Jan 17

Emergency in Slow Motion

I woke up on Monday from a fitful sleep at about 4:00 in the morning and could not go back to sleep. My anxiety level was up. Not understanding why, I sat down to listen to the morning net at 8:00 on the VHF radio while Mike began performing some of his routine maintenance tasks. At one point Cy from Music who was anchored next to us in Grenada swung by on his dinghy, he was checking in and planned to attend the Bequia Music Festival that we purposely stayed around to attend. Bonus! It’s always good to have friends in the harbor. I relaxed a bit, but my nerves were still jangling around.

As Mike worked his way around the boat opening and closing thru hulls as part of his monthly preventative maintenance, I heard him mumbling on about something but wasn’t really paying notice. It wasn’t until I heard “We’re taking on water”, that I sat upright and paid close attention. Now Mike is not one to panic, but in our 35 years of marriage I’m no stranger to understanding when something is really not right. And “taking on water” is not something you want to hear on a boat.

To provide some background, a thru hull fitting is a essentially a pipe fitting that fits into a hole that has been cut into the boat to allow sea water to come in the boat in a controlled fashion, or can be used to expel fluids, such as dishwater, into the sea. A seacock attaches to the through hull and allows you to open and close the flow of water and other fluids into and out of the boat.

In our particular case, the specific thru hull fitting having a problem was located below the waterline and used to take in salt water that is used to cool the generator. Basically the lever on the sea cock that allows you to control the opening and closing of the water intake broke off in Mike’s hand, leaving him unable to use that lever to shut off the flow of water into the boat. Mike’s next comments were “get in touch with Kerry, ASAP”. Kerry had been helping us with troubleshooting an overheating problem with the generator, so Mike decided he would be the right person to help.

I tried to call Kerry, but Mike’s phone had died, so Mike tried on the VHF. With no response, I flipped my phone to use the ATT phone plan, and was able to contact Kerry. He said to pick him up in an hour at the dinghy dock and he would come take a look.

An hour? OK, well it wasn’t like an oil gusher of water coming into the boat, just a steady flow that the bilge pump could keep up with at this point. In the meantime I started doing internet searches on troubleshooting problems such as these, and if we had to replace the through hull, everything I was coming up with dictated that it needed to be “on the hard”, or have the boat taken to dry land and hauled out of the water. Not having slept really well, and understanding that Bequia is roughly 40 nautical miles from a haul out facility didn’t help my anxiety level.

At 2:00 p.m., Mike picked up Kerry and immediately went to work. Kerry began yelling orders at Mike, “wrench”, “hammer”, “socket handle”, “size 32”, etc. His Bequia accent, which I love so dearly, didn’t come in so handy under duress. I was hearing banging around, an occasional “Oh no”, and other sounds that kept me on edge. I also was hearing the bilge pump go on and off intermittently so I knew we were continuing to take on water. Then I heard what I thought to be a huge gush of water or a loud bilge pump noise. Turns out it was his phone. He has his phone set to ring to an engine running. Every time that damn phone would go off, I thought we had a much larger problem on our hands.

He had not brought any tools with him and he needed a socket that we didn’t have. Mike drove him in the dinghy back to his shop to retrieve the right sized socket. They returned quickly and at 4:00 p.m. said he was able to close it as far as it would go with the wrench and other tools, but it still had a slow leak, and the entire through hull would have to be replaced. In the meantime I had been researching thru hull problems on the internet further, and read that it is possible to replace a through hull in the water, but you really want a professional to do it. Kerry maintained “not to worry”, he had done this “hundreds of times”, he would “line up a diver to help”; so Mike and Kerry took off and went to the chandlery and were able to purchase a replacement part.

While we weren’t ever in any immediate danger as the bilge pump could easily keep up with the intake of water, there was a possibility that with a faulty part, the leak could get worse. I was thinking that it was a good thing Cy on Music was in the harbor, as I knew we could call him in a pinch if need be. After dinner and a few drinks, I was able to sleep, but I woke up fitfully at 3:00 in the morning, wide eyed, knowing the trickiest part lay ahead of us.

Kerry told us the operation required tight planning, execution and communication. He would basically knock the existing thru hull out from the inside where it would drop to the diver or ocean floor. Next the diver would immediately plug up the hole that would allow time to install the new thru hull and seacock. It all had to happen precisely, if anything went wrong, we could sink the boat, but he “wasn’t going to let that happen on his watch!”

Tied up in knots with little sleep, that morning at 10:30 a.m. Kerry returned with the diver. In the meantime, Winfield, our varnish guy, stopped by the boat unexpectedly. I talked to him about what was going on and he said those valve handles break “all the time”, and Kerry was very experienced. “Not to worry” was Winfield’s take on the whole situation.

Kerry and Phat Shag (huh? – it was also written on the side of his boat!), the diver, immediately began planning the execution, and Mike and I couldn’t understand but about 50% of what they were saying between themselves due to their accent. Then at some point we realized we needed to act as a go-between as Kerry couldn’t communicate with the diver underwater. Shit! Things started happening fast and furiously. It didn’t turn out as easy as planned, it took longer, and more communication was needed, and we were NOT doing an awesome job helping! Then his damn phone would go off with the engine noise and there were times I was sure the engine compartment was flooding (it was not!).

I could go into a lot more details that only boat owners would appreciate, but suffice to say, it was completed by 12:30 p.m. Those two hours seem a lot longer than that when it was actually happening. At the completion, Mike mentioned he wanted to run the generator to see if having the thru hull fixed and not leaking would help the overheating problem. Kerry thought about it awhile, and said, “you are a smart man”. Mike tested his theory after Kerry left and fortunately, our generator problem that started a month ago, was now resolved. In hindsight we realize that the thru hull had most likely been leaking for the last month. So fortunately for us, we solved two problems instead of one.

It’s always something on a boat. And emergencies can happen in slow motion. So thanks to Kerry, Mike and Phat Shag, I slept like a baby last night.