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Small /Fishing/Panga Fiberglass Boat Safety at Sea

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Small Boat Safety at Sea 

In recent weeks the Miami television evening news has been filled with numerous stories of small boat disasters out in the Gulf Stream. A number of them have had video clips taken from a Coast Guard rescue helicopter that shows a 24 foot boat floating upside down with a couple of people trying to hang onto the bottom. 

The story line tersely states that the people were rescued (in one case a man drowned) after their boat "capsized." Experience boaters might blanch at that word since capsize means to tip over. The video clip shows something like two to three foot waves. So how did the boat capsize? Well, obviously it didn't; the right word would probably be "foundered" meaning to fill up with water, at which point it rolls over.

One of the more notable things about those video clips is that the men hanging onto the overturned boats didn't have life jackets on. Were they out there without them, or did the boats go down so fast that they couldn't get the LJ's out of wherever they were tucked away fast enough. We don't know, but there they were, bobbing around  in the water 10 miles off the coast  without them.

Altogether, I'd guess that if I watched the evening news every day for a year, I'd probably see several dozen such stories annually. If I multiply this by the number of major boating centers around the nation, that  works out to hundreds of such founderings occurring every year. And that means that this is an all too frequent occurrence, so I'll try to give you some insight as to why this happens and what you can do to avoid making the evening news.

Almost every day I'm out on the ocean doing sea trials and I see people out there fishing in all kinds of weather conditions. And as one who has traveled far and wide in small boats, I don't find that being out there in moderately rough water is particularly dangerous, albeit with two important caveats. First is that the operator is experienced in small boat handling, and second that he is knowledgeable and meticulous about the maintenance of his vessel.

I'd also say that it is not wise to venture far out in the ocean in a small boat unless you are a highly experienced and skilled seaman. Particularly in single engine outboard boats. Those who have a lot of sea experience are believers in O'Tools Law. Mr. O'Tool, you see, theorizes that Mr. Murphy is overly optimistic. 

Out on the ocean is a place where things can really go wrong fast. And most of us salty types are firm believers in the adage that problems come in threes. Boaters get in serious trouble as a result of the natural cause and effect relationship that sets off chain reactions of problems. One little thing happens that leads to a bigger thing and yet another. Unless you've had the experience, it's hard to understand how fast problems can snowball. Unless you know how one little loose wire can translate into a helicopter rescue at sea (if your lucky), then you'll never really appreciate the danger you're putting yourself in when you head out into the ocean in a small boat.

Another notable aspect of the helicopter video views I saw was that the ocean seemed like it was a really nice day out there. So why did these boats founder? The answer is that there are a lot of reasons why you could end up swimming next to your upside down boat. The most obvious one is that water was coming into the boat faster than the operator's ability to remove it. This usually translates to poor boat handling skills, inadequate bilge pumping capacity or both. But before I get into that, let's talk about small boats a bit first.

The problem with small boats is that they are small. That's  a no-brainer, right? But do you know why? Have you thought about how the smallness of the boat means that it can fill up with water very fast? Generally speaking, small boats such as outboards are far less sea worthy than larger boats because:

·  The transoms are either wide open or cut down. 

·  The cockpits are wide open, the freeboards are lower. 

·  They have smaller and fewer bilge pumps, often only one. 

·  They have smaller and fewer batteries. 

·  Cockpit decks are not water tight. 

·  Control cables have holes in liners that allow a lot of water entry. 

·  Outboards have all the engine weight at the stern, making them stern heavy. 

As you can see, I've just listed seven major reasons why smaller boats are more vulnerable than larger boats. But one of the most important reasons has to do with wave size relative to boat size. The most common conditions found along our Atlantic coastline in the summer is a two foot chop. Yet the average 22-24' boat is vulnerable to this size wave by virtue of its size. The two foot wave that is no threat to a 30 foot inboard boat, can be a serious threat to an outboard under certain conditions.

