Life has a way of surprising us, sometimes in good ways, and sometimes in ways we don’t enjoy…
We had planned to be sailing in French Polynesia now, enjoying the Tuamotus and heading to Papeete. We had cast off from La Cruz MX and were headed to FP. After weeks of planning and preparation, we were on our way. We felt great about our progress and were getting into the groove of the open ocean passage.
Fate decided to throw us a curve ball a few days into the passage and we began experiencing electrical issues on-board. Specifically, the capacity of our main battery bank began to diminish. We were outfitted with an 8 battery bank of Trojan 6 volt AGM batteries, installed new in July 2016, that gave us a nominal capacity of 800 amp hours. Our batteries were recharged daily by Solar Panels providing 600 watts and we were confident that this was more than enough to cover our energy needs. Especially with the primary diesel engine and an auxiliary diesel generator as additional power sources.
When we noticed the battery capacity diminishing, we were just passing Isla Socorro, the last sight of land we would have until Nuku Hiva. We initially thought the problem was manageable and if I could identify the failing battery(ies) then I could remove them from the large bank and we would be fine. After some interesting choreography to remove the salon floor while we were underway in pitching seas, which included removing a large settee and other furniture, I was able to access the batteries in the bilge area near the keel. I pulled a MacGyver and built a load tester using cables and a 12v chest freezer that pulls a known load (6 amps) when running. I was able to isolate individual battery pairs and load test each one. I identified a pair of batteries that quickly lost charge with the constant load applied (much faster than the other pairs) and decided these were the culprits and removed them from the large bank.
Feeling good about the ‘discovery’ and the ‘solution’, I buttoned up the floor and continued to monitor the situation. During the day, we were able to run completely off of solar power and charge the batteries with no problems. Night time was the challenge. With the Autopilot running, AIS, refrigerator, freezer, and radios (VHF/SSB), we pulled about 15 amps. Even after removing the suspect cells from the bank, our battery voltage would hold up well from about 4 hours then suddenly collapse from 12.75v to 10.5v in seconds. Running the motor to charge the batteries for an hour would give us another few hours.
We continued on with a schedule of running the motor for an hour at Midnight and again at 4:00am every night. We had plenty of fuel so this was annoying but feasible. As we continued on over the following days and nights, the battery capacity fell from 4 hours to 2 hours, then to minutes, even as we began turning off everything but the AIS and the autopilot at night… It became apparent that if we were to continue, we would have to run the motor each night (the whole night) until the solar cells kicked back in. We had lots of fuel, but not THAT much fuel… The other option was to hand steer thru the night shifts the rest of the way. We still had ~2000 miles to go.
I had to make a decision and though I really wanted to finish the passage, I had the safety of my crew and my vessel to account for. Ultimately, I made the call that we would abort and return to Mexico. It was a hard decision, but I believe it was the right decision. We had sailed 800 miles and 7 days when we did the sad turn back toward Mexico.
Once the decision was made and the turn executed, everyone rallied and we all focused on the tasks at hand, getting back to land. Preferably in a place where we could address the issues and replan our next steps. The 7 days outbound had been downwind and a pleasure to sail, albeit bumpy on a few days. The sail back was going to be an upwind bash and we still had the battery issue to contend with. The winds decided to toy with us a bit and were coming out of the exact direction we needed to go. Close hauled as tight as possible, on one tack we were pointing at Hawaii, on the other tack, we were pointed at Galapagos… I was hopeful that the wind would continue to clock more to the north and on to the west so we settled in and made as much headway as possible East, mainly South East. My bet payed off and the winds clocked and ultimately brought our projected landfall up into Mexico, and seemed to be settling in around Acapulco. The wind continued to clock NW and our projected landfall continued to shift north up the coast of MX. Amazingly, it delivered us right back into Banderas Bay, where we started from 14 days previously. 7 Days out, another 7 days back.
Just to mess with us a bit, when we got within 10 miles of La Cruz, the wind abruptly shifted to right on our nose and stopped us dead. This drove the point home that we were completely at the whims of the wind. Well sort of. I laughed and thanked the wind gods for bringing us this far then fired up the motor and drove into the wind to the La Cruz Marina.
While we were bummed that we didn’t make it to Nuku Hiva, we were happy to be safe and back in a protected, and familiar, harbor. We slept well that night on the hook. 1600+ miles round trip offshore and right back where we started from. Fate? who knows.