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Battery Issues at Opunohu

September 26, 2011

Lest it be thought that Murre is the only cruising yacht in the Pacific to experience technical difficulties, the following:

Sailing vessel QWave departed Mexico for the Marquesas in early April. Three days later she was passing to the north of the Revillagigedo Islands under a heavy, grey sky when a lightning storm overtook her. One bolt struck her main mast, knocking out her electrical system, including her ability to start the engine. Her owners, a retired couple, decided to continue on instead of turning back to Cabo San Lucas and repair: winds were contrary and the climb could take over a week. Murre departed Cabo for the Marquesas almost a month later and began checking into one of the several marine radio networks in the evenings. By this time QWave had managed to jury rig an undamaged solar panel for light-duty charging and so had limited radio access and daily GPS position fixes. The radio conversions with QWave were always the same:

“Network Moderator calling QWave, QWave QWave how copy?

A drawling male voice as though from ten miles up a Louisiana bayou would respond with, “Oh, we copy you jess fine, honey. Ya’ll comin in loud and clear tonight.”

“Then come ahead with your report, QWave,” the moderator would invite.

“Ok, honey, let me jess lean over and turn on the GPS.”

It was late in the season, but the Pacific still held at least ten boats making their southing from Mexico or the US to French Polynesia, and they were spread over a thousand miles of ocean. Most were new to marine radio nets but quickly got use to delivering evening reports succinctly and in a certain format for a moderator, also a cruiser somewhere in the loose pack, who was taking careful notes in case of emergency. Position, course, and speed, wind, waves, barometer and temperature, in that order and with specific attention to the calling of the numbers: 09 degrees 37 minutes north latitude, for example, was spoken as “Zero niner three seven north”. Not so with QWave.

“Weeull honey, the GPS is slow tonight, but I tell ya what, we’re still in the doldrums,” would say the man. “We had some wind for a couple a hours, mostly from the south, but it’s gone again. We’re jess rollin.”

“All well aboard?” came the moderator’s automatic question.

“We had our last can of tuna for dinner. This is day forty-two, honey. We’re gettin a bit tired. Would like to make the equator soon.”

“Is there anything you need?”

“Well, we could use a leetl watah. If anyone can spare it, we’d be very appreciative. We’re down to five gallons.”

Typically there was another boat within a day or two of QWave’s position that was willing to heave-to while QWave caught up.

Their passage to Nuku Hiva took fifty-five days. Compare Murre’s at twenty-six.

That was a more spectacular example of a cruiser with technical issues, but I’ve encountered many others in the last few months. At Kauehi atoll in the Tuamotus we met MABUHAY, stuck there for two weeks awaiting delivery of a new, less leaky hydraulic steering hose. The day after we departed Kauehi, TUTIN arrived there, and as she motored into the small harbor, her transmission clanked loudly and quit. ODIN’s water maker seized one week west of the Galapagos Islands. COLUMBINE’s auto helm failed on her crossing to the Marquesas. PUKIRI had to replace batteries in Raiatea. PUKURI’s batteries died old age, however. Murre’s succumbed to a different phenomenon.

Murre carries three large wet-cell, deep cycle, maintenance free house batteries bought new for this cruise. I’ve been particularly pleased with them: they pack a lot of power, and because they are maintenance free, I don’t have to worry about refilling the cells periodically. I have bragged of these batteries to other cruisers, and each has looked at me skeptically. “Do your maintenance free batteries have water fill caps?” they always asked. I would affirm this but say they were flush caps that shouldn’t be opened. “Are you sure they are maintenance free?” I was very sure, I would say. I remembered the packaging. I remembered.

Low number. Bad omen.

During our long stay at Opunohu, I noticed that morning battery voltage showed lower and lower readings even though charge and usage patterns remained constant. As we were just days away from launching for Hawaii, this was an issue that needed exploring. I spent an afternoon ensuring the solar panels were operating properly. I opened the battery compartment and examined all the post connections, cleaning several, though they still had the shine of newness about them. I tested for voltage leaks–there were none. I even tested the automatic voltage meter with a hand-held. There simply weren’t any problems. As an afterthought I popped one of the flush fill lids on one of the batteries. The cell was half dry and the lead exposed. I immediately opened the other seventeen compartments. Each was the same: dry below the lead.

“How could this happen?” asked Hannes of PUKURI when I explained my problem, but I could find no answer that didn’t make Murre’s captain into a fool. How, indeed, could I so clearly remember a feature of my batteries that did not exist? Did I make it up? If so, how? And why? After having spent so many hours designing and installing Murre’s electrical system, why would I sabotage its effectiveness in this way and on the eve of a major passage? Was my false memory sabotage, ill-timed senility, or just really bad luck? It was a situation that deserved considerable soul-searching, but there was no time for that now.

