The Boat is Leaking

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           Probably the worst emergency at sea is a leak below the waterline. A boat can sink in just 2 or 3 minutes with a major leak. Thus, quick action is needed to assess the damage and take appropriate action. Additionally, big leaks often start out as small ones: therefore, it is essential to check the bilges daily, when at anchor, and hourly when underway. That way, a small leak will be identified early on--hopefully in time to prevent it becoming a big one.

           NOTE: This checklist was written specifically for our boat--we had too many thru-hulls (6 below the waterline)--the only weakness we can think of in an otherwise extremely safe offshore sailboat. Because of this weakness, we checked hoses, clamps and seacocks every three months. And, before a passage, we reviewed this list and assigned responsibilities. We had everyone go through the motion of performing their assigned tasks.

  1. Before a passage, lay out for easy grabbing, the headlight, 2 hammers, spare bungs, and 2 pairs of wire-cutting pliers. Also, self-sealing tape, bicycle inner tube, radiator clamps and nut driver to fit.
  2. If water is found in the bilge decide whether:
  3. Helmsman alerts all crew and turns on automatic bilge pump and starts pumping the cockpit bilge pump.
  4. If it is known which side of the boat the leak is coming from, helmsman turns the boat immediately to bring that side "up hill".
  5. If thru-hull or shaft is suspect, crew member (A) puts on headlight and grabs hammer, bungs, and wire-cutting pliers and goes into engine room. (A) pulls off the square that closes off the engine, and:
  6. (A) then climbs into lazarette (under helmsman's seat) with hammer, bungs, wire-cutting pliers, and seacock handle extension pipe and:
  7. Meanwhile, crew member (B) is in the cabin with hammer, bungs, and wire-cutting plyers and:
  8. Do not give up searching for a leak until the water level in the engine room or cabin drives you out.
  9. If the bow is stove in, close the V-berth door to make a semi-watertight compartment and gain time.
  10. If need be, use the emergency pry bar and hatchet to get at a hole in the hull area.
  11. Depending on the results of the assessment, begin damage control procedures.
  12. Damage control can include:
  13. Use 2-3 people with buckets, chain-gang like, to help the bilge pumps (if manpower permits). Apparently buckets can move water faster than bilge pumps.
  14. Keep an eye on the water level and batteries so as to be able to transmit a May Day or Pan Pan while you are still afloat and have electricity.
  15. If, and in that case as soon as, it becomes apparent that the damage control procedures are not working, immediately begin abandon ship routine


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This page was last modified on:
August 9, 2009