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How to sink a boat and stay afloat…

(AKA The importance of a bilge pump and clean bilge)

My previous yacht, as eluded to in the earlier post, was a classic ketch built in the 60’s from mahogany on oak frames. She was totally wasted on me, a guy with a small budget for both time and money who wanted to live on board and sail regularly. I had so many tasks to complete, every weekend was a job to turn her from a yacht to a workshop and back to a yacht all before work on Monday morning. I had installed the galley but never completed the door to the gas master line which left a gaping hole about 10 inches square leading directly into the bilge.

Living aboard with a hairy dog, despite all the best efforts, meant dog hair breached areas of the boat I never thought possible. From hidden cupboards to anchor lockers this airborne contaminant was just so confronting sometimes it drove me to frustration on many occasions. A work transfer had called for relocating the yacht from Sydney to Brisbane, a trip that despite my best efforts, we were ill-prepared to make.

After loading the dinghy, fuel, generator (No working 12 volt fridge on board) and lashing all our worldly possessions down, we set off on a windy overcast October day into a 3 metre swell that was uncomfortable but bearable. See the photo departing box head.

The first two days were uneventful, (We did almost hit a Humpback whale calf, but in my defence, he lashed out first!) but fatigue was slowly creeping up on all of us. Keith, the crewman was an older guy who lived alone on his yacht and seemed happy to help out in the critical midnight to 4am shifts. (However he had not helped out anytime outside those hours and I was trying to stay on watch constantly outside of those hours). He had said all the right things over dinner and had been decky for a yacht sailing out of Eden, plus he lived on his boat so he must know boats, right?! I was soon to find out the cut of his jib in a crisis.

We had made good ground heading out of Port Stephens but I made the mistake of getting stuck heading into the EAC running against us at a good 3 knots. This was due in part, to inexperience and also a lack of confidence in heading too far offshore. So we battled watching the Tacking Point light for a long and hard fought 7 hours heading into a swift north-south current. At this point frustration was beginning to set in and Keith had decided to go below to lay down.

A few seconds later, he emerged yelling “We’ve sprung a plank!, We’ve sprung a plank” These are not the ideal words for a skipper to hear at 2am, let alone twice in the spirit of Chicken Little proclaiming the sky was about to fall!) The worst was that our esteemed crew member then went into panic mode and began to hysterically make towards the coach house to launch our 3 metre inflatable dinghy (Into fairly rough seas on a moonless night).

In hindsight, I know Keith was tired, as we all were and this was a major contributing factor to him not seeing the facts clearly. All we had to do was establish the problem and rectify it if we could. If not, then we could panic. Someone had to take control and it looked like DK was Johnny on the spot. I was, after all, the skipper. (In title, at least).

I ventured below and pulled up the piece of plywood that separated our living quarters from the bilge, and sure enough, water was lapping at the floorboards, an indication that all the bulkheads were full, and we were about 2 tonnes heavier in the water than we should be. If it kept going like, this we probably had another two hours afloat before the batteries would be underwater and our fate was sealed.

Our lovely ketch was many things, but a dry boat she was not, and the bilge pumps constantly kept the sea water out. Something this night had gone seriously awry with the battery operated pumps. Was it the battery? The connections? Did I actually have a spare pump on board? I quizzed myself after having installed this pump myself. The manual pumps, despite being serviced only recently with new diaphragms and hoses, were not pumping. (I later discovered a hornet’s nest inside the outlet hose as the cause).

Our immediate problem was that the submersible bilge pump was a long reach in the dark and so, as the saying goes, “There is no better bilge pump than a frightened man with a bucket”, we bailed and bailed pushing seemingly endless buckets of water out through the hatch and back to where it belonged. (I.e. anywhere but inside my boat).

Within an hour (seemingly an eternity) we were able to get the water level down so I could reach the bilge pump.

I was able to discover that the pump was in fact, working just fine. However it was unable to push any water out due to the build up the excesses of a certain hairy dog. (A very lucky dog, I might add, because if she had accompanied us on this trip, she would not have been a popular pooch). I returned the pump to its rightful place and it worked flawlessly for the remainder of the trip.

Watching from the cockpit, I could see a little green reflection of the active light each time the bilge pump turned on. This happened every 45 minutes to an hour and was comforting to see it still work flawlessly. It had performed admirably over the course of the trip but as we entered our new home port, I just happened to check below. The pump had died as we had ended the journey and I couldn’t get it working again. The motor had burnt out I think. I will never again leave port without at least one redundant electric and manual bilge pump. You never know when you will need them.

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