On being ... a close call
There’s a VHF radio on my boat. It’s quite old but it works and I’m very happy to have it -- it’s a safety thing. A 12 volt battery powers the radio and the few other electronics I have on board.
Unlike the other instruments on the boat, the radio wires are not colour-coded in the traditional manner of red for positive and black for negative. When I first discovered this I was concerned I might ruin the radio by attaching the wires wrong to the battery posts. Fortunately, at the battery end it’s clear which wire goes on which post and at the radio end the wires have connectors that slip into complimentary (male/female) ends on the radio, so you can’t accidentally cross the wires.
Because it’s not good to leave instruments on board over the winter, I take the radio off in the fall and reinstall it in the spring. No matter how careful I am, I always end up pulling one connector off when I disconnect it. The first time it happened I panicked, but I soon discovered that every chandlery stocks connectors and most boat owners simply keep spares in their tool box, which is what I now do.
The other day I was doing various things on board and I decided to connect the radio. The first item of business was to attach a new connector to the wire that had surrendered its connector last fall. (Honestly, it happens to one wire every year.) After that I fitted the male/female ends together and flipped the battery’s master switch to the ON position and then turned on the radio.
It’s normal to hear a bit of static when you turn on a VHF and I thought I heard some, but it was quite faint. I adjusted the volume and squelch, hoping to tune something in. Moments later I saw smoke from the back of the radio. I quickly turned the battery’s master switch to OFF and pulled the radio up and away from the area to see where the smoke was coming from.
I noticed the wires were almost touching a bit of carpeting that lines the shelf just under the radio’s mounting bracket and I thought the wires had somehow singed the carpet, causing it to smoke. But, the carpet didn’t really look burnt enough for the amount of smoke. I didn’t panic, per se, but my heart was racing because electricity always makes me a bit nervous.
A few minutes later the smoke subsided and I popped my head out of the cabin and I yelled to a nearby club member (Fred -- not his real name), asking him to come help. After I explained what happened, he diagnosed the problem quickly. He noticed that the copper wire was exposed near the connectors and he though the wires had likely touched, causing a spark that singed the carpet.
As he was talking I noticed that the ends of the wire looked burnt. We both looked more closely and concluded that, in fact, the carpeting was fine -- it was the plastic around the wire that had melted. By that time, I suspect Fred could sense my anxiety and he tried to reassure me it would be an easy fix.
When I told him how uncomfortable I am with electrical stuff, he offered to help me install a new wire, once I got the old one out. I gratefully took him up on his offer and we discussed the type of wire and insulated connectors I should get.
After Fred left I decided to start removing the old wire before I lost my nerve. I disconnected everything from the battery and removed it in order to get at the wiring. It wasn’t until I started removing the radio wire that I realized how fried it was: the plastic on all nine-plus feet of it was melted.
Though I felt unnerved from the moment I turned the radio on and saw smoke, by the time I got home I was a wreck, thinking about how dangerous the whole thing was. An electrical fire is never good, but given that I’ve got about six gallons of gas on board for my outboard, the incident could quickly have become a disaster.
Thinking there must be something to learn from this (besides the proper use for electrical tape, which until then I thought of as just a better, if more expensive, alternative to duct tape), I’ve gone over the incident in my mind a number of times. I blame myself for not having paid more attention to the boat’s wiring, though I have become a bit more familiar with it as a result. At the same time, I do give myself credit for having reacted quickly by turning the battery’s master switch off, and for having a fire extinguisher within reach, in case I had needed it.
I kept a piece of the melted, twisted wire. Want to know why? No, not to remind me of what a close call I had… I kept it to remind me of how damned lucky I was!
© 2010 Ingrid Sapona