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jhulmer 08-13-2007 03:59 PM

We're Sinking!

This past Memorial Day weekend two buddies and I had planned a cruise down the coast to Perdido key Florida. This was to be the maiden voyage of Delta Girl our Hunter 28.5 after her refit from sinking during Katrina. Gene, Bill, and I departed Point Cadet Marina in Biloxi, Mississippi Thursday night at about 10pm and sailed to a barrier island to anchor for the night; fortunately the seas were calm. The next morning we departed after breakfast and headed east down the coast. The seas were building so we stayed in the intercostal for some protection, but the wind soon clocked to straight on our nose. We were determined to make the lee of Mobile, AL so we slogged on under auxiliary engine power. At about 10am after pounding straight into short period six foot seas for several hours, Gene happened to glance below and saw 1”of water sloshing about on the salon floor.
We were dumb founded. All three of us jumped below and were some what panicked trying to come to grips and decide what to do. The water was up to 3” in the span of a couple minutes. WE’RE SINKING! It took us two or three minutes to react. We started checking through hull fittings and stuffing boxes but none were leaking. The newly rebuilt engine was idling and in threat of the now 10” deep water sloshing as big a wave inside the boat as outside. Davy Jones had come to claim back his prize!
We all silently thought it’s time to prepare to abandon ship. We had an eight foot hard dinghy and laden with three full grown men had only four or five inches of freeboard in a calm anchorage. This was not going to be comfortable in 6 ft seas. What to grab? We are close to shore and there is a Coast Guard Station not very far away. The only other boat traffic we see is a big barge heading our way in the channel; fortunately the wind has blown us out of his way. We had a brand new VHF radio still in the box on the shelf; one of the projects I kept meaning to do. We were prepared though, we had cell phones and two water proof hand held VHF radios. We should call a MAYDAY.
This is when you realize how unprepared you are for this event! Sure we had played this scenario in our head, “what would I do in this situation”? This is entertaining when sitting in the comfortable arm chair of your living room or study thinking through the what-if scenarios. It’s easy to compile the solution to problems that YOU create. But, when it really happens you have several factors you failed to take into account. Your adrenaline is spiked, your heart is pounding, your mind is racing, the seas are rough, and the music is playing faster than you can dance. But mostly you don’t know the cause of the problem and this generates fear and panic. How do you fix it if you don’t know what’s wrong?
My mind raced! We’re running out of time! We have to find the problem NOW! We’re going to lose the boat! THINK! WHERE IS THE HOLE! I can go over the side and find it and plug it. But it’s very rough; the boat will beat me, too dangerous. We’ve checked all the through hulls, haven’t we? WAIT! What about the speed log!
We had been in the boat yard a few weeks before to paint the bottom and to install a new speed log. This is a daunting task on the Hunter 28.5 because the sounder transducer and the speed log transducer are accessible through a small cutout in the bulkhead under the v-birth. You have to remove a piece of plywood that supports the v-birth in the center and crawl under the v-birth about 18” to access the cutout. The cutout is only about 10” square and you can only get your arm or your head through at a time. So the work of changing the through hulls is mostly by feel.
THAT HAD TO BE IT! Fortunately, we had not reinstalled the v-birth support. I pulled all the gear out of the way and belly crawled to the access hole. The water was now a good 12” deep and sloshing big waves in my face. This was a very uncomfortable position. I’m a little claustrophobic anyway and add all these other conditions; I was one-more-wave-in-the-face away from changing the shape of the v-birth. When I reached the access hole I heard the rush of water and I knew I had found the hole. We had rushed to get Delta Girl back into the water at the boatyard and in our haste, failed to install the retainer nut on the knot log insert. The only thing that held the insert into the through hull, as long as it did, was the three o-ring seals. When we started pounding into the heavy seas the water pressure slowly drove the insert out and opened a 1-1/2” diameter hole in the bottom of the boat. By my estimate we were getting 120 to 150 gpm of water into the boat.
I reach my arm through the access hole and followed the strong stream of water to the through hull and like the Dutch boy covered hole with my hand and at the same time screaming to my compadres’ “I FOUND THE HOLE!” They each had obtained buckets and were bailing with the speed and efficiency of a 100 gpm pump. This had bought me the time I needed to find the hole. I laid there taking a minute to catch my breath and be thankful. In order to feel around to find the speed log insert I would have to take my hand off the through hull, so we needed to plug the hole long enough to find the insert and the, all too important, retaining nut. Moreover, we need a minute to recover check our shorts.
The search began for the wooden plugs that we all were sure were on the boat. The last time we saw them was when we were pumping the boat out after raising her. They were floating among the debris of stuff that over the years had accumulated into every locker on the boat. You know “the stuff”, the “we might need that one day” kind of stuff that in reality should have been removed years before. Finally, one of the cone shaped wooden plugs that we had taken for granted was uncovered and passed to me. I managed to pass the plug through the cutout and in one motion retrieve the plug with the hand that was holding back the sea and force it into the through hull. I laid there with my hand over the plug scared that it too might pop out. After a minute I felt around and found the speed log insert and the retaining nut. After installing the insert and the retaining nut we all breathed a sigh of relief and in celebration we pass around the bottle of Knob Creek Kentucky Bourbon, which had survived the Katrina sinking. If it had any Katrina water in it, it was sure smooth.
After an hour and half of bailing and pumping we headed on our way to enjoy what turnout to be a very fun weekend, although a little damp. Most of our conversations that weekend and since has been in critique of the actions we took and what we should’a, could’a or would’a done.
Our conclusions are:
  • Plan for a sinking every time you leave the dock.
  • Purchase a life raft and put it in an accessible storage compartment.
  • Keep an emergency bailout bag ready to go in a moments notice. If this had happened at night we probably wouldn’t have discovered the problem in time to save the boat (darkness adds more lions, tigers and bears).
  • Go ahead and make the radio call. If we had, at least, put out a PAN PAN people would have known of our situation and if that was the only call we were able to make it might have been the difference between rescue and death.
  • Have the wooden plugs available, preferably tied to each through hull.
  • Purchase and install a 2000 gph backup bilge pump with stainless screen wrapped around the pump in a ball. The existing bilge pump although too small to have helped much, quickly became clogged with all the debris that was washed out of every nook and cranny. The 2000 gph wouldn’t have kept up with influx but it would have bought us more time. We thought about undoing the engine raw water intake but on investigation this would not have provided much help. An auxiliary inboard doesn’t pump much water and the intake might have clogged and overheated the engine, adding a new dimension to our situation. However, adding a high volume pump to the engine with a clutch would be a viable solution.
  • Keep at least one five gallon bucket on board (it’s amassing how much water a scared man with a bucket can bail).
The biggest lesson we learned was to not take anything for granted. I never checked the installation of the speed log insert. I must have inserted it temporarily after we installed the through hull and out of sight out of mind. When we put the boat back in the water we checked for water in the bilge, no water, let’s go. Check and recheck everything you did, especially anything you did to the hull. I’d like to say we spat in Davy Jones eye once again, but truth is we almost handed it to him. He’ll have to earn it next time.

