- A Trilogy
A thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.
A short while back I had a new boat owner call to engage the services of a yacht management company. He was new to boat ownership and did not want to be involved in the daily care and feeding of his new pride and joy, he just wanted to enjoy what some of us consider the best part of boat ownership, cruising around whenever we want. He was my kind of client so we agreed to meet at the yacht the following week.
During our first meeting and initial discussion it became clear he had owned the boat for several months and had been using it regularly and was having a lot of system issues with her. As all boat owners know every boat has its peculiarities and each comes with her own set of special instructions. Occasionally when a vessel transfers owners these special instructions get lost in the shuffle and the new owner is forced to start over and develop the knowledge base from the beginning. As was the case here, a new to boating owner and a boat missing her set of special instructions.
Our first order of business was to find out why there was more than 12 inches of water in the engine room bilge and why the bilge pumps were not evacuating it. Looking at the 12 volt DC circuit breaker panel, it appeared like just any other midsize boats circuit breaker panel, we see two circuit breakers marked bilge pumps. Just as many of us would do as we turn on the breakers for the other systems we would also turn on the bilge pumps. Wrong. These were not simply circuit breakers; they were the manual override switches and when switched on, the bilge pumps run continuously and apparently for approximately three months before burning themselves out. Assuming these breakers needed to be turned on in order for the bilge pumps to have power; the new owner had turned them on and then left them on. Having now burned up the bilge pumps, water was once again accumulating in the bilges with no pumps to evacuate it. We removed the water, immediately replaced the pumps and tested for both manual and automatic operation. Pumps working as they should, now the next step was to determine the source of the water intrusion and make the necessary repairs.
Since I am on the subject of bilge pumps, we had another issue with water accumulating in the bilge and for some reason the bilge pump automatic float switch was intermittently operating. The owner would leave the boat for a few weeks and upon returning the bilges would have water in them. He would then set the battery switch to ON, the bilge pumps would activate, and water would be removed from the bilges as expected. After a little investigation we found the bilge pump automatic switch was not wired directly to the battery, but instead was wired to the main battery disconnect switch. When leaving the boat the owner would set the battery disconnect, or what we commonly refer to as the Perko battery switch, to OFF. This is a common practice and most of us assume that safety systems such as the CO detectors, smoke detectors, stereo preset memory, and bilge pumps are still connected to 12 volts even when the main battery is OFF. That was an easy fix.
This third story is a bit more involved and occurred on a recent trip from the northwest to bring a brand new yacht to San Francisco. When we get onboard any new or used vessel we plan to spend several hours going over the boat. We open every deck hatch to see where the various hoses and thru hull seacocks are located and operate all of the vessel systems to familiarize ourselves with their operation. On this particular vessel we arrived early on a Sunday morning and there was no one from the sales office available to show us around so we did the self-guided tour and played with everything until we were satisfied we knew enough about the boat and how to operate the various systems to safely make a 900-mile coastal voyage. With this particular new vessel the owner had taken delivery of her several weeks earlier and had spent four days cruising around the San Juan Islands while we all waited for the weather along the coast to clear. This provided not only the owner with a good amount of experience operating the vessel it also gave the local office time to repair items that did not operate correctly.
One of the items that experienced issues during the owners’ long weekend and previous to the sale, was the generator. Apparently the start battery would go flat in a short period of time and the generator would not start. I was told that the battery had been replaced and that the generator selector switch was now in the correct position so we should not have any issues with it. This particular electrical design is somewhat unique and although the battery selector has four clearly marked positions, the one we were told was correct was marked DO NOT USE. Hmmmm, not one to accept most things at face value I wanted to know more. Speaking with the salesperson he indicated that the mechanic had spoken directly with the vessel manufacturer and was told to use the DO NOT USE position and that all would be good. Still not willing to accept that explanation I asked for the mechanics phone number. Keep in mind this is Sunday morning and not everyone wants to answer a business call on Sunday morning. Fortunately the mechanic did answer and confirmed he had spoken directly to the production manager at the factory who verified the panel was not marked correctly and that the proper battery selector position was DO NOT USE. OK, I accept that but I have just a few more questions.
