Trou­bleshoot­ing Un­der Stress

In Gale Con­di­tions off the Treach­er­ous Grand Banks, Dirona Takes on Wa­ter.

Passage Maker - - Contents - James & Jen­nifer Hamil­ton


I bolted awake at 1:15 am to a shriek­ing alarm. We were 50 miles south of The Grand Banks, in large seas, on pas­sage from New­port, Rhode Is­land, to Kin­sale, Ire­land. I ran up­stairs to the pilothouse and Jen­nifer, at the helm, said only, “High bilge wa­ter.” Yuck. Bet­ter than “fire” but far from good news. I ran back down­stairs and into the engine room and, yes, con­di­tions there cer­tainly did war­rant an alarm. I hadn’t even stopped to get dressed, but in the short time be­tween the alarm’s fir­ing and my ar­riv­ing in the engine room, the wa­ter had come up above the bilge. The port­side pan that forms the walk­way around the engine was al­ready awash.

We have never en­joyed cross­ing oceans, but we nei­ther de­spise them nor find them scary. We mostly do it “to get to the other side,” re­gard it as a ne­ces­sity for see­ing the world, but never for the en­joy­ment of be­ing at sea. Cross­ing oceans is just work and rough con­di­tions can be tir­ing but usu­ally noth­ing more. This was the first time we’d felt se­ri­ous doubts—even a touch of fear—and con­sid­ered turn­ing back.

The vol­ume of wa­ter en­ter­ing the boat was sim­ply stag­ger­ing. It’s amaz­ing how alone you can feel when look­ing at the engine room floor awash and the wa­ter level climb­ing fast, while hun­dreds of miles from shore in dif­fi­cult sea con­di­tions.


We ex­pected winds in the 20-knot range, but in­stead were see­ing steady 30-35 knots with gusts to 47. This low-pres­sure sys­tem was worse than pre­dicted and the sea state was un­usu­ally poor. The boat was fly­ing around as large and very short-pe­riod waves rolled past. Dirona was rolling 20-plus de­grees and some­times over 25 de­grees, even with ac­tive sta­bi­liza­tion. Pitch was rang­ing be­tween 12 and 15 de­grees and pitch is, by far, the worst of the two.


Still not dressed, I searched the engine room for the wa­ter source, but couldn’t find any fit­ting or through-hull leak. I con­tin­ued aft and found wa­ter pumping down the 2” Glendin­ning shore­power cord re­trac­tor pipe at the rear star­board cor­ner of the lazarette. As I watched, I could ac­tu­ally see what ap­peared to be waves, where the flow was steady, but every few sec­onds, a mas­sive amount gushed in with wave ac­tion or per­haps the boat’s mo­tion. Three or four gal­lons per minute may not sound like much, but it cer­tainly catches your at­ten­tion when you’re in an engine room with ris­ing bilge wa­ter.

We turned the boat 180 de­grees in an ef­fort to re­duce the waves board­ing the cock­pit. It didn’t seem to help much but we left it that way for about 30 min­utes. I threw on some clothes and a life jacket, and, with Jen­nifer keep­ing an eye on me from the saloon, care­fully worked my way to the star­board cock­pit locker aft to find the leak. It was dark, cold, and when stand­ing out­side at wa­ter­line level, the waves tow­ered above the pilothouse. I was stand­ing in around six inches of wa­ter but, pe­ri­od­i­cally, waves rolled slowly over the tran­som soak­ing me and fill­ing the cock­pit with more than 12 inches of wa­ter. A fuel blad­der, strapped down on the the cock­pit sole, kept me from open­ing the locker door more than three or four inches, but that was enough to see that the wa­ter level was at least six inches in­side the locker and roughly equal to the wa­ter height in the cock­pit where I was stand­ing.

