A Decidedly Unhelpful Primer on Sailboat Starter Circuit Repair

Last week, I wrote about how our plans to go anchoring were frustrated by our suddenly revealed inability to go motoring.

Yesterday, I did stuff to the starter circuit of my sailboat that got the motor running again.

Out of sheer gratefulness for having had everything I needed to do handed to me as if on a silver platter, I feel a need to share the love.

I have therefore prepared, as suggested by the post’s title, this Decidedly Unhelpful Primer on Sailboat Starter Circuit Repair.


  • A cell phone.
  • A brother who happens to be an excellent diesel mechanic.
  • A wife who happens to be an excellent researcher.
  • Access to the internet.
  • An online article from a well-informed stranger who had a problem similar to yours and desired to share the expertise acquired in solving it with other boat owners.
  • Pencil and paper.
  • Various electrical connectors and crimping tools inherited from the previous sailboat owner.
  • A mom-and-pop marine supply store with a helpful owner.
  • A credit card.
  • A little over $40.00 in miscellaneous crap suggested by your brother, your wife, the well-informed stranger in the online article, and the marine supply shop owner.
  • A handful of F-bombs.


  • Using the cell phone, call your brother on a Sunday afternoon. If you’re lucky, he’s hanging around the house today and will pick up on the first try.
  • Whine and moan to him about how you’re getting absolutely no response from your sailboat’s engine when you turn the ignition key.
  • Pay attention closely when he says, “Sounds electrical. I’d check the circuit between the ignition key and the starter.” (This step is essential.)
  • On Sunday evening, casually mention to your wife that your brother thinks your engine problem is in the circuit between the ignition key and the starter.
  • Go shortly thereafter to bed, expecting to call a local mechanic in the morning.
  • Get up the next morning.
  • Whine and moan to your wife about how expensive it is going to be to have the boat towed to a boatyard for repair by a competent local mechanic.
  • Pay attention closely when she says, “Actually, I followed up on your brother’s comment last night by doing a little browsing, and I found a Tartan 3500 owner who seems to describe what we’re facing exactly, right down to the ‘B-style’ control panel with the ignition key.” (This step is essential.)
  • Using your internet access, retrieve the article she emailed you.
  • Read the article.
  • Say to yourself, “Hey. . . that fix looks like something I can do.”
  • Using the pencil and paper, make a shopping list of all the miscellaneous crap you’ll need to make the suggested repair.
  • Inventory the various electrical connectors and crimping tools the previous sailboat owner left you.
  • In coordination with the results of the inventory, reduce your shopping list to only those things you, uh, actually have to buy.
  • Walk the list a mile and a half to the mom-and-pop marine supply store.
  • Assist the store’s helpful owner in reviewing every one of the twenty-four spools of tinned marine wire he’s got sitting on a shelf in no particular order, looking for a label that says 10 AWG.
  • Point out that the 20-amp fuse holder assembly he’s holding out to you probably isn’t large enough, electrically speaking, to accommodate the 30-amp fuse you need.
  • Gratefully accept a properly sized fuse holder assembly from his hand.
  • Collect the rest of the miscellaneous crap you’ll need and bring it to the counter, where the kindly and elderly service counter lady will literally handwrite the receipt, itemizing each item you’re buying on a pressure-sensitive two-ply form with the store’s name pre-printed at the top just like it was 1989.
  • Using your credit card, pay the lady.
  • Lug your newly purchased miscellaneous crap a mile and a half back to the boat.


  • Using the various electrical connectors and crimping tools inherited from the previous sailboat owner, try to connect the newly purchased wire to the newly purchased fuse holder assembly.
  • Throw the fuse holder assembly into the trash after damaging it irreversibly. Apply the first F-bomb.
  • Calm yourself.
  • In consideration of another three-mile round trip to the marine supply store for another fuse holder assembly, and having no guarantee that you’re even on the right track with this whole repair approach in the first place, resolve to continue without a fuse for now, noting that if you can just get the damned engine started, you can go back and put it in later.
  • Install terminal connectors on the remaining wire ends.
  • Try to put a wire on one terminal of the starter.
  • Watch an unexpected shower of sparks fall into the bilge as you inadvertently touch the wrench to another terminal.
  • And, reflecting on how obvious you just made it that you don’t really have any idea how all this stuff is actually wired together, turn off the AC master switch as well.
  • Also, remind yourself of the location of the nearest fire extinguisher.
  • Continue to add wires to various terminals on the ignition key assembly and the starter. Apply one F-bomb for each nut dropped into the bilge and for each moment in which you say, “How am I going to get a wrench on that?”
  • When all connections are made, reconnect all the batteries.


  • Test the repair by turning the ignition switch. Hear nothing.
  • Press the starter button. Hear nothing.
  • Empty out your remaining cache of F-bombs as rapidly and loudly as possible. Stew for several moments over your unrewarded effort and your waste of time and money.
  • Lament to your wife, sotto voce, that you hate diesel engines and the electrical systems that start them, and that you want to sell the boat and go live in a condo where you pay a nice monthly maintenance fee to let someone else put up with all this crap.
  • Pay attention closely when she says, “Did you remember to turn the engine and house master switches back on?” (This step is really, really essential.)


  • Test the repair by turning the ignition switch. Hear the happy high-pitched sound of the audible oil pressure alarm scraping its way across your eardrums.
  • Press the starter button. Hear the engine turn over and putt-putter into life. (Gasoline engines roar into life. Diesels putt-putter.)
  • Think to yourself, “Wow, that was easy.”
  • Remember you don’t have the intake seacock for the engine’s raw water system open. So turn off the damned engine before you overheat it, for crying out loud.


It seems so improbable to me. A brother who makes a smart suggestion, a wife who knows what to do with that suggestion, a stranger who enjoys sharing what he’s learned about an activity he loves, and a store owner willing to follow me around for twenty minutes finding all the right parts.

To no credit of my own, it turns out that I came to this engine problem of mine armed as much with the right people as with the right tools and materials. And as a result, I, no diesel mechanic, spent just a few hours of my own time and less than fifty dollars on an engine repair I expected to cost us several hundred.

I am not worthy. (And if the boat should burn to the ground next week due to what fire investigators find was a faulty exercise in engine wiring, we will then know precisely how worthy I’m not.)

But just now, just for a little while until the next mountain-in-a-molehill arises, I am indeed grateful.

8 thoughts on “A Decidedly Unhelpful Primer on Sailboat Starter Circuit Repair

  1. Too funny! I remember when we first got our RV – we made a stop to visit Rod’s mom before heading out for several months, and every day we were there is was cold and rained almost constantly. Wet dogs, small RV, and miserable weather combined to push Rod over the edge. He came in from walking the dogs and said, “I just want to go home.” That was almost six years ago, and we still laugh about it.

    So glad that you figured out the engine repairs! Can’t wait to see where you’re off to next.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It certainly does.

      And many experienced cruisers have suggested that, given the expense involved in shopping this kind of repair out–assuming that option isn’t negated by one thousand or so nautical miles between me and the shore–I’d better start getting habituated to this particular kind of feeling good.


    • Rare indeed. In fact, my wife would suggest that in most of these situations, the F-bombs hinder me more than help me.

      I think she’d rather have me armed with C-bombs, as in, “Let’s C what step I can next take to manage this.”


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