Recover From That Sinking Feeling

First published in several Maryland newspapers, 8/4/89       

Proper maintenance is the key to staying afloat.

Recover from that sinking feeling

by Tom Dove
The popular perception of sinking is the one promoted by the movies, in which the vessel goes under in a violent storm after hitting a reef. In real life, boats sink more commonly as they rest quietly in their slips at the marina, usually as a result of a loose hose or a broken dockline.

Most boats have through-hull fittings to let water in and out for the engine, marine head and sink drains. If a hose clamp corrodes and breaks, the Bay will fill the boat at a rapid rate. For this reason, you should shut off all through-hull openings when you are away from the boat for more than a day.

Some boat builders cut the cost (and the price) of their vessels by eliminating seacocks or valves on the through-hull fittings. If you have one of these “bargain boats”, install shutoff valves the next time it is out of the water. It could save the boat.

Ice expansion in winter is the most common cause of sinkings from hose failure but a hose can be knocked loose during warm weather, too. Check yours regularly.

This winter, be sure the weight of snow on the decks doesn’t force your boat under. If the water rises to the level of an open scupper or intake, the boat will fill and sink.

Small boats are often sunk when they get trapped under piers on a rising tide. If a dockline breaks or if the boat is improperly tied, a corner of the boat may drift under the edge of the pier.

A storm, heavy rain or a full moon that makes the tide higher than normal will push it under the water. The solution for this malady is to check your docklines when you leave the boat to be sure it is floating well clear of the pier. If others use your boat, it is best to check the lines yourself after they bring it back.

If your boat does sink, you have a lot of work to do. The engine will be ruined quickly and must be attended to right away. The upholstery and interior woodwork will be damaged by water and coated with engine oil. The electronics will be destroyed.

When a runabout with I/O drive sank in a nearby marina recently, the local mechanic knew he had to work fast to save the engine. Before raising the boat, he collected the tools and supplies he would need to salvage it. The mechanic knew that corrosion would accelerate as soon as the metal parts were hit by the air, so he left the boat underwater until all was ready. A heavy duty sump pump was used to bail out the little vessel.

As soon as the boat was floated, the mechanic pumped the water out of the flooded engine. Then he pumped the oil out of the motor into containers for proper disposal at a gas station.  The mechanic immediately filled the entire engine with kerosene, including the valve covers and carburetor. The kerosene would lubricate and keep air away from the internal parts and prevent corrosion while other repairs were being done. 

Next, he removed the alternator and starter and sent them to a rebuilding shop for dissassembly and repair. Corrosion had already started by the time air first hit the metal surfaces, and they had been underwater less than ten hours. All wiring in the boat was then sprayed heavily with silicone spray to disperse the moisture and protect the electrical system from further corrosion. The only electronics aboard, a depth sounder and VHF radio, are probably destroyed.

The next big problem is cleanup. When the engine filled with water, oil got on the carpeting, wood trim and upholstery. Luckily, the storm waves abated after the boat sank and the oil stayed inside instead of spilling out into the marina.

Sinkings are not always fatal nor are they always dramatic but they are always expensive and troublesome, whether they occur at sea or near the shore. The key to successful salvage is fast action and proper treatment of the systems most likely to have been damaged by submersion. 

It could happen to any of us. All it takes is storm tides, loose docklines or a broken water hose. Sinking isn’t something that only happens to movie stars in pirate ships.

— The End —