Making All Systems Work

Jun 05, 2008| 0 Comment

Friday, May 30th – Leaving Canoe Cove, we set sail, and sail we did! In the beautiful Pacific Northwest, occupants of sailing vessels count themselves blessed if there is wind enough to raise sail in the less windy summer months. If there is also sun, then they are doubly blessed. Well aware of our good fortune and with our brand new sails shining in the sun, we sail happily to Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. Our first order of business is to clear US Customs. The special Work Permit that Avante had had for her winter in Canada requires us to clear back into the US before cruising further.


Roche Harbor is one of our favorite spots even though The First Mate curses the strong currents that run through the harbor which can make tying up to the docks a challenging experience. The old buildings along the shore painted a pristine white make the harbor a picturesque place.


Last August in a line up of boats all waiting to get to the Customs dock and with what felt like the whole world watching, The First Mate had made a mess of docking with the bow swinging so far out that The Captain had quite a tugging match getting Avante back in to the dock. This time The First Mate’s docking maneuver is perfect. After clearing Customs, we call the harbormaster for a temporary tie-up so we can go ashore to walk around a bit. Motoring to the temporary dock, she gently stops Avante right next to it, so all The Captain has to do is step off the boat with a line. She receives a “well done”, and that’s enough to make her day!


Roche Harbor is a popular tourist spot with the Hotel de Haro brightly dominating a commanding harbor view. The hotel’s gardens are ablaze with lilacs.


In the 1800’s, the McMillan family ran a limestone mining operation on the island and for a time was the largest employer in the area. Years pass, economic needs change, family lines fade away, and nothing remains the same. The offices of the Limestone operation are now a well-stocked grocery store to which we head for wine and fish for tonight’s dinner.


Shopping completed, we untie and head across to anchor in Reid Harbor. Our favored spot is below a house whose owners once gave us two very nice crabs just taken out of their crab pots. That was nine years ago when we were up here on a bare-boat charter vacation. We had offered to pay this nice couple for the crabs, but they assured us that they already had a freezer full of crabs. Wow! A freezer full! Now you can see why trapping crabs is so important to The First Mate. There is a bounty of crabs out here — somewhere — just waiting to be caught!

This evening begins the first of what is to become a series of quirky system failures that hits us or, more rightly speaking, hits The Captain. Systems on boats do not like not being used, and Avante’s systems are a year older and were dormant for the winter. Seals dry out, lubricating oil pools at the bottom, wires and electrical connections corrode, and metal rusts. None of this is good!

Our Westerbeke Generator had checked out perfectly when it was tested before leaving the marina, but now, though it runs, it is not putting out electrical power. Without power from the generator, we are limited in electric power use by our battery capacity. The Captain pulls out the manual for the Generator, but this manual spends 95% of its content covering the diesel engine that powers the generator and says almost nothing about the electrical side. The contents of the port aft cabin are pulled out to enable access to the Generator compartment, and the cumbersome sound dampener that covers the Generator is removed. Tests are made. Except for its refusal to provide electrical power, the Generator appears to be working perfectly. Finally, a well-hidden on/off switch for the electrical output is found. There is no mention of it anywhere in the manual. The Captain surmises that, somehow in replacing the thick, heavy noise insulation cover over the Generator back in Canoe Cove, the little switch must have been knocked to the off position. The switch is turned on. The Westerbeke Generator is back on line.


Sunday, June 1st – Sailing back into Canadian waters, we raise our Q flag and clear Customs at Bedwell Harbor on South Pender Island. We anchor below a luxury resort with the romantic name of Poet’s Cove. After we stop, The Captain notes that the charge on the batteries is low, but reasons that we had not run the engine enough. Since running the engine powers an alternator which charges the batteries, only running for an hour at relatively low speeds was not enough to charge them up.


Both of us recall the time two years ago when The Captain shooed The First Mate and son, David, off the boat to go climb Mt. Norman while he dug around and replaced a malfunctioning water pump. The First Mate fondly remembers the hike with David. This time, with nothing amiss, she suggests that we go on this hike, for the view from the top overlooking the islands is impressive.


