December 14, 2014

Clever boat names and the clever boaters who love these names.

A clever boat name for the ethically dubious mariner

clever boat names for criminals

      There is something unequivocally awesome about a clever boat name. Who doesn't love a funny boat name?

      Okay, there are some of you out there that hate puns. Maybe your grandpa overdid it with the wordplay, maybe your sense of humor is more high brow. But seriously, a good boat name is a thing of beauty. The boating website All Things Boat has curated a page on boat names. They have organized funny boat names by the classic boating personalities that gravitate towards these names. It is pretty darn funny. These photos are taken with permission from All Things Boat's clever boat names page, check it out, you'll get a good laugh!

Clever boat names for the esoteric sailor

clever boat names
either a Seinfeld reference or a very whimsical boater

December 10, 2014

Fixing a faulty bilge pump switch

My old bilge pump switch finally crapped out. The wire contacts looked like they had far surpassed a tolerable level of corrosion, so it's now in the garbage can. I'm leaving soon for a Mexico road trip that will last through December. The last thing I want is to leave my boat unattended in the rainy season of San Diego with a faulty bilge pump switch. 

So, I went down to the boat store and got one of these new switches with the metal ball rolling around like a can of spray paint. Long story short, the install went fine, except the switch didn't pass the test. As water filled in and over the switch, the switch floated up but not enough to activate the pump. 

DIY troubleshooting a bilge pump switch
my bilge, always swampy

Well, that's not good. I am going to blame this on a slightly un-level surface that the pump was mounted on. However, I'd like to think the switch would have a larger margin of error for activation.

I tried to rectify the situation by moving the switch to a new spot in the bilge, but as you can see I don't have much room to move in there.

Anyway, the point of this post, is that I did find a remedy that I like. I grabbed an old neoprene beer cozy and cut it up into pieces that fit on the end of my bilge switch. I then dried off the top of the switch, and epoxied the cut up beer cozy on the end. I epoxied three layers of neoprene beer cozy on top of each other.

Now, it has a lot more float.

fixing a bilge pump switch
chopped up beer cozy give more float to the bilge switch

I've tested it out many times and each time the bilge pump switch rises to the occasion.

I'm heading to Baja with my mind at ease...

Hopefully this is helpful to someone with a similar problem.

Incidentally, if you're looking for more articles written about DIY electrical fixes for boats, the Stingy Sailor features very well written tutorials regarding boat electronics.

Fair winds!

December 2, 2014

Sailing with Chilean hitchhikers

When Ryan and I were travelling around Alaska last month, we picked up some Chilean hitchhikers. They were wandering slowly down the continent. Last week, they arrived in San Diego and we took them out sailing.

we met these girls on the side of the road in Alaska

The weather was perfect as it often is in the middle of the Winter in San Diego, and I think the ladies had a wonderful time. The girls remind me what it was like to travel when you're very young. 

When we found them, they were camping in a tent on the side of the road near Denali National Park. It needs to mentioned that there are a lot of Grizzly Bears near Denali. The Chilean girls were not concerned. They believe in the power of positive thinking. In fact, after they leave San Diego, they are heading to Ensenada, Mexico to earn money. They plan to earn money in Mexico by selling pastries. This seems unlikely to me, but that is because I am older and cynical. Life has beaten me down. The Chilean women will probably make tons of money selling pastries in Mexico's border towns. I am sure it will go fine. Either way I salute them, and I salute their chutzpah.

another gold winter sunset at Point Loma

November 26, 2014

Sailboat drone 101: How to fly a drone from your boat

updated: 8/25/2016 


Ok, you've decided you're going to learn to fly a drone from the deck of your boat.


Good call!

Combining a boat and a drone is an exciting endeavor. You can take photos of your boat from angles that would previously require a helicopter. You can also capture outrageously scenic video of the surrounding area.

However, you want to do this without bothering others and without damaging your drone. In this article, I will walk you through the process of learning how to fly a drone from a boat.

Here is video of a practice launch from my sailboat.

(video above is compressed to fit on page, the raw video footage has high resolution: 1080x720)

How to fly a drone from your boat.


Practice flying your boat drone while stationary in calm waters.

Drop anchor in a quiet cove that is not in a restricted air space. Choose a light wind day. Wind is an issue. Practice on a day when winds are 5 mph or less. You don't want to challenge your drone with high winds at the beginning of your training. Each model of drone will be able to handle wind differently. Lower end models tend to get thrown around more.

