Duncan Veal shares a cautionary tale after losing a battle with his boat's wind generator…
Wind generators provide an additional power source for keeping batteries topped-up, but they have the downside that the noise generated is annoying to all around.
I recently discovered a darker-side to wind generators that clipped my wings and meant I’m unable to sail for around 12 weeks.
Christine and I sail on Good as Gold, a Montevideo 43, a Solent-rigged ‘slutter’ designed and built in South Africa in 1989. The previous owners ensured Good as Gold is suitable for extended offshore trips having sailed her from Canada to Australia.
To run the lights, autohelm and sailing instruments, along with creature comforts (fridge, freezer, TV, stereo, water maker) she is equipped with four boat solar panels.
We upgraded these to provide up to 1.2KW, which usually meets our requirements without the need to run the motor for charging (we don’t have a genset).
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I confess, I’m frequently guilty of surrendering to the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ But I…
Perhaps I should have known better. My sailing companion for the trip from Chichester Marina to Gosport, in my 19ft…
On cloudy days, or when the panels are shaded by the sail for extended periods, such as going north in winter, the solar may be insufficient for our needs so is supplemented by wind generation.
The boat was equipped with a simple (old-school) generator that provides around 2-4A at 10 knots of wind, increasing to 9A at 15 knots and 18A at 20 knots. Above 20 knots, thermostats in the motor cut the power production. Under ideal conditions the wind generator supplements our power generation by around 10%.
On the fateful day, we departed Hook Passage in the Whitsundays, Australia, in forecast 15-knot southerlies on an 11-mile passage south to Long Island. Normally it’s just Christine and I, however on this occasion we were joined by experienced crew Terry and Louise.
We don’t sail to wind often and thought it would be fun to test the boat and our ‘to-wind skills’ on a short passage. Winds were stronger than forecast, 20-25 knots, so we opted for a conservative sail plan of the Solent stay sail and one reef in the main.
The winds built to 30-plus knots providing the opportunity to test the second reef in the main and the seas became lively due to the strong current. It was a fun sail and we relaxed when we dropped the sails in preparation for anchoring in Happy Bay on Long Island.
I’d forgotten to switch off the wind generator before departure and it was going crazy in the conditions. When turned off it didn’t stop due to the strong winds, instead it produced some dreadful noises and vibration.
The manual describes an alternative way of stopping the unit, which involves pulling a cord attached to the tail fin to rotate the generator out of the wind. The manual is clear that this should only be done using a boat hook, not your hand.
I clipped-on and stepped-up on the davit frame to reach the cord on the back fin (with my hand) to turn the generator out of the wind. Due to the conditions, the generator was extremely hard to turn around and, somehow, in tugging and on a lively sea, my arm slipped into the generator.
This resulted in some rather disturbing noises as the blades cut into flesh, shattering a bone and breaking off one of the fibreglass blades in the process. As this was a tad painful, I fell to the deck in distress – fortunately still clipped-on.
Crew (and skipper) have marine first aid training and went into ‘first aid’ mode. I was relieved of command, a good thing as I was contemplating continuing the adventure so as not to disappoint.
After securing me in the cockpit, wounds were dressed, my condition was assessed and deemed to be OK for the two-hour journey the nearest port.
A distress call was made to Coral Seas Marina, we said that we were OK to make our own way to port and didn’t require a medical evacuation.
Coral Seas Marina organised a 70m superyacht berth, crew to catch lines, the ambulance and paramedics ready to whisk me to Proserpine Hospital.
The open break was deemed beyond the scope of Proserpine and I was transferred to McKay Base Hospital where I underwent surgery the following day to clean up the wounds and insert a plate.
All went well and after two days I was discharged to recuperate on the boat.
The length of recuperation is unclear at this point but it seems clear I won’t be able to use my right arm for much for a while. We are currently slow-sailing from Coral Seas Marina back to Sydney.
The previous owners advised us the wind generator had once dispatched a Booby. In my recovery time I calculated that the tip speed of the wind generator (diameter 1.7m) would be in excess of 570km/h at 20 knots.
The wind was 30-plus knots at the time of the accident! I have now decided there is no place on our boat for this noisy and murderous device!
- Obviously, there was a user-error in that I failed to execute on the clear instruction to use a boat hook to turn the generator. Sometimes this is referred to as a RTFM ERROR – Read The ***** Manual ERROR.
- I am safety conscious on the boat and pondered why I had been so stupid. The accident happened after a boisterous sail where I was conscious of all the dangerous things that could happen. I relaxed and my guard was down so need to learn to maintain vigilance.
- Two of the crew were first aid trained and this training kicked in when the accident happened. Even my first aid training was helpful and I was able to articulate I was going into shock and needed to be kept warm. First aid training is essential.
- Christine – my better half – was a bit upset by the events and kept busy by documenting everything from my medical history and Medicare number to my pain levels and details of the accident. This record was used by paramedics, and doctors in Proserpine and Mackay.
- I have entered courses for all harbours and anchorages on the East Coast of Australia into the chart plotter for just such an emergency. The crew were able to simply select ‘follow route’ removing much of the stress of sailing an unfamiliar boat in unfamiliar territory.
- People are wonderful, and in my case I mean our crew who looked after the first aid; the efficient staff at Coral Seas Marina who organised my transfer and found a berth for our boat – despite the marina being full; the kind folk who lent us a berth at Coral Seas Marina for the duration of my recovery; the cruising community who visited, lent us cars for hospital visits, kept me company and brought me cake!
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This feature appeared in the February 2023 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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