Electrical, Original

A small portion of the old wiring from Oystercatcher
Of the three major systems on a cruising sailboat - the plumbing, the electrical, and the auxiliary propulsion - the most most complex, by far, on the Ericson 25 is the electrical. Now the handful of E25 owners out there with diesels or inboard gasoline engines might argue otherwise, but I'd wager that they wouldn't hold this position, if they ever grappled with a complete overhaul of the electrical system. It's a labyrinth, with many twists and turns - a puzzle without a picture. In future postings I plan to offer you a map, or a ball of twine if you will, by which you can enter this labyrinth, slay the Minotaur, and emerge victorious. Take it, if you wish, or chart your own course. The choice is yours.

I say all of this as a preamble to the lengthy posting that follows. Why have I inserted so many pictures, and written so many words about this old electrical system in my Ericson 25, Oystercatcher? So that you might better understand the number of electrical issues I inherited from the previous owner, and so that you might fully grasp the magnitude of the challenge that anyone faces who attempts to create a new and better system - a system appropriate for a present-day, trailerable, cruising sailboat - from scratch.

Our overview of the old electrical system begins with the original battery switch and the original DC panel. In the picture below, you'll see these items on the bulkhead aft of the stove. You might think this a bad location for them. Certainly it would be preferable for them to be somewhere else than beside the stove, but there are few other choices given the size and layout of the Ericson 25. Space is at a premium on all sailboats, and on a twenty-five footer you have to do what you can to make everything fit together as well as possible.
When we look closer at these pieces of electrical equipment, we see that the battery switch is missing its cover. The surveyor flagged this on the inspection. One more thing that helped me get a significant reduction in the price of the boat. If you click on this picture and enlarge it, you can get a better view of the original DC panel. It was straightforward and simple, like most sailboat electrical systems in 1975.
At some point, one of the two previous owners decided to expand the DC electrical system. We see the evidence for this in the area of the companionway. Here, with the companionway ladder removed, we have a clear view of an additional DC panel. I don't know if the bilge pump switch above it was original to the boat or not.
In the close-up below, you can make out some of the labels on this DC panel. You might be able to see the words knot meter and depth sounder. These are two instruments that the guy added to the boat, so it's likely that he added this panel at that time. The other labels didn't make sense, and it was difficult for me to sort any of this out, because so much of the electrical system was ill-functioning or completely kaput.
Below we see the back of the main DC panel and the battery switch. This is inside the portside cockpit locker. In other words, this is the backside of the plywood bulkhead that separates the cabin from the cockpit and lazarette. At any rate, notice the problems present in this picture. First of all, you'll see that the backs of the panel and the battery switch are not covered. The cockpit locker is, of course, the place where everyone stores all sorts of important items - tools, fire extinguishers, life jackets, you name it. What happens when some of this stuff goes asliding and crunches some of these connections, or at least makes contact with them? Secondly, take a look at the wiring itself. It's hanging free. No effort to secure it to the bulkhead. No effort to label it. The black electrical tape helps a little, or does it? I'll let you be the judge of that. Finally, it's worth pointing out that the cyst that's growing on the wire on the top of the picture is in fact a dirt dobber's nest. These clumps of dried mud were all over the many out-of-sight compartments of the boat.
Now let's look at the battery bank, or I should say the battery, within the lazarette. I'm going to point this out now, because it's easier to see in this picture than in later ones. Do you see that black rubber strap that's supposedly keeping the battery safe and sound within the battery box? This was something else that the surveyor flagged in his inspection of the boat. In this context, it's worth pointing out that the guy had knotted-up the strap in order to make it short enough for this application. Supposedly, he ran the rubber strap though the plastic handle on the top of the battery to hinder its movement. Humm. Not very convincing.
In the picture below you get a better idea of how chaotic the wiring was, in and around the battery. Note the black plastic conduit in the left of the picture. This ran through the bilge, from the V-berth compartment to the lazarette. It housed the wiring for the knot meter and depth sounder. I'll address those items later.
