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A bad alternator and a tale of two mechanics

The warning that appeared on the autopilot was as confounding as it was alarming: “Low Battery.”
How could that be? We’d motored for two straight days from Chesapeake Bay to Cape May, N.J., and now, a half-hour out of the inlet with nightfall approaching and the sails filled for once with a good Atlantic breeze, we’d finally turned off the engine. Surely the batteries were topped off.

Doug Campbell

I jumped down into the cabin of Robin, my Westsail 32, as John Morrison took over the steering. The voltmeter confirmed what the autopilot had reported. Batteries One and Two read deep in the yellow “low charge” field. I reached up to the cockpit and started the Beta engine (installed seven years ago), then turned back to the voltmeter. No change. The alternator wasn’t charging. If we tried to continue on our planned two-day passage to Martha’s Vineyard, we’d have no juice for the running lights, the radio, the radar or any other electrical necessity for an offshore voyage. We turned back toward Cape May, knowing we needed some help.
The next day, we took a slip in a local marina. The mechanic on duty said he was unqualified to help and referred us to another company, about 40 miles to the north in Pleasantville. A polite young mechanic was aboard Robin within an hour and, almost immediately, he diagnosed the problem. The cables on Robin’s two batteries were held in place by wing nuts, he noted. He replaced the wing nuts with hex nuts, checked the running engine with his multimeter and said the problem was solved.
I was satisfied that the four hex nuts were worth the $462.24 bill for one hour’s work on board — $120 an hour, plus travel time and parts — if we could be confident returning offshore. So it was a surprise when the next day, as we motored perhaps 50 miles off New Jersey and Long Island with no wind to help, the autopilot again read “Low Battery.”
We nursed Robin for the next 24 hours until we reached Newport, R.I. It was Thursday afternoon, and the local Beta dealer couldn’t help until at least Monday. I called the U.S. Beta distributor, Stanley Fiegenbaum, and described our problems. “It’s probably corrosion,” he said. “You have to check every single wire on that engine.”
I’m no mechanic, and the thought of touching wires whose purpose I don’t know fills me with dread. But I made an attempt and, quite quickly, I found massive corrosion in a plastic coupling that joined perhaps a dozen slender copper leads. Using a tiny fingernail file, I attempted to remove the greenish crust from the contacts. The engine started and, at first, it seemed to be charging. But then nothing.
By now, I had six days to make it to Rockland, Maine, normally an easy two-day run. My wife, Monica, was meeting me there at the end of the following week. We had a Honda 2000 EU generator lashed in the cockpit. If we took our time we could make Rockland even if the alternator wasn’t charging. We’d use the Honda as the backup.
So on Saturday we headed east to Chatham, Mass., and on Sunday we rounded Monomoy Point and aimed Robin’s bow toward Rockland, a little more than a full day to the northeast.
We were 70 miles from land at 5 a.m. Monday, and I was sleeping in the cockpit. John was on watch when he said, “What’s that smell?” In an instant, I knew it was an electrical fire. I climbed down the companionway ladder, grabbing the fire extinguisher on the way, and carefully opened the entrance to the engine compartment. A small blue flame danced atop the alternator and there were sparks and smoke. I shut down the engine hastily, and the pyrotechnics subsided and then disappeared. We now officially had no engine. There was no wind, so we’d have to wait and hope. Robin would have to sail the rest of the way.
The wind came first like a whisper about 10 o’clock that morning, billowing the spinnaker that we’d raised. Then the air filled in from the east so that Robin could make good headway directly toward Penobscot Bay and Rockland. By Tuesday morning, we were on a Rockland city mooring and Stanley Fiegenbaum had shipped a replacement alternator and introduced me to the local Beta dealer, Johanson Boatworks, whose mechanic, David Jones, would be available in two days.
On Thursday, Jones, who goes by “Jonesy” — “In the marine business,” he says, “you don’t want to be Davey Jones” — didn’t climb out of his launch to Robin’s deck right away. Instead, he took out a clipboard and began asking questions. “I have a pattern of how I do things,” he explained later. “Take in all the information first. Listen to the owner. … They can tell you, ‘It used to do this; now it doesn’t do this.’ You’re just gathering all the facts. You want to know what you’re dealing with. When you’ve got everything you can together, you step onto the project.”
At the end of 15 minutes alongside Robin, Jonesy had asked all of his questions and had diagrammed for me where he thought he would find the problem based on his experience. He explained that a bad connection can actually send current in the wrong direction, confusing the alternator. He showed me, on his clipboard, a couple of examples where this could happen on my engine.
On board, he went immediately to his most likely suspect: that coupling with the dozen wires on which I’d employed my fingernail file. One by one, he snipped off the wires, connecting them directly to their counterparts on the other side of the coupling. Once each was hard-wired, he sealed it with heat shrink so that no moisture could enter. With that coupling eliminated as a source of bad connections, he followed every other wire connected to the engine, checked the batteries and installed the new alternator. He started the engine and, just as at Cape May, the voltmeter showed that the batteries were charging. Jonesy, however, wasn’t finished.
Instructing me to run the engine for two hours, he went ashore and returned in the early afternoon to conduct a load test and assure himself he wasn’t leaving me with weak batteries. The batteries passed the test; so did Jonesy.
The total bill for his four hours of work was $192 ($48 an hour). And Robin, with Monica aboard, spent the next two weeks confidently cruising down the New England coast with no mechanical problems.

The trip was uneventful until the crew of the Westsail 32 neared Cape May, N.J.
Robin sits peacefully in Seal Cove, a protected anchorage on the Damariscotta River in Maine.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.