The Boat Is Sinking!

sinking boat

‘Adam, there’s water coming through the floorboards.’

My voice sounded oddly calm. Inside I was anything but. The sick feeling in your stomach rises quickly when a disaster starts unfolding and it spreads, pumping chemicals through your body that make you act in ways you don’t expect. I know from experience that my body and mind separate when disaster strikes. As with everything in life, I fall hard and fast and my body goes into overdrive. It needs to run. I have energy in every last muscle. My mind however goes so still and everything seems clear, ordered and slow. Really slow. The emotion that usually rules is gone, and I have the space to think.

I know this is years and years of survival in play, but in world where we so rarely have to act to save ourselves it’s an unfamiliar feeling. You get a small taste of it when someone in front of you slams the breaks on and you have to react, or when you watch a really scary film, or trip unexpectedly. Until I had my mountainside fall I never knew what would happen when I couldn’t solve the problem quickly. I didn’t know how I’d really react when all of that adrenaline kept on pumping. I’ve played the incident through so many times that I now know exactly what I do, so it was a kind of familiar feeling when I realised that all my worst nightmares were coming true – the boat was actually sinking.

a rusty old sinking boat

It had all gone unnervingly smoothly. After months and months out of the water we were anxious about being put back in. The boat gets carried through the yard on a big truck, put into slings and craned into a dock. There’s a lot that could go wrong. We were expecting the engine to fail, or for one of the stop cocks (the levers that control the flow of water in and out of the boat) we had meticulously serviced to blow. When Hot Chocolate was finally floating I secured the lines while Adam ran below to check everything was in order. He checked the stop cocks, made sure the engine was working properly and did a general once over. Everything was good. We were chuffed.

We waved to our friends who had come to celebrate our launch with us as we motored out into the bay to find a spot to anchor in. The familiar routine of finding a safe spot to anchor in, dropping the hook, motoring back on it to make sure it was set and setting the snubber all came back to us easily. It was so good to be floating again and as I came back into the cockpit and Adam switched off the engine we breathed a sigh of relief to be out of the yard at last. Our sailing season had begun.

A wooden boat ashore on a sandbank after sinking

With the engine off it was finally quiet. Except for the sound of the bilge pump going off, the pump that gets rid of any water in the bottom of the boat. Must be the stern gland that we’d seen was dripping more than usual, nothing to panic about. ‘It will stop soon’ Adam reassured me. Only it didn’t.

I ran for the companionway, still sure deep down that it was nothing to worry about. We’d built up trust in Hot Chocolate over the last season, and I still had that lovely part of my brain in tact that I looked down and saw a dark stain forming around one of the floorboard hatches and that familiar sick feeling started to build. I ran down the ladder and as I stepped onto the floor water spread around my feet.

‘Adam, there’s water coming through the floorboards’. He leapt down and tasted the water. It was salt water. We were sinking.

Even with the bilge pump running continuously the water was still rising. It was a bad sign. If we couldn’t control the flow of water we would be in serious trouble.

A sinking cargo boat out at sea

The main thought was that we were safe enough. Even if we lost the boat we were in a sheltered anchorage, we had a dinghy and a life raft, and we were in easy swimming distance of the shore. We didn’t need to prioritise our lives, we could focus on saving the boat – our home.

Adam tried briefly to find the leak while I grabbed a saucepan and did what I could. But the water was rising quickly and the source of the leak wasn’t obvious so Adam set straight to work rigging up the extra bilge pump. Luckily he’s a whizz with electronics and he quickly set it up to work in the middle of the boat, with a hose out the window. Meanwhile I bailed out buckets of water by hand, in between calling our friends to come help. If we could stop the water rising then we could find the source of the leak and take action.

We still had time to put in an emergency call to the yard for a haul out, or to ground the boat in the shallow water of the anchorage. The best option was to fix it ourselves before taking expensive alternative action. We would have a tough decision to make if it came to it, but we had a few minutes longer to try.

A sinking boat being washed up by the tide

I sent a text to our friends. ‘Come quick, we’re sinking’.

The extra bilge pump started to work and the water wasn’t rising. Our friends appeared to find out what was going on, and one of them sped back to grab their manual bilge pump while the other helped me frantically bail out saucepans full of water. Adam started to search methodically for the leak and because the water level was lower he could now hear it – the saltwater washdown. The very same part of the boat that had given us such a scare on our first sail a year earlier.

This time the plastic part of the pump that connected it to the hose had failed and it had blown clean off as soon as the pressure from the sea water had hit. With a simple wooden bung we were saved. There was no longer water pouring into the boat. We were no longer sinking.

Adam recovered quickly. He came out of the situation feeling more capable than before. We had been resourceful and used our skills to solve a big problem. If something similar happens again we know what to do, and we know we can cope. We put into practice things we hoped we would never have to, but we now know from experience that they work.

I, on the other hand, continuously look below while we’re on passage expecting to see water. I check under the floorboards obsessively and dream about holes in the boat. Just as falling off a mountain made me realise it can happen, watching the boat begin to sink made me realise it is a real possibility. Luckily this time I’m prepared. I know this reaction is normal for me and I feel good that living on board is forcing me to confront my new fear head on. Every near disaster makes us more resourceful and more capable. I appreciate more than ever the extra safety measures we put in before we set off, the extra money we spent that we hoped would be a waste, and the endless kindness of the sailing community around us.

A sinking cargo boat on it's side

Plied with beer and endless thanks, our friends who are new to sailing headed back across the anchorage to their own (dry) boat. In true sailing community spirit they gifted us their manual bilge pump which works like a dream.

‘I think you need this more than us’ they said. And I hope it’s true, but I also know that if they ever find themselves in a similar situation they will be just that bit wiser, and know immediately what they could do about it. I hope it’s a gift we’ve been able to pass to them in return for their kindness and support. I know it’s a story we will tell for many years to come, and in telling it perhaps we will be able to pass on some of the things we learnt. Perhaps there is hope that one day we will become the wise, experienced sailors that we admire so much, with all the crazy stories to share. And when I finally get round to writing a book, make sure you grab a copy!

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