It would be one thing if that outboard boat had an absolutely water tight cockpit liner, but as you well know, almost none of them do. There are holes and leaky access ports all over the place. Even that wouldn't be so much of a risk if the boat had several large bilge pumps and big batteries to run them. Yet most often we find a single bilge pump in the stern powered by one or two car batteries just large enough to start the engine.

Were I a lawyer, I could make a hell of a good legal argument that boats that meet this description are not seaworthy to be out in the ocean. But hundreds of them are out there every day and only a handful of them meet with calamity. So why don't more of them founder? Mainly due to dumb luck. It takes the right circumstances at the right time to create the disaster. Like that loose bilge pump wire I mentioned earlier.

One of those circumstances is when the fisherman stops and puts his stern to the waves. Water is sloshing over the transom and what he is not realizing is that the bilge is slowly filling up with water through all those holes and leaks. It doesn't take much water in the bilge before the hull looses enough buoyancy that one bigger wave comes over the transom and  fills up the cockpit. At this point, the sheer weight of the water has turned moderate leakage into the hull into cascades of water. The hull is now even lower in the water and the next wave is the coup de gras.

Ah, you say, but the bilge pump is taking care of all that. Is it? How do you know, did you check? If you're like most people, it never even crossed your mind to check.

How to Improve Seaworthiness  

From the foregoing, it should be obvious what to do. Seal up all possible points of water entry into the hull, including those plastic inspection ports. Remember, they're plastic, not steel. Put some weight on the covers or load up the deck and both the covers and frames will easily bend. That's where the serious leaks come from. I'd suggest installing the lids with silicone sealer. That will at least cut down on the amount of leakage.

Most boats are sold with grossly inadequate bilge pumping and battery capacity. You can have big pumps but that is no help if they're running off puny batteries, particularly when they're old. That's a prescription for disaster.

When thinking about what is enough pump capacity, take that GPH (gallon per hour) number and break it down into minutes. A 1500 GPH pump is only 25 GPM. Remember that you don't have an hour to wait for a pump to remove 1500 gallons of water; when in trouble, you got to get that water out fast, so we're talking a matter of minutes here, not an hour. Moreover, when you look at the pump flow, is it really putting out 25 GPM, or is it something less? Keep in mind that the manufacturer rating is obtained under ideal conditions and that actual performance is going to be quite a bit less.

The Universal Cosmic Law 

One pump is NEVER enough because of the propensity for pump failure. You should just assume that one pump is going to fail when you need it most.

To figure what your pumping requirements are, calculate the cubic volume of the after half of the hull. Why half? That's because all the water tends to concentrate aft. Find the mid point of the hull and measure the length, width and depth from deck to keel. That will give you a cubic on which to base your capacity requirement. A 22 foot boat would give you something like 176 cubic feet (11 x 8 x 2). There are 7.5 gallons per cubic foot so we get 1320 gallons. Naturally, fuel tanks and other things are taking up space in the bilge and we don't account for these to leave a margin of safety. The bottom is also a vee but we calculated for a rectangle instead of our actual triangular hull, but we ignore that too.

So, how fast do you want to get that 1320 gallons out of your hull. You can see my point here that our single Rule 1500 is going to take about an hour because 1320 is about what it will really pump. Unfortunately, when calamity strikes, you don't have an hour. Personally, I'd like to get that time down to just a few minutes. If I increase my pumping to a pair of Rule 3000 pumps (50 gpm each), the dewatering rate decreases to 13 minutes, and with the large safety  margin I built in on the hull volume, the actual number is probably closer to 6 minutes since our hull doesn't really hold 1320 gallons, but about half that.

Whew! Boy, I feel a lot better those kind of numbers.

