Unlike the owners of many new production boats, we planned to use our brand-new 44-foot sloop, Red Thread, as our family home for five years. She would take us through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, down the west coast of South America, and finally across the Pacific. After cruising up and down the east coast of the United States for several months, I realized that full-time use makes far greater demands on equipment than weekend cruising or daysailing.
It took only a month for us to discover that our incandescent running lights were not up to the task. We hadn’t sailed much more than 500 miles before spray coming over the bow burned out one of the bow lights. I worked on the unit and thought I had solved the water-infiltration problem, but 500 miles later I had replaced five bulbs and two complete housings.
An overnight passage was also a considerable drain on the batteries. Each of our running lights, two bow and one stern light, had a 25-watt incandescent bulb and between them, they consumed 50 amp-hours each night. A 25-watt bulb uses about 2.1 amps on a 12-volt system (watts divided by volts equals amps). I was running my lights an average of 8 hours, so my nightly consumption was 2.1 amps@8, or 16.8 amps per light for a total of 50 amps. Another part of the equation is the fact that a battery has a finite number of charge-and-drain cycles in its lifetime, so the fewer cycles it has to make, the longer it will last.
A typical battery bank for a boat our size has three 4D batteries and a total capacity of 600 amp-hours. That means there are just 300 amp-hours available before the battery bank is discharged to the 50 percent level, and the 50 amp-hours the lights were consuming each night we were under way was 16 percent of the total availability. Adding the chartplotter, autopilot, and other various electrical draws meant I was not far from having to do a complete charge-discharge cycle every day.
Because incandescent bulbs burn out frequently, their housing has to be accessible. The downside is that water can get into the housing. Our housings began to corrode after just 90 days of cruising; salt water constantly attacked the lights’ contact points and the hot bulbs burned out—often at very inconvenient moments—when they were sprayed by saltwater. While the lenses remained in good shape, once the contacts were gone the only solution was to replace the entire assembly, which I did on two occasions. I concluded that it was time to replace the lights with new LED (light-emitting diode) units.
With LED technology there are no light bulbs, filaments, or exposed connection points. Even though the cost of LED units has dropped a lot, they remain roughly 40 percent more expensive than the incandescent alternatives. And since an LED unit is physically smaller than its incandescent counterpart, its attachment plates will be different; if you keep your existing mounting bracket, you’ll have to drill new holes.
Replacing one of these units is considerably more expensive than replacing the lens of an incandescent lamp. But if you expect to see a lot of spray, installing an LED can pay for itself in a short period of time—you won’t have to replace it. The power savings is also very real because you spend fewer hours recharging the batteries. An LED navigation light for a 44-footer will use 88 percent less power than a comparable incandescent unit.
There are several ways to change over from an incandescent to an LED navigation light. Most incandescent units are through-bolted to a mounting plate; an LED unit, at half the weight and perhaps a third the size, may not require through-bolting. Most LED units are mounted on the bow and stern pulpits, with the electrical wiring running from the unit inside the stainless pulpit tube and down below through the deck joint. 3M 4200 or an equivalent sealing compound will keep the electric wire fixed in place and the interior watertight.
An incandescent masthead light can be another power hog, but the decision to change it to an LED probably depends on how much use it will get. If you use it at anchor 20 days a year or more, I think it makes sense to install an LED unit.
I converted all my navigation lights from incandescent to LED in Panama City before we left for the Galápagos Islands and Patagonia. By the time we reached Patagonia we had covered 5,700 miles, spent 37 nights at sea, and sailed through parts of the roaring forties. All the LED lights worked flawlessly, proof that these units are no longer something for the future.
Aqua Signal, 847-639-6412, aquasignal.net
Euro Marine Trading (Lopolight), 401-849-0060, euromarinetrading.com
Hella Marine, 770-631-7500, hellamarine.com
Orca Green Marine Technology, 512-266-8226, orcagreen.com
Glenn Maddox, his wife, Pam, and their two young daughters began a circumnavigation aboard their brand-new Catalina 440, Red Thread, in 2006. After spending the Southern Hemisphere summer in Chile, they headed west across the South Pacific.
Photo by Charles Mason (top); courtesy of Glenn Maddox (remainder)