Saturday, January 23, 2016

Smoke Test

Back when we were in the Abacos and heading south we had a major system failure. The following describes what happened.

Every hour we are underway yours truly goes down below to check the following:

1. Bilges
2. State of charge
3. Engine room
    a. Look for Leaks
    b. Smell anything weird?
    c. Strange sounds?
    d. Belt melting?
    e. Regulator/Charger indicators normal?
    f. Exhaust leaks?
    g. Battery temp
    h. Fuel filter gauge normal?
    i . Filter bowl clear?

 4. Drive shaft seal check
 5. Rudder shaft seal check
 6. Is the beer where it should be?

If we are sailing with the engine off I will still take the time to go below and perform every check except number three.

I'm down below on one of my rounds and I am at Number 2 on the list and we are not charging. Interesting. I get to 3e and all is normal. Noted. Regulator indicates normality but we aren't getting anything in the battery bank while motoring along on this lovely day. Noted and confused. Do I have an alternator issue? Another hour goes by and we are charging normally again. Anomaly? I actually dislike that word. I can't count how many times at work a machine would do something completely stupid and then go back to normal for weeks or months only to have that "weird thing" happen again only this time it's fatal, usually on a Friday afternoon. There is a reason for everything. Anomaly is a label for something we wish away and hope never to see again. We had a manager that was an anomaly.

In the dark corners of my mind and right next to the room of High Anxiety (door number 3) is the room of This Ain't Normal and It Will Bite Me in the Ass Eventually (Door number 4). Three and four are adjoining rooms. Behind door number 4 you will find a mainsail that's progressively hard to bring down. A continually rusting rudder. The outboard that needs more and more choke to run right and that lump that keeps getting bigger. Now I can toss the quirky engine charging system into that room.

So Deb says to me later while we are motoring along, "You feel more vibration?" I jump below and make the rounds again. I stopped at step two again and checked the state of charge. Shit! No charging at all. I stop at 3e.  Shit God damn the regulator is dark. No lights. Well this can't be good for cruising to far away places. I wasn't too awful worried about the charging. We could always hump it back to Marsh Harbor and buy a new alternator with a built in regulator. The thing that really freaked me out was that Deb could sense the change in the load on the motor just by vibration. Whoa! Deb is like one with the boat now. She's like a Jedi. This scares me a little. We could be down to the last good bottle of beer and with the wave of her hand she could say, "You don't really want that beer". I don't really want that beer. She would then snatch the last winter lager and I would be left drinking the box wine.

We motored on without getting any charge from the alternator and eventually dropped the hook in our anchorage. I went below to the engine room for the next four hours. I found a blown fuse from the alternator to the regulator. Ten amps. Damn. I only had twenty to replace it with. Hmm (this means stupid thoughts are rolling by). I remember getting mad at an electrician once who decided he could find the troubled piece of electronics the easy way by going up in fuse size and seeing what "Burnt up". He said, "Tired of screwing around here son, so we're going to smoke it out." He did, and so did I. I popped that 20 amp fuse right in there and watched in shock and with some perverse fascination as the Balmar ARS-5 regulator lit up like some of the bridge controls on the Starship Enterprise whenever they got attacked. Snap crackle pop!

What's with those indicator lights on the Bridge of the Enterprise? Why they all flashing at random? How stupid was that? Think about flying a plane and having just one light start flashing. WTF Over! Now imagine travelling across star systems in the pure vacuum of space and all those alarm lights are fucking going off. I can't even watch the show anymore. WTF Scotty!

Debra the electrical engineer was mostly at a desk working on designs throughout her long smarty pants career. I spent most of my corporate servitude in the field and factory with deranged individuals. When I came up topsides through a few wispy tendrils of the cooked remains of a regulator, I looked at Deb and said in a good ole boy accent, "And that right there is the smell of fried electronics." Emphasis on the fried. It was hard to read her expression at the time. What does one look like when they realize they sailed away with a crazy person?

OK, so it's not the alternator then. This was good because I had a spare regulator/charger still mounted from the old charging system. I pulled the alternator and checked it out and it looked good. I then wired it to the old Heart Interface charger and Bingo! We are charging. Phew! Advice from the field: If you are replacing working old gear with new, save the old in case the new turns out to be junk.

In hindsight I should have checked the alternator and then just wired it to the old regulator and left the Balmar just sitting there doing nothing. Curiosity can be dangerous. That damn Balmar unit lit up like a damn sparkler on the 4th. Not something you really want to happen in an engine room.

We bought the Balmar system before we left NY and it's only really been in use while cruising which isn't very long. C'mon Balmar! The insane prices we pay for this stuff, only to have it crap out in a year or two is very irritating. This is why there is beer.

Cheers! May the Force be with you.

Not sure why I threw this in. I came across it and marveled at what people do in relation to their dogs. This guy had to have looked at himself in the mirror yet still decided to venture outdoors. You have to thank him for having the balls to do this to make people laugh and have a story to tell at the dinner table.


  1. Glad your situation turned out ok. You struck a nerve with the Balmar comment. I am so tired of paying exorbitant prices for stuff of poor quality made in Asia. I really do not mind paying a high price for a quality product. We have struggled this trip with a AquaSignal tri-color and anchor light combo. We are now on our 3rd unit in less than a year. I mean, how hard is it to make a LED light that lights up? AquaSignal tried to blame it on our boats wiring - idiots! After this last failure, we opted to go with another brand.

    Mark and Cindy
    s/v Cream Puff - currently cruising Abacos, Bahamas

  2. Uh oh. A conversation about shoddy boat stuff. Let's just say we'll avoid Balmar. And have Deb share this on the WWS page so all the other women can share in this irritation. Oh, and of course she is one with the boat. What would make you think otherwise? Why is this new?