The closest I ever came to getting arrested was the time the Coast Guard guy came aboard for a “law enforcement check” and said he wanted to see my dewatering device. “Hell no” wasn’t the answer he was expecting.
There followed a rather serious discussion during which we both realized that what we had was a failure to communicate. The situation was defused when the Coast Guard guy realized what I thought he had been talking about. He was very happy with my refusal. But that left the initial issue standing.
“Of course I have a dewatering device,” I told him. “Which one would you like to see?” After a long and dubious pause, he said, “Just show me a bucket. You’ve got one of those, don’t you? Or a scoop or, hell, how about a shoe?”
I wasn’t surprised to learn that there actually is a government regulation that includes language as ambiguous as “dewatering device.” Your dewatering device could perhaps be any of the items mentioned above or, I suppose, a lot of other things that can be used to get water out of a boat. Through the years, I’ve probably used most all of them.
I consider myself pretty skilled at using dewatering devices because I’ve n ever had a boat sink while I was in it — yet. But I have dewatered some boats that were already sunk. They say that when it comes to bailing, nothing works better than a scared boater with a bucket and sharks in the water. When I started boating, my truism was that there was no faster bailer than a kid who wanted to begin his summer on the water.
Bailing the river
My first boats were pine cross-planked, flat-bottom skiffs. This meant that each spring, no matter how much I had painted and caulked my boat, it was going to sink before it swelled up tight enough to float. I tried to shortcut the process by pounding a whole lot of extra caulking into the cracks. But I found out the hard way that the planks would swell anyway and either push the caulking out or buckle the wood. So each spring I’d lovingly get her beautiful with new paint, stuff in the right amount of caulking and roll her down the beach on logs to let ’er splash.
As she settled in the water, I’d swim her off the beach — far enough out so I could anchor her in water deep enough that she wouldn’t touch the sandy bottom as she settled. I knew she wouldn’t sink all the way because wood floats — a fact of life that gave great joy. But I didn’t want the bottom scraping the sand and mud at low tide because the stuff would get into the cracks and not only get inside the boat, but also keep the cracks from sealing tightly. It usually took at least several days of going down to the beach and watching my beautiful boat bob under the waves, only her gunwales showing, until I figured she was tight enough to start carrying me on my summer adventures. Then I’d wade out to her with a bucket.
I’d pick a calm day, plant my feet firmly in the sand and mud, reach over her side with my bucket and start scooping. Of course, the fact that portions of the sides were under water was a bit of a problem. This included the cutout in the transom for the outboard and the midships area, which was, by design, lower than the bow and stern. So it was like bailing the river out of the river and throwing it right back into the river, hoping to make the tide go out before suppertime. But somehow it always worked, unless a breeze came up, pushing the waves across the boat.
The rich people had gasoline pumps, but I didn’t fit into that category. And I was aware that I could pull her up on the beach at high tide, let her sit until the tide dropped and then pull the plug in the transom to get rid of the water. I tried it once. But so much sand and beach junk came in through some still-weeping cracks and over the sides from waves that I determined to continue my purist approach. It made for a cleaner boat and gave the other kids on shore some splendid entertainment. It’s not often that you get to watch somebody bail the river.
After that, bailing was easy. Before I got my first outboard I scooped the water out with a coffee can or bucket, depending on the severity of the situation. The outboard gave me a lot more than speed. Running with it enabled me to just pull the plug and drain the water. Buckets, cans and transom drain plugs were my bailing tools until, at about 18, I got my first fiberglass boat.
The joy of a self-bailer
Unlike any boat I’d ever even dreamed of, she didn’t leak. She also had a “new invention” that amazed me to no end. It may not have been new to city boys, but it sure blew me away. I thought it was the greatest invention since the Model A. When she did take on water from rain and seas, it just ran out the hole in the recessed pocket in the stern, even if the boat was sitting still. The deck was above the waterline. They called it “self-bailing.” They still do today and I still think I’ve died and gone to heaven when I see it happen in my Mako.
My next great bailing adventure came when I got a 27-foot sailboat. It was the first boat I ever owned with a bilge that I couldn’t walk in (probably a good thing). The bilge was a deep hole under the inboard. It collected water nicely, out of sight and out of mind, and when I needed to bail I got to use an actual pump. It was mounted in the cockpit sail locker to starboard and was a tube with piston, flapper valves and handle, just like in the movies. The hose disappeared down in that hole, and all I knew was that when I pulled and pushed the handle, whatever was in the hole came out, more or less.
It wasn’t as good as self-bailing, but I always liked high-tech stuff, and to me that was very high-tech. And, most important of all, you could forget about the entire issue until that deep hole filled up. I didn’t have any bilge alarms in those days, but I generally knew soon enough that the water was reaching the top of the hole because of all the creatures crawling out, seeking dry land in the saloon.
After that I graduated to even bigger boats, all of which had electric bilge pumps. The first ones were the Par/ITT/Jabsco type. You know the animal. It has an electric motor sitting up on supports, a piston arm on an offset that works a diaphragm, and it has chambers in the base with fancy flapper valves. That pump just wouldn’t quit — unless it got clogged or got debris in the valves — and you could fix it forever.
