My boat is sinking – and it’s not at the dock

When I wrote about why four out of five boats sink at the dock, I promised you that there would be another article on that fifth boat — the one that sinks underway. This is far more dangerous since you and your crew are aboard and not just driving up to the marina to find your mast light sticking up out of your slip.

Why Do Boats Sink at Sea?
Before we get into the other percentages, why’s and wherefore’s, the single most reported reason is water coming aboard from the stern through the outboard engine cut-out. While fine for the bays, be extremely cautious about taking a boat so configured onto the high seas. A following sea can easily “poop” you from behind and overwhelm your capacity to off-load the water. (We’ll put some advice together in the weeks ahead on heavy weather skippering and how you might address such a potential situation.)

As to the other percentages and categories, roughly one in five sinkings at sea (18 percent) are due to direct leaks in the vessel, rather than being caused by violent contact with the bottom or the sea itself. Areas of ingress, in order, are:

  • Thru-hull fittings that give way
  • Stuffing box leaks (the spot under the boat where the drive shaft exits the engine space of a cruiser and enters the water)
  • Knot-meter plugs
  • Bait well discharge back-ups

Roughly 1 in 8 sinkings at sea (12 percent) are caused by raw (sea) water cooling and exhaust systems failures. These parts, subjected to high heat from engine exhaust gases and the corrosive effects of saltwater, simply wear out — and you are now pumping water from the sea into the engine spaces … Hitting something, often rocks, accounts for another 10 percent. This is called “holing the boat”, i.e., you just put a hole in it… Roughly 1 in 20 sinkings at sea (6 percent) are caused by excess force/excessive speed and the hull comes apart …

What Do I Do Now??

  1. Put your life jackets on – Right away, direct everyone to don their life jackets. On my vessel, I have a heavy weather/type-1 life jacket on the back of my helm seat. Across the back, where the crew can read it, it says, “If you see the captain put this on, try to find one for yourself.”
  2. Don’t be bashful – Immediately get on the radio and call the U.S. Coast Guard. Tell them where you are, how many people are aboard and where the water is coming from. Why how many people? Because if they get there after the boat goes down, make sure they pick up everybody. No one gets left behind.
  3. Stop the leak – If water is coming through a hole in the hull, try to stop it. Jam towels, cushions, extra life jackets – anything – into the hole. Brace the plug with a shoulder only if you have to (you want to avoid having anybody below when the boat sinks). Use a spar, oar, bimini cover, pole, boarding ladder – anything – to jam your plug(s) into that hole. An old sail boater’s trick is to jam a sail into the hole from the outside. Let the sea pressure work for you. Not a lot of power boaters carry sails on their Bayliners – but it may give you an idea. You won’t stop the water but you will likely slow it. It is going to take time for help to arrive so you have to start doing things to buy yourself more time. Buy time by slowing the ingress of water … You may have to slow down to contain the water pressure on your plug so you are doing a trade-off here – less water but more time to shore. Start with less water and evaluate who is winning – you or the sea.
  4. Trim the boat – If you hit something, it is likely that the hole is in the forward part of the boat and possibly near the waterline. Trim the boat up and try to get the hole out of the water. If you can, you win and the sea loses.
  5. Any port in a storm – If you are losing the battle after doing everything above, beach the boat if you can. Who cares what happens to the boat at this point? We might be talking about living or dying now. Life first, property last.
  6. Create a ditch bag – If the situation continues to deteriorate, say your prayers but don’t leave the boat until it sinks out from under you. But have a “ditch bag” ready – cell phone, handheld radio, fresh water, dry clothes, medical kit, flash light, flares, etc. It is always good to have a ditch bag ready whenever you go “outside.” Hit a 45-foot container that fell off a ocean-going cargo ship on its way from Brazil to Maine and you won’t have to take your shoes off to count the minutes you have left on your boat.

 When you have a leak in your boat, secure the crew, call for help and try to stop the leak … You’re the captain.

8 Responses to My boat is sinking – and it’s not at the dock

  1. John C. Leichty February 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    one can notice the change in open transom sailboats companionway step over heighth and redistribution ratios like a 40 rduced to coastal only
    on some models , and phased out for a 41 starting series for min. A rate. Made a small study over 3 years on this issue Hawaii and east on assgnement recoveries. Aft wwd fill , and bow would drop quick as bow
    droped lower quicker in sudden turbulent , unforseenable aaction , especiall when into an area where currents merge at angles to each other. Easy to see from the recovery aircraft , but not in the boat.

  2. John C February 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    The USCG issues an annual report which was no doubt the primary source for this excellent article. You can download the full report at:

    This report makes suprisingly compelling reading and will help us all to understand that circumstances could conspire at any moement to put us in the icy Puget Sound. The last time I read through the report( a couple years ago )I was struck with not only the incidendets of hull breach from a failed fitting or seal, but also how much water can get into the boat before the Captain realizes he / she is in deep trouble.

    Unfortunately, those at greatest risk are those least prepared for the challenge: newer owners in smaller boats not wearing their PFD. Statisitcs show that large boat owners have a very low incidence of accident and death. The overwhelming majority of fatalities occur in small, morotized boats.

    Most boaters on the Salish Sea are serious about safety and it makes a better environment for everyone. I lived in Texas for a long time and the number of fatalities on those inland lakes is staggering. Thanks to Three Sheets and the many other publications and organizations that do a great job of promoting safe (and fun) boating practices in this area.

    • Vincent Pica February 13, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

      well said, John. Thxs for your support.

  3. Jeff Burright February 13, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Great article. The stats are particularly interesting. As an added resource, Yachting Monthly has a series of Youtube videos that feature a “crash test boat” where they, among other tests, put a hole in their boat and tried a number of strategies to staunch the flow. Other videos include fire on board, thru-hull failure, dismasting and jury rigging, and capsize. I highly recommend this video series.

    Part 1 of the holing tests:

    • Vincent Pica February 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

      great video resources. thanks for passing along!

  4. Robert Bruce Blumenstein February 13, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    My uncle took his boat, with a treasure diving team, out through the serf off of the Oregon coast. As they reached into the ocean swell and slowed down the hull speed water started filling the stern at an alarming rate. He had forgotten to replace the drain plugs at the engine well before they launched.
    The solution was to speed back up, and the water exited back out the stern. They plugged the drains when the water was low enough. They all laughed about it latter, but at the time every bit of panic made things tense.
    Often there is the initial freeze-up of the brain if you have never considered what to do in any possibility when it comes to boating, especially.
    Thanks for this eye opener artical..interesting picture…one that makes your heart skip a beat.

    • Vincent Pica February 13, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

      when I teach seamanship, I eventually get around to “how do you manage panic?” Clearly, not everyone is going to react evenly and soberly to an emergency. Assuming that the person that is panicking isn’t the coxswain (and I’ve heard of such situations), the best thing that the coxswain can do is give everybody a job – especially the person that is panicking. “Here, go get all the life-jackets and make everyone put one on. Hey! Now! Go!”

      idle hands in an emergency really are the devil’s play things…

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