What's the best drone for sailing?

best drone for boating
Ryan launching the DJI phantom 2 Vision + from the deck of my boat.

Here, we are using the DJI phantom 2 Vision +. 

That was our first drone. I've since upgraded to a newer model. But I will always have love for the 2+.

In my opinion, the DJI phantom remains the best drone for sailing. I felt that way when I first wrote this post in 2014 and I still feel this way in 2016. The GPS lock is great, it withstands wind, it can fly at a good distance from the controller...

I just returned from a trip to the Columbia River and got excellent drone video with a more recent model, the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced Quadcopter Drone

The Phantom 4 is already out, but I've heard they are still working out the bugs. Most people have no issue with Phantom 3, plus its much cheaper...

The phantom may be too nice of a drone to be learning to pilot from a boat. You run the risk of losing a high end model in the ocean.

That said, the advantage to practicing with this higher end drone is 2-fold. First of all, it takes incredible photos/video. Secondly, it has GPS based navigation, so it can hold a steady position. This makes for easy flying.

But do yourself a favor, don't fly your drone from a boat in heavy weather - until you've got the hang of it..

how to fly a drone from a boat
holding a locked GPS position

Is it legal to fly a drone in public waters?


Okay, your boat is on anchor and the wind is light. You're ready to launch the drone from your boat.

As mentioned, first make sure you are not in restricted air space. Often, waterways and coastlines are near flight paths for commercial airplanes or for coast guard, military or other officialdom. You do not want to bother these people or risk an incident with real aircraft.

I have found that this page is an easy way to determine the location of No Fly Zones near your location. Additionally, you can check this FAA link to keep up with the latest federal rules for drones.

Even if you are not in a restricted air space, you want to be conscious of not bothering people. People go to the water to relax. Some people enjoy watching drones, but many people do not. Don't be annoying with your drone. Fly away from people and don't creep people out by flying near them with the drone camera pointing at them. Common sense and human decency go a long way with this activity.

flying a drone from a boat
verifying the connection between drone and controller before launch
Make sure all batteries are topped off and the link between drone and controller is set. If you lose connection with the drone over water, it will probably splash down in the sea.

learn to fly a drone from a boat
the carrying case for DJI phantom, with the batteries topped off

phantom 4 over water
ready to launch

Be a team

Have one guy, let's call him the drone pilot, be in charge of controlling the drone. Have the other guy, let's call him the captain, be in charge of managing the boat. The captain should also be ready with a giant fishing net. This is good to have nearby in case the drone almost returns to the boat, but actually returns a few feet from the boat. With a big net you can scoop the drone from the air just before it drops into the water.

Or, if the sailing drone is fitted with some homemade water landing gear, you can scoop the drone from the water before its electronics are fried (skip to last 10 seconds of this video link to see the homemade landing gear in action).

flying phantom over water
fishing net ready for a quick 'drone overboard' situation
Then, go fly the drone cautiously. Make a quick loop around the boat. Get comfortable, get confident.

best drone for sailing
my sailboat seen 40 feet above the starboard beam

drone sailboat
looking west to the Pacific Ocean (photo credit: Ryan Petterson)

Practice retrievals in light conditions 


Finally, practice retrieving the drone from your boat. Boats often have standing rigging, spars, antennae and fishing poles to negotiate.

First try to remove as many of these obstructions as possible. Then, launch and retrieve from the part of the boat that is furthest from these obstructions.

And, most importantly, keep a giant fishing net nearby. If the drone is just out of hands reach and the wind picks up. It's nice to reach for it with the net.

boat drone
the captain secures the drone, while the drone pilot works the controller

Here, I've cleared all halyards, lines and fishing poles from my cockpit to allow for an unobstructed landing space for my sailboat drone.

The only remaining obstruction was the backstay.

Okay, this is enough to think about for now. I will be posting the video from the Columbia River soon.

Stay tuned...

November 23, 2014

Learn to fly a drone from a boat.

It is a terrible idea that carries the possibility of becoming a great idea. Your first mate keeps the drone flying 30 feet above your starboard quarter. You heel your sailboat over in a small craft advisory and lean out on the windward side. The camera on the drone captures images and video that would have previously required a helicopter. You frame the best shot and hang it in your living room. You sit on your couch, crack a beer and stare at your beautiful boat captured from the perfect angle.

