Know how: Shore Water Supply Flooding Precautions

Roger Hughes left his boat for just a few hours, but that was long enough…
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The automatic shut-off valve is the heart of the new protective system. This closes when the bilge float switch is activated by rising water, thereby stopping water entering through the shore water connection

The automatic shut-off valve is the heart of the new protective system. This closes when the bilge float switch is activated by rising water, thereby stopping water entering through the shore water connection

Dock water hoses can be seen connected to lots of boats in marinas, and my 45ft schooner, Britannia, had the system built-in from the original. A water hose connects to a dock faucet and a pressure-reducing inlet on the boat. This reduces municipal water pressure, usually around 60lb, to about 35lb and pressurizes the boat’s water system. The advantages are constant pressure in the boat’s water system without using pumps or battery power, and a more even flow than a small pulsating pressure pump can deliver for, say, a shower and silent operation.

Unfortunately, Britannia’s 1/2in water hoses were as old as the boat, with a maze of connectors all in a tangled mess. I had repaired or replaced many sections that leaked or cracked from time to time, which the automatic bilge pump had alerted me to. But I was also aware that it all needed upgrading—as did so many other things on the boat.

It was always my practice to turn the water off at the dock faucet whenever I left the boat, even for a short time, and when I left it for days I would actually disconnect the hose at the dock. One time, though, I forgot. Although I was only in town for the afternoon anyway...

These reducing inlet connectors can be seen on many boats and allow a water hose to be connected to a shore water faucet that pressurizes the boat’s water system. A problem can occur if one of these pipes fractures, flooding the inside of the boat.

These reducing inlet connectors can be seen on many boats and allow a water hose to be connected to a shore water faucet that pressurizes the boat’s water system. A problem can occur if one of these pipes fractures, flooding the inside of the boat.

As fate would have it, the Down East 45 has an abnormally large bilge, 53in below the floorboards and running 26ft along the keelson. The Perkins engine, Kubota generator, water heater, batteries, pumps, etc. are also all mounted 24in above the bilge floor on separate platforms, creating a cavernous area that I call the machinery bay.

Nonetheless, when I returned to the boat I immediately noticed the air conditioning had stopped, which was unusual, so I lifted a floorboard to check the pump and received the biggest shock of my sailing life. Water was sloshing about 18in below. I don’t remember my actual words, but they definitely wouldn’t be printable.

I confess I totally freaked out and didn’t even think to test the swill to see if it was freshwater or salty—which would have immediately pointed me to a possible source of the flooding. Instead, I dashed to the Westland Marina office, only to be told its portable pump was “waiting for parts.” I then went to Boaters Edge, the engineering shop next door, and implored their help to “man the pumps.”

Britannia’s original pipework was 38 years old and had been repaired many times. As part of the repair after the flooding, the author changed out all the tubing for a new, more reliable system

Britannia’s original pipework was 38 years old and had been repaired many times. As part of the repair after the flooding, the author changed out all the tubing for a new, more reliable system

Owner Jeff Belford came over immediately, trundling a massive gas engine pump with a 3in-diameter hose. After some heart-stopping moments, it roared to life, and I shoved the suction end into the water, which seemed to still be rising.

The pump soon started to reduce the water level, which was now well over my eight brand-new batteries and halfway up the engine and generator. The boat seemed to have gone down about 12in—that’s a lot of water in a 45-footer!

As the powerful pump began to make its mark, cooler thoughts started to prevail, and I tested the water with a finger. It was definitely fresh. That was when I realized the dock hose was still switched on. A crowd had gathered by this time, and I was embarrassed to ask someone to close the faucet.

The machinery bay runs the whole length of the saloon and into the engine room and is accessible by removing all the cabin sole boards. It was almost completely flooded

The machinery bay runs the whole length of the saloon and into the engine room and is accessible by removing all the cabin sole boards. It was almost completely flooded

It seemed like an eternity before the water receded, exposing first the batteries and then the various pumps and motors that operate all the boat’s systems. There are two seawater inlet pumps for the electric toilets with four electric motors on the Purisan waste systems, along with a large 120V AC pump, a water pressure pump, a deck-wash pump and a generator electric fuel pump. That’s eight electric motors, not to mention solenoids and large starter motors for the main engine and generator. All these had been completely submerged, including the transmission.

