I’m lucky to be here. If the companionway had been closed or 45 more minutes had passed, I would be dead. You can take every precaution, research every chart, check every forecast, but all it takes is a shift of the wind to learn quickly that you are at the mercy of the sea.
This isn’t a story about a rogue wave or a rough swell, though. This is a story about a diesel cabin heater. It was the second to last weekend in March and I had just flown down to Maryland to take care of some last-minute preparations before my partner Phil, a few friends and I would deliver our newly purchased 1984 Tayana Vancouver 42, Eclipse 1, from Annapolis to Boston the following weekend. We were still getting snow, and the temperature was averaging close to freezing, so to keep the crew happy we decided to research options beyond long underwear and our oil lamp for heat.
We knew some about diesel heaters. Before purchasing our Tayana, we had been winter caretakers on a boat with a very temperamental drip-style Dickenson diesel cabin heater. We’d spent hours over the winter with our elbows deep in diesel, taking the thing apart, putting it back together, investigating and implementing different options to keep it running, none of which seemed to do the trick for more than five minutes.
So, we knew we didn’t want to be cold, we liked diesel heaters when they worked, and we didn’t have a lot of money to spend. After a massive amount of research, we ended up purchasing a forced-air diesel heater made by Planar. It’s similar to, but less expensive than, the more popular Webasto or Espar heaters. The weekend before I went down, Phil had been in Maryland finishing the installation and spent two nights on the boat with the heater running, to our knowledge, successfully. When I went on my trip, there was no indication that there should be anything to be concerned about, until I smelled something…
The last thing I remember after that was calling Phil, because something was wrong. It was a smell I couldn’t identify and it was growing stronger. It amazes me now how tuned in my senses had become since moving aboard. I think the way that sailors instinctually react to their boats is similar to the maternal instincts of a mother—you get up in the middle of the night to check on your baby when you hear an unfamiliar noise. I’m now able to identify almost every sound, every smell, every movement. If I can’t, it means there’s a problem.
It was the combination of an unnerving amount of luck, good timing, following my instincts and the astute actions of my partner that gave me a chance. As soon as I was aware of the smell I texted Phil, and when he didn’t respond I called him. At the same time I opened the locker in the quarterberth where the heater was located and then moved to the settee as soon as he answered. Although I don’t recollect this from memory, I began describing the situation to him. Naturally he began to troubleshoot, until he realized there was no longer any kind of response coming from the other end. What unnerved him the most, he later told me, was that the call hadn’t dropped; I just wasn’t there anymore.
It was 1800 on Friday, and Phil was still at his office in Boston, so he found himself facing the daunting task of trying to save a life remotely. After sending me a series of haunting text messages, he turned his desk into a makeshift search and rescue headquarters and called 911, the fire department, the police and the boatyard multiple times without reaching anyone that was able to offer any assistance.
Eventually the Annapolis Fire Department was able to send someone to look for me, but even then, finding one specific boat among the thousands in the area would be very difficult. So difficult, in fact, that they would have never made it in time. Phil’s phone finally rang. The situation was getting worse, fast, but it turned out that his repeated attempts to contact the boatyard had been worth it, since the call service he’d reached had, in turn, contacted John, the owner of the yard and perhaps the one person in the area who would know exactly where to find me.
When I came to, John was pulling me out of the boat from where I’d been hunched over in the cabin on the starboard settee. After yelling my name with no response he’d rushed into the boat and pulled me out. The next thing I knew, I was in the boatyard office with an oxygen mask strapped to my face, surrounded by firemen.
I’m fortunate that I didn’t have to go the route of the hyperbaric chamber. The extent of my treatment was about 6 hours with the oxygen mask, an I.V., and a contingency stated in my discharge papers that I would “under no circumstances return to my boat until it had been cleared by the fire department.” I was finally released, so naturally I headed back to the boatyard and only disobeyed the rules slightly by stopping onboard Eclipse to briefly open the hatches, throw on the blower and then do the only sensible thing, which was head to the pub.
As soon as people heard what happened, the stories about the dangers of toxic fumes started pouring in. The one that really hit me was about a girl around my same age. She was on a boat underway when she decided to head below to take a shower, and because of a leak, some fumes and what I can only understand as fate, she never came back up. I hadn’t realized that if I had closed the companionway or if John hadn’t gotten to me almost exactly when he did, I never would have come up either.
Trying to understand what had happened proved to be frustrating at first. While the test results from the hospital confirmed that I had carbon monoxide poisoning, it is the general consensus that carbon monoxide is odorless, and I had clearly smelled something.
We also had two new and working carbon monoxide detectors on the boat, which we found disconcerting because neither detector had gone off. With that we began our search for answers.
Of course we knew that carbon monoxide can come from a running engine or heater, but how did it get into the cabin? The exhaust pipe was airtight, or so we thought until we found where a hole had melted in a portion of a plastic combustion air intake hose. The melted plastic explained the smell, and the hole was probably where the gas leaked out.
Once we had a better understanding of what caused my toxic poisoning, we reinstalled our heater with a new air intake hose of a higher heat resistance. Then with the use of a digital nitrogen dioxide meter (a more measurable byproduct of diesel exhaust), we were able to confirm the presence of diesel exhaust exiting the exhaust port on the hull, and also be certain that we didn’t have any present inside the boat. It took a little convincing, but eventually people stopped insisting that I wear a gas detector around my neck like a necklace for the rest of my life.
I’d never heard of carbon monoxide poisoning from diesel heaters and had to learn the hard way that it is, in fact, possible, and can be lethal. Making mistakes is easy, admitting them is difficult, learning from them is necessary. And let me be honest, if I’m going to die on my sailboat, it sure as hell better not be at the dock.
What We Did Right
- I followed my instincts.
- I notified someone immediately when I smelled a strange odor.
- I thoroughly researched diesel heater installations.
- I installed two new carbon monoxide and smoke detectors before running the heater.
What We Did Wrong
- I placed too much reliance on carbon monoxide detectors (most detectors will not be triggered by low concentrations of the gas, however extended exposure even to low levels can still be fatal).
- I overlooked the importance of using a heat resistant material for the combustion air intake hose.
- I should have immediately shut down all systems and evacuated the boat upon the suspicion of dangerous gases.
Ali Wisch currently lives aboard Theoria, a Tayana Vancouver 42, with her partner Phil in Charlestown, Massachusetts. They are in the process of preparing her for a voyage to the Pacific in 2017