The likely op­tions for wa­ter get­ting into the stor­age locker were: 1) Glendin­ning power cord en­try, 2) the right side grab rails, 3) the swim step at­tach­ment, 4) the locker drain hole, 5) the locker door, or 6) the lou­vers in the door. Hang­ing on as se­curely as I could man­age, I looked out over the tran­som to the swim step, us­ing a head lamp and a bright flash­light. It looked solid. I checked the ex­ter­nal cover of the power cord, and it also was screwed on se­curely. Ev­ery­thing out­side the cock­pit looked great.

Seven scup­pers dump wa­ter out of the cock­pit and walk­way, but waves were rolling over the tran­som every few min­utes. Each brought in hun­dreds of gal­lons of wa­ter and soaked me while I worked at the tran­som. The deck drains also be­came gey­sers when waves hit the side of the boat, so, rather than serv­ing as drains, they were act­ing as fillers. The scup­pers are de­signed to let wa­ter out ef­fi­ciently and to slam shut when the wa­ter is higher on the other side. They do this rea­son­ably well, but wa­ter still sprays in and the cock­pit sole al­ways has lots of wa­ter when we are in rough seas. As long as the wa­ter doesn’t find a way into the boat, hav­ing a layer of wa­ter in the cock­pit is not a con­cern. Rarely, I’ve seen the cock­pit filled to the top, and the fuller it is, the faster it drains. From my per­spec­tive, the de­sign is per­fectly safe. On the other hand, the drains in the cock­pit lock­ers open into the cock­pit. Like all drains in rough seas, they al­low wa­ter in and, if the wa­ter gets be­low the height of the drain, can also let wa­ter out. This de­sign just about guar­an­tees that the cabi­net will be full of wa­ter when op­er­at­ing in rough con­di­tions.

The cock­pit lights were on; I was wear­ing a head­lamp, and I had a flash­light, giv­ing me am­ple light, but night made the en­tire sit­u­a­tion more dif­fi­cult. Every tenth wave sprayed over the tran­som, and I was soaked in cold sea wa­ter. In­side the locker, I could see wa­ter flow­ing down the stand­pipe that feeds the shore­power cord be­low. What pre­vents wa­ter ingress on this path is a one-inch­high col­lar around the hole. Un­til the wa­ter gets above the col­lar, noth­ing goes into the lazarette. The prob­lem was the wa­ter line in the locker was fre­quently above the height of the col­lar, so it was pour­ing into the boat. In fact, in these con­di­tions, wa­ter is al­most al­ways above the col­lar, and it’s eye-open­ing how much wa­ter can

flow down the pipe. The weather strip on the locker door looks fine, but two de­sign points ef­fec­tively al­low free flow of wa­ter from the cock­pit to the locker and then into the lazarette be­low: 1) a one-inch un­ob­structed drain hole in the bot­tom of the locker that al­lows wa­ter to flow out but, in rough wa­ter, it also al­lows wa­ter to flow in, and quickly; 2) the door has an open grill for ven­ti­la­tion. I love locker ven­ti­la­tion but I’m even a big­ger be­liever in keep­ing wa­ter out of the boat.

We put a rub­ber plug in the locker drain, greatly slow­ing the in­flow, but it still was run­ning ahead of the main bilge pump. Every five to seven min­utes, we needed to get the emer­gency hy­draulic pump back on, but this pump is so fast that it evac­u­ates the bilge in less than 15 sec­onds. This pump will lose prime if the wa­ter is com­pletely evac­u­ated, and it will fail quickly if it runs dry, so I have to be down be­low, en­sur­ing it has prime while Jen­nifer is in the pilothouse turn­ing the pump on and off.


It was just past 3 am, and we had been at this for two hours. In­ves­ti­gat­ing the leak was tak­ing longer than it should, partly be­cause of the rough seas, and work­ing at night is al­ways harder. I was tired and also sea­sick. Jen­nifer ap­plied a scopo­lamine patch, and we con­tin­ued to as­sess and man­age the prob­lem.

