the adventures of a girl, her dog, and two cats.

Monday, February 10, 2014

where there's smoke...

No time is a good one to be standing in a bathrobe holding a fire extinguisher. But aboard a fiberglass boat when it's 25 degrees out is especially not a good one.

Two weeks ago two liveaboard boats here in Eastport burned to the waterline. It simply gives one pause. And there's this sick irony to boat fires because a boat is surrounded by water. I don't know what exactly caused that fire, but electricity arcing at shore power connections seems to be a frequent cause of boat fires, so I wanted to do some preventive care aboard to ward off that problem. On Saturday I had planned to unplug the shore power cables, wipe down the blades, and then coat them with dielectric silicone compound. Various folks had recommended putting it on the connections to prevent corrosion and arcing that can lead to electrical fires. The package said to avoid skin contact. I wasn't sure how much I'm supposed to put on. I pulled out my copy of Nigel Calder's Mechanical and Electrical Manual to see if it mentioned applying the compound to the shore power connections. I couldn't find anything. I decided to wait until I had a little more information.

While contemplating the dangers of fire aboard, I noticed that the many fire extinguishers aboard are mounted and held in with straps. I pondered just how those straps fasten. I'd never actually removed any of the extinguishers, but if there were either a fire or an intruder (an ABC extinguisher is a handy defensive weapon) I was concerned about how difficult it would be to remove the canister from the strap when time was of the essence. 

Sunday morning I was supposed to go ice skating with friends. I do love to skate and was looking forward to it, but was not really feeling up to being surrounded by kids. I went back and forth about it but just had this feeling I needed to beg off and stick around the boat. As I was messaging back and forth with friends, I heard a strange sound, sort of a slow, deep "whomp." It seemed to come from the starboard aft-most corner of the nav desk and breaker panel. But I didn't hear anything else and started to go back to the message I was writing. Then I noticed the music was off. Hmm. Maybe I had turned it off for some reason. I turned it back on and sat down. The music started coming and going. The iPod dock runs on 110V, i.e., shore power, but also has a 10-hour battery back-up, so if the A/C power is off, it just switches over. I looked at the panel and it showed 120 volts, but the power strip light was flashing on and off. Ah, maybe something on the shelf is hitting the power strip button. Nope. Then I saw the adjacent outlet was dead. No breakers on the panel were tripped. Strange.

Nothing looked amiss. But this faint smell of sulfur, like when you just light a match, caught my nose. Something just didn't feel right. I turned off the main A/C breakers on the boat. And in that moment, I somehow instinctively popped that strap on the fire extinguisher and headed topsides. I opened the lazarette that contains the back of the electrical panel and smoke came billowing out. I didn't see flames but the smoke kept coming and the burning matches and plastic and something else I just can't was awful and I knew something was very wrong. I flipped the breakers off at the shore power pedestal and went back to the cockpit, standing over the open lazarette. I didn't want to just randomly spray the fire extinguisher in there. The smoke seemed to be dissipating, but with all the PFDs and sails in the lazarette, what if something was smoldering out of sight? 

I wasn't quite sure who to call. Someone like TowBoatUS will claim a percentage of the boat's value for salvage if you're sinking or on fire. The fire department would likely fill the boat with foam that would destroy wiring and systems. But something was seriously wrong. I called a friend who's a very experienced boater. He answered very conversationally, "Hey, how are you?" I quickly and bluntly said "I'm kind of freaking out right now. I'm standing here in a bathrobe with a fire extinguisher and there's smoke coming out of the lazarette near the electrical panel. I'm not sure who to call." He reminded me he's in Delaware. "Yes, yes, I know you can't come help me, but I figured you would know who I should call." He suggested I go disconnect the shore power cables from the boat and pedestal as well and turn off the batteries. 

Both shore power cables show damage from arcing
When I unplugged the cables from the shore power inlets on the boat one inlet had a blade that was black and scorched. The cables were clearly damaged from arcing. The smoke seemed to have stopped. I didn't see any obvious damage on the electrical panel, which has a clear Plexiglass cover. But all that smoke came from somewhere. Now all power on the boat was off, no A/C from shore power and no D/C from the batteries. So, no heat, no lights, no propane stove because it requires an electric solenoid for safety. The water around the boat is iced over. We were at least going to need a way to heat the boat.

My friend suggested I call a marine mechanic he knows to see if he could come take a look, but he wasn't in town. That guy gave me the name of another mutual friend of theirs, Rob Simkin. I explained to Rob that while whatever had burned appeared under control, I couldn't wait to address the issue because I live on the boat with pets and we need to get the boat safely heated. Rob really came through; here I was a perfect stranger, kind of freaking out, but he gave up his Sunday afternoon and was at my boat in less than 90 minutes.

The shore power inlet that was on fire
Rob removed the shore power inlet that looked damaged. The guts were scorched and melted. I complained about how awful that burning smell is and he explained that there is a lot of smoke under the coaming, so the smell probably won't go away soon. The other inlet looked OK, but since it was older and rather than take any chances, I agreed we should replace them both. While I went to West Marine (twice) and Fawcett's to find the parts, Rob went over the electrical panel to check for damage, tightened up loose wires, and replaced some old connectors. He also began tracing the wires for the battery charger since I have long wanted to move it over to the "main" shore power line in case I am in a marina with only single 30 amp service; then I can forgo the water heater and HVAC that run on the secondary line and have all my "core" house systems on the main line.

