Smoke in the Engine Room! You Couldn’t Make This Up

Picture this: I’m motoring Morgan’s Cloud the 14 miles across Mahone Bay from East River Marine, where we laid her up for the winter, toward our wharf here at Base Camp.

Since it’s the first run of the season, I’m frequently checking the engine.

About half an hour out, I make my third check. When I open the engine room door, white smoke billows out at me…definitely gets my attention. But then my brain kicks in with:

Don’t panic, John, you installed new cladding on the exhaust riser last winter, probably just the binding agents gassing off.

I’m about to head back to the cockpit to cut the throttle back to idle, when a piercing two-tone alarm goes off.

I’m frozen in place as my mind races:

Why do we have an alarm when the auto fire extinguisher has not activated?

Wait, maybe it’s the exhaust over-temperature alarm…No, that’s not how it sounds, and anyway the light on that alarm is off.

Could it be one of our two smoke detectors…No, neither has a light on.

Come to think of it, we don’t even have an alarm that sounds like that.

And where the hell is it coming from? I’m wearing ear defenders, why is it so loud? It sounds like it’s coming from inside my head.

At some point in all of this I cut the throttle back and, sure enough, our engine room blowers quickly clear the smoke, so I can see that the source is indeed the new cladding.

But where the hell did that alarm come from?

As I go back on deck to check around, I notice that there’s a text message on the lock screen of my phone that’s sitting on the cockpit chart table.

A closer look reveals that the Nova Scotia Emergency Measures organization chose that exact moment to test their new mobile phone alert system.

And I have just bought and am wearing hearing aids (my first) that automatically link, via Bluetooth, to my phone whenever it’s anywhere near me.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

19 comments… add one
  • Noel Grant May 31, 2018, 8:37 am

    That’s hilarious. I never doubt anyone’s story anymore as some weird unbelievable coincidences have occurred to me too and their timing no one could believe, so I give everyone the benefit of doubt now when it sounds like a made up story. The latest being my wife and I driving on a country road and overhead there is this skydiving plane that suddenly banks away and I make this humming noise out aloud pretending to be a plane diving to lower altitudes when suddenly 3 birds hit our windscreen! I say “birds”….like in the movie Sully – which is the story about the bird strike and the plane landing in the Hudson river and we had only watched it the night before!. What are the chances. We all had a laugh.

  • Jonathan Caldwell May 31, 2018, 8:41 am

    Oh jeez, glad all’s well. That is the problem with alarms and alerts. Once they get your attention, they do not contribute to a calm assessment of the problem. Let’s design an alarm that progresses from an alert tone quickly to calming chirps or whatnot once you push an acknowledge button.

    • John Jun 1, 2018, 7:33 am

      Hi Jonathan,

      That’s a good idea. Most of our have some sort of mute button, but not all.

  • richard May 31, 2018, 10:12 am

    have had similar experiences, and agree totally with ur overall assessment going back to murphy’s law…what i remember, though, is in spite of the adreniline shock i still resolved the issue(s), and found comfort and satisfaction coping successfully in this often-unforgiving environment

    • John Jun 1, 2018, 7:34 am

      Hi Richard,

      Yes, it’s always a good feeling to fix something…once my heart rate returns to normal!

  • Ralph May 31, 2018, 6:31 pm

    Funny. Had a similar thing last Saturday night. I was anchored near the mouth of the Columbia river, and the scary bar, and was awoke by a loud siren. Loud F bomb. My first thought was that I was getting pulled over, then I remembered I was on the boat, so it’s the coast Guard. No, it’s the new smoke alarm I installed a couple days earlier, (which I remembered to do after your extinguisher article, thanks) but the test signal didn’t sound like that. All this as I’m flying from the rack. It’s coming from the panel. Bilge? Nope. The siren was the anchor alarm, wich had never gone off before. Didn’t know it sounded like that. Turns out it was set for 30 feet. Normally set for more, but OK on the river with a 3+ knot run pulling you, as long as the tide doesn’t change. And it hadn’t. A wind had come up and pushed the boat against the current past where I had set the alarm. Slow motion wonderment for a minute.
    Also first time hearing aids here. Don’t remember potato chip bags being so darn loud!

    • John Jun 1, 2018, 7:43 am

      Hi Ralph,

      Wow, that would get you attention, particularly anchored near that bar. We too have an anchor alarm, and something we do regularly is to motor away with it still on after we haul the anchor. Reminds us what it sounds like and tests it too. Of course we have never done that simply because we forgot to reset it. 🙂

  • Dick Stevenson Jun 1, 2018, 6:39 am

    Hi John,
    Those kinds of events can take years off one’s life: and I feel I have none I want to spare.
    Steve D’Antonio, I believe, called on the industry years ago to come up with an “central alarm panel” that would give a quick visual confirmation of the alarm’s location and meaning. I do not believe the industry has responded with a reasonable product.
    I have an alarmingly long “Alarms crib sheet” listed in order of urgency with some indication of the sound attached to each alarm. It is only marginally helpful as one gets, fortunately, very little practice.
    Alarms nowadays should be “locatable”. Too many of my alarms thwart my ability to “track” them down to their source.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • John Jun 1, 2018, 7:47 am

      Hi Dick,

      I know what you mean about having “none to spare”.

      Yes, I have seen Steve’s idea, and a good one too. I guess you could now build such a thing using Martron sensors, but it would be pretty expensive.

      The other issue is that while the idea is great for new boats, I’m pretty sure most of us are not going to tear out all our alarms and sensors to retrofit.

