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How to Prevent Boat Flooding

If You Spring a Leak, This Can Get You Safely Home
Boating Safety

The first rule of boating is that you wear your life jacket. The second is that you keep your boat afloat by keeping the water on the outside.  That’s not as easy as it sounds. Rain water from Mother Nature can sink a boat right at its mooring if you fail to button it up and make certain the bilge pump is working before leaving for home.  Human error and accidents can also lead to flooding.

Once when boating as a kid I took a 26-foot wooden constructed cabin cruiser out in rough water not knowing that excessive speed would cause the wood screws to fail and pull through the plywood hull.  Guess what?  I had a flooding problem that required quick thinking to improvise a plug and get back to port. 

Improvising temporary plugs and repairs is an important skill for a boater. While operating aluminum jon boats and canoes I have occasionally hit a submerged object and punched a small hole through the hull.  I was able to haul the vessel up on shore, dry the hull and make an emergency repair with duct tape.

It pays to be prepared. When putting together your onboard emergency kit, consider what you would need to stop a leak depending on the vessel’s hull material: rubber or wooden plugs, rags, canvas, manila rope, waterproof putty, duct tape, fiberglass tape, etc.. Also, on bigger boats, since bilge pumps aren’t designed to handle large volumes of water caused by a hole in the hull, a dewatering pump is a good investment.

Boating Safety

I’ve never lost a boat myself, but I’ve seen many boats sunk due to faulty bilge pumps and human error, and the results can be deadly.  Nearly one in eight recreational boating fatalities result from either flooding or swamping, where water washes in over the side of the boat.  So keep the water on the outside, but if you can’t, here are some tips for making it safely back to the dock.

Reducing your risk of flooding…

Boating education, vessel maintenance and a thorough knowledge of local conditions can greatly reduce the chance your vessel will flood or become swamped.  Here’s what to consider:

•    If yours is a trailerable boat, do a regular inspection of the hull, paying attention to seams and rivets.  Inspect thru-hull fittings for possible leaks due to faulty gaskets and seals, and make sure that the boat plug is properly seated and secured prior to launch.  Be sure the bilge pump is in good working order.

•    Take a boating education course and familiarize yourself with the Navigation Rules. This can minimize collisions with other boats and running into fixed objects, like the pier.

•    Know the area in which you’ll be operating, including currents, shoals and fixed underwater hazards.  Consult area charts and maintain a proper lookout to avoid partially submerged floating objects. 

•    Always check the weather forecast before heading out.  At marinas, small craft advisories, storm warnings, and other alerts warn boaters of higher wind and waves, either imminent or expected within the next 24 hours.  For extended outings, track the five-day forecast, either on local AM/FM radio or television, or on Internet weather sites like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Forecast and information web page at www.weather.gov/om/marine/home.htm.

•    Travel at a speed that allows you to maneuver your boat clear of any obstacles.  When slowing down, be mindful of your own wake and reduce your speed gradually.  Reducing your speed too quickly can cause your own backwash  to swamp your boat by washing water in over the transom.   

•    Make sure that the number of passengers and weight of your gear are within the capacity limits of your boat, bearing in mind that capacity is calculated based on fair weather conditions and an even distribution of the load. Too much weight or weight poorly distributed can cause your boat to become unstable, allowing backwash or small waves to come aboard and reducing the degree your boat can roll before the gunwales  dip under the water.  Keep the load as low and along the centerline as much as possible.  Secure equipment so it doesn’t shift while you’re underway.

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