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What 'Seams' To Be The Problem Here?

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The submersible pump was definitely submerged. The 50-foot hose, hanging over the bow, was spewing water like a firehose. Looking down on me, a local “expert” was saying, “She'll never take up. Might as well haul her out again and re-cork her.” Yikes!

Our wood Grand Banks 32 would have been sinking fast if she wasn't still hanging in the slings of the Travelift at The Boatyard, in Sidney, British Columbia Hauled out, and on-the-hard for 53 days, while I refinished the hull from waterline to rub rail, her planks had slowly dried—opening up her seams below the waterline.

We bought Haven almost four years earlier in California and had her trucked north. After decades of sailing, she was our first powerboat and our first wood boat of any real size. The exterior needed some refinishing and I was determined to do it right: down to bare wood; three coats of epoxy sealer; three coats of undercoat; and three to five coats of topcoat. Oh, and then there was the bright work. Fortunately, I enjoy working on the boat.

Haven is more than 45 years old and being one of the early Grand Banks (hull #17 of the 32s), she is very well-built. When originally constructed, her Philippine mahogany planks were caulked with cotton followed by a seam compound. This caulking process is also called ‘corking.’ It is these seams—the spaces between the planks—that can open up when a wooden boat is out of the water for too long and the planks dry out and shrink. When that same boat goes back in the water, the wood planks gradually swell up, closing the seams again. That process is called ‘taking up.’

Hauling out in early June, the weather during our 53 days was not especially hot but it was mostly dry and windy. When I was done refinishing the hull above the waterline, she looked great; the hull absolutely glistened like new. The job took longer than I had planned (as usual), and I was eager to get her back in the water, but I still had work to do. Below the waterline the bottom was in good condition, so the plan was to apply two coats of anti-fouling paint. Polishing the propeller and replacing the zincs had already been done.

We were getting close to our launch date and I knew the seams had opened up—that had to be addressed. I researched a little on the Grand Banks Owners website and I knew what to expect and how to prepare. At least, I thought I knew. Information on the website recommended applying a seam compound into any open seams below the waterline. This would slow the inflow of water on re-launching, and when the planks swelled tight again, the compound would be squeezed out and the excess could be trimmed off at the next haulout. Okay, that sounded good. Between coats of anti-fouling, I carefully applied a quart of seam compound into the seams that were most open and most likely to leak; heating the very stiff Pettit Seam Compound with a hair dryer made it much easier to work with. When that was done, I thought: Okay, she'll leak and Haven’s two bilge pumps will be kept pretty busy until she takes up.

One of workers in the yard (a wood boat guy) had assured me she would leak and quickly added, “She'll be okay, she'll take up.”

Re-launching was scheduled for Monday at 8:30 a.m. Right on time, the Travelift slowly rumbled to our boat, and after carefully positioning protective cushioning between the slings and the new paint, Haven was transported to the launching bay. My wife Susan and I were happy to be going back into the water after close to 500 hours of work on our boat.


We are being slowly lowered down in the slings. I have all the floor boards up so I can see any seepage of water into the bilge.

Seepage?! Holy crap! The water is pouring in! I mean POURING IN! I am mesmerized. For a brief moment I stare at the bilge, fascinated at how fast the water is coming into our boat. Our two bilge pumps are making no discernable difference. I come to my senses and wave at the Travelift operator who has been warned that there may be a problem. He stops lowering immediately. I signal thumbs up. He raises our boat up. I make my way to the aft deck and look over the side; sea water is now pouring out of our boat. It’s like a cartoon, but without the funny.

Now I have time to think. The yard manager comes over. “Hey, no rush. You’ve got lots of time.” I don’t fully appreciate this comment until later. We need a pump. A serious pump. Susan suggests calling Ian, a friend who is close to a local tool rental company, to see if he can rent a pump and bring it to the boat. When Ian arrives (he pictured our boat sinking and he did not waste a second), we are still in the slings, hanging above the water. He has with him, a powerful submersible pump with a very long hose, 2 inches in diameter. We get the pump on board and rig it up. We locate a long extension cord (it is an electric pump) and plug it in. I signal the lift operator to lower us down a little. We touch the water and instantly, water begins to flow in. I turn the pump on. The long hose, trailing from the forward bilge, out the aft cabin door then forward along the side deck to the bow anchor roller, begins to spew water at a terrific rate.

