Captain Arnie on Repairing Sea Mist at Sea
On the third day of our mini-adventure, the wind piped down, but the seas are still pretty steep. We turn to try to make a perpendicular intersection of the Gulf Stream. The water temperature increases as we enter the stream. Golden tufts of sargasso seaweed dot the waves floating on the current. The stream is an underwater highway and we are trying to cross the road. Even the waves take on a deep blue tint, a noticeable difference from the gray green color. The wind is still blowing 15-20 knots from the north and with wind against the current some of the seas are steep. We ride up and down the big blue walls of ocean swell meeting the stream. The boat sails well and rides the waves like a champ. The sea is less confused now as the wind has slowly started to abate. The low we have been battling is finally moving off to the East. We keep a slightly more southerly course to make a cleaner passage across the stream, but it is pulling us to the East. That’s okay as we need to go east as well as south, so we are actually making good way toward our destination in the British Virgin Islands even while we are in the stream. After around 5 hours the temperature of the water starts to go down a little. We have transited the access of the stream and are through the strongest current. We will still feel the affects for hours, but we are definitely making our way across.
Gradually, the steepest of the waves secede and the sea is less confused and looking more like a big rolling ocean swell. From the tops of the swell you can see for miles. In the troughs you can only see the back of the next wave. The sailing is really spectacular and the winds are diminishing now, it is more like 10-15 with occasional gusts to 20. I even see single digits for a brief moment in a lull for the first time during this trip. We take down the Yankee and Staysail and pull out the Genoa and are clipping along on a broad reach right down the rhumb line. We are consistently doing more than 6 knots and occasionally hitting speeds in the high sevens and even low eights. Even in the stiff breezes of the storm we made good time, 195 miles in the first day with only a staysail and mizzen up. Things are going well, the autopilot seems to be working after the repair, although it does make an unnerving clicking noise every once in a while.
The only issue is that the batteries don’t seem to be charging very well. Running the instruments including the plotter, the autopilot and the running lights at night seem to be drawing down the house bank. We have a separate starting battery, so it is not that worrisome, but it still seems a bit odd. The batteries are all new gel cells, yet the alternator does not seem to be charging them properly. We run the engine for 30 minutes, and then longer, at every watch change to keep the charge up, but it is not working. Come morning we will need to trouble shoot it. The alternator was replaced this summer and the belts have been an issue, although were supposed to have been dialed in by a mechanic before we left. I wonder if the regulator could be messed up as we only seem to be charging at like 20 amps or less which is barely keeping up with what we are running.
Come morning we are seriously low on power with the house bank reading a little over 10-volts. We check the belt and the pulley is turning but the belt seems to be wearing still with black dust coming off it from where it just barely touches the bolt that holds the alternator on. It appears reasonably tight, but I suspect it is too loose. We tension the belt but it just does not seem to be working and we can’t figure out why. As we run the engine further we break the first of our four belts.
We now have to remove the belt from the fridge compressor, work the new belt on and reassemble the whole apparatus. After adjusting it we run it and it seems better, outputting like 45amps at first. We run the engine for a few hours to recharge the batteries, but after a while the amperage drops back to like 20 amps again. We shut it down and sail for a while. Later in the day our voltage is dropping again so we crank her up and it sounds funny, belt screeching and engine revving high. We shut her down and try to tension the belt again. We have very limited tools aboard and only one socket wrench which makes the job more difficult. Tom is feeling better now and explains how “the best mechanic in the yard went through the whole engine before we left.” Seeing as it is not working properly now, this is little consolation.
I remove the tensioning bolt and the arm that it is bolted to is so wide it is bending the washers. We ask Tom where the spare parts are like washers. There are none. I start looking around the boat for suitable washers that I can pirate. I dismantle and reassemble a few non-critical components for their washers and lock washers. Pete and I put the alternator back on and I am cranking down on the tensioning bolt. I don’t want it to slip again so it has to be tight. I crank on it one more time and bust the head off the bolt. I instantly know I made a big mistake. Now we are in trouble. I ask Tom if we have any nuts and bolts, but I already know the answer. There are none! I lecture Tom about how can you go to sea on a boat with minimal tools and no spare parts? He feels bad and so do I, but that is not going to fix the alternator. I also kick myself for not checking things more thoroughly before we left. It is my fault too. We had days in Newport and I should have inventoried the boat spares (or lack thereof) and gone to the hardware store and set the boat up right. I now scour the boat for a ½ inch bolt that will fit the alternator. It looks like there is one holding the Racor bracket together. I dismantle it and steal the bolt. I use a hose clamp to hold the Racor bracket in place. (Hey at least we have hose clamps.) The bolt fits! We are back in business. We try to charge between watches but it still isn’t running right. When the belt slips the RPM’s don’t even show up on the tach. Later in the day the belt breaks again. I did not tension it tight enough worrying that I would break the bolt and it must have slipped.
As I examine the alternator more carefully I discover the source of the problem. The alternator can’t swing full out as the top of its casing hits the heat exchanger of the engine. I wonder if this alternator can ever be adjusted properly? We check our remaining belts and find there is a shorter one that is supposed to be for the fridge. It is not quite as beefy as the other belt, but we need the shorter length in order to tension it without running up against the other engine component. We try to adjust the bracket arm itself and then tension it as far as it can go cranking away at the tensioning bolt. This time I don’t break it. I am not sure I have another bolt so I have to be careful. There are a few more bolts on the Racor, but they have nuts on the back of them and our adjustable wrench wont fit in there to hold the nuts so I am not sure if I can get them off. Hopefully this latest fix will work. We crank up the engine and it seems to be working. The amperage is still only like 50 amps, better than 20 and the best we have seen so far. Let’s hope it holds. We run the engine for like 4 hours and do manage to get a good charge. We continue sailing and soon it is evening.