Work­ing in the lazarette, I jammed foam in­su­la­tion into the power-cord en­trance hole, but the pres­sure from the sev­eral inches of wa­ter above ren­dered my foam stop­pers use­less. I then used a screw­driver to force rags into the hole to fill small gaps, and this be­gan to show some promise. Fi­nally, I wrapped a towel around the en­tire as­sem­bly and com­pressed it tightly, us­ing rope and a cou­ple of heavy-duty wire ties. This marine ver­sion of a tourni­quet sub­stan­tially re­duced the flow. Nearly four hours had passed since the alarm sounded, and hav­ing to op­er­ate the emer­gency bilge pump was dis­tract­ing and nerve-wrack­ing. The rate of wa­ter ingress was now only what could soak through the tow­els—fairly min­i­mal and re­quired run­ning the emer­gency bilge pump only every 15 min­utes or so. But some­thing must also be wrong with the main bilge pump, be­cause it should eas­ily be able to han­dle that level of flow.


At this point things were closer to un­der con­trol so I took a short break to think things through. The wa­ter wasn’t flow­ing in fast at all and yet the main pump couldn’t catch up. Of course! The main bilge pump strainer must be plugged. Mas­sive in­flows can free up de­bris and plug the strain­ers, so I cleaned the strainer and restarted the pump. It started prop­erly and quickly filled the strainer, so it was clearly work­ing, but we were still falling be­hind and needed to stop a few times every hour to run the emer­gency bilge pump. Some­thing was still wrong.

I tested the bilge pump with the bilge-wa­ter strainer re­moved, but that made no dif­fer­ence. The main bilge pump was still falling be­hind even with the re­duced wa­ter in­flow rate. I took an­other break and Jen­nifer and I talked it over. Some­thing must be re­strict­ing the out­put of the main bilge pump. We knew the strainer was clear and we could see the pump draw­ing wa­ter so, for sure, it was work­ing. The pump may not have been able to keep up with the orig­i­nal flow, but at this point the rate of ingress wasn’t that large and just about any cheap pump should be able to han­dle what we had com­ing in. We de­cided to change the pump.

Chang­ing the pump in­volved mov­ing six, five-gal­lon pails of oil, our waste oil con­tainer, and as­sorted other con­tain­ers and spares. In these con­di­tions, oil con­tain­ers are like small 35-pound mis­siles, so they needed to be se­cure. Mov­ing them di­rectly be­hind the engine solved the prob­lem.

I shut down the main bilge pump to make the change, and with it no longer pumping, we needed to stop even more fre­quently to run the emer­gency bilge pump. Even though I know the emer­gency bilge pump hardly needs to run at all, it just feels wrong to have the main bilge pump apart while tak­ing on wa­ter. So I was work­ing as fast as I could.


On this pump, it’s faster to change the valves than change the pump, so I re­moved the four bolts that ex­pose the bel­lows and valves. With the pump apart, I could see that the out­let check valve had cor­roded and that the rivet hold­ing the valve in place had failed. Likely this hap­pened about five min­utes prior to the high-wa­ter alarm go­ing off, since it was pre­vi­ously cy­cling fre­quently but keep­ing up with the in­flow.

Prior to this in­ci­dent, I felt the Jab­sco model #34600-0010 was a good pri­mary bilge pump, but have since con­cluded that it suf­fers suf­fi­cient qual­ity and vol­ume prob­lems that it should not be counted on for more than rou­tine bilge de­wa­ter­ing. Be­sides riv­ets that cor­rode, an­other weak­ness is that the bake­lite pump base can crack if over-tight­ened or if tight­ened un­evenly. The sec­ond is easy to avoid but the first can fail at any time. Test­ing the pump is good prac­tice, but even af­ter dili­gent test­ing, there is still no as­sur­ance it’ll be there when you need it: It could fail five min­utes af­ter the last suc­cess­ful test. To be on the safe side, the valves need to be re­placed at least every year or two.

