Mailboat Letters

Published: April 2013

Superstorm Sandy

It will be enormously helpful to the boaters of the areas destroyed by Sandy to have this kind of reporting continue through the year. An assessment of how the marinas themselves are recovering would assist boat owners in relocating their vessels. As of now there is no good information I am aware of on the recovery process.

Thanks for this informative article.

 


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I live in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. I need to bring my 30-foot Sea Ray that I have in the Chesapeake through the Delaware Bay and up the Intracoastal Waterway from Cape May to Point Pleasant. Are there any plans to provide your readers an update on the conditions of the Intracoastal Waterway in the storm-affected areas?

Getting information or updates have been very difficult so far. Any advice you could provide would be very helpful.

 


Editor: We have received several letters along these lines. For information on the status of navigational channels from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard, subscribe to Tom Neale's East Coast Alerts. To help members determine the status of marinas and other facilities, BoatU.S. is cooperating with Dozier's Waterway Guide to provide updated information for a page they are maintaining. If you live in New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, the New York City area, or the south shore of Long Island, you can help. Send updated reports about your marina's facilities and any navigational hazards in your home waters to superstormsandy@waterwayguide.com

Exploding Batteries

I experienced a battery explosion on-board my 19-foot 1985 Blue Fin bowrider with a 1988 50-hp Force outboard. The motor was equipped with electric start so a battery circuit was used both to start the motor and as the house battery.

Two companions and I were trolling off Pentwater, Michigan and the seas were rising from an offshore wind. It was November and the air and water temp were both in the 40s. A loud explosion filled the air, and white smoke billowed from behind the transom curtain covering the storage area below the engine well. I reached for the fire extinguisher as one of the crew tore away the curtain. Then we saw what was left of the battery inside the mangled battery box and realized there was no fire, just the boiling off of whatever battery fluid was still left. Fortunately, the motor never quit and we quickly pulled lines and headed for the pier heads

To my amazement, I later discovered that this particular motor design did NOT include a voltage regulator and so, at any speed above idle, the battery was significantly over-charged. I also learned to regularly check the fluid inside the battery, which I had not done prior to this experience. Lastly, and one thing your article did not mention, always install the battery inside a secured battery box with the lid strap tightly in place. If I had not done so, I truly believe one of my crew would have been severely injured as the front of his legs were only inches away from the explosion.

The following spring I rewired the dash and installed a house battery so the electronics were isolated from the excessive voltage coming off the motor. I also checked the battery fluid before almost every outing. We enjoyed the boat for many years after.

 


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Photo of an exploded battery

I enjoyed your January 2013 issue of Seaworthy, particularly the alert about batteries that go boom. I had a very similar experience with a battery explosion in October of last year, aboard a Hunter 295 owned by one of the regular crew members of my boat. We were just getting ready to leave the dock for a Wednesday night race. I selected battery number one and hit the starter button. As soon as my finger hit the button, the battery, which is stored in a cockpit locker immediately under the starter switch, exploded. The battery box contained the explosion and most of the flying debris. I have attached a photo of the battery, with the cover off.

In retrospect, the owner had noted that battery number one was not maintaining a charge. It was most likely due to a significant lack of water in the battery. Unfortunately, I do not know the vintage of the battery, but it was certainly not new. An internal short in the battery ignited the explosive hydrogen gas when I pressed the starter button. Regular checks of the water levels might have prevented this incident. Also, once the battery was no longer maintaining a charge, it should have been disconnected from the charger and removed from the boat. Overall, we were very lucky, and still managed to make it to the starting line on time using battery number two.

 


Beware Bad Fuel

While I agree completely with most of your article, I would like to add a couple of thoughts.

I have a system that includes a polishing pump. This enables me to not only polish fuel but to transfer between tanks. When stopping for fuel in dubious locations, I can place all my known "good" fuel in one tank and polish and clean the new fuel in quarantine. I also pre-filter all incoming fuel. Should my lift pump fail, I can use the fuel transfer/polish pump to supply fuel to the engine.

Also, a vacuum-actuated switch on the engine side gives a heads-up to a problem before it strikes. It sounds an alarm when a filter is beginning to clog.

 


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I'd like to propose a caveat to the good advice in the short article, "Beware Bad Fuel." It isn't bad fuel that's to blame so much as bad fuel maintenance practices.

My opinion is that all diesel fuel contains filter-clogging elements that build up on the tank bottom and sit there, awaiting agitation by swell, storm, or boat wakes. At the same time, diesel tends to self-filter through gravity (that is, contaminants fall out of suspension). So unless one is drawing fuel from a tank with deep layers of deposits that reach the fuel pickup point, or is using recently agitated fuel, the diesel fuel in one's tank doesn't readily become "bad," but develops easily disturbed layers beneath otherwise "good" fuel. My concern is that in laying the blame for this problem on "bad" fuel, boat owners will be prompted to search for a solution in "good" fuel, which is a temporary remedy at best. The condition that causes tank deposits is present in diesel fuel whether new or old, and those deposits build up over the years, in all tanks and with all diesel fuels. That's been my experience, in any case. The only cure I know of is to carefully remove the collected sediments from the tank bottom as needed and use adequate filtration in the supply line (as your article suggests).

 



Editor: Excellent point. We used the term "bad" too generically, and Mr. Gilbert is correct that even the "best" diesel fuel, once it gets old, can cause problems. This is exactly why so many people have trouble when heading offshore for the first time — years of particulates from perfectly good fuel get churned up and clog the filters. We also received several questions about fuel polishing. This process involves pumping the fuel through a series of filters to clean it. Onboard fuel polishing systems consist of a pump that can circulate fuel from tank to tank through at least two filters. They can be purchased from a variety of providers — Google "fuel polishing systems."

Your marina may offer a fuel-polishing service or know of a contractor in the area with a mobile fuel-polishing unit. Polishing cleans contaminants (fuel, algae, dirt) suspended in diesel but it is not foolproof — sludge on the bottom of the tank may remain that will go back into suspension when the boat gets rolled around by offshore waves and swell. The only way to be absolutely sure your diesel will stay clean on an older boat is to empty and steam clean the tanks. Polishing will remove contaminants from gasoline, but it will not "fix" phase-separated or oxidized gasoline.

Capacity, Stability, And Safety

I guess the definition of a "small boat" for capacity calculation is the key to the discussion in the article. My Sisu 26 is about 25.3 feet long with a beam of about 9.34 feet. If I use the formula of length times beam divided by 15, I get a capacity of 15 people! There is not enough room on the boat for that many people if everyone is inside the gunwales.

 


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The "Capacity, Stability, and Safety" article gives the formula for boat capacity in persons as "length times beam, divided by 15." The article then states that the formula is not applicable to large boats. However, the formula may not be applicable to small boats, either. My 22-foot cuddy has a beam of 8.5 feet. Applying the formula rates this small boat at 12.5 persons. According to the capacity plate, my boat is rated for eight persons. My experience with eight persons aboard tells me that 12 persons would make the boat a real handful unless the water was smooth and everyone was in the middle of the boat and as low as possible. In other words, an emergency-only situation. I hope that this formula does not mislead anyone.

 


Chris Landers responds: I probably should have been more specific when I said "smaller boat" since there are a couple of different designations used for determining the length cut-off for capacity plate requirements. The formula purports to be valid as a rough guide for boats under 20 feet (the federal cut-off point for capacity plates), which is smaller than either boat above. Both comments are well taken, though, and demonstrate the key point in the article — for the layman (like myself), determining boat capacity is not straightforward and one-size-fits-all formulas don't work well.



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