Your life feels infinitely more complete.

flying drone on sailboat
practicing the sailboat drone in calm waters on anchor

In theory, all this greatness is possible. In theory, this could be done for a couple hundred bucks and a little bit of practice and a little bit of gumption.

But there are concerns. Here is a list of concerns I came up with upon my first sailboat drone outing. 
  • How will the drone handle a stiff breeze? 
  • How can a drone 'return to a home position', if the home position is moving at 6 mph across an ocean?
  • Will the VHF and other signal frequencies emanating from a boat interfere with the drone-remote controller? 
  • If the drone lands in the ocean, will that destroy the drone? 
  • Is there effective water landing gear that could keep a downed drone floating and dry while you flip the boat around to retrieve it?
  • How do the coast guard and other authorities feel about recreational drones flying along the coastline?

At the moment, I do not have answers for these questions. But I will be researching all of this and posting the glory shots (if we get them) in the next series of posts.

sailing with a drone
first deployment from the cockpit

40 feet off of starboard in Mariners Cove, San Diego
South Mission Bay from a drone, looking west to Mission Beach.

For more, please follow this first instructional post on How to fly a drone from a boat.

November 20, 2014

Autumn sailing in San Diego

The seasons are finally changing in San Diego. There is a brisk chill to the air. Nights are cold. Days are still warm and the sun still shines, but we now have clouds out to decorate the sky. This is subtle, but it is enough to confirm that the seasons are changing in Southern California.

Autumn sailing in San Diego
Autumn sailing in San Diego

 Sailing in the Fall in San Diego

Autumn sailing in San Diego
High contrast clouds in a late Autumn sky

November 14, 2014

Nautical pendant lamps make great Holiday gifts.

The Holiday season is upon us. That means fewer warm days for sailing and of course, you need to shell out and pick up some gifts.

Well, what do you get for the sailor who has everything. A bigger boat? No, don't curse a sailor with a bigger boat. That's more wood to varnish.

What you want is to pick up a few nautical style hanging lamps. These make for unique and Sea-worthy gifts.
nautical pendant lamps
Red and Blue 'marine'buoy' pendant lamps

Nautical Pendant Lamps

Now here's where it all ties in together. I am the sole proprietor for a company that builds and sells nautical hanging lamps. You can follow this link King Tide Lights for my main site.

nautical pendant lamp
the 'duracel' medium size pendant lamp
nautical hanging lamps
Blue and Red Marine Buoy Pendant Lamps

These lamps are built from repurposed industrial steel. I've designed many of them to look like marine buoys. They create great downward facing lights for a reading area or corner of a room.

nautical pendant lamps
Medium size white and blue pendant lamp

Two large pendant lamps make for excellent dinner lighting

November 9, 2014

The summer that would not die

San Diego is a machine. It is a summer day machine. It will not quit. 
It is November. I don't remember the feeling of cold air on my skin.
I think we had a chilly day somewhere in March....maybe in March. 
Not sure.
The forecast calls for more sun and something about the 80s and the 70s continuing on till x-mas.
Possibly longer. 
It is all a pleasant blur.

another warm, pleasant day in November

November 4, 2014

San Diego boats for sale

There are currently thousands of used boats for sale in San Diego. Motor yachts, sailboats and fishing boats are waiting for new owners. Come down to Shelter Island and talk boats with Dave Koller.

Dave Koller
(619) 977-5040.

San Diego boats for sail
Meet Dave Koller, your friendly San Diego boat broker

If you are interested in selling or buying used boats in San Diego, I recommend you reach out to local boat broker, Dave Koller. Dave is a well-respected character along the waterfront, known for being friendly and knowledgeable. 

He was born in San Diego and is a true boat addict. He’s sailed extensively around Southern California, the Pacific Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands. When he’s not out showing boats, he’s most likely fishing offshore for Yellowtail or else racing sailboats in San Diego Harbor.

San Diego boats for sale

This past summer, Dave sold a wide range of boats, everything from small, older sailboats to luxurious motor yachts. Currently, in 2014, there are approximately 3,000 used boats for sale in San Diego. Many of these come with moorings already established. As a licensed broker, Dave can get you access to visit any of these boats.

