Jammies in the Engine Room

If you listen closely to your boat, she will speak to you.

When a gust comes through, the pitch of the wind whistling through her rigging will change.  When there is too much sail up, she will tell you by changing her motion through the seas.  And when there are mechanical issues, she will let you know by the sounds of the pumps when there should not be sounds from pumps.

Rebuilding the bilge pump

The refrigerator pump uses seawater for heat transfer, and comes on frequently with a very soft, quiet hum.  The freshwater pump is quite the opposite, announcing itself with a noticeable vibration as it primes and delivers.  The bilge pump is different again, a patterned thumping sound as it draws water up from the bilge and overboard.

They say there are only a few things that a Captain must do:

  1. Keep the mast pointed up and not down
  2. Keep the crew on the boat
  3. No fires, ever
  4. Keep the water out

Well, keeping the water out can be a challenge given the environment, and so the Captain relies mightily on the bilge pump to do its job.  There’s this float switch, and when the water in the bilge gets high enough to activate the float switch, the bilge pump cycles on and empties the bilge. 

On Dragonfly, all of our gray water (sinks and showers) drains into the bilge, and the bilge pump empties the water overboard.  Therefore, the bilge pump should ONLY come on when sinks and showers are being used, but certainly not at 4.30 am.

When one awakens during the middle of the night, you listen to what your boat is telling you.  A low hum – the fridge pump.  A noticeable vibration – someone else is awake and going to the bathroom.  A patterned thumping!  Well, she’s telling me something isn’t right so better get up and listen more closely.

After five minutes it’s clear that the bilge pump is still pumping, but there is nothing feeding water into the bilge, so this is what some Captains would call a Problem.  

Time to get the headlamp and kneepads on and head to the engine room at 4.30 am – no more sleep on this night.  

Yikes!  2 inches of standing water and the bilge pump motor is hot, meaning its been working really hard for quite some time.  This is not good.  Susan is up by now and starts checking under the floorboards for water coming in.  Everything dry.  I close the inlet valve that brings seawater into the boat’s plumbing (for things like the fridge, reverse osmosis water maker, A/C system, etc.) and soon an alarm goes off.  Susan reports it is the red Seawater Alarm on the main panel.  Confusion.  Okay, Susan turn off the fridge on the 24V panel.  Alarm silences.  New learning – Dragonfly has an alarm that goes off when the seawater valve is closed and one of the boat’s systems is relying on that seawater to function properly (in this case the fridge).   I reluctantly taste the bilge water – it’s that trade-off of taking 2-3 days off life expectancy offset by the knowledge gained that it’s not salt water.  Okay, it’s bilge water – we’re not taking water in, but we’re not sending the sink and shower water overboard.  Reopen the seawater inlet and turn the fridge back on.

They say the most effective way to get water out of a sinking boat is a scared man and a bucket.  Well, a close second is a captain with lots of adrenaline at 4.45 am and a manual bilge pump handle in his hand.  Two minutes later the bilge is empty.  Watch the level of water in the bilge and it’s not rising.  Diagnosis confirmed.

Time to disassemble the bilge pump and see what is going on inside.  Ah, a missing rubber flapper valve on the bottom section of the pump housing.  No flapper valve, no suction.  No suction, no water ejection, regardless of how hard the pump motor is working.

The missing rubber flapper

It’s now mid morning and neighbors on another Amel share spare parts, so we can get the pump operational again.  Time to rebuild the pump.

Everything back in its place

Some say that cruising is simply the art of doing boat repairs in exotic locations.  True, and on occasion it’s done wearing your jammies, knee pads and a headlamp.

Time to go sailing

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