What do you do when you go down below and notice your floorboards are floating? What if you’re single-handing and your autopilot isn’t working? Imagine you’re 15-20 miles off the coast of anything and there is no such thing as BoatUS. You’ve got plenty of seaway all around, but it’s shallow and there are reefs and sandbars scattered about for miles. Winds are 18mph and seas are a sloppy 3-4ft. You’ve tied off your wheel and gone below to find all three of your electric bilge pumps have burned out. You don’t know what is leaking. Your gusher pump is working but you need your hands to steer. What do you do? Welcome to my shoes, my very wet shoes.
And so it was, when I left Warderick Wells in The Exumas en route to Black Point. The promised easterlies were coming in a point south of southeast. I was heading southwest, close hauled with the goal of tacking back towards Black Point Settlement. I left about 4 hours prior and was making great headway at 6+ knots. All was well.
Until it wasn’t.
The dogs were in their life vests. They were getting visibly antsy. They nervously watched me run back and forth from the helm to the salon, quickly pulling up floorboards and moving floating objects out of the way. All the seacocks were closed. I checked the bilge pumps, checked the switches, wiring, fuses. Everything looked okay but nothing was working. I checked the fresh water system. Fresh water tanks weren’t leaking and I closed off the valve from the tank to the pump. Now what?
I checked my charts to see if there was a marina or some soft, shallow sandbar nearby. Nothing charted was closer than 10 miles away and 2 hours is a long time to wait when the water is rising. I needed to find the leak and find it fast. All of my thru-hull fittings were now well below the bilge water so I had no way to check them beyond confirming their handles were in the “closed” position. All the hoses were sound and double clamped. I ran up to the cockpit with an idea. After strapping in the dogs, I brought the boat as close to the wind and at as steep a heel as possible. When we were holding between 40 and 50 degrees heel, I tied off the wheel as best I could and went below.
It worked. With the boat heeled over so severely, I could see most of the thru-hull fittings on the starboard side. I checked for any obvious sign of water intrusion. I found nothing. Everything appeared closed and sealed. I grabbed my tub of play-doh (great for emergencies) and jammed wads of it around anything capable of failure. I pinched off and zip-tied all but the bilge pump hoses. When I could think of nothing else to do, I tacked the boat and did the same to the other side. Water was still coming in, and faster, but I could not for the life of me figure out how. Then it dawned on me: the only thing without a proper seacock or a hose to pinch off was the engine’s stuffing box. But the stuffing box was under water and there was no way to check it. Because of my V-Drive and the engine’s awkward installation, it made it difficult to even reach.
I reached down under the engine and felt around. One of the burned out bilge pumps was blocking my hand so I jerked hard and ripped it out of it mount and pulled it out of the water. And as I held it, it poured like a faucet. It was literally pouring water in! I had the boat heel over so far that it was syphoning the water through the burnt out bilge pump. So much for vented loops and check valves. I didn’t bother to check the others. I leapt back into the cockpit and brought the boat around, hove-to. It took me a while to get her trimmed right but Chance eventually settled. I tied off the wheel and head back down below. I pinched off all the bilge pump hoses, closed their ball valves just to be sure. One problem solved. But that couldn’t have been the original cause.
My dinghy and outboard were already in the water. Ditch bag ready just in case. My life vest was on and I had my PLB and handheld VHFs ready. I thought it was time I made my situation known. On VHF Channel 16, I hailed:
“Any vessel. Any vessel. This is the Sailing Vessel Chance. This is the Sailing Vessel Chance. I am a 34ft blue hulled sailboat 15 miles west of Staniel Cay. I am taking on water and seeking local knowledge. Anyone in the vicinity know of a safe, SOFT sandbar I can run the boat aground on?”
After another call relating our exact position and general state of safety preparedness, I received a flurry of responses. A nearby mega yacht was within a few miles of me and turned to close in. We talked about the situation and possible options. As we spoke he gave me ideas that seemed so smack-my-head-obvious that I fumed at my own apparent lack of clarity. At his suggestion, I rerouted the hoses from my wash down pump and fresh water pump to draw from the bilge and dump into the cockpit. When I could, I had been operating the Gusher pump in the cockpit, but this was now the first time significant water was being pumped from the bilge. My brain now working (or at least more inspired), I remembered a spare bilge pump that I rigged with battery clamps months before. I tore through our V-berth (aka: the garage) and once I had it, ripped apart the hoses from the non-working bilge pumps. I clipped this pump to the house bank, dunked it in the water and ran the hose out over the cockpit combing and into the deck scuppers.
As the mega yacht approached, I was happily able to announce that the bilge water was subsiding. I was getting ahead, but I still haven’t discovered the source of the intrusion. It HAD to be my shaft log/packing gland. It was the only thing I hadn’t addressed. I was still not able to properly check from the inside, so I decided to plug it from the outside. As a disclaimer: I admit I felt much more emboldened by the presence of another boat. And it was under his watchful eye that I clipped in my harness to a long line and dived below while hove-to. Admittedly, this was probably a stupid thing to do (and one detail I left out when relaying the story to Kelley). The water was choppy and the transom was bouncing a bit. But after a few tries, I was able to clog the cutlass bearing with play-doh and bind it in with rescue tape.