So, come on down to Shelter Island and talk used boats with Dave. Whether you’re thinking about a 30 foot Bayliner or a 60 foot Sparkman & Stephens, Dave’s happy to drive you around town, walk the docks and find you the boat in San Diego.

Dave Koller
(619) 977-5040.

San Diego boats for sail
Boat broker Dave off Point Loma on his Endeavor 38.

San Diego boats for sail
Dave pulling in an Albacore Tuna near the La Jolla kelp beds

In true boat addict style, Dave has just become a co-owner for a Capri 30 sailboat. Follow this link to see the maiden voyage in good winds.

Sailing to Catalina Island: distance and time from Los Angeles

Are you considering sailing to Catalina Island from Los Angeles? Here, I provide distance and travel times for a boat to sail to Catalina Island (Avalon or Two Harbors) from the most popular LA harbors (Dana Point, Newport Beach, Huntington Harbor, Los Angeles Harbor, Marina del Rey).

In my opinion, the most compelling reason to live in Los Angeles instead of San Diego, is the close proximity of Catalina Island. In San Diego, we can drive to Mexico in 30 minutes. This is nice. However, in LA, you can sail a boat to the island, leaving midday on a Friday and arriving sometime Friday evening. That is very nice.

Once you arrive, you'll find sailing Catalina Island is incredibly fun - also there's lots of bays and bights between Avalon and Two Harbors to fish from and drop the anchor.

How long does it take to sail to Catalina Island? I get this question a lot. So, I thought it would be a good resource to have these distances and travel times posted on the site. There are lots of folks sailing to Catalina from Los Angeles, so hopefully this will be of use.

sailing to catalina island
Sailing to Catalina Island: routes from Los Angeles

Sail to Catalina Island


Distance in nautical miles:               (1 nm = 1.15 land miles)
Dana Point to Avalon:                          33
Dana Point to Two Harbors:                 38
Newport Beach to Avalon:                   26               
Newport Beach to Two Harbors:          32
Huntington Harbor to Avalon:               25
Huntington Harbor to Two Harbors:     27                   
LA Harbor to Avalon:                          25
LA Harbor to Two Harbors:                 22
Marina del Rey to Avalon:                   38            
Marina del Rey to Two Harbors:         31

I plotted out these distances based on my route (direct), and took an approximate start point for each distance at the outside of each harbor. Each mariner may experience a slightly different distance, depending on their mooring location and line of sail, but consider these good approximations.

how long to sail to catalina
My chart for plotting the waters of Southern California

I have made these routes in a 30 foot sailboat (1976 Newport), and considering the range of conditions I experienced (current, swells, headwind), let's say - my average speed for these trips was 4.7 nautical miles/hr. This average speed accounts for some sailing in good to moderate winds and then the engine turned on at moderately high RPM when the wind goes light. For most folks with a sailboat near 30 feet, just under 5 nautical miles/hr. is probably the correct average speed for mixed conditions.

Sailing to Catalina Island


At that average speed, the approximate time it would take to get from A to B is:

Time needed for each leg (if averaging 4.7 nautical miles/hr.)
                                                           Hours (in decimal)
Dana Point to Avalon:                             7
Dana Point to Two Harbors:                    8
Newport Beach to Avalon:                     5.5               
Newport Beach to Two Harbors:            6.8
Huntington Harbor to Avalon:                5.3
Huntington Harbor to Two Harbors:      5.7                 
LA Harbor to Avalon:                            5.3
LA Harbor to Two Harbors:                   4.6
Marina del Rey to Avalon:                     8.0            
Marina del Rey to Two Harbors:            6.6

Of course, sailors rarely use a completely direct path from one point to another (either due to some tacking or to unintentional meanderings) and so, it would be wise to plan an hour on top of these estimates.

how far away is catalina from LA
Sailing my Newport 30 into the welcoming glow of Avalon harbor.

Before you untie the dock lines, you need at least one quality cruising guide on board. Fagan's book is generally regarded as the most comprehensive guide for sailing Central and Southern CA. It has kept me out of trouble a few times.
Plus, this book has a great section on anchorages around Catalina Island and a thorough section on harbors in Los Angeles. Amazon sells used copies for about 20-30$.

