A sinking boat can happen to anyone, anytime


It isn’t hard to sink a fishing craft or recreational boat. In fact, sometimes it takes no effort at all.

According to Boat U.S., the popular national boat owners association, a tally of insurance claims show clearly that slightly more than 2/3 of all reported boat sinkings occur at the dock or while moored. I can attest to their findings after looking towards the dock early one recent morning to see just the tops of the gunnels on my fishing boat above water. Still tied to the dock, the boat, main outboard, and the kicker motor were down for the count. My heart sunk when a walk to the dock confirmed that the sight was indeed real. I began guessing what I must have done wrong the evening before. My mind raced through some scenarios and then to a plan of recovery. The boat was loaded with gear, electronics, and tackle, all of it under water.

Following a long morning of gathering friends then wrestling ropes, planks, and other inventive but primitive lifting devises, the craft was inching but still taking on water. We ran a household submergible sump pump powered by a generator to gain ground and floatation as the 17 footer slowly rose.

A bit of detective work showed an under-floor plastic fitting on the transom-mounted livewell pump had split, probably from years of vibration, which allowed a free flowing opening for lake water. Fortunately we are able to drain the engine cylinders right away and get both motors running, plug the open hull fitting, and ramp the boat out to begin the drying out process.

Hey, it can happen just like Boat U.S. claimed.

According to Boat U.S, it happens mostly due to a lack of maintenance such as replacing things that look like they are ready to fail or are just plain old. I guess they must have heard about my predicament when they wrote that one.

A study released by Boat U.S. lists the rubber bellows on the outdrive of inboard-outboard boats, the most popular power package for private recreational boats, as another leading cause of sinking. It’s a large and costly job to replace aging bellows but the data doesn’t lie. Rubber bellows do crack from exposure and age and when they crack water comes roaring in. But know this, bellows seldom fail while the craft is high and dry on a trailer or rack. They like to crack when in the boat is the water and that’s a fact.
I’ve seen bellows last for well over ten years but professional marine mechanics and boat power plant manufacturers suggest that bellows, like cooling water pumps, should be replaced every three years as part of a preventative maintenance plan. Considering the marine environment, the known damage to rubber by UV rays, and the overall cost of a boat, a preventative plan is a good idea. In the world of boating, the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy may be a bad plan. Boat sinkings while underway are most often caused by striking something such as a log, the bottom, or another boat. Another common problem is back at the dock when a boat is tied with its butt pointed out. That means when the stern is facing the waves generated by wind and passing boats. The bow of a boat is designed to split waves but the transom isn’t so heavy wave action crashing over the stern can fill a boat with water quite quickly. And everyone knows the how easy it is to leave the dock just to discover that someone left the bilge drain plug out.

Of course, running full bore will allow the incoming water to be sucked out but there is that problem of replacing the plug. I am sure that something that simple will never happen to me but every time it has I replaced the threaded plug with a temporary, expandable rubber plug that goes in quickly. Yep, that extra plug is always aboard and handy. Then there are loose and missing rivets. Been there and done that one too and its more common that one might think especially on aluminum boats used on big water were large waves can really work a riveted hull over.

To avoid problems Boat U.S. suggests that equipment like automated, or float-actuated bilge pumps, should be replaced every few years before they have the opportunity to fail. They also suggest that all boat owners spend time annually inspecting water hoses, fittings, and clamps that are commonly under the water line, like that livewell pump that I should have seen was cracked. Boats do sink but in many cases but simple and regular maintenance can prevent it from happening.


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Mike Tontimonia has been writing weekly columns and magazine features about the outdoors for over 25 years, a career that continues to hold the same excitement for him as it did at the beginning. Mike is a retired educator, a licensed auctioneer and marketing consultant. He lives in Ravenna, Ohio and enjoys spending time at his Carroll County cabin. Mike has hunted and fished in several states and Canada from the Carolinas to Alaska and from Idaho to Delaware. His readers have often commented that the stories about his adventures are about as close to being there as possible. He is past president of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Mike is also very involved in his community as a school board member and a Rotarian.


  1. That’s a good idea to have an automatic pump for your boat. I feel like that would be a good way to bail out the water before it can start to sink your boat. I’ll have to consider getting someone to help me install a pump like that if I decide to get a boat.


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