Starting the Boat with a Paperclip – Neutral Switch Woes


imageAbout a month after buying Rubigale, and with a boat full of crew, we were ready to leave the fuel dock after a day of sailing. After pumping out I went to start the engine, turned the key, and nothing. Not even a click. I knew nothing about engines-zero, zip. I could find the alternator and the dipstick. My knowledge of cars surpassed that of boats only because I knew where to put in windsheild wiper fluid.   I didn’t know how I was going to get back to my slip and had a half dozen people that needed to go home. My boat mentor J had his own boat full of crew and couldn’t help at the moment. Fortunately, T lives aboard a few docks away, and after I fished out a mystery set of wires with clips that I had found in the bowels of weird boat storage (had this happened before?), he jumpstarted the boat by connecting the battery to the start switch. Success!

I thought the crew would disappear as soon as we were back to the slip, but J and T started troubleshooting the starter and half of the people stayed, rapt with the process. I didn’t understand much of what I was hearing, but I was mesmerized by the problem solving. I photographed where to connect the wife to the starter just in case. Final diagnosis, probably a bad starter switch because there were loose connections and a little corrosion. J showed up with a new starter the next day and showed me how to put it in. It was much easier than I had expected and I photographed that as well. As a bonus, he connected a new engine hour meter to the  switch so I could keep track of hours since the previous meter had died at just under 4000 hours at some unknown point in the past. Everything seemed to work great and I put it away in my mind as a solved issue.

Shiny New Starter

Engine Hour Meter

Engine Hour Meter

A few months later I took Chilly and her friend on a day sail to Kingston to have lunch at one of our favorite pubs. When we returned to the boat, I turned the key, and again, nothing. Fortunately for them the marina was next to a ferry dock so I sent them on their way home. Fortunately for me, J hopped the same ferry in the opposite direction to find out what was wrong with the starter switch he just installed.  I tried not to think about the fact that I was going to be doing my very first solo sail the following morning out of necessity.

We checked the wire (happily labeled starter) from the battery to the starter switch – 12V. There was also current coming out of the starter switch wire which we traced to a bundle that took a dive under the sole and was lost to view. Next we went to the starter solenoid and again found the white wire which here had zero voltage. The wire which powered the solenoid had 12v. What I learned was that meant something was between the starter and the solenoid that was bad, but there was a lot of mystery territory in between.

Tracing that particular white wire was a bit more difficult because it disapppeared into a Chinese fingertrap holding a bundle of wires together. J thought perhaps there was a bad fuse or a loose connection. After an hour and a half of carefully slicing the webbing, and avoiding the wires, we hadn’t gotten very far.

Bundled Wires

Bundled Wires

Frustrated and tired, we took a break, and by a stroke of luck saw another white wire lower on the aft portion of the engine. Actually, there were two white wires terminating on separate screws. Based on the multimeter readings, one had current, one didn’t. Fortunately, J recognized this was a neutral switch, and suspected it was going bad. I had chartered at least two dozen charter boats but had never encountered a neutral switch. The current was getting to the neutral switch, but it wasn’t getting from the neutral switch to the solenoid, so the starter thought the boat wasn’t in neutral. J bridged the two screws with a screwdriver and Shazam! with a spark, she started!

Faulty Neutral Switch

Faulty Neutral Switch

There were plans to bypass this, but the problem didn’t recur so other projects took precedence. Didn’t recur that is, until a year later, just minutes before the start of the Leukemia Cup Regatta. We had done really well fundraising, had a blast decorating ourselves and the boat, and were sipping champagne from pink flamingo straws while preparing for a no-wind beer can race. I turned the key, and yet again, nothing, and my heart sank. Why did this always happen away from my dock? I jiggled the gear lever, nothing. I jiggled the wires at the neutral switch, nothing. I phoned J-these 5 ladies in grass skirts (one his wife) and flowers in their hair needed to get out there on the course ASAP and celebrate our hard won victory.

I went through what I tried already with J, and he told me to find something to bridge the two screws. I found a paperclip and put it on the two screws while Chilly turned the key. There was something about having my face next to a 50HP Perkins when it roars to life while holding a sparking paperclip in my hand that made me scream like a little girl. I yelled over the engine noise and cheers to L, “I LOVE your husband!” With a big smile she yelled back, “me too!” J was laughing over the speaker phone. We were off the dock in a hot second, and although DFL as usual, we had a great time being “spirited” and tossing candy packets that L had made with a tag saying “Kick Leukemia’s Ass! Team Rubigale”.

As usual, I procrastinated  again because the problem stopped happening. Then two months later, and also away from home it happened again. Remembering the big spark led me to be a little timid with the paperclip so I decided to tape it onto the end of the wooden dowel I found nearby, the other end of which held a pirate flag. My hastily created invention lent me more bravery and the engine started as soon as M turned the key.

