On our 30 year old Sparkman & Stephens the stringers and frames form little compartments in the aluminum hull that are not connected to each other. Water gets trapped, so we can’t use a bilge pump to get rid of small amounts. A big leak would overflow those compartment walls and we have several pumps to deal with such a disaster (hopefully never). We suppose the boat yard did not put drainage holes between those compartments to facilitate tracing leaks. A good idea, but also a major pain when you have to mop up water by hand—especially in the fun parts underneath the engine where only an especially tall person with long, thin arms can reach (unfortunately I fit that description smack on…). A wet/dry vacuum cleaner helps, but it’s still a hassle.
Even if your boat does not feature such a special design and you’re in the lucky position to just turn on a bilge pump (or have an automatic one set in), water in the bilge is never fun. Especially on passage the water alarm sends sailors running in panic. Floorboards up—how much water is it? Where’s it coming from??
Eventually someone has to stick a finger in and check the unappetizing brew to clarify: salt water or fresh water? Retching and spitting is either followed by relief (fresh water) or more hectic searching.
We’ve had many of those incidents. Some caused by utter stupidity, others by technical failures that might have been avoided by thorough checks or better maintenance.
1) A disconnected hose
Motoring on our very first passage on Pitufa the bilge alarm started howling. Water sloshing up to the floorboards! Finger in, yuck, freshwater. The engine had heated up the fresh water, the newly installed hoses had expanded and one had slipped off. The water pump dutifully emptied both tanks, unheard with the engine running. We learned: tighten hose clamps , close connections between water tanks and turn off the pump while motoring…
2) Tilted water tank
Sailing close-hauled we were startled by the bilge alarm. We had used the sunny day to keep the watermaker running—once we went closer to the wind the full tank was tilted so much that it overflowed through the ventilation hose. Now we put a plug into that hose (and try hard not to forget it after the passage).
3) Open hatches
An all time favorite we keep repeating: leaving the boat with hatches open. A proper downpour soaks the cushions and eventually seeps into the bilge. At least it’s only fresh water…
4) Leaking mast boot
On a tough upwind passage the deck was almost constantly awash for days and quite some water made it into the boat seeping in along our (keel-stepped) mast. We glued and clamped on a hypalon collar and never had water entering there again.
5) Watermaker brine
On our first watermaker the hose for the brine was connected to the galley sink. Heeling on a passage the sink got blocked by air bubbles and the brine slowly filled up the sink, flooded first the fridge and then the bilge until we finally noticed. Major mess. Our new watermaker has its own thru-hulls…
6) Geyser in the sink
Sailing close-hauled on the port tack, the sink in the bath room gets below the waterline, resulting in an impressive geyser splashing high up from the drain with every wave. Somehow we keep forgetting to close the thru-hull—especially before tacking underway.
7) Shaft seal
When our ancient shaft seal started leaking a few drops, we ordered a new one, but failed to install it for another year. In the meantime mopping out puddles underneath—flat on the belly, face on the floor, arm twisted and scratched—was a routine operation. A failure of that part could sink a boat. Old salts recommend carrying bicycle tubes to stop water inflow in an emergency.
8) Rudder seal
Buckets of water sloshing under the engine on a downwind passage sent us frantically tracing our frame compartments until we found the culprit: the neoprene collar around the rudder stock had ripped and high following waves forced water in. We hove-to, super-glued it and redid it once at anchor.
Other Known Causes of Water in the Bilge
A leak in the sea-water cooling system would not only cause a flooded bilge, but most likely and more severely an overheated engine. Better to check regularly in order to avoid a major catastrophe.
Our friends installed an automatic bilge pump and connected it to the galley drain. They were ashore when it turned on, filled the hose with water, turned off—and seawater siphoned back in. They just got back in time to yell for a tow, managed getting to the dock where the firefighters waited with a pump. Ironic to have a bilge pump attempting to sink the boat.
Birgit, Christian and their ship’s cat Leeloo have been cruising aboard Pitufa for 9 years. Check out their blog on www.pitufa.at