How to stop a leak
Keeping the water on the outside of the boat is paramount. A small leak can be inconvenient, but a large leak will sink your boat. If you hit a submerged object, stop the boat and find where the water is coming in — this may or may not be obvious, and it could be inside a locker, the engine room or the lazarette. Use sails, bedding, cushions, clothes — anything you have — to stuff the hole and stem the flow of water. You may be able to heel a sailboat to bring the hole clear of the water by tacking or getting the crew to one side of the vessel.
Another technique is to drape a sail on the outside of the boat from one side to the other, pull it tight, then tie it off to the life lines or toe rail, where, in theory, the water pressure will keep it in place and slow the leak. On a wooden boat, you may be able to go over the side and nail on a canvas or plywood patch. It’s also a very good idea to keep a suitable softwood plug adjacent to any seacocks and through-hulls, which can be hammered in to slow a leak should such a fitting fail.
Speed is of the essence because even a fairly modest leak is likely to allow more water in than your bilge pumps can keep up with. Do what you can, then call for assistance.
Looking after seacocks
A seacock is a valve that allows sea water into a boat through a skin fitting below the waterline. They can be in hard-to-reach places and in many boats remain open for the entire season — if not the entire time someone owns a boat! A 90-degree turn of the handle moves the seacock from fully open to fully closed. (The handle will be in line with the inlet when open and perpendicular to it when closed.) Seacocks are there so that the water can be shut off in a hurry, but if they are never used there is a distinct possibility that they will freeze in the open position due to marine growth and general crud.
The best way to look after your seacocks is to operate them regularly. Ideally they should be closed every time you leave the boat — if a hose fails and a seacock is open, the chances of your boat sinking at the dock are great.
Seacocks come in various types and are built from different materials. Some, like the old Blakes models, are made entirely of bronze and have grease nipples for lubrication. If a seacock is frozen in the open position, it may be possible to free it by tapping on the handle with a soft mallet, but don’t overdo this, as you could break the handle or even snap off the seacock. If all else fails, the seacock will need to be serviced with the boat out of the water. I have found that a few squirts of Marvel Mystery oil, allowed to soak around the moving parts, will often do the trick.
Taking care of electronics displays
It’s possible that more chart plotter screens have been ruined by cleaning with the wrong product than from any other cause. Without exception, the instructions that come with the unit explain the necessary procedure, but either these are not read by the owner or have long since been lost. In most cases, the instructions tell you to use nothing more than a soft cloth dampened with clean, fresh water. Cleaners containing solvents or alcohol will turn the screen cloudy and milky in short order. I keep a microfiber cloth and a little distilled water specifically for cleaning the screens on my boat, and after 10 years they still look as good as new. Placing the sun covers on units when they’re not in use also will prolong the life of the screens.
Getting off from a soft grounding
Cruisers on the ICW know that a soft grounding is practically a rite of passage. Soft groundings are unlikely to damage the boat, but you want to get off as soon as possible, especially if you are on a falling tide. If you are under power, you can often put the engine astern and pull the boat out the same way it went in. Do not turn the wheel, as the keel will tend to dig a hole, and you may find that you are literally digging yourself in.
If a burst of power fails, you may be able to throw a line to a boat in deeper water or to one that has a shallower draft than you and have them help pull you free. Another technique is to kedge the boat off by taking an anchor and rode into deep water, deploying it from the dinghy, and then hauling on this in concert with the engine astern. If the tide is rising, you have more time, as you will normally float free, but you need to take action to ensure that you aren’t driven farther into the bottom. Again, the kedge will work to your advantage, as keeping tension on a well-set anchor will keep you stationary as the tide comes in.
If you run aground on a lee shore while under sail, speed is even more critical; get the sails off the boat as a first priority to avoid being driven harder aground. On a windward shore, it is often possible to heel the boat by hardening in on the sheets, reducing the effective draft, lifting the keel clear and enabling the boat to sail free.
Every soft grounding is different, and often the only damage is to the boat owner’s pride. However, it pays to be prepared and have a plan in mind that you can put into action without delay. If you can’t get off without assistance, don’t be shy about calling for help.
As a marine surveyor, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come across wire nuts on boats. Wire nuts have no place on boats for two very good reasons. First, they aren’t waterproof, and the plating inside the nut isn’t designed for marine use and will corrode. Second, wire nuts are designed for cables with a type of conductor found in house wiring, which is solid copper. Boat cable is, or should be, tinned multi-strand copper. If pieces of this type of cable are twisted together and have a wire nut screwed on the threads, the threads inside the nut will likely break some of the thin strands and will strip off some of the protective tin plating. Both of these scenarios will lead to corrosion and a reduction in the cross-sectional area of the cable, making circuits work at less than optimal efficiency.
Invest in a set of proper crimping pliers, some adhesive-lined crimp connectors of different sizes and a set of proper wire strippers. With these simple tools, long-lasting electrically perfect connections are made in little more time than it takes to use vastly inferior wire nuts.
Mark Corke is a marine journalist and surveyor who holds an RYA Ocean Yacht Master ticket. He has built a number of boats for his own use, does all of his own maintenance and cruises the Maine coast with his wife aboard a Grand Banks 32.
September 2014 issue