Confession: Workboat skipper gets that sinking feeling

In this month’s Confession, we hear how one skipper learnt the consequences of neglecting his bilge pump

I’m lucky enough to own and have the use of several different boats. I have a couple of classic speedboats and I live on a houseboat.

But this story is about what happened one day on my workboat, a completely utilitarian lump of steel with twin Mariner engines and a solid Samson post.

February was cold; the reach between Sunbury and Molesey felt particularly bitter and had been subject to a fair bit of rain.

My workboat is completely open and water runs off the chequer-plate foredeck into the bilge. In an ideal world the Rule 500gph auto pump would deal with this relentless filling of rainwater.

Early one Saturday morning in February I received a phone call. “Your boat has sunk and your ‘stuff’ is floating down the river”.

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All manner of things raced through my mind. Is this a wind-up? How fast is the river flowing? What
was onboard?

It clearly wasn’t a wind-up. Being winter, the non-tidal Thames can run at a steady 4 knots and the ‘stuff’ on board a workboat seems to know no bounds. There were work boots, slings, power tools, paint tins and lifejackets to say the least.

I ran to the scene, getting dressed as I scarpered down the road. It was a mess. All sorts of odds and sods were bobbing down Father Thames at a rate of knots.

A quick phone call brought my friend Barney to the scene in his Broom. Barney quickly went to work scooping up the flotsam. A second phone call brought the services of a huge barge with giant HIAB crane – luckily this was in our stretch of the river. A 2ft pump was brought in readiness.

The plan was simple, connect the HIAB to the Samson post, lift the boat and pump it out – providing the cause wasn’t catastrophic, the pump should keep it afloat to make further plans.

During all this time I and the small collection of sagely river people gave their opinions of the likely cause. I was dreading a failing of the steel hull and hoping it was a bizarre act of vandalism.

The true cause was far simpler and even more stupid. After just two hours my workboat was afloat and draining water from every orifice.

Once pumped it became apparent that no more water was coming in. Tony, the HIAB driver, pointed to the fluid transfer pump sitting in the stern.

Due to my neglect the bilge pump had become increasingly unreliable. Initially the auto function failed, then it would only start with a firm clout and latterly hadn’t started at all.

To deal with the rainwater that had built up I had used the transfer pump the day the boat sank. The transfer pump had a long discharge hose, this had ‘walked’ itself below the surface of the river while pumping out.

When I’d turned the pump off the discharge hose contents drained back to the pump/bilge, and because the other end was in the river, a perfect half-inch siphon was created.

I hadn’t noticed and had left this quiet evil to do its work. Overnight enough water was drawn in to break the shallow freeboard and down the workboat went.

If I’d paid more attention to the workboat and it’s bilge pump this would not have happened. If I’d known how easy a back siphon was to create I would have been a lot more careful.

It took a while to get the boat back up and running – lots of carburetor strip downs will be my lasting memory – but if just one person learns from my stupidity then telling this embarrassing story will be worth the shame.

The author of every confession we print wins the original Stephen Shaw cartoon artwork (above) and an Icom IC-M23 Buoyant VHF Marine Transceiver handheld VHF radio worth £165.

For your chance to win, spill the beans on your funniest boating moments in 650 words. Email your story to:


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