Boat Repair in an Exotic Location

By my own admission, Priorities is a complicated cruising boat from a systems perspective. Partly due to her original systems design by Catalina, the work of her two previous owners, and my own doing, there are lots of things to maintain aboard her.

I’ve continued improving Priorities’ systems while considering the type of cruising I do: coastal, wilderness-like cruising on Lake Huron’s North Channel or on Lake Superior. While maintaining more systems takes more work, many systems overlap in their capability so I’m less likely to get stranded somewhere due to a system failure. There are two heads aboard… one manual and the other electric. I’ve got a grill that can heat up almost anything if the galley stove fails. I’ve got a diesel inboard for when the wind dies, and sails that can be used to move the boat if the diesel fails, too. I have separate compressors for the fridge and freezer, so if the fridge dies I can convert the freezer to a refrigerator. I carry two anchors in case one gets jammed under a rock and lost, and so on.

At the heart of most of the systems is the DC electrical system. I can split the battery banks up if an individual battery fails. The engine has it’s own battery in case the house battery bank gets completely discharged. I can charge the batteries with the propulsion motor’s giant alternator,  with solar, or with shore power chargers (either of two!) when plugged into shore power or the diesel generator.

Unfortunately, my diesel generator has been unreliable since I bought the boat, and failed once again during the second week of this year’s North Channel cruise. As I write this it remains unrepaired, though I think it’s a bad oil pressure sensor, among other minor problems.

The day after the generator failed on this trip, we had a wonderful sail from Eagle Harbor, through the McBean Channel, and up through the tiny passage in the rocks known as Little Detroit. The passage is so narrow we lower sails and motor through. We also needed a pumpout after several days away from a marina, so we continued motoring the 30 minutes from Little Detroit to the marina in Spanish, Ontario. After Spanish our plan was to sail on for another hour west to anchor for the night by the old sawmill ruins in Moiles Harbor.

After our pumpout, while motoring in the channel away from the marina, I noticed the engine tachometer indicated zero even though the engine was obviously running.

On my boat, having the tach read zero with the engine running can be indicative of a series of problems ranging from benign to catastrophic. Like on a lot of boats, Priorities’ tachometer gets its signal from the alternator, so a failing tach may be indicative of alternator issues. A bigger concern is the alternator belt… on my Westerbeke 42B Four, the freshwater cooling pump, not the raw water pump like many other engines, is belt driven via the same belt that drives the alternator. Checking that this belt was still driving the freshwater pump was my first order of business… if the freshwater pump wasn’t operating, severe engine damage including total seizure (a >$20k repair!) could happen very, very quickly. After having my crew take the helm, I took a quick glance inside the engine compartment and saw the belt was fine.

Next I checked my battery monitor, which reads amps and volts in or out of the house battery. Amps indicated a slight discharge current similar to being under sail with the motor off, indicating the alternator was NOT charging the battery. Amp hour status showed about 75% of battery remaining, so I wasn’t anywhere close to a dead battery yet. Volts indicated 12.5, confirming a partially charged battery that wasn’t connected to a high charge rate source such as my alternator. While I do have solar panels, it was cloudy at the time so their output was low.

Next I checked the display on my Balmar MC-614, the alternator’s externally mounted voltage regulator. Its display was blank for a few seconds, then showed its normal display pattern for a few seconds, the all 888s before blanking again. This was not normal!

A quick reset of the ignition switch on the engine also reset the regulator, but did not change the problem. I also noticed the “ALT” caution light was not illuminated.

The crew and I assessed our situation and short term options. The battery wasn’t close to being dead, so this was not an urgent situation. If nothing got fixed we still had nearly 24 hours of battery power remaining, much more if the sun came back out. Our only charge sources remaining were solar power (if sunny) or shore power at a dock. Though we could have returned to the marina we just departed from, we elected to continue under reduced electrical consumption and with careful monitoring… our planned anchorage was only about an hour away from a decent marina.

The solar power system on Priorities is only good enough to restore the power consumed by the fridge, the highest consuming item, on sunny days. Concurrently running the freezer, the next highest power hog, could draw the batteries down quite quickly. Fortunately, the freezer was nearly empty, so we shut it off to save our power consumption. Frozen food was moved to the fridge for defrosting.

Next we considered our longer term options if I couldn’t fix things. Allowing the house battery bank to completely discharge until “dead” can damage it, shortening the life of an expensive part of the boat, so I really wanted to avoid running the battery down too far. If necessary, we could spend the next afternoon in a slip recharging at the nearby marina before continuing on to another beautiful anchorage for the night. Two days later we’d be in a marina again while the crew drove home… leaving me alone on the boat with a faltering electrical system. It was Saturday, so I couldn’t order parts and receive them for another three days even with overnight shipping. With refrigeration, I could spend nearly every night in a marina to get the boat home, though doing that up here in the North Channel, with its beautiful anchorages, would be like punishment. I could just refill with ice every other day and go without the fridge operating, too, or survive on non-refrigerated food.

