Where did we last leave you? That’s right. Brooklyn NYC! Boy was that a posh stay at the new One-15 Marina there in Brooklyn.
It was super cool to step foot off the boat right onto the waterfront piers and parks of Brooklyn. Not to mention either taking a quick sub ride—or even walking across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge!—right into NYC. We spent an incredible couple of weeks there in September-October last year while Hurricane Ian unfortunately rolled over south Florida. Once the remnants of Ian cleared and allowed us to get back offshore, we were planning a two-day offshore trip from Coney Island, NY to Norfolk, VA.
What we did not plan on, however, was our generator going kaput right before we were set to head offshore.
The last chore we were going to undertake before we headed offshore NY to VA was going to be a bottom scrub (you know, to get that extra knot of speed!). Phillip and I had invested in a Brownie’s Third Lung air compressor dive unit to allow us to scrub Ubi’s bottom (more meticulously than by free-diving, which I am not good at … at all … add it to my bucketlist), as well as perform prop and shaft maintenance and/or other bottom repairs, as needed, or perhaps dive deeper reefs when we find them. We found the Brownie’s was a solid investment for the promise of regular DIY bottom jobs. Simply crank the generator, turn on the inverter, plug the Brownie’s (110V) unit in and *BAM* you can breathe underwater and take all the time you need to make sure your boat’s bottom is safe, smooth, and pristine. Only there was no *BAM.* No nothing. When we tried to turn our Fischer Panda 4000 DC generator over in Coney Island to do the bottom, it would not crank.
My hmmpfh face after getting Brownies all rigged up and suiting up, ready to dive overboard with my Scotch Brite and get to it!
Full disclosure, we’d had some difficulty with our generator from the beginning. He wasn’t a 100% consistent cranker, which earned him the name “Gremlin” (courtesy of me). Other times when he had given us trouble, we had thought we’d tracked it down to low voltage and a loose connection on the starting battery (which we use to crank him). He had refused to jettison exhaust water one time when I was manning Ubi alone, and I found he had chewed through his own impeller. A relatively easy fix, but it definitely instilled his “Gremlin” nickname in my book.
Meet Gremlin: Our Fischer Panda AGT 4000 DC Generator
On Ubiquitous, we have a Fischer Panda AGT 4000 DC generator, installed in the “workroom” (Annie’s shop) on our Outbound in the starboard lazarette. Ubi’s former owner selected the DC generator—over an AC generator—to provide a quicker, far more efficient charge to Ubi’s 12V lithium battery bank, as needed, to supplement power she receives from her 200 watts of solar, the wind generator, and our Yanmar 80hp engine. I’ll be honest. I wasn’t a huge Gremlin fan at first. On the old boat, our 1985 Niagara 35, we never had a generator, and I wasn’t initially a fan of this second (teeny tiny) engine that required our attention, maintenance, time, and trust. I like simplicity.
But with the comfort that Ubi’s many gallant systems provides, an occasional super-charge of her batteries via the DC generator is a must. Phillip and I are fans of the DC generator (over an AC generator) because we don’t typically need AC power. We’re not air-conditioning people. We don’t have or typically use a microwave, toaster, hair dryer, etc. on the boat. As elegant as Ubiquitous is, at heart, Phillip and I are still simple sailors. Elegant campers, you might say. Which means we liked the idea of a quick 45-50 minute run of the generator every 4 or so days as needed. When the water maker is commissioned, we need to make water (or freshwater flush the system) every 4 or so days. Making water requires we run the generator, so it times well. That is, when the generator is running well.
On this day in Coney Island, our hopes that Gremlin’s occasional crank problem was a low voltage issue (that we thought we had fixed) were quashed. Our generator had plenty of voltage, yet he was not able to get the necessary combustion, for some reason, to turn over. With winter encroaching, we knew we needed to get somewhere further south, where we had more resources and time to troubleshoot our generator issue. While heading out on an offshore passage, with such a critical component of our power generation system on Ubi impaired, was not ideal. We knew we had plenty of fuel to motor the entire way (or at least enough of the way to keep the batteries charged if needed), so our plan was to get to Norfolk and then—#1 priority—get Gremlin figured out.
