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Better bilge emergency strategy?

Jun 20, 2013
Should a short-handed crew put a man on a manual pump or have every available hand look for the source of a leak?

Should a short-handed crew put a man on a manual pump or have every available hand look for the source of a leak?

Ralph Naranjo

To the editor: Ralph Naranjo’s recent article is excellent in its coverage of bilge pump options and their pros and cons: the equipment to deal with flooding (see “Pumps and priorities,” Issue No. 209, Ocean Voyager 2013). I wish to comment on the strategy a crew uses for flooding management, especially for those boats, the majority I think, who are sailing with just two people.

The emphasis on the qualities and importance of manual bilge pumps concerns me as I would like to consider that, for short-handed crews, manual bilge pumps are a dangerous distraction.

For example, we carried an Edson manual pump on board for decades never having a boat big enough to have it built in. It would take (in practice conditions) two to four minutes to get out the pump, get out the two hoses, attach hoses (quick connect) and run the discharge hose out a portlight, tie off the discharge hose (or it flies back into the boat at first pump). It is then most likely in the way of exploring for the flooding. In those two to four minutes the boat could be lost because the leak may now be impossible to find.

For emergencies (flooding), I would suggest no crew go to the manual bilge pump. The leak needs to be found and found fast or the boat is lost. As water rises and covers more interior hull territory, it becomes more difficult or impossible to find the leak. Seeing a leak (or its geyser-like signs) is much more efficient than trying to “feel” water coming in when water is so deep as to disguise the ingress spot. Speed is essential and I believe it is an unwise allocation of resources to have 50 percent of your search-power on a bilge pump, a bilge pump that is very unlikely to keep up with the flooding.

If there is more crew, yes, give yourself exploration time by assigning the gorilla to the manual pump. But with two crew, I would come up with a strategy (another whole article) for examining first the boat’s likely water ingress spots, quickly and efficiently with each person assigned specific areas and procedures. I would go over it with your partner and practice it, as if/when flooding happens, being speedy and having a practiced plan may make all the difference.

The above strategy leads to an emphasis on early warning (bilge alarm(s) are essential) and automatic pump(s) of high quality, well installed and maintained, and a shared procedure that is practiced.

—Dick Stevenson is a retired clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst. He and his wife Ginger have made their home aboard their cutter, Alchemy, a Valiant 42, for more than 10 years. They are currently in Kiel, Germany.

Ralph Naranjo replies:
Damage control strategy aboard a small vessel prioritizes leak stopping with pumping playing a secondary role. The smaller the boat, the less volume to fill, and the more dangerous a specific sized leak becomes. As the reader points out, the value of an electrical or engine-driven pump revolves around its automation and higher pumping capacity, but batteries and diesels are low in the bilge and vulnerable to flooding. A manual pump is like boots in a foul weather gear fashion show. No one wants to run on deck naked wearing only boots, but standing watch barefoot in a cold sea-swept cockpit isn’t a complete picture either. Fitting out with a manual bilge pump in the mix makes sense — that’s why the International Sailing Federation and U.S. Sailing rules mandate that each boat entering the Newport Bermuda Race carries two manual pumps — one operational from the cockpit and one from below.
 

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