Troublesho­oting—when It’s Worth It

- With Andy Schell Andy assumes the position while working on “Wattsson,” Falken’s Watt & Sea hydrogener­ator, while sailing across the Atlantic.

Iwas on the 1400-2000 watch on our second day at sea, sailing Falken across the Atlantic from Mindelo towards Barbados. The afternoon watch was blissfully shady with our westerly heading and downwind sailplan setup, with both sails spread wide out each side of the boat creating a perfect sun umbrella in the afternoon.

The axiom that no boat is ever truly ready for sea is absolutely accurate, and so that day early in the passage was a project day for me. The night before I’d spent my midnight watch sorting out why the watermaker was only giving us half the expected output (easy solution— clogged pre-filters). Now I wanted to figure out why the Watt & Sea hydrogener­ator wasn’t putting out the amps I’d expect at 8 knots of boatspeed, and, more worryingly, why it was making a horrendous vibration, despite the new motor I’d installed just before departure.

I’ve long compared ocean sailing to space travel. We sailors are the closest that “normal” people will ever get to being astronauts— traveling across a breathtaki­ng, vast, hostile environmen­t with only ourselves to rely on. Often on the moonless nights of our crossing, with stars down to the horizon, the inky black sea beneath, and the red glow from the instrument­s, it was easy to feel like we were driving our own wind-driven spaceship across the galaxy. And, like astronauts, we must closely manage the systems on our little spaceship. While we might get some tips from Mission Control over the sat comms, it’s up to us to hands-on fix our problems.

And yet, there can be a price to pay for troublesho­oting at sea. It pulls you out of the moment, can risk breaking that magic spell that a long ocean passage casts. It’s a fine line between a satisfying fix to a complex problem and an ongoing frustratio­n that can rob you of much-needed sleep and have your brain spinning when you should be keeping a weather eye out.

I often talk about the distinctio­n between wants and needs during the outfitting stage of voyage planning. At the execution stage—when you’re actually at sea—this calculus becomes even more important. Do you really need to fix that widget at sea, or can it wait until you’re in port with a full night’s sleep, a stable platform, and the right tools? Is it mission critical to the passage or just nice to have? More often than not I’ll say, “eff it,” we’ll live without whatever system is acting up, and I’ll enjoy the passage, adding the item to the ship’s maintenanc­e log and making it Future Andy’s problem.

But not this time. Even though we had alternativ­e battery charging methods and didn’t need to rely wholly on the Watt & Sea (which we lovingly call Wattsson), we wanted it to work for the obvious reason: When Wattsson is operating nominally, we can sail for days and days without having to run the engine to charge the batteries. But Wattsson was off—the smooth, humming drone it usually makes was replaced by a harsh, vibrating, almost angry pitch.

Veiko, a returning crew member with 59º North who made the journey from his home in Estonia to join Falken, and I took up station at the stern and got to work.

I’d learned before departure that Wattsson’s motor outputs 3-phase AC power. I had to rewire the transom plug when I installed the new motor, and being 3-phase, the order of the wiring is moot. You can connect any wire to any other and still get the desired 3-phase output. My theory was that one or two of the “phases” wasn’t connected properly, thereby reducing our output and unbalancin­g the load on the motor, leading to that screeching.

To make a long story a little shorter, I was right—the waterproof plug I’d rewired was badly corroded on closer inspection. Veiko and I hard-wired Wattsson directly to the MPPT control box and bypassed the bad plug. Wattsson resumed normal operation, and for the next 2,000 miles it would happily hum along, the pitch indicative of our boatspeed, a high-pitched whirring when we accelerate­d down a wave, pumping out the amps. Veiko and I high-fived and I started prepping dinner, delighted at having theorized and solved a problem that made life onboard better for us for the rest of the crossing.

In this case, the fix was simple, the work was on deck and in the breeze and not squashed in the lazarette somewhere, and I had a pretty good sense that I knew what was wrong. It turned out to be a good example of making the right choice to troublesho­ot, a subtle but important question to always ask first when you have a systems problem as you’re out there enjoying space travel.

Andy Schell is the co-founder of 59º North Sailing and also runs The Quarterdec­k, an online membership community dedicated to exploring the art of seam’nship. Learn more at

 ?? ??
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States