I Awoke to the Crew Calling “The Bilge Pump Won’t Stop!”


Problems come in many forms and manifestations.  Generally speaking, it’s better to address them earlier rather than later, and that’s certainly true when it comes to floating floorboards. If there is a major leak, you need to get to work immediately to stem the flow and reduce the amount of water in the boat.  But floating floorboards don’t always imply a major leak.  Water can collect from a range of sources.  An anchor well that allows water into the boat, a mast that has numerous exit boxes and leaking chain plates name only a few places that can slowly add water to your bilge. Whether you’re taking water across the bow, you’re in the midst of a downpour or the boat is heeled over more than usual, you need to understand the larger picture as you look for a solution to the problem.

When I got that unwelcome announcement, I knew that we regularly took a small amount of water onboard.  I also knew that the bilges weren’t very clean on the boat we were delivering. Checking the intake for the automatic bilge pump quickly solved the problem. The intake screen was clogged, and a quick cleaning removed the water and stopped the incessant pumping. Thoroughly cleaning the bilge would provide a better and longer lasting solution.

Pumps don’t last forever, however, and there have been times when automatic bilge pumps have burned out whether it was because of old age or excessive use. In one instance we had to take a pump from a shower sump and replace the burned-out bilge pump. Both were the same model, making the trade relatively easy. Knowing which pumps you have onboard, which ones might be interchangeable and which ones would need a replica back-up might save you a lot of trouble. Going to your manual bilge pumps may or may not be an option.

On the boat that required the use of the cannibalized shower sump pump, we checked the manual bilge pumps to find the rubber bellows rotted with age.  They were all non-functional. And, the boat had recently been surveyed. Of course, bilge pumps aren’t very important when they’re not in use, but when they’re needed, they are critically important. And eventually, they will be needed.  Checking them from time to time is a very worthwhile exercise, and that is for all boats, several times per season.

Having a small roving electric pump can be a godsend when needed. With long electrical cables to connect to a 12v outlet or the boat’s batteries, and long hose connectors, we have used a roving pump to clear water from a bilge in an emergency, move fuel from one tank to another, and to load fuel onboard from a tender when we were in a remote port in a foreign country.

Years ago, it became obvious to me that when an emergency strikes, one is either prepared to meet that event and take control of the situation or the situation will control the people affected. While offshore, you may never need to actually swap out a pump or use a roving backup, but if you do, you will want to be prepared with clean bilges and the right equipment. One way or another you should have a plan, practice it, and be able to execute it quickly.  What would you do?


You can email comments to: george@bwsailing.com

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