Just 10 minutes prior to the start of this past summer’s Marion (Mass.) to Bermuda Race, while David Roblin, skipper of Lullaby, was angling for a good position over the line, shouts of “Fire down below!” jolted him from his thoughts. Indeed, gray smoke was pouring from the companionway, and the stench of burning wiring pervaded the cockpit. Roblin leapt below, saw an orange glow coming from the battery-selector switch behind the electrical panel and, after tearing the panel away from the bulkhead, extinguished the blaze with a blast from a portable canister.
Upon inspection, Roblin and his crew discovered that the wiring on the panel’s batteries were melted to a pool of plastic. The vessel had no electrical power. Coughing and sputtering, Roblin retreated to the deck to talk the situation over with his friends — only to discover that they had piloted the vessel across the start line, second in class. Should they continue with the race? They unrolled the jib, poled it out for the downwind run out Buzzards Bay, and then Roblin and crew Martin Purser ducked below for an assessment.
“One look was enough to realize that we had some severe damage,” Roblin wrote in an email message. “We had a beer while we reviewed the situation.” The men ransacked the spares locker and were pleasantly surprised to discover numerous parts, including lengths of battery cable, a spare selector switch and battery terminals. They would continue to race.
“As the wiring cooled down, we began to remove the melted battery cables, wiring and harnesses. Since time was running against us, our main focus was to (repair) much-needed nav lights and instruments before nightfall,” Roblin said. By 1700, the lights were working. They then turned their attention to the melted selector switch. Using heavy-duty rigging cutters, Roblin and Purser cut new wiring and, using a propane torch, removed the terminal lugs from the burnt cables. They soaked the blackened terminals in the galley’s “finest balsamic vinegar” and then soldered and crimped them to the new cables.
By 2100, the crew had “reconnected and restored power to all the panels and were up and running again.” However, the engine wouldn’t start, which meant Lullaby’s batteries could not be charged. Roblin opened the engine box with trepidation, and his fears were justified: “All I could see was the burnt-out cables and wiring on the port side of the engine!”
The following day, their house batteries fading, the crew rewired the engine and again tried to start it. No luck. The next day, Sunday, Roblin removed the starter and found its innards melted. With not a little satisfaction, he rooted through his spares locker, remembering his last purchase in New England — a new starter. “With dwindling battery power and with fingers crossed, we risked starting the engine and hey, presto! It worked,” Roblin said. “So off the engine went, charging the batteries for some two hours before some residual, unseen problems caused the new starter to blow apart.”
By now, Roblin admitted that he and his crew were “wired out and fixed out” and decided to concentrate on sailing the boat and catching up on rest. Lullaby crossed the finish line in darkness on Tuesday night to win its class. “We decided after all this that to stop now would be silly.” Roblin, whose home is in Bermuda, kept sailing, tacking his way into Hamilton through the reefs of North Shore, “a hard beat all the way to Dockyard.”
At 0230 Wednesday morning, Lullaby’s crew dropped anchor 400 yards to the west of Whites Island.