What You Can't See Can Hurt You

by Gene Farrell

"I have a story that may interest the readers because it reveals a flaw in a new, highly touted boat gadget and describes what can go wrong when little, seemingly insignificant failures turn into big problems!

The mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems of a boat are so interlinked that a failure of some component of one can often imperil the others, occasionally with grave consequences, as happened to the SALLY ANNE during an autumn 1997 cruise through Baja California waters. My shipmates and I were heading north to San Diego's Mission Bay, following a delightful sojourn in "Margarita Land" when the first hurricane in two decades struck Mexico's Pacific coast. We evaded Pauline's brunt, but not her fringes. Beating north past Todos Santos Bay on 7 October, we passed to leeward of the Islas Todos Santos on the port tack in moderate seas with our destination Coronado del Sur, ETA 1700 when we anticipated anchoring for the night.

Incredibly, once clear of the lee of the Santos, we encountered enormous seas and winds 25-35 kts from the northwest, right where we want to go. No sweat. Reefed main and half furled the genny. (The spare foresail halyard shackle somehow got jammed in the masthead sheave so tightly that the messenger couldn't yank it free...hence forget the clubfoot jib, our most reliable heavy weather foresail). The half furled genoa worked fine, once we got the sheet fairlead properly positioned. Logged 7-8 kts on both tacks. Revised the ETA to 2100 due to additional distance to be sailed and tacking. Crewmembers were seasick, necessitating the skipper's takeover of helm duties.

At 1300, wind and seas abate; light off the iron genny, then at 1330, the engine overheats and we shut it down, relying on sail power, making 3-4 kts. We searched for the cause of overheating which was very elusive (fill it, start engine and point for the islands - ten minutes later engine overheats again and is shut down). Winds continue to drop until we are making less than 2 kts. Night falls, Coronados still 10 miles away, directly upwind. We resort to desperate measures, starting the engine every thirty minutes and making for our destination until it again overheats.

Finally, at 0130, we drop the hook, down hot soup and take to the bunks. But just as we were about to hit the sack, Steve (crewmember) notes water trickling out from the main cabin sole boards. I lift the one over the engine battery box to find the water about 2 inches above the battery tops. A quick check of the automatic bilge pump reveals a blown fuse. Replaced the fuse, pump lights off, but the welcome song of its familiar hum is deharmonized by a swishing, gurgling sound I had never heard before. The water level stays the same. Steve mans the cockpit hand bilge pump, but cant get suction, which dismayed me because two months earlier I had completely overhauled it with new diaphragm and flapper valves. (At one time, the SALLY ANNE enjoyed the luxury of two hand bilge pumps, bit I had to sacrifice one inn order to install a Power Survivor 35 watermaker. Progress????).

Next resort is to close the raw water cooling sea cock, strip off the intake hose, start the engine and let its raw water pump suck up water as far down as the hose can reach, which is considerable. The raw water pump takes suction, but the water level stays the same until the engine, once more overheats and is shut down. We are baffled why the engine overheats when its heat exchanger is getting plenty of raw water and the lube oil system is working flawlessly.

Steve mans a bucket and I a galley pot to dip with. We unload about 20 bucketfuls until the level is down to the top of the batteries, stable and further dipping is impracticable. It is now 0330 and I say to hell with it. The damn boat isn't going to sink and were hitting the sack, exhausted.

After a fitful three hours I wake up, determined to find out what is wrong with the cockpit bilge pump. While the crew sleep, I crawl into the port sail locker and, with considerable difficulty and a few cuss words, dismantle the diaphragm, discovering a flake of plywood about the size of a soda cracker stuck under the suction flapper valve. (Lesson #1:Keep a strainer on the suction end of all hand bilge pumps). My commotion wakes Steve who joins me, a big help to hand me the right tools, nuts and washers. Now the pump works like it is supposed to do, and we dewater the bilges, while I resolve to find out later why the hose screen allowed something that size to be sucked up. (Answer: It had slipped off; rusty, broken hose clamp).

Still we hear the sound of running water. Every thru-hull is dry...they are the first to suspect. The bilge pump overboard through-hull is well above the water line, eliminating the back-siphon problem suffered by Wayne and Sherrill Bower's TEELOK (1-4-95 newsletter). So I dive into the engine compartment and discover the dripless shaft seal, a new high-tech designed gadget to lubricate the shaft bearing with engine cooling water (raw) has seized onto the shaft and has been turning with it. In the process, it naturally broke the 3/8" hose from a tee connection in the exhaust stack cooling hose, allowing the raw water discharged from the engine to flow into the bilges, rather than be pumped overboard through the engine manifold exhaust hose. The seal is like a small drum surrounding the propeller shaft, and is normally clamped to a hose connecting it to the stern tube (shaft log). But when it seized, the hose clamps were insufficient to prevent its turning. On its periphery is a 3/8" stainless steel nipple to accommodate the 3/8" hose mentioned above. The nipple is about 1/2" long, enough to strike and shred the automatic bilge pump discharge hose routed nearby. Now we know why the pump didn't get rid of the water, and why those gurgling and swishing sounds were heard the night before, as bilge water got recycled to bilge water.

To conclude the litany of woes, I'll just say that we plugged the tee, got rid of the leaks and got underway, engine operative, but not needed. Nice Southwest winds for the reach to San Diego Bay and customs clearance.

The reason I had the old tried and true gland nut/stuffing box shaft seal replaced three years ago was that when the packing wore and the desirable drip-drip leak became a tiny stream, it was necessary to set up a quarter turn or so on the gland nut, an annoying process in a tight spot where humans don't handily fit. The new "high tech" dripless shaft seal promised a happy alternative. Now, because I had to go to the expense of hauling the boat for no other reason than replacing the seal, I have gone back to the system that, despite its critics, has served boatmen faithfully for a hundred or more years. Lesson #2, BEWARE OF THOSE HIGHLY TOUTED DRIPLESS SEALS. What you can't see CAN hurt you!!