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Sea Savvy - That sinking feeling

There’s more than one way to sink a boat, a mishap at least one writer has some experience with

There’s more than one way to sink a boat, a mishap at least one writer has some experience with


There are lots of ways to sink a boat, and I’m not sure which way I like least. One way is what some misguided souls refer to as “an unfortunate accident.” A stellar example of this type of sinking occurred, I am told (no, I don’t remember who told me), when a large sportfishing boat “sank” far offshore from a popular fishing center on the East Coast. The calls for help made it clear that the boat was going down so fast that the crew was abandoning ship.

Unfortunately — depending on one’s perspective — when rescuers arrived the boat had, instead of sinking, flipped over. And worse — again, depending on one’s perspective — the boat remained quite stable in its inverted position, notwithstanding the fact that subsequent investigation found that several seacocks were open. Salvage divers found that the very expensive heads of the two massive engines were missing.

“Uh, I guess they fell off when the boat turned upside down,” was the suggestion of one of those “perspectives” to which I’ve been referring.

This kind of sinking is referred to by law enforcement and the marine industry as “insurance fraud,” and it’s very serious business for which we all pay the losses. But there are enough sinkings of the unplanned variety to provide ample room for thought.

I’ve seen more than my share, beginning with my first boat. Like the sportfishing boat, this was no accident; I sank it deliberately. But I didn’t file an insurance claim. I didn’t even have insurance. I was only 10 years old, and I did it for a far nobler cause: to get rid of the smell.

Even in those days I was hellbent on making a living from the sea, so I had gone into the crabbing business, setting out some traps and selling to the ladies of the neighborhood. Like most of my attempts at maritime financial success, the business wasn’t going very well; not because the ladies of the neighborhood didn’t want crabs but because I was having a hard time catching any. (One old waterfront rat told me, with a mischievous grin, that I wasn’t old enough yet.)

Local experts told me crabs liked rotten meat, neglecting to mention that the preferred meat was fish. I hiked up to the grocery story and asked if they had any leftover rotten meat, and if they perhaps needed somebody to carry it to the dump for free. I was indignantly informed that they didn’t carry rotten meat but that they did have some that was heading in that direction, and I could have it for free, regardless of what I did with it.

I accepted it gratefully and hiked back to the waterfront, wondering how I was going to get it to the truly rotten stage. I figured that if any creature actually liked rotten meat, they surely liked it well-done. Having observed what had happened when an osprey dropped a fish in my bilge once, I decided to spread the meat around in there and leave it in the hot sun for a day or so. The next day it rained, which meant that the day after, I had to launch into my other means to financial success, cutting the grass of several neighborhood homes. It was some days later that I walked down to the beach to resume the crabbing enterprise, confident now of success.

In those days I left my skiff anchored in the river off the beach — far enough out to be safe even from the lowest of tides. But it wasn’t the distance offshore that made it hard to see the boat on this hot, sunny day; it was the flies. However, I was able to easily pinpoint its precise location within the swarm by focusing on the smell.

I waded into the water and started swimming — on my back so I could hold my nose. When I reached the boat, I kicked myself over the gunwale to view the nightmare of decay. I fell back and dove down deep, staying under as long as I could hold my breath, wondering which was more preferable, smelling the rotten meat or drowning. When I surfaced, I swam around to the stern — which, unfortunately, was downwind — and pulled the below-waterline plug out of the transom to sink the boat. I then dove under and swam away as fast as I could.

The boat didn’t sink completely because she was wood, though enough, I figured, for a few crabs to get in and enjoy their meat. I hoped they’d get used to my brand and revisit when it was in my traps. It took several days for me to get up enough nerve to go out and refloat her. The meat was gone, leaving only the crabs scuttling around in the bilge, smelling the lingering odor and hoping for more meat. I sold them for a profit. I never did catch many of their brethren in my traps, no matter how rotten the meat, leaving me to wonder about whether this particular boat would serve me better baited and submerged.

And fact proved me right. As those of you who’ve owned wooden skiffs know, every spring when you launch them, you’ve got to let them swell up. No matter how well you’ve caulked them they still leak like a sieve until the planks soak up enough water to expand. My first boat was no different, and so each spring, after cleaning and sanding and painting her to make her look like new, I’d have to watch her settle down into the waves, filling with the silty water that would leave her a mess, smelling not like new paint, but like old mud.

