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What to do When the Deck is Awash

Close Calls And Lessons Learned

The urgently shouted words "start bailing!" are a sure attention-getter on a boat. And if you happen to be on a little boat in a big ocean, perched on the motor well as you untangle inch-thick braided nylon line from around a propeller, these words do more than merely get your attention — they'll also trigger a healthy shot of adrenaline. I can remember hearing them with startling clarity, probably because it marked the moment that I realized I was in serious danger, along with the other four people who'd come along on this ill-fated offshore fishing trip. The following hour would prove to be the closest I've ever come to having a boat sink out from under me, and the chain of events provides some excellent lessons on what to do — and what not to do — if you're ever in a similar situation.

Photo: United States Coast Guard

The initial trigger of our near-sinking was an unlikely candidate: a 10-pound fish. We had run to Poor Man's Canyon, about 50 nautical miles from the Ocean City, Maryland inlet, to catch mahi-mahi near the fish-trap buoys they congregate around. The captain spotted the mahi in question, finning at the surface on the far side of a buoy. He tried to pull within casting distance, and got a little too close to the line attaching the buoy to a huge steel cage some 600 feet below. The port outboard's propeller grabbed the line, spun it around the lower unit, and suddenly we were anchored by the stern in a three foot sea. In such a position, the laws of physics dictate that your boat will no longer rise and fall with the waves, the bow will no longer be facing the waves, and you will no longer have the control you need to remedy the situation.

LESSON #1: Any item that can ensnare your propellers and/or running gear is more than a mere inconvenience, it's a serious hazard. Treat them with respect, and wariness — and give them a wide berth.

Though our boat had a full transom (as opposed to the more easily swamped cutout transoms), it had a motor well with a mere eight inches of clearance over the waterline. The well immediately filled with water, which weighed down the stern and reduced the transom's height above the water significantly. I scrambled out onto the well to untangle the line as the captain shut down and tilted up the snarled outdrive. My move, though necessary, shifted even more weight aft.

LESSON #2: When you're tethered by the stern, transfer as much weight as far forward as possible to shift the boat's center of buoyancy aft. In retrospect, as I climbed onto the motor well, I should have instructed several of the other people onboard to move to the bow.

I was leaning off the back of the boat, spinning the prop backwards while pulling on the buoy-end of the line, when I heard that "start bailing" yell. I jerked my head up, looked into the cockpit, and saw kneedeep water sloshing from gunwale to gunwale. With a silent apology to the owner of the fishing gear, I grabbed a bait knife and furiously sawed at the line. Waves that had been soaking my pants moments ago began slapping me in the waist, and then the shoulders, until the line parted and I scrambled back over the transom.

As quickly as possible, the captain put the boat into forward and goosed the throttles to shift the flooding aft, as he turned the bow back into the seas. This should have been the end of it; the cockpit should have de-watered via the scuppers, and the bilge pumps should have pumped the bilge dry. But as all good mariners know, Murphy must have been a boater — and his Law was about to be enforced without mercy.

Ten minutes later, our sighs of relief became fewer and farther between as we noticed that, despite the cockpit's dryness, the motor well remained flooded. The boat continued to ride far lower than normal, and responded sluggishly to the seas. Though the indicator light at the dash showed the bilge pumps were turned on, when I looked over the sides of the boat, there were no streams of water coming out. The obvious solution was to bail the bilges manually. Unfortunately, the only bilge access was via a pair of pry-out pie plates, located in the mostly submerged motor well.

I grabbed a bucket, walked back to the transom, and my eyes were greeted by a pair of perfectly round eight-inch holes where the pie plates used to be. Even if the bilge pumps had been working, water would have simply reentered through the holes. Even manually bailing seemed impossible since the only bilge access was underwater.

Though we didn't know it at the time, with a later inspection of the bilge on dry land, we were able to piece together what had happened: The bilge pump hoses didn't have anti-siphon loops, which prevent water from back-flowing through the outlet. Antisiphon loops are an ABYC requirement, but since this boat had been bought secondhand, we didn't know if it was originally manufactured without them or if the pump hoses had been replaced by a former owner, who was unaware of the anti-siphon loop's importance. As a result, when the boat's waterline was lowered by tension on the buoy line and water in the cockpit, the bilges quickly flooded. Air pressure created by water sloshing in the bilge then blew the pie-plate covers off, leaving the openings exposed.

LESSON #3: If you haven't done so already, inspect your boat immediately and make sure there are anti-siphon loops in the bilge pump hoses. The fact that they're a requirement doesn't necessarily mean you have them. Also make sure you don't have pryout plates capping an otherwise enclosed bilge (or any compartment subject to building air pressure); if you do, replace them with screw-on plates.

The bilge's only access port is too small for a bucket, and is located in the motor well - not good, when you need to bail in an emergency.

After we plugged the holes in the motor well with pie plates from a pair of forward access ports, the captain told me that the bilge pumps had been "finicky" on his last few trips, as he fiddled with the bilge pump switch. Sure enough, after some vigorous jiggling, they started pumping. But after two or three minutes, they both failed again. Working on the pumps a week later, he determined that the switch had gone bad.

LESSON #4: If you have multiple bilge pumps — and you should — they need to be wired to independent switches. And it goes without saying that this boat owner had made a major blunder by running offshore when he knew there was a problem with the pumps.

Before we could think of a way to dewater the bilge without pumps or bucket access, one of the engines began to sputter. I looked at the captain, his face now turning as white as his boat's gel-coated hull, and reminded him that a power loss combined with our inability to dewater the bilge could have catastrophic results. It was time to make a pan-pan call (indicating a state of urgency and potential danger) over the VHF.

This far offshore I didn't think we'd be able to reach the Coast Guard, but there was a boat within sight (we had been making our way toward it since the "adventure" began, in case we needed help) and hopefully, he'd be monitoring Channel 16. Much to my surprise, however, when we issued our call, the voice that responded was from USCG station Ocean City.

LESSON #5: Although common boat-towboat VHF communications are limited by line of sight to about 20 to 25 miles, clear communications are possible with Coast Guard stations from a much farther distance, thanks to their tall base-station antenna. Never hesitate to call for help simply because you think you're out of range — you might be surprised at who answers.

The story has a happy ending: We headed toward shore at about eight knots with the troubled engine intermittently dropping a cylinder, as a 45-foot Coast Guard rescue boat ran out to meet us. Once on-site they shadowed us the rest of the way home, right up to the boat ramp. After pulling the boat and removing the garboard plugs, we stood in the parking lot for 20 minutes as the bilges drained. Still in wet clothing and growing impatient, I climbed up onto the motor well and looked into the access ports, only to discover that the bilges were still nearly half-full. I glanced down at my friends, and in a calm and adrenaline-free voice, said the words, "I'm bailing."