The thirst-crazed batteries took almost two gallons of distilled water, most of my supply. After a full charge, I set about assessing the damage. “Never allow a battery’s lead plates to become exposed to air. Damage is irreversible,” said the manual. But a load test was inconclusive–the house batteries in question seemed to be as strong as the starting battery. Next came a full capacity test, an exercise during which batteries are drained slowly over a long period of time. “During a capacity test,” said the manual, “healthy batteries should last for twenty hours.” I started at six in the morning, and they were dead by noon. I looked over at the manual. “They’re weak beyond revival and might fail utterly at any moment,” it replied.

What would a mid-passage battery failure mean on a boat where most systems have at least one backup? I made a list:

1. Engine starting/operation–seperate battery system not compromised by house battery failure.

2. Electric Bilge Pumps–Murre has two manual pumps and a number of buckets in the starboard settee.

3. Water pump–we only use manual foot pumps for galley water.

4. Cooking fuel–there are no electrical elements in this system.

5. Refrigeration–not used during a passage anyway.

6. Navigation–if used once a day for position fixes, the chart plotter battery could last the voyage. Or use handheld GPS, also failing. Or navigate by sextant. Back up chart plotter and USB GPS on laptop vulnerable to below.

7. Navigation lights–could hang paraffin anchor light in rigging. Otherwise not backup.

8. Automatic Ship Location Device–no backup.

9. VHF radio power–no backup.

10. Marine Radio power–no backup.

11. Laptop computer battery charging–no backup.

Bottom line, it could be done, but departing with fresh batteries would be better. Surely this would require a return to Tahiti (an idea I loathed), or could I have them sent to Moorea by ferry? I would need to make some calls, so moved Murre to Cook’s Bay to be nearer the village cell tower. Ashore I asked for a hardware store where I could replace my supply of distilled water. “Ou est le quincaillarie?” got me nothing but funny looks until I found a man who spoke English. “You should go to the bicycle shop,” he said. “They have car parts too but we call it ‘the bicycle shop’. You see them out front. The bicycles. Inside is the shop. I don’t think they have water.”

But the owner of the bicycle shop said he did have distilled water by the litre and by the gallon. And he had an entire shelf of batteries on display. I explained my situation. “These are all car batteries, but I know a battery guy for boats. I will call. Come back tomorrow,” said Moana, a big man with a big smile who walked his store in bare feet. I returned the next day to find that the batteries I needed were, in fact, available and could be delivered to his shop in a single day. I ran through the specifications with Moana one more time to be sure–voltage, amperage, dimensions. Price: $23,000 Pacific Francs each, competitive, even for the US. “And the delivery fee?” I asked. “For me there is no fee. I know the man who loads the boat,” said Moana.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Nothing is that easy in French Polynesia. “And they can be here tomorrow! Fantastic!” I said and reached into my pocket for the cash.

“No, not tomorrow,” said Moana. “I think maybe a week.”

“From Tahiti? It’s only twenty miles. You said delivery would take one day.” I replied.

“My man in Tahiti is all out. These batteries come from Raiatea–a different man, different island. The boat only takes one day, but there is only one boat a week, and it arrived yesterday. I can order next Wednesday for delivery on Thursday, so if you come back next Tuesday, we can order Wednesday for Thursday delivery. You understand?”

I wasn’t sure I could take another week on Moorea, and I’d heard too many stories about important parts ordered properly that failed to make the boat. I got the name and number of the battery shop in Raiatea and thanked Moana for his help. “You come back next week when you decide, OK?”, he insisted. I said I would, and by way of ending on a positive note, complimented him on his name. “It means …” and I spread my arms wide.

“NO!” said Moana. “Not big. Moana means deep ocean,” and he waved a meaty hand, pointing beyond the parking lot, beyond the road and the beach and the reef. “Out there: that’s my name,” he said, in case I’d forgotten in which direction lay the big ocean onto which Murre and I cast ourselves Friday evening, bound overnight the seventy miles to Huahine island, beyond which Raiatea was but a short jump of twenty.

We sailed off anchor under jib alone, and just beyond the reef I set the wind vane. Where the goal is to arrive at a new port of call in the broad of day, sailing overnight on short runs is a fairly common tactic, but I find it a bit unnerving at first. Other boats at anchor are cooking dinner or watching the sunset from the cockpit as you head off into a night of slogging and sloshing; that and the slow sinking of the island’s lights and an inability to see the waves you are not yet used to adds to early feelings of discomfort. I spent the first hour tuning Molly to our course of 300 degrees true, and once she found her groove, she stayed more or less on course till morning. As dawn came on I shot six stars with the sextant, only three of which worked up to a meaningful position. A small boat on the move is a galloping animal, and the heavens above, much less fixed than in the ease of a quite harbor, where I was fortunate to have practiced.