Quick Fix Switch Bypass

Quick Fix Switch Bypass

My habit for procrastination had to stop here because I was leaving for an extended trip alone to Canada the following weekend.  Based on J’s instructions I moved both wire terminals to one screw and of course dropped the other into the bilge. Fortunately I had forseen this problem and placed a cloth underneath the area I was working on so the screw was easily retrieved. I was feeling quite proud of myself for this tiny little project, until I turned the key and heard a thunk and then silence.  I put the wire terminals back onto their original screws but the engine still would not start.

First Attempt to Bypass

First Attempt to Bypass

J came by the following day with Waterproof Heat Shrink Butt Connectors and made the two wires into one. No big surprise, but the engine started with the first turn of the key. A quick online search of neutral switches on boats leads to a large number of results of “why won’t my boat start?”.  Apparently this is a rather common problem and one I really hope I’m finished with. I learned a good deal about my engine as well as a little on troubleshooting wiring. I am very grateful to have patient friends helping me with the process along the way.

The Hopefully Permanent Fix

The Hopefully Permanent Fix

After the Flood Part II

Plumber's Little Helper

A few weeks ago I had to do a little emergency plumbing when an old hose came off of a T-piece and my water pump emptied my tanks into the bilge.  http://www.tinysails.com/rubigale-antediluvian/ I still heard the water pump come on occasionally, although it was less frequent.  Dreading what I might find, I stuck my head into the hatch by the hot water heater once again and shone a flashlight into 2 or 3 inches of water that had collected again.  The hose I had re-connected was still connected, but there hadn’t been enough slack in the hose for me to trim a fresh end last time. Once they’ve been in place for awhile, they don’t always like to conform to a new shape, so that could still be my leak. However, another branch of that T-piece was showing a few barbs suggesting that hose was about to come off and I suspected the hose clamp was more of a fashion accessory than a compression device at this point. It was time to move on to the next step of this project.

Please note that I am not a plumber, just a newish boat owner learning things as I go.

Barbs on T-Piece Showing

Barbs on T-Piece Showing

I took a trip to the marine store and came home with 15′ each of 1/2″ clear polyester reinforced PVC tubing for the cold water side and rubber heavy-duty water hose good for temperatures of up to 190 degrees F for the hot side, new 1/2″ T-pieces, and stainless steel hose clamps. The same access problems still existed from the last temporary repair and that needed to be addressed as well.

Shiny New T's and Clamps

Shiny New T’s and Clamps

Again I stripped the contents and shelves from under the galley sink, and again I pushed my settee cushions out of the companionway door into the cockpit, pulled up the settee hatch and unbolted the hot water heater from the hatch that sat beneath it.

Finished Helping

Finished Helping

Since the lines were fed through holes that had been cut in the wall between the settee and the galley, I started by detaching the cold water line from the galley sink.  I moved it back and forth to identify it from the other side, then pushed it through the hole to make room for the new hose.  Once that was done and I was able to reach it from the hatch I gave myself ample length and attached it to a new T piece.

So Pretty!

So Nice and Clean!

I then connected a new cold water hose to the hot water heater and attached it to the same T-piece so I could now reach the connection just by grabbing the hose on the heater.  The same process was repeated on the hot water side of things, leaving plenty of extra hose for future changes or rearrangements. I left the old brass T-piece in place.  The photo shows the old hoses (yellow and red) and the new (white and black).

Brass T-Piece for Hot Water Connections

Brass T-Piece for Hot Water Connections

New hose with extra length and easy to reach

New hose with extra length and easy to reach

Next I trimmed the ends of the hose coming from the water tanks and replaced the T-piece that connected that to the strainer.  New hose also went from the strainer to the pump.  I was about to replace the hose from the pump to the accumulator, and when I tried removing the old hose, the outlet arm of the accumulator came off instead! I was glad to have found that now rather later when it started to leak.  I checked the specs on the Sureflo water pump I recently installed and it stated no accumulator was needed – so in the trash it went.  Note from the photos the state of the old hoses.

This is what happened when I tried to replace the hoses on the accumulator. The plastic tore as easily as a trash bag and was likely going to be my next problem.

Not a healthy accumulator

Last but not least, I cut the hatch board that the hot water heater partially covered so that a portion was alway free to be moved without unbolting the heater.

New Hatch Opening

New Hatch Opening

After all that was completed I made a diagram of what had been replaced for future reference when I get ready to replace the hoses that lead to the head sink and shower.  There will be a new set of access problems and even smaller spaces to work in, so I’m not looking forward to it, but I’m very happy to have this part done.  When I finished, I had to pump out the bilge under the galley again, and I’m estimating there were probably 10 gallons or more based on the time it took the pump to empty it.

Diagram for Maintenance Log

Diagram for Maintenance Log