Thursday, 21 Jun 2001

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

This is Roger Payne, writing to you from aboard the Odyssey. We have been experiencing multiple problems with the Odyssey‘s electrical system and at any moment could lose 90 percent of our power. But we’re well-prepared, and all of life’s basic needs would still be provided for. It’s just that we would have less padding between us and genuine discomfort. Events like this are normal on boats. One expects that all of the problems that can occur will occur, eventually, on any boat. They are not really avoidable. Given our modest budget, Captains Iain Kerr and Bob Wallace have chosen the spares to put onboard wisely and our preparedness has been good. And being prepared is the name of the game.

It’s just that all boats have problems, particularly when they have been banging around the open ocean for 15 months, as Odyssey has. But when it finally arrives, any significant problem, no matter how well you may have anticipated it, always disrupts one’s plans.

Both generators have recently been overhauled, and Bob takes loving care of them always. But generators often fool you in the end. And when they do, what a chain reaction they can set off! I say “chain reaction” because when one thing goes wrong, it tends to trigger other problems. However, chain reactions can also be valuable learning experiences because they teach how vulnerable we humans are at sea.

In our case, it all started with the main generator going out. Josh and Rodrigo investigated: relief. It wasn’t the generator, just its water pump (used to pump the water that cools the generator). It’s a small thing for which we normally carry a spare. However, there are usually two main generators aboard Odyssey. But just now the second one is in Madang, being repaired after it ate the spare water pump. Now we get to see how dependent on electricity the Odyssey really is. We need the generator to cool our fresh food and vegetables, as the main power source to enable us to receive communications from and send them to the rest of the world, to desalinate the water we drink, and to pump the bilges. At present, we have plenty of water and plenty of dry and canned food, we can cook (the main stove is propane, only the microwave needs power), and we can always sail. We also have EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) and other battery-operated radios with which to call for help, should we need it.

In the engine room, Rodrigo Olen repairs the generator.

Photo: Chris Johnson, Ocean Alliance.

But what about the chain reaction effect? Well here’s an example: Having no generator means that I can’t type at my computer during the late afternoon because the air conditioning is powered by the generator and when it’s off, the temperature below decks soars, and I perspire so much my hands get moist and get my computer wet, which starts to shock me, so I have to stop typing.

Here’s another example: Our service bank of batteries (which we use all the time to run computers and other equipment) are due for replacement with the next haul out. But with the additional pressure being put on the service bank alternator to charge them from the main engine, that alternator stopped charging (for reasons still obscure to all of our resident experts, though I have confidence that they will soon discover them).

News Flash: Josh just solved the problem as I typed.

Another example: It’s getting hard to breathe onboard. That’s because there is something else for which the generator is needed. The sump tank holds sewage until the boat is far enough out to sea to pump it overboard. The sewage pump is powered by the generator, and the sump tank currently happens to be fairly full. When the level in the tank gets close to the top, the aft end of the boat starts to fill with the unpleasant odor of sewage. Pumping out the tank cures the problem, but we can’t do it, of course, until the water pump on the generator is working. With that problem, we really do suffer.

All in all, if we lose most of our power in the next few days (likely, I’m be
tting), we may be out of touch for several days as we slowly make our way under sail towards Madang. But even that demonstrates the chain reaction effect: for it turns out that there is very little wind in these waters. So it could be a longish trip.

All this because we are minus a water pump so small it would fit comfortably in your pocket. But we’ll be fine. In the above litany, I have not bothered to enumerate a bunch of ways in which we can shift batteries around to solve problems, should they arise. It’s just that we may be in for some extra inconvenience.

But there are also some consolations. For example, the battery bank that is used to start the main engine (and only for that purpose) is charging well from its private alternator. And even if both alternators quit, we still have a small (300-watt) generator to use to charge up batteries and do the most important job onboard.

What is the most important job onboard? It is to keep the freezer that stores the samples we have collected cold. Very cold. If that should fail, we would lose a major portion of our data — the main purpose of this voyage. And that would be a disaster in my view far exceeding any I have referred to previously. It is, in fact, a prospect that gives me sleepless nights.

But now it’s my turn to be pleasantly surprised. Josh just told me that we have a dedicated inverter (sounds like a hard-working missionary) that converts battery power to alternating current, and which, in the event of the failure of all three generators and alternators, would still give us the power needed to run the crucial freezer that holds our samples. I thought we were well-prepared before, but now I realize that thanks to Iain, Josh, Bob, and Rodrigo, we’re better prepared than even I had thought.

After another spectacular sunset, darkness is coming, and I am going to bed in order to enjoy properly that time of day when darkness is appropriate and the millions of stars that lie so fat and languorous in these skies get their turn.

So ends this day.