Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Voltage Regulation

We've been at this blogging for a couple of months now, and while Michelle always talks about the joys of sailing, I seem to be the person talking about the maintenance problems. I guess that's just a reflection of my being part-time grease monkey.

The first year of boat ownership involved a steep learning curve. We've talked before about problems with our roller furler and electical connections. Another problem we had was with our power supply.

For those not overly familiar with boats, there are generally two power systems. One is the standard AC system, which you access by plugging your boat into the power outlet on the dock. The second is the 12 Volt DC system, which is similar to a car system. It is powered by a pair of batteries if the engine is off, or by the engine itself through an alternator when the motor is running. This is the system that operates most of the on-board electronics, such as the radio and depth sounder.

During the first year, we had lots of problems with these electronics. We chalked it up to the age of the systems - after all, it is a 20 year old boat. After the first year, we decided to replace the VHF radio (which worked intermittetly) and the depth sounder (which had stopped working altogether). At the start of year 2, I replaced these components before the boat went into the water.

Our first trip out, we noticed that the new depth sounder seemed to be having problems. It would shut off intermittently for no apparent reason. I pulled out more than a few hairs trying to find out where the bad electrical connection was. After resplicing all the wires, Michelle noticed a funny symbol on our new radio. Looking this up in the manual, it was a symbol denoting that there was too much voltage. Sure enough, we measure it and there was 17 volts going through the system - enough to cause lots of electrical problems.

So, being totally inexperienced in this sort of matter, we asked around, and the consensus was that this is a problem with the voltage regulator on the engine letting too much voltage into the system. So, I pulled off the alternator and brought it to a shop for testing. They said it was fine. Put it back on the boat - same problem. Lots more troubleshooting, recruiting a couple of peole to help me, and we thought that we found a problem with a ground. Put everything back together, and it works. For five minutes, then the problem reappears, so it wasn't the ground.

At this point, everyone is out of other ideas, so we took the alternator off again, and brought it to a different shop for testing. Again no problems, and a third shop found no problems. At this point, I gave up and bought a new alternator and installed it. The voltage was then fine, so the alternator was obviously the source of the problem.

I still have no explanation for why the alternator repeatedly showed no voltage regulation problems when it was tested. The only shops on PEI are automobile electrical shops, so maybe there is some operating condition on the boat that they are not able to replicate. But this adventure took over two weeks to solve, and we had to cancel a planned trip to Shediac because of it.

But, on the plus side, we now have a nice new DSC radio, depth sounder and wind instrument out of the whole process.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Armchair Adventures

So, here I sit in my living room, looking out over the frozen St.Peters Bay, having just finished reading "Sailing the Big Flush", a funny and engaging non-fiction book by Eileen Beaver. The story of a self-described "pampered sea-tipper from sunny California who ends up as a plucky, menopausal first mate" on a 25 foot wooden sailboat captained by her husband Doug as they sail for a month on the huge tides of the Bay of Fundy.  

Filled with stories of the people they meet in Nova Scotia, the beauty and challenge of sailing the Minas Basin and Bay of Fundy, and Eileen's personal journey, the book was the perfect antidote to a winter day on dry land.

This summer, Eileen Beaver dropped a signed copy of the book off  at The Turret Bell, our bookstore at St. Peters Landing in St. Peters. I was sorry I was not at the store that day to meet her as Jay and I were - you guessed it - out sailing on Obsession.  But I would like to hear more of her and Doug's sailing sagas. Thanks for a great read, Eileen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Montague Marina

Michelle and I live in St Peter’s Bay, Prince Edward Island. This is a beautiful part of the province, with our house looking out over the bay. The sun sets over the water during the summer, and the sight is unforgettable. Unfortunately, keeping our boat here is not an option. The entrance to the bay is quite shallow, and the near-six-foot keel on Obsession would not appreciate the sand bar that lies across the mouth.

When we bought our boat, we had to decide where to keep her, and we had four main options we considered. Souris is about a 20 minute drive to the east of here, and has a relatively new marina and facilities. Cardigan is about 15 minutes south, with Montague about 5 minutes past that. The final option was Charlottetown, a 35 minute drive west, but home to the largest yacht club and community.

In the end, we decided to go to Montague. We almost went for Charlottetown despite the added driving time. We thought that, being new boat owners, having a large community to draw on would be a benefit. However, Montague was a lot less expensive. Also, we knew a couple of people already who berthed there, so Montague won out for us.

Montague is a very informal group. There is no official yacht club. The marina is operated by the Waterfront Development Corporation, who hires one or two people for the summer. There are washroom and shower facilities, which, as of this summer, are exclusively for the boaters. There is a seal boat tour that operates out of the marina, as well as Waveskills sailing school. There is a small restaurant, and gift shop on site. We can get our diesel at the dock, although there is no pump out facility. The biggest down side of Montague is that it is a bit up the river. We usually have to motor for about 45 minutes before we can raise the sails. However, we tend not to take too many day trips, but instead concentrate on overnight or longer cruising, so it's not much of a penalty.

We’ve been quite happy with the decision, mostly because of the other sailors that are in the area. There is a mixture of people who are just starting their sailing journey, as well as the old sea dogs who have been at it for a while (yes, I’m talking about you, Mel). It is never difficult to find someone to supply advice or assistance when needed.

