There are a lot of boat status details. Voltage level. Charging. Course being steered. Bearing to the next waypoint. Fuel level. Wind. Weather. Traffic.
And the number on the bilge counter.
It often goes like this: "Bilge count is zero. That's a container ship. Course is 190. Heading is also 190. You have the con, see you in four hours."
The idea is to avoid The Big Mistake of assuming something. Instead, mention all the details. Assumptions can become a bit of a problem. Observability is central to this. If you see it, call it out, then it's clear to everyone.
The Bilge Pump's Running
One of the first things we installed on Red Ranger was a bilge pump cycle counter. It counts the number of times the bilge pump has gone on.
(It doesn't record duration, which would be an interesting thing.)
For years, it rarely moved. Zero was typical for a week or more. At one point, back in 2013-2014, the bilge was so dry we couldn't have grown cacti down there.
When the bilge pump counter is non-zero, CA asks "why?"
The first "Why?" gets a dumb, trivial answer from me. "There's water in the bilge." Duh.
But that's not even the right dumb answer. There are a number of fluids on the boat: fresh water, raw water, anti-freeze, diesel, and oil. In most cases, the fluids are died different colors: diesel is red, oil is brown and turns black almost immediately, the anti-freeze we use is green.
The water, however, requires someone to take a taste. You can't identify the source of the water by its color.
It seems a bit sketchy to stick your finger into the water under the engine, taste and spit. But. It has to be done. A frisson of Prestone? An after-taste of diesel? A hint of oil? The salty after-taste of raw water?
It has to be done.
So, my dumb-ass "water in the bilge" should have been stated as "fluid in the bilge." CA would then follow up with "what kind of fluid?" so they can move onto the next "Why?"
Since I thought it was fresh water in the bilge, my answers were biased. This assumption is the seed for The Big Mistake.
Why Is There Water In The Bilge?
CA's next "Why?" requires me to work through an enumeration of water ingress opportunities. We've fixed a number of these. In historical order:
2011 and 2013. The shaft seal leaked when we bought Red Ranger. Traditional packing materials weep a little, it's part of the lubrication. We became worried when water start spraying in. The whole thing was seriously damaged. We had to have a new shaft made and a new seal installed. We tried a Tides Marine seal. We (eventually) learned that Red Ranger's shaft is too long and wobbly for a Tides Marine seal. We had to replace it with a PSS Shaft Seal. Kind of grumpy with the yard that put in the Tides Marine seal. The PSS seal has been great.
2012. When the boat is on the hard and not blocked perfectly level, then water can run down the hinge of the on-deck drink locker. This locker drains into the bilge. Normally, very little water comes in here, but a cold, snowy winter, blocked with the bow a little high, means snow melting into the bilge. Nothing to fix here.
You may ask how we learned about this source of ingress.
We were sleeping on Red Ranger during a hurricane near-miss. The area of Norfolk we lived in was evacuated, so we went to the boat, which had been hauled out. We're laying in the boat one night, listening to rain and wind. We hear water running. The bilge pump runs, and CA hops out of her berth and starts lifting floorboards to see where the water is coming in. It's hard to see, but the drain from the cooler under the cockpit bench is running into the bilge at a pretty steady rate.
2017. The port-side deck drain used to run under the cockpit to a "T" fitting with the cockpit drain. The deck drain hose popped off the "T" in the dead of winter. Maybe ice forced the hose off the fitting. The deck water then drained into the engine room. This water ran down onto the center fuel tank, displacing the dregs of fuel and filling the bilge with diesel. Fuel generally ruins bilge pumps (this almost seems to be by design — it seems like the diaphragm is dissolved by any of a variety of petrochemicals.) We had the deck drains re-routed to go straight overboard. No more "T" fitting. Simpler. No chance for ingress.
2019. Here's where it gets tricky. See "A Gift" for another view of this problem.
The above list tells me what the source ain't. It ain't the shaft: I looked. It ain't the hinge of the on-deck drink locker: I looked; and we aren't on the hard. It ain't the non-existing deck drain "T" fitting. Okay, what else is there?
Working from stem to stern we have a lot of choices.
The anchor hawse pipe. It leaks. A little. I added some silicone goo around it.
Deck fittings. We have one that leaks. A little. It drips in the dish cupboard. The drip rate is so slow that a plastic tubby lid catches all of it, where it evaporates and leaves a teak-colored stain.
The mast. It leaks a little. But it has always leaked.
The hatches. These have had problems over the years. The lenses leaked and dripped on things. So we rebedded the lenses. The frames leaked, so we had Zimmerman marine rebed the frames and replace the gaskets. When the hatches leaked, they only dripped on things; it was enough water to ruin the finish in one spot on the floor; it was not enough water to trigger the pump.
The port lights. Some used to leak. We're replacing the gaskets one at a time. When they leaked, fixing it was mostly a matter of mashing the gaskets flat to keep them from leaking. Not a great solution, but it had been working.
