What to do if your boat starts sinking?

Posted on Tuesday 30 November 2010

On a recent sailing forum post, the OP asked what to do if your boat starts to sink? That’s a very good question.

Initial steps to take include:

  1. Getting everyone awake and into PFDs or survival suits
  2. Getting the engine started, especially if it is a diesel, since diesels will run even if the electrical system fails.  This will help the electric bilge pumps work at their maximum output and give you greater duration on the electric bilge pumps as long as the alternator and batteries are not submersed.
  3. Get the electric bilge pumps started, if they aren’t already going.
  4. Have someone man the manual bilge pumps.
  5. Stop the boat unless you’re fairly close to a shallow area where ground the boat might be possible. Stopping the boat and heeling it to elevate the damaged area will reduce the water ingress and make patching or sealing the damage slightly easier.
  6. Try and identify the source of the water ingress and work out a plan to reduce the flow and seal the damaged area off.
  7. Make a Pan-Pan call to notify the authorities and nearby boaters of your situation.

What next?

Well, much of this depends on where you are? If you are reasonably close to shore, putting the boat aground is possibly your best option. Finding and trying to stop the source of water is always the first step, but if you are close to an area with a clear sand or mud bottom that is shallow enough, preferably without strong surf, grounding the boat is an excellent solution to saving it from sinking. Even at low tide, doing so is a good idea, because it gives you time to find and slow the leak, which you might not have otherwise. Also, as the tide rises, there’s no reason you can’t keep kedging the boat further aground.

Doing so on rockier or debris strewn bottom will still give you more options, but may also result in more damage to the hull, so is not as useful an approach. Similar problems exist with doing so in areas with heavy surf.

One issue to watch for is that the boat lies down correctly when the tide starts to drop. If the boat lies careened over too far, you stand a good chance of having the boat downflood before it starts to float when the tide returns. The mast needs to be pointed upwards and preferably towards the shallower waters. You can often help the boat do this by laying out kedge anchors and using them to tip the boat in the right direction as the tide recedes. Of course some boats take to grounding far better than others—if you have twin keels or a wing keel or are in a multihull, this may not be necessary.

If you do so at near high tide, and there is any significant tidal range, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to work on the hull from the outside and get a temporary patch over the damaged area. Carrying epoxy putty that cures underwater, like MarineTex, helps in making emergency repairs.

If you are not near shore, then your options are more limited. The first thing to do is to try and find the source of the water ingress. In some cases, it may be something as simple as a burst or slipped hose. If that is the case, the solution is often as simple as closing the seacock involved. This is one reason it is key for everyone aboard to know where all the through-hulls are located.

You should also have softwood tapered plugs, with a hole drilled through the thickest part and short piece of line attached, at each through-hull that is sized to seal it. However, the plugs should be stored in a plastic bag, since they need to remain dry until needed.

If the water ingress is due to damage to the boat, trying to find the source may be an issue on many newer boats which are built using an interior pan liner, which often limits the ability to get access to many parts of the hull. On older boats, interior access is often much better.

If you have access to the damaged area from the interior, jamming a closed-cell foam cushion or piece of thin plywood, wood or plastic over the opening and wedging it in place can often slow the leak considerably.

If you don’t have access to the leak from the interior, but have a good idea of where the damage occurred, one thing you can try, is to cover the damaged area from the outside to slow or seal the leak. Using a collision mat, piece of sailcloth, a tarp or a sailbag and tying it around the hull to cover the damaged area can often slow the water flow and extend the time you have to work on solving the problem.

If you can seal it from both sides, you may slow it to the point where your bilge pumps can keep up with it and allow you to more thorough repairs.

If you do manage to make basic repairs, you should pump out as much of the water as possible, and head for the nearest safe landfall where permanent repairs can be made.  You should also keep the authorities notified of your progress and on-going status. Reinforcing the basic repairs as much as possible is also a good idea, as you may encounter rough weather before you make port safely.

Emergency Repair Supplies for a holing or hull damage

  1. Fiberglass cloth
  2. Epoxy, preferably both regular epoxy and a putty type that cures underwater
  3. Some pieces of plywood, preferably fairly thin, flexible marine ply, say 3 mm or so.
  4. A collision mat or other piece of heavy, waterproof fabric with attachment points that can be tied over an opening in the hull to slow water ingress.
  5. Soft, closed-cell foam in various sizes, shapes. Type IV throwable cushions usually are made up of layers of this. “Nerf” type balls also work fairly well, and there is one case of a boat saved by a Sponge Bob Nerf Football.
  6. Long screws that can be used to hold temporary repairs in place.
  7. Some spare hose and hose clamps for engine cooling, bilge pump and other raw water systems.

