The five crew members of a 130-foot motoryacht I helped deliver earlier this year had crossed the Caribbean Sea from St. Vincent to St. Thomas, repelled pirates, prevented an onboard fire and repaired and restored a flooded engine room.
We enjoyed about 36 hours of excellent weather and smooth sailing past Puerto Rico and Hispaniola and hit the downhill part of the delivery. Ahead lay the Bahamas, Exuma Sound, the Tongue of the Ocean, the Great Bahama Bank, and finally the 44-mile leg across the Gulf Steam into Ft. Lauderdale.
I entered the wheelhouse at 0245 in preparation for my 0300 to 0600 watch. The first mate turned over the watch by telling me his course and speed and informing me of any traffic in our area.
At 0300 we were about 14 miles south of Great Inagua, Bahamas, there were no targets in sight on the 24-mile radar, and we were eastbound at 9 knots.
At 0315 an alarm sounded.
I scanned the bilge alarm panel, both radars, the chartplotter, the generators, the radios and the autopilot without finding the source of the alarm. Time to wake the captain, who entered the wheelhouse and immediately identified the alarm as main engine battery bank low voltage.
A diesel engine does not require a battery to continue operation after starting unless it has an ECU (Electronic Control Unit) to control the flow of fuel. Both of our Detroit diesels had an ECU, and both were losing battery power fast.
The captain ordered the first mate to take the helm and I followed him to the engine room. Each engine has a separate battery bank of two 8-D 12-volt batteries wired in series to produce 24 volts. At full charge, the volt meter should read 27 volts. They read 9 volts.
We had three ways to charge the batteries: an alternator on each engine, a 100-amp battery charger powered by the generator, and a portable 12/24-volt, 30-amp charger. We knew the 100-amp battery charger was inoperable before we left St. Vincent so we had to rely on the alternators.
It made no sense that both alternators went bad at the same time so first we used a handheld voltmeter to check the output and found both to be working properly. So why were both battery banks losing power at the same rate at the same time?
The captain and I had by now been in the 92-degree engine room for about 45 minutes. Nearing 4 in the morning, we attempted to trace the wiring between the alternators and the battery bank. In a boat this size, the wires are neatly harnessed in bundles about six to eight inches in diameter with each bundle containing 8 to 10 wires.
The wiring harness we worked on was below the engine room floor, about 20 feet long. Both of us have general knowledge of how charging systems work but neither of us professes to be experts, so we proceeded with caution when the starboard engine died.
“We better do something quick or we will be dead in the water,” the captain said. Ten minutes later, the port engine died.
At 0430 all hands assemble in the wheelhouse. The weather and seas are near calm, there is no traffic in the immediate area and Great Inagua is only 14 miles to the north. We had three options: remain dead in the water and continue working to solve the problem, call for a tow estimated to cost $40,000, or attempt to tow the 200-ton yacht with our 26-foot Boston Whaler with two 225hp outboards.
The captain issued the orders to rig harnesses and tow lines. We would try to make the safety of Great Inagua without outside assistance.
First light was dawning by the time we were ready to attach our tow line to the harness on the tender. We could see the first mate tie the final knot, throw the harness overboard, position the tender and begin to throttle up.
The light wind and current moved the yacht east at half a knot. The tender throttled up to 2,000 rpm and headed east-northeast. The captain tried to swing the bow to the north using the tiller steering control when he saw the rudder angle was not moving. The yacht had hydraulic steering and its pump was powered by the main engine.
We had no steering.
The captain, new to the yacht just a few weeks before, remembered there was a 120-volt emergency backup hydraulic steering pump. The generator still worked and produced 120 volts so the captain went to the engine room, opened and closed a few valves, threw a few switches, and steering was restored.
Now all we needed was headway.
The captain used the half knot of speed and slowly began to swing the bow north. He called the first mate and asked for more power. He eventually throttles up to 4,000 rpm and in the wheelhouse we see 1 knot, then 2 knots and eventually 4 knots.
By 0600, we are headed north at 4 knots and hope to be in a safe anchorage in three and a half hours.
By 0730 we have Great Inagua in sight and the captain decided to use one of his lifelines and called a friend, two actually: an electrician who worked on the boat in St. Vincent and a diesel mechanic in Ft Lauderdale. He left messages.
While the interior crew steered the yacht behind the tender, the captain and I went back to the engine room to find the connection between the two engine battery banks. As we searched, we connected the portable 30-amp battery charger to the port engine battery bank. The engine starter motor required at least 19.5 volts to operate; the ECU needed 8 volts or more to supply fuel.
If we could get the port engine started, we could probably run it an hour or so before it died again of fuel starvation.
At 0830, the port battery bank read 20 volts, the port engine started, we retrieved the tender and by 0900 we were safe at anchor on the leeward side of Great Inagua.
The St. Vincent electrician and the Ft. Lauderdale mechanic returned the captain’s call and both indicated there should be an isolation transformer in the charging circuit. An isolation transformer prevents the batteries from being charged by the alternators and the ship’s 120-volt battery charger at the same time.
