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Solar night light

Dec 19, 2011

To the editor: Several times I have spent the night at anchor, showing a light for safety, while enjoying a movie in my lighted saloon, only to discover in the morning that my house bank was dead and that there would be no hot breakfast or coffee — a lousy way to start the day. Surely, I thought, there must be a way to enjoy the modern conveniences of our boat without draining the battery.

On board Ukiyo, our Catalina 34, we use a 55-amp alternator and 60-watt solar panel for our electrical needs. We have a 12-volt starter battery and four “golf cart” 6-volt batteries for the house bank which, though expensive and heavy, are much better for the frequent and deep discharge of electrical appliances. They are rated at 115 amps each.

We sail year-round and often, and when we do, almost always spend the night at anchor. Doing an audit recently of our DC usage underway I was shocked by how much we drain the house bank during a typical night out.

By bringing a cooler, charging the laptop at home and combining smokeless oil lamps with fewer cabin lights, we put a serious dent in our usage, but what to do about the 25-Ah lost on the anchor light? We tried a lamp on deck, but it kept blowing out; LEDs would do the job, but they are an expensive refit.

Rule 20 of the International Regulations (ColRegs) mandates that for vessels underway or at anchor, lights must be displayed at night and during the day in restricted visibility. Of course, it’s foolish not to show one, it greatly increases your risk of a tragic collision, and marine law officers are quick to board and fine a dark vessel.

Walking through the hardware store one day my own light went on when I saw a display of solar lawn lights for a dollar each. Placed in various PVC tubes above the bimini they charge quickly while we spend the day sailing, and at dusk fit conveniently in the four winch-handle holes around the cockpit, providing the requisite 360-degree white light. Additionally, they light the entire cockpit bright enough to have dinner by. They shut off automatically at dawn and we place them back in the tubes before we weigh anchor.

Now our solar lights keep us visible in dark anchorages, hot coffee is served at dawn, and everybody’s happy.

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Robert Beringer’s Catalina 34 Ukiyo is based on the St. John’s River in Florida. He holds a USCG 50-ton license and works as a college administrator.

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