Voice of Experience: A Beautiful Night Gone Bad
My wife, Beverly, and I were making our fourth trip to the Bahamas from Georgia. After running south on the Intracoastal Waterway, we stopped at Harbortown Marina in Fort Pierce, Florida, to wait for a weather window for a Gulf Stream crossing. This year we wanted to spend a lot of time at Man-O-War Cay, so our plan was to cross the stream at night and arrive at the Little Bahamas Bank at daybreak. From there we would proceed to Green Turtle Cay to clear customs and then move on to Man-O-War.
We departed Fort Pierce aboard Summertime, our Beneteau 423, in the late evening. There was just enough light left in the day for us to exit the marina and get offshore before nightfall. The night itself could not have been more perfect: the wind was light, the sea was almost flat and the moon was full. We set a course that would lead us in an “S” curve across the Gulf Stream, rather than on a straight rhumb-line route. Without changing our heading, we would first head south to reach the Stream, then be shoved north by the current across the rhumb line until we exited the Stream. We would then proceed, still on the same heading, toward our desired destination. This, we have found, is this best way to keep up speed while crossing the Stream, as we don’t waste time trying to stem the current.
About four hours after our departure, approximately 27 miles from Fort Pierce, when we were well into the Stream, we heard a thump somewhere forward on the hull. Soon after, Beverly said she heard a noise below and that maybe I had better check on it. On going below, I first noticed that the seams in the cabin sole were wet. Then I looked in the bilge, where I saw lots of water sloshing from side to side. In what seemed like a few seconds, the water was over the cabin sole and rising rapidly. My first thought was that the thump we heard was from a collision with something that created a hole somewhere in the hull and that we were rapidly sinking. The two bilge pumps were working, so I headed back on deck to turn the boat back toward Fort Pierce and tell Beverly what was happening. I then sent her below to monitor the pumps while I made a call to the Coast Guard.
I was not sure we could make VHF contact with the Coast Guard at a range of over 25 miles from shore, but the response from Miami was immediate and clear. After we relayed the usual particulars, Miami requested we stand by while they hailed any vessels in the vicinity. I saw on our AIS unit that there was a freighter nearby, but they did not respond to Miami. I then had to ask Miami to stand by, because Beverly was reporting that the bilge pumps had stopped working. Going below again, I quickly discovered that the filters for the pumps were clogged with fine fiberglass particles and wood shavings left over from when the boat was built. In the course of the night, I would have to clear these filters a number of times to keep the pumps running.
Back on deck at the radio, Miami requested I give the Coast Guard’s Fort Pierce station a call. I succeeded in raising Fort Pierce, and their first request was that we don our lifejackets (we already had them on) and prepare either our liferaft or dinghy for an evacuation. They also wanted to know if our pumps were controlling the water level, and I told them they were not. After considering their options, Fort Pierce said they were sending a vessel and that it would arrive within 27 minutes. I was impressed!
We stayed in contact with Fort Pierce and updated them regularly on our position and our pump situation. Beverly called me below again and said she had noticed the water had turned warmer and did not feel sticky like seawater should. I tasted the water and confirmed it was fresh. By now it had reached the batteries and was getting close to the engine.
I checked both water tanks and all faucet connections, but I could not find any leaks. Then, while I was cleaning the bilge-pump filters again, I noticed the hose-clamp connection from the freshwater pressure pump to the distribution manifold had come apart. A hundred gallons from our main water tank, plus the contents of the hot-water heater, were being pumped into the interior of the boat. After turning off the pressure pump, I reconnected the separated line and switched the pump feed to the aft water tank. Everything began working fine again.
I advised the Coast Guard vessel that was en route to us that we had found and resolved the problem and that the situation was now under control. They decided to continue to our position anyway and, to their credit, did arrive within the projected 27 minutes. During the trip back to Fort Pierce, Beverly was able to clear all the water from inside the boat, and the Coast Guard vessel followed us all the way, occasionally checking in by radio. We anchored after midnight opposite the Fort Pierce Coast Guard Station. Just before we turned in to finally get some sleep, the Coast Guard called us one last time to say we should let them know if we needed anything during the night.
What we did right:
We were well prepared for emergencies and had all the right gear aboard.
We notified the Coast Guard of our situation promptly, even though we were not yet sure what we were dealing with.
We had chosen a good weather window. Conditions were mild and posed no threat to us.
We turned back immediately and continued to Fort Pierce after solving the problem. If we had turned around again and continued to the Bahamas, we might have had to cope with unknown ancillary issues. In fact, the batteries did fail after we returned to Fort Pierce.
What we did wrong:
I should have checked immediately whether the water was salt or fresh. Had I done so, we could have solved the problem much more quickly.
We should have turned off the freshwater pressure pump when at sea. Because of all the background sea and boat noises we never heard it
running. While on passage your pressure pump should only be on when you need it.
I should have been checking all hose clamps aboard more often. When inspecting the plumbing after this incident, I found more failed connections.
I should have made sure the bilges were clear of debris. Even if your boat is brand new, there’s a good chance there’s enough loose matter below your cabin sole to clog your bilge pumps.
Illustration by Steve Sanford; photo by Claude Moss