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Rewiring a Sailboat Mast

Posted on: 4/18/2011 11:48:00 PM by

The title of this article is actually a bit of a misnomer.  I wasn’t actually rewiring my boat’s mast.  I was putting wires and lights on it for the “first” time (it may have had lights on it before I got it but didn’t when I did).  Coast Guard requirements dictate that you have to have certain lights on a boat.  Included in these lights are a steaming light, which must be about 2/3rds of the way up the mast, as well as an anchor light which goes on the top of the mast.  Unfortunately, my mast had neither of these.  Nor was it wired for either of these.  Prior to putting it back in the water for the season, I wanted to put these lights in so I wouldn’t have to risk trouble from the Coast Guard.  Unfortunately, the closest thing I’d done to this is running network cable through my house.

I started this process with a visit to West Marine in St. Clair Shores nearby where we were putting the boat in the water.  I ordered the lights I needed from there and got some advice on how to run the wires.  The week after, I returned to pick up the ordered lights as well as a mess of other necessities (new battery, electrical wire, rivets, etc).  One suggestion I had received was to run fishing line through the mast and to then pull the wires through on that.  I hit up the local Walmart to get the line and a bigger drill bit to fit the size of the screws I’d need for the light on the top of the mast.  While there grabbing the fishing line, I happened to see sinkers, the little metal things used to pull the line down in the water.  I figured I could put a bunch of those on the bottom to help pull the line through.  Despite Erin’s assistance and all manner of shaking the mast and feeding line into it (we even leaned the mast up against the house so it was at nearly a 90 degree angle), we were unable to get the line through.  After looking closer, I realized that there was bunch of straw about 5 feet up the mast.  After pulling this out (using a variety of tools) I realized it was actually a bird’s nest… and the bird was still in the mast, though in a more skeletal form.  Once this was cleaned out, I tried using the line again but still wasn’t able to get it far enough through to pull it through.  After getting thoroughly fed up, I switched to a wire snake and got it through on the first try.  If you’re trying to run wires through your mast, don’t bother screwing around with something else.  Just get a wire snake (or fish tape).  Once the snake was through, I attached two fishing lines and pulled it all the way back through.

Now that I had a way to pull wires through, I was ready to go.  Two of my very helpful friends came over to assist.  We had a few things left to do:  drill wires for the steaming light, pull wires for the top light and the steaming light (actually a steaming-deck light combo) through to the bottom, connect and solder the wires to the lights, connect the lights, and connect the wires from the mast to wires going into the cabin somehow.  The last part (running the wires into the cabin) was one of the really difficult things to figure out.  I spent a lot of time looking online and found a number of different suggestions including pipes, hoses, putting wires directly through the cabin, and more hoses.  A visit to a local marine store (K & M Marine in Redford, MI) led me to a watertight fitting.  I could drill a hole through the cabin and pass the wires through this but we still had to figure out how to connect wires from the cabin to the wires in the mast (so it would be easy to later disconnect the mast.  For that, one of my friends came up with a very clever idea: a trailer hitch wiring harness.  We would run wires out of the cabin and connect those wires to one end of a trailer hitch harness.  The other end of the harness would connect to the wires coming out of the bottom of the mast.  Since the trailer hitch wires are meant to be exposed to the elements, this was a perfect way to connect wires that might see a bit of water, and would also need to be disconnected whenever the mast comes down. 

Pulling the wires through the mast ended up being relatively easy (compared with everything else).  The last thing to figure out was how to run the wires out of the mast.  Since the mast sits ON the boat, we couldn’t really run the wires out the bottom of the mast itself.  So, we needed to put another hole near the bottom of the mast.  Thankfully both of my helpful friends were mechanical engineers and were able to engineer up the best method to put a hole in the mast so the mast wouldn’t be weakened too much.  Once we had all this figured out, all we had to do was connect the wires inside the cabin.  Sadly this was where we hit our last and final snag.  The terminals and switch board in the boat are from the 70s and didn’t want to facilitate connecting a bunch of new 16 gauge wires.  Connecting these caused the other lights to not run.  So now I will need to add in another switchboard to handle the new lights but that work can all be done while the boat is in the water.

Categories: Boats
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