The worst nightmare: Fire.

That was really quite close to an electrical fire.

15th October 2020

Portimão, Portugal – Ilha Da Culatra, Portugal

Some things on boats are scary. Some things on boats are dangerous. Some things on boats are so gut wrenchingly terrifying they turn you cold with sweat are the things of pure nightmares, and no matter how much training you have you’ll never be ready to deal with them. On a boat one of those things is fire. A tiny fire on a boat that is made of flammable materials, powered by flammable liquids and far from the safety of the fire brigade can quickly turn into an inferno destroying everything in its path. This was the prospect Ruffian has faced.

It was with a heavy heart that we slid out of Portimão, bidding a fond farewell to Asterie, Annelie, Calista, Favorita and especially to Atea who, over the previous weeks have turned into our Portuguese family. Atea have provided us with entertainment, knowledge and intense companionship that you only ever seem to be able to create in this nomadic lifestyle. We were however delighted to be sailing with the sun peeking over the horizon and the wind gently filling our sails.

Everything was perfect of Ruffian. She scooted along silently in flat seas with the water-maker making good use of the sunshine and the autopilot keeping her straight and safe. The only stress was making sure we arrived at the tidal entrance to Ilha Da Culatra right on time and so we were doing everything to keep our ETA spot on. As the breeze piped up smaller sails were put out and as it dropped the bigger sails rolled out.

Deciding we were going too fast Iain called Fiona on deck for a sail change and as she returned below she realised that not all was well. The cabin reeked of smoke, the sort of smoke you only get from an overloaded electrical device that’s been gently smouldering waiting to turn into something bigger and deadlier.

While Iain took to shutting down systems and tracking the source of the problem Fiona broke open our firefighting equipment. Fire extinguishers were readied, fire blankets were on hand and we were thankful for all the safety kit that we’ve accumulated to deal with such a situation.

Seeking the smell like the best of sniffer dogs we ruled out the high power devices like batteries, starter motors and windlasses and slowly narrowed down the smell to behind the switch panel. The only thing that could draw enough power to cause this problem was the water-maker*, this was now  isolated and so we could now simply monitor the situation. As the minutes slowly passed the smell slowly dissipated and we knew there must be a loose connection somewhere in the bowels of Ruffian. This was a seriously testing situation and we felt like we’d passed the test with flying colours.

After calming ourselves and negotiating the tidal entrance to Ilha Da Culatra we took to getting to the root cause of our problem and it quickly became apparent. The negative feed to the water-maker had worked its way loose and a small spark had arced its way onto the bus bar, melting the insulative backing that held it in place and threating to ignite anything that touched it. With new nuts in place and locking washers employed liberally, this is not a problem that will happen again.

With Ruffian no longer a fire hazard we could take to discovering the sand island of Ilha Da Culatra. The fiery sun blazed down on the endless sandy beach, inspirationally named, ‘The Endless Beach’, which really was endless and turned the clear water that lapped its shores into the most vivid of blues. This was the most perfect beach we’ve played on since the pink sands of Barbuda and gave a welcome calm after near calamity of the sail here.

* The water-maker, as per the installation instructions, is protected by a 20 amp breaker and a 20 amp fuse, the current causing the problem was clearly just below this value. Over the winter we’ll be changing the setup to use a solenoid so 20 amps is not running through the switch panel.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

2 thoughts on “The worst nightmare: Fire.

  1. Blimey you two! Just read your report on the near fire to water maker elecs! Even sitting here I was bricking it! Well done saving the day and Ruffian / yourselves. All best. Simon. 1101 !!

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