2022 Update: Here is the latest website to get a reservation for your boat at Avalon or Two Harbors.

My sailing blog features posts of similar nautical information for other sailing regions on the west coast, please follow links below:

Sailing from San Diego to Los Angeles: nautical miles and time required for a sailboat trip (Mission Bay, Dana Point, Newport Beach, Huntington Harbor, Los Angeles Harbor, Marina del Rey).

Sailing distance (nautical miles) and time for a sailboat trip from San Diego to Santa Cruz Island (Mission Bay, Smuggler's Cove, Avalon, Two Harbors).

And, if you are going to make the journey out to the island, you will want to prepare for some down time in the cabin. Once you lose sight of land, the hours start moving slow. This is a good thing as it gives us a chance to relax and shake out the stress of our regular lives.
However, you're going to need some light entertainment. Bring a book. To stay in the moment, bring a sea-faring book. If you're a history buff, I recommend, "Two Years Before the Mast" by Richard Henry Dana. If you're into single-handed sailing stories, I recommend, "Sailing Alone Around the World" by Joshua Slocum.

And of course, when in doubt...crack a beer and stare off at the horizon.

November 1, 2014

Sailing the Capri 30 off shore in San Diego

Dave Koller has become the proud new co-owner of a Capri 30 racing sailboat. The lines are drawn back to the cockpit. All the hardware looks intact. She's ready for some stiff winds.

racing capri 30 san diego
Ready to rip: Capri 30, light and fast

      San Diego has had a fairly light wind summer, so it is nice to have a few Winter storms arrive. We took the Capri 30 for a spin in a small craft advisory and got her heeled over pretty well, definitely got the starboard rail sunk deep in the water - two knuckles deep.

racing sailboats in san diego
Chris and Dave in the Capri cockpit

Curran at the helm

Bringing her back into the barn.

October 31, 2014

The best sailing books of all time: Adrift by Steven Callahan

Adrift, by Steven Callahan (1986)

adventure sailing book
       Adrift is a great book to read if you need to put your troubles in perspective. You may think you're having a bad day because traffic was brutal on the way to work and then this thing happened in the office and now you have to rewrite a super long email - but unless your day ends with you being left to die on a small piece of plastic in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, then you're not really having too bad a day. 

      In January 1982, Steven Callahan left the Spanish coastline in a 21 foot sailboat with the intention of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He'd already made this journey once before, so his confidence was high. He was travelling solo. Unfortunately, during this crossing, fate was not smiling on his humble sailing craft.  6 days out from the Canary Islands, Steven's small boat sank for unknown reasons. He collided with some unmovable object, possibly a whale. In a panic, he scrambled into his tiny inflatable raft and cut the cord with his sinking boat. Thus began his harrowing, slow-motion drift across the majority of the Atlantic Ocean. 

        For 76 days, Callahan survives on wit and cunning alone, hand-spearing fish, fending off sharks, distilling potable water from the ocean. As the north equatorial current slowly pushes his flimsy raft towards the Caribbean Islands at 10 miles per day, Callahan is left with plenty of time to ponder life and death and, apparently, collect material for a phenomenal Sea-faring adventure book.

   Adrift spent 36 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It's a riveting read and if nothing else, it will encourage you to double check the quality of your emergency raft before you make your next ocean crossing.

October 29, 2014

Sailing from Catalina Island to Santa Cruz Island

   We recently sailed my Newport 30 (1976) to the Northern Channel Islands. When you're departing from San Diego, this is quite a journey. We stayed a few days on Catalina, then made our crossing to the Northern Channel Islands.

sailing to avalon
Avalon casino looking good, as ususal
     Making the jump from Catalina to Santa Cruz Island takes some planning, as it is a long day of sailing. Make sure you're weather window is clean. The winds can get strong coming down from Point Conception.
      We left Two Harbors at 3 am, then sailed North all day and arrived in Smuggler's Cove on Santa Cruz Island just as the sun was setting.

Heading north, leaving Catalina Island in our wake.

    We sailed close enough to see detail on Anacapa Island. I am regretting that we didn't attempt to anchor and explore Anacapa, but she will be waiting for us next time.

sailing to anacapa island
Tacking past Anacapa Island

  Despite the electrial problems I was dealing with on my sailboat, I was beyond stoked to drop anchor in Smuggler's Cove on Santa Cruz Island. The sun was beaming and we had nothing to do for the next few days except explore the island. 

westsail 32 on anchor
A beautiful Westsail 32 anchored next to us in Smugler's Cove

For more detail on sailing logistics (distance, time required per leg of trip) for this journey, please see my recent post.
Distance and time for each leg of sail trip: San Diego to Santa Cruz Islands

If this information was helpful for you, please share the post on the social links below. Thanks!

