The $3.49 Fix

November, 2014:

Okay, so it was $3.76 after tax, but the part–the one itsy bitsy, tiny little part that made our whole engine run–was three dollars and forty-nine cents.


How long did it take us to figure that out?  I’d like to say it was only three hours and forty-nine minutes.  That would have been great, but it wasn’t.  It took weeks ….

If you recall, we were having occasional trouble getting our engine to crank after we installed and began using the new flexible solar panels on the bimini.


Our “boat buddy focus group” surmised that perhaps the solar input from the panels was confusing the alternator and causing it not to re-charge the starting battery while we were motoring.  For this reason, we installed two handy on/off switches in the aft berth locker to turn the panels off while we were motoring in (HIGH!) hopes it would prevent the alleged “alternator confusion.”


Apparently, though, our alternator isn’t the brightest part on the boat.  Sometimes it was confused; sometimes it was not.  The frustrating part was that the problem was intermittent.  Sometimes the engine would crank fine, other times it would not–inexplicably.  Like when you take your car to the shop so the mechanic can hear that ominous “clunking” sound and it won’t make it.  Bullocks!

The next time we took the boat out (after the on/off switches were installed and after we had turned them “off” while we were motored), and the engine again would not crank to bring us home, the Captain decided he’d had enough.  “We’re going to fix it today,” he said bright and early one Saturday morning, and I knew he wouldn’t stop until we had.  We donned some cloaks and pipes and decided to really roll up our sleeves to solve this mystery.


What’s the best way to start troubleshooting?

Start taking crap apart!


We traced every wire from the:

1.  Engine to the alternator,

2.  The alternator to the combiner (the device that decides which batteries (the house bank or the starting battery) need and get a charge from the engine),

3.  The combiner to the starting battery,

4.  The starting battery to the battery switch plate (where we turn on the batteries we want to use — house, starting or both combined, which is what we had been required to do when the starting battery alone wouldn’t allow us to crank),


And finally:

5.  The switch plate to the starter.

Everything seemed to look good.  None of the wires were corroded, split or compromised and the connections looked solid.  We couldn’t understand why our seemingly “good” starting battery was not starting the engine.  If it was the battery, that was going to be a couple hundred bucks to replace, which was a better prospect than the alternator.  So, we decided to have the battery checked yet again.  We disconnected it and hauled it to three different battery-check places (Auto Zone and the like), where every time a highly-qualified battery specialist would come out and hook his or her little gismo machine up to our battery to run the necessary gismo calculations.

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I felt like I was watching Al from Quantum Leap bang around on his Ziggy handheld.  Beep, bo-dum, boomp.


Each time, though (and three times total), the little Ziggy gismos came back showing our starting battery was good.


And, I’m not sure what “EXP DECISION” means exactly other than “Expert Decision.”  I guess if they’re the alleged “experts,” (particularly when the consensus was the same among all of them), there’s really no reason to question it.  

So, we hauled our alleged “good” battery back to the boat still stumped by our crank problem.  We decided to replace the ring connectors on each end of the positive and negative wires to the battery just for good measure, and that’s when we discovered it.


When Phillip was putting the post terminal connector back on the negative post he noticed it was loose.  No matter how hard he tried to tighten down on the nut, the connector couldn’t seem to achieve stable contact with the post.


Apparently, it had been so worn from age, jostling and electric current that the center of the ring had been (for lack of a better word) eroded out so that no matter how tight we cranked the nut down on the bolt, you still couldn’t get a good, solid connection, particularly when it was lowered onto the post one way as opposed to flipped over and put on the other way.  By some stroke of luck, Phillip had put it back on the “other way” this time, which revealed the loose connection.  That’s when we had our Aha! moment.  We dropped everything and headed back to Auto Zone.

“One post terminal connection, please.”


Three dollars and forty-nine cents later, we were mounting a snug new connector on the negative post certain this was going to be the easiest and cheapest fix we could have imagined.


And, what happened next?

Mmmhhh-hmmm.  A mighty fine crank indeed!  We could tell instantly from the solid *CLICK* of the glow plugs that our starting battery was finally cranking out some solid juice.  Our engine roared to life!


Now, why share this?  A simple post terminal connector replacement?  (Something we likely should have found pretty quickly.)  Because sometimes you just can’t see the simple fix initially.  With the new solar panels and the MPPT charge controllers, the new on/off switches and suspected alternator confusion, we were thinking the problem had to be more complicated.  But, lesson learned.  Most of the systems on the boat really are simple when you break them down and dissect them.  You just have to remember to “think simply” when troubleshooting.  I’ll never forget when we were trying to tell this ten-minute story to our buddy, Bottom-Job Brandon, and not three sentences in, he says:

“D’you check your post connectors?”


Sharp guy, that Brandon (but a total story killer!).  Good thing I have a captive audience here!  Ha!

