From Tanlay, Ancy-le-Franc, Wanderlust’s next stop, is a day’s cruise. In Ancy we planned to tour the Château d’Ancy-le-Franc. The chateau sits 500 meters of so from the port on the Canal de Bourgogne. Unless the chateau happened to be closed for one of the many French holidays that always seem to catch us by surprise or as a result of a force majeure, we would pay nine Euros each to see the inside.
As the canal approached Ancy-le-Franc, we researched the mooring options. We figured on a two-night stay. That should give us plenty of time to see the chateau and the small village.
Our guides showed that the Ancy-le-Franc has a quay with electricity and water. Like many of the quays on this stretch of canal, priority goes to the working hotel barges. But as long as there were no peniche-hotels coming, and there was space, we could moor at Ancy’s quay for free.
As we passed through the road bridge below Ancy’s port we could see that the quay was open with enough room for Wanderlust. But we wouldn’t be so lucky. At the last moment the cruiser boat traveling with us darted forward taking a spot in the middle of the open stretch of the quay. We could have hovered and tried to get the boats scattered across the mooring to reorganize to create a 20-meter long space for Wanderlust. There would be enough space for us if all of the boats were clustered optimally. But with three boats needing to move, orchestrating a synchronized quay rearrangement didn’t seem to be worth the effort. We could easily moor for the night without services. Thus we turned Wanderlust around and tied her up at the bank nearby.
After stopping it wasn’t long before it was time to make dinner. With the food ready I opened up the access hatch to the bilge in the saloon to pull out a bottle of wine. The wine was there, as expected. But there was also something else that I didn’t want to see: A slick of diesel had come forward into the compartment coating the bottom of the bilge with fuel. It was not an appetizing sight. Dinner would not sit well this evening.
Wanderlust’s saloon bilge storage area or wine cellar has been a chamber of horrors. When we lift up the hatch in the floor to pull out wine we never know what we are going to see. There’s been sewer water, gray wastewater, freshwater, and central heating fluid in the saloon bilge on around a hundred occasions. And now there was diesel fuel, the final possible fluid.
It was not a complete surprise to see diesel in the bilge. The previous summer we had observed a film of diesel on top of the flooding wastewater that had come up into the starboard side of the wine cellar. Though the source of the water, a damaged gray water pipe, was causing flooding on both the port and starboard sides of the bilge, the diesel film was only appearing on the water on the starboard side.
Later, at the start of the 2016 season, a survey identified the presence of diesel in the starboard bilge near the engine compartment bulkhead. Nevertheless, until Ancy, we could imagine that that the quantity of diesel was small. Now we knew that that was incorrect. There was a slick of fuel in the bilge extending about six meters from wine cellar to the engine compartment bulkhead. Clearly there was more than a small amount of diesel in the bilge.
Why did the diesel all of the sudden come forward into the bilge storage compartment? If it was a normal leak, the fuel should have crept forward into the wine cellar slowly.
It took a moment to realize what had happened. In Tonnerre Wanderlust’s stern had become stuck at the quay on an unidentified underwater object. This supported back of the boat and caused the bow to drop. By chance I had measured the slope of the floor in the saloon in Tonnerre. The floor had gone from its typical two percent tilt to the stern to dead level. Apparently the change in trim allowed some of the diesel that had collected in the starboard side of the bilge to move forward into the wine cellar.
Unfortunately, finding diesel in the wine cellar was not the worse problem Wanderlust experienced in Ancy-le-Franc.
The morning after we arrived the boats moored at Ancy’s quay departed to head to the next stop on their busy itineraries. Before we headed to the chateau, we decided to move Wanderlust over to take advantage of the electrical service. Once we were ready, I turned the dash key to engage the starter. But this time engine did not start. There was no hint of a sound of life from the Beta 150 engine, not even the faintest click from the starter solenoid.
With a little exploration I traced the source of the problem. The starter batteries were flat. It was odd. There hadn’t even been a hint of a struggle to start Wanderlust’s main engine 18 hours prior. And in between the engine had run 7 hours. The batteries should have been near fully charged. How did they go flat overnight?
We would leave the diagnosis of the battery problem for later.* For now we needed to figure out how to get the engine started. Otherwise Wanderlust could go nowhere.
Thinking back I realized that Wanderlust was wired so that the generator and the main engine both run off of the same battery bank. In retrospect this configuration likely contributed to the batteries going dead in the first place. But this wiring set-up did have an advantage: If I could get the generator to fire up I might be able to “jump start” the main engine from the generator’s alternator. Though it was far from certain that the generator would start, it was worth a try.