    • Matt Jun 28, 2018, 11:20 pm

      The same thing came up early in the Apollo spacecraft program. Each system had its own set of alarms and warnings…. and there were a LOT of systems. The designers realised very quickly that if the astronauts were actually expected to do something about alarms (rather than just panic and pray), all systems would have to report their caution & warning signals, in a standard fashion, to a shared monitoring & reporting system. So a master alarm would go off, and you instantly knew “hear this sound, look at that panel”, and there you’d see all the lights for exactly what systems were reporting what types of faults.

      A bit more like what John’s describing…. my father-in-law sent us a picture a few weeks ago of a smoke alarm, wrapped in a blanket, inside a tupperware box, buried under pillows, in his basement. Apparently the thing started screaming its head off (yelling “Fire! Evacuate Now!”, not just a beeper) at zero-dark-thirty. None of its mates were going off, he searched the house and found no fire, so he ripped the thing off the wall…. and it kept on going. Tried to clear it with the buttons, it kept on going. Unhooked it from power, it kept on going. Tried to crack it open and yank the battery, the housing’s sealed for life. Tried blowing clean air through it, and it kept on going. Now he needs to mail it back for RMA and it still won’t shut up, so we’re not sure what Canada Post will think of a quadruple-wrapped package that yells “Fire! Evacuate Now!”.

  • Philippe Meloni Jun 1, 2018, 9:35 am

    It remind me of what I name the 9/11 concept. The 9/11, at the exact same time airplane hit the tower some people flush the toilet! An there is no relation between the two events.
    I done technical support for years in IT and it always append. People says I was using word, or I download this software when my computer crash. This is good information, but the danger is to be blind by it. As I always say, if you computer crash, probably you was using it, so many event append at this time. Its’a not always easy, but it’s not because you aware of one event that is the root of your problem… And when you add the stress and the emergency it does not help…
    Your story is a nice lesson!!! thank you
    (sorry for my English, I’m french speaking)

    • John Jun 2, 2018, 7:54 am

      Hi Philippe,

      That’s a very good point: just because one factor coincides with another does not make it causative. A good thing to remember when trouble shooting anything.

  • ben Jun 1, 2018, 11:38 am

    Hah! That’s a funny one John – and I’m impressed you had the presence of mind to snap a photo of the smoke in the ER… but I presume that happened AFTER you realized what was going on… I certainly wouldn’t have been that quick thinking…

    At the same time that was going off for you, I was sitting in a board-room with my team and 4 federal govt. employees (relevant because they all have government issue Blackberries (still!)). All of my team got the alert at exactly the same time (and boy is it loud and annoying), but NONE of the govt employees did… had us all chuckling a bit. Expendable? or maybe they all had previous alerts to get out on the next flight… 🙂



    • John Jun 2, 2018, 7:57 am

      Hi Ben,

      Yes, I took the shot well after everything had calmed down. Consequently it shows a lot less smoke than I was greeted with when I opened the door.

      As the the government Blackberry fail, that is indeed amusing.

  • Marc Dacey Jun 1, 2018, 5:12 pm

    Oh, dear! John, you have my sympathies. I was lunching at a table at the boat club with eight other sailors when six of their phones went off with that “MAYDAY!” sound I associate with Channel 16. Still, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance!

  • Wayne Leonardi Dec 20, 2018, 10:30 pm

    I am 64… and I have had to put out 3 Fires, we won’t go there… I recommend that every Sailor/Boater does a Fire Drill before getting underway, where those on Board, Man Stations, and with Blindfolds, as if in the Dark, be calm, focused and prepared, Man Stations, pretend it is dark, get to your extinguishers relaxed and ready, no panic, be prepared for Rogue Waves to come in to announce their presence… stay focused, and Team up… 8 minutes is it, be calm, cool and collected… Extinguishers in Cockpit also, so when going into a possible Blaze, you have a weapon against a Possible Fire/Flames..
    Get her Done, and go back to bunk… don’t forget to each Thank each other, before going back to sleep or those on Watch.

  • Dick Stevenson Dec 21, 2018, 10:45 am

    Hi Wayne,
    Lots of good thoughts. I have drills for a number of areas, although, like John, I do not have a set protocol for a fire drill. My “crib sheet” for fire response includes extinguisher location, simple instructions for use, and ancillary items such as the fire blanket and water spray at the galley sink. The “crib sheet” serves as a “mental drill” of sorts for my wife and I to be able to be reminded of the details every now and again so thinking is un-necessary in the event. We are usually sailing on our own.
    I would think that those boats where extra crew is brought aboard every now and again, would benefit from a more formalized introduction to the fire response plan/capabilities of the boat (as well as other safety procedures). I know that when a friend/crew joined us for a leg on our return from Europe, I sent him a copy of our safety manual which had, among other procedures, our fire plan outlined. When he arrived, we then went over the whole manual with him pointing out on the boat where safety items were installed and reviewing their use.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Wayne Leonardi Dec 21, 2018, 11:12 am

    As an aside with Fire/Safety, sailing should be fun and rewarding, I do not believe in “Fear Mongering”, each Skipper may have their way when it comes to safety, fire is something that is difficult to practice drills with for obvious reason. As a Former Mountain Climber, we learned to have exit plans. Once a drill is completed, it can build confidence for when it DOES happen… the main thing about fire on a vessel, is time, there are no fire engines coming out at sea… keep extinguishers out or where you can get to them, not tucked away, have several plus on board, not a few…I have learned fire has a sneeky way of coming back sometimes, after we think it is out.

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