We have a high-wa­ter bilge pump back­ing up the pri­mary unit, but the high-wa­ter pump doesn’t even turn on un­til the main bilge is nearly 3 feet deep. It’s just tough to look at that much wa­ter in the bilge and feel like things are un­der con­trol. It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble, in fact likely, that the high-wa­ter pump could have con­trolled the flow at the worst and, for sure, it could con­trol the flow af­ter we had re­duced the rate of wa­ter ingress. The high-wa­ter pump needs to pick up lower in the bilge to be ef­fec­tive in these sit­u­a­tions.

I re­assem­bled the main pump and started it up. Man, it was nice to hear the pump start and then take on load as it pulled in wa­ter. The weird thing is it still didn’t solve the prob­lem. In

fact, it ac­tu­ally seemed that it might be mak­ing the prob­lem worse. Un­be­liev­able. I had put the valves in back­ward. This is an in­ex­pli­ca­ble rookie mis­take, but by then it had been more than five hours of work­ing on the prob­lem, and I had only had two hours of sleep in the past 36. Per­haps I should have just changed the pump.

We fired up the emer­gency pump to clear the bilge yet again, and I went back to putting the valves into the main pump cor­rectly. I was an­noyed with my­self be­cause this is a sim­ple job and it’s weird that I made that kind of mis­take. It’s a five-minute job and the pump was now close to back to­gether the sec­ond time. I was mov­ing along quickly since I re­ally hate not hav­ing that pump op­er­at­ing while we are tak­ing on wa­ter. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s when I dropped one of the four pump bolts. Re­ally? Even more an­noy­ing, the boat’s mo­tion rolled it to an im­pos­si­ble-to-reach lo­ca­tion.

We wasted a ton of time try­ing to re­trieve the bolt, but there was sim­ply no way. We then wasted more time search­ing

through our bolts for one that would fit. I re­ally didn’t want to run the pump with only three bolts since un­even load on the frag­ile bake­lite case will al­most cer­tainly crack it. We re­luc­tantly de­cided to dig out the spare pump. In ret­ro­spect, we should have just gone straight there, but it’s in an area that is the most dif­fi­cult to ac­cess on Dirona. Mak­ing it con­sid­er­ably more dif­fi­cult to reach, we were still swing­ing side-to-side 20 de­grees and pitch­ing 15 de­grees. Clearly not an ideal stor­age lo­ca­tion for the backup bilge pump, although I even­tu­ally con­cluded that the backup bilge pump should be in­stalled on the boat rather than in­stalled in a easyto-ac­cess lo­ca­tion.

We got the bolt from the spare pump, I in­stalled it, and put the pump back on line. Sec­onds later, it was hum­ming away and caught up with the leak in about five min­utes. I never would have thought that see­ing the bilge pump light go­ing off would be a rea­son to cel­e­brate but, wow, it sure was nice to see. Af­ter seven hours, we fi­nally felt out of dan­ger.

The emer­gency hy­draulic pump was eas­ily able to han­dle the flow and could have eas­ily han­dled as much as ten times more. We also have an ad­di­tional high-vol­ume gas-driven backup pump that we never needed. Since we came nowhere near to us­ing our full pumping ca­pac­ity, it re­ally shouldn’t have been that big a deal. The past seven hours had been far from re­lax­ing.


Rough wa­ter is nor­mally not a prob­lem. We ac­tu­ally don’t see much of it and, when we do, we are dou­bly care­ful not to slip and fall. Oth­er­wise, it’s not re­ally an is­sue. Deal­ing with a se­ri­ous wa­ter leak trans­forms what should only have been a bit of rough wa­ter to a much more dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. At sea, it’s sur­pris­ingly easy to get ner­vous, stop think­ing as clearly, and I found it was too easy to make small mis­takes that cost us pre­cious time.

