The Pros and Cons of Missing the Window

It was with a tiny sense of relief that we reluctantly accepted the idea we were not going to make it out of Puget Sound before the weather window closed.

I sleep better since I stopped waking up at 2 AM worrying about 20 foot waves, and then lying awake thinking about all the things left to do and how it all needed to be done that day if we were going to have any chance of making it.

The alarm that I had set in my phone calendar months ago for a date when I’d hoped to find myself anchored in a warm bay somewhere went off and I was still at home.

We have time now to start some of the projects that we were putting off until we were down the road somewhere, maybe while sitting out a storm season. Things we knew we needed someday but hadn’t put energy into working out the details yet. A proper table to sit at for meals, for example, and more battery Amp-hours and the energy sources to recharge them.

We also have time for projects we didn’t plan to do until much later, like getting our cabin heater operating. But, as every step forward is also an opportunity for failure, so too is playing with actual fire on the boat. Setting the boat on fire before we even left the dock would be a negative.

When we bought the boat it had no source of cabin heat. Having lived it’s life in some of the warmer places of the world there would be no need. One of the very first things we did was to buy and install a Sigmar 170 diesel cabin heater. That was ten years ago. We tried it out then, but never seriously used it. We didn’t spend much time on the boat during the cold and wet time of the year. At the dock, with shore power, an electric space heater was all we ever used.

In our setup, the Sigmar is gravity fed from a small diesel day tank. This is the simplest arrangement. The heater has a metering valve at the inlet to control how much fuel flows into the burner before a float valve shuts it off. I never really thought much about how this worked, or what it even meant. I understand better now.

The heater is lit by pre-warming it with burning alcohol. One ounce of alcohol in the base of the burner will heat things up to vaporize the diesel. After about 15 minutes, when the ounce of alcohol has been nearly exhausted, opening the metering valve will start the flow of diesel. If done right, the diesel will vaporize due to the heat and be ignited by the waning alcohol flame. The diesel flowing from the day tank will continue to vaporize and burn until the fuel is shut off or the tank goes dry. Turning the metering valve to “OFF” will stop the flow.

But here is where I think we went wrong: we burned all the fuel out of the day tank and let the heater go out, but didn’t turn the metering valve to “OFF.” A few days later, I refilled the day tank but did not try to light the heater. I didn’t realize that the burner had filled with diesel. Another day or two after that I tried to light the heater by pre-warming it with alcohol. The alcohol I poured into the stove was in addition to the full load of diesel apparently already in the burner.

I lit the alcohol, not realizing that it was overflowing from the burner. Fireballs of flaming alcohol came out of the overflow tube and onto the floor. I stepped on them to put them out. Flames began burning on the outside of the metering valve and the heater. With one hand on the fire extinguisher, I waited for the alcohol to burn itself up. At some point the diesel began to burn, with billowing clouds of black smoke pouring from the chimney up on deck. According to the manual, black smoke means raw diesel is burning, not the vapor.

As things heated up, the flames became more fierce. The damper control on the air inlet was on the bottom of the heater and had been on fire moments before. I didn’t want to touch it. The flames roared like a blowtorch. The heater started to glow. A deep red at first, it became bright orange. I waited for it to melt. I thought our big trip was going to be over before it started.

Eventually, it all calmed down a bit and I was able to disconnect the fuel supply (we need to put a valve on that) and close the damper. It continued to burn, much more calmly and without any smoke, for a while longer until all the remaining fuel in the burner was gone.

I had intended to warm up the cabin and do some work, but after all that excitement I just went home instead.

The heater no longer looks new and unused, but we’ve learned more than we knew before. We know to make sure–like the manual says–that the burner has no fuel in it before pouring in the one ounce of pre-heat alcohol. The heater has been through a good stress test, and I now have the Heater Operation box checked on my training form. It’s just that we hadn’t planned on needing to use the heater anytime soon. And that just makes me a little more frustrated that we missed our schedule.

I tell myself that we are merely sitting out a storm season, something that would happen eventually, somewhere. But it also means we’re spending down the cruising kitty while not actually cruising yet.

Such are the pros and cons of missing the window.