If the original complaint was the battery was losing charge in a matter of a few days, did the new battery solve that? The answer was, maybe. The new battery would only hold charge for a few days but after the battery selector switch was put in the DO NOT USE position it was now being charged by the battery charger. Hmmmmm. That sounded odd. Come to find out the battery charger was not connected to the generator battery and the generator has some control electronics that continually put a load on the battery and would discharge the battery fairly quickly. The original intended design was for the operator to put the battery selector switch in the OFF position if you did not want to run the generator and when you did, put the selector in the NORMAL position. The alternator on the generator would charge the start battery when the generator was running. Be sure to return it to OFF when you left the boat or the battery would be drained because the shore power battery charger would not. Hopefully it is all starting to make sense, and I still had a few questions, but time was running short and we needed to get to the fuel dock and top up the tanks before heading south.
The boat ran great for our three-hour run before stopping for fuel. Although we do not always shut down the generator at the fuel dock, for some reason this time we decided to continue running. Fuel topped up, a quick check of the engine room, and we are ready to go. First order of business, start the generator. Hmmm, generator does not start (you probably saw that coming). For the next hour we go through the normal start procedures from the remote panel and the local panel with no luck. Get the manual out to decipher the error code and the indication is that for some reason the starter is not engaging. That was not very helpful so we decided that we really did not need the generator as the boat had an inverter and the only system we would not have would be heat/air and given our next planned fuel stop was in 12 hours where we will be stopping before nightfall for another full load of red #2 in the morning. We can play with the generator more at that time. But one last thought, how about moving the battery selector switch to either the NORMAL or EMERGENCY START position and see if that makes a difference. Nope. Still no joy and so after not much thought we leave the switch in the factory recommended position and said, let’s get the boat moving.
About eleven hours later and near sunset we are still several hours from the harbor when some of the 12 volt systems start acting up. First the 12 volt charger for my phone and iPad quit charging my devices. A short time later the CO detectors started chirping. Then, while we are still trying to determine the cause of the low voltage, and with no warning, the RADAR and navigation systems shut down. To add to the stress no navigation electronics as dark approached, I was concerned that the main engine computers would shut down if the voltage got to low. Checking the engine management systems we see that the engine system voltage is normal. Checking the house power system we find the battery voltage is critically low. A quick look outside and I see that we still have navigation lights, but for how long? Other boats will probably see us, even if we cannot see them.
Although a stressful few hours we make it safely to port and are secured alongside the guest dock. Plugging in to shore power and the battery chargers come on, battery voltage comes up, and we can continue our troubleshooting with the lights on. During the past several hours we have had cell service and have been talking with the mechanics for ideas on what to look for. The generator manufacturer’s warranty service tech will be arriving at 0800 and will attempt to get the generator running. As for the house voltage problem we are on our own for the short term until we locate an electrician tomorrow. Being fairly capable around vessel electrical systems I poke around for a while and finally determine what I believe is the cause of our problems. Wouldn’t you know it all comes back to the DO NOT USE battery switch. Here is what I find. A four position generator battery switch; Position 1 - OFF and pretty self explanatory. Position 2 - NORMAL and just exactly what you think it means. Position 3 - EMERGENCY START and again pretty much what you would think. In this position the generator start battery and the house batteries are in parallel. Good to start the generator and then go back to NORMAL because in this position the shore power battery charger does not charge the batteries but the generator alternator does. If left in this position, neither the house or generator battery would be charged while you are away and remember the generator has the continuous load that will now discharge both house and generator batteries. Position 4 - DO NOT USE, I now know why. In this position the house and generator batteries are in parallel, are charged from the shore power battery charger, but are not charged from the engine alternators. So running with no generator to power the battery charger and the engine alternators disconnected, we were running on battery power only and because I have a habit of leaving lights on even when not in the room, we ran the batteries down to low and critical systems were failing. So what really was the cause? Do not assume that the factory production manager knows everything. Yes the panel was changed, but so was the wiring behind the panel.
What about the generator? The starter motor decided to fail that particular morning. The factory mechanic arrived early Monday as promised and in short order diagnosed the problem. Unfortunately there were no starter motors available anywhere close and we would have to wait in Washington for several days for parts to be delivered and installed. Nope, we have already lost nearly a day so we are heading south without the generator and with the battery selector switch in the OFF position as the factory intended.
You would think that I have learned my lesson about making assumptions; however that is not the case.
I have several more of these stories to share but I would like to hear yours. Have a good story to tell, send me an email. patcarson@yachtsman magazine.com I love a good story and will happily share it. Time for that port and cigar as I wrap up another month of fun on the water. H