Saturday, May 19, 2018

Ding on, Ding Off

A late Wednesday night look at the Thursday weather forecast suggested there was a chance of leaving Marathon and being in No Name Harbor by the weekend. So we got up early, loaded the Ding on deck, uncovered the sail, unshipped the anchor (we store it on top of the anchor bracket so it doesn’t grind on the mooring lines) gladly slipped away from mooring ball S10, stopped by the fuel dock, and motored out into the Hawk Channel. As expected, it was raining when we left. After a while the rain faded away as promised. We were pretty happy to have Marathon off the stern, bow pointed toward a rendezvous with Blowin' In The Wind. The Beast churned happily away, its brand new raw water pump puffing pleasing gouts of water out of the port. It was one of those times when one could not imagine living any other way.

Two hours later the bow was pointed into a dark mass of cloud, rain, and low visibility. Air around the boat throbbed and rumbled while lighting danced off the surface of the water to the south and south east. Airplane drivers have this thing about going through thunderstorms. We don’t. We go over them, around them, run away from them at 500 miles an hour. If one is hanging out at the arrival airport when we get there, we go someplace else for a while. Sometimes we tippy toe our way through a group or line of them, using the onboard radar to pick out alleyways to slip though while avoiding the giants rampaging down the main streets. That was actually one of my favorite parts of being a pro, but woe betide the plane, crew, and passengers if one got it wrong.

I am a sailor now, and different rules apply. Could we keep going and be none the worse for wear? Likely. Boats and airplanes are two different animals surviving in two different environments. Boats go through thunderstorms all the time. It is often hard to avoid when the boat is doing 5 knots, and the storm 20.

Did we need to keep going? In this case the line of storms was closing in at an angle off our starboard side. We had an escape route.

Looking at Deb I said, "This is a really bad idea." Then I turned the boat around.

She called the City Marina to let them know we were heading back. They had not yet checked us out so we gladly picked up the pennant for mooring ball S10 once again. Rig the deck, ship the anchor so it doesn’t grind on the mooring line, cover the sail, launch the Ding.

On the way back to Marathon, Deb noticed that the volt meter on the engine panel was showing just a nudge over 12V while the tach needle lay dead in its gauge. It hasn't been unusual for the tach to die off. After much hashing around the forums, the best bet is the solar panels jack the battery voltage high enough for the alternator regulator to just shut down the alternator. Zero output means zero signal for the tach. Since it is likely that the regulator on this boat is so old that the people who built it had never even heard of "solar power", that isn't a surprise. The idea that this is considered "normal" bugs the snot out of me. This is some old tech trying to live with new tech, and it is an uneasy relationship.

This time the voltage dropped to near 12.0 yet the alternator was still not on line. That means a wonk.

It would be hard to explain the troubleshooting done so far, partly because I am somewhat baffled by what we have found. Somewhere along the line someone installed a new, 75 amp Balmar alternator. But they didn't buy a new Belmar regulator to go with it. Instead we found an "Heart Interface Incharge" regulator. (Actually we found two, one in the spare parts box.) So, was that the original unit and they were saving a few bucks? Who would do that when coughing up the money for the Balmar? If it was original, would a regulator designed for a 55 amp unit work on a 75 amp unit? I've never looked into it. Maybe it would. But, again, why do that?

Was the "Incharge" bought with the Balmar? If so, why? Save a few bucks again? Why buy two? Did they have that little faith in the thing? And is the "spare" really a spare? It looks all new and shiny, complete with a new harness...but who knows? While digging through the paperwork we found that the "Incharge" is designed specifically to keep the tach running when the when the alternator output voltage drops. Is this another wonk, or just new tech overrunning old? For all of this it is still likely that the alternator is toast. It is an old unit as well, and has already been overhauled at least once.

If we end up replacing the alternator a new Balmar is likely out of a reasonable price range. Particularly if a Balmar regulator gets thrown into the package. But will some other unit fit in the mount? What size drive pulley will come with it and what size belt will it take? We are hanging on a mooring ball near the end of the nation's supply chain, and right now there are a lot more questions than there are answers. Normal for the marine industry, I know. But it gets tiring sometimes.

There is no choice but to keep trying. Eventually Kintala and Blowin' In The Wind will be in the same place at the same time. And, when that happens, it will hard to imagine living any other way.


Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

I'm hoping you folks have some fairly beefy lightning protection. Maybe copper cable with direct route to plate on hull below mast step? Florida seems to be the lightning capitol of America.

Robert Salnick said...

Chances are that a standard automotive alternator will take the same belt and have the same pulley. But be careful: I have seen some automotive alternators with regulators as high as 16V - that’s enough to damage sensitive electronics

TJ said...

Jeffrey, I suspect that Kintala's lightning protection is sub-optimal. But, if we take a hit, I'm not likely to beat myself up much about not making it better. I fixed a lot of boats over the last two years that had good lightning protection, and it didn't seem to make much difference when they got stroked. I think there is some validity to the idea that "lightning protection" mostly serves to make your boat the most lightning attractive boat in the mooring field. And I also wonder, at least when it comes to the electronics, if the EMP with a lighting hit isn't doing most of the damage. Either way storms are much more worrying on the boat than they ever were in an airplane.

Robert, we are still working our way through the system; it is going a bit slow simply because I am fearfully lacking enthusiasm at the moment. Just taking off the engine covers...again...and probing around with a volt meeter...again...feels like working though molasses. But it appears ever more likely that it is the alternator that is the problem. The one we have coming is a marine unit, just not a Belmar. I simply can't swallow the price on one of those new right now. An absolutely ridiculous amount of money for something as basic as an alternator.

s/v Sionna said...

Ah, you folks can’t seem to catch a break! Have to agree with your assessment of lightning risks, too. Bonded or not, the statistics don’t seem to indicate a notable difference.
Funny that you and I had the same tack regarding TRW avoidance in aircraft. Getting it right was always a good feeling, kinda fun, actually. I can honestly say I never got it “wrong” - but there were a couple tense minutes...

TJ said...

I got it wrong a couple of times, mostly early on when I was a night freight driver and learning my trade. A lot of that was single pilot work back then, if you didn't take a trip it was likely the boss would replace you with someone who would. Airplanes were insured and pilots were expendable.

"Did you check the weather?"

"Naw, we are going anyway."

That wasn't a was an actual conversation I had more than once. We called it, "Flying thought the ugh." And paid for it once in a while as well. It wasn't always thunderstorms. One night it was a Beach 99 in snow, ice, low visibility, a howling wind, and not enough fuel. We ended up doing a zero-zero ILS in Reading PA with the fuel gauges reading "E" and all of the low fuel warning lights on. We got down and stopped, pretty sure we were still on the runway because there was a light off each wingtip...but that was all we could see. The tower sent a snow plow out to find us and lead us in. I have no idea why the engines kept running until we got to the ramp. We fueled up, filed a new flight plan, and launched back into that mess because the airplane was needed for a flight that morning. Just one story out of dozens. I have no need for that kind of excitement any more.

pfrymier1 said...

Wow. You must be cursed! We did get to our charter in the Exumas last week. We went from New Providence to Staniel Cay and back over 10 days. We crossed paths around Warderick Wells with Robert and Rhonda and thought we'd missed them, but they got held up at Palm Cay Marina where we started from and were at the fuel dock to meet us when we returned. Well, actually a few minutes after we got to the fuel dock which was lucky because that was one ugly docking attempt. A lot of wind at the stern and $$ boats at close quarters. Gave up after getting blown crosswind in the entrance several times and motored further in. They sent a staff member in a dinghy to back it all the way out the marina to the fuel dock. It was embarrassing how easy he made it look. Another boat that had come in earlier hit the dock pretty hard with the bow, putting a sizable dent in the 2 inch dock planks. They got a bow dock line on it but the wind caught the stern and it flipped around at the dock and it ended up pointed the wrong way around. If there had been another boat downwind at the dock they would creamed it. The other boaters that we told our story to asked "Did you hit anything?". When we answered "No", they mostly said, "Then it was a good docking". It is hard to get good at something you only do once a year though. I've logged 100s (1000s?) of hours underway in dinghies and small sailboats but they don't require much skill in the way of docking...

Hope you are underway soon.

pfrymier1 said...

Just looked up the price of a Balmar alternator. Good Lord! Is it wound with gold?
Boat maintenance is a bit like casino gambling, you can bet big or small and if you are lucky, you can win some in the short run. But in the long run, the bank percentage is going to ensure that they get it all.