In all, we were pleased with the simple $3.49 fix (not counting our “labor” which I felt we earned the “loss” on for having overlooked something so basic — a boat will humble you real quick).  And, with the problem solved, the afternoon remaining and the wind picking up, we decided it was high time for a reward.  A last-minute run to the beach that day offered up one of our best impromptu kite sessions of the year against one of the most exquisite sunsets I have ever seen.

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That’s the thing about sailing, though, living near the water, which can be deadly one minute and overwhelmingly serene the next, and owning a boat.  You can start the day out cramped, coated in gunk and sweat and cursing everything about your bleeping boat, but once the project is complete, the accomplishment of it serves as your unparalleled reward and wipes away all of your previous frustration.  Suddenly the job is done and the day is still young.  Suddenly, nothing can bother you.  Life is still, and always will be, good.




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Solar Panels Bring the Blues

November 7-9, 2014:

After our racy rendezvous with the Sundowner crew in NOLA we were itching to get back out on our boat.  Now that we had our slick solar panels installed and (presumably) working, it was time to take them out for a test run, and what better time than the Pensacola Blue Angels Homecoming Show in November!  Several of our boat buddies were planning to get out for it, too, so it was quickly decided we would all get together for a massive raft-up.  We were five-deep at the Fort baby!


From left to right:

1.  s/v Edelweiss, a well-kept 34′ Sabre, is often packed to the brim with the Armanis — two veterinarians with (now) three little ones in tow.  Did anyone call for a doctor?


2.  s/v WindWalker, a 38′ Morgan, belongs to our trusted diesel engine mechanic, Johnny Walker (yes, that’s really his name, feel free to make all the associated Jim Bean, Jack Daniels jokes you’d like – he’s used to it), and his beautiful wife, Cindy.  (While this is my absolute favorite picture of Johnny and Cindy, don’t doubt it, rain, shine or cold – these two are always smiling!)


3.  5 O’Clock, a 45′ Gulfstar, being the largest boat in the bunch often plays the role of “mothership” and is Captained by the only and only (you know this guy, he’s practically a celebrity in our world), Bottom-Job Brandon!  His rocking wife Christine and their (now) two little salty sailors round out the Hall crew.


4.  s/v Plaintiff’s Rest and it’s fine-looking crew need no introduction, really.  Admit it, it’s only the best-looking boat in the bunch.


5.  And, last but certainly not least, s/v Pan Dragon, a classic 36′ Pearson, is the pride and joy of our Broker-turned-Boat Buddy, Kevin, along with his incredibly entertaining wife, Laura, and their (now) two little ones seen here doing what they love to do — just “hang around” on the boat.


I will say Phillip and I are exceptionally lucky to have fallen into such a fine group of sailing comrades when we purchased our boat back in 2013.  All of these Captains are sharp, talented sailors, each with a different area of expertise and each having proven their willingness time and again to help us out when we’ve found ourselves faced with a difficult boat project, and vice versa.  It’s also great to see the lot of them (which with all of the “nows” you might have recognized has recently grown – three new additions in 2015 alone!) get their boats out just about every weekend they are able with the whole crawling/cradle crew in tow.  I wouldn’t trust myself to keep a potted plant alive on the boat and here they bring their actual living, breathing, arms-and-legs munchkins aboard and show us all it can (and should) be done.  Families can cruise too.  They’re really impressive.


Having all five of us lined up for this phenomenal weekend was a pretty epic feat.  But, when the Blue Angels come home, folks in Pensacola tend to get together for the event.  And, because the Blue Angels fly over their home base, the Pensacola Naval Air Station, for the homecoming show, we knew we would be right under the flight path anchored out near Ft. McRae.


Here comes one now!   Zzzwweeehhhhh!


See?  They flew right over us!  I kept trying to snap a cool shot of them coming by the boat but they kept breaking up, zipping around, looping and coming out of nowhere.  Those suckers are fast!  (And loud.)

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After about 84 missed shots (give or take), I finally caught them right where I wanted them.  Just overhead.  Check out the money shot!  BOOM.


Hull No. 193, baby!  That’s us!  It looks like they’re only 20 feet above our mast.  While I can assure you, they are much higher, it doesn’t sound or feel like it when you’re watching them zip overhead.  Zwweeehhhh!!


(Thank (and like) the Blue Angels Facebook team for the wicked pics!)

The show was jaw-dropping.  “Hold on to your drink, Cap’n!”


First Mate rockin’ the rubbers!

They even put on an evening show (which they had not done in years) at the Naval Air Station.  We could catch glimpses of it (and hear the roar of the flaming big rig) from our boats.


In all, it was an incredible weekend spent out on the boat with an amazing group of friends.

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And, best of all, the solar panels performed beautifully.  While we felt good about the Velcro adhesion, just to be safe I had taken some time back at the dock to manually stitch the panels on through their corner grommets with some green sail twine.


