Thursday, October 12, 2017

Things that Break in the Middle of the Night (Again)

We did the last of our reprovisioning, said goodbye to friends, and slipped our lines at Vuda Pt. Marina on Monday, Oct. 9th. We went over to the Customs Dock to clear out, along with three other boats. Since we were the outside (last boat to arrive) everyone had to wait for us to clear before they could leave. As we were getting ready to push off, the staff from Vuda Pt. came down to the dock and with a guitar accompaniment, sang us a beautiful Fiji good-bye song. We felt that many of the employees who we dealt with daily for over the last month truly will miss us, so we left with a very good feeling in our hearts. Fiji is simply one of those special places on earth.

A hearty send off from the staff of Vuda Pt. Marina to the three departing boats.
We motored into a 15-knot wind for about two hours to Mololo Pass (near the world famous Cloud Break surf break) where we hoisted the genoa and felt the boat get a bit in her teeth and settle into a steady 7 knots as the beam wind increased to around 18 to 20 knots. We had 446 nautical miles to go, but the weather looked perfect.

We had just run into some old friends that we’d last seen in the Galapagos, Geoff and Allison on Saroni, and discussed various cruising options for our trip to Australia. We’re tight on time and vacillated on whether to go to Vanuatu. Our fate was decided the night before when Meryl read s/v Georgia’s blog about their experiences touring an active volcano on Tanna Island in Vanuatu, so that’s where we set our course. It was pretty close to the rhumb line for New Caledonia anyway. It would just take a week out of our schedule, but it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The 446 nautical mile trip from Fiji to Port Resolution, Vanuatu crosses some very desolate water, but the good news is there are relatively few reefs along the route.
We quickly settled into our offshore mode, standing three-hour watches 24 x 7. Night watches were now much more enjoyable since we had the new dodger and bimini installed:  no more water dripping on our heads through the bimini or fabric ripping in the breeze. More importantly, we now had plastic roll-up side panels alongside the cockpit so when an errant wave came rushing up the beam of the boat, we stayed dry and toasty. I can’t tell you how nice a feature this is. I remember one night on our Tonga passage when I had to bathe (you are soaked in salt water from these waves) and put on new clothes three times during one night’s watch. I was not a happy camper. We could now also wear lighter clothing at night since the 20-knot winds were blocked by the panels. It was like we had our very own sundeck on the good ship Flying Cloud.

We had two boats ahead of us and one boat behind us (although we couldn’t see them) and we could talk to additional boats on the MagNet on 8122 at 8:00 am and 5:30 pm. Saroni was one day behind us but had lots of good information on Vanuatu and New Caledonia. We had thought of sneaking into the Loyalty Islands (part of New Caledonia) but we’d be taking a risk since you can only clear into Noumea, which was about 100 miles after the Loyalties. Saroni told us strong winds were predicted in one week, so we decided to continue to Tanna, see the volcano, then head to Port Villa on Efate Island in the Vanuatus to wait out the storm.

With a steady16 to 20 knots of wind on the beam, we enjoyed near perfect passage- making weather averaging 7.5 knots day after day with beautiful weather and 80 temperatuers.

When the boat is on a broad reach it stays fairly level so we could function down below with out getting covered in black and blue spots. We both looked forward to our 3-hour “naps” on the lee berth down below. It’s very quiet down below and I sleep like a baby, Meryl a little less so (she worries about everything).

During our last night’s watch at 2:00 am (remember, everything bad happens at 2:00 am), Meryl noticed our new Windows navigation computer was showing a warning message it was just about out of power. I checked the batteries and was shocked to see they were at about 16v instead of the normal 24 to 25 volts. On top of everything else, the charger/inverter (which provides power to the 220v Windows computer) had shut off. This is about when it would have been nice to have majored in Electrical Engineering instead of History.

We immediately started the engine but were flummoxed when the meter showed no amperage coming into the 24v battery bank. I got out my handy Fluke multimeter and saw no amps coming out of the 24v alternator. My assumption (and remember I’ve lately had a terrible track record with assumptions) was that somehow the alternator had gone bad (and I’d just installed new belts to be on the safe side) and also the inverter/charger had gone bad. We have a 110 v Honda generator buried in the Master Berth, but I figured it would do us no good if the charger was bad. 

To save what little precious battery we had left (remember we are running at night and we need our night lights, nav lights, etc. to be seen by other ships), we shut off the power hungry autopilot and began trading off each 30 minutes hand steering the boat. This is never easy on a big boat such as ours, but the wind was now a stead 20+ knots and we were surfing off the waves at 8.6 knots in the dark. A half hour of wrestling the wheel for us 70 year olds was about enough. During one of my 30-minute rest breaks I mentally walked through all the options. I felt our best bet was to get to New Caledonia as soon as possible since they had marine electricians and a good supply of parts if we had to replace the very expensive Mastervolt charger/inverter. I had Meryl change course, heading up about 20 degrees in an attempt to get to NC before the storm did.

During all these mental machinations, a distant thought popped in to my head. It was like deja’ vu all over again. We’d had this same scenario (before we increased the size of our battery bank). I remembered the computerized regulator attached to our 24v alternator had a safety feature so when the house bank voltage dropped below 21v, the regulator would stop charing the battery to protect it from damage. Bingo!

A very happy Captain Meryl after solving our electrical problems out in the middle of nowhere.
As the sun came up we religiously watched the incoming amps from our solar panels and the minute the banks hit 21v we turned on the engine and watched the incoming amperage change from 8, to 20, to 40, and finally to 98 volts! I can’t tell you the sigh of relief that washed over Meryl and I as we fell off 20 degrees and resumed our course to Tanna Island in Vanuatu.

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