How do you save a sinking boat?

First published in Telltales Magazine, Janurary 2000. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.


Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at

A Minor Sinking
by Gene Gruender
Copyright 1999

I had just finished listening to the morning weather while we were anchored in Allan's Cay, Bahamas when a friend on another boat called. She told me there was a boat that had been holed and was taking on water. When I asked where, she told me to look outside, I could see it in the anchorage. Her husband Mike had already gone to help. I looked out to see a boat with about 8 dinghies all around. It looked like a big mess from where I was. I got in the inflatable and went to see what I could do.

By this time they'd gotten the boat, Tomcat, into the anchorage, they were caught by the tidal current and were going backwards, nearly hitting another boat. A number of the helpers were trying to keep them from colliding. Once they got past that problem, the entire bunch were heading out of the anchorage backwards. There seemed to be no plan, except the owner wanted to get to a beach and keep it from sinking to the bottom.

The beach he wanted to go to for was not in front of the boat, it was off to one side. Nobody seemed to be in charge and there was a lot of confusion. People had lines all over Tomcat, some were pulling one way, some another. The owner at the helm was saying he needed it turned around, but nothing was happening.

An inflatable makes a pretty good tugboat for a sailboat, so I just shot right into the middle of them, put the front of my inflatable against his bow and spun him around. He was then heading the way he said he wanted to go. The problem was, he was still going backwards with the tidal current. In addition, even if he did make it to the beach he wanted to go to, he was going to be on a steep sand slope with the tide ripping past him. After a couple minutes of this, I suggested to him that a beach at the other end of the anchorage would be a lot better. It had a nearly flat bottom, it was shallow enough that he could beach it and work on it and the tide made no current at all. He quickly agreed and got the message across to all the others on dinghies.

About the same time Mike was organizing the dinghy drivers. We all had lines but we weren't able to do much just pulling on them. Mike got one dinghy to each side, tied them on, and let the owner steer Tomcat. That, along with the added push from the others pulling on lines, got it moving pretty darn fast. It had a bow wave in front of it, just flying at about 6 knots.

To this point, as far as I knew, no one had given any thought as to just what was causing the water to get into the boat. It had gotten high enough inside that the motor was out of action and the batteries were covered. I heard he'd hit a coral head, but nobody was making any attempt to stop the water from getting into the boat. As I had gotten into my inflatable to go to help I'd grabbed my mask and flippers. I figured if a boat was sinking the first thing that needed to be done was to stop the leak. I couldn't do it without going under the boat. As soon as they got the boat into the shallow water I dove under to see what I could find. Mike and a couple others were up on top trying to get pumps going to get the water out, I was underneath trying to keep it from going in. I saw no gaping holes, and after 2 trips around I only found a line in the prop. I thought maybe the line had torn something loose, but it didn't seem to be tight enough to be a problem.

I swam back up and the owner told me he'd hit a coral head and suspected he'd knocked loose a patch he'd put on earlier back in the states. He told me it was right in the front on the bottom of the keel of this full keel boat. Diving back down, I found that part of the boat sitting in sand so it was a bit difficult to run my fingers over it. As the boat bounced against the bottom I finally managed to feel of it and, yes, there was a jagged hole and the remains of a poorly made patch from some previous problem.

Although I'd never used one, I understood about collision mats. A piece of material - canvas, some sailcloth or whatever is available - is drawn tight over a hole in a boat to stop the water from going in. I told one of the dinghy helpers we needed a piece of something to put over the hole and he went to get some tarp material. When he returned with a 2' by 2' piece I had someone tie on 4 lines, one on each corner, then I dove under to place it over the hole. I expected it would be a simple matter of getting it over the hole, drawing the lines tight and the water input would go to a small amount of what it was.

What a lesson that was! It was unbelievably difficult to get that material where I wanted it. Then to get the lines to hold it in place was an even bigger challenge. It took nearly half an hour to get it positioned and tied off with one person on each side to help. And then, it only cut the water input to about half, if that.

Up above, several people had shown up with pumps and generators. They got the water down nearly to the bottom of the motor. He tried to start the engine, and even though the batteries had been underwater, it fired up! The water had been up even with the head, but I suppose it hadn't quite gotten in the intake.

There were so many people around, some helping, some were just curious, some probably wanted to help but had no idea of what to do. One guy came in a rowing dinghy, what could he do? He was almost swept out to sea in the current. Another brought his 3 sons, aged about 12, 10, and 8. They were on Tomcat, just milling around in everyone's way. He wanted his kids to see what was going on.

Now, how did Tomcat get into this mess in the first place? They'd cut across an area that clearly had some coral heads marked on the charts. They didn't see one of them, hit it, and knocked a small hole in the front of the keel. The 1000 ghp bilge pump had failed after just a short while, and when they tried the backup 500 gph pump, it never did anything. As they tried to make it into Allan's he had his granddaughter use a bucket to keep the motor, which is located in the bilge, from going completely underwater. That was the only thing that saved their motor.