October 26, 2014

Spearfishing halibut in Catalina

spearfishing California halibut catalina
I hand speared this California Halibut in between Avalon and Two Harbors

We anchored the Alize' in a secluded bay just north of Toyon Bay on the leeward side of Catalina island. After snorkeling around for a few minutes, I spotted this gorgeous California halibut, Paralichthys californicus, trying to hide in the sand. Fortunately, I had my Hawaiian sling on me and put the trident tip right through its flat head. The fillets fed us for many days.

If you're planning a similar fishing trip to Catalina, make sure you have at least one cruising guide on board. Fagan's book is the standard, authoritative guide for sailing Central and Southern CA. They have a very thorough section on anchorages between Two Harbors and Avalon on Catalina Island. This resource should keep your boat off the rocks and in safe harbor.

For boaters that are thinking about making this journey in their boat...I've posted some good distance and travel time info. for San Diego to Catalina

Sailing from San Diego to Catalina Island: distance and time for a sailboat trip (Mission Bay, Oceanside, Dana Point, Avalon, Two Harbors)

and also boating info for making the LA to Catalina journey...

Sailing to Catalina Island: distance and time from Los Angeles

October 25, 2014

Humpback Whale tail slaps in Icy Strait

Icy Strait hosts an incredibly vibrant biological community. Long summer days and nutrient rich upwellings of cold Pacific Ocean waters keeps each of the trophic levels well fed. The whales come here to gorge on small fish and invertebrates- then migrate to Hawaii for breeding. They are so satiated from their feast in Icy Strait that they don't eat while procreating in Hawaii. Not one luau - nothing.

Ryan, Micah and I were overwhelmed with the level of whale activity in Icy Strait. This whale was slapping the water like it would never have a chance to slap water again. Apparently, this is a feeding technique. The tail slaps sends out shock waves into the water. The shock waves then disorients the schools of fish they are harvesting, making it easier for the whale to scoop them up.

The whales at Point Adolphus tired us out and filled up our memory cards. After an incredible afternoon, we left them alone to continue slapping tails, blowing, breaching and fluking without us.

October 22, 2014

Perfect winds in the Straights of Juan de Fuca

Josh Newman, Ryan Kitson and I had a few great wind days heading out to outer Vancouver Island.

October 15, 2014

Light Autumn Air in San Diego

sailing in light air with Gregg

San Diego is many things to many people. For sailors, it is also many things for many people. 
Pleasant is one of those things. Warm and comfortable are other things. 

Lately, I have been looking for a bit more thrill in my afternoon sails. 
I haven't been getting much thrill. 
But I have been getting lots of pleasant. 

I don't want to sound un-grateful, but - enough with the sunshine and light air.

Cloud cover and 10-20 knots would be very much appreciated.
Whenever you're ready SD, I don't want to rush you...

October 6, 2014

Solar panels for boats: an easy installation guide.

Marine solar panel installation

article updated: November 2022

In this article, I provide simple instructions for mounting solar panels on sailboats or powerboats.

When I first started sailing, I often found myself stranded at sea with a dead battery and no way to start my diesel engine. This is not fun or safe... I was using too much electricity and dragging my 12 volt battery down below 10 volts.

Finally, while sailing north to Alaska, I fixed this problem by installing this basic, solar panel boat system.

This boat is now docked in Mexico! With this help of this solar panel, I navigated my boat into the Sea of Cortez.

I love the idea of people generating their own energy - so I'm thrilled to see that thousands of people visit this page each year.

I installed the following set-up a few years ago, and everything is still working great (it's now 2022 as I update this article). I update this page each year, to make sure all my recommendations are accurate and relevant.

Below, I'm writing basic 'Do-It-Yourself' instructions to install solar panels for boats. All parts total cost me about $240, which is a great price to mount solar power on your boat. And it should be noted that I haven't skimped on quality, all the gear I use is well-respected, long-lasting stuff.