What would happen if I got careless and the house battery bank died completely? I mentally ran through the list of systems on the boat that would lose their power source:

  • The fridge and freezer would fail, requiring ice from marinas or using nonperishable food
  • The anchor light at the top of the mast would fail, requiring me to use a solar lantern
  • The cabin lights would fail, requiring us to use flashlights
  • The aft head wouldn’t flush, though the forward head is manually operated
  • We’d have no freshwater for dishes or hand washing since its pump is electric, so we’d use hand sanitizer, bottled water, and/or lake water in a bucket
  • The navigational electronics, including autopilot, wouldn’t work, though I did have paper charts, a handheld GPS, and compasses that I knew how to use
  • The anchor windlass wouldn’t work, so anchor retrieval would be time consuming and complicated
  • The propane solenoid would fail in the “shutoff” position, so the stove wouldn’t work, leaving us with just the grill
  • The VHF radio, our best way to call for help, wouldn’t work, and our handheld radio has limited range
  • The propulsion engine would start and run with its own battery, though the engine battery would not get recharged and the engine would die after a few hours since it used an electric fuel pump

These were dark thoughts after having cruised in comparative luxury for weeks on a trip I had spent months preparing for. Fortunately, by reducing and monitoring our power consumption, a total electrical failure was still at least a day away. Not wanting to work on a hot engine before bed, the crew and I explored Moiles Harbor in the dinghy, and had a few beers. I reviewed the manuals for the alternator system before going to bed.

Alt at Moiles 05

Alt at Moiles 06
The sawmill ruins in Moiles Harbor

Three years ago, after continued frustration with my unreliable generator, I upgraded Priorities’ alternator to a Balmar AT Series 165A alternator controlled by a Balmar MC-614 external voltage regulator. When it works, it’s a powerful charging system that minimizes my time spent running the motor just to charge the batteries… something this sailor can’t stand doing. It had been a very successful upgrade until now, and of course it happened a mere day after the generator failed yet again.

Balmar’s manuals are excellent, with detailed procedures in the troubleshooting section for isolating issues with the alternator and voltage regulator. I actually had access to the manual on my iPad, where PDF versions of nearly every system’s manual was saved for offline viewing on Google Drive.

If I needed to order parts while far from home, I could ship them to Roy Eaton, who runs the Little Current Cruiser’s Net, and pick them up from him as we passed through Little Current, Ontario. This was a great option if needed… the Cruiser’s Net’s motto is “Boaters Helping Boaters.”

Based on how things failed, I expected a regulator issue rather than an alternator issue, so the next morning with a clear mind I began troubleshooting there first. The regulator wiring in the battery compartment on the battery bus, including voltage sense wires, were in good shape. Moving on to the regulator wires on the alternator itself almost immediately revealed a smoking gun… the regulator power wire, running from the alternator positive post to the regulator, was very loose at the ring terminal on the alternator. Two slight wiggles and it broke off. Small burn marks, signs of past arcing, were visible in the broken section.

Alt at Moiles 01
The voltage regulator power wire broke at the alternator post

The loose, but not broken, wire would explain the intermittent operation… a connection existed just long enough to get the regulator to begin displaying info before losing it a few seconds later. I shouldn’t have been surprised it failed here, either… it’s a relatively fragile connection in a high vibration area, so I plan on improving things further during the upcoming winter.

I started fixing the broken ring terminal using spares I keep aboard. Not wanting to make a little problem bigger, I disconnected and isolated the alternator output wire from the battery bus. Any incidental contact between the alternator output cable, including the wire needing repair, and anything metal on the engine or alternator would result in a blown fuse at best. Carefully I removed the nut from the positive post of the alternator. I cut the old ring terminal off, and installed a new one. Then I carefully reattached the alternator output cable to the battery bus.

Alt at Moiles 07 Battery Bus
On Priorities, the alternator output cable is wired directly to the battery bus in the battery compartment. Here I have disconnected the output cable and wrapped it in tape for safety reasons while working around the alternator.

I checked my work a few times before starting the motor. If I had screwed up and tried running the engine with the alternator powered up, I risked expensive damage to the alternator making our current problem much bigger. Once the engine was running, I checked the battery monitor and confirmed the battery was charging. The tachometer worked, too. Disaster averted!

Alt at Moiles 02
Priorities’ battery monitor showing 89.6 amps of current flowing INTO the house battery, meaning the alternator was working again!

Someone smarter than me once said that “cruising” is merely “Boat repair in exotic locations…” I felt like I further confirmed this statement while in Moiles Harbor. What turned out to be a small problem really only “cost” us the freezer for a little while, and it was already nearly empty. I’m thankful that Priorities has a battery monitor to help identify small electrical problems like this before they become big ones… like a dead house battery. I’m also thankful I had the parts, tools, and knowledge to safely fix the problem while still anchored in a pretty spot.

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That day we sailed and motored to the beautiful Benjamin Islands for the night… no marina stopping needed!

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