Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bilge Vigilance!

In reponse to Charles Doane's (a well known and respected delivery skipper) article in ON about how bilge flooding fried all his electronics, I sent this letter to the editor, Tim Queeny. Some of our offshore students wonder at our hourly checks. They are important.

This letter was included in the September 07 issue of ON.

April 19, 2006

Tim Queeney, Editor
PO Box 569
58 Fore Street
Portland, ME 04101

Dear Tim:

Charles J. Doane's account of his bilge water plight during s/v AVOCATION's "Wrong Way to the West Indies" voyage in your May/June issue reinforced the importance of Rules with which I indoctrinate my crew before every passage, on my own deliveries and on the training voyages I skipper for The Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship.

Rule #1 is KEEP THE BOAT AFLOAT! Maintain watertight integrity and be vigilant about it. We have practices outlined in our Standard Operating Procedure manuals to insure we keep our vessels on the surface where they are designed to sail best, and avoid shipping water into compartments where critical gear, like batteries and electronic equipment, is stowed. Procedures are:

1. Shut down electric bilge pump when going off shore. Use visual and manual checks to monitor bilge, or, if so equipped, a bilge pump cycle counter.
2. Make hourly visual checks of the bilge.
3. If any water is found in the bilge, pump with manual bilge pump, count the strokes and log them in the hourly Ship's Log entries. Each watch is responsible for this as part of our routine hourly boat checks.
4. Each oncoming watch checks the Log for bilge entries and condition. Usually there may be a few strokes each hour, especially in heavy conditions or heavy precipitation. This is "normal."
5. Any increase in "normal" bilge pumping routine MUST be investigated immediately. Just getting the water out is problem enough, but the most important thing, FIND THE LEAK AND STOP IT, is near impossible if the leak is already submerged!

This routine has saved me from serious difficulty on several occasions. Failure to follow it got me into a couple of frightening situations. Don't ask!

This last March I skippered delivery of a sailing vessel from Grenada to Florida. She had neither an "off" option on the electric bilge pump, nor a bilge cycle counter. I advised the owner of the potential danger. I even considered cutting the wires and making a jury rig switch, but didn't. So the electric bilge pump whirred merrily along every so often, clearing the bilge. We watched the bilge as if our lives depended on it. They did... or at least could have.

With this setup the electric pump could be overwhelmed by a leak and fail before we realized we were taking on water. If not vigilant we wouldn't notice anything until the cabin sole boards started floating. At that point we would be in deep trouble indeed (headed deeper!!) with only the manual bilge pump in operation, and the leak probably well submerged and disguised. If this pump should fail.... !! I have seen this happen!

So a further requirement we have for vessels in our charge venturing off shore, or even near shore, is to have some robust back up pump aboard, beyond the built in manual and electric bilge pumps, one not dependent on the vessel's electrical system. Several good ones are available on the market. This mobile pump and can be used to clear isolated compartments that do not drain into the bilge.

And for sure all boats in all waters should have at least two stout buckets aboard and handy. As we all know, nothing clears a watery bilge more effectively and efficiently than a scared sailor with a bucket!

I don't know if our bilge monitoring regime would have worked with Captain Doane's shallow bilge issues, but it might have.

By the way, RULE #2 is STAY ON THE BOAT!

Hope you find this useful.

Fair Winds,

David Appleton, Head Instructor
Maryland School of Sailing & Seamanship