We do just that, enjoying a wonderful late afternoon climb to the top. Sitting in the afternoon sun, taking in the view, is a treat.


Below us, a large freighter is making the turn around Turn Point to head south in Haro Strait. This is a major shipping route with Boundary Pass on one side of Stuart Island and Haro Strait on the other. From our lofty view, we are surprised at how clearly we can see the tide rips from the converging currents.


It is so pleasant sitting here in the last of the warm afternoon sun that we are reluctant to head back down Mt. Norman to Avante. This afternoon will rank up there as one of our nicest in the Gulf Islands.



That is –until we return to The Dingbat where the recalcitrant beast decides to act up, even on The Captain. He almost breaks the pull cord on the motor trying to start it. It appears to be seriously binding. Not being able to pull out that cord is her frequent wimpy complaint, but when he can’t pull it, then we know there’s a problem. Fortunately, he does get it started, and we head back to Avante where some tweaks and oil eventually resolve this issue which is probably just a result of not being used for a while. How nice to have something respond to a quick, simple fix!

Monday, June 2nd – We head to one of our most favorite island stops – Ganges Harbor on Salt Spring Island. This is where The First Mate will do the bulk of her shopping for next 10 days’ journey to Desolation Sound and the Broughton Archipelago. There are also a few other stores she wants to visit one last time. She is ready! On the way in, we drop our crab trap (did anyone think she had forgotten about this activity?) with high hopes, as we see other floating markers of crab traps out there. The wind is up when we anchor and having had some difficulty in the past getting a good anchor set in this harbor, we decide to stay on the boat for a while until the wind drops as is expected.

Once again, The Captain is bothered by the charge on the batteries. We only ran the engine for an hour today, and that does not appear to be enough. Also, he considers that these batteries are probably 8 years old and may not be charging as newer ones would. The system bodes watching. In the meantime, we start the Westerbeke Generator and keep it running until the batteries show a full charge.

When we finally arrive at Mrs. Clean’s Laundromat where the showers are located, we are half an hour before closing. Only one shower is operational, and that is questionable. The coin-operated water meter is broken. But – never fear – they have by-passed the machine. Instead of inserting a coin, the person about to enter the shower, who is standing there on a wet floor, is to press on this electrical wire which then makes the connection that turns on the water. The water runs for about a minute (if one is lucky) and then stops, leaving the person, now dripping wet and standing in water, with no option but to hit this wire again, hoping all the time that there is no electrical current going to flow from that wire through his/her body. The First Mate does not like this set-up at all, but not having much time to spare, The Captain pulls her into the shower room with him. She is sure we have given the three dread-locked kids, standing around doing nothing, something to talk about for the rest of the day. “You’ll never guess what this old geezer and old lady did! In the shower, they went together. Wow, man.” Or, maybe à la James Bond, we are two sexy international spies about to trade secrets. Oh, well, let ‘em talk. We take our showers and do not get electrocuted. He exits the shower. She follows a stealthy five minutes later. To her disappointment, the dread-locked kids are long gone having lost interest in her imagined romantic tryst or potential international plotting. Of course, there is no electric outlet anywhere to plug in her hair dryer, so she plants her baseball cap with “Avante” lettering firmly on her wet head, and off she goes to the grocery store before it, too, closes. What strange things one will do when living on a boat that one would never do anywhere else ever!

Tuesday, June 3rd – A fine rain is falling. We decide that while she is doing the laundry on shore, he is going to get the watermaker operational. He did not want to run the watermaker in the relatively dirty water in the marina, and it is the only system that he has not checked out since the boat was put back in the water. Upon her return, The Captain is deep in the bowels of the port lazarette working on that water maker. Pump runs. Everything seems fine, except that he cannot get the suction going. Out comes the manual for that system. It is well into the afternoon before the watermaker is finally making water. It’s a bit like a hospital post-operation scene. When the patient “makes water”, the patient may leave the hospital. Except we decide not to leave for anywhere right now. It is late, cold and raining.

