Ready to go… maybe not

Ready to go… maybe not

April 17th, 2010  |  by Marilyn  |  Published in Maintenance, Repairs, Ship's Log

Yesterday, we were all set for our first overnight cruise. The engine was running, Van was ready to cast off the docking lines. He was telling me the plan, but I was preoccupied. “Are you listening to me?” he asked. To which I replied “could it be the alternator cannot keep up with the fridge power requirements”? “No” he said. “Then the alternator is not working”. Ugh. Full stop. Blank stares at each other. We tried the switch a couple more times. No change. The battery state indicator still showed a big load from the refrigerator running. The engine RPMs did not change when we toggled the alternator switch. The ammeter on the engine control panel was reading < zero. All bad signs. The alternator was definitely not working.

For a split second, I think we both considering going anyway. We were racing an outgoing tide, and if we waited even just 30 minutes more, we’d run the risk of going aground while heading out our channel into the open waters of the Hood Canal. We’d worked so hard to get to this point of being ready to go – starting with nearly a week earlier:

– The prior Saturday and Sunday, Van was finishing up the holding tank installation (see earlier post.) While he was doing that, I was painting the wallpapered sections of the cabins.

– Monday, Van was still working on the holding tank stuff, while I pressure washed the deck to remove the winter grime.

– Tuesday,  I headed off to Poulsbo to get parts. Then I finished painting. I forget what Van was up to. Maybe installing our new VHF radio that allows a remote mic in the cockpit. We also started cleaning the fresh water tank. We turned on the fridge to see how it works.

– Wednesday, Van got the bilge pump working again. That’s a work-in-progress upgrade, which I’ll report in full once its done. We finished cleaned the fresh water tank. We also started stocking the boat with food, and tidying up so the berth can be slept in, rather than just store tools.

– Thursday, we pulled the chain out on the dock to see how its marked. We’ve got about 250’ all chain rode, with a 45 lb CQR anchor. I vacuumed the chain locker and cleaned the limber holes. We started the engine to run the windlass to pull the chain back on board, so after that Van changed the gearbox oil, which was something the survey said we must do as the oil is frothing from being too thick (50W was used, I think, when it should be 20W).

– Friday – ready to go. Lots of food on board. Engine running, weather and tides checked, trip plan in hand, yea, we’re finally going overnight…

But the alternator is not working! It was working fine yesterday when we ran the engine to use the windlass. What happened?

About 4.5 hours later, after studying Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual and using our handy multimeter to sleuth out our alternator charging circuit , we “flashed the field” to get the excitation circuit to kick start the alternator. Neither Van nor I knew much about the alternator and its charging circuit before this started. Now I can tell you, we have a P-type alternator with an external voltage regulator and an isolator for independent charging of the house and engine starter battery banks. Somehow the excitation circuit had failed, so the alternator was running, but not putting out charge. The likely problem was the switch. We got it going again by momentarily using a 25W test light bulb between the field terminal on the alternator and the positive post on the battery.  After that, we tried the switch several more times, and now the alternator is running as its supposed to. So the alternator is good, the voltage regulator is good, and probably the switch is intermittent and somehow can drain the excitation field. We don’t quite understand, but we do have our handy test light ready if it happens again.

That was bloody hard work. We never could have done it without Nigel Calder’s book explaining what to look for. The electrical wiring on the boat has grown organically through the years. When we first started this sleuthing, we just stared at the mass of wires and held our heads. I did cabin yoga, crawling under the nav station to study the isolator and voltage regulator wiring, while Van did engine room aerobics, climbing over the engine to figure out what was going where. We learned a lot. It felt like trial by fire. At least we were at our home port, and the batteries were nearly fully charged.

So, by the time that lesson was over, it was about 4:15pm. The tide was quite high, and we’re really ready to go. Except we’re knackered. And the wind has died down. We did take the boat out for a couple hours. And then we “cruised” into our homeport and made dinner on the boat for the first time. That was nice. We had planned to spend the night in Kingston on the hook, and today we would be sailing home. Instead, we slept in our own comfy bed last night, and today I’m sitting in front of this computer writing posts. Weather is not so great anyway, so maybe its better to be indoors.

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