As we were motoring along with the current at 7 knots, in a 30’ deep channel between a reef and a shoaling shoreline, Marty suddenly peered out at me over the engine compartment and calmly said; “If you’re in a safe spot, we need to shut down the engine, it’s sparking”. Uhhhhh…WHAT??
But I’m starting in the middle of the story. This problem arose days earlier so let me start at the beginning. Electrical problems tend to make my hair curl. They would make Marty’s hair curl too, if…well that’s another story. At any rate, sparking, engines, and boats are not a good combo.
A few days before this incident, Marty noticed that the voltage gauge for the batteries was registering high, indicating that the batteries were being over charged. He took a look at the alternator and sure enough, one of the wires had fallen off its connector. Since we’d been motoring for a while that day, the engine was too hot for him to be sticking his hand down into it. We soon got to the anchorage where we could let things cool off so he could re-attach the wire, and all was well once again.
Until the next incident. It seemed that in the process of attaching the wire that kept the alternator from over-charging the batteries, another connector had somehow loosened. This time it was the one that charged batteries from the alternator (not very technical, but you get the idea). So now the batteries weren’t charging at all. And of course this wire was buried a little deeper than the first one. No problem though, Marty is fast becoming one with the engine and had it reattached after a few sailor-esque type words.
Until the NEXT incident. This is the one with sparks. During all this attaching and re-attaching, one of the nuts holding the wire had fallen off, so that there was now a space missing between the wires, and yes, we had sparking. This is when Marty informed me that we should shut the engine off…when it was safe…ahhhhhh, how about NOW?? As it turned out, we were able to change course and head into a nearby anchorage, drop the anchor and turn off the engine. During this time the sparking stopped, but as we found out later, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
We had anchored next to Isla Coronados, where I sat on deck and watched turtles and manta rays swimming by while Marty sweated over a hot engine trying to fix the latest issue. He was able to get everything back together, and more importantly, get us back on the road to Caleta San Juanico. Unfortunately, even though we were on the road again, the alternator still wasn’t charging. Thank goodness for generators and solar panels!
When we got to Caleta San Juanico we dropped the anchor next to our buddies on s/v Cake and swam over for an anchor beer. We could worry about the engine tomorrow! The water was crystal clear, we were anchored in 15’, we were with friends and had cold beers; ahhhh…la vida es bueno!
After a couple of days of running the generator to keep the batteries charged, and nights of mulling over possible fixes, Marty finally felt like tackling the alternator/wiring predicament. Also, during a get together on the beach, we met new friends Derrick and Trisha on Interabang*, and Derrick was kind enough to read up on our quandary and he came over the next day with his multi-meter in hand to help Marty try to determine where the problem was. They did a number of tests and concluded that the alternator was fine, but that maybe the voltage regulator wasn’t. Out in secluded anchorages is not the best place to find engine parts, so it was time to head to town.
The next day we weighed anchor to leave Caleta San Juanico and headed for the anchorage off of Loreto, where we dinghied into town to find the auto parts store. Marty had his Spanish words ready to ask for a “regulador de voltaje”, which they had, but it didn’t have as many slots for wires as the one we had. For 100 pesos (about $5) it was worth a try. Back on board, Marty wired it in, we started the engine and kept our fingers crossed…no go. There was still no charge coming into the batteries while the engine was running.
Next stop, Puerto Escondido. Marty went to visit Elvin, the local self-proclaimed fix-it guy, and though he wasn’t all that interested in our problem, he did offer to deliver our alternator to a guy in Loreto who could tell us if it was indeed working okay, and if not he could rebuild it.
Remember (I know it’s been a long story..sorry), when I mentioned how having the sparking stop wasn’t necessarily a good thing? Well, as Marty was pulling the alternator off he discovered that the big wire leading off the alternator had fused itself to another wire where the nut had fallen off. The sparking must have melted them together. At any rate Marty was able to separate them, add some length and move the fuse on the wire in question, and get everything put back together. We’d hoped that fixing the wires would solve the problem, but no, still no luck….argh!
While Marco the alternator guy in Loreto checked the alternator, Elvin told more stories while siting in his chair, and Marty made many trips back and forth from our mooring ball to the dock. Eventually we were told that the alternator was working fine, which was sort of good news/bad news. If the alternator was working, then why wasn’t it charging?
We’d run out of options in Loreto and Puerto Escondido, so it was now time to head for La Paz. With sails out as much as possible, and the generator keeping the lights and instruments on, we made a fast but leisurely passage to La Paz. We stopped overnight in San Marte, a lovely quiet anchorage, followed by a couple of nights in Isla San Francisco and Caleta Partida with all the behemoth yachts. The trip wasn’t without its moments though.
