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If you own a boat long enough, you’ll find your­self con­tort­ing your body through cramped com­part­ments and strug­gling to fish elec­tri­cal wire through nar­row, clogged chases. It is in­evitable. So, if you want to de­lay the agony and you want that re­pair to last, al­low me to give you a few wiring tips. FUSE BLOCK, NOT SPADE CON­NEC­TORS

Many boat­builders add circuit break­ers to their wiring sys­tems, and take a power and ground from the bat­tery to a spaded ground block and a spaded ter­mi­nal panel. That’s or­di­nar­ily where your GPS, stereo and other de­vices will be pow­ered us­ing a fe­male spade con­nec­tor held onto the male spade by fric­tion to com­plete the circuit. In most cases, circuit break­ers pro­tect the cir­cuits, but the de­vice man­u­fac­turer calls for an in-line fuse to pro­tect the de­vice. Many elec­tron­ics call for a 5-amp fuse per de­vice. A stereo amp can re­quire a 30- to 60-amp fuse. If your boat has many de­vices go­ing to that spaded panel, each with an in-line fuse, the panel be­comes an in­de­ci­pher­able bird’s nest, and trou­bleshoot­ing fuses is un­nec­es­sar­ily dif­fi­cult.

There is a worse way to do it. You may see de­vices run di­rectly to the bat­tery. Or they are pig­gy­backed onto a spaded ter­mi­nal on a switch for an­other de­vice. You can get away with a di­rect-to-bat­tery con­nec­tion if you only have one, pro­vid­ing you use a fuse, but it’s far less than ideal.

The ideal wiring ar­range­ment re­places the spaded panel with a fuse block. It should have a pro­tec­tive cover and in­clude la­bels for each ter­mi­nal. Why? Spade con­nec­tors are eas­ily dis­lodged by the boat’s move­ment or a gear in mo­tion around the ter­mi­nal. Worse, if the ground bar is sim­i­larly an un­cov­ered spaded panel and they are too close together, some metal ob­ject could eas­ily fall across the power and ground ter­mi­nals, short­ing and caus­ing a fire.


Take stock of how many elec­tri­calde­vicesy­oual­ready have, and choose a fuse block that will ac­com­mo­date them plus al­low a few spare ter­mi­nals. Com­part­ment space avail­able will also in­flu­ence ter­mi­nal size.


The Amer­i­can Boat and Yacht Coun­cil prefers ringed ter­mi­nals. Flat-forked spaded ter­mi­nals are ac­cept­able, but the pre­ferred forks fea­ture bent tips that lessen the like­li­hood they’ll come off if the ter­mi­nal screw loosens with time and vi­bra­tion. I pre­fer forked ter­mi­nals over rings be­cause you can in­stall them with­out re­mov­ing the ter­mi­nal screw com­pletely, which risks drop­ping it in an in­ac­ces­si­ble place.


Ter­mi­nals are sized to fit one wire, not quite snugly, al­low­ing the wire’s strands to slip into the col­lar. Once it is crimped, it should take a team of Marines to pull it out. Red (some­times pink) cover wires are from 22-18 AWG (Amer­i­can wire gauge—big­ger num­bers are for thin­ner wires), blue is 16-14 AWG, and yel­low is 12-10 AWG. A combo sonar/chart plot­ter is likely to use a red ter­mi­nal con­nec­tor, a stereo am­pli­fier may use a large (or larger) yel­low one, and a de­vice such as a bilge pump will likely need a blue 16-14 AWG di­am­e­ter size.


Spaded flat ter­mi­nals eas­ily slide un­der the ter­mi­nal screw head to be clamped in place. Un­for­tu­nately, if the screw loosens even slightly, it can slip off. Ter­mi­nals that aren’t shrink-pro­tected (bot­tom right) should be re­served for auto use.


Bent tips on the flanged or cap­tive fork won’t slip off a loose ter­mi­nal as eas­ily. This is a du­bi­ous ben­e­fit be­cause a loose con­nec­tion can spark re­peat­edly, but if the ter­mi­nal pulls com­pletely away, the circuit is fully in­ter­rupted. The prob­lem is if it falls against an­other ter­mi­nal.


How­ever, the ringed ter­mi­nal below is ac­cept­able to ABYC standards, if it is cov­ered in shrink tub­ing. A ter­mi­nal with a heat-shrink col­lar is pre­ferred. Hit them with a heat gun, and they will shrink down tight to the wire, pro­tect­ing the con­nec­tion from wa­ter.


You can get one of those wire-strip­ping/ crimp­ing combo tools if you have a strong grip and tons of pa­tience. But by us­ing a two-handed grip, I have failed to make a se­cure crimp all too fre­quently, wast­ing a con­nec­tor. Use ratch­eted crimpers like these to get a tight crimp. The ABYC prefers us­ing brand-matched crimpers and ter­mi­nals if pos­si­ble. Slight vari­a­tions in com­pet­i­tive ter­mi­nals may cre­ate loose con­nec­tions.


These are male and fe­male, and are ideally used on de­vices that may be fre­quently re­moved or re­placed on the boat, such as bilge-pump car­tridges.


Shrink tub­ing can be use­ful for in­su­lat­ing, mois­ture pro­tec­tion and la­bel­ing wire ends. ABYC rules de­mand all power and ground lines be la­beled as to the mech­a­nism they serve within 6 inches of their ter­mi­nus. You can write on shrink tub­ing with a fine­point in­deli­ble marker, then slip it over the wire and joined ter­mi­nal, and shrink it in place. This as­sort­ment cov­ers many wire types, from fine solid-state in­ter­nal wires to bat­tery ter­mi­nals.

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