But it takes a rather large and expensive model to pump as much water as rapidly as the centrifugal pumps that most of us probably use today. These have fewer moving parts to break, but they can’t be readily repaired in the field. However, the centrifugal pumps, as effective as they are, don’t have the positive force of the diaphragm pumps, which trap the water in a chamber and force it out, utilizing its valves and diaphragm.
Today my big boat has five operating bilge pumps. Three are of the centrifugal type. They have automatic switches and supposedly do their thing without bothering me, as long as the batteries are charged. I’ve recently experienced difficulties with mine (more on that later). I also have a Whale Gusher manual pump and a gigantic Edson manual pump that will move a huge number of gallons of water an hour, assuming a well-motivated strong pumper who doesn’t have high blood pressure, clogged arteries or a coronary in the works. I have this mounted on a movable platform so I can use it in salvage work. Not only do I have those five pumps on line, I also have a spare centrifugal pump ready to go. In addition to this arsenal, I have two Rule high-water alarms that alert me visually and audibly.
And for what it’s worth, I still have buckets. Although I sometimes use them to bail my dinghy, I don’t think I’ll ever use them to bail my big boat. The bilge is so far down in this boat that it would take a bucket brigade of at least four or five people to get the water out. In all this time and with all these boats and dewatering devices, I’ve learned — usually the hard way — a few things I’d like to share.
Electronics in the bilge
The first is that it’s just as important to know that your water level is high as it is to pump it down. If the flooding becomes too high, several things happen. Theoretically, the lower your boat settles, the faster the flooding will come. Also the boat begins to lose stability, possibly rolling uncontrollably if the flooding is deep enough. As it rolls, the water inside rolls with it, exacerbating the roll, sometimes to the point of capsize.
Also, the higher the level the more likely it is that your batteries will become submerged or shorted because DC connections become submerged. When that happens, you lose your electric bilge pumps. And, obviously, the more water, the longer it’s going to take to pump it out, and stability, electrical supply, communications capabilities and engine operation could be jeopardized.
There are various high-water alarms on the market. I prefer both a visible and audible alarm. And these should be mounted where you are going to see and/or hear them. Just a red light might not attract your attention if you’re having a difficult time handling your boat in a storm or in other distracting circumstances. Of course, most bilge pumps are automatic these days, but that doesn’t relieve the need for alarms. The automatic switch or the pump may fail, or water may be coming in too fast for the pump to keep up.
Some activate their alarm by the pump’s automatic switch, if the circuitry so allows. With this method only one float switch is needed. But some automatic pumps with internal automatic switches have a wiring configuration that prevents you from hooking in an alarm to the pump’s switch. There are no external wires energized by the switch to which you can wire your alarm. With pumps such as these, an independent alarm switch is necessary. Many boaters prefer that the switch activating the alarm be independent and a little higher than the pump switch so that the alarm won’t be constantly sounding during normal leaking (as through the shaft gland) and so that you really know there’s a problem when the alarm goes off.
I’ve had two alarms fail lately, with little notice. If an alarm that you rely on fails, it might be too late to save your boat, regardless of how well you’ve set up your pump and plumbing system. This re-emphasizes the need for constant awareness of what’s going on with your equipment, no matter how well it’s installed and how good the product, and a program of regular replacement of vulnerable equipment.
Of course, not only the alarm but also the bilge pump must be reliable. I generally distrust bilge pumps that rely on printed circuit boards or any other type of high-tech electronic device on the pump down in the bilge. In my opinion, these don’t belong in a bilge. An example would be the pumps that, in theory, sense water resistance against the impeller. Some of these pumps were designed to operate by turning on periodically, and if there is resistance against the impeller, in theory, there is water that needs to be pumped and the pump remains on. When the water level is lowered and the resistance diminishes, in theory, the pump has done its job and shuts down.
Apparently, the ability to sense this very small diminution in resistance has not always been very reliable. I’ve seen two Rule swimming pool cover pumps that operated like this fail. They remained on all the time, even when completely dry. Two Rule-Mate bilge pumps that I had were activated by a magnet in a float but deactivated when the internal gizmo sensed that there was no longer water resistance to the impeller. These two, after working well when I installed them, soon began to run all the time, even when the water level was down.
This problem could deplete the battery and, given the right circumstances, result in a sinking because there would be no battery power to operate the pump. I’ve been told that these issues have been corrected. I still use Rule pumps, switches and alarms because overall I’ve had good experiences with the brand and I understand how companies are constantly trying to improve products and how none of us can get it right 100 percent of the time. Further, I won’t necessarily conclude that my experiences apply to the whole line. However, this reinforces my personal preference for a pump that’s controlled by a basic hinged float switch. Leave the fancy electronics for our next flight to the moon.
Another issue has occurred because some well-intentioned manufacturers have produced pumps that, they say, won’t pump when there is oil in the bilge. Although both are bad, I’d much rather see an oily bilge accidentally pumped than the environmental disaster that occurs when a boat actually sinks. This function is theoretically accomplished by a sensing mechanism in the pump that supposedly turns on the pump when it senses water but not when it senses oil.