Our Voyage, New York to Norfolk
In all, we had a chilly but exciting sail from Coney Island, NY to Norfolk, VA—an approximate 300 nm run—that we made in about 50 hours. Thankfully, we sailed a good bit of the way, making good time, with minimal power needs.
We anchored off of Hospital Point, where we stayed for a bit in 2021 while preparing to round Hatteras the first time.
Our first day on the hook, we got the Fischer Panda folks on the phone to begin troubleshooting. Their initial thought was a problem getting fuel to the cylinder. We checked the fuel lines, cleaned the injector, and ensured we had a bright pink stream of diesel pumping in. It didn’t seem fuel was the problem, although it’s an important first place to start.
While Phillip was on the phone with the Fischer Panda guy, I had Googled around the Norfolk area, looking for a small engine repair guy and came across this Lafayette Marine shop that was highly rated in the area. I called. Got a guy named Charlie on the line, who could hear Phillip and the Fischer Panda guy running down fuel issues while I was talking to him on speaker. From overhearing their conversation and from what I’d told him about the generator not turning over, Charlie told us “you’re probably waterlocked.”
The Diagnosis: Seawater in the Cylinder
I’m sure my blonde was showing. But, once Charlie explained that we likely had seawater that had come back into the generator somehow and had started to corrode the valve and cylinder, preventing it from creating the combustion necessary to turn the generator over. Charlie even told me he’d seen the exact same problem on another Outbound 46 about a year prior and he fixed that one. While I had no idea who I was calling at the time, it seemed like I had reached the dude around those parts for the type of repair we needed on our generator.
Once Charlie mentioned the other Outbound owner, Phillip and I jumped on the Outbound forum and—sure enough—found a fellow outbound owner who’d faced this same problem with his generator and had stopped in Norfolk to have this guy, Charlie, repair it. That was enough to tell Phillip and I we were in good hands. One problem with cruising (i.e., repairing your boat in exotic places) is it’s sometimes hard to find trusted marine vendors in ports you’ve never visited and where you don’t know anyone. So, having a fellow Outbound owner vouch for Charlie meant a lot to us. Tentatively, we asked Charlie if he could meet us somewhere near Hospital Point to come aboard Ubi and assess our generator.
“It would be best if you could get a slip at a marina so I can come and go as needed. Do you know Tidewater Marina?” Charlie asked.
I Googled. 500 feet. I looked out our portlight. “Yep. I can see it from the boat.”
Phillip and I weighed anchor and got settled into a slip at Tidewater that day with Charlie scheduled to come the following morning to assess the generator. As soon as he got Gremlin torn apart and a vice grip on it that he could use to manually turn it, Phillip and I both could hear it. A distinctive slosh when Charlie turned it. That sealed it. We were definitely waterlocked.
How Did This Happen?
Charlie saw it all quite clearly the minute he looked at our install, saying it was very similar to the other Outbound he had repaired the year prior. The muffler for the generator wasn’t installed low enough to prevent seawater from traveling back up the exhaust hose and into the generator, particularly in a sea state where the boat is pitching. We had definitely been in some sea states since we started sailing Ubi one year prior. Heck, Brooklyn alone had enough wake in the marina (despite their wake-dampening attenuators) to have rocked Ubi back and forth to allow the water backup. Charlie showed us the diagram in the Fischer Panda manual showing the requisite height that should be allowed between the muffler and the generator to prevent the ability for seawater to travel back into the generator. For whatever reason, our generator had not been installed to these specs.
