Battery Woes Resolved… Yay!

Before leaving San Jose Del Cabo, I was able to finally identify the root cause of my battery problem (https://mvmissmiranda.com/2019/11/11/battery-woes/), and it was not a bad battery. That was a good thing because a replacement battery would have had to have been shipped to San Diego to a freight forwarder for delivery to Mexico, and the manufacturer would have likely wanted the old battery back. No fun.

So, what happened? In order to find the problem battery, I disconnected the cabling from all 5 batteries in the port bank and then measured voltage across each of them individually. Well, each one measured 12.9 Volts… exactly what a healthy battery should. This didn’t make sense to me, since when I tried to power the whole boat from that back alone, by switching it “on” and the other one off, I saw a rapid voltage drop and an indicator of dead batteries up at the pilot house monitoring panels.

CUBAR Fleet Captain and fellow Nordhavn owner Bill Roush came over to help me troubleshoot further. I was looking at voltage at a monitoring panel, and we wanted to see if the readings at the batteries were the same as the readings at the panel. It turned out that they were not. The batteries read a constant 12.9 volts no matter what we did, as if they were completely disconnected, even though the switch was on. Bill says “maybe the switch is bad”. I say, “no, can’t be, just replaced this year”. Bill, being somewhat more lithe than me, was able to reach way over to where the switch is mounted in the lazarette, and surprise, surprise, one of the cables was WAY loose. He was able to tighten the connection, and upon retest, the battery voltage was agreeing with the system measured voltage.

The culprit!

I was wrong in my suspicion of a dead battery, and Brother in Law Sean (who had gone back to Boston by now) was right in suspecting a bad connection. What turned out to be a complication was the input of the solar panels, which was creating a voltage that masked the fact that the battery switch wasn’t working. However, they did not provide enough amperage to power the systems as the only source. When we thought we were selecting the port battery bank, we were, in fact, powering the boat only off the solar panels. What I now realize is that for some unknown period of time, the port battery bank was disconnected due to the loose connection. When I saw a low battery voltage in Turtle Bay, I thought the batteries were 40% discharged. Because the port bank really was offline at the time, the batteries were, in fact 80% discharged, so the low voltage was perfectly consistent with that state of charge.

I am very glad to have found this, as a loose connection, particularly in a very high amperage DC circuit, is a serious fire hazard. So, happy ending to this one, and we are now off to Bahia los Muertos and the last leg of the CUBAR Rally.

Of course, the list never gets shorter… it’s just the items that change. It seems that our second Nav computer was a victim of the low battery voltage that occurred during the testing. It refuses to boot up, and the recovery procedure for booting from an external BIOS requires a wired keyboard. We probably have 5 keyboards on the boat… all wireless. So, we’ll be hunting for a USB keyboard in La Paz, or may even try to order one from Amazon MX and have it shipped to the marina. On to the next problem!

Battery Woes

The suspect is in here somewhere….

We have been in Bahia Los Tortugas (Turtle Bay) for the last couple of days after a 35 hour run down from Ensenada. We have a great story in an upcoming blog post with lots of pictures, but it will have to wait until we get someplace with better data connectivty. We had great Telcel phone signal, but no data here.

This is the first time we have anchored overnight in a month (since we were in Neah Bay). Unfortunately, when I got up the first morning to make coffee, I discovered that the battery voltage was unusually low. I realize that before I continue the story, I need to do a little aside explaining our electrical system and why low battery voltage is not a good thing…

Our boat has an electrical system based on large 12V DC batteries. These batteries power the electronics, lighting, water pumps, heads, etc, that all run on 12V DC, and in combination with an Inverter, also power 120V equipment such as the refrigerator, freezer, etc. The batteries (in what we call the “house bank”) are charged by chargers which run from shore power when we are at a dock or from a generator when we are at anchor. They are also charged by the solar panels that we installed recently. The bottom line is that the house battery bank is a critical system on the boat, and we carefully monitor the “state of charge” to make sure that everything keeps working as it should. One important detail here is that the battery voltage is a (rough) indicator of how fully charged the batteries are, and a fully charged 12V battery should read not 12, but 12.8 volts. If the reading is below 12V, as it was on this morning, that means that the batteries are either deeply discharged, or a warning sign that something is amiss.

