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Beyond the Bucket Brigade

The author, a seasoned sailor, says that when disaster strikes on board, it doesn't matter how experienced you are, your mind will still go blank. So having written emergency procedures posted somewhere accessible on the boat is vital.
A few years back I slammed into the reef off Bermuda. How I got myself into that predicament in the first place is a story for another day, but despite many years of offshore sailing and many thousands of miles under my keel, nothing prepared me for that disaster. The noise of carbon being ripped by coral and the sight of water pouring into the boat can numb even the most experienced sailor. If there is only one thing you take away from reading this article remember this; when disaster strikes and you are scared, your mind goes blank. At least mine does and I speak from experience. I learned many lessons from my encounter with the reef, not the least of which was to invest in decent charts, but I also learned something even more pragmatic.

All prudent sailors, no matter how experienced, need to write down all emergency procedures, including how to send out a Mayday call, and tape them someplace where they are easily accessible. On my boat copious notes and instructions are taped under the lid of my nav table. Each procedure takes me step by step through any potential disaster. When something happens you can be sure that your response will not be orderly. At best it will be random chaos fueled by adrenalin. Fortunately my boat was built for a solo circumnavigation and it has two watertight bulkheads as part of the design. I did have the presence of mind to close the forward bulkhead and in doing so contained the leak in the forepeak. This saved me from what could have been a worse situation.

According to an old saw, when a boat is sinking, there's nothing more effective than a frightened person with a bucket. That may be true, however, the problem is that even scared people get tired. Despite the great amount that can be accomplished in short order with a bucket brigade, you might do well to know how to deal with a leaking boat, or worse yet, how to abandon ship if it comes to that.

A new method for temporarily repairing the hull: The device is inserted through the hole, and a sharp tug on the shaft given inward. The membrane and its supporting hull will thus deploy against the outside of the hull, sealing the hole. A cord (not seen here) secured to a fixed point close to the damaged area allows you to resume your duties while the patch stays in place.

I had never really thought about it, but once I had the leak in my boat contained, the water rose to a point where it was level with the water outside the hull and then it stopped coming in. I guess I was expecting the forepeak to fill all the way to the deck head, but it didn't and the amount taken on was quite manageable. Once the water level equalized itself with the water outside I shut the pump off. There was no point in burning out the motor to remove water that would only have been replaced in a few seconds. I was able to sail into St. Georges Harbor under my own steam, a bit bow down, but that was the least of my worries.

Fortunately I was near land. Had I been holed well offshore my options would have been limited, but there are some things you can do to slow or stop the flow of water. If the hole is large there is very little a pump will do other than to buy you some time. You need to slow the leak down to a point where the water coming in is less than the water being pumped out. If you are planning an offshore passage I would suggest taking an emergency "diaper" to help shore up a hole. It's an effective stopgap measure. The "diaper" is a piece of heavy Dacron, or similar rugged fabric, that is attached by strong lines and has some kind of rubber seal sewn or glued along the edges. In the event you get holed the Dacron patch can be draped over the bow, lines run both port and starboard, and walked aft until the "diaper" is over the hole. Once it is in place the lines can be snugged up tight forcing the rubber seals against the hull and reducing, if not stopping, the water from pouring in.

Water pressure from the ocean will also help seal the diaper against the hull. This can be a surprisingly effective way of slowing down a leak and at the very least you might be able to reduce the water intake to a point where the pumps can manage. When I hit the reef on my boat, before I realized that the water would only rise to the level outside, I took my storm jib and used it as an emergency patch. I tied a halyard to the head of the sail and lines to both the tack and clew. I then threw it over the bow, walked it aft until it was over the leak, and then attached the two lines to my stanchions. I then tightened up on the halyard to snug the patch against the hull. It was fairly effective except for the hanks, which allowed water to get under the patch.

In case of a leak, it's essential to carry out any emergency repairs right away to limit the amount of water ingress. Otherwise, this could be the final result, especially since, according to the author, most boats do not have adequate bilge pump systems on board.
If you have been successful stopping the flow of water, your pumps should be able to manage the leak providing you have an adequate system on board. It can't be overstated; most boats do not have adequate bilge pump systems on board, and if you are heading offshore this is an area that you should give some attention. Most bilge pumps seem to be designed to remove small puddles of water that accumulate while you are away from the boat and not for dealing with an emergency. This kind of preparation before you leave the dock can go a long way toward a safe passage.

