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Pan Pan in Tahiti

Deb and Phil Perfitt

Coastal Drifter
Folkes 42 Sloop
November 16th, 2017

It’s been one hell of a week on Coastal Drifter. Having arrived in Papeete, we had planned to enjoy a week of rejuvenation, sightseeing, exploring new restaurants, getting reacquainted with old friends, and catching up with the world after spending the last 6 months incommunicado. The only reason I’m telling you about my week is because it may help prepare someone else, or make you rethink your strategies based on what happened to us. This is true, and can happen.

They say bad things happen in three’s and I hope to heaven that is true! First, our second freezer packed it in. I know, I’m whining especially because we know lots of cruisers who don’t have any refrigerators at all. But it was full! We had to gash everything. Second incident was misplacing our passports; scary, but all turned out well in the end.

The third, and hopefully the final event happened only two nights ago. We almost lost Coastal Drifter.

We were out on a mooring ball in Marina Taina. We had just swapped out our bilge pump for a larger one, and a new float switch. Well, guess what? It failed! Yes, folks, it did!

Here’s what happened. Phil and I were out all day and when we returned we didn’t notice anything amiss. Everything was normal, I was busy making dinner while Phil was on the Net. Suddenly Phil says “my feet are wet!” I checked the hatches and portholes because we have had a lot of rain lately, but found nothing leaking. I pulled up the cover for the bilge and to my horror it was full! Our bilge is very deep! Phil can stand up in it so let’s say 5-6 ft? Our engine and batteries were submerged in sea water.

I immediately switched off the electricity, while Phil attached our emergency pump. Nothing!

For some reason, I’d been soaking clothes in the two galley sinks so I unplugged them to let the water drain, so we could start bailing water from the bilge to the sinks, which are next to each other but independent drains. Phil said the water level hadn’t changed. We closed all the through hulls, and Phil told me to prepare the ditch bag and declare a Pan Pan.

I tried to raise the Marina but no luck; they were closed for the day. I requested help on three other stations that I knew were in use by cruisers: 74, 16 and 09 the airport control. I got one reply from Fandango. Out of 70 boats in the anchorage, only one had its radio on! Thankfully, Ian and his wife, Leslie immediately jumped into their dingy, bringing with them another pump. Phil wired in the new pump from the battery, hoping it was still viable, while Ian and Leslie bailed water from the bilge into the cockpit using 5 gallon buckets. I finally got the JRCC on the radio, declared a Pan Pan and started a dialogue with them; describing our problem, our location, and what assistance we required.

I found that my and their language skills were a barrier, not strong enough to clearly get the information across. They sent a fire truck to the dock – we were on a mooring ball! They didn’t have a boat to send another pump to us. I knew then help was not coming. So I asked them to keep in contact with us every 10 minutes, while we would try to get the situation under control as best we could. Phil and Ian found the cause:  sea water had siphoned into the bilge and the pump failed. The sink has been acting as a vent all this time, and in the past, the force of the old pump would pop the plug out of the sink and allow the water to drain, but not so with the new one.

After a long hour and a half, we had enough water bailed out that we could assess our situation better. I then realized we were not going to sink that night. Even though we thought we knew what the problem was, we set an hourly alarm to check the bilge. No more water came in.

Phil and Vasli carefully taking the engine apart

Phil and Vasli carefully taking the engine apart

In the morning, Ian and Leslie returned at the crack of dawn to help where they could, and it was decided to ask the Marina to tow us into a dock so we could try and get the engine running and see what we could salvage after this whole ordeal. The Marina was very good; within the hour they had a crew to us, and we were under tow to the safety of a sturdy dock.  Another friend, Vasili, on Olgalou heard us request a tow and offered to help us with the engine, as he is a diesel mechanic. We gratefully accepted.

Engine re-assembly

Engine re-assembly

In the last two long days, Phil and Vasili have been working and have successfully got the engine running again after three oil changes, some rewiring of the starter and glow plugs. Thankfully, we are OK, we only lost a few things that we can replace.

Lessons Learned

  • Be self reliant when the emergency happens, there might not be help when needed
  • Even though there are lots of boats around, don’t assume that they will have their VHFs on, because they have to conserve electricity, a common practice.
  • No one on neighboring boats responded to my bell ringing, yelling, and whistling?

