I am convinced that the key to pleasurable long-distance ocean sailing has nothing to do with sails or hull design or reading the winds and currents. Rather, it is the ability to keep 12 measly volts of electricity moving through myriad colorful wires in a damp and vibrating little world. These 12 volts in turn are asked to maintain the life of enormously sensitive and magical devices that seem to work best in boat-show tents. Many otherwise intelligent and normal people spend much of their lives, and far too much money, in the exercise of keeping electrons moving and devices glowing in this hostile environment.
What’s the best strategy for addressing this challenge? Ensure that at least one of the crew is an electrical engineer — preferably three or four. I say this having had to replace numerous alternators, regulators, batteries, isolators, diodes, central processing units, circuit-breaker boxes, etc., usually in remote locations and always with local electricians who can’t understand why my boat was wired the way it was and who strongly suggest a wholesale revamping. I say this having had to place several hour-long phone calls to a British gentleman, long ago retired to Florida, who designed one set of instruments and was the only living person in the free world who could help me make those things light up: “As I recall, the brown wire goes to the 3 post, the pink wire to the 7 post.”
We found this out when five of us on Panther, my 1981 Sparkman & Stephens Swan 47 centerboard, found ourselves exactly halfway between Bermuda and the Azores, on our way to Europe, with no electrons moving anywhere. No juice on that boat meant no radio, no propane (solenoid switch), no lights, no navigational instruments, no refrigeration, and no engine — because, to my shock, I realized that it employed an electric fuel pump. However, the clear winner on the list of the most-missed items was the absence of hot coffee. We had seven pounds of Starbucks onboard.
In a nutshell, this is the classic yachting story of adding state-of-the-art gadgets on an à-la-carte basis — gadgets that don’t necessarily work well together or even fit in the boat. We replaced the leaky but reliable old engine with a new diesel. After careful study before our voyage, we also installed a very powerful (150-amp) alternator and a so-called state-of-the-art phased voltage regulator that even sensed the temperature of the batteries.
“We still live on our boat, my boys and I. We are at Goat Island Marina, where they let us take showers and do our laundry,” Ordynskaia said in an interview in mid-September. Numerous organizations rallied behind the family, including Oldport Marine, which has provided free water-taxi service, and the Seamen’s Church Institute, which is providing Ordynskaia with phone, fax and email service. A friend lent the use of his cell phone. Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)
Our initial problem was the refusal of the engine to start when it was hot. It was not until we reached Malta that a curious electrician found that wires were either the wrong size or too close to the engine block, and when hot, they wouldn’t provide enough voltage for the starter solenoid. Squeezing a big engine in a small place no doubt caused this problem. But this had been a minor inconvenience on our way across &mdash we simply waited an hour or so for the engine to cool.
We tied together several big six-volt golf-cart batteries that gave us more than enough amp-hours. But when the batteries were low, they put a tremendous initial demand on the alternator and, in turn, on the alternator belt. Notwithstanding all our efforts &mdash and some of them were hilariously creative &mdash we couldn’t keep the belt from slipping. (We brought four belts, of various sizes, but none of them held consistently.) So in addition to a horrible screaming sound, we were sending surges of electricity through the fancy multi-phase voltage regulator. We think that may have knocked it out. Maybe not &mdash it could have been any number of things. Even with a crewman with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics studying the complicated manual for troubleshooting this device, we couldn’t get it to work. We could discern from the miniature blinking lights what the cause might be, but there was no way to work on the computer-age circuitry with normal boat tools in a pitching sea. Left to its own, the device would now and then dribble a few volts to the battery bank; occasionally, it sent more than 15. I had brought along another regulator of the same make, but we hesitated to install it without knowing what had disabled the first one.
