Reputation is everything in the superyacht industry and armed with rare expertise and seven decades in the game, you’re hard to beat. Such is the story of Ward’s Marine Electric founded by Ward Eshleman Sr. in his garage in Fort Lauderdale at the end of World War II. In 1983, Ward Eshleman II became president and led the business for nearly 50 years. Fast forward to 2023 and after years learning from the best, President Kristina Hebert is the powerhouse building on her father’s legacy.
Power management is a highly complex business but for charter yachts her message is clear: “A strong electrical system is going to make or break a charter. When a charter is in full swing, the last thing you need is a power problem.”
Acknowledging that many vessels take for granted the hidden world of cables and connections until something goes wrong, during the Palm Beach International Boat Show last month, Kristina shared her insight on the principal causes of electrical faults and how yachts can avoid them.
What are some of the most common issues that arise with electrical systems on board?
Often it concerns how the vessel is being used. If a boat is at anchor and all of a sudden they have the whole boat running, it can overload a generator. So we focus a lot on load sharing so boats can operate at maximum capacity without any problems.
Another example might be a frequency converter which allows a boat to plug in anywhere in the world. If the fan fails, the board gets hot and the converter stops working. Sometimes it can be little things like this that break a system but we can fix these very quickly.
Galvanic corrosion is a major issue and the grounding system is as important as the whole electrical system in preventing this, especially on metal boats. The grounding system is what keeps all the underwater gear common, all tied together to a ground potential from the boat to the dock. If they don't have the current or the voltage that they need for copper versus aluminium or steel, the surface can erode pretty quickly.
It's a silent problem, especially since most boats are not hauled out every year. It can affect the hull, the propellers and any other machinery until eventually you start having electrical problems. In order to troubleshoot and fix the issue, we offer a corrosion survey which is highly specialised and requires qualified personnel who are few and far between.
Generally, captains and engineers know when they have a problem. They tell us all the symptoms and we know what they are describing, which is a level of expertise unique to us. My father taught courses all over the world and he developed the ABYC certification for marine corrosion as well as the ABYC certification for marine electricians.
What really sets Ward’s apart is that we’ve been in business for a very long time! It's not just about getting the job; it's being able to identify the issue and find solutions. People call us all over the world because they know they have a problem but they don’t know what it is. You need to know what you’re looking for, sometimes it takes me a second and sometimes it takes me a week. It involves a lot of theory, a lot of study and a lot of experience, and I learned with the best. We always get to the bottom of it because everything we do in the marine electrical business is done the Ward’s way.
The incidence of yacht fires has been particularly high over the past year, why do you think that is?
I would say 99.9 per cent of the fires on board are related to electrical systems, often due to panel arching, batteries that have not been properly installed, or when overcurrent protection is not properly coordinated on a switchboard. You have a pedestal breaker, a short power breaker, a main breaker at the switchboard and a sub panel breaker. All these breakers need to be coordinated in terms of which one trips first in case of an event, and that's a big issue on board.
Other examples are loose connections, cable chafing from inadequate protection and segregation of cables throughout the boat to avoid overheating. A certain amount of cables can be in a bundle in certain areas because they create heat. All this needs to be taken into consideration during the build as well as when doing refits and repairs.
Connecting additional equipment can also be problematic in terms of overload. For example, a new owner might want to install a larger galley, but you have to change the entire mathematical equation to accommodate this. The whole purpose of a properly configured system is to prevent malfunction or a fire on board. I would say the majority of charter yachts stay on top of all this, because they know the risks in terms of safety.
Another major issue for boats and large yachts is vibration which causes movement and heat. There’s also oil and salt water in the internal environment, all of which can affect cables and connections, so we have to take extra care in terms of installing and running a safe electrical system.
What are some of the risks around battery power on board?
In broad terms, lithium batteries are more compact and can store a lot more energy but they are more susceptible to explosion, while regular batteries are actually more toxic.
The main issues concern proper connections and proper storage, and you cannot mix battery types, they need to be the same type and the same age. They must be properly connected, properly charged, and properly managed in a controlled environment. So it’s important to work with qualified personnel at every stage from design through to disposal.
At Ward’s Marine Electric, our focus is power management, so whether it's electric coming in or electric going out, whatever the source, we incorporate it into our power management system. We stay prepared and ready for it.
Environmental impact is a growing concern for the yachting industry, how does that translate to the electrical systems on board?
I think that for the most part, the industry is very conscious about the environment in which we operate. We’re seeing a lot of positive change in terms of reduced air and water pollution, as well as a reduction in single use plastics on board.
Another thing we've been noticing is that instead of running one main generator, more boats are running several smaller generators in parallel, which is more efficient, yielding a lower carbon footprint. More clients are also asking for load analysis to understand what they can run and how they can improve efficiency.
Besides power management, repairs and electrical refits for superyachts, what other services do you offer?
We also build and export switchboards globally. We knew that we could make an American product that we could be proud of as we’ve been building custom switchboards for decades and had gathered enough data over the years to come up with some smart solutions that are also cost effective. We design, build and install them or we can have them ready to be installed by another contractor or builder. About 97% of our inventory comes direct from the manufacturer and we've tried to minimize outsourcing. We also have our own engraving department and paint shop.
Supporting boat builders is another important part of our business, particularly large sport fish vessels. In many cases the client also owns a superyacht and they want the same amenities, features and operations.
Surveys are another key offering to ensure the integrity of a yacht’s electrical system and class compliance. We offer a range of surveys from electrical surveys to pre-purchase surveys (for seller and buyer), insurance surveys, spot checks, lightening surveys and corrosion surveys, as I mentioned.
More recently we created the Ward’s Marine Electric Academy to train our own customers and our own employees to make sure that everybody knows all systems. Manufacturers kindly donate equipment so that we don’t have to fly people all over the world.
A lesser known fact is that we manufacture everything that's 100 amp and above for Hubble. We get the parts, we put it all together, we put their label back on it and sell it back to them. We're also building a line of smart pedestals for them.
As vessels become ever larger, how has your business evolved?
When I started working at Ward’s Marine Electric over 27 years ago, we were mostly dealing with 80 footers but now many superyachts have tenders of that size. Everything was manual and simpler back then, but technology has had a huge impact on power management and nowadays the challenge is more about integration. Things that used to be connected and isolated now have to be centrally controlled and monitored with individual alarms. It requires specialist knowledge and expertise but fundamentally it’s about system design and we’re very good at that.
We last met at the Caribbean Charter Yacht Show in December, how was your experience and what was your message to captains and charter managers?
I think CCYS has proved itself. We were excited to be a part of the inaugural event but to see more boats, larger boats, and greater participation from charter brokers and management, we believe in the event and the industry believes in the event.
Our message to captains and management is that you don't have to wait for a massive yard period to give us a call, we can also support you with smaller projects and maintenance. Where are you struggling? Why are you tripping? We can get out there and at least diagnose the problem so it doesn’t become a safety issue. You don’t have to lose valuable charter time; we can plan for larger projects when you have time.