The plan at West Marine was to pick up two new inlet assemblies and one or two new shore power cables. Each of those is about a hundred bucks; yep, ouch. I found that instead of having to buy the entire assembly, including the metal casing and closure, I could buy just the "guts" of the inlet. The price difference is substantial: $90 versus $30. The problem was that the guts-only package didn't include the white end cap. I got them anyway, and then headed to Fawcett's to see if they had the end caps. They didn't, but they had sets of the guts with a cap included. I bought two of those, and returned the others at West Marine. I also picked up a new "Eel" shore power cable at West Marine. For the second cable I'm using a short cable I already had, but I will replace it shortly with a longer one because if the tide falls too much and it "tugs" at the connections I may be back to standing there with a fire extinguisher.

Note half the guts are just gone or melted
As it turned out, the inlets I had bought at West Marine were Marinco and the ones from Fawcett's were Hubbell. It'd be way too easy if these fittings were standardized... so of course the Hubbell ones and the Marinco ones do not have their screw holes in quite the same spots. They're off just a smidge enough that they can't play nice together. And it turns out that one of my inlets was Hubbel and one was Marinco. Sigh. And so, I headed back to West Marine (trip three). I tried fitting the white backing cap from the old assembly onto the new inlet guts, but the cap was too melted on one side, so I sucked it up and bought the $90 complete inlet assembly for the Marinco inlet.

Naturally, for one of the inlets the wire was a few inches short after cutting off old connections. So, Rob headed to West Marine for that trip since he knew exactly what wire was needed. The entire process (replacing the inlets and moving the battery charger over to the main line) took a little over four hours. The last hour we were there in the cockpit as sleet/hail then turned to fluffy snow. Rob patiently explained to me what he was doing and why, pointed out key aspects of the electrical panel for me, and explained certain things prior owners had done that I'll likely want to change as I upgrade the system. I probably need to make a sketch and then jot notes about what everything is.

By the time everything was put back together and I could turn on systems, and heat, again, it had fallen to 40 degrees inside the boat. The pets were about ready to mutiny. I gave them all kibble, and having only had a string cheese and a yogurt all day myself, I headed down to the pub. My dieting/running has been going very well. I'm down a reasonable and safe seven pounds in six weeks, and down 2-3 inches everywhere that matters. But I decided that on days that you have a boat fire you get to eat and drink whatever you want without guilt. The burger and fries were exactly what I needed, but the nachos a couple hours later and copious amounts of beer... yeah, not so much. I took the melted inlet with me in a ziploc bag so I could play show-and-tell with the other liveaboards at the pub. After that near miss, and knowing I dodged a scary bullet, it was good to be able to decompress and commiserate with liveaboard friends. It's really nice to know that if I'm in a jam I have friends I can call for help.

I definitely feel that something was telling me that the shore power needed attention although there weren't any outward signs that it had a problem. It's eery that I had been concerned with arcing and the fire extinguishers just the day before. It's eery that I had this gut feeling I needed to stick around the boat that morning. If I hadn't, I probably wouldn't have a boat, or two loving cats, or a tail-wagging pup dog right now. When I'm tucking myself in the v-berth for bed, telling the pets goodnight and that I love them, I put my hand against the hull and tell the boat we love her, too. I know it's not good to become too attached to a particular boat and that it's not a child, a lover, or a pet, it's an object. But at the same time, I do love her; she is our home and in many ways my salvation. We rescued her, and she rescued us. So it may sound like so much mystical jibber-jabber, but I think she was telling me something was wrong and it saved her life and ours yesterday.

If you're an Annapolis-area boater and need electrical or yacht management help, check out Simkins Yacht Management. Rob is a USCG licensed captain and an ABYC master technician. Good at what he does and "good people." A big thanks to Rob, to Fred and Steve for recommending him, to fellow liveaboard Jay "Thumper" at West Marine, and to the liveaboard ladies at Fawcett's.


  1. I finally broke down and ordered this: the exact reason you wrote about. I recommend these.

    Good Luck,

    1. I looked at the Smartplugs; they look very nice and designed with exactly this arcing problem in mind. I only stuck with the old style for now due to budget constraints. Nice to hear from someone who actually has them and likes them. Thanks!

  2. Here's the story behind the 1938 designed 30A plugs and sockets and why smart plugs are safer.

  3. Nearly laughable timing... I had the same thing happen to me two nights ago. I replaced the guts of my Marinco outlet yesterday and had to get a new shore power cord (expensive! Even without going the EEL or Smart Plug route).
    Unfortunately "it" happened in the late evening so I had to spend the night without power (and thus heat), luckily the temperature here in Seattle has been mild lately. Can't say I got much sleep, though. Nothing like home-threatening electrical problems to make your mind race at night.

    Here's a scary picture of my damaged outlet:

    I did use some dielectric compound on the blades. I'm hoping it'll stymie the inevitable corrosion and, more importantly, let me sleep a little easier at night!

    1. Yikes, that outlet sure got scorched! Glad you were aboard to catch it quick. It's amazing how frequently this happens, and it does keep one worried about all the systems, especially if prior owners were creative tinkerers. Since we're getting hit by this big storm tonight I went out and put the dielectric compound on the blades today before the cords are buried under snow. Here's to sleeping a little easier!


Thanks for reading! Have you had a similar experience you'd like to share? Have a link to an interesting blog fellow readers and I might enjoy? Just want to say hello? Post your comments below. I'm a smart, resourceful girl doing things her own way, so I just ask that folks keep the unsolicited advice to themselves.