Using the control panel in Wanderlust’s pantry I pushed the button to fire up the genset. The status panel for Wanderlust’s Whisper Power M-SQ6 generator displayed the steps as the starting process progressed. Ten seconds were counted down as the display showed “Fuel Lift.” Then another ten seconds passed for the “Preheat” stage. Finally the display indicated, “Cranking.” Then, with just the slightest hesitation, the generator turned over and rumbled to life. The monitor showed that the starter batteries were being charged hard. We were in luck, or so I thought.
As you would when jump starting a car with a dead battery, I let the generator run several minutes to let the starter batteries build some charge. The best chance to make this work, I figured, was to leave the genset on when I tried to start the main engine. After ten minutes had passed, I again turned the key to start Wanderlust’s engine expecting that it would start right away. But again there was nothing, no sound, not even a click, or the slightest indication that the engine might want to turn over. The generator, on the other hand, did notice that I had turned the starter key. It bogged down from the added load, stalled, and quit. Damn. It was not looking good.
What else could I do?
I thought if I let the generator run longer the batteries would get more charge. It was the only thing I could think of trying. Unfortunately there was a problem. For the last few weeks Wanderlust’s generator had been overheating. After running for about an hour the genset would shut down displaying an over-temperature fault on the panel.** We had, for the time being, given up on using it.
Overheating problem or not, I had to try to get as much as possible out of the generator. So I again started genset. I let it run for 50 minutes this time before trying to crank the main engine. The extra time didn’t help and result was the same. When the key was turned the engine gave no hint of trying to start. And again the genset bogged down and stalled.
At this point there were few options. Without a functional generator and unable to start the main engine, we would have to abandon ship when the domestic batteries inevitably discharged. Though Ancy-le-Franc is a nice place, it is a small town and is not convenient to services. Even getting to a place where I could rent a car would require a nine-kilometer bike ride to a train station where I could then take an infrequent train to a place where I might be able to rent a car if the agency was open. The process of getting a car would take at least half a day.
As it was going to be a pain to get to transportation I tried one more time with the generator. This time I let the genset run for an hour and ten minutes. The generator exhaust was pumping out steam, an indication that it had overheated. It would shut down soon. With no expectations, I turned the dash key giving the engine starter one last chance to do its job. Miraculously, with just the slightest hesitation, the main engine came to life. We were in luck.
At this point it was far from clear that we’d ever get the batteries to start the engine again. We guessed, correctly as it turned out, that the battery bank had given up its charge for the last time. Not taking any chances we moved Wanderlust over to Ancy’s quay and hooked up to the mains power feed. Now at least we could continue to live aboard Wanderlust while we sorted out the battery problem. Ancy has a small supermarket. With water and power available at the quay, we could survive there indefinitely. If a hotel barge came, which it did, we figured we could work something out, which we also did.
There was now time to look at the starter battery problem further. First, with great effort, I pulled the batteries out of their box. Each battery weighs 44 kilos, nearly a hundred pounds. In the confined space it was a torturous effort to lift and twist out such heavy awkward objects. Though the battery box keeps things neat, it also makes it very difficult to remove the batteries.
The box also made it difficult to visually inspect the batteries. When they were removed I could see that the battery cases were bloated and distorted. I would have replaced the batteries long ago if I had seen them in this state. Indeed, it was surprising that they had continued to work as long as they did and even more surprising that the cases had not blown apart. There was clearly something very, very wrong.
Less than three years from launch Wanderlust’s original starter batteries were definitively toasted. It was time to find replacements. At this point I couldn’t get to the stores until Monday afternoon at the earliest. I figured that if I ordered the batteries online with express delivery I’d get them nearly as fast as I could if I hired a car and went shopping. The upside of ordering online is that I could get exactly the batteries I needed. There would be no searching every automotive store in the region to find suitable batteries for the barge. And I wouldn’t be forced to compromise on batteries that would function but weren’t ideal.
The downside of ordering online was that we’d need to figure out how to get the batteries delivered to us. Specifying delivery to an unmanned quay in Ancy-le-Franc with no formal address would not work. And the replacement batteries would be heavy. They needed to be delivered to a place close by so we could get them back to the boat.
The only building in the area convenient to the port was a bar on the other side of the canal. We went over, ordered a beer, and asked if they could accept the delivery of the battery box for us. The proprietor was Spanish. Through some awkward combination of French, Spanish, and English, with a few hand signals thrown in, we asked whether the bar could accept the delivery of the shipment. Kindly the proprietor agreed. Soon, using the address provided by the bar, I placed the order online. With express delivery, the batteries should arrive next Tuesday.
For the time being we would be unable to leave Ancy. The delay gave us more than enough time to see the chateau and walk every street in the small town four times. Onboard the chores were done. We stocked up at the modest supermarché nearby. When we discovered there is a nice restaurant a couple of locks up the canal from Ancy. It was good for a couple of meals.