Wednesday, June 4th – Under heavy overcast and with nary a breath of wind, we motor out of Ganges Harbor. We had had 3 full days of fine sailing before arriving here, and just to keep us from becoming too cocky, Mother Nature has a series of low fronts coming down from the Gulf of Alaska for the next few days. We pick up our crab trap with great expectancy. This trap has been down there for almost 2 days. It has got to be full with the bounty of crabs out there. We haul in two beautiful Dungeness Crabs – both female. So back they go into the Great Blue to reproduce as they should. (The First Mate does enjoy the fact that in the world of Crabs, male crabs are deemed redundant and expendable.) We console ourselves with the fact that we at least did catch crabs, and that’s a monumental improvement over our first efforts last year.

We are heading back to Canoe Cove. It might be reasonable to ask why we are heading south to Canoe Cove when our plan is to head north and circumnavigate Vancouver Island. North Sails, the maker of our beautiful new sails, had failed to give us the correct battens. Battens are long, flexible shafts that slide into pockets in the sail. They help hold the intended shape of a sail and decrease flutter. North Sails supplied both the mainsail and its matching battens. Why the wrong battens were sent is a puzzle, and, of course, it was not until the sails were installed on the boat and the battens about to be slid into place that The Captain discovered that there was a problem. There are five battens of graduated lengths for the mainsail. Only three fit. One was too short, and one was too wide to fit into the device that attaches it to the mast. Out came the cell phone, but it was Memorial Day back in the USA, and businesses were closed. Finally, he was able to contact a North Sails service representative at home. The rep explained how the wide batten is used for strength, but that North Sails should have trimmed the end of that batten to fit. Could this be done up here? It does require a specific type of machine tool. There is no such tool in the boat yard, but The Captain finds a place that can trim the batten. He drives off with the 20 foot long batten and returns within the hour with it properly trimmed. It was an easy fix for the too wide batten, but not so for the other batten which was 16 inches too short. No way to lengthen it. North Sails promised to express ship the correct size batten the next day.

Let’s think about this shipping: San Diego to Sidney, BC through Canadian Customs. Expedited shipping just is not going to happen. It is anybody’s guess as to how long this will take. As the batten had not arrived by the time we were ready to leave Canoe Cove, we decided to take off rather than sitting around waiting for it to appear. This batten has finally arrived, and that is why we are heading back to Canoe Cove.

The replacement batten is installed, and it fits correctly. So off we go to Montague Harbor on Galiano Island. This will be our last stop in the Gulf Islands before heading north. On our way into Montague Harbor, we drop the crab trap in a convenient spot to be picked up on our northerly exit tomorrow morning.

Anchoring accomplished, The Captain goes below to begin his end-of-the-day check and notations. To his dismay, he finds that the batteries are not charged after motoring for 5 hours today. It appears that they received absolutely no charge while the engine was running. The Westerbeke Generator is powered up to charge the batteries for right now, but our primary source of battery charge is clearly not working. This is not good. We cannot leave for a month long trip around Vancouver Island, if we can’t charge the batteries when running the engine.

The First Mate knows that she probably can’t help fix the problem, but she wants to better understand how the electrical system works. And thus begins The First Mate’s course in Basic Boat Mechanics and Electricity. As was demonstrated in the blog entry, “The Intrepid Mariner”, Physics is not one of her fortes. It should be added that understanding Basic Boat Mechanics and Electricity ranks right up there with Physics. It takes great effort for her to stay focused as The Captain commences her education. The eyes want to cloud over. The brain wants to wander. The process of absorbing and understanding is painful. In desperation, she resorts to sketching a flow chart of how energy is inputted, transformed and used around the boat. Initially, her chart helps, but nothing is that simple. The explanation of the systems keeps on going and going. Becoming more convoluted with what to her is arcane terminology. Will it ever stop? She cannot absorb anymore. One flow chart becomes 2, then 3. She finds herself drawing lines and arrows to connect systems across pages. Her comprehension decreases as the number of pages increases. She is frustrated to tears.


