Part one we covered outboard boats. In Part II we'll
take a look at some of the things that can go wrong
with intermediate size sport fishermen and cruisers.
I focus more specifically on sport fishermen because
these are the people who spend the most time at sea,
go further offshore, and who experience the most sinkings.
Thanks to the Internet,
we're getting a better idea of just how many tragedies
at sea are occurring, and it's a lot more than most
of us had realized. Unfortunately, while the USCG
keeps track of such accidents, they are not made readily
available to the boating public, but is given in a
database format that most people can't use.
Founderings occur because
a boat fills up with water, and then sinks. In studying
the many news media reports, I find that founderings
are most often referred to as "capsizings,"
which means to turn over. This gives a completely
wrong impression because the survivor stories usually
clearly indicate that most boats do not capsize, but
founder. Most major accidents result from human
error, and failure to maintain the vessel properly
is one of more common errors.
Most often, what causes
larger boats to founder is not a matter of taking
a large wave over the stern, though certainly this
does happen from time to time. No, most often a study
of the survivors comments points to a boat slowly
filling up with water before a wave finally delivers
the coup de gras. That was the case of a 1999 34'
Luhrs, the VITAMIN C sinking off Galveston early this
summer, a casualty in which two lives were lost. It
so happened that a man who docked his boat near the
VITAMIN C, a charter fishing boat, reported that he
and others at the marina had noticed that THE VITAMIN
C's bilge pumps were almost constantly running.
The owner of the boat
was reported to be someone who had never owned a larger
boat before, and was relatively experienced, despite
having attended a few boating courses and having got
his six pack license. So it was no surprise to his
dockmates when the report of the loss of VITAMIN C
We can infer from this
that the boat owner had ignored the warnings from
his dockmates, and didn't do anything to alleviate
the problem. Though it's reported, under pressure
from the boat builder, Luhrs, that the boat will be
raised and a further investigation conducted since
the boat went down in relatively shallow water. No
doubt this tragedy will ultimately end up in litigation,
so we'll say no more about it at this time.
This points up the
rather casual attitude that a lot of boaters have
toward ensuring that their boats are sea worthy.
Unfortunately, far too many people treat boats like
automobiles: just get in, start the engines and go.
Folks, you can't treat a boat this way, not if you
want to avoid ending up like the VITAMIN C.
Boats are not recreational vehicles to treated with
casual abandon, though many people do so. The reality
is that boats require near constant maintenance to
keep them sea worthy, particularly since the boat
building industry itself no longer places the emphasis
on sea worthiness that it once did.
is made lighter and cheaper in order to keep the cost
down so that lots of people can afford to buy them,
and the builders can profit by selling more.
A good example of cheapness
that can cost lives are the plastic through hull fittings
commonly in use today. Plastics, as we know, are highly
vulnerable to ultra violet radiation from the sun.
It causes plastics to become brittle and weaken. Every
year numerous boats sink because these plastic through
hull fittings fracture. Keep in mind that there is
a heavy hose, attached to the other side of that fitting.
As your boat is bouncing along on the waves, that
hose is applying strain, often with a lot of leverage,
on that plastic fitting. Eventually the plastic becomes
brittle and the nipple shears off from the outer flange
plate. At that point, the hull is open to the sea.
Usually this happens
suddenly and without warning, leaving a hole in the
side of the boat just a few inches above the water
line. Now, when you're underway, a lot of water is
coming into the hull. Of course, if your bilge pumps
and wiring are not in good condition, you could suddenly
find yourself in big trouble. I go into detail on
this just to illustrate that there are many things
that can go wrong without your knowledge and understanding.
Bilge pump failures
are another source of tragedy. Nearly everyone asks,
why can't they make more reliable pumps and float
switches? The answer is that the problem is not a
matter of poorly designed switches and pumps. No one
will ever be able to figure out how to make a highly
reliable system that doesn't require frequent inspection
and maintenance that would be reasonably priced. Like
the Rolex watch I own -- it's completely reliable
against leakage, but the price of achieving this is
not reasonable. It's terribly expensive, but on the
other hand I've only purchased ONE watch in the last
People simply will
not pay for higher quality, so we have to live with
the effects of low quality, which translates to the
fact that our modern boats require more maintenance
and more frequent inspections to ensure that they
The VITAMIN C is only
one example of boating tragedies that are occurring
with ever greater frequency. This is happening in
large part due to the cavalier attitude of boaters.