But for some reason I couldn’t fathom, each time I bailed her out to begin her season on top of the waves, there would be crabs — sometimes more than a dozen — scuttling about as the waters receded to my bucket. I don’t know how they got in over the gunwales, and I’m not sure why, but it was a good way to start the season with a little gas money — around 20 cents a gallon, as I recall.


My next boat was unsinkable … or so they said. It had a new invention: a bottom built of plywood. I suppose plywood wasn’t a new invention everywhere in the world then, but it was to me in my part of the world back in the 1950s. The guy who built the boat said that since the bottom was just two big sheets of wood, it didn’t have many seams and wouldn’t leak “hardly at all.”

This sounded pretty good to me. I was tired of being in a permanent state of semisinking, tired of hammering in caulking that popped out every time I fell off a wave, tired of taking all those buckets every time I went camping in the boat — not just for bailing but also for a place to keep things dry. And since I was getting into my cruising phase of life, I wanted be able to roll out my sleeping bag in a dry bilge.

I looked the boat over, and, sure enough, the bottom was just what the guy said, and it all made sense to me. However, the guy failed to mention that what I was really buying wasn’t so much a 16-foot boat but a 16-foot trampoline. The plywood sheets had been screwed into the pine sides of the boat and into the sliver of a keel that ran down the middle. Every wave made the bottom flex. I could take off down the river and watch my outboard’s gas can dance up and down the length of its leash. I could tell when I was getting low on fuel because the can would start going airborne.

This all worked fine for the first few weeks. Then the wood started to give around the screws holding the trampoline to the keel and sides. When that happened, every time I hit a wave, water would squirt in from the perimeter of the boat. When I hit a big wave, the squirts of water from each side would meet in the middle. It was like when they turned on the fountain in one of those fancy ponds I’d seen in the big city. After seeing me come in to the beach one afternoon, somebody told me that I’d pay extra for something like that in France.

I knew I had to fix the problem, so I went to the sawmill and bought some nice, tough strips of mahogany because I thought they wouldn’t flex as much as pine. I pulled the boat up the beach on logs and flipped her over. I carefully hand-drilled the strips and plywood bottom, and screwed the strips to the bottom fore and aft to keep the plywood rigid. All this took many days and many more dollars, the latter being as scarce at that time of my life as they are now.

The result was that where I’d previously had just perimeter squirts, the water squirted up from almost everywhere. The screws pulled out of that plywood like it was a slab of butter in August. However, I learned an important lesson about sinking from this boat: A major tool in the constant war against sinking is oars (rather than the outboard), because usually the faster you’re going, the faster you sink. So I saved a lot of gas that year in order to stay afloat. And I also learned one other thing: When sleeping in your boat, always use an air mattress.


Shortly after this, I learned the ultimate lesson about sinking boats: The one certain way to avoid having your boat sink is to get a boat that’s already sunk. I did this one summer, with the added benefit that the cost was right.

She was an ancient Chesapeake Bay log canoe fishing boat. Someone had long ago put an old one-lunger in her that was just heavy enough, combined with the weight of all the rotten wood, to overcome the positive buoyancy of the wood that had yet to turn to mush. I found her washed up on the shore of the marsh after a storm. She wasn’t completely sunk all the time — only when the tide was high. At low tide I could see her beautiful lines, even beneath all the mud and slime, and I knew what she had been. I wanted to make her that again.

I set out to restore her, with dreams of chugging away down the river someday. I slaved long and hard in her muddy mess, enduring hot sun, mosquitoes, snakes and the skepticism of everyone who knew what I was doing. And I finally endured the realization that they were right. With every high tide she was gone again, no matter how much “git rot” and caulk and bailing and nailing I’d done during the preceding low tide.

Finally, to my dismay (and secret relief), a good tropical storm blew in, and when the winds were gone, so was my sunken boat. The only consolation was that I knew she hadn’t sunk on my watch. This led me to the realization of another great lesson about sinking: It’s always better when the boat that’s sinking is someone else’s.


I learned over the years that probably the best place for watching other people’s boats sink is the local launch ramp. There are the slow-motion sinkings when the skippers-to-be forget to put in the drain plugs and don’t realize that the boat is settling at the ramp-side floating dock not because of the beer they’re loading but because of the inflowing water. There are the rapid sinkings when they forget to unstrap the boat from the trailer as they reverse and, upon realization, panic and hit the tow vehicle’s gas pedal instead of the brake. And then there are the associated vehicle sinkings when they fail to stop the downward course of the pickup truck in time, pushing the boat under as the pickup also submerges.

