Short circuit

This is what we were dreaming of, blue skies, turquoise water and white beaches. But electrical problems created some unforseen delays. Photo courtesy Ted Mellors

August 2022

By Ted Mellors

My friend Pat and I had planned to sail to the Dominican Republic on the 1979, 30-foot Cape Dory Grania, named for the legendary She-King of the Irish Seas. Our 2011 cruise began at the Hingham Yacht Club in Hingham, Mass., from which we sailed to Cotuit on Cape Cod. There, we devoted a month to prepare the boat for offshore sailing, installing solar panels, dinghy davits and other gear we believed to be critical.

In late October, during our passage from Cotuit to Massachusetts’ Cuttyhunk Island, I realized that the electrical system had some issues. Once we made it to Cuttyhunk Pond, we ran the engine for about five hours to charge the batteries, which, unfortunately, had no effect on the instrument panel’s voltmeter. Tired and frustrated, we called it a night and made our way to Block Island in the morning.

At Block, dinner and drinks at Poor People’s Pub provided us with contact info for several of the island’s top mechanics. I was 22 at the time, so instead of lending us his iPhone, the bartender gave us a phone book. “Everybody’s cool around here,” he said, “so I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone to help you out.”

The next few days were spent on Block Island, where such names as Tony Edwards, Ken Lacoste and Peter Mott were thrown around by the island’s population. At Lacoste’s outboard-motor shop, we would finally get an answer to the battery issue that was plaguing us.

After bringing battery No. 2 ashore with the dinghy, a voltmeter and load test showed that the battery was fully functioning and putting out 12.5 volts; not the 10.5 volts that both Grania’s internal voltmeter and our multimeter were showing. Perhaps we didn’t have a battery problem after all. All the stress about batteries had caused me to assume that they were the source of the problem. What we had was a fuel problem. However, it was pretty odd that the engine was still able to crank.

We motored back to Grania in the dinghy, and it took us about an hour to find her in the dark. That would be the last time I ever left an anchored boat without a GPS and powerful flashlight. Once we got back, I replaced a leaky gasket, changed the fuel filter, squirted a touch of starting fluid into the air filter, and boom! The engine started. After checking the weather, we made a quick and exciting change to our plans. With the issue apparently solved, we decided to head straight for Atlantic City, N.J., in the morning.

Due to a serious lack of wind from the southwest, we motored often throughout our four-hour watches. This was not part of my plan and thus I was chagrined when, in the middle of the second night, after my allotted four-hour nap, I awoke to two dead batteries. During the long wait for the wind to pick up enough to sail, we discovered that a diode had been wired backward so that the solar panel was leaking charge.

By 3 p.m. on the third day out, Pat and I had successfully anchored under sail in Ocean City’s Great Egg Harbor, some 220 rhumb-line miles down the line. And, by sunset, the solar panel, with its rewired diode, had charged the batteries sufficiently to get the engine started. Relief finally set in.

So, when all was said and done, that must have been the problem, right? Wrong. Running the engine still didn’t charge the batteries. Now we knew that the issue was deeper in the electrical system: either with the alternator or Grania’s wiring. One of these components may have been causing a significant voltage drop.

What we needed was a functioning multimeter. As luck would have it, ours had blown its last fuse during our most recent battery test. Perhaps it was the will of the sea gods that our vessel became a floating apartment overlooking Ocean City and the Jersey Shore.

Despite what it looked like from the sea – and regardless of misconceptions about New Jersey and its residents I may have had – Ocean City turned out to be a great place with great people. And, on the upside, a quick walk around town provided one of the most delicious roast beef sandwiches I’d ever had. On the downside, the overpriced local hardware store failed to provide a decent multimeter.

However, a chance encounter at the Ocean City Yacht Club helped us make some progress toward solving our dilemma. More specifically, a generous and friendly man named Mike told us we could pull up to the dock, top off our water tanks and use the club’s shower. We didn’t hesitate to accept the offer – with some serious gratitude.

Mike took a surprising interest in what we were doing and was an enormous help in sorting out the can of worms that had been created. We later learned that Mike ran a yacht-delivery business and that he had skippered a private vessel in the Bahamas for eight years. He and his soon-to-be wife lived aboard and sailed all over while the boat’s owner hardly ever showed his face. Not too shabby. Being a boat captain had its benefits.

Inspection of the alternator showed that the output wire was no longer connected. Corrosion had clearly taken its toll. A crimping kit provided by Mike gave us the necessary fittings, yet running the engine after rewiring still produced no power. Further multimeter tests hinted that the alternator might be at fault.

Mike had worked at a nearby boatyard, so, as luck would have it, he knew a place that specialized in rebuilding and selling alternators. Mike drove us to Dave’s shop the following morning. It was a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, set back from a long driveway, and it was full of alternators. The front entrance had a blue-printed sign that said, “Dave’s Shop,” with an arrow pointing at the door.

Piled outside, in heaps, were starter motors that had come off various contraptions – mostly cars. Inside the shop was a small front room with worn, grease-stained countertops. Upon every surface sat disassembled alternators. Hanging on the walls, between the shelves stocked with old magnets and burnt-out coils, were pictures of drag-racing cars accelerating so fast that only the massive rear wheels were touching the pavement’s surface.

Dave smiled after taking the alternator in his hands and giving it a long and careful look. “This is an antique,” he stated in a slow southern drawl. “I haven’t seen one of these for thirty years.” Some small, metallic cylinders had fallen out of the alternator casing on the car ride over, and, looking at them, Mike remarked: “Looks like the diodes have blown out. This alternator has been overloaded. I could order the parts to fix it and have them here by tomorrow morning, but we won’t know until then if there’s anything else wrong with it.”

We asked if he happened to have an equivalent alternator in stock, which was all we really wanted, but he took the time and care to explain the situation with this ancient model. He told us that it was originally French-made and that it was discontinued, which was why replacement parts were so expensive. He added that our alternator was worth $300 when it was purchased.

Mike then took out the American-made Delco alternator that many of his clients used as a replacement. He told us all about it, how it would have about twice the power output as the French model, and that we would easily be able to get replacement parts. We were sold. After making a slight size adjustment to the pivot-bolt hole, I handed him $165 of tax-free cash, and we were almost on our way.

All that was needed now was a belt of the correct length due to the difference in the pulley size of the alternators. We wired in the new alternator and used some line to size the belt. Mike, again, drove us around to two auto stores, at the second of which we were able to get what we needed. The engine was ready for testing. Running it at idle speed, the output was 14 volts on Grania’s internal voltmeter. Our energy problems were over, and we finally could go on our way.

The best part about fixing such a problem is the instantaneous change from being stuck to being free. It was like dispelling a big, angry dungeon guard. In our case, we left Ocean City about an hour after we finished installing the alternator. Euphoric with our victory, in a moment of inattention, we nudged bottom leaving Great Egg Harbor. No damage done: We were off to Norfolk.

We encountered many obstacles – natural and mechanical – by the time we arrived at our destination at the southern end of Chesapeake Bay. And, for the present, my story ends there.

Spoiler alert: Ted and Pat did not return home once they arrived in Norfolk. Ted’s saga will continue in future issues of Points East.

Mellors, the director of machine learning at a biotech startup, has been living aboard and cruising and upgrading his 1967 Morgan 34, Watercolors. He recently bought a 1985 C&C Landfall 43, for which he is still deciding on a name.