Freesail99 08-13-2007 04:16 PM

Thanks for the tips. Well writen good story.

GySgt 08-13-2007 04:24 PM

Good learning, but glad it was you instead of me :)

islandzephyr 08-13-2007 06:36 PM

That is an incredible story, thanks for sharing it with everyone. You really should expand it just a little and send it to one of the magazines, they would probably publish it. I agree with the above post though, better you than me :)

sailingdog 08-13-2007 06:47 PM

Very glad it was you and not me... I would also consider putting the knotmeter throughhull in a more accessible location...since that would make removing it for cleaning a lot simpler.

BTW, the wooden plugs really need to be stored in plastic bags tied to each through-hull so they stay dry. The softwood they're made of will swell up when they get wet, and that is what helps hold them in place, but it doesn't work if they're already soggy.... and they should have a small hole drilled in the top end with a line through it, so it can be tied in place so that it will stay in position until it swells.

A two-and-a-half gallon mop bucket is probably better than a five gallon bucket, since it is easier to handle and easier to store.

Valiente 08-13-2007 06:50 PM

Sounds like you learned a lot. The plugs tied to the thru-hulls are all the rage aboard my boats. If the hole is somewhere else, at least you can find the plug tied to the closest hole in the boat!

uspirate 08-13-2007 07:01 PM

Enjoyed the read, glad everything worked may have panicked a little, we all do but you kept you ass wired tight and fixed it. job well done

Waymar83 08-13-2007 07:31 PM

What an anecdote! Good on you that you were up to the challenge...well written!

bubb2 08-13-2007 08:02 PM

jhulmer thank you for your post and very well written if I might add. An lesson for everyone.

Brings to mind an event that happen to me a few years ago. A bubby of mine and myself we moving our boats from here they were stored for the winter to the marina where we keep them for the season. The trip was uneventful.

The next morning I got an phone call and my friend asks if i can go to the marina to check his boat as when he left the night before he had more water in the bilge then usual. He was flying out on a bossiness trip. After work that day I stopped off to check his boat. I found 3 inches of water over the floor boards.

It had been raining for 2 days so I thought that he had an leak. Checked hatches, and all other deck openings. I didn't find a thing. Had to be his cockpit drains as the hoses run on the inside of the boat. I found no leaks there. I tasted the bilge water it was more fresh than salt so it had to be from the rain. With blinders on I pumped the boat and decided I would check in the morning. It is going to quit raining.

The next morning I find 6 inches of water over the floor boards. Not an good thing. I pumped the boat check all the thru hulls no leaks. I scratch my head and tell myself I will check after work things will be better. I check after work, 6 inches of water again. I call my buddy and tell him this is not good and I don't know where the water is coming in from.

On the third moring again I pumped out 6 inches of water. Again I check every thing I can see or find. No leaks, but i do not want to call my Friend and tell him I can not find the problem.

After work that day I am back on his boat for the third day in a row morning and nite. Open up the engine compartment again and see nothing on the first look. This is after i pumped another 6 inches of water. I run my hand under the engine as there was water pooling there. Guess where the speed log was only being held in by one turn on the nut.

Finally I got to call my friend with the good news and bad news. Yes i found his leak and the bad news was he was out of beer.

The moral of the story is tear the boat apart until you find the leak. and don't taste the bilge water I payed for it the next day

sailingdog 08-13-2007 08:17 PM

One of the funnier stories I've been told is of a friend of mine was doing a sailboat delivery... normally does bluewater deliveries, but this was moving a boat from one place on the Great Lakes to another.... first afternoon out with the boat, he noticed some water in the bilge... so he tasted it...and since it was fresh, he figured it was from a leak in the pressure water system. Well, a few hours later, it was over the floor boards... and he was thinking "There isn't that much water in the tanks..." then it struck him that Lake Ontario wouldn't be salt water... and went to look for the leak before it got much worse. IIRC, it was a loose nut on the stuffing box on the prop shaft... It had been fine with the boat not motoring, but motoring caused it to start leaking.

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