When Tuesday afternoon came, we walked over to the friendly bar to check whether the batteries had arrived. They had not.
Contacting Battery Megastore, the company that I ordered the batteries from, I learned that the delivery was attempted but the address was wrong. Once I pulled up the invoice I realized what had happened. I had fat fingered the bar’s address when I placed the order. Not exactly the best time to make such a mistake. But at least the problem was easy enough to correct. With the help of the store, the address was changed. The following afternoon the batteries were delivered to the bar.
Not wanting to risk both batteries, I installed just one of the two I had ordered. With some trepidation I went to start the engine. To my relief the engine came to life. Replacing the battery had solved the problem, at least for the time being. Though there was still potentially an underlying problem with the 12V electrical system, at least now Wanderlust’s engine would start. And after a weeklong delay, we could finally continue up the canal.
* Though the battery failure in Ancy-le-Franc was unexpected, there had been issues previously. The first two winters, when Wanderlust was left connected to shore power, the batteries had gone dead under mysterious circumstances. At the time we reported the problem to the builder. There was no response or help. The builder never came and checked out the system.
Wanderlust was launched with twin 145 Ah (12V) batteries from Whisper Power. According to the manufacturer’s literature, the set-up should provide 2900 cranking amps. Beta, the manufacturer of Wanderlust’s motor, states that a battery capable of 333 cranking amps or higher is required for their 150 engines. Thus Wanderlust had nearly nine times the cranking capacity than required yet they still the batteries failed early. The large capacity battery bank should have created huge margin for error if there was a charge leakage. Nevertheless, the batteries were still going dead over the winter soon after launch. Even more confusing is that a maintenance charger was installed to keep the starter batteries topped up over the winter. So why did the batteries go dead?
Since the final demise of the batteries, I’ve looked for causes for the problem. Though it is hard to pinpoint the exact reason for the failure, there are a number of factors that likely contributed:
- There is a large background parasitic draw on the 12V system of around 350 mA. Most of this draw comes from the generator monitor panel and an un-switched communication box for the dash electronics. It wasn’t until I purchased a clamp meter that I realized just how much power the Raymarine communications box draws. Nor did I understand that it is always on and had no switch. Nevertheless, even with the parasitic draw and without the maintenance charger, the starter batteries should have held charge for a month, more than the starting interval for the main engine over the winter.
- The shore power cycled off during both winters. This shut off the maintenance charger for extended periods of time.
- We’ve noted an odd intermittent problem where the circuits fed by the shore mains stayed off when the electricity at the dock cycles on and off. It has been proposed that there is a sticky relay. This problem is difficult to reproduce making an accurate diagnosis a challenge.
- Recently we discovered that the maintenance charger is wired into the circuit breaker for the air conditioner on the consumer unit. The builder had told us that the air conditioner breaker is dedicated to the AC unit. Thus it is possible that this breaker was flipped off when we left the boat for the winter; there was no apparent reason to keep the circuit energized. This could have inadvertently turned the maintenance charger off. That being said, neither of the neighbors who started Wanderlust’s engine for us over the winters reported that the maintenance charger was turned off at the breaker. Perhaps this is not part of the problem.
- There have been at least two instances on our builder’s barges where the same style of AGM batteries from the same manufacturer failed within 18 months of launch. Unlike Wanderlust, these batteries were used to provide domestic power and should have been maintained by their barge’s Mastervolt inverter/charger. It is possible that the batteries may have had some sort of manufacturing defect. Nevertheless, when contacted, Whisper Power, the vendor of the batteries, denied that any of the batteries on the builder’s barges were defective. Yet once the batteries were replaced on these boats, no further problems were been reported by the owners suggesting that there was indeed a problem with the batteries. Wired together, all it takes is one bad cell in a bank to bring all of the batteries down. If the batteries did have with defective cells, it would explain their early demise.
- Wiring the generator and main engine together to the same bank of batteries increases the possibility that the batteries could be over-charged if the engine and generator are on at the same time.
- The first neighbor who started Wanderlust over the winter after the batteries discharged noted that the car radio on the dash came on. Work was done on board after we left for the winter. It was possible that the workers left the radio on when they left the boat. When the shore mains later dropped, this would have discharged the batteries.
** The overheating problem was later determined to be a clogged raw water inlet. In a manner contrary to the generator manufacturer’s instructions, Wanderlust’s raw water feed for the genset tees off of a dual-purpose inlet from the hull fitting. Consequentially there is 90-degree bend in the plumbing, also contrary to the manufacturer’s installation instructions, which have proven to be prone to clogging. Clogs at this plumbing bend are complicated to clear.