At around 0200 I come up on deck the wind is negligible. Pete is on watch and the boat is floundering back and forth with sails flogging. We are barely making 4 knots with all sails up and less than 8 knots of wind. The lulls get longer, the breeze is dying. I am supposed to take over the watch at 3am so I try hand steering. I can hold it for a bit but in the lulls we just flog around and are moving less than 3 knots. Soon there is no wind. Pete and I furl in the Genoa and crank up the engine. It just does not seem to be charging right. The belt makes a screeching sound and then it breaks. We shut her down and are becalmed. I can’t really deal with another alternator repair in the middle of the night. I am not sure it really can be fixed properly because of the bracket hitting metal to metal on the other part of the engine. Pete goes to bed and I try to sail until morning and then figure it in the daylight. At first I can keep her on course and moving slightly but after less than an hour we are just drifting with our sails up. I shut down all the electronics and lash the wheel. I look at the stars and keep watch for ships. The thought of drifting out here like an old time sailor waiting for the wind tortures me. I am seriously concerned about other things breaking and our lack of tools, hardware and rigging. During the day we inspected the rig and George discovered that a shackle from the topping lift of the main sail had fallen off. Tom told us where his spares were but there were no decent size shackles there. The shackle we used we had to take off another spare fall and was seriously undersized. If we break something in the rig we may not be able to repair it with what we have on board. With no engine even a minor rigging failure could be catastrophic. We have also been seriously delayed in our departure and with Thanksgiving coming up, scheduling becomes another issue to consider. We need to get the engine/alternator going.
Dawn breaks and we are still becalmed. Tom takes over on watch and tries to steer the boat but we are not moving. “We are pointing the wrong direction.” He points out. I am in a foul mood. I stare at the alternator down below trying to will it back to life while I figure out a plan. “Look Tom you can turn the wheel all you want but it is like driving your car inside the garage.” I shout up from the companionway in what I am sure was not the nicest way. “We are not moving so it does not matter. Just keep watch for ships.” I am frustrated. The lack of tools and spare parts is also making me angry. Partially because Tom should have known better but mostly because I should have known better! There is no excuse I should have checked the spares before we left the dock.
So Peter and I try once again to fix the alternator. That is when I see what the latest problem is. We have cracked the bracket that holds the alternator on to the engine. I knew that not having the washer in the right place might cause a problem but I did not really expect this. Now I am wondering if I messed it up beyond repair. We have no choice we must now put on our last short belt and try to rig the alternator so that the tension from the arm pressures the broken fitting. Ironically because the bracket is cracked I am able to easily get the washer back in the correct spot and tension down the pivot point. We now scour the boat for nuts and bolts. We use pliers to pressure the nuts as I remove the last two bolts off the Racor filter. We use cotter pins and wire ties to hold the Racor in place. I remove a bolt from the head but it is too long. We get our final bolt from a fold down step in the companionway. Now we triple pin the alternator in place, threading some of the bolts into the alternator bracket and thru-bolting the others. Carefully we lever it so that it is around an eighth of an inch from the metal on one side and an eighth of an inch from the bolt that previously chafed off our belts on the other side. I carefully line up the head of the bolt so that the hex head is angled exactly parallel to the belt. This repair has taken hours. It is now around mid day. We have been drifting around since 3 am.
Peter and I look at each other and then call up on deck. “Crank her up!” the engine whirls to life and the belt is turning nicely. I check the gauges and we are charging at over 70 amps! This repair is definitely working, but for how long? We are also down to our last belt. We watch the belt for a bit and it does not appear to be chafing. Our alternator is only physically attached to the engine by a bolt pinned through a cracked bracket but it is wedged in tight by our multiple pinning of the lever arm. We’ll see.
We chart our position and start making some calculations. We are over 950 nautical miles from Tortola, our intended destination. We are around 300 nautical miles from Beaufort, North Carolina. We are still slightly North of and 330 miles mostly west of Bermuda. I go up on deck to discuss our situation with the guys. My gut tells me it is not prudent to continue on to the BVIs with the jury-rigged alternator. George brought a battery operated GPS so we should be able to use that for general navigation. We have two sat-phones I borrowed and can use them for emergency communication. We can shut them off when not in use to preserve their battery life. I am sure that we could make it but I am equally sure that we should consider other options. What if we have a rigging failure and can’t fix it? No engine and limited sailing capabilities could be catastrophic.
I ask Tom if he still wants to take the boat to the islands for the winter. If he wants to give up and stay in the states then we should turn back for the Carolinas. He tells me he wants to continue on and I am relieved to hear it in a way. Backtracking off Cape Hatteras and re-crossing the Gulf Stream in order to get to the east coast of the U.S. seems like a bad idea especially when we very likely will be without power. Bermuda seems like the best solution. We can land in Bermuda and make repairs.
We are around a day out of Bermuda when the wind comes up again. Slowly at first it continues to build. It starts from the SE which is roughly the direction we are going but starts to swing further to the South. The repair holds and we finally shut her down and start sailing. With only the occasional swell from the northeast and a nice breeze on the beam, we sail on toward Bermuda. This is what we came for! I hand steer my watch as does George, tweaking the sails to get the most speed out of the rig. It really is beautiful flying along before the wind with full sails drawing nicely. We sail all day and the 7 knots we are making will put us into Bermuda in the evening. A glorious sunset behind us, we clip on under moonlit skies. Standing off the reef we angle in and finally make our turn toward the St. George’s cut. The motor works flawlessly as we navigate the myriad of buoys and the narrow channel. We clear customs and tie along the wall. We made it to Bermuda!
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