If the transformer went bad, it could prevent the alternators from charging the batteries. The St. Vincent electrician indicated the transformer was a small blue box the size of a cribbage board near the starboard engine starter motor. All we had to do was locate the transformer, remove the wires from the alternators and re-attach them directly to the positive terminal on the battery banks.
Sounded easy, but the wiring harnesses were 20 feet long, bundled up with 8 to 10 wires each and located under the engine room. To complicate the repair, we couldn’t find the blue box.
This job of tracing the hot wire was going to require someone who could crawl into small spaces in the bilge and work upside down. Luckily, our first mate was just that guy.
With a good pair of dikes in hand, the mate began working his way aft, cutting wire ties and pulling the alternator wire out of the harness as he went. Eventually, he found a blue box at the aft end of the engine room and tucked away under some pipes and a bundle of wires about a foot in diameter.
He disconnected the port and starboard alternator wires, and we pulled them forward to the battery bank and reconnected them to the positive terminal on the batteries. The 30-amp charger had been connected for about an hour so it would take 2 to 3 hours more before we had enough power to restart the engine and see if the alternators were doing their job.
The first mate had been up since midnight and the rest of us since 0300. By now, it was about 1100 and we think we have the problem solved but, to be sure, we have to wait several hours. A bit of rest and relaxation is needed so the captain gives the order, “swim”.
We pulled the tender up and tied it off on the hip to use its boarding ladder to get back onto the yacht. Everybody dove into the cool, clear and refreshing Bahamian water.
The first person who got out of the water and board the tender discovered a new problem. There was saltwater knee-deep in the bilge. The batteries were out of the water but the two bilge pumps didn’t work.
The tender was a center console with a compartment for the batteries, electrical panel, through-hull fittings, valves and a head. This compartment was flooded with 20 inches of water.
I closed all the through-hull valves and the mate began pumping with our 36-inch manual bilge pump.
After 30 minutes of three of us pumping, we did not make any headway. That’s when our captain came to the rescue. He found a spare 12-volt bilge pump in the ships spare parts, rigged it with an evacuation hose and enough wire to connect it to the tender battery. When connected we increased our capacity from a quart per manual stroke to 2,000 gallons per hour. Within 15 minutes, most of the water was gone.
We found two potential sources of the leak: the main drain plug at the bottom of the transom and a drain plug in the port side fish box. Both plugs were household flip lock plugs that were corroded and loose fitting. Both were replaced with proper plugs. Problem solved.
By now it was 1300 and the port engine battery bank was up to 22 volts. When the captain hit the start button, she fired right up. With jumper cables, we started the starboard engine and waited to see if the alternators worked. Over the next hour and a half, the voltmeter moves from 23 to 24 to 25 and eventually topped out at 27 volts. We were back in business. Problem solved.
By 1430 the engines, the tender and all other systems on the boat were ready to get under way. But the captain was aware his crew has been up and working for 14 hours and determined the safe thing to do was to stay at anchor for the night, get a shower and a meal and a good night’s rest, and continue the delivery the next morning.
The trip up through Exuma Sound took a day and half and was uneventful. We were headed north in the Tongue of the Ocean on what was scheduled to be our last night at sea. In relieving the mate on watch, he reported that the crew quarters bilge alarm light had come on. Ten minutes later, he returned and reported he found a leak in the freshwater tank. The stew took our watch while I went below, dropped below the floor and crawled about six feet aft to see the leak coming from the top of the tank.
We determined a weld had come loose on a seam about 3 inches long and water was coming out the top because the watermaker had just filled the tank. We stopped the leak by not completely filling the tank and pumped the excess water out of the bilge. The alarm light went off and the only action necessary was to put the defect on the growing “to do” list for the boat yard. Problem solved.
By first light on the last day we were ready to cross the 75-mile Great Bahama Bank then across the Gulf Stream and planned to be tied up in Ft. Lauderdale before dark. At about 1600 and 14 miles from Ft. Lauderdale, the mate entered the wheelhouse and congratulated the captain on the successful delivery.
“Don’t say anything yet,” the captain replied. “It ain’t over until it’s over.”
At about that time, the wind picked up out of the west, directly on our nose, at 40 knots. For the past eight days we had not seen more than 8 knots on the anemometer. Now it was blowing 40 knots on the nose. What next?
Well, next was a water spout directly in front of us about 2 miles. The captain, who had lived in Florida for years and understood summertime afternoon weather patterns, decided on a naval tactic made famous in WWII: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
An hour later we entered the Port Everglades inlet. The sun shone and the winds were calm.
The yacht was tied up, engines and generators shut down, and shore power plugged in by 1730. The nine-day delivery was complete. We experienced and responded to nearly every alarm on board, repelled pirates and salvaged a sinking tender.
The captain and his crew were hired to deliver the yacht from St. Vincent to Ft. Lauderdale and they successfully completed their job. When you are a professional delivery captain, you expect problems. And good crews have the experience and knowledge to overcome them. This crew is definitely one of the good ones.
When he’s not helping to deliver yachts, Bill Wiard is a yacht broker with Massey Yachts in St. Petersburg, Fla. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.