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Melissa & Dave - Adventures at Sea

Fire!

November 2, 2014

Short of running into a submerged object and putting a hole in your hull, fire aboard a boat is super scary as it can burn you to the water line.

We woke up to bright sunshine.  Dave started up the generator to give the batteries and fridge a boost.  After a few minutes we both started to smell something faintly burning.  Given our recent issues with the generator, we immediately suspected it, but when Dave opened the compartment nothing appeared amiss.  He even got out his hand held temperature measuring device but it showed the generator was running at the proper temperatures.  Dave speculates maybe we got a bit of exhaust back through the generator system.  Melissa checks the exterior exhaust but it doesn't appear plugged.  We start tearing apart other compartments looking for any electronics that may have somehow fried themselves.  Air conditioner seems fine.  Ice maker is running ok.  Solar panel control heads are looking good.  The boat starts to fill with smoke in earnest.  We can now see it is pouring out of the generator compartment.  So Dave opens the generator compartment again.  This time the smoke is thick, and we can see flames and sparks pouring out of the generator.  Dave shuts it down and fortunately the sparks and fire die instantly.  It never got hot enough to set off the automated fire suppression system in the engine compartment.

After a few heart pounding seconds, its clear that there is no damage to the boat other than the generator which might be a total loss.  The core at least will need to be replaced as it was the internal windings that were throwing all the sparks.  This would explain why the one winding was bad.  Probably it was the start of a larger failure of the entire core.  Dave had been suspicious because there was no way to pin down the root cause of the one winding failure he had diagnosed two days ago.  And call it gut instinct but he just wasn't happy not knowing why the first winding failed.  In fact, Dave had been paranoid enough about it that the night we thought it fixed, he shut it down when we went to dinner ashore not wanting to leave it running unsupervised till his confidence had increased.  Had this happened when we were not aboard, the results might have been very different.

Likely the repair work is only possible in a marina or boat yard because we will have to pull the core out and the only way to do that is to actually lift the generator out completely.  It’s probably a couple of weeks of work.  There isn't a marina on this side of the canal with any space open – so the first place we could work on it would be after we go through the canal on the other side.  Meanwhile, what to do?  We debate whether to accelerate our canal crossing so that we can work on the generator in the marina on the other side.  But not clear that makes sense either given how long it takes to get parts – we might be sitting a whole month somewhere as Dave diagnoses, waits for a part, etc... and we will pay a heavy premium for the parts here in Panama.  So we finally decide the right thing to do is to purchase a portable generator ($345) that can live on the deck.  In fact, we may just decide to use the portable for the next 5 months till we reach the US at the end of this venture and have it repaired there were parts are abundant.

So Mike and Dave head to the hardware store where they buy a 3000 watt portable generator and haul it back aboard.  After filling it with oil and gasoline Dave starts it up.  Its reasonably quiet - when we are down in the cabin it doesn't make any more noise than the built in generator did.  It has no problem running the fridge and recharging the batteries - which are the critical items.  And while it should have had enough juice to run the air conditioner, when Dave starts the air conditioner (with the fridge shut down) it keeps popping the circuit breaker on the portable generator.  Probably some type of surge start up condition on the air conditioner.  Dave is mulling over whether he can fix that or whether we will be limited to air conditioning only in marinas for the foreseeable future.

So other than now having a big hulking generator strapped to the deck, we are back to status quo more or less.

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