Now let's talk about what powers the pumps, the batteries. The standard automotive battery, which most boats have with the main difference the word "marine" stenciled on them, is a 60 ampere hour battery. Theoretically, it will give you up to 60 amperes for one hour, or 10 amps for six hours. In reality, battery capacity decreases dramatically with age, and since this is always declining, the way I figure it is to use half the rating as what I can reasonably expect at any given time. So, we look at the pump rating, say it's 7.5 amps. If my reasonable estimate of battery power is 30 ampere hours, I don't have much of a power cushion there to rely upon in a pinch. I could be thinking that's no problem because I've got an engine alternator that is always feeding it more power. That's a mistaken assumption when the engine quits. Glub.

Boat builders usually provide the minimum amount of battery power necessary with no safety margin. My own view is that a 60 AH battery is way too small for even a small boat. Battery power is directly related to plate size. That's why we can't escape from battery size, which is a problem in small boats. You want lots of battery power, but there ain't no place to put larger ones. Somehow, someway, you need larger batteries when you propose to go offshore.

If I've got two 7.5 amp bilge pumps, that's 15 amps per hour, which can bring down a battery in a hurry. Therefore, what I'd like to have is a pair of 90 AH batteries which I figure at half the rating or 45 AH each. (A 90 Ah battery is roughly 1.5 times the size of a 60.)  Now I'm looking at 90 amps of deliverable power (assuming they're wired in parallel) divided by 15 theoretically gives me 6 hours of pumping time with a very comfortable margin. That makes me feel a lot better, too.

A Few Other Points  

Of course, large waves crashing over the transom and filling up the cockpit could still cause the boat to become unstable and roll over, so we make it a point to never stop with our stern to the seas. Bear in mind that with outboards and stern drives all the weight is in the stern and for this reason the boat can founder very quickly without a lot of water in it since all that water also runs to the stern.  It goes down stern-first and then rolls over due to the engine weight. If you're going to drift fish and the stern tends to swing around upwind (as many boats do) you need to get yourself a sea anchor that will keep the bow into the waves.

(A sea anchor is simply a stout canvass bag with a bridle attached. It creates drag so that the bow will stay pointed into the waves when tied off the bow. It has surprised me that these things are actually making a come back as I haven't seen them on boats for a long time.)

Engine breakdowns at sea in small boats is a major cause of foundering, and another good reason to have a sea anchor on board. In a pinch, throw out your regular anchor. If you're one of those people who doesn't perform preventative maintenance, you're heading for trouble. When was the last time you checked over all the  hoses, clamps and fuel lines?

And, of course, you're going to check over that bilge pump wiring and float switches frequently and make sure everything is in operating condition before each and every time you head out. Don't fool around with old batteries, replace at the first sign of weakness. Many people make the mistake of replacing paired batteries one at a time. You already know that you can't do that with dry cells because an old battery will drag down a new one. Whether you like it or not, batteries have to be replaced in pairs. Besides, you're not saving anything by doing it one at a time; it's actually costing you more because you're damaging the new battery.

Check systems over carefully. Little things like loose wires and corroded wire connections can lead to major problems. Keep in mind that a boat rocking and rolling at sea is what tends to cause things to break down. The violent motion puts a strain on everything. Treat the systems like your life depends upon them; whether you realize it or not, it does.

As for lifesaving devices, these should be kept immediately available. When a boat starts to go down suddenly, there's no time to go rooting around in the cabin trying to get them out from under the seats where they're stuffed away. I'm not saying that you have to wear them, just keep out where you can grab them quickly whenever you're offshore. People are drowning out there not because they don't have them, but because they can't get to them in time.


Boat Safety at Sea

In Part one we covered outboard boats. In Part II we'll take a look at some of the things that can go wrong with intermediate size sport fishermen and cruisers. I focus more specifically on sport fishermen because these are the people who spend the most time at sea, go further offshore, and who experience the most sinkings. 

Thanks to the Internet, we're getting a better idea of just how many tragedies at sea are occurring, and it's a lot more than most of us had realized. Unfortunately, while the USCG keeps track of such accidents, they are not made readily available to the boating public, but is given in a database format that most people can't use.