In a vast majority of death cases, the news reports
do mention that the occupants are cast into the sea
without life jackets. They are found clinging to overturned
hulls, coolers, seat cushions and other floatsam,
but no life jackets. Why? If my experience tells me
anything, it is that life jackets are only regarded
as something the law requires them to have, not that
they'll ever have need of them.
And so it is that the
LJ's get stored up in the cabin, under a berth, where
they can't be reached in time. Word has it that the
two persons who drowned on VITAMIN C went into the
cabin trying to get to the life jackets, but didn't
make it in time. Technically, under those circumstances,
the boat is not seaworthy because the life saving
devices are not accessible.
Just Goin'n Fishin'
By far, the largest
percentage of cases of foundering with loss of life
involve fishing. In part, this is due to the manner
in which boats are operated, without knowledge as
to a particular boat's capabilities and vulnerabilities.
This usually involves taking a wave over the stern,
from which the boat doesn't recover. An awful lot
of these sinkings have to do with poor design: non
water tight cockpits and too much weight aft. Thus,
a relatively small amount of water goes a long way
to sink the boat.
Backing down hard on
a fish has always been a bad idea due to the risk
imposed. But combined with poor design, the results
can be deadly, as more than a few examples have
proved over the years. Fishermen are generally more
knowledgeable than your basic cocktail barger and
should know better. Most sport fishing boats are NOT
well designed in this area, so that when you're taking
waves over the transom, it's time to back off and
rethink your methods.
To illustrate, a 12
x 12 cockpit filled with one foot of water would
take on about 10,000 pounds or 5 tons of water. That
would sink most boats, and yet flooding a cockpit
to that depth is a serious risk when backing down.
Sport fishermen need
to have what most would consider excessive bilge pumping
capacity due to excessive strain that is placed on
all it's systems. My experience tells me that most
boats have under capacity by at least half of what
is needed to deal with an emergency.
How much is enough?
That's a difficult
proposition to figure out, since so much depends on
the configuration of the internal hull. One needs
to assess where the water is likely to come from,
and where it will most likely settle, since all boats
are not the same. For example, if the engine room
bulkhead is water tight (though few are) you'd want
to concentrate on getting the water out of that compartment,
as well as the engine room.
The engine room bilge,
of course, is critical. Once the engine front pulleys
tough the water, they'll start throwing water all
over the engine room. This usually causes gas engines
to die with only a relatively small amount of water
in the bilge, long before sinking is immanent. And
without power, the vessel is helpless and in yet more
If I were a serious
offshore fisherman, I'd install bilge suctions from
the main engine intakes, not on just one engine, but
both, as only this kind of pumping capacity will really
do the job when Mr. Murphy shows up. At all costs,
you need to keep the water away from the engines and
Barring that, the
least I'd want for something like a 35 foot
boat would be my usual three Rule 2000 dewatering
pumps, to which I'd add two Rule 4000 pumps as backups.
These would be set up so that they do not normally
operate for routine dewatering by being mounted up
about six inches higher. Not just the float switches,
but the pump itself so that there is no chance that
any debris in the bilge is going to clog up the impeller
during its long periods of disuse.
Personally, I do not
like covered switches. Before I go out I like to lift
the float and make sure that it works. That's hard
to do with a covered switch. Plus, I would have a
length of stainless wire rod bent in the shape of
a hook. All I have to do is lift the hatch, hook the
switch and lift, without having to crawl down there.
To prevent rushing
water from damaging the switch, I would mount them
close to a bulkhead with the flapper facing toward
the bulkhead, about an inch or two away. That way,
rushing water will not lift it up and tear it off.
One of the most important
safety devices that you can have aboard is a bilge
high water alarm. Though this, as with bilge pumps,
also requires frequent testing and maintenance. The
value of a bilge alarm is that it warns you when water
is accumulating in the bilge. And with that warning,
you get the opportunity to do something about it before
Alarm float switches
should be installed at two locations: the midships
bilge point and the far aft bilge. This is because
water runs to different parts of the hull based on
boat speed. The alarm buzzer or bell must be sufficiently
loud that it can be heard over the engine noise. The
old way of doing this by just wiring in warning indicator
lights is not adequate, because operators are often
not looking for the light, and can fail to see it.