Last year, at the end of the season, a five-boat convoy made the journey from Montague to Souris for an overnight trip. Although we were partly becalmed on the way there, it was a beautiful day. And the trip back was perfect sailing weather. I know there were a couple of other boats that wanted to join in as well, but the timing did not work for them, so we’ll be sure to organize a couple more joint trips next year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Lessons Learned

Jay mentioned in an earlier blog his challenges learning to do maintenance on a boat. Well in 2008, our first year with the boat, we had several challenges and learned several lessons.

I have already described the starter problems and alternator belt problems in earlier posts. We also had to contend with a cracked sheave which resulted in the main halyard jamming. We had to send Mel Campbell, a local experienced sailor, up the mast to diagnose the problem, and then up again to replace the cracked halyard with a new one. Lesson Learned - check all sheaves, attachments, lines, rigging, etc. very carefully before hoisting the mast. It is much more difficult to fix the problem when it is 38 feet in the air.

Another day we were out for a day sail with family. It was a beautiful sunny day and we had sailed to Boughton Island, anchored, went swimming and lazed in the sun. On the way back, we decided to sail off the anchorage. We unfurled the genoa and sailed away. About fifteen minutes later, I heard a thunk as something hit the top of the deck and the foresail started collapsing. The jib halyard had snapped. We recovered the jib, hoisted the main and continued under sail. Later we noticed the jib halyard had frayed and had just finally snapped. Lesson Learned - check all lines regularly for signs of wear.

Near the beginning of the year we were out for a day sail with a friend when we ran out of diesel. It takes about 45 minutes to motor up the Montague River to Cardigan Bay. We were returning under motor when the engine sputtered and died. Although we had extra fuel aboard, the engine would not restart as their was now air in the lines. We anchored in the channel in the river trying to get it restarted. Unable to after 20 minutes or so, Jay decided we were a sailboat after all, and should just sail back to the marina. Luckily, the wind was coming from the right direction and we were able to broad reach and run back to the marina. It was a great test of our skills to dock under sail alone in the strong current in the Montague River. Lesson Learned - Check fuel levels before setting out. We have also since learned how to bleed the fuel lines properly!

We also nearly lost our mast that first year. We were out on an Intermediate training weekend with Waveskills in about 20 knots of wind under foresail alone, practicing some manoeuvres. I was on the helm. All of a sudden there was a popping sound and the foresail started flapping crazily in the wind. My eyes had trouble comprehending what I was seeing. On Obsession, there is no separate forestay. The roller gear acts as the forestay. The top of the furling gear had let go and the only thing holding the mast upright was the jib halyard and jib. As I bent down to put the gear shift in neutral so we could start the engine, I felt the backstay slacken and sag against my back. Everyone on board immediately moved to take every halyard possible to any secure point on the bow to help stabilize the mast. Jay and I were thankful to have Ellen MacPhail, Waveskills owner and very accomplished instructor and sailor, aboard to help us. We recovered the jib and made it back to the marina. After sending Mel up the mast once again, we identified the culprit as a small set screw that had backed out and under pressure, the two pieces had come unscrewed. We fashioned a new set screw, and a few days later, had the furling gear reassembled and were back in business. Lesson Learned - if you are not careful, the failure of a 10 cent screw, could mean a several thousand dollar repair bill. Check all rigging and gear regularly.

Oh, and one other lesson. Keep the phone number handy for Mel - he is always ready to climb a mast.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

St Peter's Canal

From our home base in Prince Edward Island, it is just one day’s sail to the Bras D’Or Lakes, which are arguably the best sailing grounds in Eastern Canada. This lake is large enough to offer plenty of open water sailing, but small enough to block the worst of the Atlantic’s weather. The shoreline is full of deep, sheltered coves to pull into for an afternoon’s swim, or an overnight anchorage. Although the bottom is rocky and hard in many places (unlike the keel-friendly sand bars of Prince Edward Island), the dangerous areas are actually few and well marked. We’ve now visited the lakes each of the past two years, and have only touched on the areas we would like to explore.

From PEI, the most efficient way to reach the Bras D’Or Lakes is through the Canso Causeway and Lennox Passage, then the St Peter’s Canal. I grew up in the little community of L’Ardoise, only a few kilometres away from the St Peter’s Canal. When you live in that area of Nova Scotia, the village of St Peter’s is the principal service area, having the bank, pharmacy, grocery, and hardware stores. Also of interest to sailors is the top quality marina in the community, with all of the amenities within walking distance. When anyone from the area talks about “going to town”, what they mean is they are about to make a trip to St Peter’s.

My home in L’Ardoise is just next door, but on the opposite side of the canal from most of the town. Any trip involved a drive over the bridge crossing the canal. It was always an event to be stopped at the swing bridge so that a boat could pass underneath. People in the cars closest to the locks would generally get out of their vehicles and watch the boat or boats pass, waving to the sailors on deck and snapping pictures. I was often among the group watching.

Our first season with Obsession, we made the trip to Cape Breton late in the season. I have to admit, one of the highlights of the trip was making the canal passage. After traversing the locks, we made our way up to the bridge, and they swung it open to let us through. For the first time, after spending many years watching from up above, we were the ones responsible for stopping the line of cars on the highway. The occupants climbed out to watch us go by, many of them waving to us. For me, personally, it was a great way to start off our visit.