Episode 24.  Leaking or sinking?

Nearly there!  Ben, Hugh and Duncan have made it all the way from the Philippines in skipper Ben’s new Mumby 48 catamaran Candeux.

This final leg from Langkawi to journey’s end at Ao Chalong Bay shows they haven’t lost the knack for misadventures.

Telaga Harbour on the Malaysian island of Langkawi has been a comfortable marina and stop.  It has fuel, food and beer.  It’s been a relaxing couple of days.  However, we need to get to Phuket so we leave our berth at 0730hrs.

We are about an hour north of Telaga when Ben goes to check the water tanks and discovers that we have salt water in the bilge near the port engine.  Not good.  We’re either leaking or sinking.  Let’s be positive.  And we are so close, after so much.  The challenge now is to find out where it is coming from.  Ben has previously advised that there are float switches on the bilge pumps but it is obvious that the float switch near the engine (wrong place) did not work. We also discover that the limber hole is placed in such a way (too high) that a fair bit of water will get in before the float switch activates the unfortunately small pump.  Indeed, Ben is not sure how much water the bilge pumps can actually move.  Hugh thinks nowhere near enough.  They’re small.  They really don’t look like they’re up to much.  Hmmmm.  Hugh asks Ben where the manual bilge pump is – just in case we need it.  Well, it is still in its box.  Ah.  Hugh gets it out and discovers that we couldn’t use it anyway because there are no hoses on board big enough to attach to the inlet and outlet ports, nor is it secured to a base plate so it can be moved and operated where pumping is easiest/possible (portable pumps should be secured to a wood base that can be held by the feet for stability).  Well that’s no use, thinks Hugh.

We establish that it is seawater, not fresh (least good result).  Ben can’t determine how the sea water is getting in but he gets down and removes most of it from the bilge.  Not long afterwards, the water in the bilge has returned and we still don’t know what is causing it.  Well it doesn’t seem to be gushing in, so we push on to our next anchorage – Ko Ngai Island in Thai waters – where we hope to make a more detailed investigation.

As we move from Langkawi to Thailand, the islands take on a very different and specular character.  Many have near vertical faces of rock, with outcropping of tropical greenery.  We arrive at the island of Ko Ngai at 1800hrs.  It is still light at 1900hrs.  The island is quite commercialised on its eastern beach with at least five resorts.  The rain is coming in by the time we anchor, so we stay on board until tomorrow morning when we will go ashore for breakfast, and to see what exploring options are available.  The bilge water is still rising, but our feet are not yet wet….

We have a quiet night at anchor. In the morning, we are undecided whether we will sink or swim today.  We decide on a swim and venture ashore.  The leak is slow, so far…  Unfortunately, it’s a popular tourist island and the breakfast is rubbish at the first beach venue. But coffee and lassi are good at the next, and the water looks refreshing, notwithstanding that there are long-propellered motor boats constantly arriving and leaving the beach with tourists.  We go for our first swim in the sea since beginning the trip.  It is initially refreshing, but there are sea mites which discourage us from swimming longer.  Tropical paradise?  There are coral reefs and other sites around the Island but the problem of a leaking boat really does require our attention. Tempting Fate is one thing – begging for destruction another.

We dinghy back to Candeux to try to find the engine leak.  Ben thinks it might be the raw water cooling system or a cracked cylinder head.  The latter could have occurred when Ben earlier inadvertently ran the port engine with the raw-water intake closed.  We plan to run the engine to see if we can find the leak but first we have to thoroughly drain, clean and dry the bilge, again.  This is not a small task.  Ugh.