Founderings occur because a boat fills up with water, and then sinks. In studying the many news media reports, I find that founderings are most often referred to as "capsizings," which means to turn over. This gives a completely wrong impression because the survivor stories usually clearly indicate that most boats do not capsize, but founder. Most major accidents result  from human error, and failure to maintain the vessel properly is one of more common errors.

Most often, what causes larger boats to founder is not a matter of taking a large wave over the stern, though certainly this does happen from time to time. No, most often a study of the survivors comments points to a boat slowly filling up with water before a wave finally delivers the coup de gras. That was the case of a 1999 34' Luhrs, the VITAMIN C sinking off Galveston early this summer, a casualty in which two lives were lost. It so happened that a man who docked his boat near the VITAMIN C, a charter fishing boat, reported that he and others at the marina had noticed that THE VITAMIN  C's bilge pumps were almost constantly running.

The owner of the boat was reported to be someone who had never owned a larger boat before, and was relatively experienced, despite having attended a few boating courses and having got his six pack license. So it was no surprise to his dockmates when the report of the loss of VITAMIN C came in.

We can infer from this that the boat owner had ignored the warnings from his dockmates, and didn't do anything to alleviate the problem. Though it's reported, under pressure from the boat builder, Luhrs, that the boat will be raised and a further investigation conducted since the boat went down in relatively shallow water. No doubt this tragedy will ultimately end up in litigation, so we'll say no more about it at this time.

This points up the rather casual attitude that a lot of boaters have toward ensuring that their boats are sea worthy.  Unfortunately, far too many people treat boats like automobiles: just get in, start the engines and go. Folks, you can't treat a boat this way, not if you want to avoid ending up like the VITAMIN C.  Boats are not recreational vehicles to treated with casual abandon, though many people do so. The reality is that boats require near constant maintenance to keep them sea worthy, particularly since the boat building industry itself no longer places the emphasis on sea worthiness that it once did.

Nowadays, everything is made lighter and cheaper in order to keep the cost down so that lots of people can afford to buy them, and the builders can profit by selling more.

A good example of cheapness that can cost lives are the plastic through hull fittings commonly in use today. Plastics, as we know, are highly vulnerable to ultra violet radiation from the sun. It causes plastics to become brittle and weaken. Every year numerous boats sink because these plastic through hull fittings fracture. Keep in mind that there is a heavy hose, attached to the other side of that fitting. As your boat is bouncing along on the waves, that hose is applying strain, often with a lot of leverage, on that plastic fitting. Eventually the plastic becomes brittle and the nipple shears off from the outer flange plate. At that point, the hull is open to the sea.

Usually this happens suddenly and without warning, leaving a hole in the side of the boat just a few inches above the water line. Now, when you're underway, a lot of water is coming into the hull. Of course, if your bilge pumps and wiring are not in good condition, you could suddenly find yourself in big trouble. I go into detail on this just to illustrate that there are many things that can go wrong without your knowledge and understanding.

Bilge pump failures are another source of tragedy. Nearly everyone asks, why can't they make more reliable pumps and float switches? The answer is that the problem is not a matter of poorly designed switches and pumps. No one will ever be able to figure out how to make a highly reliable system that doesn't require frequent inspection and maintenance that would be reasonably priced. Like the Rolex watch I own -- it's completely reliable against leakage, but the price of achieving this is not reasonable. It's terribly expensive, but on the other hand I've only purchased ONE watch in the last twenty years.

People simply will not pay for higher quality, so we have to live with the effects of low quality, which translates to the fact that our modern boats require more maintenance and more frequent inspections to ensure that they are seaworthy.

The VITAMIN C is only one example of boating tragedies that are occurring with ever greater frequency. This is happening in large part due to the cavalier attitude of boaters. In a vast majority of death cases, the news reports do mention that the occupants are cast into the sea without life jackets. They are found clinging to overturned hulls, coolers, seat cushions and other floatsam, but no life jackets. Why? If my experience tells me anything, it is that life jackets are only regarded as something the law requires them to have, not that they'll ever have need of them.

