Erik Thompson to figure out an obfuscating 12-volt terminal strip that was melted on one end and crowded with wires emanating from what looked like a thick, black 110-volt cable on the other.

“Well,” said Erik when he first laid eyes on the rather mysterious chunk of electrical componentry, “you’ve obviously got a 110-volt circuit here.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “But what about the 12-volt wires going into the strip from the bilge pump in the shower sump?”

The question got Erik’s attention—he looked a little closer. “Well, well,” he said. Then, armed with a multimeter and a stout heart, he went on to discover that the cable was actually an old, 110-volt power-tool extension cord that a previous owner had pressed into service for 12-volt usage. As we extracted the darn thing from behind a bulkhead—it was approximately 7 feet long—Eric allowed as how, being a marine electrician for many years, he’d seen plenty of electrical squirreliness, although nothing quite so quirky as an overt mixture of 12-volt and 110-volt wiring.

Even new boats, you’ll occasionally find, are not exempt from crazy engineering. Just the other day in a local marine store, I was talking with a fellow boater who had a serious issue that was directly related to the way the manufacturer had built his vessel in the first place.

“I’ve got to cut big holes in my shower stall today—not looking forward to it,” the guy said rather ruefully. “It’s the only way I can find out what’s wrong with two of my vented loops.”

It turned out this guy’s boat had loops in several of its drain hoses. Vented loops, in case you’ve forgotten, prevent backflooding through overboard discharge lines. They tend to require periodic maintenance.

At any rate, a couple of the loops on board the guy’s boat had been installed prior to the installation of a large fiberglass shower liner. The result? The liner wall was completely blocking access to the loops. The only way to do maintenance on them was to cut sizable holes in the liner and perhaps install a set of waterproof hatches to cover the holes at job’s end.

“There’s a certain irrationality built into people I guess,” the guy said, “and it comes out eventually. Like, with these vented loops, I mean—was anyone really paying attention when they installed them the way they did?”

I said I had no idea. And quite frankly I don’t. It’s quite popular these days to say that necessity is the mother of invention. But hey, apparently, sometimes necessity can also be the mother of insanity.