As I've said in other postings, I made three trips to the Pamlico Sound region of North Carolina in the process of purchasing Oystercatcher in 2009. In August, I just checked her out; in September, I returned for a survey; and, in October, I bought her and sailed away. In the first two pictures of the lazarette (above), you see the way it appeared in August, during my first visit. At that time, the owner told me that the yellow battery was a gel-cell. When I returned with the surveyor in September, I noticed that this battery had been replaced by one that was smaller and black in color. It was a 12 volt battery, but it was one that was intended for a welding set-up. With my camera in hand, I pointed out to the surveyor this switch that had been made between the yellow and the black. This got him hot under the collar, and it did me as well. The owner, who was hovering around on the dock during the survey (since it was his own personal dock), hastened to point out that the gel-cell had died since my first visit in August. I think the truth was that the gel-cell was dead, or damn near it, in August, and the owner got just enough of a charge on it for the cabin lights to burn during my visit (because they did work, as you'll see in the photos below). Nevertheless, the surveyor and I also thought that the gel-cell might have in fact been good and that the owner was trying to hang onto it and stick me with a cheap replacement. Whatever the case might have been, the cheap replacement was one of many things that got me a much cheaper price on this boat.
Check out the mess below. Can you make sense of it? I didn't think so.
Here's a better shot of the black plastic conduit for the knot meter and depth sounder. I believe that it was elevated for the purpose of keeping the mouth of the conduit out of the bilge water. You'll also notice the black hose in the background - the one with masking tape on it. That's the vent for the fresh water tank. It's supposed to be clear plastic, not black. If you want to know why, just read my earlier posting, "Old Plumbing."
The rat's nest, in all its glory, after I removed it from the lazarette.
A closer look at the battery cable and all its pitiful companions.
The ring terminal was dimple-crimped, and, as you see, there was no heat-shrink tubing to protect the connection between the terminal and the cable. Corrosion was rampant on the individual copper strands.
The yellow insulation in this picture appears to be heat-shrink tubing, but it's not. Just as was the case with the positive battery cable, the individual copper strands are exposed and are heavily corroded. There was a lot of resistance in this system on account of this corrosion, and on account of other problem areas throughout the boat.
4 AWG (American Wire Gauge) battery cable was common in older sailboats, but in rewiring these classic crafts, many chose heavier gauge cable.
While we're on the subject of the main circuit, i.e., the wires associated with the battery bank (as opposed to the branch circuits, which run throughout the boat), we might as well touch upon the grounding system. What you see below is the grounding bolt. It's located in the shallow bilge area between the hanging locker and the head. The grounding bolt is simply a bronze bolt, the tapered head of which is flush against the exterior of the hull. There are three cables leading to this bolt: one from the bow chainplate; the other two from the midships chainplates. This is grounding system for lightning strikes. It's not a grounding system for the DC electrical system. I'll address all of this in future postings. The black PVC conduit that you see is the same one that you saw in the lazarette. It was used to house the wires for the knot meter and the depth sounder.
One subject that cannot be neglected in any discussion of the main circuit is that of battery charging. Unless you're doing an incredible amount of motoring (instead of sailing), your typical small outboard motor on an Ericson 25 is not going to supply enough amps to the battery bank to keep it fully charged, unless, of course, you're living a minimalist lifestyle and getting by with candles, flashlights, and a battery-powered anchor light. If you're going to use the Ericson 25 for comfortable cruising, you must have some other means for charging the battery bank, either a generator, when anchoring for days at a time, or a shore-power inlet, when at a dock. The Ericson 25 that I purchased had neither of these. Matter of fact, it didn't even have the alternator wires from the outboard connected to the battery. You can see the orange wire caps for the alternator wires in the photo below. The owner didn't have a shorepower connection at his own dock, and I didn't see any solar trickle charger on the boat when I visited. Therefore, I think the owner kept his gel-cell in the garage of his house, along with a lot of the other stuff associated with the boat. The only conclusion I could draw from this evidence was that the owner had never used this boat for anything other than day-sailing since he'd owner her in the early 1980s. There were other pieces of information in our conversations that led me to the same conclusion.