And, of course, we don’t really know the scale of the problem. We don’t even know how long we have had the leak.  Given the amount of water, it could be a small crack, leaking for a while, or a big crack which has just recently occurred (the latter seemingly unlikely).  Either way, it could be very hard to find.  There is no choice but for Ben and Hugh to open up all the floor boards, contort ourselves in the hot, confined and sharp spaces and clean and dry every inch with our tongues (well, at least, that’s what it feels like.)  This takes forever, with buckets, sponges, paper towels and general dirt and filth, mixed with blood from the regular cuts on the sharp aluminum and the aching limbs of the old bastards burrowing in the bilge.  Sailing: you gotta love it, or be mad.

Still, the job gets done, eventually.  The bilges are bone dry.  Paradoxically, because it is both dark and reflective (aluminum hull) in the bilge, it’s difficult to spot any snail-trail of water.  So we line the bilge with paper towel.  This will make it much easier to see any small damp patches quickly.  The moment of truth arrives.  We run the engine.  Ben, Duncan and Hugh are now keenly focused of finding that tell-tale sign of a leak.  But we see nothing.  This is not good.  This mystery needs to be solved: especially when you have no liferaft (and only a leaking inflatable with a dodgy outboard engine), no flares and no one to call that we can rely on.  We increase the revs while in neutral.  Nothing: either from the stern-gland or the engine itself.  We put in it gear, and reverse against the anchor.  Nothing.  Thinking….worrying….

Ben is now fully inside the engine bay (looking a bit like a curled foetus, but nowhere near as comfortable).  Hugh and Duncan get a bit distracted from leak-looking because Ben (who is 6 foot 2) now seems to be trying to get under the engine.  Is that wise? Hugh thinks that he now rather resembles an upside down foetus (how is he doing that?).  Perhaps he’s trying to rebirth into another life.  Well, we know how he feels.  After a while, some silver hair appears with something bright red under it.  Oh my god, an alien bilge demon has eaten the skipper.  However, as this mass of soiled coagulant rises, we recognise Ben’s blood stained board-shorts and it becomes obvious that Ben is just rehearsing for a heart attack.  Better luck next time.  Bowed and bloodied, Ben rests (semi-contorted in the engine bay) with his back against the darkened inspection port of the aft water-tight bulkhead.  But as we watch, Ben’s look of desperate exhaustion subtly changes to one of confused curiosity.  Ben says he feels a dampness on his back.  “Well, you are covered in sweat, and lots of other stuff”, says Hugh.  Undeterred by anything, including abuse and unhelpful humour, Ben starts exploring with his hands the perspex behind his back.  He muses: “Hmmm, probably just condensation”.  “Not sweat then?”‘ says Hugh.  Ben then does something resembling a double reverse overhand backflip, and is now facing the inspection port and closely examining it.  He says, “There seems to be water around the edge.”  “It’s a drip!” exclaims an oddly joyful Ben.  “Quick, pass me the torch.”  With maniacal enthusiasm, Ben grabs the touch and by its light, peers through the smoked glass of the water tight bulkhead’s inspection port.  “It is full of water!”  Mystery solved, sort of.

As we all follow the torch beam through the smoked perspex into the now apparently non-water tight bulkhead, we are suitably astonished to see about 750 litres of sea water lapping against the bottom portion of the inspection port.  “That’s a lot of water.” says Hugh.

Hugh had always been curious about why the transom of the port pontoon had seemed lower than the starboard: often being awash and having green slime growing on it.  Now we know, both why it is so low and where the seawater is coming from. But we still don’t know precisely how the water is getting in, although we know where it is going.  At this point, the good thing is that it is contained, for now.

It could have been ugly if the half a metre square inspection port had given way.  And Duncan observes that if there is a sizable hole in the rear hull then the cavity may be under pressure and could flood into the boat: a scary idea.  Ben, quite rightly, feels that he needs to inspect the hull.  Hugh ties a rope to him (can’t afford to lose the cook) and Ben goes over the side.  He takes a brush, presumably to clean the hull so he can see any damage. But he seems to be getting distracted into serious cleaning rather than checking for damage which may cause the boat to sink.  Hmmmm.  Anyway the cleaning gets done and the damage assessment occurs.  Nothing obvious.