On the 50 mile trip from San Marte into Isla San Francisco we were heading south through the San Jose channel. This is an area known to have some pretty strong winds funnel down through the channel. The day we were there was a good example of how fast the winds can appear. In about half an hour we went from motoring on glassy seas to sailing under a reefed Genoa directly downwind with gusty winds in the high teens. It was a great sail and we were thoroughly enjoying it, but with a caveat of worrying about the engine. When we’d unfurled the sail and started to shut down the engine, it had just died when I put it into neutral. Normally, the process is put the engine in neutral, hit the kill switch and then it turns off. This time it just quit suddenly. Hmmm…not good.
We sailed for a few hours in order to let the engine cool off, then when we were about 30 minutes away from the anchorage we tried to start it just to make sure all was well. Nope! Nothing happened when I turned the ignition; no click, no nothing, no battery. Marty went to check the gauge and sure enough, the engine battery was dead. What the #&#??
We started the generator hoping to charge the battery enough to get the engine started, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time before reaching the anchorage to build up a strong enough charge and the engine wouldn’t start. Okay, time to get ready for anchoring under sail. Thankfully the house batteries still had a charge so we were able to turn on the anchor windlass.
The entrance into the bay is wide open and it’s a large anchorage so we hoped for an easy drop. As luck would have it though, when we rounded the point and could see into the anchorage we saw half a dozen mega yachts anchored, leaving us only one wide spot in which to anchor that was next to the shallows and on the lee end of the bay. We had one chance for the anchor to catch and if we missed…we’d be cleaning the keel on the sand!
The wind was still blowing pretty strong, so we triple reefed the headsail and headed in. We’d planned that I would drop the anchor from the helm, while Marty handled the sail. All was going according to plan except that when I started rounding up into the wind I completely lost steerage. We weren’t turning. And even worse, we were drifting downwind toward the shallows and towards another big boat already anchored there. I started dropping the anchor, but couldn’t hear if it was running out, so Marty ran up on deck to make sure. We were further from shore than we’d planned and in 30’ of water, so it was important to get the anchor to the ground as soon as possible! We were still drifting sideways as I was trying to adjust the sails to regain steerage as the anchor was being run out. We finally had enough chain out, and regained steerage to luff the sail and waited for Happy Dance to drift down on the anchor. Phew, a great feeling when the anchor chain stretched out and we were set. Roll up the sail, and take a break! Time for an anchor beer!
After a couple of lovely relaxing days in Isla San Francisco, we nervously tried to start the engine on the day we’d planned to head further south. Phew, she started right up. We motor sailed to Caleta Partida for a night, then the next day we woke up early to head into La Paz. As luck would have it our plans for a flat sea at dawn became a noserly of 15-18 knots with a fairly lumpy sea. Then we entered the channel into La Paz with the tide turning against us. When we called in to the Marina for our slip number we were told to go to the fuel dock because the weekend crew didn’t know what slip we’d been assigned. The current was running pretty swift and as we made the 180 degree turn to head into the Marina and to the fuel dock, Happy Dance was moving sideways faster than she was going forward. Rutro, time for a hot docking! I gave her some power to make the turn around Slim Carlos’ houseboat, then headed to the dock. Once alongside the dock I needed to reverse to counteract the strong current that was driving us forward into the boat in front of us. I gave it one good burst of reverse and then the engine died again! Yikes! Thankfully we had line handlers on the dock that already held our lines, or we would have t-boned the powerboat in front of us. Phew…this engine situation is getting a little crazy!
So now we sit tied to a dock, waiting. We had Rob Cross of Cross Marine come out to the boat to see what was what. He and Marty fiddled with things for a while and soon the engine was running again. They fixed this, tweaked that, and determined all was working okay. HUH? Damn that Murphy!! The going theory is that a loose hose clamp was letting air into the system when we changed gears and that was stopping the engine. That doesn’t answer the question of why the alternator wasn’t charging, but we hope to have an answer for that soon.
Our current status is that the alternator has been removed and checked, the valves and injectors have been removed and tuned, and Rob, the nice engine fix it guy who has too much work on his schedule to squeeze us in, will be back sometime NEXT week to put it all back together and to give our Happy Dance some TLC. Obviously we’re bummed to be stuck on the dock this long, and even more bummed that we may miss traveling under the super moon on our three-day crossing to the mainland, but as soon as all is put back together we’ll leave La Paz and start working our way south to La Cruz. Stay tuned to this Happy Channel for more news on the saga of the little engine that could!
* Interabang – (interabang. [in-ter-uh-bang] /ɪnˈtɛr əˌbæŋ/ noun. 1. a printed punctuation mark (‽), available only in some typefaces, designed to combine the question mark (?) and the exclamation point (!), indicating a mixture of query and interjection.