Working on the boat

What to do if you are taking on water

By April 21, 2023 4 Comments

No captain wants to hear the words “we are taking on water”, but if it does I hope you can resolve it as successfully as we did.

Sadly, I ran our Lagoon 410, Guiding Light, onto a reef out at Glover Atoll in Belize. The charts for this area are spotty at best and as we were leaving the atoll along a route I had mapped out from the anchorage we turned into the morning sun. Unfortunately, Lily, on the bow, could not see the last patch reef until we were almost on top of it. I threw the engines into reverse as fast as I could, but we still heard the sickening sound of fiberglass crunching against rock and coral. I tried reversing us off the reef, but we were stuck and that is when I heard those fateful words. A rock had punched a hand size hole through the hull forward of the keel on the outside of the starboard pontoon. Water was pouring in due to the hole and the rock still pushing against it.

We were going nowhere and water was coming in. That is when I am so glad that I prescribe to the mantra “you can never have too many bilge pumps or fire extinguishers!” Besides the separate bilges in the engine compartments, I had a 600 gallon per hour (GPH) and 2000 GPH bilge pump in each hull. I also had a 600 GPH bilge setup that could be placed anywhere I needed it and manual Whale pumps installed. While Lily held towels over the hole to restrict the flow I noticed the 600 & 2000 GPH pumps were being overwhelmed, so I liberated the 2000 GPH pump from the port side and hastily wired it up to run as a temporary pump with the movable 600 GPH. With all these pumps going we were able to get ahead of the water flow and feel very happy that the water came over the floorboards only once and only for four to five minutes. This is how we sat for about five hours with the engines in reverse to keep us from going further onto the reef since the wind was on the stern.

We had at least five government officials on the boat within 15 minutes of our accident, but they were more concerned with getting our passports and making sure we were not leaving than helping us get off the reef. A boat from a dive resort came out to help us very quickly, but after one or two attempts of pulling us off he said he had to go because he had to take guests diving. The other dive resorts could not be bothered to help us out until FINALLY one amazing guy came over to help out. This guy was good. He anchored upwind of us, so he would stay in one spot. He had us attach two dock lines to the boat on both sides of the stern and the other end to a single line, forming a bridle. He tightened this line up, tied it to his boat, and without pulling the anchor up pulled us off the reef in 30 seconds or so. In all the activity that followed to save the vessel I never did get his name or was able to give him a proper thank you, so to the amazing guy from Glover Atoll Resort “Thank you”. You handled your boat with grace and professionalism.

As soon as we were off the reef we gathered up all the dock lines and moved the Guiding Light to water about 5 feet deep, since we draw four feet. This way if I could not stop the leak the boat could only go down one foot. Once anchored I shut down the engines and hopped into the water to put a trash bag over the hole and to make sure this was the only issue I had to deal with. The trash bag held out the water while I got a piece of starboard from my scrap pile. I used an electric drill and screwed this in place on the inside of the hull with a towel between it and the hole. After that I took some toilet bowl wax rings I had been carrying around for 14 years and smeared them into the cracks from the outside. All of this brought the water down to a bare trickle that the 600 GPH pump took care of every now and then. Pweeh!!!!

By this point it was after 5pm and the nearest shipyard was 40 miles away in Placencia. The government officials (mostly Fish & Wildlife, Fisheries, and Park Ranger types) told us the Coast Guard would be there in the morning to escort us back and off they went with our passports. Well the Coast Guard did not arrive until 1pm, so we finally made it to Thunderbirds Marina around 9-10pm. My temporary patch job held very nicely, but the wax slowly washed away with the miles. The water was coming in, but nothing that the original two pumps could not handle. Doug, the amazing marina owner, was there to greet us and help tie off the boat. We could not be hauled out that night, but would be first thing in the morning. He was impressed to see how the water intrusion almost went away as soon as I jumped into the water and added more wax to the hole and said he never thought of using toilet bowl wax rings before, but will now.

Once hauled out of the water there was an extensive investigation involving three different Belize government agencies while Guiding Light was being repaired. At the end of the investigation it was determined we broke some already dead coral and rocks and caused no damage to the reef and would not be fined. Let me tell you how much of a relief that was, since I have heard of $20-50 thousand fines for other incidents. All said and done the repair cost $2500 and 3-4 days. We got lucky for sure, but I am happy that Lily and I were able to resolve the issue with equipment and parts we had onboard the vessel.

With that said, what did we do right and wrong?

1) WRONG – Obviously hitting the reef. I am a good reef pilot, but I made a mistake. Happens to all of us, but still that will haunt me for years.

2) RIGHT – Having all the bilge pumps. I will continue to preach “Never to many bilge pumps or fire extinguishers”. These are the things you never think about until you need them, but when you need them you need a lot of them.

3) RIGHT – This one is on Lily, because she brought over a pile of old towels to cover the hole and restrict the water flow until we could get off the reef. She keep adding towels over the hole and each one helped…a lot.

4) RIGHT – Having supplies aboard to patch the job temporarily. Always have scrap boards and longer screws with washers on the boat for a variety of reasons. Also, the wax rings I carried for just this type of thing were awesome.

5) WRONG (kind of) – When I placed the towel between the board and hull, I should have used something bulkier like a wet suit. This would have let the board stay straight and the wet suit conform more easily to the curve of the hull. It held very well, but I think the wet suit would have been better…of course I was not going to undo everything to change it. Haha.

6) RIGHT – Whenever I dealt with government officials on this matter I was always patient and courteous and it made the investigation go much smoother.

I hope you never, ever get into a similar situation. I also hope this article about my blunder and actions afterwards are able to help you if you do find yourself in a similar situation.


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