Dispatches from the field; or how I baked my MBP motherboard in a ship’s galley.

Sometimes I work as a DIT (Digital Image Technician) and a Camera Assistant.  in the summer of 2012 I worked on a Discovery Shark Week commercial in the Bahamas.

red at shark week

Sounds like fun, right?  Anyone who has done anything like this knows the clear eyed view of this would be realizing you would be taking a bunch of sensitive electronics near large bodies of corrosive salt water, full of bloody chum and hungry sharks, off the coast of a foreign country, with little or no support or even cell service.  It easily could get ugly.

On top of it my Mac Book Pro had started to act up about a week before departure.  It was intermittent, and I was not ready to pull the trigger on buying a new machine for the job.  there were going to be several other laptops on the job which I could press into service, so I would not be completely SOL if it failed.  Of course my laptop was dialed in with all the drivers and verification software on it that the others might not have.  I did a little research and it appeared it was a problem with the motherboard/ video processor inside the MBP, which had finally been determined was a design flaw, which that meant even out of warranty they would replace the whole board for $300.  Great.  Only they needed 5-7 business days to turn it around.  I didn’t have 5 business days before my flight.  So I did some research.  I found the following link which was very informative.


Anyway, the gist of it was that the solder on the motherboard had micro-fractures and needed to be re fluxed.  How do you reflux a motherboard?  well, in the field, you remove the motherboard from the computer, place it on tin foil balls on a cookie tray and bake for 8 minutes in an oven at 375 degrees.  You read that right.  Put your motherboard in an oven and turn it on, and leave it there for eight minutes.  Just like baking cookies. Ok.  Got it.  Anyway armed with this and the fact that my computer had begun to NOT act up I felt reasonably confident going to sea. I ordered some thermal paste from Amazon to have just in case.  It came two days later, well before my flight.

On the high seas

bug at shark week

Volkswagon Shark Cage loaded onto Dive boat

Day 1 at sea: weather is bad (choppy high seas) but laptop works flawlessly, despite less than ideal conditions of constantly rocking boat overfilled with our film crew and gear, an underwater dive crew and their gear, the on-camera dive talent and their dive gear, and the ship’s crew.  Plus cases and cases of stuff.  I had to stick the laptop under a bunk full of gear to shelter it from potential falling cases or it falling itself due to the high seas.  There was nothing I could do about the diesel fumes rolling in from the open hatch behind me though.  Bonine was doing a good job of suppressing my urge to puke all over everything, although it was akin to a sensation of Bonine holding the door shut against ugly ugly illness.  You know it is there trying to get in, but for the moment I was OK.  So far so good.

Day 2: Seas are rougher.  There is a Hurricane off of Florida and we are getting the edge of it.  Mostly no rain, but lots of high seas.  And the laptop starts locking up.  I have to give up and press a PA’s laptop into service.  We make it through the day, which gets called early due to the fact that the seas are predicted to be even worse tonight.  We steam back to port.

At port and into the oven

motherboard 2

MBP motherboard pre-baking

Day 3: we are in port, and standing down for the day.  Time to fix my laptop.  without seas lurching me 30 degrees in each direction I now feel ready to take out the dozens of tiny screws and whatnot that hold my laptop together.  I mean, it’s already dead right? Besides I had read all about this.  There is wifi in the harbor (miracles!) so one last look into the interwebs before I crack open the machine.

I get the screws varying sizes and shaped heads, then remove the mother board and all the various pins and ribbon cables.  I tell the ships cook to preheat the oven in the galley to 375 and ask if she has a cookie sheet and some tinfoil.  She asks me twice what we are cooking, mainly because she thought she misheard.  Had I done this before, she asked.  No.  but I read about it on the internet.

Good news: The ships cook advises me that since we are at port, we are using shore power, which is more reliable, which means we are more likely to actually hit 375 degrees reliably.  Good.  except that 375 is sort of a seat of the pants guess. at least we aren’t heaving back and forth like a drunken amusement park ride like yesterday.


375 degrees for eight minutes.

Ok into the oven.  after eight minutes we take it out, and let it “rest” for 20 minutes.  once it is no longer hot to the touch, I grab it and try to remember where all those little ribbon cables and screws go.  Turns out there are two plastic bits I should have removed before the board went in.  they are receivers for some screws that hold the board to the shell.  They melted slightly. One still is functional, but the other no longer works.  No matter, there are lots of other screws holding it on.  I think I will be ok minus one screw. Trying to remember how to apply the thermal paste to the processors, I am generous.  I want the processors to conduct the heat effectively as the inability to dissipate heat was probably got it into trouble in the first place. I get the thing put back together, and with not a little bit of fear, boot it up.  It boots!  But one of the memory cards isn’t working.  No problem, power down and re-seat the memory.  Re boot.  Ok looks good… no wait, no wifi.  Ok I missed a ribbon cable.  take the whole thing apart again and find missing cable and attach.  reassemble.  re-boot.  It lives!  it works. But running Temperature Monitor I see my machine is running hot.  But now I can log into internet and look up how to properly apply the thermal paste.  Oops.  looks like you want to put the thinnest possible layer possible on, using a razor blade.  Ok back into the machine, take the whole thing apart, pull the motherboard again, scrape off the thermal paste and re-apply.  Re- assemble everything.  I am beginning to get very familiar with all the bits.  Re-boot again, and I think I am back up.  No overheating, no malfunctions, and only one screw left over.

I spend the rest of the day sitting on the stern (where the wifi is strong) ordering hundreds of dollars of lubes and cleaners and misc stuff for cleaning all my other gear after I get back home, away form all this corrosive salt water. and a new Gopro, as an overworked PA forgot to close the underwater housing before it went underwater. Oops.


Fast forward to today, and that machine is still working.  It runs perhaps a little hotter than before it’s surgery, but it’s days are numbered due to the speed of Thunderbolt and USB3 rather than any performance failures on it’s part.  It’s a shame because it has been a workhorse.  Even missing that one screw.