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What’s a better bailer than a scared sailor with a bucket?

2018 October 1

Full disclosure: A product endorsement is embedded in the following column. I affirm that no consideration was received for this, not even a free sample of the product or, sad to say, a paid advertisement in SAILING.

With that out of the way, I could wax romantic about the manifold rewards of sailing in the loving embrace of nature on her glorious waters. But I’m going to save that for another column and instead write about keeping those glorious waters out of my boat.

I’m not trained in naval architecture, but I think I grasp its fundamental principle: For a boat to float on the water, the water has to be kept out of the boat. I had good reason to ruminate on this during a race that featured nearly 400 miles of upwind sailing in an embrace of nature that was far from loving.

In big wind and big seas on the nose, lots of water is supposed to come aboard—on deck. It sure did in this race, in the form of high-velocity spray and solid water rushing stem to stern. But it also came aboard where it’s not supposed to—down below.

How much water? I can’t estimate the gallonage, but here are some indicators:

It was a consensus among racers that the seas reached at least 10 feet high. That was outside of the boat. Inside, I’d say the chop was running a foot high as water surged over the cabin sole, up over berths and into lockers, as the boat dropped off, banged into or skewed around the nearly vertical walls of water outside.

One crewmember noted that more water got into his boots while he sat the nav desk below than when he sat on the rail in the full fury of the two-day buster. 

(It happened that he and I wore the same model of Sperry sailing boots, which meant that our feet lived in water for the duration of the race. The leather boots didn’t just leak, they sucked the water in like a sponge. Obviously, this is not the product endorsement I mentioned. Sorry, Sperry.)

Back to water measurement: An exhausted watch captain who had gone below for an hour of rest was delighted to find the best sleeping spot on the boat unoccupied and gratefully rolled into the lower pipe berth. Just before passing out he learned why the bunk was available. A tsunami rose from the innards of the boat and enveloped the berth and its occupant.

The invention of fiberglass boats was expected to make leaky boats things of the past—no seams to lose their chalking, no planks to be sprung. No matter, water has other ways to invade a hull. 

The rudder shaft on a 48-foot boat in the 2016 Chicago-Mackinac race broke off, leaving a gaping hole in the hull that quickly sank the vessel. On a C&C 33 I once owned, the propeller shaft wiggled out of the boat, leaving a hole that flooded the cabin, prompting a frenzied search for the source of the leak and eventually a remedy that had me holding my breath, ducking under a couple of feet of water to the shaft outlet and stuffing a sock in it.

A young crewman in the rough race I’m writing about observed another route of water ingress when he ventured, with commendable courage, to the head located well forward of the mast where the motion was epic. He survived and reported an amazing phenomenon: When the boat dropped off of a skyscraping wave, the contents of the head—just water at the moment, he claimed—levitated en masse as the ceramic fixture descended with the falling hull.

But that amounted to a trickle compared to the flow that kept the cabin awash. The suspected source was a failing gasket on the retractable spinnaker pole. 

The boat has three sturdy bilge pumps. Unfortunately, like all shallow-hulled boats, it has no bilge when it’s heeled. Water pools where bilge pumps can’t reach it. What to do?

There’s an old saying that when seawater invades a boat, the best defense is a frightened sailor with a bucket. I disagree. I say: It’s Thirsty Mate to the rescue!

The Mate, well known to small-boat sailors, has been around for more than 60 years, and hasn’t changed or aged. The Beckson Manufacturing Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was founded in 1955 for the express purpose of producing a hand-operated all-plastic pump it named the Thirsty Mate, and it is still at it. 

The portable Mate is lightweight yet powerful enough to remove water faster than many fixed bilge pumps. Plus it might be tough enough to live forever. Mine has lived for 28 years, most of them spent in a corner of my boat cave. 

There was a foreshadowing of the leaking problem in a heavy weather race last year. I added it to the deferred maintenance list, and promptly forgot about it until I contemplated a grim weather forecast a year later. That gave me the bright idea to dig out the old pump, brush away the spider webs and stow it onboard before the race. A few days later, I was hailed as a genius by my crew.

As the race wore on, Thirsty Mate swallowed uncountable gallons of water, but its thirst was never slaked. Operated in shifts by crewmembers (who spent more time pumping water in this race than trimming sails), it emptied low-side pools hour after hour into the galley sink, from where the water drained overboard. I observed bailers refining their technique to cope with the radical motion of the boat, deftly anchoring the pump inlet with their feet while pumping with smooth strokes.

Like I said . . . “Thirsty Mate to the rescue!”

As for those leaky boots, my crewmate, who actually came down with a case of trench foot (no kidding), buried his in a Dumpster when he reached shore. In a burst of recycling zeal, I took mine home to be saved for a possible desert trek.