#19: Tinker, Sailor, Researcher, Spy

Yes, a play on the title of the 2011 movie "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," to describe a day in the life of a right whale researcher. The first job of the research day is to check the boat (our beloved Nereid is a 29' Dyer), making sure all the fluids are full and the engine is in mechanical order for the day. Then, once the team has loaded and stowed our gear onboard, one of us takes the helm to safely navigate the Nereid out the Lubec Channel, across the Grand Manan Channel and into the Bay of Fundy- a journey of two hours in duration, sometimes in thick fog. During our beeline transit into the Bay, our team is at work and on watch for marine creatures. Once we get into the Bay, we start our tracklines and hopefully encounter right whales, when we can essentially spy on their behavior.

The Nereid heads out with the sunrise for a day of surveying! Photos: Marianna Hagbloom

During a survey earlier this month, our research was interrupted by the few words you never want to hear or say on a boat; "I smell something burning!" Monica, our most experienced tinkerer and boat captain, was on watch; I called to her and told her what had been said.  She scrambled back from the bow to troubleshoot the problem. We used our noses to try and isolate the source of the burning smell - was it electrical, rubber, plastic??? Kelsey was at the helm and quickly shut down everything electrical- the engine, computer, radar, GPS navigation unit. As we lifted up the engine hatch, the smell became much stronger.

Monica and Moe, determining the source of the problem.

We narrowed down the source of the smell to either the alternator or the alternator belt. After more tinkering and discussion, we realized that the alternator belt was rubbing up against a bolt on the engine. Luckily for us, the weather was very calm, and although we really didn't want to start taking things apart at sea, we didn't want to lose the rest of our survey day to motoring home early, or worse- the need for a tow.  As Monica says, there are a few breakdowns you don't want to get towed in for, and one of those is for the alternator belt. Always prepared for the worst, we never leave the dock without a variety of extra parts on board. We found our spare alternator belt and consulted our log book for the details of the last time we had to change the belt, back in 2009. Monica is an ace with a wrench, but had not changed the belt on the Nereid before, and I am an amateur at best with a wrench, but had helped with the last belt replacement in 2009.  And so we put our knowledge together while the rest of the crew napped, ate, and/or looked on with amusement admiration. With a little bit of straining, grunting, and mild cursing we managed to remove the old belt, which turned out to be quite worn on closer inspection.

An unidentified crew member finds a comfortable napping spot.

The new belt was fitted into place around the pulleys, making sure that it was well-seated in the grooves. When Kelsey started the engine and revved the Nereid back up to speed, the smell was gone! Everything was working well. We lost just under two hours of survey time due to our breakdown, and although the right whales eluded us for the rest of the day, we were pretty pleased at that our tinkering talents had let us keep sailing for the day. If you want to learn more about alternators and alternator belts try this link, however, always easier in a garage than at sea!

Monica and Moe get the new belt in place, and we're good to go!

- Moe