Revival at the Gunnels

By Tom Neale, 7/14/2005


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Bailing out a skiff with a bucket when the skiff is sunk to the gunnels takes a lot of faith. If the water’s flat calm, there’s room for some hope. If the water has a bit of ruffle on the surface, there’s need for some prayer. If the water’s rough, you might as well forget it. I had a skiff once that used to sink a lot. Actually, I had several. These boats taught me to always look on the bright side. The skiffs always sank because they were wood, but hey, wood floats. So I’d wade out into the river with a bucket, stand beside the boat, and start bailing as fast as I could. When the boat was high enough so that the stuff stopped coming over the side, I’d rest for a minute, which was usually a mistake.

One summer storm, this skiff (which I kept anchored off the beach) dragged out to where the water was far over my head. Of course, it filled with water too. I had to swim out, retrieve my bucket which was still inside, and try to get her up. Bailing out a skiff with a bucket when the skiff is sunk to the gunnels and when you’re treading water alongside takes a lot more than faith. Try stupidity. You want to climb in because you know it’s at least going to keep floating a little because it’s wood, but you know you’ll never be able to bail fast enough when you’re pushing the gunnels down that far under the water. So you tread water for dear life with your legs, hold on with one hand to keep you from drifting away from the boat, and bale like crazy holding the bucket by its rim with the other hand. I’d been doing this for about an hour with no great success when a fisherman came up. “That’s a hell of a way to clean a boat, boy,” he said. “I just squirt mine out with a hose alongside the dock.”

“Well, that’s just what I had in mind doing,” I replied, “ but I thought I’d sluice her down a bit out here first.” He kindly came in a little closer and stuck the hose for his big engine driven pump inside my skiff and up she rose, fully revived—at least for awhile. This dewatering thing was pretty simple back in those days. That was when we all called it bailing and the thing we used most was a bucket—or maybe a scoop for the rich people who could afford wooden skiffs that didn’t leak much and who could afford to buy the scoops at the hardware store. Now, as I later learned on one of my various Coastie Boardings—you know, the one in which they come aboard to check to see if you’re properly equipped—we’re blessed with a new term. It’s called a “dewatering device.”

I’m not sure how new this term is, but It sure was new to me when the young gentleman in blue uniform asked me if I had one. When I truthfully said, “Uh, I don’t know,” he started writing furiously on his form and I knew that this had not been the right answer. So I said, “Oh, you mean a ‘dewatering device.’ Sure, I’ve got one of those.” 

1. One of the most critical factors in dealing with water coming in is to know about it immediately. The sooner you know, the more likely you’ll be able to handle the problem.

2. Multiple bilge alarms, which sound off where you can hear them, are important. An alarm for the float switch for each pump is good. Additional independently wired alarm(s) to dedicated float switch(s) are better.

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“Of course, sure you do,” he smugly said, “And can I see it?”

When I replied, “Uh, well I guess you could if you really insisted, but I’d be kinda embarrassed,” he put his pencil down and started thoroughly scrutinizing the form like he was looking for some more appropriate block to check. About that time, my bilge pump came on as it does from time to time (and time to time) and water started squirting out the hole in the side of my boat onto the Coast Guard boat. The boarding officer said in surprise, “Oh, you do have one,” and finally I realized (with no small amount of relief) that I’d just learned a new word.

When I explained to him that I hadn’t known that he was talking about bilge pumps, he explained to me that the wise souls who write the rules are equalitarian enough (but he didn’t use that word) to include everybody, and some people just have buckets—like I’d never heard of one of those things before either. I told him I actually had some of those too, and we all went away happy. Of course, little did he know how much I’ve been into dewatering devices most of my life.

This subject of dewatering devices is of importance to us all. Every spring, the most calls for help that I notice on the VHF are about a specific type of boat. These are “Vessels Taking on Water.” The most calls for help that are cancelled a few minutes later are about “Vessels No Longer Taking on Water.” Clearly there must be something going on here, I’m just not sure whether it’s good or bad. Usually it means that the people on the “vessel” figured out there was water coming in and then they finally figured out that they have a “dewatering device.” Sometimes it just means that they figured out that the drain cap came off the bottom of the cooler.

The number of “Vessels Taking on Water” has gone up, I believe, because as the years have gone by, there are more and more boats with bilges that you can’t see unless you really try hard—and who wants to do that? As I look around, I realize that most boats, even the skiffs—heck, even the jet skis--have bilges that you can’t easily see. In the good old days, I knew I was sinking when the water began to cover my feet. Now, unless I’m opening hatches all the time (which is a good idea), I’ve got to rely on electric alarms. Hearing the melodious sound of the bilge alarm going off is kind of like hearing a dog growl when he’s thinking about coming over and biting you. You’re awfully glad you heard it, but you really wish you hadn’t. With the dog you’ve got to run. With the alarm, there’s no where to run. You’ve got to stand your ground and hold your breath for a second to see if the pump is going to stop—maybe it’s just handling a temporary simple problem—like pumping out some water from a busted head hose. When the alarm doesn’t stop, you already know that there’s water coming in faster than your pump can handle. Now all you’ve got to figure out is where the water’s coming in and what you can do about it. Looking for a leak on a sinking boat is like looking for a bear in your basement. When you find it you’ve got to figure out what to do with it, but you do have to find it first.

I’m so up tight about not sinking that on my current live aboard boat I’ve got 5 dewatering devices. (OK, can I just call them “pumps” from here on out?) Three are electric, varying in size. This means that when I start sinking my batteries have to be in good shape. Two are manual, one a Whale Gusher and the other a big Edson that’ll move 30 gallons per minute. These mean that when I start some serious sinking I’ve got to be scared enough to keep pumping. This is not a problem.

What is a problem today is that long ago I gave up on my beloved wooden boats. And boats of fiberglass and metal are usually hell bent for the bottom when the freeboard disappears. Floatation foam may help on some smaller boats, but it’s been a different world since I started cruising in the bigger ones. These days there are plenty of prayer meetings in the bilges, but there are no more revivals at the gunnels.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale