Lesson Learned: When Floorboards Are Floating

Photo by ##http://www.michaeleudenbach.com/## Michael Eudenbach##

When floorboards are floating, it is time for quick, calm thinking. The 2 emotions do not often go together, but everyone knows there is no place for panic aboard a boat, especially one that is sinking.

Yesterday (Sunday, July 17) my wife and I undertook the most basic of boating excursions—a trip to a local cove for a swim on a hot day. After a 15-minute run to our swimming spot, we noticed that the bilge pump was running, but there was nothing coming out of the outlet. Another clog.

All of this took place in just a few minutes. MUKTUK is a rugged, well-maintained boat, yet the leak happened like a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky.

Our boat, MUKTUK—a 1974 Wasque with hundreds of hours of personal time invested—had been out of the water since 2009 for all kinds of repairs. After a successful re-launch this past month, she was looking better than ever. All systems were in shipshape and good to go—or so I thought.

It turned out that a bunch of leaves and wood shavings had conspired to choke the pump. I cleaned the filter and re-primed the pump, but that did not fully solve the problem. Hearing the pump straining, I thought it best to idle the engine to keep the batteries charged.

A few minutes later, I noticed that the water level in the bilge was rising, not falling. And it was rising fast.

I opened the engine hatch and immediately discovered the problem. A zinc in the raw-water cooling system had fallen out, and a garden-hose-sized stream of seawater was now shooting all over the engine compartment and flowing into the bilges. Shutting down the engine would have stopped the flow, of course, but we figured it would be best to head for safe harbor.

With the boat now wallowing and no back-up means of removing the water, we slowly motored back towards safety, my wife holding her thumb over the gusher. Numerous attempts to get the bilge pump working failed, so I had to cut the wire before it burned out. Meanwhile, the driveshaft was slinging water all over the place each time the boat rolled. The engine faltered.

All of this took place in just a few minutes. MUKTUK is a rugged, well-maintained boat, yet the leak happened like a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky.

Eventually we made it back to the mooring and shut down the engine, which stopped the flow of seawater. I then made a quick trip to the marine-supply store for a replacement zinc. Problem solved, but only after some heart-pumping moments of panic.

Lesson: Be prepared! Have backups for all of critical systems, including propulsion, steering, bailing, anchoring, navigation and communication.

After I rebuild the main electric bilge pump, I plan to install a high-volume, handheld pump (which I’ve always known I should have). I now also have a low-tech Beckson Thirsty Mate hand pump that can empty the lowest part of the bilge in an emergency.

I tell this somewhat embarrassing story with the hope that readers will apply the lesson to their own boating lives. We all know that we need redundant systems, but do we actually have them in place and working?

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