The Ghost Who Started My Engine

By Earl Tingle

Nautical lore celebrates stories of the bizarre and mysterious,but was a spectral visitor actually haunting the decks of this Mainship trawler?

Photo of Earl Tingle at the helm of his Mainship trawlerEarl Tingle alone (he hopes!) at the helm of Gone Coastal, his Mainship trawler.

Don't hate me, but I'm one of those lucky guys who get to enjoy their boats right behind their homes on the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. One fine sunny day last May, I was sitting enjoying that view around 9:30 p.m. when I thought I heard an engine running. Fishermen are often hovering around the dock and the boat at night, so the circumstances were not uncommon. Peering into the dark, however, I saw no lights, or any other boat. As I ambled my way down toward Gone Coastal to investigate, I couldn't miss the familiar sound of the Yanmar 370 at idle. It was definitely my boat's engine. The conundrum was that no one had been on the boat, or even the dock, that day!

Climbing aboard, I initially tried to shut the engine down from the lower helm, but it didn't respond to shutdown commands. By now, all sorts of thoughts were going through my head, including a few of the supernatural variety. Opening the entry hatch to the engine room, I smelled insulation burning. Luckily, Marc, a mechanic from Marine Pro in Cocoa, Florida, had performed a 1,000-hour service on the engine two weeks earlier and had showed me how to shut it off at the engine-stop solenoid on the starboard side of the engine. So, now it was turned off, but I had no idea why the engine would have started by itself.

Ghost Busting

Fortunately, I was home and had heard the engine running. I knew the boat had about 220 gallons of fuel in her tank, and she had not reached operating temperature levels when I made the discovery. In other words, the engine had only been running for a short time. I inspected the entire engine room and found smoke deposits on the portside, above the starter. I also found the wires at the backside of the magnetic switch burned and melted together.

Marc came over the next day and removed the starter and starter relay. Both were fried. Locating the real ghost, as Marc called the malfunction, was not so easy. I ordered another starter, and another technician. Frank, also from Marine Pro, came by a couple of days later to install it and bring his own ideas about the root cause of the problem. Frank thought he had isolated the issue to a faulty starting switch at either the upper or lower helm, and he disconnected those switches.

Then, just as Frank was tucking away the wiring harness on the portside of the engine, it started again! The culprit was located. Frank peeled back the insulation and found the yellow wire that had shorted against the red starter positive wire, starting the engine, and the small fire. Frank removed the shorted butt connectors and replaced and heat-sealed them and retaped the harness. Fortunately, the smoke and fire weren't severe enough to burn any other components or discharge the fire suppression system, but it was enough to have given me the heebie-jeebies for a couple of days! 

After 27 years in the U.S. Army, Colonel Earl Tingle recently retired to New Smyrna Beach, Florida. As well as his Mainship, he owns a center-console for daytime excursions. His neighbor Paul DelFino also contributed to this article.

— Published: April/May 2015

Lessons Learned

  • I learned from the mechanics that even though the engine breaker is in the off position at the DC panel, DC power is still supplied to the engine relays and other components. That DC panel breaker only controls DC power to the helm. I now leave the main DC power turned off when I'm away from the boat.
  • Moisture is the enemy of electrical connections in the marine environment. To minimize corrosion — and the risk of shorts — all electrical connections should be sealed with heat-shrink tubing as Frank did after he replaced the faulty butt connector.
  • The only proper test of whether or not a connector is strong enough is to pull on it. If it comes apart, it's bad. Make a habit of tugging on any connectors you come across in the course of boat maintenance and replacing any that don't pass with flying colors.
  • It's more difficult to access connectors in a wiring harness, but ever since the ghost started my engine, I wiggle wiring harnesses just to see if something else strange happens — or if another ghost appears!


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