recent weeks the Miami television evening news has been
filled with numerous stories of small boat disasters
out in the Gulf Stream. A number of them have had video
clips taken from a Coast Guard rescue helicopter that
shows a 24 foot boat floating upside down with a couple
of people trying to hang onto the bottom.
The story line tersely
states that the people were rescued (in one case a
man drowned) after their boat "capsized."
Experience boaters might blanch at that word since
capsize means to tip over. The video clip shows something
like two to three foot waves. So how did the boat
capsize? Well, obviously it didn't; the right word
would probably be "foundered" meaning to
fill up with water, at which point it rolls over.
One of the more notable
things about those video clips is that the men hanging
onto the overturned boats didn't have life jackets
on. Were they out there without them, or did the boats
go down so fast that they couldn't get the LJ's out
of wherever they were tucked away fast enough. We
don't know, but there they were, bobbing around
in the water 10 miles off the coast without
Altogether, I'd guess
that if I watched the evening news every day for a
year, I'd probably see several dozen such stories
annually. If I multiply this by the number of major
boating centers around the nation, that works
out to hundreds of such founderings occurring every
year. And that means that this is an all too frequent
occurrence, so I'll try to give you some insight as
to why this happens and what you can do to avoid making
the evening news.
Almost every day I'm
out on the ocean doing sea trials and I see people
out there fishing in all kinds of weather conditions.
And as one who has traveled far and wide in small
boats, I don't find that being out there in moderately
rough water is particularly dangerous, albeit with
two important caveats. First is that the operator
is experienced in small boat handling, and second
that he is knowledgeable and meticulous about the
maintenance of his vessel.
I'd also say that it
is not wise to venture far out in the ocean in a small
boat unless you are a highly experienced and skilled
seaman. Particularly in single engine outboard boats.
Those who have a lot of sea experience are believers
in O'Tools Law. Mr. O'Tool, you see, theorizes that
Mr. Murphy is overly optimistic.
Out on the ocean is
a place where things can really go wrong fast. And
most of us salty types are firm believers in the adage
that problems come in threes. Boaters get in serious
trouble as a result of the natural cause and effect
relationship that sets off chain reactions of problems.
One little thing happens that leads to a bigger thing
and yet another. Unless you've had the experience,
it's hard to understand how fast problems can snowball.
Unless you know how one little loose wire can translate
into a helicopter rescue at sea (if your lucky), then
you'll never really appreciate the danger you're putting
yourself in when you head out into the ocean in a
Another notable aspect
of the helicopter video views I saw was that the ocean
seemed like it was a really nice day out there. So
why did these boats founder? The answer is that there
are a lot of reasons why you could end up swimming
next to your upside down boat. The most obvious one
is that water was coming into the boat faster than
the operator's ability to remove it. This usually
translates to poor boat handling skills, inadequate
bilge pumping capacity or both. But before I get into
that, let's talk about small boats a bit first.
The problem with small
boats is that they are small. That's a no-brainer,
right? But do you know why? Have you thought about
how the smallness of the boat means that it can fill
up with water very fast? Generally speaking, small
boats such as outboards are far less sea worthy than
larger boats because:
- The transoms
are either wide open or cut down.
- The cockpits
are wide open, the freeboards are lower.
- They have
smaller and fewer bilge pumps, often only one.
- They have
smaller and fewer batteries.
- Cockpit decks
are not water tight.
- Control cables
have holes in liners that allow a lot of water entry.
have all the engine weight at the stern, making
them stern heavy.
As you can see, I've
just listed seven major reasons why smaller boats
are more vulnerable than larger boats. But one of
the most important reasons has to do with wave size
relative to boat size. The most common conditions
found along our Atlantic coastline in the summer is
a two foot chop. Yet the average 22-24' boat is vulnerable
to this size wave by virtue of its size. The two foot
wave that is no threat to a 30 foot inboard boat,
can be a serious threat to an outboard under certain
It would be one thing
if that outboard boat had an absolutely water tight
cockpit liner, but as you well know, almost none of
them do. There are holes and leaky access ports all
over the place. Even that wouldn't be so much of a
risk if the boat had several large bilge pumps and
big batteries to run them. Yet most often we find
a single bilge pump in the stern powered by one or
two car batteries just large enough to start the engine.
Were I a lawyer, I
could make a hell of a good legal argument that boats
that meet this description are not seaworthy to be
out in the ocean. But hundreds of them are out there
every day and only a handful of them meet with calamity.
So why don't more of them founder? Mainly due to dumb
luck. It takes the right circumstances at the right
time to create the disaster. Like that loose bilge
pump wire I mentioned earlier.
One of those circumstances
is when the fisherman stops and puts his stern to
the waves. Water is sloshing over the transom and
what he is not realizing is that the bilge is slowly
filling up with water through all those holes and
leaks. It doesn't take much water in the bilge before
the hull looses enough buoyancy that one bigger wave
comes over the transom and fills up the cockpit.
At this point, the sheer weight of the water has turned
moderate leakage into the hull into cascades of water.
The hull is now even lower in the water and the next
wave is the coup de gras.
Ah, you say, but the
bilge pump is taking care of all that. Is it? How
do you know, did you check? If you're like most people,
it never even crossed your mind to check.
How to Improve Seaworthiness
From the foregoing,
it should be obvious what to do. Seal up all possible
points of water entry into the hull, including those
plastic inspection ports. Remember, they're plastic,
not steel. Put some weight on the covers or load up
the deck and both the covers and frames will easily
bend. That's where the serious leaks come from. I'd
suggest installing the lids with silicone sealer.
That will at least cut down on the amount of leakage.
Most boats are sold
with grossly inadequate bilge pumping and battery
capacity. You can have big pumps but that is no help
if they're running off puny batteries, particularly
when they're old. That's a prescription for disaster.