You can see it on the corners here:


Those flat little panels were expensive!  While it was highly unlikely, I wasn’t going to risk them flying off in some heavy winds.  They also proved extremely productive during our weekend out, pumping in (just about as we had expected) approximately 8 amps/hour.


It was truly gratifying to watch our amp hours go DOWN during the day.  We were definitely pleased with the input and thrilled with the results of a long and tedious project.  Life was good … for a brief moment.  I swear that dern boat likes to toy with us sometimes.  Right when you think everything is running smoothly and everything about boating is awesome, the boat likes to throw a little wrench in things just to, you know, keep you guessing.  After our amazing weekend out on the boat, we woke Sunday to an awe-inspiring sky, sipped on coffee and decided we would ease the anchor up about mid-morning to enjoy a beautiful sail home.


That was the plan anyway, until we tried to crank the engine and ———    Nothing, nada, flat line.  We couldn’t even get a click to turn the glow plugs on.  Our starting battery was completely dead.  The boat seemed to think it was funny.

It’s not funny, boat.

Luckily, on our boat, we can flip a switch to combine the house batteries with the starting battery, in situations like this, to pull from the house bank in order to crank the engine.  It’s not really good for the house batteries because they’re intended primarily for deep cycle use, but if you’ve got to crank, you’ve got to crank.  So, that’s what we did, and she started right up, which was a good sign.  That meant it wasn’t an engine problem just a battery problem, but it was still baffling.  What gives, boat?

Thankfully, we had a whole host of boat friends nearby to help us run through some things and troubleshoot.  Assuming our starting battery was still good (which, being only a year old, it was pretty safe to assume it was) the primary difference was the solar panels.  Once installed, they were essentially “on” all the time.  Meaning, any time they panels were in the sunlight, they were pumping in juice.  While the MPPT charge controllers regulate the influx of power to make sure the house batteries do not get overwhelmed by the solar input, one option kicked around the group was the possibility that the solar input may have overwhelmed the alternator and caused it not to re-charge the starting battery while we were motoring over to the Fort on Friday.

Back home, we took the starting battery the following week to several different Auto Zone type places to have it tested, and each time it passed with flying colors.  The battery was good.  That left the panels.  We decided to install switches under the aft locker next to the MPPT charge controllers to allow us to turn the panels off when we were running under engine power so as not to confuse the alternator and allow our starting battery to re-charge.


It was a pretty simple job and (we hoped) would be a pretty easy fix to our crank problem.  The next couple of times she cranked fine, and we were sure to turn the panels off when we were under motor and turn them back on again once we killed the engine if we wanted solar input.  Life was good again.  Until …

Yes, again.  Such are the joys of owning a boat.  Seemingly randomly, after several times cranking without incident, the minute we had some family in town and invited them out on the boat for a beautiful, brisk day sail, she wouldn’t crank.  It was clear we

had a serious boat battery mystery to solve.  And,  I swear the boat thought it was funny.

It’s not funny, boat.



Captain Sherlock and I were hot on the case.  It simply had to be “elementary.”



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Solar Finale – THE BIG REVEAL

July, 2014:

This is it.  The drums beat — Bum-bum.  Bum-bum.  Brdrdrdrd, bum-bum.  (Then the trumpets come in) Duh, duh-nuh-nuh!  Okay, that is supposed to mimic the dramatic 20th Century Fox movie intro.

If you heard me sing it (yes, I sing both drum and trumpet), you would recognize it immediately.  But, don’t worry, you’ll get the privilege.  It’s all waiting for you, in the big REVEAL!

Throughout the solar panel project, we’d spent many an irksome evening at the boat, running wires to check length, holding gizmos in place to make sure they fit and were actually the best place for mounting, etc.  We had even invited some boat buddies over to run things through with us before we actually started drilling holes and, you know, making things permanent (oooohhhh … scary).  Being the great boat friends they are (and loving any excuse to get to mess around on a boat), Kevin and Brandon gladly pitched in and helped us double-check everything and make sure we didn’t burn the boat down during this whole solar install business.


As I mentioned, we had to install two MPPT charge controllers (which I now understood to be the devices that control the amount of “juice” coming in from the solar panels to make sure they don’t overload the house batteries–kind of like a flow regulator if you will).  After pondering several potential locations, we finally decided to mount our MPPT controllers (two – one for the large 100 watt panel and another for the two 50-watt panels combined) in a locker under the aft berth, right by the nav station.


