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Old 09-23-2003
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Mark Matthews is on a distinguished road
Sinking at the Dock


Far more boats sink at the dock than they do on the high seas. In an owner's absence, a minor problem can easily become a full-blown disaster.
It was like any other fair-weather weekend day in the marina. Cooler-laden carts rumbled up and down the docks guided by familiar faces and friends in tow. Boats and their crews slipped the lines, negotiated the formidable current of our fair river, and headed out for a daysail on the swirling waters of Charleston Harbor, while others meandered in, calling it a day. The chatter of dockhands, their radios squawking, featured instructions to skippers on final approach. There was the smell of a barbecue in process, a fine breeze rippling across the water in the search of Dacron, and like marinas everywhere, most of the boats simply sat out the perfect weather waiting another day for their long lost owners to show up.

Summer was here. Our day had already been a long hot one filled with  stowing, storing, categorizing, and discarding as my mate and I moved the entire contents of our old 1969 26-foot Westerly Centaur onto the new boat we had just bought, a 1965, 35-foot Chris Craft Sail Yacht. Thus far it had been no small feat. There seemed no end to the amount of personal belongings, safety equipment, plumbing parts, electrical gadgetry, rigging fittings, stainless-steel fasteners, caulk, paint, thinner, clothes, foul-weather gear, tools, important boat papers, and other miscellany that appeared from each compartment, looking for a new home. The amount of cargo that can be stowed aboard sailing vessels, even small ones, eventually leads to a day of reckoning and the day when these items would either make the cut or make it to the dumpster had come.

As I walked up the dock with a cartload of items, I noticed my neighbor working on his boat. A 34-foot cruiser/racer was tied up in between us. We began talking over the cabin top of that boat when he paused and interjected the following question guaranteed to stop sailors in their tracks: "Does this boat look like it’s sinking to you?"

"I paused and stepped back. Well, what do you know? The boat was sinking. The bow was now in the initial, subtle stages of doing a Titanic."
I paused and stepped back. Well, what do you know? The boat was sinking. The bow was now in the initial, subtle stages of doing a Titanic. The steps beside it that were usually employed to get aboard the boat now offered a large step down to the top of the boat. The boot stripe at the bow was at least eight inches under the surface and the rest of the boat didn’t seem too far behind, headed in that direction.

The boat had been listed by the marina’s brokerage for several months, and at one point would have made a good racer/cruiser, but now it was a far cry from a turnkey operation. Turn-scrub brush would be a more accurate description. Sleek, capable lines and a double-spreader rig and running backstays marked it as a performer, but its fading gelcoat, with mold and grime-covered decks and deteriorating sail cover marked it as an orphan. The brokerage sign meant it wavered in the nebulous area between past and future owners and it was apparent that the present moment was a bleak one.

Hopping aboard, I leaned out on the shrouds. The boat hardly budged. The lack of motion suggested more an elephant sleeping in its hold more than a lively sailing vessel. Peering inside the darkened Lexan windows I saw several hundred gallons of water, the surface lapping gently just below the cushions. No doubt about it, she was going down at the dock.

What to do? The boat was locked for one thing, but rummaging around in the lazerette revealed a manual emergency bilge pump. Several pumps on the handle sent water shooting out the sides of the deteriorating pump, soaking everything inside the lazerette. The hose was led to a thru-hull that exited below the waterline. Bubbles came up from beneath the boat, but we could only guess that the amount of water being removed was less than inspiring.

We flagged down a passing dockhand and informed him of the situation, then he sauntered off to the marina office to call the owner. Meanwhile, I dashed to get my bolt cutters—we were at the point that if this had been my boat, the lock would be the last thing I'd worry about. So I snipped the rusting lock off. Down below was a sailor’s worst nightmare. The water was knee-deep and rising, and it had filled the cupboards and compartments, saturating their contents. Removing the companionway hatch revealed the engine air intake would be submerged if the water kept up its rate of inflow.


Finding the leak and stemming the flow is the first order of business in any sinking vessel. Gate valves (right) are notoriously unreliable and should be replaced with ball valves.
We jumped into action, first locating the seacocks and ensuring that they were all closed. Then we began searching for the electric bilge pump. After a few moments of rummaging and head scratching, we learned that incredibly, and for whatever mysterious reason, there didn’t seem to be one. That left one option—it was time for the time-honored bucket brigade Without a pump, only one person could bail at a time, and so began a long series of heaving buckets into the cockpit to drain out the scuppers.

By this time, a small crowd had gathered—it’s not everyday a boat is discovered sinking at the dock after all and nothing will attract a crowd in a marina like a vessel in distress. Following a strange, this-is-what-a-sinking-boat-is-like mindset, other volunteers clambered below for some first-hand experience in bailing a boat by bucket.