This cannot be so hard. The Captain, vacillating between frustration and disbelief, draws up a schematic using one concise page instead of her mess of five.


The First Mate, being the hands on learner that she is, redraws his chart. Using her colored pencils to differentiate electric flow, she finally “gets” it. How long this will stay with her is anybody’s guess, but for right now, she understands the making, the flow and the use of electricity on Avante.


As told by The Captain, here is The First Mate’s take on how power works aboard Avante:

Avante’s creature comforts are sophisticated. Of her many power-hungry systems, we have heating/air conditioning, a water heater, a microwave, a surround sound entertainment center with a flat screen TV and CD/DVD player, as well as 120v electrical outlets where we can plug in our hairdryers, computers, and, most importantly, the Cappuccino machine. When Avante is out sailing, electricity on the boat comes from 4 very large batteries that provide 12v DC (Direct Current). These 12v batteries feed most of the important and necessary systems on the boat like lights, radios, navigation equipment, autopilot, water pumps, refrigeration, electric winches, the anchor windlass, vacuflush toilets, and the very critical bilge pumps. There is also an Inverter, which cleverly changes (or inverts?) this 12v DC power from the batteries into 120v AC (alternating current), the same kind of electricity we have at home, to power many of the creature comforts noted above.

These batteries can power everything for a long time, but then they need to be recharged, and there are 3 ways to recharge our batteries. The easiest to understand from her perspective is shore power. Plug it in — 120 volts AC — right there on the dock. It is just like having your house connected to the power grid. When connected, shore power will directly feed all the systems requiring 120v AC. It also feeds a battery charger inside the Inverter that charges up our batteries. Unfortunately, shore power is only available when we are tied up to a dock in a marina, and not all marinas have 120v shore power connections right on the docks.

A second source of electric power to charge the batteries is the Yanmar Diesel Engine, a big, hulking monster that lives behind the companionway steps. It is our primary source for generating electric power on our boat when we are off cruising. This diesel engine has 4 very important jobs to do: 1) Turn the shaft that rotates the propeller to move the boat, 2) Heat the water in our hot water tank, 3) Charge the small engine battery that starts both the Yanmar and the Westerbeke, and 4) Charge the main bank of batteries. To do the last two jobs this engine creates electricity by turning two Alternators (a type of generator) that put out 12v DC electrical power. One Alternator solely charges the engine starter battery. The second, larger Balmar Alternator charges the main bank of batteries which provide all the 12v DC power on the boat.

A third source of power is the Westerbeke Generator, a bit of a confusing misnomer in itself, for the Westerbeke is both a diesel engine and a generator. Avante did not originally have this generator onboard. It was added by a former owner when he configured the boat for more comfortable cruising. This engine/generator runs on diesel fuel and produces 120v AC electricity, which the boat then uses just like it uses shore power. This Westerbeke Generator consumes less fuel than the large Yanmar diesel engine, and it allows us to more economically produce electricity when we don’t need to run the Yanmar diesel engine, such as when we are anchored or under sail.


Does all that make sense? Not to her unless she has her schematic in front of her. Note how much prettier than The Captain’s it is.


Obviously, as all the above information explains, we have a critical problem on Avante. On our power hungry boat, our primary source of electrical power generation when we are out cruising, the Yanmar Diesel Engine, is not charging up our batteries. That does leave us with 2 other options (shore power and the Westerbeke Generator), but on this circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, we will be sailing into an area without marinas where we can plug into shore power. We will be remote and on our own. Not having shore power available means we will be relying on only one power source – the Westerbeke. There is no backup. Taking off with this handicap is just not acceptable. Imagine if the Westerbeke were to fail on the desolate west coast of Vancouver. The batteries would run down, and we would have no lights, radios, navigation, water or toilets!!