We know the leak is behind the aft port bulkhead but its source is still unclear.  However, it’s most likely from around the weld for the propeller supports. We reflect that if it’s damage from Brookes Point when we went aground on a rock shelf, then it has taken five weeks to get this bad and maybe another two days won’t matter.  If it’s from one of several log strikes in the Baram River on Borneo, or the logs strikes at sea on the way to Kuching, that’s also a fair while ago – and thus a slow leak from a crack in the welding of the aluminium.  Whatever the cause, we still have to remove the water behind the inspection plate, and hope that any crack doesn’t grow.

We consider our options.  We could drill a hole above the water line and pump the water out with the whale gusher. Ah, of course, we have no hoses that fit the manual bilge pump. Or, given no obvious large breach in the hull and the restricted amount of water above the lower edge of the inspection port, we could open the port, manage what pours out and bucket the rest.  We decide to remove the bulkhead inspection port.  Ben also salvages the small bilge pump and so we set up for a slow pump instead of a slow, tiring bucket.

Nothing catastrophic occurs. We pump out the water and Ben actually crawls inside the watertight bulkhead.  Yes, it’s a pretty big space.  But it is still not obvious how it is leaking.  Hugh also gets in (yes it’s that big and/or we crumple well) and we fully dry the area.  But, once the area is fully dry (it takes a while to achieve this) the hypothesis seems correct: it appears that sea water is entering at the metal supports for the propeller.  This is either a poor job of welding at construction, or damage we have incurred with various groundings (not a few) or our log encounters in the Baram River and at sea.   Regardless, it appears to be a slow leak with no immediate prospect of getting worse.  We’ll push on to Phuket where we hope to get it fixed.  Let’s hope the crack doesn’t become a crevasse or that the movement and propeller action doesn’t make things worse.  Perhaps we’ll just use the starboard engine.

We arrive at Ao Chalong Bay, Phuket, in the mid afternoon and pick-up a buoy which Ben has arranged via another Mumby owner who charters his boat out of the Bay.  It is just off the Ao Chalong Yacht Club.  We see our destination ashore.  Once we have secured the boat we decide to head to the Club.  Hugh can see through his binoculars that it has some plastic pontoons stretching out from the beach.  But getting there is easier said and seen, than done.

Ao Chalong Bay slopes gently to the shore from some way out, meaning that at low tide, ie now, the sandy shore is preceded by exposed mudflats. It doesn’t look that far. How bad can it be for intrepid world travellers? Well yes, pretty bad.  We dinghy in but, of course, we have underestimated the extent of the flats and the depth.  It’s shallow well out.

Now Hugh is not intrinsically malicious but well, mischief, that’s another matter.  And, of course, someone has to take the photographs and since Hugh is holding the camera (very tightly) Ben and Duncan end up having to pull our dinghy through the mud.  Result! This is fun.  Particularly as Ben and Duncan slide out of the tender and sink to their thighs in grey mud. Lovely. Obviously, Hugh needs to justify being dry and in the dinghy, so takes numerous photos, laughs like a hyena and urges Ben and Duncan to put their backs into it.  Hugh, however, quickly becomes conscious that he may shortly be in it himself, if he’s not careful.  But the imminent prospect of a wash and cold beer keeps the boys at the task and, at last, muddied but not bowed, we get ashore, order beers and celebrate our safe arrival.

The beer is good.  The local sailors welcome the fresh arrivals and we settle in to regale one another with tales and anecdotes of our respective adventures.

The voyage, at last, is over.  It took many months and a surprising number of misadventures.  Not all the things that could go wrong did go wrong, but we did score quite a few.

Still, it was a fine frolic after all and you can’t ask more than that.  Or can you…..

At the Ao Chalong Yacht Club, Thailand

They have finally arrived! Hugh downs a well-deserved coldie at the Ao Chalong Yacht Club

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