Back to the salvage operation - someone gave him some Marine Tex, an underwater epoxy type material, to use to fill the hole temporarily. However, you just can't do much diving down with a snorkel, you need to stay down longer to patch things. I told him he could use my scuba gear if he wanted to. He'd never dived, but I told him I didn't feel comfortable trying to fix his boat. I'd give him a quick lesson on how to use the gear, then he could do it. He pulled the boat back into shallower water where it was bumping the bottom, with the plan of waiting for low tide, about 3 feet lower, then working on it in the shallow water with the boat laying over.

For some reason, when low tide came he'd let the boat move to deeper water and it was in about 7 feet instead of laying over on it's side. We also found my tank was low on air - I hadn't used it for some time. There was a large yacht, maybe 100', anchored a mile away, so we went in search of air. They filled the tank, refused payment and we went back to Tomcat.

After a 5 minute scuba lesson, his wife mixed up some Marine Tex and he went under to try to stop the leak. After applying the second layer, the boat started hitting the bottom right where he'd put the Marine Tex. It didn't do a thing for the leak. He asked to keep my scuba gear until morning when he'd make one more try at putting a patch on the hole.
When I checked about 9 PM, they still had the engine running and they were running the bilge pump - one of my spares I sold him, as he had none - about 3 minutes out of every 10. They planned to keep someone up all night doing that, then in the morning head for Nassau 35 miles away to try to find a lift to get them out of the water.

In the morning I called Tomcat to see how the patching was going. He said he'd had a downturn the night before. A little after 9 he had a fire. His starter just burst into flames and he'd shut off the motor to fight it. Now his starter was shot and his motor wasn't running. It didn't sound like he'd be going to Nassau in the next few minutes.

Just after talking to Tomcat, another cruiser called me on the radio. He told me he didn't think that Tomcat would be going anywhere for a time, and he hadn't even heard about the starter. He said that Tomcat was so high and dry on the bottom that he had 2 feet of bottom paint showing. I couldn't see Tomcat for other boats between us, so I dinghied down to see what was up.

Well, Tomcat was up, very high and dry. His keel was sitting in a hole about a foot deep that it had worked into the sand. It would be a bit before he could even get to the hole in the boat. I had some underwater epoxy and offered him some of it. I suggested he take some fiberglass cloth, saturate it with the underwater epoxy and put the mat over the hole. It would seem like a good way to seal it, at least to slow the leak and get him to Nassau.

After enough time had passed that the boat would be afloat again, I went down to help him again. We mixed up a batch of the underwater epoxy, smeared a thick layer on the glass roving, then he took it under and tried to smear it onto the damaged area. After a bit he came to the top and said it just wouldn't even stick a bit. There was no way it would stick to a wet boat, and it was even falling off of the glass roving. It had been put on the roving when everything was dry.
He also had some stuff that had come from Canada, something called "Epicol-T Mastic Epoxy". His wife mixed a batch of that and he took it down on a spatula. It stuck real well, he just didn't have enough. Next he got out some Marine Tex and she mixed that up. It also wouldn't stick at all. That was pretty discouraging, as the two products I would have tried, including the one I carried to take care of just that problem, didn't do a bit of good.

With all that, he did get the leak slowed some. We were ready to leave for another anchorage, so I gathered my scuba gear and stowed our boat to leave. He was going to try to repair his burned up starter, and either sail or motor to Nassau. He had a small generator on board, so he should have been able to keep the batteries up enough to pump the water out until he got there.

The next day I talked to someone who'd talked to him on the radio. He'd gotten his starter to work, got the motor started and was heading for Nassau. He had the leak down to a gallon or two an hour and things were under control. Another interesting thing was going on. As the word spread, the story got more interesting. One story said that he was trying to sail through the "Yellow Banks" at night. The "Yellow banks" is an area that is just full of coral heads. Even in good daylight it is a full time job to miss all the coral. It would be impossible at night, no sane person would even try. It'll be interesting to see what other stories develop.

For those who may be going cruising, or are out in a boat, here are some lessons I learned.

1. Collision mats are a help, but are very hard to place. It needs to be MUCH bigger than the hole to have a chance of covering it. Even after we got it in place, it didn't come close to stopping the water. One thing we could have done was place a vinyl cushion between the mat and the hole. The cushion would have smashed up into the hole and helped a lot. As it was, it cut the water intake by a third to a half.

2. You need to try the product you are planning to use in an emergency long before you need it. Try making a patch and placing it on the bottom of your boat. Make sure it will work, make sure you have a way to get it to stay until it is hard. Make sure it will stick.

3. Someone needs to be in charge in carrying out the rescue - the owner or whoever is able. A poor plan being executed is better than a bunch of good intentioned people running in circles doing conflicting things with no plan. Someone must take charge.

4. If you can't help, stay out of the way. It's great to hang close, to be available to run to get something, to pick up someone in the water, whatever, but stay back out of the way if you aren't contributing. It takes more than good intentions to save someone or save the boat.

5. If you have a second bilge pump, check it often. Make sure it works. If you don't have a second bilge pump, go back and read this again! It might be worthwhile to note that after getting the mat in place, he had to run the Rule 2000 pump 3 minutes out of 10 to keep up. Even if his Rule 500 had worked, would it have done the trick? Is your pump big enough?

Copyright 1999
All rights reserved

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