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Experience: Fire Down Below

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Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, local racing had resumed with household crews only. My wife, though, while always up for a pleasure sail, was not up for this kind of thing, so, for the fifth time in what was any measure an unusual sailing season, I found myself singlehanding my J/29, Rhumb Runner.

It was a beautiful warm Saturday morning, and I was feeling confident that with the predicted light winds I could handle the 155 percent #1 genoa and not the smaller #3, which I had used in all but one of the previous races. As I cleared the harbor under outboard power and with the main up, I noticed there was more breeze than had been predicted and started to doubt my ability to handle the #1 racing in these kinds of conditions. Arriving at the starting area, I decided to play it safe and change to the #3.

Throwing a couple of wraps around the tiller with the backstay lines to hold Rhumb Runner steady I went below to retrieve the smaller headsail. As I was doing so I also picked up a whiff of the telltale smell of an electrical fire and immediately spun the battery switch off. Returning on deck, I grabbed the handheld VHF in the cockpit and called the race committee to let them know I was having a possibly serious electrical problem. After a brief conversation, I told them I was going to drop the main and have another look. A number of my fellow competitors radioed to say they were standing by if I needed assistance.

I made quick work of dropping the main and returned below, where the smell was now much worse. I could also now see signs of smoke coming from one of my solar chargers. As I was running through my head what tools I would need to disconnect it from the battery, it began sparking and burst into flames. Grabbing the fire extinguisher from the cabinet below the nav area, I fumbled with the pin a few seconds and then gave the flames a quick shot. The fire went out immediately.

Fortunately, a short blast from the fire extinguisher served to put the fire out (left); The charging unit showed substantial damage (right)

Fortunately, a short blast from the fire extinguisher served to put the fire out (left); The charging unit showed substantial damage (right)

Back on deck, I called the race committee again to let them know what had happened. The committee boat (a small RIB) had not yet anchored and came over to help out. I asked if there was anybody else with more than one crew who they could transfer over to assist me in disconnecting the charger. Another skipper who had been circling said he’d called the Coast Guard and alerted them to the developing situation as well.

One of the doublehanders in the fleet was a marine electrician and already fairly close by, so the race committee brought him over along with his own set of tools. As he was below disconnecting the batteries and removing the fried solar charger, the harbor police also arrived to check and make sure everything was OK. I told them the fire was out and that I felt I’d be able to return to my mooring without assistance.

After they left, Dave (the electrician) came up on deck with the fried charging unit, and I radioed both the Coast Guard and the rest of fleet to let them know Rhumb Runner was out of danger, and I was returning to the harbor. While we were waiting for the race committee to come pick up Dave, he told me he’d noticed the negative terminal of the battery that the charger served was slightly loose, and that the increased resistance probably caused a heat buildup and short in the controller. Because the system had a direct connection without a fuse, when the charger failed there had been nothing to stop the short and resulting heat from starting a fire. Soon afterward, the RIB came alongside to take Dave back to his boat. I called up the fleet on my handheld to thank them again for their help and motored safely—and a good deal wiser—back to my slip.

On a side note: the race ended up starting about 20 minutes late, and the breeze I’d been so worried about completely died an hour later. Few in the fleet were even been able to reach the last mark before the time limit passed, and the race committee ended up abandoning the race. Special thanks to the Cortez Racing Association fleet, Dave Bashan of Janis, the on-water PRO Colleen Cooke and Brad Alberts of El Sueño, in particular.

It was by grace alone that I was both aboard the boat and belowdecks when the charger gave out. If it had caught fire while I was away or if I had not noticed what was going on until the fire had become more advanced, I could have lost the boat. 

What I did right:

• I informed the race committee and fleet, letting them know I was singlehanding; they then took on the responsibility of notifying the Coast Guard

• When the fire broke out, I knew exactly where the extinguishers were and was able to grab the closest one and put the fire out quickly

• Because I was singlehanding, I was already wearing my lifejacket

What I did wrong:

• Being an older (1983) boat, the electrical system had been patched together many times and was, frankly, a mess; I had already drawn up plans to do a complete rewire but had decided to put it off until the coming winter.  

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

June 2021

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