That sinking feeling!

Bilge System Upgrade.

During the 1300nm delivery of Tondelayo from Townsville to Jervis Bay in 2009 we experienced a failure of the PSS Shaft seal which allowed sea water to enter around the prop shaft and fill the boat to just under the floor (approx. 2t of water!!!!!!!!).

I except responsibility for this potentially life threatening failure and have penned this article so that others may be informed and learn from the experience.

Prior to departing on the delivery I had taken Tondelayo for a sea- trial and stayed on her for three days doing all manner of pre delivery checks. The sea trials were conducted in very mild weather and it was hard to put Tondy through her paces although she was a lovely boat to sail and by all accounts had been well maintained by her previous owner.

When I inspected the PSS Shaft seal I was in a hurry (no excuse and for the life of me I can't remember why I would have been in a hurry) and I had expected to see the standard stuffing box configuration so although this system was new to me I observed no leaks or obvious signs of deterioration of the fittings and the whole setup actually looked to be in perfect working order under all engine rev ranges. It even had a hose clamp around the prop shaft as an extra precaution to prevent the rotor sliding up the shaft. In hindsight I should have at least replaced the hose clamp regardless of what it looked like because a cracked or weak hose clamp is not always easily identified and it’s an easy fix which gives an added level of protection. These days I actually use a prop shaft anode to do the same job.

Two days into our delivery we were experiencing 30knt winds on the nose in 3 to 4 metres of sloppy choppy seas and were motor sailing to try to get to Hamilton Island and a sheltered harbour and this is when the bilge water alarm sounded. In hindsight it may have been more prudent to turn around and run with the weather back to Townsville.

Although I was not aware at the time, I later identified that the PSS shaft seal had failed due to a movement of the rotor along the prop shaft at high revs because the retaining grub screws had worn down and the hose clamp on the prop shaft had also cracked which was enough to allow the rotor to move.

The manufacturer recommends that a service kit be installed after 6 years and my system was 6 years old so I except that it is my fault and not the PSS Shaft seal. It is a great system when properly maintained and I still use it today.(although I bought and fitted a whole new

PSS Shaft seal rather than just a service kit).

The original electric bilge pump had been bypassed long ago (although it was still in situ).

The current bilge pump set up started in the area directly below the engine with a gauze filtered pick up leading via a 20mm white pipe up to a “Shurflo” diaphragm pump mounted just to the starboard side of the engine compartment. The bilge water then flowed through a white 20mm approx diameter hose through to the stern of the vessel and out via a 90 degree brass elbow skin fitting. (Interestingly enough there was no “one way / non-return” valve fitted to the system).

This system failed almost immediately because of the following

  • The aging engine room Heat/Soundproofing had deteriorated in the choppy seas and a lot of it had ended up in the bilge. It was like we had shredded up lots of steel wool and thrown it into the bilge water

  • The Gauze pickup wasn’t capable of filtering out all the debris

  • The Shurflo pump was never designed to pump bilge water (it's even written on the pump) and quickly failed due to contamination.

  • The white pipe became clogged and it was impossible to see where.

  • The Brass elbow skin fitting also became clogged

We therefore reverted to the manual bilge pump and although it seemed to take forever to prime it due to the amount of lift from the bilge pick up to the actual rubber diaphragm we were able to hand pump the bilge dry.

It was also noted that the harder we pushed the engine the quicker the water came in so we were able to modify our engine use accordingly.

Once in Hamilton Island I bought a Rule bilge pump and a quantity of clear hose plus a non-return valve and we substituted this gear for the system that had failed us.

Now that Tondelayo is happily sitting on her mooring in Jervis Bay I have had time to get her downstairs plumbing just right. (I nearly edited that line out).

Overkill has never been a big part of my vocabulary so I thought why not have two electric bilge pumps and one manual so I will always be able to sleep well at night knowing that Tondy is a dry as possible.

My first task was to remove the original bilge system that had just been left to decompose in the bowels of the boat. Not as easy as you might think. Down East Yachts must have installed this system prior to putting in the diesel tank because the pump sat nicely forward of the diesel tank with two hose clamps onto that bloody white hose. This hose ran under the tank and wound it’s way to the back of the boat. This white hose is really stiff and proved to be a nightmare to remove.

Firstly I was able to pull the bulk of the white pipe from the stern through to just under the engine.

I was unsure whether or not the original pump was permanently fixed to the hull and whether my efforts to remove it might rip a hole in the bottom of the boat but I was fortunate enough to get some advice via the Downeast forum which led me to persevere with my plan.

I was able to free the old pump from its footings by pulling on the two wires that used to power it. This took quite a while as the timber plate that the pump was fixed to appeared to have cemented itself to the hull with 30 years worth of bilge goo and I had very little leverage on the rather short wires. I also had to develop some contortionist skills just to get into the confined space under the sink whilst all the time worrying whether or not my dizziness was being caused from lack of blood to my brain, the fact that I was upside down, or just lack of oxygen due to working in a confined space. I was good for about 1 minutes work before I had to extricate myself from the space under the sink and come up for air.

Eventually I liberated the pump from the hull but it couldn’t move very far as the pipe wasn’t moving with it. I pushed and pulled that pipe from the engine compartment but as it was so stiff it did nothing. That white pipe hates me I’m sure.

So I thought if I could cut the pipe at the bilge pump then surely the pump would come out and I could pull the pipe back out towards the engine and then remove it entirely.

I tried a set of long handled secateurs but didn’t have enough room to get a good bite. I also taped a range of knives to my boat hook and went my hardest but that bloody white pipe is strong and stubborn. Somewhat dejected I left Tondy once again and went home to plan the demise of this most challenging pipe.

Although I was now becoming a little obsessed I was determined to murder this pipe and I realised I had to come up with the perfect assault if this thing was going to yield.

I had to get nasty, if not evil, and part of me enjoyed the thought of inflicting pain on this insidious pipe.

I spoke to my mates and we thought about taping a battery powered grinder to my trusty boathook and grinding through it but I didn’t want to ruin the grinder if some of the bilge water got onto it. I also didn’t want to bounce it off my diesel tank and generate sparks which potentially could ignite the stinky, oily, dieselly bilge water.

Then it dawned on me,

What better way to make this pipe pay than to melt through it. Yes agony for the pipe and ease of application for me. All I had to do was heat up a fine sharp blade (eg 1 inch paint scraper attached to my trusty boat hook) until it was red hot then just push it down until it decapitates the bilge pump from this stupid white pipe. It was the perfect crime and I was just the man for the job even if I was still a little worried about introducing a heat source to a potentially flammable bilge mix .

As a backup I had a really cool one handed hacksaw that might work if I get really frustrated and attack the pipe like a madman!

The plan worked and I was through that pipe like a hot knife through butter.

Everything then fell into place. The old pump came out and a brand new bigger one went in with it’s associated piping and non-return valve.

So now Tondy has the electric auto bilge pump on a float switch which will look after anything that might happen whilst she’s unattended sitting on her mooring, backed up by a large volume electric bilge pump located where the original was and backed up again by the Whale Gusher original manual hand operated bilge pump.

All three lines exit the boat from separate skin fittings so in the worst case scenario I could turn on both electric pumps then sit up on deck pumping on the manual pump until help arrived.

I sleep well at night now.

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