I thought it was kind of amusing, but I don’t think anyone else who was aboard at the time saw the humor in the cloud of acrid white smoke which billowed out of the engine room and filled the cabin of the boat.
Fire on a boat is never funny, so it wasn’t the fact that the boat might be on fire which was humorous — it was the circumstances. I was visiting a newly built boat for owner’s sea trials. I had been aboard for only a few minutes when it was announced that our sea trial might be delayed because the starboard engine would not start.
Not only would the balky engine not start, the entire electrical system associated with that engine was completely dead. No gauges or displays, no fuel pump, no starter. Nothing — not even a click.
Of course, the engine had been running just fine the day before, and now the guys from the shipyard were mortified that the engine picked the very moment of my arrival — the only chance they’d get to make a good first impression of the spiffy new vessel — to refuse to cooperate.
Two or three guys dropped into the engine room to diagnose and hopefully solve the no-start problem. Another nervous shipyard representative took me below decks into the tank room, the next compartment forward of the engine room, to inspect the plumbing for fuel and water systems while we were waiting for the engine to rumble to life.
But instead of a humming diesel engine, a few moments later we heard a very loud popping noise and someone in the engine room said, “Oh, golly gee willikers.” Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but you get the idea.
We looked up through the open hatch of our compartment and could see the aforementioned cloud of smoke filling the cabin above our heads. The poor guy who had been assigned to keep me preoccupied got really wide-eyed, and we scrambled up the ladder into the smoky cabin to see if anyone was still alive in the engine room.
Fortunately, things were not so dramatic as they appeared, and within a few minutes the smoke was all gone. They’d been troubleshooting a dead circuit in the engine room and were trying to bypass the dead wiring with a temporary jumper wire, which someone hooked up wrong.
Maybe 24 volts doesn’t sound like a lot of electricity, but a dead short across 24 volts can be pretty exciting and it managed to smokily vaporize the insulation off a foot or so of wiring in the few seconds that it took them to get the circuit switched back off. At least no one was hurt (except for a major dose of wounded pride), and no damage occurred to the engine or electrical systems.
Ironically, the problem which caused all the excitement ended up being a miscommunication between the engine and a newly installed automatic fire suppression system, which thought there was an engine room fire and had shut down all electrical systems to the starboard engine. Maybe it was just psychic and decided to shut things down before the fire.
When the smoke cleared and it was verified that nobody and nothing was damaged, the guys from the boatyard were all apologetic. But about all I could do was laugh and tell them not to worry about it because all boats are a pain in the backside! New boats, old boats, small boats, big boats, they are all a hassle.
But at the same time, they’re also wonderful things which give us access to great times on the water, taking us to cool places and allowing us to see and do memorable things. We simple have to be patient with them during their fits of recalcitrance.
In case you’re wondering, the smoky moment of near-panic was followed by two perfect days of sea trials, during which the vessel performed flawlessly. The guys at the shipyard did a good job.
Let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.