"Hi. Yes, we'd like to pay you a big chunk of money to install some stuff on our boat. Can you help us? Oh, I see -- you'll call us back. Someday. Gee, thanks."

Early Attempts at Outfitting (August & September 1999)
So it's like this: Theresa and I have just closed on our new boat, and we're sitting in the cockpit, savouring the evening air. We look at each other and say, "Now what?"
Given that Serendipity had only been used for weekend sails, I figured we should probably outfit her for serious cruising...

Friday, August 6, 1999: At our broker's recommendation, I called Jim Overton at J. Gordon in Annapolis to discuss the installation of several pieces of equipment on our new boat. Jim agreed to meet with us on our boat the following Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 10, 1999: We met with Jim Overton today to discuss the installation of several systems that I figured were necessary for "serious" cruising:

  • solar panels
  • a wind generator
  • a watermaker
  • a SSB radio
  • macerators, and
  • a compact diesel generator (maybe)
Jim argued against installing the SSB until we're ready to go offshore, since it's quite involved and expensive. (I had no idea that a radio installation would require through-hull fittings!) He's going to put together an estimate for the other tasks. We explained that we were planning to leave Annapolis at the beginning of October, so that we could head south ahead of the cold weather. Jim assured us that we had plenty of time to get the work done, but somehow I didn't feel so sure...

Saturday, August 14, 1999: We took the boat out for the first time today as its owners. This was exciting and scary all at the same time. The wind was blowing about 15 knots, so I was very happy to have my dad and Ernest on the boat to help. We had a beautiful sail, though I didn't bring the boat into her slip quite as smoothly as I would have liked. That'll take practice, particularly in a wind and wake.

Tuesday, August 17, 1999: We met Fiona Lockwood of J-World at the boat at 11:00am for what was supposed to be a three-day training cruise. We hoped to cover some of the main aspects of boat handling: docking, anchoring, and navigation being tops on the list. As it turned out, we spent a lot more time on ship's systems. (Experienced boat owners are probably laughing at this, with something of an "I told you so" tone. But everyone knows that home ownership is a perpetual odyssey of maintenance tasks, so I figured that boat ownership couldn't be much worse.)

Fiona did a stem-to-stern walk-through to familiarize herself and us with our boat, and we discovered that the batteries were nearly dead. We had left the refrigerator on the previous Saturday, with the boat plugged into shore power, and I had expected the batteries to stay full. Apparently, though, the refrigerator drained the batteries and then quit, as evidenced by the pool of condensate in the bottom of the fridge. We turned the fridge off and waited several hours for the batteries to recharge, but they remained dead. A more thorough investigation of the charger itself turned up nothing strange, so we were baffled. Meanwhile, we had discovered that the water tasted strongly of fiberglass and was completely undrinkable, so I ran all the tanks dry and refilled them.

We clearly weren't going anywhere today, but we decided that it would be good experience for us to spend the night on the boat. (It would, after all, be our first night aboard, so it might not be so bad to be plugged into the dock!) We went to Fawcett's, bought some stuff for the upcoming cruise, then broke for dinner.

When we returned from dinner, I checked the batteries, and was shocked to find them at full voltage! As if by magic, the charger had decided to work. I figured it must be a loose connection, but given that the batteries were now happy, I turned the refrigerator back on. We took showers, and I added to our woes by ripping the handheld shower extension out of its base. Fortunately, the boat has two heads, so this was only a minor inconvenience, but nevertheless demoralizing after an altogether demoralizing day. We rigged a towel over the forward hatch (which is directly over our heads, and is the only hatch without a shade), then went to sleep.

Wednesday, August 18, 1999: I awoke before anyone else, and checked the batteries again, only to find them once again depleted. At this point, I figured that the fridge must have some sort of short in it, so I turned it off. The batteries gained a little voltage, but not much. I went out to West Marine in order to buy some more stuff for the (now iffy) upcoming cruise, and Theresa and Fiona were awake when I got back. The batteries were little improved (if any), so we made the decision to postpone our trip until we could get the electrical system fixed. Fiona went over some more docking theory then left, and Theresa and I took some time to measure the amperage of every device on board. We drove home and crashed.