Thursday, June 5th – The Captain has a degree in engineering, and he understands how the electrical system works. But he is not an electrical technician, and he has never worked on a system like this before. He is learning on the job, and there is no handy manual telling him how to troubleshoot the system on our boat. He has to learn from books covering boat systems and maintenance in general. We know only that somewhere between the Yanmar Diesel Engine and the batteries lies our malfunction. He needs to find out what is causing the problem.


For the rest of the evening and all of the next day until 8:30pm The Captain works and quietly curses. The cabin is torn apart, and floorboards are uprooted to access wiring and various components of the system. It’s a disaster zone. The First Mate is told to just stay out of the way, and she does so by roosting in the owners’ cabin quietly occupied with her own concerns.


The main components of this battery charging system are the large Balmar Alternator mounted on the Yanmar diesel engine, a Voltage Regulator and the Batteries. The Voltage Regulator controls everything by monitoring the charge on the batteries and telling its Alternator to get producing when the batteries need charging. It takes quite a while for The Captain to find the Voltage Regulators. They are demonically tucked up into a recessed dark corner inside a cabinet. In the process, he finds another well-hidden group of fuses. One is broken. Having a spare for almost everything, he quickly replaces it, hoping that maybe this fix will solve the problem. That would have been too easy. It does not. The Voltage Regulators check out to be doing their jobs. The Captain tests the Balmar Alternator, but the tests which he is able to do are inconclusive. The problem is not one of the “common failures.” There are also many wires that connect these main components together, and they are traced through the walls and the floors, looking for a loose connection or some other problem. Through this process of potential problem elimination, the culprit is unearthed. It is the large Balmar Alternator. Fortunately, The Captain does have a replacement Alternator onboard.

Taking out the malfunctioning Alternator is not easy. His manuals advise that first all connections to the batteries have to be disconnected at the batteries to prevent unwanted shocks and sparks. This requires pulling up lots more floorboards to access the connections on all 4 batteries. Putting in the new alternator is an even tougher job, for it is slightly too wide to fit into the mounting brackets. After pushing and forcing the alternator into place, The Captain discovers that the pulleys on the new Alternator are larger than the ones on the malfunctioning Alternator. This means that the belts will not fit. He can not easily swap the pulleys, and the replacement Alternator will not work without proper fitting belts. What a mess!

At least we know where we stand or, perhaps we should say, where we are going —- back to Canoe Cove again. Tomorrow is Friday, and we know that we will not get our repairs completed that afternoon. We will be stuck in the marina with all services closed for the weekend. It’s better to return to Canoe Cove Sunday evening or first thing Monday. The weekend will be spent cruising around some of the Gulf Islands that we have not had an opportunity to visit. Canoe Cove is called to alert them to our situation, and they promise to have their best man ready to come on board as soon as we arrive. We know not how long the fix will take. A day or two? Hopefully.

Looking on the bright side of things as one must, there are several positive comments we can make about our present predicament:

1. The Captain now knows more about the Mechanical and Electrical systems in Avante than ever before. He has gained valuable experience as a technician, and he, too, has drawn up schematics. Some day out there off Bora Bora or some other remote place, it will be good to have this information at his fingertips.

2. The First Mate, too, now knows more about the Mechanical and Electrical doings of Avante than ever before. She can understand the lingo and nod/sigh knowingly at appropriate spots in any conversation regarding such doings.

3. Our crab pot has been down all this time. It will be full!

4. We have not really missed anything by being stalled these last several days. It has done nothing but rain with the exception of occasional clearing in the early evening. The weather has got to be better when we restart this adventure!

5. When we return to Canoe Cove, The First Mate will be able to drive over to the Safeway, grab a Starbucks Latte in this bastion of civilization and get on the internet to post this blog.


6. Through all the frustrations and irritations caused by diabolical inanimate objects, The Captain and First Mate are still talking, and marital bliss continues aboard the good ship.


Comment posted on original blog update:

Barb M said: Sue and Bill,
I love the adventure – Sue, you are quite the writer! Hugs, Barb M June 23, 2008 at 8:17 AM

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