We knew the alternator worked when the belt wasn’t slipping, so we somehow needed to control the juice so we didn’t fry the batteries. I was overcome by hopelessness, but to the crew it was perfectly obvious what to do. They first hard-wired our hand-held voltage meter to the battery bank to ensure that we were getting accurate readings of the charging current. Then they ran a line from the alternator’s field terminal and the battery’s positive terminal. With experimentation, they found that adding just the right amount of resistance in that line &mdash in the form of a pair of vise grips and a small light bulb &mdash supplied the right excitation to the alternator and in turn the right voltage output to the batteries. Remarkably, it worked. We were able to keep the current in the range that the batteries could tolerate, as long as we kept the belt tight and an eye on the voltage meter. (We didn’t think this up ourselves; it’s in Nigel Calder’s excellent book, Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual.) With this system in place, we could operate the gadgets on the boat pretty much as usual, including calls home on our Inmarsat mini-M, and our invaluable conversations with Herb Hilgenberg in Canada about the weather on our route.
But there were some serious drawbacks: To ensure that the current didn’t get out of control (remember, the alternator belt was still slipping, so the current was still variable) someone had to sit on the floor of the cabin and stare at the hard-wired meter whenever the engine was on. It also meant that we often kept the engine cover off and several floorboards open, so we could hear and smell any sudden problem. Attempting to sleep below while the batteries were being charged reminded one of battle scenes in the great German submarine movie Das Boot.
As you might imagine, we were thrilled to see the westernmost of the Azores, Flores, emerge from the ocean one beautiful dawn. After a day exploring this unspoiled spot, we sailed the 135 miles to Horta, on Faial, the traditional stopping point for yachts making a trans-Atlantic passage in these latitudes. Horta is a fascinating place, and anyone who enjoys ocean sailing should have the thrill of making landfall there.
From several hundred miles out, we had been able to send off a couple of emails via our mini-M to Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services on Horta, and they promptly replied that they would be ready to help us. When we got there, they confirmed that our alternator and regulator were top-of-the-line (i.e., complicated), and as was true of all the establishments we encountered in Europe, there was no inventory of replacement parts had we wanted to change them. (A word to the wise regarding repairs in the Azores: MAYS is the place, and the demand is enormous in the summer. I arrived at their little office at 0800 and waited for the opening at 1000. By that time, there were easily 20 in line, some with calamities on their hands.)
The experienced MAYS electrician said he had no idea how to fix the fancy regulator, but confirmed that indeed it was dead. Under his supervision, we carefully checked the conductivity of all the wires and tightened all the connections in the boat. We replaced some wires. We realigned the alternator pulley. We installed the new regulator, and we put on a new Portuguese fan belt that we found by scrounging around the back of an auto repair shop in Horta. It all worked, on the tough 900-nm trip to Lisbon, on our trip into the Mediterranean, during the Swan Regatta in Sardinia, and through a three-month circumnavigation of the Med, but not 10 minutes passed without someone wondering when the whole thing would die.
I will continue to sail to far-away places, and I will continue to be confused by and stand in awe of electricity. But I have changed my ways somewhat as a result of all the problems that I have had over the years. I try to keep it simple, or at least less complicated. I try to use equipment that the boat manufacturer chose for the boat. It is better to have devices that are being used by a lot of other people &mdash and that presumably have been worked on by a number of people. (Think of all the alternators and regulators on Honda Accords that happily run each day.) And I like to be able to call the factory and ask questions without having to make an international call, or learning Finnish, even though I loved that Swan dearly, and the manufacturer was very responsive.
I have a Sabre 402 now, and I am quite happy with the straightforward electrical system. Even though I know I could charge batteries a lot faster with a bigger alternator and a fancier regulator, I stand a good chance of finding parts for my system in most little coastal villages. I use plain vanilla 12-volt batteries and carry a $20 Dodge truck voltage regulator as a backup. And yes, I still try to have an electrical engineer onboard.
Jim Rogers is a retired lawyer who lives on Chesapeake Bay in a little town about 12 miles south of Annapolis, Md.