In the photo above, you see the fuel line leading into the cockpit locker. In an earlier posting, "Old Plumbing," I talked about how this caused the lazarette and bilge to be coated with a greasy residue. At any rate, in the picture below that I took at a later date, you see the aft end of the cockpit locker.The white through-hull was the hole through which the previous owner ran the fuel line. The hole beneath it was apparently used for the alternator wires. The large black plug was for the tiller pilot. Note the corrosion on the copper. Might have been nice in its day. Now, though, it was deceased.
Also in the cockpit there was a DC receptacle. This would have been handy for any number of things. Only problem, it didn't work. Surprised?
Here it is on display shortly before its burial. Somebody, at some point, had tried to resuscitate this receptacle with some sort of operation. The black electrical tape served as a cheap bandage. Fixing the problem the right way by spending $12 on a new receptacle would have taken too much time I suppose.
 The receptacle itself - corroded like almost everything else in this electrical system.
Let's now turn our attention to the various branch circuits, starting with the navigation lights. Below is the bow of Oystercatcher upon my first visit to the Pamlico Sound area in August 2009.
In the close-up below, we see the port and starboard nav lights with a DC receptacle between them.
I've discussed these particular pieces of the electrical system in the posting, "Deck Hardware Removal," so I won't linger long on these pictures.
Do I need to say anything about this DC receptacle, or does the picture say it all?
Portside nav light - not worth a flip.
Starboard nav light - no better.
Now let's visit the chainlocker for view of the wiring for these nav lights and the DC receptacle. The chainlocker is, of course, located behind the mahogany panel at the foremost part of the V-berth. In this picture, you can see the anchor rode through the screen in the panel.
With Oystercatcher at her new home, on her trailer, in my yard, I removed the mahogany panel, in order to inspect the wiring. My first thought was this - how in the world did that guy's anchor rode not get tangled in all that wiring?
In this closer view, you can see more of that black electrical tape. That stuff was everywhere.
Closer still and we can the wiring for the nav lights and the DC receptacle. Again, black electrical tape. It was used to join the positive and negative for each light. A terminal block or bus bar would have been much better. The leads for the DC receptacle were joined to the main wires with crimped butt-terminals. No heat-shrink tubing was present.
Here's a picture of the stern that I took during one of my visits to Oystercatcher before making the purchase. Just to the right of the piling you can see the aft nav light on the stern. It's canted at an angle, about 45 degrees. This was the standard mounting location for this light on the Ericson 25.
Here's a close-up that I took at my house. Note how the formerly clear plastic lens is now yellow.
My guess was that this light had not been used in many a year by the previous owner, if ever at all.
The nav lights on the mast were equally worn and lonely, as I discovered when I got the boat back home and got the mast on sawhorses in my backyard.
Yes, the anchor light is not really a nav light, but serves a related purpose, so bear with me. The anchor light lens was shot. The bulb like almost all bulbs manufactured since the days of Thomas Edison, was incandescent - a real power hog when left burning for ten hours straight. If you want to have plenty of juice in your battery bank, an LED is the way to go nowadays.
Moving down the mast we come to the steaming light. Would you want to rely on this light, with its hazy, sunburned lens and corroded wiring when motoring through a busy sea lane at dusk or dark?
The mast was stately and grand when I visited Oystercatcher before the purchase. The large spreader lights were impressive in appearance, but were not functioning. I figured I could bring them up to speed with a little work. Shouldn't have let my mind go down that path, given the other problems present on the boat.
Back at home, after I removed the spreaders for inspection, I discovered more of that damn black electrical tape. Looking on the bright side, at least there was some consistency to the mess.
But just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, here it was - lamp cord. Yes, the previous owner, or some yahoo he hired, had used lamp cord to wire the spreader lights.
Here's a close-up of one of the spreader lights. After I got both of them off the spreaders, I took them to a 12 volt battery to see if the lights themselves still worked. One did. One didn't. The plastic housing for these lights was permanently sealed. In other words, there was no way to fix the broken light. I could find no identical replacement for it. Therefore, both these lights were trash. How long could this torture go on?
The mast wiring was joined to the electrical system by means of male and female plugs in the mast step. The white wire is the VHF coax cable. I'll touch upon that near at the end.
