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Just In Time: A High Water Alarm

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In the days before heading south last fall on our 1987 Grand Banks 42 CL, the boat looked like an ant hill. It was on the eve of my first long trip on the ICW and workmen were all over our boat. They were completing a considerable amount of work on Friendship—everything from varnish to refrigeration repair, electronics to a new dinghy hoist. A mechanic was also going through our twin Caterpillar 3208s. As the mechanic was wrapping up, he noticed that there wasn’t a high water alarm in the bilge and suggested that he install one. I didn’t hesitate, and he stayed late to complete the job.

The next morning with a friend, Kent Newton, on board, we left Great Bridge, Virginia, for the trip down the ICW with a final stop in Jacksonville, Florida. We would make an intermittent stop in Charleston, South Carolina, go home, and then my wife and I would continue on a few weeks later.

Friendship was cruising in the company of another GB42. Friend, former marina owner, and my “cruising guru” Jim Batistick was taking Onward to Florida. He met us in Great Bridge on his boat and suggested that we follow him, since this was my first major cruise. Jim has made many voyages on the ICW from his home port of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.


On the third morning under way, just about an hour after departing Belhaven, North Carolina, I heard an unfamiliar buzzing noise. It took me about 15 seconds to realize it was the new high water alarm! I made a beeline through the saloon to lift the hatch. I remember thinking just before I pulled on the latch, “This is too coincidental, there must be a short.”

However, when I peered into the engine room, I saw water cascading out of a hose feeding back to the exhaust. Water was spewing from a 1-inch crack at the hose elbow. The leak was showering the generator and falling into the bilge. Water had already reached a level that petroleum absorption pads were floating in the drip pans under the engines. With each fore and aft motion of the boat, I could see mini-waves of water sloshing back and over the teak slat walkway that covers the bilge. The bilge pump couldn’t keep pace.

I ran back to the helm, shut down the starboard engine, and then closed the through-hull fitting. Friendship and Onward returned to Belhaven, with our vessel powered by just the port engine. We did not have a spare hose on board, and the nearest Caterpillar shop was over 20 miles away. However, the Belhaven Marina did have the appropriate diameter of hardwall exhaust hose and we were able to make the repair with a section of stock hose and continue on our way. We only lost a few hours.

After we were back under way, I called our mechanic to tell him what incredible timing he had, and to thank him—profusely—for his suggestion. As you can imagine, the timing of all this was the subject of conversation the rest of the day. However, the conversation I had with myself after I had settled into my bunk at the end of the day is what is staying with me.

The incident brought home the first rule of boating: The safety of those on board your vessel and those in the vicinity of your vessel is the first and foremost mission. I think there is an assumption by most of us who step aboard our vessels for a day trip or an extended cruise, that the vessel is safe, has the necessary safety gear on board, and that pertinent mechanicals are ready for the task. But most of all, there is an assumption that the captain knows the boat and if something goes awry, knows what to do about it.


As a relatively new owner, this incident has made me look at our vessel with a much keener sense of responsibility to know everything I can know and do all that I can do to keep learning about this 18 tons of fiberglass and metal for which I am responsible.

Other lessons learned: If you do not have a high water alarm in your engine room, install one ASAP. Secondly, even if you think your inventory of spares is complete, go through your inventory again and see what you might want to add. And, if you are relatively new to cruising, traveling in the company of another boat with an experienced captain provides a tremendous feeling of security, and it is a great learning experience.

We were fortunate on several fronts. Everything worked out; the Belhaven Marina had an ample inventory of hose and with a quick repair, we still made our next port of call in Oriental, North Carolina. Most importantly, we might have had a very dreadful day had it not been for an alert mechanic who offered a small suggestion that made a huge difference in our trip. There was also peace of mind as my wife came aboard, and we prepared to continue south from Charleston to Jacksonville.

Thanks to mechanic Ken Moore for one of the least expensive, but most valuable additions to our engine room—just in time.