14 June 2009 | Annapolis, MD
11 June 2009
10 June 2009 | Little Creek Marina, Norfolk, VA, USA
04 June 2009 | Little Creek Marina, Norfolk, VA, USA
31 May 2009 | Little Creek Marina, Norfolk, VA, USA
29 May 2009 | Little Creek Marina, Norfolk, VA, USA
26 May 2009 | Little Creek Marina, Norfolk, VA, USA
25 May 2009 | Little Creek Marina, Norfolk, VA, USA
13 May 2009 | through 21-May-2009
13 May 2009 | through 21-May-2009
12 May 2009 | St George's Town, Bermuda
11 May 2009 | St George's Town, Bermuda
07 May 2009 | St George's Town, Bermuda
04 May 2009 | St George's Town, Bermuda
21 April 2009 | through 02-May-2009

Starter Trouble Diagnostics

23 February 2008 | Salinas, Puerto Rico
CURRENT LOCATION: Anchored east of Cayo Mata near the villages of Playa Salinas and Playita, Puerto Rico

17 57.274' N, 066 17.474' W

Our main goal of the day was to begin looking into the issue of our intermittent starter troubles. Our troubles began way back in our slip in New Bern, North Carolina. Occasionally, when we would push the starter button nothing appeared to happen. Initially, we thought the problem may be the starter switch itself. We sprayed some anti-corrosion spray in and around the button and connections, and the next time it started right up.

Since that initial occurrence, the problem has resurfaced multiple times under multiple conditions and new diagnostic data has therefore become available. When we push the starter button something actually does happen. A single audible 'click' is heard. In addition, during our many recent night starts we found that while holding the button down following the click sound, the lights are slightly dimmed. Another diagnostic pattern which seems to hold true is that the problem occurs more often when the boat has been sitting for a period, rather than when the engine is warm or even somewhat recently run. Perhaps, the problem occurs more frequently when it is a cold, damp morning than when it is a warm and sunny afternoon (but the comparative data on that point is scant, at best).

Generally, when the problem rears its rather ugly head we simply push the button several times and it eventually engages the starter and the engine starts with no problem. On a few recent occasions, though, we have had to take matters a bit further. Suspecting that the issue may be rust or corrosion in the solenoid which is preventing the required contact for engaging the starter, on two occasions now I have gently tapped the solenoid with a wrench. Please note that this simple approach to mechanical repair has worked wonders for the fluxgate compass on our autopilot. And here with the starter, too, it achieved the desired result...the engine started. Perhaps, though, it is time to look a little more deeply into this problem (before we end up stranded somewhere without the ability to start the engine).

So, this morning we decided to dedicate the day to starter detective work. When the view from the boat is as beautiful as you see in the lead photo, it is difficult to resign oneself to spending time staring at a dirty old diesel engine. But, alas, it must be done.

First, I pulled Nigel Calder's book, Boatowner's Mechanical and Electrical Manual, from the shelf and began reading about starters. Then I sorted through our engine manuals and information about the engine collected by previous owners. In those papers was a bulletin (dated 1994) regarding starting issues reported by owners of our Universal engine. It sounded a lot like the trouble we were experiencing. The information related in the bulletin correlated nicely with what I had learned from Nigel's book. Our problem may not be a defective starter or solenoid, but instead may be a bad electrical connection.

Although we have a replacement solenoid/starter and we both thought the day's chore would lead to installing it, Sheryl and I decided to explore the possibility of a bad electrical connection as a more simple solution than replacing the entire solenoid/starter. Besides, if there is a problem with an electrical connection to the starter, replacing it with a new one won't fix the problem anyway.

In order to trace the electrical path from battery to starter switch to solenoid/starter and then engine block, we needed full access to the engine. This meant that the first chore of the day (following our literature review) was to empty both cockpit lockers. The result of which can be seen below...


With Sheryl on one side and me on the other, each armed with really great flashlights (thanks to Sheryl's brother, Charlie), we started tracing wires. Then we switched sides and compared notes. Although everything appeared to be in good shape (no corrosion and no loose connections), there was one spot where we thought we could make some improvement. The ignition wire running to the starter solenoid had two butt connections where someone had spliced in a fuse. If these connections were bad, it may even be the case that I inadvertently bumped the wires into action when I went to tap on the solenoid with my wrench.

We replaced one of the butt connections (the old one gave with a strong tug test) and put on a new end connector on the wire where the old one appeared to be a little grey with corrosion. A quick test revealed a functional starter (it worked on the first push of the starter button). Of course, that in itself means nothing. This problem has been so intermittent that we will likely need a half-dozen successful tests, under a variety of conditions, before we truly believe that we have solved the problem.

For now, though, we will do no more. As a scientist, I learned that one should change only one variable at a time with each experiment. If we have no more problems, we can conclude that the issue was with those connections. If we continue to have issues, we can revisit the notion of replacing the solenoid/starter with the new one we have in our spare parts bin.

After re-packing the cockpit lockers, Sheryl remained on the boat while I walked back to the park for more time on the internet. One new e-mail indicated that we will be having visitors meet us here in Puerto Rico in a few weeks. We are quite excited and will reveal more about these mystery guests as the time draws nearer.

For the present, though, we may be having guests from another boat aboard Prudence this evening (things were still up in the air when I departed a few hours ago), so I suppose that I should get off the computer and get back to the boat, dear Reader. Besides, my tummy is grumbling and I know that will pass several stands selling empanadillas (meat-filled turnovers) on the way back. So, with my mouth watering at the mere though, I will sign off for now.
Vessel Name: Prudence
We are Doug & Sheryl, owners and crew of the sailing vessel Prudence.

This blog starts in 2005, when we initially had the idea to quit our jobs and live on a sailboat while we cruised to the Caribbean. At that time we had never owned a boat and had no experience sailing. [...]