There are three holes in the mast step of the Ericson 25. The largest one is for the PVC conduit for the VHF coax cable. There's another one for the mast wires. Finally, there is the one for the centerboard line, just forward of the block that aids in the raising and lowering of the centerboard.
To assess the overall condition of the mast wiring with regard to the electrical system as a whole, I removed the mahogany board that comprises one side of the mast compression post, amidships. I discovered that this mast wiring passed all the way down the post. Then, it made a right angle turn in the upper portion of the bilge, and reemerged in the hanging locker across from the head.
Here it was, rising upward from the bilge along the side of the hanging locker.
There it went up to the top of the hanging locker and through a small hole.
This hole led to the portside alcove box in the main salon. Here you see the alcove box with the mahogany panel removed. I draped the mast wires over the lip for the sake of this photo. There were other wires in that box that I did not photograph. This was the main highway for the DC system. All wires within the boat, even those for lights on the starboard side, eventually led to this portside alcove box. From here it was only a short distance to the DC panel near the stove.
Let's return now to the V-berth, so that I can discuss the lighting system within the boat.
Here are some of the wires I yanked out of this area. The large wire in the background was part of the old lightning grounding system.
There was a single, incandescent light in the V-berth. Damn if it didn't actually work. It was located on the starboard side. Note the water stain and evidence of rot on the bulkhead. I took this picture during my first visit in August 2009. The owner had just been washing down his deck, and this dark area was wet. A poorly sealed stanchion near this bulkhead was the culprit.
When I returned for the survey in September 2009, I found this piece of white plastic had been glued over the stain.This was the stuff that some people use as a quick fix to line the walls of showers in lieu of doing more expensive and time-consuming tile-work. As was the case with the companionway hatch, which I have discussed in another posting, the owner claimed that he had fixed the problem for me. One question. If I were to take a rock and break a window on your house and then come next door and cover up the hole with a piece of plastic, would you say that I fixed your window for you? I'll address this bulkhead issue in another posting, but suffice it to say that I wish the guy had left the bulkhead just as I found it on the first visit.
The head receives a lot of natural light on account of the forward hatch just above it.
This picture, taken at the same time, as the one above, demonstrates how well lit this space can be on account of the hatch. At the top of this picture, you can just barely see the incandescent light on the small alcove box above the head.
I took the picture below when I got the boat back home to Charleston. Note how the leads from the incandescent light have been joined with butt-splices. No heat shrink tubing was present. These wires, in turn, joined the main positive and negative runs in the alcove box.
As we move to the main salon, we might as well touch upon the DC fan, which was joined to the same circuit as the lights. A knob-switch on the mahogany panel of the alcove box controlled its operation.
It was a somewhat attractive device with a steel cage and snazzy blue blades. One problem, though . . . it didn't work. Did you expect otherwise? I removed it and hooked it up to a 12V battery. Nothing.
On the same mahogany panel of the alcove box was an incandescent light. You see it here in the left of the picture. This style of light, with the aluminum top and molded plastic bottom is found in some of the other Ericsons aside from the 25.
On the portside of the boat there was but one light. You see it here in the upper right on the mahogany panel of the alcove box. There were thus four total incandescent lights original to the Ericson 25, three on the starboard side (V-berth, head, and main salon), and one on the portside (main salon). Amazingly, all four of these lights worked. They were about the only electrical items that did. I enjoyed their warm glow on the chilly transit on the Pamlico Sound in October 2009. After that experience, however, I knew that they were not sufficient for present-day cruising. Incandescents are incredibly inefficient compared to LEDs and take a big bite out of the battery bank if burned for a long time. Also, there needed to be more than four light sources. For example, take a look at the galley, and ask yourself if you would enjoy trying to cook on that stove without a task light overhead. Without one, there are lots of shadows in the space.
Back at home in Charleston after the transit, I removed the mahogany panels from the alcove boxes to inspect the condition of the house lights.
That blasted black electrical tape was everywhere.
