A water ingress is an ugly affair that every sailor would like to do without. Nevertheless, despite good prevention, it cannot always be avoided. Especially on a long voyage, it is normal sooner or later to collide with an object that is floating on or in the water. In the course of our various trips we have sailed past various Euro pallets, a dead cow in the Mediterranean and a refrigerator in Southeast Asia. We have also rammed objects. There were two tree trunks on our circumnavigation. Once off the coast of Panama and the other time off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Fortunately, both collisions only left a few scratches on the underwater hull.
A crew friend, however, was different. After a collision with an unknown object in the Mediterranean Sea, the ship sank within eight minutes. In such an extreme situation it is (for survival) important that every crew member knows what to do. A detailed safety briefing by the skipper before departure contributes to this. At least the following questions should be answered: Where are sea valves and how are they operated? Where are the leak plugs stowed? Which pumps are there and how are they operated?
Of course, that sounds very simple in theory – in practice, in such a situation, things tend not to be very calm and civil on board. So I’ve listed a few leak control tips below that may help control a leak situation.
If water enters the ship, it is important to be aware of this as soon as possible. An acoustic warning signal helps here. For example, the bilge pump’s float switch can be combined with a buzzer. This is also important because bilge pumps are sometimes very quiet and you cannot always hear them running – especially not under the machine. Alternatively, any other form of water alarm can also be used.
Such an alarm is easy to implement and costs very little. A simple option is to combine a water alarm, a buzzer and a float switch.
If water is found in the ship, the first thing to do is to find out whether it is fresh or salt water. All you need to do is put a finger in the water and test the taste. If it is fresh water, we can relax because the water then comes from inside the ship and does not pose any great danger – after all, it was on board beforehand and the amount is limited. However, if the water tastes salty, we have a problem. Depending on the inflow, it is important to find and stop the leak more or less quickly, which is not always easy. Otherwise the ship may sink.
We can still remember the water ingress on the way from Gibraltar to Morocco. However, despite a structured search, we were unable to find the leak. Since it was a calm day at sea and the amount of water flowing in was manageable, we solved the problem in an unconventional way. A snorkeling lap around the underwater hull revealed that the sumlog’s transmitter had slipped into the ship. In the heat of the moment, we had simply forgotten the cotter pin when preparing for our big trip. Small mistake – big effect. The transmitter sits in a compartment under the forward berths. It was full of water – which we didn’t notice because the walls are higher than the waterline. However, whenever the ship was tilted slightly, water ran along a hose duct into the bilge in the bathroom and from there on into the main bilge. Sometimes you just can’t think outside the box about how things are going.
By opening a seacock with a diameter of just one inch (2.54 centimeters), 1.5 liters of water per second or 90 liters of water per minute if the installation location is half a meter below the waterline. That’s a fair amount for the small hole, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess what happens with the bigger holes. Consequently, when it comes to combating leaks, it is not initially about finding the most elegant solution possible, but rather quickly minimizing the ingress of water. And once you just put a towel on the hole and put a foot on it. In this way, the torrent becomes a trickle and valuable time is gained. Then you can calmly consider where the leak plugs were actually stowed 😉
In practice, it has proven useful to place a leak plug of the appropriate size near each fuselage passage. In the case of a seacock, for example, it can be attached to the hose with a tape. It is at hand in an emergency. In addition to the classic wooden stoppers, there are also flexible leak stoppers on the market. They are intended for holes with frayed and asymmetrical edges.
The water ingress usually occurs through a hole in the hull. Be it a sea valve sheared off or the stuffing box leaking in the engine compartment. We had the problem in the Atlantic. For the last thousand nautical miles there was always water in the ship, which seemed to come through one of the through hulls. However, all sea valves were dry. And yet: Whenever we sailed on the starboard bow, the water in the bilge rose. After a long search, we found out that water was pressed into the ship via the hose outlet of the electric bilge pump when we lay on our side and the outlet got under water. As a simple emergency measure, we have sealed the outlet on the ship’s side with adhesive tape. After arriving in the Caribbean, we installed check valves in all bilge pump lines. So this childhood illness was off the table. But be careful! Check valves reduce the flow rate, so the hose diameter must be adjusted if necessary.
Goosenecks offer a better solution than check valves. However, these are not always feasible in practice. That depends on the space available and the maximum delivery head of the bilge pump.
If the water ingress is behind fixtures, localization becomes more difficult. Here it is helpful if at least one waterproof flashlight is kept ready to hand on board. Often, internals have to be removed to find such a leak. Since it’s not about beauty, but about speed, every long-haul yacht needs a crowbar – also known as a cow’s foot. To prevent the steel tool from rusting, it can be wrapped in cling film (it does not have to be removed when used). It may also be that something is needed to wedge. It can happen that the spinnaker pole or the map table cover has to be cut to size with the saw. The thought of the splintering wood of the fixtures or the half spinnaker tree or table cover is not nice, but what good is it to go down with a healthy ship. A rescue on a demolished ship makes more sense and has priority.
Creativity often helps to combat leaks. For example, in the event of a major leak – e.g. due to a collision – a sail can be pulled under the hull to close the hole. Likewise, pillows can be put in large garbage bags and wedged onto the hole from the inside. You also keep hearing from sailors who have sealed leaks with underwater epoxy – to name just a few examples.
In addition to the options for sealing leaks, suitable pumps must be available on board to get the penetrating water out of the ship. The motto “a lot helps a lot” applies here – the delivery rate of the electric bilge pump should be measured accordingly (in the above photo the pump delivers 7500 liters per hour outboard – that is 125 liters / minute or approx. 2 liters / second). During installation, however, it is essential to observe the maximum delivery head, otherwise the best pump is of no use. The battery bank should also not be installed too deep in the ship so that electricity is available in the event of water ingress.
In addition, a mobile submersible pump with a long cable can be very helpful to get a leak under control. The prerequisite for this is an inverter with the appropriate power. Important: mount the inverter in such a way that it does not get wet feet immediately in the event of water ingress and consequently fails.
Of course, a hand pump should also be on board. It should be noted that with most hand pumps, the rubber membrane of the pump becomes brittle over the years and must be replaced. Not that the pump fails in an emergency.
And then there is the classic bucket. It can also be used to transport larger quantities of water out of the ship. On most yachts, it is sufficient to empty the water through the companionway into the cockpit. It seeks its way through the self-bailers.
What is often forgotten is that there are other pumps on board besides the bucket and bilge pumps. If the measures mentioned are not sufficient to keep the amount of penetration in check, they can be misused for the purpose of combating leaks – for example pumps that pump out shower water. It is also possible to consider removing the suction hose for the engine’s cooling water from the seacock and leading it into the water that has penetrated (if necessary, cut it with the knife and close the seacock beforehand). When the engine is started, it also sucks the ship empty via the cooling water pump. Theoretically, the same goes for the drinking water pump of a pressurized water system. To do this, the hose is removed from the drinking water tank, the tank is secured against emptying (leak plug) and the water tap is turned on. The water is also led out of the ship through the wash basin or sink.
As I said: creativity often helps to combat leaks!