When thinking about
what is enough pump capacity, take that GPH (gallon
per hour) number and break it down into minutes. A
1500 GPH pump is only 25 GPM. Remember that you don't
have an hour to wait for a pump to remove 1500 gallons
of water; when in trouble, you got to get that water
out fast, so we're talking a matter of minutes here,
not an hour. Moreover, when you look at the pump flow,
is it really putting out 25 GPM, or is it something
less? Keep in mind that the manufacturer rating is
obtained under ideal conditions and that actual performance
is going to be quite a bit less.
The Universal Cosmic
One pump is NEVER
enough because of the propensity for pump failure.
You should just assume that one pump is going to fail
when you need it most.
To figure what your
pumping requirements are, calculate the cubic volume
of the after half of the hull. Why half? That's because
all the water tends to concentrate aft. Find the mid
point of the hull and measure the length, width and
depth from deck to keel. That will give you a cubic
on which to base your capacity requirement. A 22 foot
boat would give you something like 176 cubic feet
(11 x 8 x 2). There are 7.5 gallons per cubic foot
so we get 1320 gallons. Naturally, fuel tanks and
other things are taking up space in the bilge and
we don't account for these to leave a margin of safety.
The bottom is also a vee but we calculated for a rectangle
instead of our actual triangular hull, but we ignore
So, how fast do you
want to get that 1320 gallons out of your hull. You
can see my point here that our single Rule 1500 is
going to take about an hour because 1320 is about
what it will really pump. Unfortunately, when
calamity strikes, you don't have an hour.
Personally, I'd like to get that time down to just
a few minutes. If I increase my pumping to a pair
of Rule 3000 pumps (50 gpm each), the dewatering rate
decreases to 13 minutes, and with the large safety
margin I built in on the hull volume, the actual number
is probably closer to 6 minutes since our hull doesn't
really hold 1320 gallons, but about half that.
Whew! Boy, I feel a
lot better those kind of numbers.
Now let's talk about
what powers the pumps, the batteries. The standard
automotive battery, which most boats have with the
main difference the word "marine" stenciled
on them, is a 60 ampere hour battery. Theoretically,
it will give you up to 60 amperes for one hour, or
10 amps for six hours. In reality, battery capacity
decreases dramatically with age, and since this is
always declining, the way I figure it is to use half
the rating as what I can reasonably expect at any
given time. So, we look at the pump rating, say it's
7.5 amps. If my reasonable estimate of battery power
is 30 ampere hours, I don't have much of a power cushion
there to rely upon in a pinch. I could be thinking
that's no problem because I've got an engine alternator
that is always feeding it more power. That's a mistaken
assumption when the engine quits. Glub.
Boat builders usually
provide the minimum amount of battery power necessary
with no safety margin. My own view is that a 60 AH
battery is way too small for even a small boat. Battery
power is directly related to plate size. That's why
we can't escape from battery size, which is a problem
in small boats. You want lots of battery power, but
there ain't no place to put larger ones. Somehow,
someway, you need larger batteries when you propose
to go offshore.
If I've got two 7.5
amp bilge pumps, that's 15 amps per hour, which can
bring down a battery in a hurry. Therefore, what I'd
like to have is a pair of 90 AH batteries which I
figure at half the rating or 45 AH each. (A 90 Ah
battery is roughly 1.5 times the size of a 60.)
Now I'm looking at 90 amps of deliverable power (assuming
they're wired in parallel) divided by 15 theoretically
gives me 6 hours of pumping time with a very comfortable
margin. That makes me feel a lot better, too.
A Few Other Points
Of course, large waves
crashing over the transom and filling up the cockpit
could still cause the boat to become unstable and
roll over, so we make it a point to never stop with
our stern to the seas. Bear in mind that with outboards
and stern drives all the weight is in the stern and
for this reason the boat can founder very quickly
without a lot of water in it since all that water
also runs to the stern. It goes down stern-first
and then rolls over due to the engine weight. If you're
going to drift fish and the stern tends to swing around
upwind (as many boats do) you need to get yourself
a sea anchor that will keep the bow into the waves.
(A sea anchor is simply
a stout canvass bag with a bridle attached. It creates
drag so that the bow will stay pointed into the waves
when tied off the bow. It has surprised me that these
things are actually making a come back as I haven't
seen them on boats for a long time.)
Engine breakdowns at
sea in small boats is a major cause of foundering,
and another good reason to have a sea anchor on board.
In a pinch, throw out your regular anchor. If you're
one of those people who doesn't perform preventative
maintenance, you're heading for trouble. When was
the last time you checked over all the hoses,
clamps and fuel lines?
And, of course, you're
going to check over that bilge pump wiring and float
switches frequently and make sure everything is in
operating condition before each and every time you
head out. Don't fool around with old batteries, replace
at the first sign of weakness. Many people make the
mistake of replacing paired batteries one at a time.
You already know that you can't do that with dry cells
because an old battery will drag down a new one. Whether
you like it or not, batteries have to be replaced
in pairs. Besides, you're not saving anything by doing
it one at a time; it's actually costing you more because
you're damaging the new battery.
Check systems over
carefully. Little things like loose wires and corroded
wire connections can lead to major problems. Keep
in mind that a boat rocking and rolling at sea is
what tends to cause things to break down. The violent
motion puts a strain on everything. Treat the systems
like your life depends upon them; whether you realize
it or not, it does.
As for lifesaving devices,
these should be kept immediately available. When a
boat starts to go down suddenly, there's no time to
go rooting around in the cabin trying to get them
out from under the seats where they're stuffed away.
I'm not saying that you have to wear them, just keep
out where you can grab them quickly whenever you're
offshore. People are drowning out there not because
they don't have them, but because they can't get to
them in time.