Best Practices

  • Install two independent float switches with a bilge alarm
  • When installing your emergency pump, ensure that the pumping mechanism, at least, is installed lower than the water level of your boat. Physics is a bitch!
  • Install a vented air loop

Things That Were Good

  • Because we had to turn off our power, our many solar lights worked very well to give enough light to work in and light up the boat
  • The two hand-held radios worked well to communicate with other parties, as there was no power for our main VHS

Being Thankful

I will always be thankful to Fandango and Olgalou for their quick response in our time of need, and have a little surprise for each of them when we have them over for a “Thank you” spaghetti dinner. Without their help, we would not have had a good outcome and I would probably be sitting in some hotel room waiting to fly home while writing this, instead of being in the comfort of our cockpit on our beloved Coastal Drifter. I don’t think either couple knows how much they mean to us. To them it was just helping out, but to us it meant everything! Another case of another’s unselfish, generous act of helping others help. May the Universe smile upon them forever!

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  1. Pamela Bendall says:

    All is well that ends well. Glad that Coastal Drifter will continue on her voyage…I am always reminded of the boat gremlins that live in the bilge and continue to provide us with challenges, learning, and humility. Best wishes…

    1. Deb Perfitt says:

      Hi Pam,
      Thanks for your comments and sadly true. The only constant thing about cruising is change. This has reminded us that Systems must be checked constantly. Enjoy Central America and your “trashy project”.

  2. Corinne Whelan says:

    Thank-you for sharing this story!

    1. Deb Perfitt says:

      You are welcome. Thank you for your interest

      Deb and Phil

  3. Ricky says:

    Thanks for sharing your very scary experience. Practical knowledge from sailors experience helps to make us all the wiser. Glad to hear of your success and the comradery of the community we are part of. Makes me feel good to be part of such a group. Happy Days to you both.

    1. Deb Perfitt says:

      Hi Ricky. You are part of an amazing group with Blue Water Cruising, they made it possible for us to be Doers with their wonderful programs and seminars. Without their patient and knowledgeable mentoring I’m not sure we would have ever left the dock. Thank you for your best wishes.
      Deb and Phil

  4. Peyton says:

    Wow! Glad it turned out okay. I’m sure going through that experience was quite a bit more intense than the blog post. Whew!

    1. Deb says:

      Thanks Peyton,
      Yes it was a hairy time! Hope my article helps someone who never thought of siphoning as a bilge problem. We knew the engine could siphon seawater in and took precaution for that but the bilge? Thanks for your support
      Deb and Phil
      #CoastalDrifter

  5. Mark & Becky Trantham says:

    It dose come in 3’s
    We were in Tahiti @ Papeete @ Marina Taina when u were 😎
    We where across from the fuel dock on our catamaran ForgetMeNot flying the BCA burgee and a red 10′ banner u had to have come by us … we ran into another BCA member there also …sorry we miss u and ur fun … our fun came in 3’s also and the adventure lead us to STH marine and to theTechmarine boat yard for a haul out… to much fun …😎 We are spending the winter in Hawaii and heading home to ketchican AK in June 2018 via WA BC and the Sunshine Coast… let us no if u want the skinny on Hawaii i.e. Marinas cost and customs … hey maybe ur already here let us no 😎 🤙🤙🤙
    Mark & Becky crew
    S/V. Forget Me Not
    Cell 360 389 6966

    1. Deb says:

      Hi Mark and Becky
      Boy it’s a small world and I do remember seeing your burgee and saying I have to get a new one, and I will next month when I visit family in Victoria. I have to admit the next morning the marina was quick to react and tow us to the dock FREE! Where else does this happen? Hope you had a nice passage to Hawaii and then on your last leg home. You never know when we will cross wakes again.
      All the best
      Deb and Phil
      #CoastalDrifter

  6. Cindy Patrinellis, s/v Cool Change says:

    “The sink has been acting as a vent all this time, and in the past, the force of the old pump would pop the plug out of the sink and allow the water to drain, but not so with the new one.”. I don’t understand exactly what happened here. Could you explain this further?

