What to do when you are taking on Water?

Following a recent spate of calls to VISAR where vessels have run aground or reported taking on water at a rate beyond what bilge pumps could reasonably be expected to cope with, it seems that a brief column on what to look for/what to do in the event that you find yourself taking on water.

For the purposes of “illustrating” this column we’ll set a scenario that is entirely likely. You’re on board a 44′ sailing yacht. You’ve brisk winds and some fairly heavy seas. The wind is dead on your nose, and you need to be somewhere by a set time, so you’re motor-sailing. All is going well until gradually you feel that the boat’s handling characteristics are changing. She doesn’t respond as well and feels heavy to the hand. You tweak the sail trim, which doesn’t perceptibly improve anything. Eventually you need to go below to pick something up, which is when you discover that there is water above the cabin sole.

Before you take a step down into the cabin, beware!

Everything is going to be very slippery, and the slightest hint of oil or soap in the bilge will make your passage treacherous. If the floorboards haven’t been screwed down, then once there’s sufficient water in the bilge, they will begin to float. Since the last thing you want is to twist or break an ankle, tread warily and carefully. If the floorboards have been secured, make sure that you grab a screwdriver so that you can release panels as necessary.

What are the possible sources of the leak?

The easy and obvious one is to check that all portholes and hatches are closed. Once this has been eliminated, then you start working through a series of further checks. There are, inevitably, several schools of thought about what is the “right” order in which to conduct all of the checks. If an engine is running, and a hose has split, or come off entirely, then water can come into the boat at an alarming rate, so some say that this ought to be the first check. Others say through-hulls and sea cocks. Ultimately, the decision is yours, and yours alone.

VISAR
Andrew Ball took part in full VISAR rescue gear. Photo by Todd VanSickle

It’s very difficult to visualize the location of sea cocks once the water level begins to rise.

A good practice to adopt when sailing an unfamiliar boat for the first time is to go through the boat to find all sea cocks and to run through your head a series of “what would I do if …” scenarios before leaving the dock for the first time.

The portholes-and-hatches checks ought to be completed fairly quickly and, if you’ve decided to approach sea cocks and through hulls, make sure that you do so with a large soft wooden bung and mallet in hand. It doesn’t take long to do a quick taste sample of the water to decide whether the water is fresh or salt and might usefully be done to establish if your fresh water tank has sprung a leak, so this too should be done early on (provided that your bilges are clean!).

If the above checks have yielded no results, check that the bilge pumps are working.

If you have crew with you and a manual bilge (whale) pump, set someone to pumping away, and another steering the shortest, most direct course to shore (preferably with a soft landing). Meanwhile, open the engine compartment. First things first: ensure that your prop shaft is still in place! The loss of a prop shaft happens more frequently than you might credit. If the shaft is where it’s supposed to be, take a good look at the stuffing box and make sure that water isn’t coming through that. The final visual check that can be easily done from inside the boat is on the engine cooling system. Ensure that the raw water intake and exhaust hoses are firmly in place and not split – they can dump incredible amounts of water inside a boat in a very short period of time.

If you’ve made no progress in establishing the source of your leak, now is the time to gather the last few items into the “grab bag” – passports and other travel documentation, essential medications etc and get on the VHF and alert others of your need for assistance. Good luck!