Slowly, the water inside started to recede, although it was still a mystery where it was leaking in. Another passing dockhand came to investigate. By now four volunteer bailers were thoroughly drenched by the inexact process of bailing with a five-gallon bucket. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds, so fatigue was becoming a factor here as well.

Though we requested that the dockhand bring us an auxiliary pump, he informed us that the marina’s only pump was currently in use keeping an ownerless, wood sportfishing boat afloat and couldn’t be spared because that boat would sink. Then he just as quickly disappeared again. (This individual was later sighted in the parking lot taking out the garbage wearing surgical gloves, while the fight to keep one of his company's clients afloat continued.)


All it takes is one failed or overloaded bilge pump, a steady supply of water, and varying amounts of time for a sailing vessel to make the conversion to a submarine.
When the owner finally showed up, the frazzled air about him was unmistakable. Someone offered a spare bilge pump from their boat, someone else offered wire, he accepted, started bailing, and then wiring the pump together. The crowd thinned. Eventually, with the pump in place, all the water in the bilge was cleared out, but still the leak was a mystery. A flashlight tour of the packing gland revealed it was in working order, and another crawl through the aft lazerette revealed the rudder shaft was glassed in and not leaking either. The water was obviously salty, but all the hoses and hose clamps seemed to be soundly affixed.

With all the seacocks closed, we watched as water began slowly pooling in the worst of all possible places: at the top of the keel bolts. A closer inspection of the keel bolts revealed them to be in less than stellar condition. Now the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. The boat, and its five-foot, nine-inch draft had recently been moved to a higher-trafficked area of the marina in the hopes of finding a buyer. The new berth coincidentally offered less water. So with big tides and a full moon, the boat had at some time heeled over and grounded its keel in the thick mud beneath at low tide. The bolts were in bad enough shape to begin with that the force on the keel allowed the ingress of water. All of this boiled down to the fact that the owner was facing a prompt trip to the yard for some major repairs.

The owner would still have to continue bailing his boat non-stop he got it to the hard, and we were all hard-pressed to offer him much consolation. I pointed out that the yard was only a few miles up the Intracoastal Waterway, and that he luckily wasn’t in some forlorn part of the world where such repairs couldn’t be made. At least the boat had the courtesy to sink at the dock, and not over the horizon in endlessly deep waters.

Springing a Leak

If you come across a boat whose boot stripe is well below  the waterline, it is either overloaded or sinking. If you’ve seen activity—evidence of coming and going, a dinghy tied alongside, or gear strewn everywhere—it’s overloaded, a fact perhaps worth tactfully mentioning to its occupants who are asking their boat to do something it’s not designed for, possibly compromising its sea-keeping abilities with extra stuff they may not need.

If water is above the floorboards and flotsam is floating inside the boat, it’s sinking and now is the time for action. Try this three-step, common sense plan:


Your boat will have a better chance of survival if a rescuer can throw a switch rather than having to get in the bilge and track down wiring snafus or other anomolies.

 1. Close the thru hulls.

2. Track down the leak and stop it.

3. Bail until the boat is dry.

If the water rises above the batteries, these could short circuit and deliver a hefty electrical jolt to potential rescuers standing in water, which would likely elminate bilge-pumping options in the process. Turning the battery switch off at this point isn’t likely to help. Obviously if water enters the air intake, the engine should not be run and you’ll need a mechanic ASAP.

It pays to have your boat’s electrical and plumbing systems up to code. Not only so they work each time they are called on, but also to save time in the event someone else needs to come aboard and save your boat in your absence. If you regularly twist bare wires together to get your bilge pump running, chances are someone else won’t be aware of such idiosyncrasies. Having emergency bungs in an accessible place should someone need to find them in your absence is also prudent.

If you do have to start emergency bailing, mark the water level inside the boat with a pencil and note the time, or glance to see where the water level is in relation to the settee trims or other marks to see if you are making headway. Also, it makes for a calmer situation if you can occasionally step off onto something solid, like a dock. 

Test your manual bilge pumps periodically; don't just assume that they'll work. Seals and gaskets can wear out and become punctured in the recesses of lazerettes when anchors, chain, or chemicals come in contact with them. Electric bilge pumps are only as effective as the battery voltage that powers them. Regardless of what type of pump you may have, screens on the intake end of the hose are mandatory to keep gunk from clogging the pumps.

Keep in mind that the experience of paid dockhands varies from marina to marina. Some have seen and done it all, while others may have problems tying a cleat or identifying the pointy end of a vessel. If you are confronted with a true boating emergency, don't assume that these folks have the training or experience to do what's necessary when time is of the essence.




Last edited by marinedtcomRob; 07-09-2008 at 10:08 PM. Reason: page did not render correctly - tables messed up
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