I’d point out that much of this is stuff you should have aboard the boat on a longer cruise in any case. Certainly, the fiberglass cloth, epoxy, some plywood, screws, hoses and hose clamps, as these are pretty much standard for maintenance and repair regardless. The collision mat is a probably the only bit that you wouldn’t normally carry, but sail bags and such would be aboard typically.

What should a ditch bag include?

The ditch bag should be a large, brightly-colored, preferably floating, bag that has essential equipment and supplies in it. Some of the things that should be in your ditch bag are:

  1. Important Documents—boat registration/title, passports, visas, credit cards and some cash
  2. A handheld VHF with batteries, preferably lithium AA batteries due to the long shelf-life and duration in use.
  3. A signal mirror, whistle, flares—preferably SOLAS-grade, smoke canisters and possibly a laser flare, again AA-powered
  4. Some water, an emergency solar still or hand-powered watermaker would be good additions too.
  5. Some emergency food supplies—power bars, emergency rations, etc.
  6. A mylar space/rescue blanket—very compact and works well to help keep you warm
  7. A small supply of any necessary prescription medications
  8. A good First Aid Kit
  9. An EPIRB, preferably with integrated GPS—make sure your EPIRB is properly registered to your boat.
  10. A handheld GPS, preferably AA-powered
  11. Spare batteries in waterproof container
  12. Emergency fishing gear, like a handheld reel with some jigs. Jigs are very versatile and effective lures that require relatively little skill and technique to use successfully.
  13. Some tools and repair supplies—a pocket multi-tool and liferaft/dinghy repair kit at a minimum.
  14. Chocolate—even the worst situation is better with chocolate…M&Ms in a waterproof container are a good choice.

Remember, that you should only use a liferaft or dinghy as a last resort. Staying with your boat is far safer, and makes it far easier for SAR personnel to find you. You should generally only step up in to the dinghy or liftraft, when it is clear that the boat can not be saved and will sink. There have been many cases where people abandoned a boat and were lost, only to find the boat floating many months later, hundreds of miles away from where it was abandoned.

If you need to abandon ship, try and take some spare clothes, preferably synthetics or wool that will keep you warm when wet.  Even in the tropics, having clothing along is helpful, as it can help reduce problems with sunburn and exposure. If you have a choice between foam Type I and inflatable Type V PFDs, go with the foam Type I PFDs, as they are more durable and provide more insulation against heat loss. Don’t forget to issue a Mayday call using the boat’s main VHF or SSB radio if possible.

Make sure you tie the EPIRB to something, preferably yourself or the liferaft.  Being separated from the EPIRB will make your chances of rescue much lower. Conserve your water, food and energy as much as possible. Same for the batteries and flares.  The signal mirror is a good device, since it is reusable and doesn’t require batteries.

I would point out that taking a minute to stop and think about how to respond in an emergency situation is often a good idea.  Many times, responding without taking a minute to think about what is going on leads to people taking actions that ultimately are a mistake, and taking a moment to think can often result in a far better plan of action that is more likely to be successful.


3 Comments for 'What to do if your boat starts sinking?'

  1.  
    November 30, 2010 | 1:16 pm
     

    […] I wrote a slightly longer version of my previous post on my blog… __________________ Sailingdog Telstar 28 New England You know what the first rule of […]

  2.  
    December 1, 2010 | 12:06 am
     

    Some have recommended turning your engine into another bilge pump by pulling the engine intake cooling line off its through-hull fitting, closing the through-hull valve, and letting the engine raw water pump thus draw water from the bilge. It’s probably the highest capacity pump you have aboard.

  3.  
    December 7, 2010 | 2:09 am
     

    I’m not a big fan of doing that. The engine cooling pump doesn’t draw all that much water volume—at 2000 RPM, it only pumps about EIGHT GPM, and you could easily kill the engine if bilge debris gets into the cooling system and damages or clogs it. It would make far more sense to have a 12 VDC or engine-driven high-capacity bilge pump on a board that you could drop into the bilge to provide additional dewatering capacity if needed.

    Having the engine running as reliably as possible is far more important most of the time than gaining the little capacity it would provide.

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