And so it is that the LJ's get stored up in the cabin, under a berth, where they can't be reached in time. Word has it that the two persons who drowned on VITAMIN C went into the cabin trying to get to the life jackets, but didn't make it in time. Technically, under those circumstances, the boat is not seaworthy because the life saving devices are not accessible.

Just Goin'n Fishin' 

By far, the largest percentage of cases of foundering with loss of life involve fishing. In part, this is due to the manner in which boats are operated, without knowledge as to a particular boat's capabilities and vulnerabilities. This usually involves taking a wave over the stern, from which the boat doesn't recover. An awful lot of these sinkings have to do with poor design: non water tight cockpits and too much weight aft. Thus, a relatively small amount of water goes a long way to sink the boat.

Backing down hard on a fish has always been a bad idea due to the risk imposed. But combined with poor design, the results can be deadly, as more than a few  examples have proved over the years. Fishermen are generally more knowledgeable than your basic cocktail barger and should know better. Most sport fishing boats are NOT well designed in this area, so that when you're taking waves over the transom, it's time to back off and rethink your methods.

To illustrate, a 12 x 12  cockpit filled with one foot of water would take on about 10,000 pounds or 5 tons of water. That would sink most boats, and yet flooding a cockpit to that depth is a serious risk when backing down.

Sport fishermen need to have what most would consider excessive bilge pumping capacity due to excessive strain that is placed on all it's systems. My experience tells me that most boats have under capacity by at least half of what is needed to deal with an emergency.

How much is enough?  

That's a difficult proposition to figure out, since so much depends on the configuration of the internal hull. One needs to assess where the water is likely to come from, and where it will most likely settle, since all boats are not the same. For example, if the engine room bulkhead is water tight (though few are) you'd want to concentrate on getting the water out of that compartment, as well as the engine room.

The engine room bilge, of course, is critical. Once the engine front pulleys tough the water, they'll start throwing water all over the engine room. This usually causes gas engines to die with only a relatively small amount of water in the bilge, long before sinking is immanent. And without power, the vessel is helpless and in yet more danger.

If I were a serious offshore fisherman, I'd install bilge suctions from the main engine intakes, not on just one engine, but both, as only this kind of pumping capacity will really do the job when Mr. Murphy shows up. At all costs, you need to keep the water away from the engines and batteries.

Barring that, the least I'd want for something like a 35 foot boat would be my usual three Rule 2000 dewatering pumps, to which I'd add two Rule 4000 pumps as backups. These would be set up so that they do not normally operate for routine dewatering by being mounted up about six inches higher. Not just the float switches, but the pump itself so that there is no chance that any debris in the bilge is going to clog up the impeller during its long periods of disuse.

Personally, I do not like covered switches. Before I go out I like to lift the float and make sure that it works. That's hard to do with a covered switch. Plus, I would have a length of stainless wire rod bent in the shape of a hook. All I have to do is lift the hatch, hook the switch and lift, without having to crawl down there.

To prevent rushing water from damaging the switch, I would mount them close to a bulkhead with the flapper facing toward the bulkhead, about an inch or two away. That way, rushing water will not lift it up and tear it off.

Bilge Alarms 

One of the most important safety devices that you can have aboard is a bilge high water alarm. Though this, as with bilge pumps, also requires frequent testing and maintenance. The value of a bilge alarm is that it warns you when water is accumulating in the bilge. And with that warning, you get the opportunity to do something about it before tragedy strikes.

Alarm float switches should be installed at two locations: the midships bilge point and the far aft bilge. This is because water runs to different parts of the hull based on boat speed. The alarm buzzer or bell must be sufficiently loud that it can be heard over the engine noise. The old way of doing this by just wiring in warning indicator lights is not adequate, because operators are often not looking for the light, and can fail to see it.

