Posted by: vlbyers | June 22, 2012

Bilge pump failure or ‘the near sinking of Rocinante’

the limited view to the bilge area

the reason Becky and I left the boat for the air-conditioned lounge

My cabin during the project

water filled this space under our floor

Ok so maybe the title is a bit dramatic, we were tied to a dock in a marina right?
We had a successful and uneventful transit of the Panama Canal. Our friend Joe was with us he had come from the bay area, California, to help with the transit and to have a little vacation in the Caribbean. Our friends Becky and Denny, who are on their boat in the San Blas islands, took a bus back to Panama City to help us transit. We would be taking them back to their boat in Portabello after a night in the Shelter bay marina to rest up and return the lines and tires used in the transit of the canal. The rumor was that the showers were the greatest and there was a pool there .
Our night at the marina was peaceful, we had cleaned the boat up, had a nice dinner at the restaurant to celebrate our transit. A laundry facility was a part of the marina so a couple of loads of laundry could be done, having 5 people on the boat we made quite a bit of laundry. Our thought was that we would have to leave no later than 2pm to make the 20 miles to Portabello in the daylight, our friends were anchored there so knew that the entry was wide and safe to do even in the dark, our druthers would be arrival in light.
Last minute chores were being finished up, the lines and tires had been returned, the laundry was done and we were just about ready to go. Becky went below to stow her stuff and informed me that there must have been a hatch open when we washed the boat cause there was ‘a bit of’ water on the floor. I got a towel to wipe it up, wondering why there was so much water, as I expected a few drops, and when I passed over one of the floorboards it popped up, pushed up by the level of water. The water was up to the level of our floorboards!
I quickly put everyone to work, turning on the bilge pump and getting out the handle for the manual pump, all pumps were on and the level was still rising. What was going on? It was quickly apparent that the automatic bilge pump wasn’t working so I began using a small trash can to remove water from the bilge to a 5 gallon bucket which I would pass to Becky who would dump it overboard. I was getting at least 3 gallons out every 20 sec or so, we were still working the manual pump and the water level wasn’t going down at all. That’s when Larry returned to the boat. Completely taken off guard as he had just pumped the bilge earlier in the day and it was empty, he called the marina, and anyone listening on VHF for assistance. Thankfully the marina had a high volume pump, I placed the pump in the deepest part of the bilge I could get to, it took many minutes before we started to see some regression of the water, at least we weren’t going to sink immediately.
Part of the course of action was to close the through hulls to prevent water from entering the boat. Through hulls are openings into the boat used for exit and entry of water from the boat. After closing all these one would think that the inflow of water would stop, not the case. The water continued to fill the bilge at about the rate the pump was emptying it. There isn’t much room to see the deepest part of the bilge, the room is taken up by the engine, so sticking my head into the compartment wasn’t able to happen. I was able to reach my hand down into the bilge but our bilge is deep and my hand came short of the bottom about a foot so I wasn’t able to assess where the water might be flowing from, once I stuck my arm into the area I wasn’t able to also get my head where I could see. It was either peer over the edge to where the bilge pump is, or feel, but not both. From my vantage point, watching the water coming into our boat, I was convinced that the water was not entering from anywhere but under the water level, at the deepest part of the bilge. The keel? What else is at the bottom of the bilge? Our bilge pump. My knowledge about why the water would be coming in is limited but my knowledge about where it was coming in was without doubt, and I was vocal about that. Denny heard me and continued wondering about how the water was coming in. He took it upon himself to pull up the bilge pump and voila water was pouring out of the pump. Somehow the pump had reversed it’s action and was siphoning water into the boat.
Well problem identified, not solved, but we were able to stop the inflow of water. Our departure for Portabello was of course put off for at least one day. Good news, Becky and I would take the shuttle to Colon to do some shopping the next day. Larry was pretty confident the marine store would have the pump and he would be able to replace it pretty easily and have it done by the time we returned from our shopping venture.
Becky and I got everything we thought we would need, the shuttle was enjoyable and not too crowded, it was interesting to see the road to Colon and to cross over the bridge of the canal that we had just transited. Upon our return to the boat it was apparent that we would not be leaving the dock that day. One more day should do it, the part had to be ordered from another store and would be here tomorrow.
0900 the next morning Larry went to see if the part was in, of course we all had our doubts from listening to other’s and our own experience with ordering parts, knowing that there are sometimes big delays, we were all surprised when he came back with a bag with the pump in it. Becky and I decided that it would be a good time to do internet stuff and watch TV up in the cruisers lounge.
As the day wore on, I was able to do another two loads of laundry with a bit of difficulty I almost had to fight for a dryer, let’s share now. I had updated our blog, checked out all my e mail and caught several movies. We began another movie, it was already 3pm and both Becky and I wondered what was going on but we figured that they would come retrieve us when they were done, hence we figured they were not done. After the last movie finished up we gathered up the laundry and headed to find out what was happening. The boys were sitting in the cockpit, the task was done, the pump was installed. Yeah. We would be spending the night again on the dock but if we left before 0600 we wouldn’t have to pay for another night, 6am it would be.
We were very thankful that this happened while we were tied to a dock, had access to a pump and were able to get the part we needed to fix it. During this process we also found out the manual pump wasn’t working, it was cycling the water back into the boat as well. How do both of your bilge pumps fail at the same time? It was just so fortunate that Becky discovered the leak when she did, even being off the dock a short distance would have been much more stressful and possibly caused significant damage.
On to Portabello

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