Alarms can be critically
important for the reason that in most boats, the batteries
are located deep in the hull. This is necessary to
keep the center of gravity down, but it also means
that batteries are among the first things to go under
water. And with the loss of battery power, you have
no radio. That's why so many deaths occur almost within
sight of help.
Some of the attitudes
expressed by boat owners are truly appalling. Such
as, "It's a new boat, what could go wrong?"
Or, "I had a mechanic check it over just last
year." And, "My boat yard keeps it up for
me." Wrong. Does your boat yard or mechanic go
through the entire boat, checking everything? Or did
he just have a quick look around? The fact is that
boat yards and service people are not in the business
of doing surveys, and don't want to be, owning to
liability factors. As much as they'd like to, they
don't go around looking for problems to fix because
they will strenuously avoid giving the impression
that they have checked out the boat and making any
pronouncements that all is well. And that is a proper
attitude, unless they want to go into the survey business.
The Money Issue
Yet another major problem
is that many boat owners are very reluctant to spend
money on their boats, other than to purchase new luxury
items. I experience on insurance surveys that so many
boat owners, when I discover a minor problem that
needs correction, will strenuously argue with me about
the need to make the change, fix or addition. Obviously,
this is because so many boat owners are stretched
to the end of their financial limit, and do everything
possible to avoid spending money on necessary maintenance.
If that describes your
situation, then the chances are that you are an accident
waiting to happen. There is no better way to invite
a major accident than by getting in over your head
with a boat. You wouldn't do it with an airplane,
so why would you do it with a boat. With either vehicle,
when something goes wrong, you can't just get out
To give you an idea
of just how irrational some people can be, here are
a few examples.
On a haul out survey,
three cracked plastic through hull fittings were found.
One was 1" above the water line and completely
broken off; the others were about 4". both in
the bow. The owner was told that he needed to have
them replaced before the boat went back in the water.
The owner said he'd do it later. At that point, I
declined to continue to do a sea trial, telling him
that if he didn't do it now, I was going to take a
taxi home. At that point, he got out a role of duct
tape and taped them over. I called the taxi.
Then there was the
customer who didn't like electric stoves. So, he installed
a gas stove himself, with LP tank wedged between the
seats in the cockpit. The installation violated every
rule in the book. In case you don't understand why
this is a problem, gas regulators ventilate to the
open air, thus they discharge gas fumes. Plus the
tank, being unsecured, was in danger of breaking
loose, in which case the zinc alloy regulator could
easily shear off, causing the tank to discharge it's
full load of highly explosive gas into the boat.
I insisted that the
system had to be removed, but the boat owner argued
with me. And to ice this cake, the man referred to
himself as a "Captain."
Situations like this
are enough to make any surveyor throw up his hands
in exasperation. Here we had a case of a boat that
was capable of blowing up half a marina but, because
eliminating the danger would cost the owner some money,
he was going to try to avoid eliminating the hazard.
These are extreme examples,
but lesser foolishness is commonplace. Such as the
boat owner who never checks over anything in his boat
and just runs it until it quits, sinks, catches fire
or blows up. Boat as recreational vehicle. Folks,
boats are not RV's, they are dangerous instrumentalities
(as designated by law in the State of Florida) that
have to be treated with knowledge and respect for
the harm they can cause through careless operation.
Is it any wonder, then,
that the number of grievous tragedies is growing
by leaps and bounds? Most of these people are killing
themselves and others out of ignorance and stupidity.
For the boat owner,
injury and loss of life is only a small part of the
consequences when a serious accident occurs. Not only
will you have to live with the fact that you may have
caused the death of others (assuming you survive)
as the vessel owner, the law charges YOU with the
responsibility of maintaining the boat in a safe and
seaworthy condition. If injury or loss of life occurs,
you are legally responsible for that loss. And if
you think your insurance liability coverage covers
all this, you'd best think again. You cannot begin
to buy enough insurance to cover the years of grief,
or the potential judgments against you, that a wrongful
death suit will entail. And, you'll have to sleep
in the same bed with yourself.
The vast majority of
cases of tragedies, similar to the one cited above,
do not end at the grave site. They end in court, years
and many ruined lives later.