This detailed photo helps to explain why. Of course there were the many patch jobs on which the two previous owners had used black electrical tape. I've shown you plenty of those. This picture, though, is of the original wiring, or at least what I believe is the original stuff. The house lights (and the fan, which someone added at some point) were all part of the same circuit. Running around the perimeter of the boat (from the starboard side to the chainlocker and then down the portside to the DC panel) were a positive and a negative wire. To join the leads from the lights to this main run, they simply shaved some insulation from the wires, twisted the wire from the leads around these bare spots, and then patched the wound with black electrical tape. Maybe this was common practice in 1975, but it sure does introduce plenty of opportunities for corrosion and thus resistance into the system. Today, these connections would be properly made with heat shrink ring-terminals on terminal blocks or bus bars.
We'll end this survey of the old electrical system by taking a look at the electronics. Let's begin with the compass, or what used to be the compass. The plastic lens was sun-baked. The compass card meandered meaninglessly. The light? Would you expect that to be in working order?
I removed the compass and threw it into a garbage can already quite full.
The bulb for the compass light was so corroded that I couldn't even remove it from its fitting.
Check out the black electrical tape. Whoever installed this compass could at least have used butt splice terminals before applying the tape.
Here's the way the knot meter and depth sounder appeared when I first visited in August 2009. I returned with the surveyor in September. He didn't even bother to examine these electronics. He told me to pull these things out and replace them with a GPS.
Here's the way the back of these instruments appeared at that time. Maybe they were state of the art in their day. Not now. The knot meter actually had a display, but it was almost impossible to see the red digital readout in the sunlight of the cockpit. Besides, as I found out after I got the boat hauled, the paddle-wheel device integral to the through-hull that accompanied this instrument, had been so thoroughly covered with years of bottom paint that it wouldn't even turn with pressure applied by my hands.
The through hulls for these instruments were located in the large storage locker under the V-berth.
At home in Charleston, I first removed the holding tank (the phony holding tank I might add), and then I inspected the interior condition of these through-hulls.
The plywood backer was in poor condition - delaminated and flaky. When I eventually decided to take a screwdriver to this plywood, it took little time to pry it free from the hull. Sorry, no pictures of that.
The same held true for the other through-hull. I never could figure out what role those other piece of plastic played in this instrument system.
The most I could do at that time was clean up the mess. The crappy through-hulls, though, eventually got to me, and I returned to this spot, pulled them, and threw them in the trash.
The last piece of electronics in this personal survey of the boat was the VHF. Here's the way it appeared at the time of the professional survey in September 2009. At least the radio came on when you turned the knob. That's about all I can say about it.
Judging from the paperwork I later received when I purchased the boat in October 2009, this VHF had been in place since the early 1980s, when the second owner purchased the boat from the original owner.
When I removed the deck hardware, I also had to remove the VHF, since the previous owner had used the nuts from the winch to secure the VHF mount. I never put that old VHF back in there. I'll explain why in a future posting.
The VHF coaxial cable had been routed downward to a through-hull that had been installed in the counter of the sink. I would have routed it differently. In this position it was an obstruction.
From there is was routed to a black PVC conduit that passed through the bilge. It emerged from the bilge in the head, and from there it ran unprotected until it reached another piece of black PVC in the bulkhead. This piece of PVC seemed original to the boat. You'll see why, if you continue reading.
The black PVC ran up the mast compression post to the deck.
It exited the deck through a hole in the mast step. It appeared that the mast step was designed with this in mind, since there was a hole that perfectly accommodated this PVC conduit.
The VHF coaxial cable ran up the mast and exited through a hole near the mast head. Here's the way it appeared soon after I brought the boat home and set the mast on sawhorses in my backyard.
It's difficult to see in this picture, but there is corrosion on both the male and female parts of this connection. The antenna appeared to be just as old as the VHF radio. I eventually yanked it, and bought a replacement. As I said above, I'll explain my rationale for a new VHF set-up in another posting.
This completes my lengthy survey of the old electrical system that I inherited when I purchased my boat, Oystercatcher, in October 2009. I hope that you can now see, from this seemingly endless posting, how seemingly endless the electrical problems were on this Ericson 25. Based on many conversations I have had with other E25 owners, I know that others have inherited similar problems. From my own standpoint, I knew that I had to replace the old system. But where to begin? Stay tuned. That is the subject of another posting.