This way, they remained down below, protected from the elements, but were fairly easy to access to check the wires, make sure juice was coming in, etc.  Well, fairly easy once mounted …


Those circus skills were still coming in handy.  But, we did eventually get them mounted and wired side-by-side in the aft berth locker:

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Then, all we had to do was run wires from the panels below deck to these controllers, and then from these controllers to the house battery bank in the bilge.  Simple, right?  You might be starting to sense a pattern here.  Generally, when I say something is going to be “simple,” or “easy,” it turns out to be anything but.  I’m sitting here trying to think what would be the opposite of a ‘piece of cake.’  A bowl of barley perhaps?   Much harder to process and not near as much fun to do.

We decided to run the wires from the panels flush down a pole on the bimini frame, cut one hole through the deck on the outside of the cockpit coaming for entry, then lead them through the engine room, into the aft berth locker to the charge controllers, then under the floorboards to the house batteries.

Solar Panel Layout

You see?  Barley.  Not cake.

And, everywhere the wires went, Annie was sure to go!

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Once we got the panels connected to the charge controllers and the charge controllers connected to the batteries, it was time to see if we had some juice coming in.

And the survey says  …


DING!   That second little green light on the left tells us everything we need to know.  Power is coming in baby!  Feels like a shot of B12.  BOOM!


Yes, it is that exciting.  When you spend weeks on a project, pore over reviews, online forums and product descriptions, cramp yourself in dirty, oily places running wires and fumble with the tiniest of screws in the hardest to reach places, that little green light that comes on and tells you it’s working–all of your hard work is working … you feel about like that.  Like you could bust up a hard-core gangster in a fight.  Take that!

Once we knew everything was working correctly, it was time to do it for real, i.e., actually cut the wires to length, run and affix them where they would actually go (which meant cutting a hole in the deck) and seal everything into place.  You know, really make it final.   * Gulp *

We ziptied all of the wires around the panels as neatly as we could and ran them down through the hole in the bimini canvas where the backstay protrudes.


While our boat buddies (being a bit more confident in our rig-it-up skills than we) encouraged us to go at it alone, when it came time to actually drill a hole in the deck, we enlisted our buddy Bottom-Job Brandon to help us make sure it was placed, cut and sealed correctly.  Having lived and worked on boats nearly all of his adult life, Brandon through his company, Perdido Sailor, Inc., has the solid reputation of always “over-doing” a job, meaning doing it the right way not the easy way.  When you’ve got a friend like that, it just makes sense to have him look over your shoulder on projects like this to make sure you don’t make stupid, can’t-be-undone mistakes.


Brandon made sure the hole was placed in a part of the deck that wouldn’t cause additional crazing or cracking and that the fitting was the right size to ensure a watertight seal to prevent water intrusion.


I supervised.


I had to shut my eyes, though, when Brandon actually fired the drill up.  I mean, he was about to put a hole in our boat.  Intentionally!   Close ’em …    Squeeze ’em tight …  Whrrreeerrrrr


Thankfully, Brandon was quick and merciful.  A few seconds, and then it was done.

Brandon also had the good idea to run the four wires (a positive and negative from each of our “two” panels) through a large heat-shrink wrap to protect them from the elements and make one nice, clean black “wire” to run down the bimini frame and through the hole in the deck.




Now, the panels were secure, the wires were run, everything was officially (and permanently) in place, hooked up, mounted and operating.  It was actually impressive to see how sleek and slim our installation job turned out to be.  The panels and wires were almost unnoticeable.

Looking at the before-and-after, you kind of have to squint and cock your head to the left to actually notice the panels:

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Didn’t see them?  You have to cock to the left.  It doesn’t work when you do it to the right.

In all, we were incredibly pleased with the job.  The panels were streamline, virtually unnoticeable, mounted, wired and (most importantly) working!  And, not counting our own labor, research and toil (which as the owners is expected but, thankfully, free!), we were in the whole thing for about a grand and a six-pack of well-earned brewskies for our boat buddies for helping us out with it.  Not too shabby considering this will give us, likely, another 2 to 2.5 half days on the hook and prolong the life of our hard-working diesel engine.  Easily worth it in our book.

So, having slapped ourselves on the back and considered the job well done, it was time to finally peel back the plastic from the panels and film for your viewing pleasure a cheesy yet hard-earned SOLAR PANEL REVEAL!

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Cue the intro again.  The drums beat — Bum-bum.  Bum-bum.  Brdrdrdrd, bum-bum.  (Then the trumpets come in) Duh, duh-nuh-nuh!  

And, it just so happened, around the same time, I finished choreographing my first aerial silks routine for performance and had filmed it for review.  Do know my super-talented silks instructor, Garrett, just jumped in for fun to perform it with me and was just following me along (yes, he makes it look that good just “winging it”).  So, to wrap up this silks-and-solar bonanza, I give you – MY FIRST SILKS ROUTINE.  Enjoy!

Next up, we take this show on the road!  A raucous trip to NOLA involving more aerial acrobatics, chains, whips and an unlikely encounter with another blogging couple you may know well …  I can’t give it all away!  Stay tuned!



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