    1. Deb says:

      Hi Cindy
      Yes the sink plumbing is the vent for the bilge. The new pump failed and we expected it to act as the old one. Since then we have replaced the failed pump and installed a secondary vent for the bilge. It never even crossed our minds that it would react differently than the old. Hope this helps and thanks for your interest.
      Deb and Phil
      #CoastalDrifter

  7. tom hoskin says:

    After reading this article, I have several questions for understanding and learning, NOT criticism. I even checked this out with a BCA officer who said my questions are OK.

    Did you try to use flares to call for help?
    Please tell us, what was the source of water in the bilge? Is your sink drain through hull below water? Did you test the new bilge pump before leaving her at a mooring ball? Is it some how tied into the sink drain? Was the bilge pump otherwise working, but unable to discharge water for some reason around the sink? Where did the battery come from for Fandango’s pump?

    How did you close the sea cocks in 5 feet of water? Didn’t you notice the boat was low in the water when you climbed aboard? Is your emergency pump a diaphragm pump with a manual handle? These do not need to be at waterline. Is it a centrifugal pump like a bilge pump which won’t suction and must be as far down in bilge as possible?

    When you mention that the water level had not changed, were you expecting it to be higher, same as sea cocks were now closed, or lower because sink drain was now open to atmosphere?(I know that is not logical)
    Thanks for your kind answers if you choose to reply.

    1. Deb says:

      Did you try to use flares to call for help?
      1. No we were in a mooring field with 70 other close boats.
      Please tell us, what was the source of water in the bilge?
      2. Sea water
      Is your sink drain through hull below water?
      3. Yes all of our through hulls are below the waterline.
      Did you test the new bilge pump before leaving her at a mooring ball?
      4. Yes we did and it worked perfectly before we went to shore.
      Is it some how tied into the sink drain?
      5. The sink drain was the anti siphoning vent for the bilge. Work great for 5 years.
      Was the bilge pump otherwise working, but unable to discharge water for some reason around the sink?
      6. When we got enough water out and were able to retrieve the pump, we noticed it was cracked all the way around and the colour on it was faded. Unlike the same pump we had replaced due to age.
      Where did the battery come from for Fandango’s pump?
      7. Phil was able to hook Fandango’s pump to one of our batteries. Lucky for us it worked.
      How did you close the sea cocks in 5 feet of water?
      8. Somehow Phil was able to reach it to turn the handle. We excerise them regularly. He knows exactly where they are. We also have a diagram with their placement on the Boat. We have 6 throughout the boat.
      Didn’t you notice the boat was low in the water when you climbed aboard?
      9. That’s a great question and the answer was it wasn’t. When we got back to CD I remarked that it was time to clean the hull and waterline. She was floating as she always does. The only clue we had was when Phil felt water at the Nav station.
      Is your emergency pump a diaphragm pump with a manual handle?
      10. Yes it is.
      These do not need to be at waterline. Is it a centrifugal pump like a bilge pump which won’t suction and must be as far down in bilge as possible?
      When you mention that the water level had not changed, were you expecting it to be higher, same as sea cocks were now closed, or lower because sink drain was now open to atmosphere?(I know that is not logical)
      11. At the time we were just trying to figure out where the water was coming from. As we bailed out the water we noticed no more water was coming in and we were making head way. Keeping watch all night no more water filled the bilge even after reopening the through hulls so the only other possibility was siphoning. Since then this event has not repeated itself.
      Thank you for the great questions. I really enjoyed answering them. All feed back is important to us
      Deb and Phil
      #CoastalDrifter

  8. Ken Wright says:

    Hi Phil & Deb , may i add a couple of thoughts ?….. from someone who has been there.
    * suggest at least 1 battery (eng ?) be above the cabin sole …
    * was old pump diaphragm or centrifugal style ?…
    * was there a manual bilge pump operated from the cockpit ?…
    *was the new float switch checked?…
    *you noted that the level was not rising ergo boat not sinking ergo pan pan ?necessary?
    *quote “s/w had siphoned into bilge and pump failed ” was bilge outlet below normal sea level ?…
    * big vented loop (tall as possible) a great idea….absolutely necessary in your poor design .
    * best bilge pump design: man standing knee deep in water with bucket in hand !

  9. Hugh Bacon says:

    ” sea water had siphoned into the bilge”. Where did the siphoning occur. From the head or?? Thanks, Hugh