Thursday, August 19, 1999: I called Jim Overton at J. Gordon to inquire about the quote that he was supposedly preparing for me (and that he had supposedly been working on for 10 days). He told me that he'd have something to me by close of business today, but I never received anything.

I did, however, complete a nice electrical budget for the boat, indicating that we might use a whopping 600 amp-hours a day! That's about three times what most other boats seem to be using, but then again, we anticipate that ours will be loaded with electrical gear, including two heavily-used laptops. In any case, the experts recommend a 1200 amp-hour bank to support this usage, so I'm looking for some big batteries!

Friday, August 20, 1999: I got a quote today from DC Battery Specialists in Miami, FL for 4 Rolls 12HHG-8D's (a.k.a. - "Big Reds"). DC Battery's prices are much better than anything I've found in Annapolis, even with shipping! Very exciting.

Saturday, August 21, 1999: Raf & Reena and Kate & Sanjay really wanted to see the boat, so we had a little wine-and-cheese on board Saturday evening. Quite posh, if I may say so myself. Never mind that the boat's currently just a floating dock appendage.

Wednesday, August 25, 1999: After much searching, I found a plumbing supply store that carries the replacement tube that I need for the forward shower. I bought one today for forty bucks! Jim Overton finally called me back with a quote, but he told me that he couldn't get the diesel generator into the space over the engine without adversely affecting the engine's accessibility. I asked him to consider some alternative solutions, like mounting it sideways, without the case, or somewhere else entirely. He said he'd get back to me.

Thursday, August 26, 1999: Mom was in town, and she, Theresa, and I spent the night on the boat. The batteries were low when we got there, but the charger cut on later that night. I remarked, "That charger only seems to work at night. Maybe it's on a timer or something..."

Friday, August 27, 1999: Once we were up and about, we took all the bunk panels out and started tracing out the electrical system. Theresa opened a little grey box near the charger and asked, "What's this dial thingy?" A quick investigation proved that it was a timer, and that it was attached to the charger! I'm sure the neighboring boats heard my curses. "Son of a bitch! Why the Hell would anyone put a timer on an automatic charger?!" I flipped the manual override to turn the charger on, and the batteries started climbing again.

With that mystery solved, we were now able to address the issue of the batteries themselves. After the charger shut itself off, declaring the batteries "done", we turned on some electrical devices and watched the volt-meters. It didn't take long for even small currents to drag the voltage down below 12 volts -- a sure indication that the batteries are dead. So now I've got to replace the batteries. And rip out that timer.

Saturday, August 28, 1999: Since I haven't heard anything more from Jim Overton, I sent an email to Fischer-Panda this evening to explore some alternatives to standard mounting -- like mounting it sideways, or having Fischer build a custom generator with the same form factor as a Panda 4 sitting sideways.

Sunday, August 29, 1999: I got another quote today from DC Battery Specialists, this time for some Optimas to use as a starting bank. Again, they beat West Marine's prices by huge margins!

Monday, August 30, 1999: Theresa was supposed to go on Womanship this week, but she began having reservations after Practical Sailor published an article about them last month. She was unable to get anyone at Womanship to talk to her about the serious safety issues that the article raised, and, after a month of getting the run-around, she decided to cancel the trip. Womanship refused to issue a refund, so we've decided to file a grievance with our credit card company. I've already spoken with Visa, and they feel we have a really good case. (Isn't Visa great?)

On a separate note, I placed calls to several other boatyards today in an attempt to find alternatives to
J. Gordon. It seems that finding someone to work on your boat is nearly impossible, even when you're spending a lot of money in a sailing town like Annapolis. No wonder yachties all become do-it-yourselfers! They just get sick of the run-around.

Tuesday, August 31, 1999: Theresa and I went out to Annapolis today to get some stuff from my J/24, buy a mountain of stuff at West Marine, and measure the battery compartments. After some extensive research, I've decided to buy four new Rolls 8D's for use as house batteries, plus two smaller AGM's for use as starting batteries. The Rolls batteries are known in the industry as "Big Reds". They're the highest-capacity 8D batteries in the world, designed specifically for the marine environment, and recommended by Practical Sailor. I'm just not sure they'll fit on the boat. I had assumed that the current batteries were 8D's (because they look so big), but in fact they're only 4D's, which are 2 1/4 inches narrower. This means that my battery boxes are about 4 1/2 inches too small. I'll need bigger battery boxes, and I'll need to move some stuff to make room.

