Pungo Creek, NC
Alternator Blues, imagine a bad Blues song that never ends. Two days ago we headed south from Belhaven in about 15 knots of wind, gusting to twenty. The wind from the north, behind us. It just right for a quick down wind run along the Pungo Creek, past Winsteadville and Makleyville, and across the Pamlico River. It would have been a perfect day to sail but for the temperature, it was in the high 40’s (F) and as soon as we reached Goose Creek it would be too narrow to sail.
Just six miles or so along, near about mile 5 I got too chilled and decided to sail from the inside station despite the raw beauty of the landscape around me. No sooner than I got below then the cabin started to fill with smoke, just a wisp floating past Shane’s face. Then more, lots more. Our first instinct was to shut down the engine, the only hot thing on the boat, and figure out what was wrong. The good news was that nothing smelled like it was burning.
Shane pulled open the engine compartment, and the cause problem was obvious. It wasn’t smoke but venting radiator fluid. The big (relatively) new timing belt that powered the big alternator and the water pump was lying on the floor of the engine compartment. I had tightened it just two days before, and my first assumption was that I hadn’t torqued down the bolts hard enough and the adjusting arm had slipped. This had happened once before.
“I’ve got this,” I said. Shane hopped up into the cockpit and deployed the jib. The plan was that I would get the belt on the motor and if I had trouble doing that Shane would sail us into Goose Creek where we could anchor in the shelter and work at leisure.
That didn’t happen. The Alternator Blues continues. First of all, it wasn’t my fault that that the wonderful heavy duty belt was lying on the deck. The alternator did it. Or perhaps more correctly the alternator was broken. Not broken as in nonfunctional, it would produce electricity very nicely if you spun it. The mounting lug cast into the front housing had broken off leaving the alternator structurally divorced from the engine.
Meanwhile the wind was shifting more to the west and picking up. It became clear to Shane that he wasn’t going to be able to point high enough to make Goose Creek, so he tacked away back across the river to give me more time.
I tried strapping the alternator in place, tying the alternator in place, blocking the alternator in place. And still the Alternator Blues played. This is one of the few times having a generously sized engine compartment was a problem. There was nothing to brace something against.
About the time we got back to Pungo Creek it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to fix this myself so just south of mile marker 145 we put down anchor. The water was rough, blowing down the length of the river really fed the chop, and the shallow water made it worse but I needed help.
It was about noon when Shane got the anchor down and the bridle rigged. We worked for a couple of hours trying out different ideas to remount the alternator as the waves bounced up around like a pinball. Nothing worked.
Finally, Shane realized that we didn’t need the alternator, we had a big battery pack, freshly charged. We just needed motive power to get us upwind into shelter. That is to say we just needed some way to turn the engine water circulation pump. Another hour was spent trying out ideas before Shane came up with the idea to use some of the webbing that I over ordered (a story in itself). My first prototype jumped the pulleys almost immediately. The webbing was too wide and I didn’t stitch it quite square enough.
Fortunately, I had over ordered and had many feet of a narrow (dog leash sized) webbing to work with. By 3:30pm I had a working prototype. I stitched that one down hard and we tested the engine. It worked. I made a second one so we would not get caught out in an awkward spot if the first one broke. (By now we cut put one of the on in less than a minute.
Now it was dusk and the wind had picked up. It was hammering us hard. and we had maybe 45 minutes of light left. We did something sensible. We had dinner. Then we reported our position to our shore contacts and strapped ourselves in for a rough night. Our 44 pound Rocna anchor and 100 feet of high test chain held us safely all night.
Light returned and the last of the wind faded, and the water became millpond smooth. We called our shore contacts and had breakfast. The wind rose, slightly. The journey back to Belhaven is covered in a previous post.
Let me skip ahead to the good part. The warranty had expired on the Electro-maax alternator. I had bought it during a boat show sale at a very good price but hadn’t installed it for the better part of a year. However, I had corresponded with the president of Electro-Maax some years ago when I was considering their product. (I had already had it with big alternators and v-belts, but that is another rant). So late Sunday afternoon when were safely tied up at Belhaven I dug up his address and wrote him asking for a Christmas Miracle and sending him pictures of the broken part.
Much to my amazement he called me not an hour later. It turns out he is a cruiser as well and appreciates the issues. We talked for quite some time trying to figure out why this rugged casting had given up and about other cruising things. Then he offered to sell me a new alternator for a very good price, take the old alternator back replace the front housing, and ship it back to me to use as a spare, also at a very reasonable price.
I was already a satisfied customer, now I am a fan. (Yes their part broke but there are certain risks with castings – I know from experience that a tiny percentage of them do fail under load usually from casting flaws. This is a very tiny percentage and very acceptable in my book). And, before you ask, I had a spare alternator, the one that came with the Universal M35 but it proved not to be a simple operation to swap it back – that is another story for another time.
So let me say thank you to John Stevens of Electro-Maax, his assistant Kristy Roller, and I am sure others – since there a series of questions and pictures exchanged to make sure I would get the right alternator and everything I needed to make a clean straight forward install.
The lesson here is that I you can’t fix it have something you can swap in right now. Anything less won’t do. And yes, I am keeping my emergency belts.
And thus ends the Alternator Blues. Now I am playing the waiting for DHL Blues – may they be able to find the Manor house way out here.