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Open or closed?  ...And when? 

That is a question that everyone wonders about. The experts tend to protect themselves by saying close them all, and all the time, but most coastal sailors do not.  Whatever you chose to do, that is your responsibility.

Here is what I do whenever I get on a boat.  I look around to find the seacocks and inspect them, verify they open and close freely and smoothly, and pull gently on them and the hoses to verify everything is sound.  Better to have a leak now, at the dock, than later at sea.

Why worry about seacocks?

On a sound boat, the seacocks and associated hoses are where water is most likely to unexpectedly enter an intact hull.

Seacocks have metal parts, and corrosion never sleeps.  Vibration can loosen clamps and fatigue metal parts.  Hoses age and shrink. Seacocks can seize in the open or closed position over time due to sea life entering the openings, especially if they are never opened and closed.  Difficult or rough action may indicate a future failure.

Seacocks are designed and employed to allow sea water into the heads or for engine cooling or to let liquids enter and escape plumbing fixtures or let sensors contact the sea through the hull.   Most are below the waterline some or all the time and if any one part of any of these systems are weak, and break off or leak, then water can enter and flood our otherwise waterproof boat, sometimes quite quickly.

Once I have satisfied myself that everything is sound and watertight, and it usually is on a well-maintained charter boat,  I relax and seldom look at them again when coastal cruising except when dumping black water at sea when legal to do so.

I look everything over, tug on the hoses and fittings.  Look for chafe or cracks on hoses If everything is sound, I trust them and leave the seacocks in daily use open.  There are many that we use frequently: basins, sinks, heads, engine.  If we opened and closed them all every time we used them, we'd be opening and closing them all the time.  Nobody I know does that when near land.  It is a judgement call, though.  If in doubt, err on the safe side.  Your boat is your responsibility.

In addition to seacocks, the stuffing box -- or the gasket equivalent in a saildrive, the rudder shaft, and transducers for depth and speed are possible sites for leakage, too -- but anything connected to a seacock and below the waterline (stationary or when heeled) is a potential leak site and can sink the boat.  Therefore all these areas are prime areas for inspection.  I don't accept the boat until I have verified that there are no signs of undue leakage, weakness, or corrosion around the through-hulls.

If going offshore, sailors typically close all but the seacocks in use, but for coastal sailing, most just verify that the systems are sound and stay aware.  If tying up and going away for six months with no one watching over the boat, closing all seacocks is prudent.

How can through-hulls and associated equipment fail? 

  • The first case is simple corrosion or fatigue failure where the nipple or fitting breaks off or develops a hole in one side and water spurts out from the hole.  This is usually quite obvious and a tapered wood plug (stored under the nav station) can quickly solve the problem temporarily and prevent sinking.

  • The second is where a clamp or hose fails and water leaks or floods from it or the valve leaks out the side.  This is more subtle and requires analysis and a tailored solution -- a rag. a towel, some tape...

In any case, when finding a leak, panic is not an option. Panic just clouds thinking and upsets people at a time when clear thinking and prompt action is required.

Assess the leak and try to stop it before calling for help.  Finding and stopping a leak is easier in the early stages,  before the water around the leak gets deep.

If there is any doubt about stopping or reducing the leak to a trickle assign someone to determine your exact location (GPS and landmarks) and report the problem calmly to the Coast Guard on Channel 16 or by phoning *16.  Call the Cooper Boating base and report, too.

The Coast Guard will want to know the boat name, type and description, how many people on board, the location and type of the leak -- and how fast water is rising in the cabin.

At this stage, unless water is rising rapidly in the cabin, the situation is not life-threatening, so there is no need for a pan-pan or mayday.

Stuff anything you can into the hole and tamp it down, but make sure you can see that the water is stopped before obscuring the site of the leak.

Boats usually take quite a while to sink, so take your time and think it through, but try to stop the flow before the water gets too deep to allow easy access.

Typical leaks are not hard to fix temporarily and once back to base or in a marina, someone professional will make a permanent fix, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

If the leak is slow and not getting worse, then the bilge pump will handle the problem for as long as the pump has power.   This is a nuisance, but not an emergency, but ensure that the leak will not get worse, for example where a loose hose that is seeping suddenly pops right off.

If the electric automatic bilge pump can't keep up, then the hand pump can assist. There is a fire bucket, too, but of course, bailing can't keep on forever, and either the leak must be located and slowed by the crew or prompt assistance is required.  Sometimes, with luck, a nearby boat will have a high volume pump on board.

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- Home | Greeting | Features | Specs | Video | Marina | Cruising | Adventures -
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lling | Seacocks| Engine | Batteries | Dinghy | Anchoring -
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