The Sinking Of Never Finished

By John Zalusky and Susan Rork

An account of the accident and lessons learned the hard way.

It has been over a year since our 35-foot trawler Never Finished sank in shallow water on a typical August day on the Chesapeake Bay. Damage to the boat has been repaired and we've had time to reflect on the events of that day and what we could have done differently.

Never Finished

This story begins on August 20, 2010, when we departed our slip in Lusby, Maryland, bound for Cambridge, Maryland. I had completed my checklist and we got underway about 10 a.m. It was a pleasant summer morning on the Chesapeake Bay — already hot and humid with almost no wind. The seas were calm.

The trip out of the Patuxent River and up the Chesapeake Bay went smoothly. About noon, we were approaching the Choptank River, gingerly passing through a field of crab traps when we heard a thump, thump, thump from under the boat. A split second later, the thumping stopped and the engines resumed humming along nicely; we figured those expensive cutters on the props had cut loose whatever it was we hit.

"I went below, opened the engine compartment, and found the water had risen half-way up to the sides of the twin Lehman diesels. Given the depth of the water, discovering the source wasn't practical."

About 10 minutes later, Susan, my wife, was headed below to make sandwiches when she made a frightening discovery: We were taking on water — a lot of water. She screamed. I went below, opened the engine compartment, and found the water had risen half-way up to the sides of the twin Lehman diesels. Given the depth of the water, discovering the source wasn't practical.

The boat was near the mouth of the Choptank, in 35 feet of water. We donned our life jackets and ensured Coalbie, our standard poodle, had her life jacket on tight. I issued a mayday on the VHF and gave our position. I then turned my attention to getting the boat to shallow water.

Susan took over the VHF, which seemed to be transmitting well, but others said they were having trouble receiving us. Susan also used her cell phone to call 911 and alert the Coast Guard and TowBoatUS. Friends on two boats heard our mayday and kept us in sight, which was comforting in the event we would have to abandon ship.

The boat was north of Trippe Bay, about a mile or so from Cook Point. There was never any thought of looking for an "ideal spot" to ground the boat — next to a dock or pilings. The boat was sinking far too quickly. We kept plodding ahead until finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the boat grounded in soft mud. It had been the longest 20 minutes of my life!

I climbed down off the flybridge and peered over the side of the hull; the water was only two inches from the engine's air intakes. We probably had a scant few minutes — five at the most — before the engines would have locked up and the boat headed for the bottom. That would have left the two of us overboard with our dog, who was also aboard for the trip and would likely have been very scared.

The Coast Guard and TowBoatUS were within yards by the time we finally grounded. The 2nd Class Petty Officer said, "Nice job, Master Chief." That small gesture helped take the edge off my jittery nerves.

The TowBoatUS captain, Trevor Hammond, came aboard and explained the salvage rules. He also pointed out that because we carried BoatUS Marine Insurance, salvage would not be a problem. (He was obliquely pointing out that, unlike some other company's policies, the BoatUS insurance policy covers salvage costs.) My wife wondered why, if Never Finished was on the beach, it would be treated as a salvage case. Captain Hammond responded that when a boat is full of water and on the bottom, it is a "sunk vessel." The lesson: If you don't have a BoatUS policy, make sure your insurance coverage includes the cost of salvage; the bill came to $8,400.

Captain Hammond put one large battery-driven bilge pump aboard, and because it was not making any headway against the incoming flow of water, he deployed a much larger engine-driven pump that had a two-inch-diameter discharge. Slowly, the water level began to recede until we could see the source — water had been pouring in through the shaft log. The three-inch hose that was clamped to the outer end of the shaft log had moved forward about three inches, which allowed a steady 2 1/2-inch stream of seawater to pour into the bilge.

The repair was simple: With a large pair of channel locks, Captain Hammond pulled the hose back over the shaft log and then tightened the hose clamps on the hose and stopped the flow of water. The hose clamps that let go — evidently at the same time — were the type that are available at all marine stores; the screw engages the threads to draw down the clamp. With the hose clamps securely refastened, Trevor towed us for three hours to Yacht Maintenance Company in Cambridge, where a crew was standing by to pickle the engines and begin repairs on the boat.

Learning The Hard Way

Susan and I are not new to boating. Susan crewed on a sailboat across the Pacific, and I have been boating alone on power and sailboats for over 60 years, since I was 12 years old. I am also a retired USN Boatswain Mate, Master Chief. Nonetheless, I am ashamed to say that I neglected to activate a 406 EPIRB that was aboard for just this sort of emergency. Also, I had two Uniden VHF radios aboard, both of which were equipped with the DSC position-locating feature. However, I had such difficulty figuring out how to mate them with my GPS that I had given up (there were no instructions). I have since contacted the nice folks at West Marine and both are now installed.

I am sure the hose clamps were in place when we left home three hours earlier, and that they failed. Before casting off, I used my 10-hour checklist that included the shaft packing gland. I believe what happened was that we picked up one or two crab pots, wrapped them around the shaft, and they hit the bottom a few times. That whipped the shaft and caused the clamps to come loose.

A Few Lessons

1. Be careful to avoid crab (or lobster) pots. Don't even get close. While cutting corners is tempting, you are better off in deep water.

2. If you notice that you might have hit something, go below immediately and check the bilge for flooding. Even if the bilge looks OK, check again later just to be sure nothing was loosened.

3. Be aware that even the best towing plan won't cover the cost of salvage. For that, you'll need a good marine insurance policy (read the fine print) that covers all salvage costs.

4. Invest in a high-water alarm. A typical bilge pump, even if it runs full time, will never handle a major leak.

5. From time to time, do a "sinking drill" just like you do (or should do) for a "man overboard" drill. Don life jackets, locate the EIPRB (don't activate the thing), simulate a mayday call and DSC broadcast. Divide up the crew's roles. The goal is to make the event seem routine. Furthermore, do not forget the cell phone has an active and useful role: calling 911.

6. Use the strongest possible hoses and stainless steel clamps, especially with through-hulls below the waterline. Since the unfortunate run-in with the crab pots, I've installed "T" bolt clamps, which are much more secure. 

— Published: January 2012