Back to the story… we ran the generator to recharge the batteries and decided to monitor and record the state of charge data over the next 24 hrs to see if we could identify the problem. During the day, our new solar panels are working well, producing enough energy to keep up with the house loads (usage by the refrigerator, freezer, etc) all day. When the sun goes down, we start drawing on the house banks, and the battery voltage got pretty low by bedtime that night. The next morning, we were down to 11.5V. Clearly something was wrong.

Because our batteries are split up into two banks (they are in two bix boxes in the lazarette), I was able to isolate the problem by turning each bank off and observing the results. When I switched off the port bank nothing happened. So I turned it back on and switched off the starboard bank… and everything on the boat shut down. Clearly there is a bad battery in the port bank – so bad that the boat can’t even run on it. My suspicion is that the bad battery is creating a load within the battery banks, therefore drawing down all the other batteries. So, I disabled the port battery bank and started the generator to charge up the starboard bank. That bank charged back up, with voltage and other parameters as expected, so we think that set of batteries is still good. Therefor we are good to go, except with half our our battery capacity. We will need to conserve electricity usage and monitor the batteries carefully, but will have no problem continuing on down the coast to San Jose Del Cabo. Once we get there, our task will be to determine which battery (or batteries) is dead and figure out how to get a warranty replacement from the manufacturer.

Today (Wednesday, Nov 5th) we are underway from Turtle Bay to Bahia Santa Maria. It is a 30 hour run, and we have the same great weather (and fishing… also the subject of another post) that we had for the ride down to Turtle Bay. We expect to arrive tomorrow (Wednesday, 11/6) around 2 PM. We have heard that there is decent cellular data there, so we will be able to do some updates on the great time we have been having so far on the CUBAR Rally, Fishing, and enjoying Mexico.

Boat Repairs in San Diego

We arrived in San Diego a couple of days earlier than planned in order to get some repairs done for the issues I described recently. Boomer and his crew of two helpers showed up after receiving the necessary parts and went to work on fixing the leak on the new autopilot steering pump, installing a replacement for old, leaking steering pump, and replacing the coupling for the bow thruster. It was actually a bit scary to see Boomer disappear deep in the forward bilge to get at the thuster coupling. There is no way I would have been able to get in there, much less get out. After a long, hot day’s worth of work, we had a working bow thruster and two brand new autopilot steering pumps. The next day we did a sea trial around the harbor to make sure that all was well. Everything was good, so we were ready to go.

The new autopilot steering pumps mounted in the Lazarette.

We also had an issue with the stabilizers, which I THOUGHT we had fixed on the way down to San Diego. Briefly, the stabilizers on our boat are a pair of fins mounted on the hull of our boat. They are moved through a complex electical and hydraulic control system to counteract the rolling motion induced by waves. The stabilizer circuit breaker mysteriously started tripping, shutting off the control circuitry, and therefore, the use of the stabilizers. We actually discovered this on our run from Marina Del Rey to Alamitos Bay and spent a couple of hours underway without the stabilizers working. Even though the conditions were mild, we realized that we’d really rather have them working. After consultation with fellow owners on the Nordhavn Owners Group and Ernie Romeo, it appeared that the circuit breaker was undersized for the new power supply that was installed this summer. So, I changed the breaker, and everything worked just fine on the remaining legs down to San Diego. Of course, there was the nagging question of why the breaker had not tripped before….

As Gwen mentioned, we prepared to depart San Diego for Ensenada this morning, only to find that the breaker started tripping AGAIN. We turned around after getting less than 100 yards from the dock and tried to figure out what was wrong. It was clear that the circuit was not overloaded – the 20 Amp breaker was tripping with a measured 8.5 Amps of load. Now thoroughly confused, I decided to call Boomer – actually expecting to leave him a message. I just happened to catch him on the way in to work, and he came right over to the boat. He started troubleshooting and I was helping him recreate the problem, when suddenly, the stabilizers were not working at all – there was no hydraulic pressure. Boomer discovered the culprit, which was a failed main relay for the hydraulic system. This relay allows the hydraulic system to become pressurized and move the stabilizer fins. In a stroke of good luck, Boomer happened to have a spare relay at the shop. Replacing that and a fuse that blew when the relay failed finally fixed the stabilizer problem once and for all (I hope).

The failed relay at left and the fuse at right.

So, one more night in San Diego and we hope to rejoin the CUBAR group down in Ensenada tomorrow (October 31).

Brookings, OR

Miss Miranda at the Transient dock in Brookings.

We arrived in Brookings on Monday, October 7th, after a very easy ride down from Port Orford. We knew that we would be here for a few days, as the forecast was for gale conditions along the Northern CA and Southern Oregon coast. Our friends and Anacortes neighbors Stuart and Judy have a place down here, and as it happened, Judy was in town while we were here. She took good care of us during our brief shore leave.

Crossing the Bar

All of the ports along the Pacific coast of Washington and Oregon are at the mouths of rivers, and all have a “bar” to cross, which is a shallow zone where the river outflow meets the ocean. It can be quite hazarous to cross a bar when conditions are poor, and it is always recommended to cross as the tide is rising (towards the end of the flood). We timed our arrival for the beginning of the flood and approached Brookings with some apprehension… this was our first bar crossing. We did not have time to take any photos on the way in, but got this one looking back out when we arrived.

The bar at Brookings just after we arrived.

As you can see, the only hazard was all of the fishing boats trolling in the entrance channel as we were trying to come in. We went straight down the middle, and fortunately, the boats moved (barely) out of the way.

Maintenance and Mechanical Issues

When we arrived it was time to change the oil on the main engine. The oil change interval is every 250 hours, and the last time we changed was in Hoonah, AK this summer. This change should be good for the remainder of the run down to Mexico. We have a built in oil transfer pump, so it is a pretty easy job. The biggest issue is finding the used oil disposal facility, which is right over in the boatyard.

One of the nicer oil disposal facilities that we’ve seenn.

As we were doing a general mechanical inspection after the long run, we noticed that there was steering fluid leaking from one of the autopilot pumps. It is not obvious where the leak is coming from… the fittings and hoses are all completely dry.

The yellow color on the oil absorbent pad is steering fluid. Uh oh…

We cleaned up the area thoroughly and put down new pads. I cycled the pump a bunch of times to see if I could reproduce the leak, but no luck. I know the pump worked REALLY hard on the trip down, especially when we had big following seas. It turned out that it had leaked about a quart of steering fluid over the nearly 48 hours of continuous operation.

The astute reader will notice that there are two autopilot pumps in the photo above. We had a second, independent Autopilot system installed just in case of this type of problem. In consultation with the yard, we decided that on the next leg, we will run the primary autopilot until we can detect signs of leakage, and then switch to the backup autopilot. We also picked up another gallon of steering fluid in case more refills of the reservior were required.

Using the backup autopilot is fine… except that we have been experiencing problems with the new heading sensor (which tells the autopilot the direction the boat is moving in). We noticed that occassionally and unpredictably, the heading would be off by as much as 30 degrees. After more consultation with the yard, I discovered that the cause of this heading error was electrical interference from one of our DC circuits – the one that serves the lights in the master cabin. Turn that breaker off, and you can see the heading return to normal (in this case from 333 deg magnetic to 308 deg). Turn it back on, and the heading slowly increased back up to 333. Needless to say, this was not ideal placement of the heading sensor, but for now we will simply turn the breaker off while underway.

The Next Leg

It looks like a very good weather window is opening up starting on Friday. Our goal will be to move as far south as possible during that time. The major obstacles between here and sunny Southern California are the notorious Cape Mendocino, about 120 miles S of us, and then Point Conception, West of Santa Barbara. We are considering a straight shot from here to Santa Barbara, which is about 560 NM and about 3 days of 24/7 running. The other alternative would be to get to Monterey, which is about 375 NM and 2 days run. We will discuss with our weather router before we head out and then make an assessment along the way.

Communication at Sea

Looking at our cruising budget, a surprisingly big chunk of it is dedicated to communications. I wrote earlier this summer about internet connectivity in Alaska (https://mvmissmiranda.com/2019/07/30/cellular-data-and-connectivity/), and here I review our current inventory of communication tools (with a few comments from Gwen).

