In the early morning hours of July 5th, a carbon monoxide alarm on our boat sounded.
I wish I could follow that sentence with a story of proactive, safe actions. But unfortunately, I can’t. Before throwing a 4th of July after party for the Hilton Head Fire Department, we actually cut the wires on the alarm and tried to go back to sleep.
To preface some of the details of this story I need to say that I am probably one of the most prepare for worst-case-scenario moms out there. An example: we flew with life jackets in our carry-on bags when my kids were little. I didn’t trust that the airline ones would fit my babies in the event that we made a water landing.
Similarly, when we bought our boat the first thing we did was install 2 new smoke and Carbon Monoxide alarms. The ones that came original to our boat seemed to work, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Over the last year, I tested the smoke feature a few times while cooking (whoops!) I can confidently say the alarms we installed worked!
Fast forward to the 4th of July. Friends came to Hilton Head and we took the boat out to anchor for the day. Fireworks over the water were the icing on the cake of a perfect day. It was just after midnight when we crawled into bed.
Which is why we were super annoyed when our 13-year old daughter woke us up at 2AM to tell us there was a beeping noise in her room.
I could faintly hear it from my bed. It sounded like a watch alarm. I’m sure I rolled my eyes a few times before dragging myself out of bed to investigate.
It didn’t take me long to decide the battery was low in our old smoke alarm. While I pride myself on being fairly competent, I couldn’t understand where to change the battery. It looked to me like the alarm was wired into the boat. Reluctantly, I woke up Brent who made the same assessment.
Here are a couple of things worth pointing out (for everyone wondering why in the world we were still on our boat):
- The alarm was no louder than a watch beeping. It’s actually a miracle Mary Grace woke up- she typically sleeps through anything.
- The new alarm right outside her bedroom door was not going off.
- A quick google search of Carbon Monoxide sources produced nothing applicable. We didn’t have a gas water heater or stove. The engines and generator were not running. It didn’t even make sense for Carbon Monoxide to be an issue.
Brent and I spent at least 30 minutes debating what to do. We felt 99% confident the alarm itself was the issue. It was installed in 2003 with a 10-year lifespan. Clearly, the alarm chose that inconvenient night to die.
To be safe (remember, I’m worst-case-scenario minded) I switched almost everything off on our electrical panel and checked the engine room twice while Brent began disassembling the alarm. And by disassembling, I mean he had to cut the wires.
This detail is fuzzy (keep in mind, we were SO tired), but at some point Brent and I became aware of a slight smell. Since we couldn’t really pinpoint where the smell was coming from, and nothing on our boat appeared to be wrong, we wrote that off too. If you live on a boat, you know that this isn’t uncommon.
We got back in bed with the alarm now sitting on our counter waiting to be dealt with another day.
However, another alarm began to sound. This time we not only heard it, but realized we should get off the boat. Mary Grace was already halfway out the door and busy leashing our dog. Of course, Miller slept through everything- even the alarm going off in his room- so it was quite a surprise to him when I began dragging him out of bed.
Once off the boat, Brent called the non-emergency number to see if they could send someone over to investigate. Unfortunately, the recording on that line told him to call back during normal business hours. We both sat there for a moment. Calling 911 felt ridiculous and embarrassing. We were still 99% positive the problem was us not replacing old alarms. (The new ones NEVER went off!)
Reluctantly, Brent made the call. I’m quite certain the whole island could hear the sirens as they approached the marina.
I’m not sure who felt sorrier…us seeing 3 firefighters coming down the dock at 3AM to investigate neglected, old alarms. Or them seeing all of us sitting on the dock in our PJ’s wishing we could just be in bed.
However, they were barely on our boat when all of their handheld detectors went off. And for the first time came the realization that we actually had a problem.
I’ll spare you all the details, but it took a while to air the boat out enough for them to investigate. Around 4AM one of our boat neighbors helped determine that one of our batteries was the source. And just before 5AM the fire department cleared the boat for us to return. To say that it was a long, exhausting evening would be an understatement!
Here are a few final notes from our experience:
- The Hilton Head Fire Department was amazing! They engaged a lot with the kids and spent quite a bit of time making sure we were okay.
- I’m sure anyone who reads our posts regularly might assume it was one of our new lithium batteries that caused the issue. (I did!) But it wasn’t. Our boat still had a couple of lead acid batteries that are necessary for certain systems. This particular battery aided our bow thruster.
- If you are super into chemistry, you might know that it likely wasn’t Carbon Monoxide triggering the alarm. Regardless, it was equally (if not more) dangerous and I’m so thankful we finally took it seriously enough to get help.
- We have since tested our alarms…several times. And replaced the older ones.
We went into the next day very sleep deprived with slightly grumpy attitudes, and dark circles under our eyes…but with tremendously grateful hearts that everything turned out okay. And for all the awesome help from the Hilton Head Fire Department!
UPDATE: I’ve had several requests for more technical details about what actually happened. I hoped the takeaway from our story would be to not ignore warning signs. And to get help even if you don’t think there is a problem. I can’t even pretend to understand the science behind what happened, but I’ll repeat what I’ve been told:
One of our lead acid batteries in the engine room was overcharging due to the charger putting out too many amps (the battery was not old.) That night it began bubbling battery acid which was leaking hydrogen into our boat. Hydrogen displaces oxygen which makes it very dangerous in a small space (ie. boat.) Additionally, it’s extremely flammable.
I hope this helps clear up any confusion. If you need more technical details, I’m not your girl. But I do hope this encourages everyone to make sure the detectors on your boat, RV or home are working properly!
As always, thanks for following along on our crazy adventures! You might also enjoy reading:
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