Haven’s hull is only partially in the water, still held in the slings of the Travelift. The plan is to slowly lower her down to wet the planks so they can begin to swell and close the seams. The big pump is on, Haven’s two bilge pumps are on, and Susan and I are taking frequent turns on our emergency manual bilge pump. Even all those pumps working together are not keeping up to the rising water level. I have to make sure that the water in the bilge does not rise to the point where it touches anything electrical or any critical engine parts. I signal the lift operator to raise us a couple of inches to ease the inflow of water. And so it goes, for over five hours—down a bit, up a bit, down a bit, up a bit.

The yard staff is great—no pressure to get off the slings. By chance, we have chosen a slow day for the Travelift; no one else needs to get in or out for most of the day. And now, of course, there is plenty of time for everyone to wander over and watch the show and offer their opinions. The one who says, “She’ll never take up,” offers his services to re-cork the seams. Others just shake their heads slowly. Then, I’m told that another gentleman is surveying the scene. His name is Ted and is said to be one of the most knowledgeable wood boat people in the area. I’d value his opinion very much. “What do you think?” I ask.
“Let nature take its course,” he replies. “She’ll take up. It’ll take a while, but she’ll take up.”
With that, he wanders off—leaving me feeling a little better.

Six hours later, the water is still coming in at the same rate, but we are almost fully lowered down. As good as the yard has been, we can’t stay in the slings all night. I want to get to a slip at a dock about 200 feet away, but if we unplug the electric pump we won’t get there before the water level gets too high. We need another pump, a gas-powered pump. This time Susan goes off and returns with a big, heavy gas pump. With a lot of help, we manage to get it on board, and, after a little confusion about how to start it, we eventually get it working too.

After being in the slings for seven hours, we are now fully lowered in the water and unsupported by the slings. The pumps are easily keeping up. I make the decision to unplug the electric pump and make a run for the slip. I start the engine and back out of the Travelift bay; we make our way to the slip a short distance away with only the gas-powered pump spewing water off the bow. We are there in a few minutes, and as we tie up, the electric pump is plugged in again. I begin to relax a bit—we can stay at this berth for days, if necessary.

Haven is indeed ‘taking up.’ By 6:00 p.m., we are able to turn off the gas pump. The electric pump, plus two of Haven’s much smaller pumps, are keeping up. We stay at that berth overnight. By 4:00 p.m. the next day, our own bilge pumps are handling the continuing inflow of water without any assistance from the auxiliary electric pump. For safety, we stay at the berth the next day as well. By Thursday morning, three days after re-launching, the inflow of water has reduced to the point where only one of Haven’s bilge pumps needs to work: cycling on for 10 seconds, every 5 seconds. That afternoon, with the help of a friend, I take Haven back to her home berth, less than 2 miles away.
Over time, Haven takes up even more. After three months, less than a gallon a week seeps into the bilge. In time, I expect her to be bone dry, just as she was before we hauled out.


Some water entered the bell housing of the engine, resulting in replacement of the drive plate. And, an electrical connector to the forward bilge pump had to be replaced. Other than that, after a thorough washing and clean up, no damage was done to the boat.


This was one of those ‘learning experiences’ people my age have no desire to experience. Apparently, some people wondered why I had hauled out in the summer to do this work, suggesting that the fall was a better time. Well, perhaps. But I needed some reliable rain-free weather to do the work. Also, I didn’t expect to be out of the water for so long (forgetting that any work done on my boat always takes at least three times longer than expected).
Afterward, suggestions from others included: running a sprinkler under the boat, partially filling the bilge from the inside with water, laying wet burlap sacks in the bilges, and basically anything to prevent or slow the drying of the planks/seams. Hanging tarps to reduce wind and sun on the seams would also have helped.
Certainly, I totally misjudged the extent of the open seams. I should have taken the precaution of having the auxiliary heavy-duty pumps ready—especially the gas-powered one. Also, we were very lucky that the yard was not busy that day and that we were able to hang in the slings for seven hours—for no extra charge. Launch on a slow day, if possible.
What most amazed me in this entire episode was watching a boat, that was taking on so much water, close up her seams (in just hours and days) to the point where one small bilge pump was able to handle the remaining flow. Just watching nature take its course.]]>