IBEX Preview: Why Boats Sink

Simply put, the failure to keep water outside the hull is the essential reason boats sink, but there’s more to it than that, as marine investigator Daniel K. Rutherford has discovered in more than 30 years of field examinations and legal cases.

silvertonCourtesy Ocean Marine Specialties

Neglect is one of the top reasons boats sink, such as when this Silverton 37 (11m) sank after the weight of ice and snow accumulations pushed a failed exhaust under water.

It’s not just because hurricanes and other types of heavy weather send them to their demise. Design and build issues, owner issues, fatigue, wear and tear, and just plain old neglect are often the real reasons boats sink, according to Rutherford. “‘Because the bilge pump failed’ is not why boats sink,” Rutherford says. “Bilge pumps just delay the inevitable.”

Rutherford, president and principal surveyor of Ocean Marine Specialties (Cape May, New Jersey), joins Beth Leonard, technical editor for BoatU.S., and Brian Goodwin from the American Boat & Yacht Council, at IBEX 2015 to present the seminar “Why Boats Sink – And What the Industry Can Do About It.”

According to Rutherford, these are his top five “frankly stupid” reasons boat sink:

  • Re-powering with four-stroke engines and not checking to see how the added weight aft changed the static waterline (put scupper outlets or through-hull penetrations underwater, for instance). “This is done by professionals (usually), and half-a-dozen times a year they sink a perfectly good boat and two new outboards along with it,” Rutherford says.
  • Poor-quality plastic hull-fittings and hoses that have deteriorated with age.
  • Lack of access for servicing hoses, clamps, and fittings (see above). “You need to be a five-year-old to fit in some of the areas needed to even inspect, let alone service or replace, them,” Rutherford says.
  • Low transom freeboard and access hatches (that have no positive lockdown or gaskets) mounted right in front of the aforementioned low transom cutouts.
  • Forgetting to put the bilge plug in, or put the gasket on the strainer, or put the hose back on the through-hull after you winterize something. “Really? Is there any excuse for that?” Rutherford asks. “It happens more often than you’d think.”
Flooded boat

This boat sank because the cover was left partially off and heavy rains flooded the cockpit. The scuppers were not able to keep up with the flow and the vessel down flooded through the scupper outlets.

Then there is simple owner neglect. “I place weight of ice and snow, buildup of leaves and debris that clog scuppers and freeing port systems, obvious rot and deterioration of hoses and fittings in this category,” he says. “You can’t just tie up your boat in August and expect to see it safe and sound (still floating) in February.”

Also, Rutherford adds, boatyards, marinas, and builders have many revenue opportunities in preventing boats from sinking or making them more seaworthy. “Preventive maintenance is one of those revenue streams,” Rutherford says. “Identify potential problems early. Set up a maintenance schedule and stick to that schedule.”

He adds: “From an owner’s standpoint, you know those things we call seacocks (the ones that are supposed to be on all underwater through-hulls)? Why not close them when the boat is unattended? Sounds just too simple a solution to be true, no?”

The bottom line, Rutherford stresses, is: “A boat should be seaworthy. That means it should be fit for its intended voyage and/or use. I think it is not too far of a stretch to assume that just sitting in its slip, the boat should remain floating.”

—Elaine Lembo

About the Author: Elaine Lembo is the seminar manager for IBEX, the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference, owned and produced by Professional BoatBuilder and the National Marine Manufacturers Association. This story is part of a series of her conversations with the dozens of boatbuilding, engineering, and materials experts who will present 54 seminars at IBEX 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. For details, log on to the show site www.ibexshow.com.