As for the starting batteries, I've decided to go with Lifeline 31's, rather than Optimas. My concern is primarily with cycle life -- the Lifelines claim 500 cycles, while the Optimas claim only 350. I got a final quote from DC Battery, so once I figure out how I'm going to get them installed, I'm ready to order!

Wednesday, September 1, 1999: I spent much of the afternoon searching the Web for battery boxes, and came up empty. Apparently, dual-8D fiberglass battery boxes aren't sold off-the-shelf, so I'll have to have them custom made. Meanwhile, I called Jim Overton again, and he once again didn't call me back. Maybe I should just install everything myself -- I'll probably make a lot more mistakes than a professional, and it will probably take a lot longer, but I'll certainly understand the systems better once I'm done!

Thursday, September 2, 1999: Theresa and I drove out to Annapolis today, and dropped in on Jim Overton at J. Gordon. (I figured this was the only way I'd get any of his time!) Jim and his partner, Marshall, took some time to meet with us on the boat and discuss what we wanted done. They still couldn't figure out how to mount the generator without sacrificing major amounts of storage space. I promised to send him a letter as follow-up, so that he could get us a final estimate.

I got an email back from Fischer-Panda. Apparently, the Panda 4 can be installed sideways, but it's tricky, and the representative recommended against running the generator while underway. All-in-all, this doesn't sound very encouraging. I also sent a fax to a company in Florida that might be able to make some fiberglass battery boxes.

Friday, September 3, 1999: I spent several hours today drafting a two-page letter to Jim and Marshall at
J. Gordon. I suggested a new approach to mounting the generator: cut a hole through the bulkhead that separates the two aft cabins, and install the generator between them. I discussed the entire project associated with the overhaul of our electrical system, including batteries, boxes, charger/inverter, regulator, and high-output alternator. I even touched on a few "secondary" items that we had mentioned the day before: a radar detector and a cellular antenna. Just to emphasize our eagerness to get started on this work, I sent the letter to J. Gordon via FedEx, with Saturday delivery. Maybe they'll call me back this time. Theresa and I are leaving for Italy on Wednesday, and I'm hoping that they can start on the work while we're gone.

Monday, September 6, 1999: Well, Jim should have received my FedEx on Saturday, but I haven't heard from him. I found another guy today who specializes in marine electronic systems: Andy Fegley at Yacht Electronic Systems. He can't install the generator, watermaker, or macerators, but he can do the batteries and electrical system -- our most pressing concerns. We have a meeting scheduled for tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 7, 1999: Theresa and I met with Andy Fegley today. We talked about what we needed to do, and he drew up an estimate on the spot! This is certainly a big change from the month-long run-around that we've been getting from J. Gordon! On top of all that, Andy's rates are considerably more reasonable, and he seems to know a lot better what he's doing. I explained to Andy that we had been working with J. Gordon for quite some time, and that I was supposed to get a final estimate from Jim tomorrow. I promised Andy that I'd get back to him before Theresa and I left town.

Wednesday, September 8, 1999: Theresa and I hadn't heard from J. Gordon by the time we left the house for our trip, so I called Jim from my cellphone as we were driving to the airport. I actually managed to get him on the phone, but he didn't have much good news for me. Jim explained that he couldn't install the generator as I described in my letter, because the gas tank was under that area, and the generator wouldn't have sufficient support. Furthermore, he couldn't figure out how to install the high-output alternator, since he felt it needed a second belt. Lastly, he wanted to charge me $500 for the "consulting work" required to figure that problem out. I told him that I was uncomfortable with that, and that we should talk when Theresa and I got back from our trip.

I hung up, and started mulling the situation: While Jim was always great to meet with, he never called me proactively, he never called me back when he said he would, and he never sent me estimates when he said he would. I had been talking with him for a solid month, and we still didn't have a plan of action. With the generator and watermaker out of the picture, there wasn't a lot left to recommend them vs. their competitors. Besides which, they were more expensive! I called Andy Fegley back at Yacht Electronic Systems, and told him that I wanted him to do the electrical work, and that we'd like to meet with him as soon as Theresa and I returned from our trip.


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