By Capt. Bruce Gregory
I’ve made 40-plus offshore passages from 50 miles to 1,500 miles in boats from 8-foot dinghies to 80-foot tugs; have witnessed nearly every conceivable sea state; and spent three horrible days crushed by two converging low pressure systems that stalled over my position while single-handing my Island Packet 32 from New York Harbor to Bermuda.
But none of that prepared me for the experience I had during a routine trip ferrying my sailboat up the Hudson River.
It was a beautiful April day with bright sunshine but no wind, perfect to get on the tide and ferry S/V Morning Star from Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City to our mooring at the Nyack Boat Club about 20-some miles or so to the north.
I had problems with my alternator and/or regulator (not sure which one) at the close of the previous year, which caused one of the harness wires to short and burn through the insulation. I hadn’t taken time over the winter to change out the regulator and/or alternator, as I figured I would do it once the boat was back home at the boat club.
Diesels and sailboats run without electric power, and with four freshly charged Group 31s, I didn’t think I’d have any restarting problem while underway. That assumption was bolstered by the knowledge that because I was starting a four-hour trip in the morning on such a gorgeous day, there would be no need for electronics or nav lighting – although with more than 400 amp hours of battery life, I could have illuminated the entire boat if I had a notion to. This is a river with many locations to drop anchor if necessary and, lest we forget, TowboatUS or Seatow is just a phone call away.
On leaving Jersey City, I put on my Nexus network so I could monitor my depth until I was well out in the main channel. Now at the helm, I cracked open a Gatorade and switched one of the network displays to water temperature. To my dismay, and before it registered, all three of my network screens went blank.
At first I wasn’t alarmed because earlier I had set my battery switch to position No. 1, which had only a single group 31 that I suspected might have a bad cell, and I thought running the network and autopilot would either deplete that battery to sub 12v quickly while underway or would prove me wrong and last until I shut it off a half hour or so after departing the marina.
Anyway, I concluded that the battery had bought the farm, and as I got up from the helm seat to go below, I was greeted with a belch of billowing smoke from the companionway.
In over 50 years of “messing around in boats,” I had never seen what appeared to be a major fire below deck. I stupidly jumped below and was nearly overtaken by the acrid odor of an electrical fire.
I climbed back into the cockpit and took a couple of deep breaths, placed a rolled-up sweatshirt on my mouth and nose, and attempted to go back below.
After making it down for the second time, it was evident that a serious electrical fire was happening below the port side settee, where the batteries were stored. I quickly opened the main overhead hatch and dashed back up the companionway.
After a half dozen breaths of fresh air, I jumped back down into the cabin and managed to open three portlights, then it was back again up into the cockpit.
During this trip up the companionway ladder, I realized that smoke was also coming from the doghouse covering the engine. The next trip below, I reached down and tried to switch the battery switch to off. Too late – the knob simply spun more than 360 degrees.
I did manage to get off the large cushion above the battery compartment, but had to rush over to one of the portholes for air, only to find that the smoke was fighting for the same opening. So it was back up the companionway ladder.
As I stood in the cockpit taking those extra breaths, I noticed the galley faucet was running water under pressure. I had to think hard about this as I hadn’t put the water pressure breaker on since winterizing the boat. The pump was quickly filling the sink as the waste through-hull wasn’t open either.
The next trip below, I was able to get the covers off the batteries, only to see a very long 2- or 3-foot golden rod of 1-0 wire glowing brighter than an electric range. Fortunately, I had a pair of auto adjustable channel locks in the cockpit. Fortunately – or not – all my batteries are connected with wing nuts, so the next time down I was able to use those pliers to disconnect the red hot wing nut, and on subsequent trips was able to disconnect each of the remaining seven wing nut connections. No more water pressure.
Several things had occurred to me during the 10 minutes that I was fighting this thing. First, I realized that I was without electricity – so I was without a radio. I also realized that the alternator was possibly over-generating because of a faulty voltage regulator and so was feeding the fire, so to speak. If I shut off the engine, I would be without power on a serious Hudson River tidal current without wind to sail and control the boat. In other words, if I couldn’t get control of this thing, it was going to get control of me as I hit one of the many concrete docks, dolphins and pilings lining both river shorelines.
Disconnecting the battery terminals seemed to do the trick. The golden cable extinguished itself. I tried operating the switches on the small panel that supports the main house rotary switch – first the bilge pump switch and the main DC circuit breaker. Both were hot and evidently fried. I gave the main battery selector switch another hard spin and went back topside to sit for a while, watching for any telltale wisps of smoke that might indicate continued combustion somewhere.
I eliminated the guessing game by returning below and removing several sole hatches. I didn’t dare remove the engine doghouse, since I felt that the oil and fuel could flare up and cause more trouble than I could handle.
I do maintain three extinguishers on board but know that they can’t always do the job in an electrical fire with so many hidden electrical chases below deck. Eventually, when I did remove the doghouse, there was so much soot covering every surface I was unable to determine any obvious cause. I still don’t know the cause.
Four hours later I arrived at the Nyack Boat Club, hooked up my new Yale mooring pendants, pulled the ball up onto the bowsprit, closed the companionway, and waived at the club launch, only to recognize that the sole passenger was my wife coming out unannounced to greet me.
Since my mishap, I did put a meter on each of the batteries and got the following readings, three batteries were well over 13.5V and one (selector pos No. 1) was at 11.2V. Eventually, $4,800 later, the boat returned to normal with all new wiring, batteries, Balmar alternator and voltage regulator.
Capt. Bruce Gregory is a lifelong sailor, holds a USCG 100-ton master’s ticket, and operates the delivery service BoatSkipper.com. Comments are welcome below.