It took me two days of hard work to repair the damage, changing the fluids in the main engine and stripping and cleaning out several pumps. Luckily, the batteries were unscathed. After a third oil change in the machinery, and with all other systems running again, I felt I had it all back to normal after a very close call.

I don’t know by how many years this episode has reduced my life, but the challenge now was to prevent it ever happening again, given there was no accounting for another pipe failure or me forgetting to switch off the shore water again.

The new connectors are guaranteed up to 100 psi when used with the correct tubing. They are easy to install and can be removed using the blue tool shown

The new connectors are guaranteed up to 100 psi when used with the correct tubing. They are easy to install and can be removed using the blue tool shown

The obvious thing (suggested by a number of people) was not to use a dock water supply at all. But the same might be said about a shore electrical supply, which everyone uses without a second thought and has been the cause of many an electrical fire. Bottom line: my wife and I like the advantages of a dock water supply, so it became a question of how to make it as fail-safe and idiot-proof as possible.

The first thing to prevent a reoccurrence was to re-plumb the whole boat with new tubing and modern connectors. I, therefore, bought two 100ft coils of 1/2in 160-PSI Pex tubing for only $27.95 each, one red for hot water, the other blue for cold, along with Blue Hawk connectors. I then pulled the new tubing through the boat by taping it securely to the old tubes and hauling it through. I also re-routed much of it in order to inspect it easily and get to the connections. The job took four days in all, and the installation looks very professional as a result of now having twin colors of tubing side by side and nice new connectors.

I also found an automatic shut-off valve on-line from a company appropriately called Electric Solenoid Valves Inc. (electricsolenoidvalves.com, Model # NOB12-12V) for $54.95. It consists of a 12-volt solenoid valve that is normally open but closes when powered, and when it arrived I connected it into the water line directly after the pressure inlet and wired it to the boat’s bilge float. Now, whenever the bilge pump is activated the valve closes and stops shore water entering the boat’s system.

The author replaced all the old tubes and re-routed many to make them easier to inspect. Red tubing is hot water and blue is cold. Inset: The latching relay keeps the shut-off valve closed, even when the bilge float switch returns to normal. It can be de-activated by switching the relay off for a second, then switching it back on

The author replaced all the old tubes and re-routed many to make them easier to inspect. Red tubing is hot water and blue is cold. Inset: The latching relay keeps the shut-off valve closed, even when the bilge float switch returns to normal. It can be de-activated by switching the relay off for a second, then switching it back on

On the downside, whenever the pump is switched off, the power to the solenoid is also switched off and the valve opens, allowing water to flow again, and the cycle would continuously repeat. To stop this, therefore, I incorporated what is called a “latching relay” into the circuit, a 12-volt relay that stays live when the primary current switches off, keeping the shut-off valve closed until the current is switched off at the breaker. The latching relay is Part # 785XBXCD-12D $22.89 from zoro.com. (latching relay). Finally, I also incorporated a bell that rings when the system is activated. In other words, I now have a high-water bilge alarm.

The author’s schooner, Britannia, riding high on her marks after her close call

The author’s schooner, Britannia, riding high on her marks after her close call

Later, I estimated how much water had flooded in. It was quite a complicated geometric volume estimate, but I calculated some 1,600 gallons in all. One U.S. gallon of water weighs 8.34lb, so the weight of water was about 13,380lb (six and a half tons!!). No wonder the old gal went down so far.

It’s frightening to see your boat full of water, even if you are tied to a dock. Without doubt, had I not returned when I did more damage would have resulted and eventually the boat would have eventually gone down.

Feeling quite satisfied with myself after installing my fail-safe system, I decided to find out how many boats in the two marinas in Titusville, Florida, used shore water supply hoses. Out of a total of 20 boats with direct shore water connections, I asked the owners of 12 if they had any safety method in case of an internal failure while they were away from their boat. Amazingly, none did. They all said they relied on remembering to switch the water off when they left their boats. I sure hope some of them read this article! 

Roger Hughes continues to lavish love and attention on his classic schooner

Photos by Roger Hughes

March 2019

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