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In the Odyssey engine room, Rodrigo Olson repairs the generator.
Photo: Chris Johnson

May 25, 2001
Being Prepared for Problems That Arise
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Roger Payne speaking to you from aboard the Odyssey. We have been experiencing multiple problems with Odyssey's electrical system and could lose at any moment 90% of our power. But we're well prepared, and all of life's basic needs would still be provided for. It's just that we would have less padding between us and genuine discomfort. Events like this are normal on boats. One expects that all of the problems that can occur will occur, eventually, on any boat. They are not really avoidable. And given our modest budget, Iain and Bob have chosen the spares to put on board wisely, and our preparedness has been good, and being prepared is the name of the game.

It's just that all boats have problems-particularly when they have been banging around the open ocean for 15 months as Odyssey has. But when it finally arrives, any significant problem, no matter how well you may have anticipated it, always disrupts one's plans.

Both generators have recently been overhauled, and Bob Wallace takes loving care of them always. But generators often fool you in the end. And when they do, what a chain reaction they can set off. I say "chain reaction" because when one thing goes wrong, it tends to trigger other problems. However, chain reactions can also be valuable learning experiences because they teach how vulnerable we humans are at sea and provide an up close and personal acquaintance with the real meaning of the concept "chain reaction".

In our case it all started with the main generator going out. Josh and Rodrigo investigated: relief, it wasn't the generator, just its water pump (used to pump the water that cools the generator). It's a small thing for which we normally carry a spare. However there are normally two "main" generators aboard Odyssey. But just now the second one is in Madang being repaired after it ate the spare water pump. So now we get to see how dependent on electricity the Odyssey really is. We need the generator to cool our fresh food and vegetables, as the main power source to enable us to receive communications from, and send them to, the world; to desalinate the water we drink; and to pump the bilges. But at present we do have plenty of water and plenty of dry and canned food, we can cook (the main stove is propane, only the Microwave needs power) and we can always sail. We also have epirbs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) and other battery operated radios with which to call for help, should we need it.

But what about the chain reaction effect. Well here's an example: having no generator means that I can't type at my computer during later afternoon. That's because the air conditioning is powered by the generator and when it's off, the temperatures below decks soar and I perspire so much, my hands get moist, and get my computer wet which starts to shock me, so I have to stop.

Here's another example: our Service Bank of batteries (which we use all the time to run computers and other equipment) are due for replacement with the next haul out. But with the additional pressure being put on the Service Bank alternator to charge them from the main engine that alternator stopped charging (for reasons still obscure to all of our resident experts though I have confidence that they will soon discover them). News Flash: Josh just solved the problem.

Another example: It's getting hard to breathe on board. That's because there is something else for which the generator is needed. The sump tank holds sewage until the boat is far enough out to sea to pump it overboard. The sewage pump is powered by the generator, and the sump tank currently happens to be fairly full. When the level in the tank gets close to the top, the aft end of the boat starts to fill with the unpleasant odor of sewage. Pumping out the tank cures the problem, but we can't do it, of course, until the water pump on the generator is working. With that problem we really do suffer.

All in all, if we lose most of our power in the next few days (likely, I'm betting) we may be out of touch for several days as we slowly make our way under sail towards Madang. But even that demonstrates the chain reaction effect: for it turns out that there is very little wind in these waters. So it could be a longish trip.

All this because we are minus a water pump, so small it would fit comfortably in your pocket. But we'll be fine. In the above litany I have not bothered to enumerate a bunch of ways in which we can shift batteries around to solve problems should they arise. It's just that we may be in for some extra inconvenience.

But there are also some consolations. For example: the battery bank that is used to start the main engine (and only for that purpose) is charging well from its private alternator. And even if both alternators quit we still have a small (300 watt) generator to use to charge up batteries and do the most important job on board.

"What most important job on Board?" I hear you ask. "After that list of crucial functions you have just given us like: food, light, air conditioning, communication, desalinizing water, pumping the bilge, pumping sewage, and backing up the charging of battery banks-what, more important job could there be?" It is to keep the freezer that stores the samples we have collected cold. Very cold. If that should fail we would lose a major portion of our data-the main purpose of this voyage. And that would be a disaster in my view far exceeding any I have referred to until now. It is, in fact, a prospect that gives me sleepless nights.

But now it's my turn to be pleasantly surprised. Josh just told me that we have a dedicated inverter (sounds like a hard working missionary) that converts battery power to alternating current, and which, in the event of the failure of all three generators, would still give us the power needed to run the crucial freezer that holds our samples. I thought we were well prepared before, now I realize that thanks to Iain and Josh and Bob and Rodrigo we're better prepared than even I had thought.

After another spectacular sunset, darkness is coming, and I am going to bed in order to enjoy properly that time of day when darkness is appropriate and when the millions of stars that lie so fatly and languorously in these skies, get their turn.

So ends this day.

Log by Roger Payne

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