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Were voyagers too quick to abandon boat?

Jan 1, 2003

I would like to respond to the recent piece by Sue Chisholm ("Delivery cut short off the Isle of Nevis," Issue No. 110, Nov./Dec. 2000). She said the point of the article was to make people more aware of the necessity of keeping a good lookout when at sea. I think what was more apparent was her reaction to seeing water in the boat. It upsets me to see how quickly people reach for life raft/Mayday when their feet get wet.

Why was Chisholm's first reaction, after checking the seacocks and engine compartment (which was dry), to call Mayday? She said the dividing wall to the aft head was shaking. When she looked on the floor she saw that water was pushing up the floorboards. The water was just above the boards. What about her bilge pumps? While checking over the equipment list before departing, did she check what kinds of de-watering devices were on board? Did they work?

I've also seen correspondence in your magazine about boats that were sunk because of an icebox drain. How big is an icebox drain? One inch? No one should lose a boat because of a one-inch hole! I suggest people read the stories of the early small boat voyagers. Almost all of them waded around, up to their knees in water, at one time or another and saved their boat.

My advice to people going off on long passages is to "keep the water out of the boat." When they give me a strange look, I check their boat's bilge and see a small electric bilge pump. I wouldn't use one of them in my dinghy!

The first order of business when you see water in your boat is pump! This means that you use every pump you have, right away. If you are singlehanding, then you will have to depend on electric pumps until you can stem the flow of water. They say that the most effective pump is a scared sailor with a bucket. Pumping buys you time. Time to find the leak before it's so far under water you can't find it. Time to think about what to do if you can't gain on the incoming water. Time to make that radio call before your batteries go under.

While a catastrophic collision will sink a boat very quickly, seeing water over the floorboards generally will not. Think about how large your boat is. Then picture a fire truck pumping water into it. You would be surprised at how long it takes to actually sink it. The average 30-foot boat could hold at least 4,800 gallons of water (3 ft. x 8 ft. x 25 ft. = 600 cu. ft. ~ 8 gal/cu. ft. = 4,800 gallons). That's a lot of water. At least once a month I receive notices via my Inmarsat C: "white-hulled S/V abandoned and adrift." Why would someone leave a large floating object for a raft? It's a heck of a lot easier to see a large boat than an eight-foot life raft.