Internet/Cellular Data

We have several Cellular data providers, described below:

  • T-Mobile – OnePlus plan that when we started, claimed to provide unlimited data in the US, Canada and Mexico. Of course, since we signed up, they have placed constraints on the data, limiting the high speed data in Canada and Mexico, and we have heard, limited the amount of time that the service can be used in Mexico… likely not the 6-7 months we will be there. Reading the T-Mobile website, I see that they have revised their definition of “unlimited” data to be unlimited 2G data, rather than the unlimited High Speed data that was advertised when we signed up. And our cell phone carriers wonder why we hate them. Between our 3 lines and a couple of new phones, our bill is over $200/month.
  • Verizon – Unlimited pre-paid JetPack plan. This has actually worked well for us at our home in Anacortes. For $65/month we get unlimited data at pretty good speed on our Verizon Mifi device. This is our only internet service. It does not work at all in Canada and Mexico, and we learned this summer that it works only in Ketchikan and Juneau Alaska.
  • Google Project Fi- Probably the best plan for use internationally. Base rate is $20/month and then we get billed for data usage, topping out at an additional $60/month for up to 15 GB of high speed data. No problems in Canada, no problems (we’ve heard) in Mexico.

Satellite Data

Iridium GO!
  • Iridium GO! is essentially a wifi hotspot that connects to the Iridium satellites and transmits data at, wait for it, 2400 bps. I have to go WAY back to my early computer days to remember serial modems that were that slow. On the plus side, it was relatively inexpensive to buy, and allows for email, text messaging, calling via your existing phone, and weather data retrieval. We bought ours from PredictWind (described below) and have an unlimited data plan at cost of about $120/month. We did use it a lot in Alaska for texting with Miranda and some other cruiser friends. There were a few times in fjord areas with high stone walls where it didn’t work and also varied with the level of the tides in Alaska, but neither of those issues will exist in Mexico. Our phone number on the Iridium does start with 82, so if you get a mysterious call beginning with that it could be us, so answer it!
  • Garmin inReach is a similar, less capable device that rides on the same Iridium satellite network. It costs less than the GO! and data usage charges are about half that of the GO!, but we find the capabilities to be extremely limited – position tracking, which we like, and text messaging, which is barely adequate. It does, however, have an SOS capability, which we hope is a good safety feature. (Gwen did find many interesting stories on the Garmin website of real rescues that occurred for mariners using the Garmin SOS feature, although all were in US waters). The only reason we have it is that it is a CUBAR requirement for fleet communications. Data cost is about $65/month.
Garmin InReach.

Weather Tools

PredictWind Offshore with our route to San Francisco
  • PredictWind Offshore is the tool we use in conjunction with the Iridium GO!. It allows us to plot our route and download weather data (GRIBs) that covers the route. We can see forecasted conditions, get routing recommendations, and look at different departure time options. It takes care of connecting with the GO! and retrieving the data. I find PredictWind to be an OK tool, but it is far from a comprehensive weather planning tool. It does a fine job of retrieving and displaying the GRIBs, but has almost no capabilities for retrieving the many NOAA forecast and analysis products that I use to supplement the binary data. In the next section, I will describe my solution for retrieving these products. This is costing us $250 annually.

Email Tools

UUPlus… not the most modern, but very effective
  • There are several ways to use email to retrieve the NOAA forecast products. NOAA has an ftp email server that you send a request to, and it sends back text or graphical data for the specific product requested. There is also a service called Saildocs that does something similar. The issue is sending and receiving email over a satellite connection. The Iridium GO! comes with a very rudimentary email solution that only works on IOS devices. We used it this summer in Alaska, and found it to be completely inadequate for any serious use. In looking for a better solution, I discovered that there is a niche industry that supports long range cruisers by providing email services customized for low bandwith connections, first using SSB radio, and more recently, using satellite data connections. One that I have started using is called UUPlus, which basically sets up an email server on your local computer, connects to the Iridium GO! and sends highly compressed messages that are decompressed and forwarded on their servers on the other side. It has a handy feature of being able to fetch multiple NOAA weather products at predetermined times so you don’t have to sit there and wait for the very slow satellite transfer. I really like it… but it is extremely pricey at around $30/month. We are giving it a 3 month trial on the way down to Mexico. The primary use underway will be for weather data, but it will also be useful for email communications when we are away from cellular and/or wifi service (which I assume will be fairly regularly). We can also use email to make blog posts, which otherwise require pretty high bandwidth connections.