If you plan it right, you can have this project finished in one weekend

Ok, a few quick disclaimers:

  • I am writing the following instructions for boat people or RV campers. 
  • I describe a basic set up that provides a charge onto your 12 Volt DC battery bank.
  • If you want to use this system to power your home, then you'll also need an inverter to switch the 12 Volt DC electricity to 110 Volt AC.

The set up I describe is perfect for keeping batteries topped off while you're disconnected from shore power. This means that while you're out fishing, sailing or anchored out for the evening - you can run your electronics (cell-phone charger, navigation lights, stereo, cabin lights, bilge pump, depth-finder, GPS ext...) and still have enough power on your batteries to start the engine and get you home.

Ok, here's my simple DIY instructions for solar installation on a boat or an RV camper.


How to install solar panels for boats

installing a solar panel on a boat
my 30 watt solar panel on the stern railing of my boat

Step by step guide for installing a solar panel boat system

First I list a quick summary on how to put this together. Details will follow after these instructions.

 1.   Mount your panel on your stern rail (see photos/details below).

 2.   Attach marine grade copper wires to the panel. These are DC wires for a 12 Volt system, so you need 2 sets of wires (black and red). Black (negative) and red (positive). If this set-up is for a RV camper then you don't need to spend more for these marine grade wires.

3.   Run the wires into the main cabin (this usually means drilling a small hole in the cockpit).

4.   Attach the wires to a solar panel controller (see photo below)

5.   Attach a new set of the same style of marine grade wires from the controller to your battery.

6.   The red (positive) goes on the Positive terminal, the black (negative) goes on the Negative terminal.

7.   Crack a beer and relax while the sun tops off your batteries!


FAQ: What size panel should I get?

When I was planning what boat solar gear to buy, the consensus opinion was that a 30 watt panel was sufficient for my boat. My electrical needs are considered 'light'. My electronic guru friend in Seattle pointed me to the 30-Watt Solar Panel featured in the photo above.
Size-wise, it's compact (13x24 inches), which is nice, since it doesn't take up much space on the stern rail.

In regards to the power my 30 watt supplies...

If you average 5 hours of sunlight/day X 30 watts = 150 watt-hours per day.


You can also think about energy in terms of current (Amps.)

A 30W panel will give you about 1.8 Amps for 5 hrs a day. That is 9 Amp hours a day.

(sunlight hours will vary based on weather conditions)

I have used my 30W panel in Seattle and San Diego, so the whole range of sun/cloud conditions and the 30 watt output has provided enough juice for me to use my electronics (stereo, GPS, depth-finder, cabin lights, cell phone charger, ext.) and keep my battery bank topped off.
(I've got two 12 Volt batteries in my battery bank, a deep cycle and a starter).

FAQ: Which brand of solar panel is best?

Now, in regards to what panel to install... there's currently a bunch of high quality solar panels on the market. The industry is changing pretty fast, panel technology/efficiency keeps improving. Earlier this year, Jan 2018, as I was updating this page, I surveyed my boat and RV friends to see what panel they like best right now. Maybe 80 percent of them said they still like the Renogy panels. These panels are rugged, which is good for boats, they withstand stormy conditions. Plus you get a high quality panel (Amp. output) for the price.

If you're like me, a 'light' energy user, then go with the Renogy 30 Watt Solar Panel 

Now, that said, many boaters would fall under 'moderate' energy users. These folks would want to run some kitchen appliances, maybe some fans, perhaps a water heater, ext...
In that case, go with a 100 watt panel. Their 100 Watt Solar Panel is the preference for mid-size boats with moderate amperage needs.

Campers/RV or folks who have an off-the-grid cabin also seem to like this model.

Size-wise, the 100 watt panel is only about 45 inches by 20 inches. So, it should fit fairly well on your stern rail or RV rooftop.

And....if you want even more juice from the sun, then get a pair of these 100 watt panels and wire them together. Each panel yields 100 watts, so mount 2 for 200 watts total. Last month I helped a friend put a 100 watt on his 38 foot sailboat. We mounted it on the railing that sits on top of his canvas dodger (over the cockpit). He's happy with the output. We used the compatible solar panel mounting bracket set to lock the panels onto his boat.

Here's the 100 watt panel on Amazon.

FAQ: Do I need a controller?

Yes. The controller is necessary for controlling the charge coming off the panel. It is a small circuit panal that is installed between the solar panel and your batteries. It enables the charge to be fed to the batteries at the right levels. It also prevents your batteries from leaking charge back out to the panel and it also prevents over-charging the battery. You need a controller, its not optional.