Village on west side of Huahine

We spent two days and nights anchored on a sandy shelf out on the fringed reef of Huahines’s village, during which time it blew so hard over the pine covered hills that I was unable to leave the boat except for a short hike on a Sunday afternoon. The town was shut tight. Kids played in the surf. An old man sat on the pier for hours looking out at nothing in particular.

We departed early Monday morning, leaving most of Huahine unexplored, and were shooting Teavapiti pass into Raiatea’s lagoon by two in the afternoon. Raiatea is second in size and population only to Tahiti, and with smaller Tahaa but a few miles to the north and within the same reef, she feels even bigger. We worked our way between these two islands, racing before twenty knot winds from the east on water flat as a lake, to Raiatea’s west side where are located the island’s one boat yard and one marina, and the town of Uturoa (or so my chart suggested), dropping anchor outside the boat yard, Chantier Naval des Isles, by early evening. I called the battery shop while the anchor growled unhappily across the coral hard-pan. To my relief, the owner, Emanuel, picked up immediately and even responded in English, but he couldn’t figure out where I was on the island (note: one marina, one boat yard). His directions, however, led me to believe I’d come to the wrong side. It was too late in day to go back, and the anchor wasn’t holding here, so I moved a mile further down the channel and dropped the hook in sand where the bottom went from fifty feet to five in a heart beat. I slept poorly all night for worry of dragging into the nearby coral heads.

Just after sunup on Tuesday, we motored back to the windward side of island where, sure enough, there was the town center. How could I have missed it? But the anchorages were far too deep for Murre and all were a lee shore. After feeling around for an hour, I returned to the west side and the boat yard and took a mooring, the cost of which I had wanted to avoid, but when I rowed ashore the receptionist, Patrice, informed me I could not stay. “The buoys they are all reserved; it is very difficult,” she said. The day was getting on: what to do? A call to the posh marina at Apooiti was answered and moorings available for $220 Pacific Francs per meter of boat per night. Murre was snugged into the tiny bay by noon.

Fleet of charter catamarans with Murre behind

The harbor master, Jean Micel, sat behind a large desk in a second floor office that looked out onto a fleet of white and yellow charter boats. He was a thick-set man with a shy smile who introduced his two dogs, one big and black and muscular and the other small and tan, as PUFF and POUCE POUCE, respectively.

“POOF?”, I asked, almost innocently, while handing over payment for the night.

“No, PUFF,” said Jean Micel with an expression that suggested Americans who speak no French ought not to engage in French wordplay with Frenchmen who speak no English. That was a lot to pack into one expression, but the message was clear. POUCE POUCE, which translated to “itchy”, was less controversial.

The walk into town took less than an hour, and one o’clock found me outside Rapid Auto Service where I was greeted by Emanuel, still brushing his teeth after lunch. “Moana of Moorea sent me,” I said, and the rest was easy. Emanuel was pale and French and slick in an island sort of way, hair combed back, the requisite surf shorts new instead of grungy, a crisp button down shirt opened part way to reveal a small, gold cross hanging from his neck. He pointed to his battery selection–pallet upon pallet, every size, shape and kind.

New batteries in and under load

In fact, the car batteries to one side were the only thing automotive about the place.  The lift was covered over; tool racks were empty of tools; stacks of batteries filled work benches and every other available space. 

“Fresh shipment,” said Emanuel, pointing to a pallet of deep cycle batteries of the power and size I needed. I handed over the cash for my three batteries and was, to my surprise, handed a printed receipt on which was handwritten “six month guarantee”. “We can take you back to your boat–there is no extra charge for this service,” said Emanuel. And by the evening of Tuesday, the batteries had been installed, two days earlier than if I’d stayed in Moorea.

By way of miraculous vindication, I had noticed in one corner of the Rapid Auto Service shop a set of batteries of the same size and shape as the ones I had come to replace–wet cells, made in Italy, with flush fill caps, the sticker on the side announced in English, “Maintenance Free”.



First at-sea star sight work-up

Beautiful Teavapiti Pass on the east side of Raiatea
One Comment
  1. Dan Lee permalink
    September 27, 2011 6:11 am

    Great story! I guess the product or marketing department needs to re-think their messaging around “Maintenance-Free”. It’s amazing what you have to do to get supplies or spare parts. I suppose that’s part of the fun of the adventure!

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