Buzzing, beeps, bells and whistles—each sound indicates something different on our boats.

Don’t Be Alarmed

Understanding all your boat’s bells and whistles can save time when it matters most.

Mark and Stacy were so excited for their first weekend out—the yard had finally finished the overhaul of their dream boat. Bought used and having received a major refit, their new-to-them boat turned out even better than they hoped. They were using this weekend as a way to familiarize themselves with it and inspect all the new systems.

They were sleeping soundly when an alarm suddenly woke them. Scrambling from their cabin into the open galley-salon, they looked around for the source of the disturbance. To their surprise, the alarm was a propane detector they didn’t know they had. The galley had been completely renovated; the old propane stove and oven had been replaced by a new electric one. This added a wrinkle to the whodunnit: There were no propane appliances or even a propane tank on the boat. Clearly the yard forgot to remove the detector, which was malfunctioning. With a sigh of relief, they disconnected the detector and went back to their cabin.

Seeing red: Many times diagnosing an issue on board your boat requires active listening and a watchful eye.

Seeing red: Many times diagnosing an issue on board your boat requires active listening and a watchful eye.

They had just drifted off to sleep when another alarm startled them out of bed. This time it was the carbon monoxide detector. Confused but now afraid something really could be wrong, they searched until they came upon a hissing battery in the house bank under the salon floorboards. The hydrogen sulfide escaping from the overheating battery had been the cause of both alarms.

Buzzing, beeps, bells and whistles-—there are myriad sounds that can emanate from the helm, engine room or salon of even the smallest motoryacht. There are over 40 different alarms on my Ocean Alexander trawler alone, including GPS, autopilot, AIS, main engine and generator sensors, hydraulic system, high water, carbon monoxide, smoke and temperature alarms, to name a few. And this doesn’t even take into account the notifications on our ever-present personal devices. It would challenge the most attentive boater to memorize the sound of each alarm and instantly know its source. However, the consequences of time lost while trying to figure out if it’s the exhaust-temperature alarm or the water boiling in the tea kettle are considerable.

Beyond getting to know your alarms, there is a good reason to test them periodically. The annoying alarm that sounds each time you turn the key to the start position is more than just a frivolous disturbance. Upon starting the engine, as soon as the oil pressure comes up to specification it silences the alarm, but that initial sounding tells you the oil pressure sending unit is working. And that’s important.

There is another fact about alarms I hate to admit, but I’m forced to every time my wife says, “Honey, your phone is ringing.” My hearing is not what it once was, and there have been several occasions when my wife hears an alarm on the boat that I didn’t hear. If you fall into this category, make the effort to change. Some alarms can be easily adjusted to louder tones, or to a higher pitch or frequency. Another option is to wire an LED light into the alarm circuit and position it at the helm where it can be seen. John Harries, who writes the popular Attainable Adventure Cruising blog, couldn’t find the source of an alarm he was hearing until he noticed a text message on his phone. Upon reading, he realized the local Emergency Alert organization was testing their new mobile phone alert system, and he happened to be wearing his new Bluetooth hearing aids, linked to his phone.

An alarm is like insurance: Both can be a chore to maintain and we hope we never need it, but we’d be crazy to go without. Take the time to familiarize yourself with your alarms and test them regularly, especially those with a life-saving consequence and those protecting major boat components. You’ll be glad you did.

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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