Sigh. None of these has ever had the kind of volume that would kick off the bilge pump. We're looking for something on the order of 2 drips per second. Not a little weeping that leaves a few drops on the cabin sole after a heavy rain.
We once hypothesized the port side water tank leaked. Then we found the tank was holding water. Our theory didn't hold water.
We're stumped. Baffled. Lost. Foundering.
Somewhere we made A Big Mistake, and have overlooked the sensible solution by assuming something. But what?
The Daily Litany
We had adopted a daily litany of questions. Some answerable, some unanswerable. Some imponderable. How many times has the pump run? Why is it running? How did you sleep last night?
The pump would wake us up at night. We'd count the seconds the pump ran. It's about 4 gallons per minute, so a 15-second run is about a gallon. Four cycles a day could be as much 4 gallons of water coming in.
4 gallons in 24 hours: 32 pints: 21 ounces per hour. That's 10,240 drops per hour (a drop is defined as 1/480th of an ounce.) 2 drops per second. That's not a trickle, but that's a noticeable flow.
Could it be the chain plates? One rainy day we shined flashlights everywhere. The plates were bone-dry. CA had rebuilt the butyl tape packing around each plate. They were dry.
Okay. We're left with my assumption of the port-side deck fitting that drips into the dish cupboard. We'll need to rebed the leaking stanchion. Okay.
One rainy day I pulled up floor boards and found that there was water on TOP of the port side tank. Okay. That confirms the port-side deck fitting, right?
Here's where we get to The Big Mistake. I didn't taste the water. A finger would have answered a lot of questions.
Instead I attached the "rebed the stanchion" solution to the problem, and didn't really answer the "Why is that stanchion leaking?" question.
Today I pulled up the galley floor. And lay there listening.
Aha. You're in there somewhere.
Shine the light around some more.
It's not really coming from the top of the port-side water tank. It is splashing there, but that's not the actual source.
It's dripping from further up and splashing onto the top of the port-side tank.
Why is water dripping onto the tank lid? Where is it coming from?
The Uninspectable Pump
We have (well, had) a Whale Gusher Galley Pump under the galley sink area. It had been nicely installed behind the counter where you couldn't see it. It was above the port-side water tank. I had even rebuilt the pump in 2011 because the diaphragms were falling apart.
The pump is below the water line, and exposed to raw water. It's hidden inside the cabinets so we can't inspect it. If a gasket or diaphragm were to fail…
(Music Cue: duh duh duuunh.)
The wooden mounting bracket was rotten. The screws rusted. It seems clear (now, of course, in hindsight) this pump had been leaking for well over a year. Well. Over. A. Year.
I don't think the bilge pump ran excessively before we moved to Nevada. From this I conclude at it's been leaking since we returned and launched about a year ago.
Here's a sequence of Why's:
Why is the pump running? There's raw water in the bilge.
Why is there raw water in the bilge? After inspecting sources of raw water, we can see the raw-water foot pump in the galley leaks. (Or you can assume it's fresh water and not find the problem.)
Why does the galley foot pump leak? Likely a failed diaphragm or other seal.
Why do we even have this pump? Um. About that: no idea.
Why did we let it degrade? We couldn't see it. Also, we don't use it. It's only used by me twice a year: once to winterize; once to un-winterize.
Why don't we use it? Because. We don't.
It seemed handy to have raw water in the galley. Wash a dish in raw water. Rinse in fresh. It seemed like a way to save water. And ocean water spaghetti. (Well, 50-50 ocean and fresh.)
But. We don't do that. Never have.
The mortal remains of the pump are here in CA's grip on their way to the trash bag.
It's covered in mud because raw water in the Chesapeake is really turbid.
Worse than the pump is the wooden bracket. It's also black with mud and rot.
It's a big yuck.
The screws holding the pump to the wooden bracket had rusted so badly, I could only unscrew one of them to get the pump out.
I resorted to using a hacksaw to cut the screws. After cutting one screw, though, another broke clean off as the assembly shifted on the rotten base.
With a crow-bar I broke the final screw free. Easier than sawing it.
The hole where this was mounted was just barely big enough to wrestle out the bracket and the pump separately. As a single unit, they were too awkwardly big to remove.
And impossible to inspect.
I had vague recollections of taking this apart back in 2011. Vague. I have no clear idea how I managed to get the hoses connected.
It's all gone. Except the lessons learned
Bilge pump count reset to zero. We're hoping it stays at zero. Like it's supposed to.
And we've learned to taste the water. It's not like we have to take huge gulps. Touch it to the tongue, spit it out. Rinse with Grey Goose. Whatever.
Know what the mystery is.
Ask "Why?" until the answer is "because." In our case, it's a "because we don't use it." In other cases, it's "because gravity" or "because age" or "because I didn't taste it to see what it was."