There are several methods utilized, but typically when water reaches the level of the sensing device, that device is able to pass a minute electric current through the water and sense this fact. This signals the pump to turn on. The current won’t flow through oil. The pump manufacturers say that because oil floats on water, once the water level rises so that the oil is above the sensor, the pump will come on, saving the day.
However, in the real world it’s not always true that there’s a distinct clean line between oil and water in the bilge, particularly if there is movement of the boat or if there are bilge cleaners. And oil and other contaminants typically found in bilges can interfere with the intended working of these sensors. And, of course, these sensor mechanisms involve fairly sophisticated technology to stay alive and well in a bilge.
The best way to be environmentally conscientious in this area, in my view, is to be very vigilant. Check the bilge frequently and have oil-absorbent pads either in the bilge or readily available. When you use the pads, take care to see that they don’t interfere with the operation of any bilge pump float switch, which should be covered with a guard, or the pump itself.
Although, as noted, my preference is the automatic float switch that’s pivoted at one end (with a shield), it’s important to remember that these also fail, including in the incoming wiring as it continuously flexes. I test them frequently and watch the wires. If the insulation begins to leak and if the wire leaks convey positive current, it can cause electrolysis.
Whatever pump and auto switch you have, there will likely be failures. This is why it’s always important to have at least two pumps and switches operating independently of one another. Many prefer to have a smaller (therefore less expensive) pump at the lowest level as the daily workhorse. A very large pump is above that level and is the fail-safe backup. I prefer to have two pumps, as large as I can fit into the space available.
Danger: long hose runs
There’s much more to the task of dewatering than the pump and its operation. Getting the water from the pump to the sea presents several critical issues. Boats with shallow bilges, the bottoms of which are close to the waterline, present fewer problems. The worst problems usually occur in boats with deep sumps because of hose lengths required to move the water up and out.
The longer the hose run from the pump to the through-hull discharge, the more the pump’s actual output is decreased. Hose runs, just like wire runs, create resistance. A 2,000-gph pump may do just that at the pump’s discharge port but considerably less if the discharge hose is long. Effectiveness is further diminished by bends in the hose and the roughness of hose walls.
The problem is further exacerbated for deep-bilge boats because of steps that must be taken to prevent flooding via the through-hull. The through-hull should be well above the waterline at the boat’s maximum heel when fully loaded. With older-style diaphragm pumps, the pump itself is usually mounted above the waterline, and its valves, when working well, would theoretically keep water from flooding back through the pump, even if it is below the waterline, though this is not an intended purpose of those valves and shouldn’t be relied upon. But water from overboard will flow right through an inoperable centrifugal pump down in the bilge, absent appropriate plumbing, if the discharge goes below the waterline.
Therefore, the necessity of an outlet well above the waterline necessitates an even longer hose. Sometimes we see boats, usually sailboats, with a vented loop to prevent back-siphoning, particularly if the outlet is below water, which is not a good idea. But the vented loop adds even more hose to the system, as well as the U-shaped curve, both of which impede the pump’s effectiveness. And any loop could contribute to the development of an air lock. If a pump can’t push water through an air lock, the boat could sink.
Some also install a flap valve in the hose run to prevent water from backing in. But these detract from the pump’s effectiveness even more and are prone to failure. Boats vary, and what’s best for other boats may not be best for your boat. However, the best solution generally is to have the discharge far enough above the waterline so that no vented loop is needed and to arrange as short a hose run as possible using smooth-lined hose that is rated for the purpose.
If there are bends in the line, and there normally are, the hose must have reinforcement to prevent kinking or collapse. Discharging the bilge well above the waterline is also helpful because it enables passersby on the dock (and you) to see whether the pump is working overtime, indicating a problem.
As if the above is not enough, there are more woes to long runs. If the run is long enough, the water remaining in the hose when the automatic switch stops the pump may cause the pump to activate again when the water drops back into the bilge through the hose. The typical hinged float switch is designed to allow pumping after the water level has dropped to the original activation height, and some manufacturers of centrifugal pumps try to overcome this issue by having their pumps continue to operate for a period of time after the bilge is sensed to be “dry.” This is usually done by electronics, with all of the inherent possible issues of electronics in the bilge. As I understand it, the pump failures that I described above involved this type of mechanism.
I think there are three lessons here. 1) Never completely trust electronics — chips, printed circuit boards, etc. — in the bilge. Some fine theories that scientists and lab engineers developed may look great on a drawing board, but the scene in a bilge is drastically different. 2) If you install a new pump and/or line, flood the bilge with dock water from a garden hose to be sure that your system, including alarm, works properly. Repeat this test regularly. If you suspect a failure, replace any alarm, switch or pump at the first sign of abnormal operation. Of course, the same goes for any other part of your dewatering system. 3) If there is doubt that your dewatering system is working as it should, consider a positive displacement valve and diaphragm pump, such as the old Par/ITT/Jabsco standbys.
These are mounted above the bilge out of the water, and they have strong suction and push. Consult a qualified professional if needed. This is serious business.
And one more thing: Remember what the ancient seamen learned way back when the only dewatering devices were cupped hands and coconuts. Always check your bilge — the more often the better.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.