One of the more worrisome things I found on Sea Raven when we purchased her, was the state of the wiring. There was 12v DC some 110v AC and I think 220v AC, not the kind of 220v you find worldwide, but the special American kind that just confuses the bejesus outta me.
These all came from the house battery bank, the alternators, a diesel genset, a little inverter and a scary looking shore-power connection. The first thing to do was decide what was necessary to keep moving, living aboard, and were these circuits safe?
In the end everything except the main cabin lights and bilges was disconnected, I never did truly find out if these two were safe though, I just trusted that seeing as they hadn’t burnt her down yet, I should be ok for few more months, probably not the best approach, but it worked!
First stop, generator…. this thing was a diesel powered generator, rated at 8.5kW, waaaay more than we ever envisaged needing, and way more weight under the foredeck than I wanted to carry around, so while we were redoing the deck, it was plucked out by crane and later sold to a powerboat owner in the marina.
With that out of the way, I sat down and made a list of all the power draws on the boat, and started figuring out how many batteries we would need. Sea Raven came with 2 big heavy 8D type batteries, weighing in at about 65kg each giving us a total of 450 amp hours of storage, which basically means it would give us enough power to run a 1 amp current for 450 hours, exciting stuff right! Anyways, this was their rating new, and they were far from new… I ended up changing to AGM batteries (fancier and newer technology), putting in four 6V batteries which now give us 600 Ah. This is enough for us to not have to worry too much about power consumption, but I wish I had added more, another couple of batteries upping the storage to 900 Ah would have been nice sometimes, especially after a few cloudy days.
Then I figured out where the power was going to come from. With the generator gone, I picked up a small Honda 2000w portable generator for emergencies. These things are awesome, I think they are pretty much standard issue on cruising boats now, some nights you can drift off to sleep, the familiar sound of humming hondas drifting through the air from all around you in the anchorage! Obviously this was not going to be our primary source of power, unlike on some boats, the goal was to be self sufficient and constantly refilling the petrol genny kinda defeats the porpoise. Instead I added two 240W solar panels to the stainless dodger we are lucky enough to have, and tied them into the batteries with a 45A MPPT charge controller. Again, I should have stuck to my original plan and gone with the 60A version, the 45A is limited to only 3 panels, and we have already added a third since arriving in Mexico. We found that after several cloudy days in the winter, with the sun low in the sky, and being in an anchorage where the current has you dancing around all day, it was hard to keep the batteries topped off, well with our freezer running it was, we soon turned that thing off, more on that in a bit.
The next piece of the incoming power puzzle is of course the alternators that run off the diesels. Being a catamaran, we are spoilt and have 2 of these, but originally I opted to only connect one of them into the house bank, through a special charge controller thingy that was designed to make sure the starting battery was charged up fully before sending power to the battery bank. If you have every thought about trying one of these, don’t. At the dock everything worked great, but on the way south it decided that it only needed to keep going for x number of hours and then just stop. Great, except we were going for 72 hours non stop with the chart plotter and radar on a lot of the time and the solar set up still in boxes. The result was some quick thinking from the crew and the first use of jumper cables yet seen on the boat, needless to say, this “must-have” doo-dad soon found its way to the swap meet and I installed a selector switch in its place. The final incoming source was a new 30A shore power cord, for those rare times we would be tied to the dock.
Next step, tear out ALL the old wiring. After taking down the headliner (ceiling) in the boat, the state of the wiring was worse than what I thought, there are standards on connecting wires on a boat, aimed at keeping moisture out and short circuits as unlikely as possible, I guess that over the years, these had been seen as more of a rough guide to how it should be done, instead of fancy heat-shrink fittings, insulation tape would do. Not anymore! And like all things boat, it was much easier to tear it all out than putting it back in!
When we did start putting everything back together a few changes were obviously made. The distribution panel, which had been outside at the helm, just waiting for the rain to get in, was moved inside and became part of my new nav station.
We also changed the main cabin lights over to red/white leds, less power and better when moving around on watch, the red light does make a difference to your night vision. We wanted to change all of the lights on board over to led, but the cost meant that instead we have normal lighting in the hulls, and as time goes by we will look at changing over, but to be honest the amount of time they spend turned on, it really makes barely any difference in the grand scheme of things. All the old navigation lights were also switched to new leds, which means we can leave our anchor light on all the time so there is no chance of forgetting to turn it on at night. Many boats seem to see the anchor light as optional, or think that a cheap solar garden light tied to their hand rail will do, anyone who was tried to dinghy through an anchorage on a dark night will confirm otherwise, idiots…
The next big consideration was one of the biggies on any cruising boat, refrigeration. We’re pretty lucky to have plenty of space and seeing as everything was being torn out and put back in, it was a chance to get it right first time! Yeah right. The end result was a built in 12v drawer refrigerator with the intention being to back that up with a super efficient off-grid chest freezer, yup, we have a lot of space. For some reason, money and talking to other boat owners I’m guessin, I opted out of the super efficient and $1200 12v freezer and instead went to Home Depot and ordered up a $250 regular 110V freezer. This has been one of those, WTF was I thinking decisions for a while now, although we have actually managed to make it work! After adding the 3rd solar panel in Mexico, we also plugged in a timer, so the freezer only runs for 6/7 hours a day during peak solar times. This and the million water bottles we have permanently frozen in the bottom, mean we can still run everything off solar alone. Ahhhh, hindsight…. I should have stuck to the uber-efficient freezer and failing that, at least bought the smallest chest freezer they had. The idea was we would always have frozen veges and meat on a crossing/charter, which is true, but we never fill the thing up, so a size down would have done the trick and used less power…. lesson learned…
The AC power, like what you have at home, on Sea Raven all comes through the inverter/battery charger we added. This will charge us up when we feel like throwing money away on a marina, not often, or convert our battery power into something our freezer and appropriately over sized flat screen can use. By wiring from there to several points around the boat with GFCI outlets (power outlets with fuses), it also lets us recharge power tools, computers, phones and all the other little things that we “need”. The fresh mango and banana smoothies on ice on a hot day make it all the extra wiring worth while!
So as it all stands now, a year on the hook later, I’m pretty happy with the setup we have on Sea Raven. We are pretty close to self sufficiency energy wise, and can even run our water maker while the freezer is on to keep the tanks topped off.
And it means when we have our baby on board, we will always be able to have good healthy food stocked up for her in the freezer, a cold beer for me, a frozen smoothie for Sabi and plenty of water to wash nappies (diapers) regardless of where we’re at!