In the Western world we take unlimited electricity for granted, but on a boat it is a very different thing. Unless you are moored on “shore power” getting enough power to run the boat can be a delicate issue.
Some captains are traditionalists and want to use as little power as possible. Nemo, Mareva’s captain had prided himself on sailing solely on solar power for years. Until three years ago when he got a laptop. After that it was all downhill from there and at last he broke down and bought a generator.
Generators are not always reliable though. Several of the boats I’ve been on have had generator issues. Something goes wrong, it won’t work, and power becomes a commodity on the boat. Sure, solar panels generate enough to keep the autopilot, refrigeration, GPS, radio, and the basics going, but you really have to run the engine to watch TV, or charge a laptop, ipod, or anything like that.
Now when I joined Southern Cross I knew the generator was in pieces. Even with the power and technology-addict that I, as a Westerner, am, it wasn’t too much of an issue. We did run the engine a good deal of the time.
The trouble started in the desert paradise of Cocos (Keeling). We had a minor hiccup anchoring. Southern Cross was a bit of a push-button boat and the anchor could be dropped via remote control. Most of the time. When Steve pressed the remote button nothing happened. We jiggled the wires and tried to trouble shoot to no avail. In the end Steve had to manually drop the anchor. Not with a winch handle. Hand over hand; he had to let the chain out.
Push-button sailing is fine, as long as there is a backup. Unfortunately there wasn’t a winch handle on Southern Cross to manually drop the anchor so when the remote didn’t work; the crew had to drop the anchor by hand.
Now running the windlass to drop the anchor does take quite a bit of power, but we were pretty convinced that it was something wrong with the windlass. Cocos was beautiful, but it was also remote, so remote there wasn’t anyone to work on the yacht. Steve worked on it himself and thought he’d fixed it. Until nothing happened when we went to pick up anchor for Mauritius.
Even running the engine the starboard battery wasn’t charging. This was worse than the generator being dead. This was serious. If one battery was dead it could drag the other one down. And they were both almost new batteries. No one knew what could be the matter.
We hauled the anchor up by hand and set sail with trepidation. We would have to go back to basics on this leg. It was going to be a leg relying chiefly on solar.
A good idea, provided the sun makes an appearance. Unfortunately solar power is contingent on sunny days and naturally that leg was the rainiest one yet.
Problems with generators
Problems with batteries
No sun to charge the solar panels
At least we still had our motor, which is more than all the yachts on the WARC could say.
The more high-tech and fancy a boat is the more things that can go wrong. I am all for the comforts of push-button sailing, but experience shows that it’s always good to have redundancies a few back-up plans, and be able to do things the old-fashioned way.
After all, the more you know about boats the more things you know that can go wrong…