In think­ing through why this wa­ter ingress prob­lem was so bad, part of the prob­lem is the fuel blad­der has a slight di­ag­o­nal twist to it on the cock­pit floor. The two cor­ners close off a small area in the cor­ner of the star­board cock­pit locker. This dams a small amount of wa­ter in the af­ter cor­ner of the boat. A deck drain and a scup­per there nor­mally al­lows wa­ter to run out from that area, but, when­ever we get hit with big waves, wa­ter gey­sers up from that deck drain and runs the wa­ter level up at the locker door. When waves roll over the tran­som, al­most the en­tire vol­ume falls into this area with only a sin­gle scup­per and deck drain. It’s not much wa­ter, but it’s a small area, so there are al­most al­ways 12 to 18 inches of wa­ter present in such con­di­tions. I sus­pect that with blad­ders or with­out, these con­di­tions would def­i­nitely be bring­ing wa­ter into boat, but the blad­der place­ment ex­ac­er­bated it.

When wa­ter in­side the cabi­net gets higher than the outer Glendin­ning pipe, it will flow un­ob­structed into the boat be­low. It’s not usu­ally much wa­ter, does no dam­age, and the main bilge pump quickly re­moves it. But I still hate that the de­sign brings on wa­ter and, since it’s not un­com­mon to have con­sid­er­able wa­ter in the cock­pit, it will leak at this lo­ca­tion in storm con­di­tions. The fuel blad­ders take up half the vol­ume of the cock­pit, so it takes less wa­ter to get a given depth. The boat is also a cou­ple of inches lower in the wa­ter at the stern when car­ry­ing fuel on deck. When the fuel blad­ders are on deck, a nui­sance leak be­comes a much larger prob­lem un­der cer­tain wave con­di­tions and boat di­rec­tions.

We have con­sid­er­able backup bilge pump ca­pac­ity in­stalled on Dirona, in­clud­ing a high-vol­ume hy­draulic pump and a high­vol­ume Honda emer­gency de­wa­ter­ing pump, but gen­er­ally I don’t like any wa­ter in­side the boat and never want the main pump on more than once dur­ing a shift. Nor­mally the main bilge pump only turns on briefly in rough seas, and it of­ten goes many months with­out cy­cling at all.

The changes we will put in place as a con­se­quence of this ex­pe­ri­ence are:

1) In­stall a one-way valve in the cock­pit locker drain to al­low wa­ter out, but pre­vent un­re­stricted flow in.

2) Put a par­al­lel emer­gency hy­draulic bilge pump switch at the bilge pump to al­low sin­gle-per­son op­er­a­tion from the engine room. We will also leave the pi­lot house switch in place for op­er­a­tion from the helm.

3) In­stall a sec­ond au­to­matic bilge pump just above the pri­mary bilge pump to fully back it up and en­sure that pump faults don’t al­low high bilge wa­ter. We could move down the Rule 3700 that is mounted about three feet above the bilge bot­tom but, in­stead, we’ll leave that pump in place and in­stall a Rule 4000 just above the pri­mary pump.

4) Warn­ings on ex­ces­sive bilge pump cy­cling. We have bilge pump cy­cle coun­ters, but we will now in­stall warn­ing lights to draw im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion to ex­ces­sive cy­cling.

Septem­ber 2017 pas­ 65

Above: The cock­pit locker fre­quently con­tained sev­eral inches of wa­ter, and sea­wa­ter was pour­ing into the lazarette through the shore­power cord stand­pipe. Op­po­site: This marine ver­sion of a tourni­quet on the power cord en­try sub­stan­tially re­duced the rate of wa­ter in­flow.

Above: This was the first ocean cross­ing where we’d felt se­ri­ous doubts— even a touch of fear— and ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered turn­ing back. Be­low: The riv­ets hold­ing the valves in place on the Jab­sco model #34600-0010 pump can cor­rode and fail at any time. The pump should not not be counted on for more than rou­tine bilge de­wa­ter­ing.

Left: We ex­pected winds in the 20-knot range, but in­stead were see­ing steady 30-35 knots with gusts to 47. Be­low: The fuel blad­der place­ment likely ex­ac­er­bated the wa­ter ingress through the cock­pit locker.

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