Safely aboard again, I resumed my search for a safe place to dock the boat. Based on present tides and currents at the cuts near the Staniel Cay and Compass Cay marinas, the shadowing mega yacht concurred with several others that without the use of my engine (I needed to keep my cutlass bearing clogged) I could not make it to either under sail. Oddly, neither marina was responding to hails. The Mega Yacht was the only power vessel that was responding and they did offer to tow me if need be. But when I heard that a friend was nearby and was coming south from Normans to help, I decided to meet him in the middle – back at Warderick Wells. At the end of the day, neither marina has any services that I could take advantage of and the sight of a friendly face was, at this moment, more important than a dock to tie up to. The Mega Yacht was gracious enough to escort me all the way back to entrance of Warderick Well’s North Field. And once I arrived, there was a team of dinghies in the water ready to help me grab a mooring.
Rather than go into a lengthy repair story, I liked to tell you a few lessons I’ve learned from all of this. This was my first (and hopefully only) near-sinking experience and I’m hoping that maybe someone else can learn from my experience and my mistakes.
First thing I learned is that if you have dogs that live aboard, you MUST regularly clean and vacuum the bilge. Dogs shed and their hair goes everywhere, especially the bilge. Everyone has seen how hair clumps at the bottom of the bathtub. It is no different in the bilge. Upon inspection, all three of my bilge pumps had large clumps of dog hair wrapped around the motor wheel. All of it got through the built in screens and it was the reason the pumps burned out. Another great suggestion made to me is to build a screen box around the pump.
Most bilge pump thru-hull fittings are just above the waterline. The short height above the waterline gets even shorter on a fully laden cruising vessel. This means that when you heel, they will be below the waterline. I relied on a vented loop and a check valve to prevent water from syphoning back in. This clearly failed. Coast Guard and ABYC standards state that proper seacocks should be installed on any thru-hull fitting that is or COULD BE under water when the boat is heeled. Most boats don’t have this, and it’s expensive to make the change. If that is the case – at the VERY LEAST you should install a ball valve fitting to ensure you can CLOSE the thru-hull. Also, Groco makes aftermarket conversion fittings for existing bronze through-hulls.
Have an emergency bilge pump – the largest possible – ready with a good length of hose and battery clips for power. I was lucky in this area. I had this mine up when I was last in a slip and was hosing out my bilge. I never thought about it as an emergency safety tool. Now I do.
Play-doh! Yes, the same play-doh kids play with. I learned this trick when I had to change the packing in the stuffing box of my last boat while it was still in the water. Play-doh is pliable, thick, adheres around prop shafts under water and if you forget to remove it, it will gently break away. You can also use it to stuff through hull fittings from the outside and it will hold tight until physically scooped out. You can also use welt mold putty or any type of wax molding for this.
Set up fresh water and washdown pumps to be used in an emergency. This is as simple as a “T” hose barb leading to cheap and easy PVC or brass ball valve that can open and close to a feeder hose from the bilge and coiled output hose you can run into the cockpit or overboard. This may seem over the top… but it saved my boat.
Portable, manual bilge pumps like the $40 ones sold at west marine are pretty worthless. The amount of effort and energy needed to pump out the small amount of water these move is not worth it. The output hose is never long enough unless you’re pumping into a bucket and it bounces too much to stay in the bucket – making it difficult for one person to manage. You’re better off with a empty milk jug with the bottom cut off. You will also wear yourself out very quickly for such a small amount of water displaced. Don’t rely on these as part of an emergency solution
Gusher/Cockpit pumps are great – but check the location of the pump handle. Is it convenient to get to in an emergency? Can you operate it for a sustained period if need be, or is it in an awkward position? If you single hand, you might consider having one in the cockpit by the helm and another down below. I only have one aboard and it is near the helm, meaning that while I was trouble shooting down below, I wasn’t pumping water out of the boat.
Learn how to heave-to out YOUR CURRENT BOAT. This might sound stupid. “Everyone knows how to heave to!” Apparently, not. As I met people who were following my situation via VHF, I discovered that many people have never even tried the maneuver. Sure they know the theory, but they’ve never tried it. Others know how to heave-to and have done it “years ago” but never on their current boat. I had never previously hove-to in Chance. I have performed this maneuver dozens of times my previous boat, but each boat is different. In an emergency, minutes, even seconds, count. Practicing heaving-to will better prepare you to handle various situations.
Lastly, have a plan. There are a dozen other things you should or shouldn’t do that I haven’t listed. These are just a few of the discoveries I made during this challenge. But having a plan prepared and doing drills (not unlike a man overboard drill) is important to staying calm and getting out of dangerous situations safely.