Thursday, October 4, 2012

Boats and Electricity

I owe you a post about power boats - I will post it. I swear. It's a bigger subject than I'd originally thought. In the meantime, however, I bring you this: Photo of something you never, ever want to see on YOUR boat.

How to burn your boat to the waterline in one easy step: Don't check your connection to shore power on a regular (at least weekly) basis. The photo above is the result of that. If you don't want to lose the boat to fire, check your plugs! Oh. And if you *think* you smell something burning? Check the shore power connection.

Most boats have batteries. The bigger the boat, the bigger the battery bank. Cabin lights, sailing instruments and running lights all operate from the batteries. However, while boats are in dock, most of us are also hooked into shore power. This recharges the batteries, but it also allows us to run computers, our refrigerator, and anything else that requires a regular plug to operate (like heaters). Shore power connections are exposed to the elements. This isn't usually an issue - think of your outdoor holiday light displays. These plugs and the cords are designed for outdoor use and they serve reliably for years.

The problem is that when these cords fail (and they will, it's just a matter of time) they almost always fail at the BOAT end (the picture above) not on the dock end. When they fail, it's almost always in the fashion shown in the photo - heat, melting and scorching from runaway current. Boat fires can and do start this way. Yes. That picture is of our plug. Once I found this scorch, we did not plug back in - we immediately went to the marine store and bought a new shorepower plug solution called SmartPlug. (I'm not affiliated with the company in any way, shape or form - we just picked it for safety reasons that made sense to us.) We went that route because those plugs have fuses and temperature sensors. If heat builds up in the plug, the fuse trips and shuts down all current. This makes it much harder to burn down the boat.

It's amazing how I took electricity for granted until we moved aboard a boat. To a certain extent, I still do - the power just shows up ready for me to plug into at the dock stand. But the line into the boat is 100% our responsibility and there's clearly maintenance - even if it's just checking the connection from time to time - required to keep everyone and everything safe.

The nice part, if you're writing fiction, is that you now have a believable disaster that could befall your fictional boaters. (Note: I knew we had a problem because our 'Reverse Polarity' light came on in the onboard electrical panel. So if you want to rescue your boater before the boat catches fire - you can have one of them see the red Reverse Polarity light shining and question it. For the record, the rest of our electrical panel indicators are green - that one's the only red light.)


  1. I think "Reverse Polarity" would be a great name for a boat. Or a spaceship. Or something.

  2. The name of a band. Also, Bent Whisker. Fine band name.