There are also the sinkings on the high seas when they forget to tether the boat and it floats off the trailer and impales itself on the ramp’s jetties. But perhaps the best sinkings are when they try to drive the boat up on the submerged trailer using the outboard and miss the rollers altogether.


As the years passed I contented myself with watching other people’s boats sink, carefully avoiding having the phenomenon occur to any of mine. It required a significant and momentous event in my life to cause me to revert to my old, foolish ways. I became a lawyer. I seldom admit to this in public (becoming a lawyer, not having had sinking boats), but I did become a lawyer at one point in my life, and like most of those folks I was eager to have clients. I got some once and decided to impress them by giving them a wonderful boat ride.

My main boat at the time was a 41-foot Gulfstar ketch that I’d purchased rather cheaply, and it came equipped with a sharp list to port — but that’s another story. We took them aboard and sailed to a nearby island for a scenic lunch on the hook. Naturally these clients wanted to go ashore.

“No problem,” I said, eager to please. I had astern an 8-foot dinghy with a small outboard. We had to get back to dock soon, so I decided to take them all to the island in one trip. We were anchored very close to the beach in around 6 feet of water that we knew became wading level just a few feet away. My clients and I set off in the dinghy and soon found that there was a reason for the term “maximum capacity.”

The two inches of freeboard between the waterline and the gunwales wasn’t quite enough to clear the ripples on the nearly calm seas. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget — sitting in a small dinghy with three other people, watching the water come over the sides, and knowing in no uncertain terms that we were sinking for no other reason but my own stupidity.

We tried to bail, but there were so many people in the dinghy that it was hard to even do that. Every time somebody moved we sank faster. As we watched one client’s alligator shoes float away I realized that this was a lesson they’d forgotten to teach in law school: You don’t get clients by drowning them. And I learned something else that some lawyers never seem to have learned: It’s very nice to have clients who can laugh — not to mention swim.


Yes, I can laugh about sinking boats, but perhaps it’s to cover the tragedy and loss I’ve felt as boats of others around me have slipped under the waters throughout my life. I’ve loved watching the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series; I’ve seen the first one three times. The concept of the rotten ship — sinking with Davy Jones and crew and rising from the depths over and over again, water coursing from its ports — is awesome. But that’s not the way it works.

I’ve dived on many sunken wrecks, mostly pleasure boats. They’ve all been in relatively shallow water, although under varying circumstances, but the result is the same. I think they’re most disturbing when I see them shortly after they’ve sunk — before they begin to merge with the sea, before the barnacles and seaweed, the algae and coral, the sand and silt and slime begin to blend in. It’s right after they’ve sunk that they stand out in stark contrast to their new world as if still desperately crying, in a final gasping attempt, to rejoin the world above water.

I remember one wreck in particular. It was a sailboat, around 40 feet, which had been carrying a family on their dream of cruising. They’d come through a difficult, twisting passage in a dangerous reef, seeking a large, safe harbor inside. We’d come through the same passage a few days before. Perhaps they hadn’t followed the landmarks or taken bearings or read the signs in the water. Whatever the exact cause, the fiberglass hull had found the reef, which quickly slashed it open. For a brief while the boat lay prone and heeling on the reef, allowing the family to escape in their tender. But the swell soon carried it over and into deeper water, where it sank almost instantly.

When I dove it the next day, the current had dragged it a few hundred feet from the reef onto clear sand, which made the tragedy stand out like a junkyard on the surface of the moon. My first impression reminded me of a horrible experience of long before. I was walking deep in the woods and came across a dead deer. A hunter had made a terrible shot, and when the deer had finally fallen in glaze-eyed agony, much of its insides were on the leaves around it.

From the gaping hole in the side of the boat spilled the things that, only the day before, had been intimate working parts of the daily lives of the boat’s people. A white bed sheet trailed out on the current as if inhabited by a ghost, one end still caught inside the boat. A typewriter, winch handle, coffeemaker, tube of toothpaste, a deck shoe, a book — its pages slowly fluttering and wasting away in the current — a toy truck, kitchen utensils, stored Christmas ornaments. So many signs of life, now signs of the death of a boat and the special existence it had given its owners.

