Back in February 2018 Aannsha and I did our RYA sailing courses in Gibraltar. We both did the same courses and we both passed and received our certificates. The most important certificate being the RYA Day Skipper.
Since we bought A B Sea and started sailing it's been mostly me being the skipper and manoeuvring the boat in confined spaces like marinas, harbours and fuel docks. When we had Mike and Elaine on board for our big passage from Spain to Turkey in 2018 there were a few times when I disappeared off to the bow to handle the lines while Mike expertly and calmly talked Aannsha through manoeuvring into a couple of fuel docks and anchorages and she handled the boat well.
Over the past couple of years I have often said to Aannsha "Just let me know when you want to give being skipper a go and we'll organise it." The most recent time we had this conversation was in mid December 2020 and Aannsha finally agreed that she'd give it a go.
Captain for the day
We couldn't have picked a better day, it was sunny, warm and windless. Perfect conditions for leaving our marina berth and practicing manoeuvres such as reversing the boat, stern to mooring and approaching and leaving the fuel dock.
After changing out our heavy duty storm mooring lines for lighter slip lines, Aannsha began by doing the RYA W.O.B.B.L.E on the engine. The acronym stands for Water. Oil. Belt. Bilge. Levels. Electrics/Engine. Mostly visual checks that everything is as it should be in the engine bay.
With that done she started the engine to let it warm up and then went below to begin the process of bringing our instruments on line. With everything up and running we headed to the companionway to climb up into the cockpit. At the foot of the steps Aannsha said "What's that smell? It smells like burning rubber." I'd seen a plume of smoke at the far end of the boatyard where someone was burning rubbish and suggested that was the source of the burning smell.
Up in the cockpit, with the engine nicely warmed up we slipped the lines and Aannsha brought us neatly out from our berth. We'd just turned to head out of the fairway and had travelled less than 100 metres (328 feet) when Aannsha once again said "What's that smell?" pointed at the companionway and exclaimed "No! That's not good." I looked over to where she was pointing and saw grey smoke curling up from below. That was an 'oh shit' moment.
I dashed below and opened the engine inspection hatch in the port aft cabin. Acrid smoke poured out and as it cleared a little I could see that the source of the smoke was the insulation melting off from a wire that ran to the solenoid control terminal which was attached to the starter motor. That was an 'oh fuck' moment.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but a useless tool in real time
I couldn't see any signs of fire so I concluded that the insulation was smouldering due to a high amperage of electricity flowing through the wire. At that point, if I'd stopped for a second to think, I should've realised that there are only two sources of electrical power on board A B Sea, the engine alternator and the battery bank. If my thought process had gone that way I would've switched off the battery isolation switches and that would have temporarily fixed the smouldering.
However my thought process went in a different direction and all I could think was to get A B sea back into her berth and handle the situation with access to resources on the pontoon. Dashing back up to the cockpit I grabbed the handheld VHF radio and called the marineros, told them we needed urgent assistance tying back at our berth and that smoke had been detected on board.
With that done I took the helm and put the engine into reverse. I have never backed into a stern to position so fast. As I bumped our stern against the pontoon, Aannsha stepped off with a stern line and got us secure around a pontoon cleat. Tucked between our neighbouring boats and now at least attached to the pontoon I felt it was safe to turn the engine off while we waited for the marineros to arrive. The engine stop button didn't work. Another 'oh shit' moment.
Searching for another way to stop the engine we went below and opened the engine inspection hatch in the aft starboard berth. We were greeted with another burst of acrid throat burning smoke. As I fumbled around looking for a manual way to stop the engine Aannsha made a clever suggestion to turn off the fuel supply. I did that and as we waited for the fuel in the line and pump to be used up we went back into the cockpit just as the marineros came on board.
One guy went below, took one look at the smouldering wire and instantly said "Batteries. Off." A light bulb went on in my head. Of course why didn't I think of that earlier. With all onboard batteries now isolated he pulled what remained of the smouldering wire off the spade terminal on the solenoid and instructed me to turn off the engine. The engine stop button still didn't work and just as we were pondering what our next move would be, the engine sputtered to a halt. It had used all the remaining fuel in the lines and pump. Everything was off and the situation was under control.
The marineros then went about getting the slime line attached to the bow and winched A B Sea back to the pontoon and secured the stern lines. We thanked them and they left.
Why did it happen?
The event happened on a Friday so we called Kev to come and take a look and see if he could figure out what went wrong.
He concluded that the solenoid had become stuck open which allowed unfettered electricity to flow from the engine start battery. A 12 volt battery may not seem like much power but it is the amperage of the battery that is the main factor. Our starter battery is 95 amp hours which means it can pump out a lot of juice in a small space of time. That's perfect for getting an engine started but you don't want that amperage to flow constantly otherwise you get the effect that we'd just witnessed: smouldering wires created by the heat of the electricity flowing through them.
Kev removed the starter motor and solenoid from the engine and concluded that it had never been removed or serviced since the engine was installed 25 years ago and that failure was inevitable.
I took the faulty units up to Aydin's workshop and he said he'd look into it and give me a call when he had some information. In this blog I won't go into detail about what happened next and what the outcome was because it would spoil the surprise of what happens when you watch the video. Check it out on our YouTube channel, it's episode #155.
Stay safe wherever you are and whatever you're doing and I'll bring you more tales from Sailing A B Sea next week.
To watch the video that accompanies this blog click here.