In a recent issue, you carried a story by Mike and Yvonne Rose about finding a potential leak that could have been catastrophic (The leak that almost was Issue 135, Jan./Feb. 2004). It reminded me of a similar incident last summer, during my annual summer cruise to New England. I had been deviled by a persistent small leak for too long. Each year for at least two or three years, I blush to say, when my sailboat, a 26-foot Paceship, went into the water, the bilge would fill with salt water. I would pump it out and scratch my head, remembering the times when it had a dry bilge. I was unable to find the source but assumed it came from the stern area. The choices were many: sink drain, cooling-water input for the engine, engine-cooling hoses, exhaust line and through-hull fitting, bilge pump through-hull fittings, cockpit drain. But which was it?
Finally, I was on Block Island last summer with some time to kill. Bored, I started crawling around in the bilge below the cockpit, a crowded, claustrophobic space. This is not fun. Even after clearing out the sailbags, spare anchors, lines and fenders, there is barely room to reach around one-handed, but I did, wiggling fittings and hoses, looking for a wet patch. I found it.
The wet patch was at the cockpit drain. There was a single 1.5-inch drain at the cockpit that led to a T-fitting, which in turn led to a through-hull on port and one to starboard, to insure draining from either tack. Usually drains like these are made of heavy bronze on well-built boats, or reinforced nylon if the builder is trying to save a few bucks.
I had replaced the hoses a few years before, as well as the through-hulls port and starboard. I was aware that my boat, like many mid-range boats built during the 1970s and ’80s, had been built with some care, and a few shortcuts. I thought I had found all the shortcuts, but to my surprise, the leak I found was because the cockpit through-hull began life as an ordinary brass, thin-walled, household sink drain. The wonder was that it lasted as long as it had — some 23 years. It makes you wonder how much money they could have saved, building it that way. The brass had corroded away, gradually cracking on a line just above where the hose was clamped onto it. It came away in my hand when I wiggled it hard enough. In 12 feet of water. On Block Island. Over the years, it had been the source of water in my bilge. Each time the boat was lowered down the ramp at my boatyard after winter storage, it went in stern first, filling slowly, and it was always a race: Would it float off the cradle before it filled? Each year I got away with it, unknowingly until now.
Something similar had occurred to me about 20 years before, when I was on my summer cruise in another, older boat. Leaning on an old iron through-hull fitting for an inboard engine that had been removed years earlier, I had a length of pipe break off just at the waterline. I was able to pack it with epoxy putty. I did the same thing this time, surrounding the break with putty and tape to hold it in place until it set up.
So far, the patch has held, but that through-hull has to go. If I have learned anything from this, it is that there are lots of boats out there that were pretty well-built years before, except for one or two little things, and that many repairs and fixes have been made that were intended to be temporary. Any one of these things could sink a boat.
Cliff Moore is a professional photographer who holds a 100-ton Coast Guard license and lives in Rocky Hill, N.J.