It's a simple device, but it's critical and you want a good quality controller. My guy at Fisheries Supply in Seattle told me to go with the Morningstar SunSaver-10, Charge Controller, 12V. I've had it in use for 6 years and it's worked flawlessly for me (see photo below).
There's no moving parts here, its just diodes and fixed circuits. When the sun is shining, you get a green LED light on the top of the controller (see photo). This indicates that charge is going onto the batteries.
I'm expecting this controller to last me another 10 years. As you can see, it mounts easily inside your boat with 4 stainless steel screws. I placed mine right above my chart table.

solar panels for boats and RV campers
the SunSaver-10 controller mounted in my cabin

Here's a link to that controller.

FAQ: How did you mount your panel on your stern rail?

DISCLAIMER: Every panel design will require a slightly different mount. The Renogy panels I mentioned above come with their own mounting brackets. This is probably preferred since their mounting brackets are only 10$.

But, apparently I like to do things the hard way. I went the 'Do-it-yourself' route and built my own mounting brackets to fit my stern rail. If you want to do what I did, here's how I did it.

My panel has an aluminum rail on the perimeter. Drill holes in this rail and attach 2 aluminum flats to serve as a center mounting rail. Attach these strips of aluminum with stainless bolts and nuts. To prevent galvanic corrosion (aluminum touching steel) use plastic washers. Then, attach these white plastic rail mounts to the new aluminum flats (or something similar). The beauty of these plastic rail mounts is you can adjust their tightness on your boat's stern rail. Therefore, you can push the panel around it's axis so that the panel is facing the sun throughout the day.

installing solar boats
the backside of my solar panel showing stern rail mounts

FAQ: How do you wire up the panels/controller/battery?

Okay, let's assume your panel is now mounted.
Next thing is, connect the panel to the controller (the controller will be installed inside the boat).

Get yourself some Marine Grade copper wire. Get at least 30 feet of black and 30 feet of red. These are the marine wires I use....

If you're doing this install in a RV or cabin, save some money and do NOT buy the marine grade wires/terminals. You don't need it, just get the regular stuff.

sailboat solar
marine grade copper wire for 12 volt DC electronics

Decide which terminals are best to use and attach wires to the bottom of the solar unit. There should be a contact box with a surrounding waterproof lid on the underside of the panel. To protect the circuit you can add a fuse on the positive wire, just downstream of solar panel.

Then I use plastic zip ties to snug up the wires to the rail and down to the cockpit. Then find a small hole in your cockpit (or drill a small hole) and run the wires into the interior of your boat.

marine solar panel installation
zip ties snugging up the wires to keep them from getting fouled

Okay - the rest is simple. Lead the wires to the mounted controller, then attach the incoming wires to the ' Solar + and - ' screws (See photo).
Then attach a new set of wires on the ' Battery + and - ' screws. Run the battery wires to the battery terminals.

sailboat solar panel mount
one set of wires coming in from the panel, another set going out to the battery

And of course, use marine grade ring terminals to fit over the battery posts. As has been pointed out to me by some experts, you also want to include a fuse on the positive wire just before it hits the positive terminal on the battery. This makes for good protection of the circuit.

sailboat solar panel mount kit
incoming positive wire attaches to positive terminal...

Well, that should finish up your solar panel boat installation project.

FAQ: How much will this whole solar panel project cost?


Solar power for boats price breakdown

Morningstar SunSaver-10, Charge Controller, 12V
about $60

aluminum rails/plastic mounts/bolts/washers/zip-ties
(or do it professional with the Renogy mounting Z Brackets)
about $20

marine grade wire (red and black) and terminals

Price-wise, you should be just around $230 and you haven't skimped on quality products.

It sure beats getting towed back to port...

Okay - Good luck with your marine solar panel installation! 

 Capt. Curran

Oh and by the way...

If you are unsure about your electrical diet (aka. how much energy you require), I also wrote up this page on how best to determine your solar panel wattage requirements. It's basically a guide to estimate how many watt/hours you'll be requiring on a typical day or week on the water. Once you've figured out how many watt/hours you require, you can then determine how large a panel you'll need.

Once you have the foundation of your electrical circuit established, then you can thinking about adding on a solar panel. I also like this review from Cruising World.
Good luck!