The next day much of it was gone, either beneath the sand or carried away on the tide. The boat itself was settling in the sand, sinking again, as though sinking beneath the waves wasn’t enough. Soon it would be completely covered until a storm changed the sandy bottom, as so often happens, and its bones appeared again.

Some sunken boats remain visible. Two men went to sleep one evening in a sailboat anchored in the current-swept waters just inside a cut in the Bahamas. It was a deep-water cut, which is why it was used by mail boats. One came in from the ocean in the dark of night and plowed into the sailboat, sinking it almost instantly. As the boat settled down, the men desperately struggled to escape, and they did. The captain of the mail boat said there had been no anchor light; the crew of the sailboat said they’d had one lit. The boat became a monument to the folly of anchoring where other boats travel.

The bottom there was rock and reef, so although the creatures of the sea rapidly slimed and encrusted the boat, it remained visible through the clear waters. You could see it as you passed over and could dive on it for the lobsters that took up residence in its dark crevices. Perhaps the only good thing about the sunken hulk, in addition to the lobsters, was that it was deep enough down so that most boats wouldn’t have to worry about hitting it.

Not so for a sailboat in Adams Creek in North Carolina, however. This creek for many years has been a great anchorage for boats passing north and south along the Intracoastal Waterway, as well as for local weekenders. A few years ago we anchored in the fall and noticed the old boat swinging on its anchor line, appearing to be in terrible shape and maintained very poorly, if at all.

The next spring, as we passed the mouth of the creek, all we could see was the upper portion of a mast in approximately the same location of the boat we’d seen anchored. It had sunk. As we passed this fall we saw that the mast was still marking the wreck, but this won’t last, and unless someone places a wreck buoy, the hulk may claim another to join it.


When we go to sea — whether for a few hours or a lifetime, in a center console or a large yacht — there are so many things trying to drag us down beneath the waves. And all too often, when boats sink they take people with them. That’s easy to understand with storm sinkings, but it also happens in calm water.

I’ll never forget hearing the wife of a gentleman who’d just drowned telling the news to a friend on the VHF in a voice of shocked disbelief as the horrible reality began to permeate her consciousness. One minute they’d been enjoying a beautiful anchorage in the Bahamas; the next they’d been hit and holed by another boat. There was plenty of time to get off, and they had done this, but the husband decided he should go back down below to retrieve some papers. He apparently became disoriented as the boat quickly settled. Boats often sink that way — slowly at first but exponentially faster as more openings are exposed to the inrushing sea. He didn’t make it back out.

So, yes, we all have a tendency to laugh when we can, even about things as serious as boats sinking. It’s one of the ways we humans get through the day. But that doesn’t mean we don’t take it seriously. The closest I’ve been to unplanned sinkings has been in storms. I’m very careful, very conservative. I follow the weather fanatically. But storms have still overtaken my boats, overwhelming me with the feeling of total helplessness that only a storm at sea can bring. But the helplessness that we may feel in a storm someday shouldn’t stop us from doing all we can to take everyday cautions.

Chez Nous, our Gulfstar 53, has two high-water alarms, three high-capacity electric bilge pumps, and two manual pumps, one of very high capacity, especially when I’m scared. And I wish I had more. I have various rules I rigorously enforce upon myself when it comes to keeping my boat from sinking. One is to check the bilge regularly, especially while at sea. In most sinkings if competent, capable people are aboard and know soon enough that water is coming in, they can handle the situation.

Another rule is to regularly check and maintain all hoses and through-hulls and openings below the waterline, including shaft glands for props and rudders. Another is to keep in mind the possibility of siphoning and install and maintain anti-siphoning valves where appropriate. Another is to never leave the boat when it’s hooked up to dock water that’s turned on. And yet another is to heed the advice of experts in the business of avoiding boating accidents — for example, the reports that BoatU.S. sends to its members and others from data collected from its insurance files and case studies. (Look at the options under the “Boating Safety” button at

The specter of sinking seldom leaves my mind. The first thing I do when I crawl out of the bunk for a nature call in the middle of the night is to make sure that when I put my feet on the deck they aren’t getting wet — with seawater. I check the bilge before going to bed at night and after getting up in the morning.

Life is good on a boat. As I’m writing this, my feet are dry, and no bilge alarms are sounding. But I never take anything for granted on a boat. After all, some would argue — perhaps with a bit of merit — that my boat (and yours) is normally performing an unnatural act. It’s floating.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at