Alarms can be critically important for the reason that in most boats, the batteries are located deep in the hull. This is necessary to keep the center of gravity down, but it also means that batteries are among the first things to go under water. And with the loss of battery power, you have no radio. That's why so many deaths occur almost within sight of help.


Some of the attitudes expressed by boat owners are truly appalling. Such as, "It's a new boat, what could go wrong?" Or, "I had a mechanic check it over just last year." And, "My boat yard keeps it up for me." Wrong. Does your boat yard or mechanic go through the entire boat, checking everything? Or did he just have a quick look around? The fact is that boat yards and service people are not in the business of doing surveys, and don't want to be, owning to liability factors. As much as they'd like to, they don't go around looking for problems to fix because they will strenuously avoid giving the impression that they have checked out the boat and making any pronouncements that all is well. And that is a proper attitude, unless they want to go into the survey business.

The Money Issue 

Yet another major problem is that many boat owners are very reluctant to spend money on their boats, other than to purchase new luxury items. I experience on insurance surveys that so many boat owners, when I discover a minor problem that needs correction, will strenuously argue with me about the need to make the change, fix or addition. Obviously, this is because so many boat owners are stretched to the end of their financial limit, and do everything possible to avoid spending money on necessary maintenance.

If that describes your situation, then the chances are that you are an accident waiting to happen. There is no better way to invite a major accident than by getting in over your head with a boat. You wouldn't do it with an airplane, so why would you do it with a boat. With either vehicle, when something goes wrong, you can't just get out and walk.

To give you an idea of just how irrational some people can be, here are a few examples.  

On a haul out survey, three cracked plastic through hull fittings were found. One was 1" above the water line and completely broken off; the others were about 4". both in the bow. The owner was told that he needed to have them replaced before the boat went back in the water. The owner said he'd do it later. At that point, I declined to continue to do a sea trial, telling him that if he didn't do it now, I was going to take a taxi home. At that point, he got out a role of duct tape and taped them over. I called the taxi.

Then there was the customer who didn't like electric stoves. So, he installed a gas stove himself, with LP tank wedged between the seats in the cockpit. The installation violated every rule in the book. In case you don't understand why this is a problem, gas regulators ventilate to the open air, thus they discharge gas fumes. Plus the tank, being unsecured,  was in danger of breaking loose, in which case the zinc alloy regulator could easily shear off, causing the tank to discharge it's full load of highly explosive gas into the boat.

I insisted that the system had to be removed, but the boat owner argued with me. And to ice this cake, the man referred to himself as a "Captain."

Situations like this are enough to make any surveyor throw up his hands in exasperation. Here we had a case of a boat that was capable of blowing up half a marina but, because eliminating the danger would cost the owner some money, he was going to try to avoid eliminating the hazard.

These are extreme examples, but lesser foolishness is commonplace. Such as the boat owner who never checks over anything in his boat and just runs it until it quits, sinks, catches fire or blows up. Boat as recreational vehicle. Folks, boats are not RV's, they are dangerous instrumentalities  (as designated by law in the State of Florida) that have to be treated with knowledge and respect for the harm they can cause through careless operation.

Is it any wonder, then, that the number of grievous tragedies is  growing by leaps and bounds? Most of these people are killing themselves and others out of ignorance and stupidity.

Crippling Legalities 

For the boat owner, injury and loss of life is only a small part of the consequences when a serious accident occurs. Not only will you have to live with the fact that you may have caused the death of others (assuming you survive) as the vessel owner, the law charges YOU with the responsibility of maintaining the boat in a safe and seaworthy condition. If injury or loss of life occurs, you are legally responsible for that loss. And if you think your insurance liability coverage covers all this, you'd best think again. You cannot begin to buy enough insurance to cover the years of grief, or the potential judgments against you, that a wrongful death suit will entail. And, you'll have to sleep in the same bed with yourself.

The vast majority of cases of tragedies, similar to the one cited above,  do not end at the grave site. They end in court, years and many ruined lives later.

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