There is an informal tradition at boat shows, where at the close of the last day of the show, when it’s time to break down the exhibits and untie the boats, everyone blows their boats’ horns. It is a fun thing we all enjoy after days of talking to people walking the docks.
At the fall Newport show some years back, my former trawler, Growler, was on hand representing the latest example of the Zimmerman 36. Steve Zimmerman was on board to show the boat and explain its value to potential buyers intrigued by the idea of a Downeast-style cruising boat.
At the close of the show when the noisy bellow of horns began, Steve went to the helm and pushed the horn button. Nothing. The horn just clicked. Over the course of owning Growler I replaced that horn three times, finally removing it altogether, and I relied on a handheld air horn I kept at the helm. Lobster boats can be wet when the conditions are just so, and I guess it wasn’t a horn-friendly platform.
But when I surveyed my new PDQ 41 in Stuart, Florida, with its electric horn atop a flybridge arch that’s 20 feet off the water, I found pressing the horn button only produced a pathetic and weak gasp, certainly not what is required on a cruising boat. So I vowed to finally get myself a real horn system and I knew just where to look.
I’ve known about Kahlenberg air horns for a long time, seeing them on big Delta, Lurrsen, and Feadship yachts, as well as on many large, upper-end trawlers. They are aboard aircraft carriers, ferries, commercial ships, tugs, and all sorts of military vessels. They are massive and hugely expensive. And they are the best money can buy. So I visited Kahlenberg’s website for the first time in years and I was delighted to see that the company now offers a system for boats under 45 feet—same quality as the big horns, and not nearly as expensive. When I clicked the web page button that generated an audio clip of the horn in action, I was sold. That was the horn for me.
Even before my wife, Laurene, and I left Stuart to begin our trek north to Annapolis, I contacted the company, located in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. A friendly and helpful Jody Walesh assisted me in putting together the components for a K-380 system that fit our needs. The system included the K-380 dual trumpet air horns, a rotary pump compressor kit, a solenoid valve kit, two momentary switches for both helms, and a M-485 horn controller. She told me that full instructions came standard as well as ABS and British MCA certificates of compliance for frequency and decibel level output. The invoice came in under $700.
ALL IN THE DETAILS
I was excited when the two boxes finally arrived, shipped just after our arrival in Annapolis. My friend Howard Brooks and I went over the parts and read the instructions for each piece of the puzzle. I was particularly impressed by the packaging; everything was clearly labeled with great attention to detail. Obviously the folks in shipping took pride in their work.
To say Howard is a perfectionist is a bit of an understatement, but even he was pleased by the quality of the components. The instructions included engineering diagrams showing how everything went together and the necessary electrical connections. The installation seemed well within the abilities of a handy gearhead.
Over the course of a week, we installed the air horns on Spitfire’s flybridge and I’m really happy with the new system. We used epoxy to set a backing plate to the inside side of the flybridge, as the fiberglass is too thin to hold the dual trumpet horns securely, and we used a wood base to attach the solenoid and hose connections.
We mounted the pump and compressor on black StarBoard, along with a circuit breaker, to simplify mounting on a vertical bulkhead inside the helm console, where it would be more difficult to mount each component in that cramped space. We then ran the wiring harness for the horn controller as instructed and installed the small black box that controls the automatic fog horn signals when at anchor or under way.
A TALK WITH THE BOSS
As we installed the K-380 system, I decided to write about it as I suspected that many people, like me, didn’t know about Kahlenberg or that they now offer a system well suited to our trawlers. So I called the president of Kahlenberg Industries to get the story. Erick Kahlenberg is the great grandson of one of the three brothers who started the company back in 1895. Erick runs Kahlenberg Industries with his cousin, Steve, also a great grandson. The company remains family owned and operated in its Two Rivers facility.
Erick said he would be happy to speak with me, and asked that I be candid with him about any issues with the system, its components, and the instructions. The company is not too familiar with smaller boats or situations where DIY boat owners might want to do their own install. They are used to big systems on big ships.
He told me their largest market segment is commercial shipping around the world, with products sold in 34 countries. Another big piece of its business is the military. The company builds big horns for big applications, and megayachts are another healthy market for them.
A couple of years ago, they decided to explore a smaller version of their product line for boats under 65 feet, but were concerned their systems would be priced out of reach, way above alternative horn products. To be competitive, they discussed lowering the quality, and it was an internal debate over whether to use plastic to lower the cost or remain with what they have always done. Ultimately they decided to stick with what they know, making the best horn they can, and that is what they did with the K-380. It is the same quality as the big horn systems, and will last a very long time. Erick told me Kahlenberg Industries is all about building the best quality air horns in the world.
And apparently, they do. In fact, Erick commented that these horns might need a new internal gasket in 30 or 40 years, but that’s it. He said our new K-380 will outlive the boat. (Several weeks later, I took the old AFI horn apart to see if it could be salvaged. I found that a very small creature or insect had built a nest in the narrow horn trumpet, causing that muffled sound. But I also found several of the internal parts were coated in rust and it was well on its way to an early demise.)
If you tire of replacing corroded, value-based horns every few years, those typical electric horns on the shelves at your marine store, consider the overall cost of ownership. Perhaps you’ll come to the same conclusion as I have. Quality is always more expensive but in the long run may be the better choice for all the right reasons.