Charlie was sure he would see corrosion in the cylinder and valve when he took it apart, telling him the valve was likely unable to create the necessary seal for combustion. However, he was hopeful he could replace the valve and clean up the cylinder and walls enough to create a seal and get our generator up and running again. Otherwise, we were looking at installing a new generator—which sparked a whole chain of research and questions on our end that had our heads spinning. To avoid all that research, decision-making, and expense, Phillip and I were equally as hopeful Charlie could get Gremlin back to fighting condition.
How Charlie Fixed It
Even if we could repair Gremlin, we still had the faulty install to deal with. How were we going to prevent the same thing from happening—raw exhaust water traveling back into the generator—the next time we got in a sea state (or even a big wake in a channel)? Thankfully, Charlie had a fix. His plan was to cut a hole in the floor under the generator (that was about 15” above the hull in the bilge) where he could install, essentially, a second, lower muffler, that would prevent seawater from being able to make the journey up that high to get back into our generator. While cutting more holes in the boat is never ideal, we didn’t see another option for Gremlin, assuming he recovered from his surgery.
Charlie dismantled Gremlin and took his cylinder off. When he removed the cylinder, Phillip and I both could easily see the corrosion.
Charlie took the cylinder to his shop for cleaning and replacement of the valve which we all hoped would revive our generator. In the meantime, Phillip and I made good use of our time in Portsmouth and Norfolk, VA.
Making the Most of Our Time in Norfolk
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Wine festivals tend to find their way to us. Turns out, there was one that very weekend in Norfolk—the annual Town Point Virginia Wine Festival. Ummm … yes please? Charlie actually recommended it to us. Likely because he sensed we like wine and also (we suspect) he, wisely, wanted us nice and distracted while he worked diligently on our generator, because our stint with Charlie actually left us stuck in Norfolk, at a marina which we had not originally planned for, and additional two weeks. The Wine Festival was a much-welcomed distraction.
Another bonus? Our friends and fellow Outbound owners, Peter and Patty (first introduced on the blog here) were also in the Norfolk area. So, we used the time wisely to spend a few very fun nights with them, including one right around Halloween where we all dressed up for the occasion. Phillip and I pilfered this awesome thrift store in Portsmouth and were actually able to put together a pretty spiffy Genie costume and Firefighter getup for a total of $12.00.
Peter and Patty, however, won the costume prize with their original Operation rendition. Very clever. That night, we also found an outdoor concert headed up by a Talking Heads cover band that was pretty out of this world. Now, whenever Phillip and I hear “Psycho killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est?” we think of Peter and Patty and our fun Halloween in Norfolk.
Make the most of it, right? That’s pretty much what cruising is all about. We did see some pretty sunsets and rainbows while in Portsmouth.
After a few unexpected, pricey (but fun!) weeks in Portsmouth, VA, Charlie came back with some exceptional news. The newly repaired cylinder head (complete with a new valve) was ready. Charlie brought it to the boat and the visual was telling. It looked super clean.
We all were very hopeful Charlie’s fix, including the second muffler installed under the generator floor, would allow our generator to turn over and run smoothly, without water every flowing back into the cylinder.
After a good bit of priming and initial attempts, our Fischer Panda finally turned over! I whooped so loud when the generator finally cranked, it spooked Charlie. Poor guy, he spent so many hours, uncomfortable, on his knees down in our workroom. Charlie was a dedicated professional who was honest with us and approached our generator problem very pragmatically and kept us informed the entire time. We can’t recommend Lafayette Marine and Charlie in Norfolk, VA enough. Thank you again, Charlie!
I’m sure Charlie was just as thrilled to hear our generator turn over as we were. And, after some fun banter with cruising friends about the issues we’d been having with Gremlin and how his recovery was going, my Bestie, Rachel, said if he recovered and got back in the ring, he deserved a new name.
Meet our repaired and recovered generator. No longer Gremlin. Now, he’s Rocky. Balboa.
And you better believe Phillip and I sing this song every time we go to crank Rocky. He deserves it. He’s a champion.
Next up on the blog, we round Hatteras again (another Happy Hattereen!) and head south to warmer temps and island times. Stay tuned!