It really depends on the size of your boat, but most offshore boats should have three kinds of bilge pump systems for dealing with an emergency. Your basic electric immersion pump system should be installed throughout the boat and will be your first line of defense. That system must be backed up by manual pumps that can pump the boat in the event your batteries get swamped or the electrical system fails. On my boat I have a number of 10-gallon-per-minute pumps throughout the boat, and one 25-gallon-per-minute pump located in the cockpit with a long hose. The hose can reach throughout the boat and the large hand pump can deal with water in any area of the boat. And be sure that all your hoses have strainers over the open ends to stop bits of debris from clogging up the pump or breaking the suction.

I also have (actually did have until I removed the engine from my boat) an engine driven pump that used the water intake from the engine to pump water out of the boat. It was very effective and could remove a surprising amount of water in a very short time. I installed a Y-valve right at the water intake for the engine, and could divert the intake to an emergency hose that could be led through the boat to reach any area that was filling up with water. The engine-driven pump, the large manual pump, the smaller manual pumps and the electric pumps together could pump a lot of water and back each other up in the event one system got damaged.

In most cases, no matter how dire the circumstances, it is best to await assistance from the Coast Guard than to abandon your vessel.
Sometimes circumstances can overwhelm even the most competent crew and sound boats. Before you think of abandoning your boat, remember the one single most important lesson learned from the disastrous 1979 Fastnet Raceóstay with your boat until you have to step up to get into a life raft. These days, modern communications are very effective and it's likely that the Coast Guard or similar marine authority will hear your call for help and come to your rescue. Often they will have an emergency pump on board to use if yours have failed.

When it all goes wrong, know that very few people are actually lost at sea. Modern yachts are well built with great equipment, and the emergency rescue procedures are well thought out and the personnel trained and very competent. Much of your safety is up to you and your crew and your ability to sort out the situation in a calm and prepared manner. Panic always confuses the situation. If you are prepared for the worst and have your procedures thought out and written down, and your safety gear has been checked thoroughly and stowed appropriately, you should be able to deal effectively with most any emergency.

Secrets to Survival

In the book Sailors' Secrets, by Robby Robinson and Michael Badham, the authors offer some valuable points regarding emergencies at sea, and a few of them are worth repeating here: If you're working with the crew of a Coast Guard rescue helicopter (whether they're dropping you a high-capacity pump or lifting off all or part of your crew off), know what to expect. Radio contact (established via Channel16 of 2182 MHz) should allow for step-by-step instructions, but basics are:

  • Secure loose sails and furl sails tightly to withstand rotor wash
  • Prepare an area, at least six feet square, to which the hoist operator can deliver equipment. The pilot sits to starboard, so an area well aft on the port side maximizes his visibility.
  • Bring the boat head to wind and then steer 30 degrees to starboard of the true wind. (This allows the helicopter to hover head to wind.)
  • Whether the helicopter crew drops equipment, a litter, or a trail line, don't touch it until it hits the deck. The rotors impart static electricity to the line and before it comes to ground it can cause a painful jolt.
  • Never make any line from the helicopter fast to your boat
  • Work with all deliberate speed to complete the drop (or hoist).

The authors go on to list the information you'll need to provide to the Coast Guard to make their job of rescuing you easier. Make sure that you have filled in the details and taped the information somewhere accessible (like under your chart table lid). Here are the details you need to provide:

Description of vessel

  • commercial or pleasure
  • cabin configuration
  • sail or power
  • inboard or outboard
  • rig type
  • length, beam, draft
  • color
  • hull markings
  • boat name
  • homeport

Survival Gear On Board

  • PFD's
  • flares
  • flashlight
  • raft
  • dinghy or tender
  • spotlight
  • horn
  • auxiliary power

Electronic equipment

  • radiotelephone(s)
  • radar
  • depthfinder
  • GPS
  • loran
  • RDF

Vessel owner/operator

  • name
  • address
  • telephone

And be prepared to describe local weather conditions, depth of water, and the state of any injured crew. 

Suggested Reading:

A Nearly Doomed Delivery by John Kretschmer

Bilge Pumps: The First and Last Line of Defense by Tom Wood

Safety Precautions Underway by Liza Copeland


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