I am afraid to add up the total costs here, but you can see that it is a pretty significant chunk of our cruising budget. Part of that is that we have all of the underway data sources as additions to our existing land-based services (e.g., T-Mobile, Verizon). We also have a fair amount of redundancy (e.g., both Iridium GO! and Garmin InReach, multiple cellular providers).

We will evaluate the services we actually use after we have some time in Mexico and likely eliminate some. For example, I could see eliminating the InReach services as soon as we finish CUBAR. I would also consider eliminating the PredictWind subscription, and using the email-based weather retrieval services in conjunction with one of several free GRIB viewers. I don’t think we will do anything about our multiple cellular plans.

Cellular data and Connectivity

We are finding two challenges in staying connected while up here in Alaska. The first is obvious – in many places, there simply is no cell service. Completely understandable. The second is a bit more frustrating… we spend several hundred dollars a month on cellular data plans, and we continue to “run out” of data.
I’ve commented on this before, but am still irritated that we have “unlimited” data plans on both Verizon and T-mobile, but basically have no data from either – they simply don’t cover Alaska. Verizon has been available in Ketchikan and Juneau only, and T-mobile’s “unlimited” data is actually roaming on another plan which gets cut off at 200 Mb (about 5 minutes on our boat). We also have SIM cards for our boat’s cellular router with Google Project Fi and AT&T. Both have been very good, but we have burned through our allocation (15 and 18 Gb respectively).

The problem, I think, is the way our devices “see” the network. We have a combination WiFi/Cellular router on the boat, which creates a “boat” WiFi network that is connected to either an external WiFi network (rarely) or to a cellular network using a cellular modem and SIM card. Our devices, all 10+ of them including laptops, iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, etc, then connect to the boat WiFi network and “think” they have unlimited connectivity, happily chugging away, downloading, updating, etc. There are no provisions that I know of that allow control of WiFi data for IOS apps the way they can be controlled for cellular data usage. Our WiFi network software can show traffic and data consumed, but doesn’t have an easy way of identifying or controlling usage by device. I suppose I could configure the firewall to block ports associated with various data consuming services, but I haven’t investigated that just yet.

For now, we are limiting the connections to the boat WiFi network and waiting for the next Project Fi billing cycle for our next ration of data.

Update:

Back to Ketchikan and we finally have some Verizon connectivity. Last day in Alaska, off to Prince Rupert BC on Thursday August 1.

Now, that’s more like it!

Electrical System Repaired!

We got to Petersburg yesterday and got a list of service providers from the Harbor Master. This morning I called Mattingly Electric and by 9 AM Darby was on the boat. He cut off the bad ends of the old wires and managed to locate the proper breakers, grumbling a bit about the flimsy plastic box and how tight the fit was. Well, he got everything wired up and as he was pushing the whole assembly into the box, the case of one of the breakers cracked.

This would not do. He left and assembled a heavy duty metal box and mounted it on the generator sound shield, as shown below.

The new breaker box

Inside are non-marine, but much heavier duty, 50 Amp, 250 volt breakers.

Much more robust breakers.

This seems to me to be a much better solution. It is easy to access and replace the breaker, if necessary. We are running the generator right now and everything seems to be working normally (and nothing is burning).

We are actually on a maintenance roll today. I got Gwen a 29th Anniversary gift, which was just what was needed to clear the clog in the insinkerator unit that we use to dispose of food waste.

Happy Anniversary honey!

Finally, a surprising number of people have asked about the water pump issues. All resolved by installing the little Jabsco Par Max pump that was bought 9 years ago as a spare by the previous owner. Here’s a rule of thumb… if we aren’t griping about something, that means it’s OK (or we have bigger issues to worry about).

Now it’s time to explore Petersburg.