Sinking houseboat in Candem Harbor, Maine.

Bilge pumps are a crucial piece of equipment for any boat or ship

On December 18, 2011, a Key West diving boat departed the pier for a scuba trip with two crew members and six passengers.  During the vessel’s first dive stop, the sea conditions went from calm to choppy and the boat operator noticed that the bilge pump had failed.  As the divers reboarded the boat after the dive, the vessel began taking on water, rolled heavily, capsized, and quickly sank about 30 feet to the ocean floor. A passenger got trapped and died.

This is why bilge pumps are a crucial piece of equipment for any boat or ship.

Bilge pumps are used to remove water that has accumulated in the bilge, the lowest compartment in a vessel where water and debris collect. 

There have been many cases when bilge pumps have failed and boats have sunk as a result. Many of the boats sinking cases you see on social media are probably a result of the bilge pump not working properly OR the boat plug not having been placed correctly.

These pumps come in a variety of sizes and types, and are essential for ensuring the safety and longevity of your boat and are a crucial piece of equipment on boats and ships, and if they are not properly maintained or fail to function, water can accumulate in the bilge and cause serious damage or even lead to the sinking of the vessel.

They come in manual and automatic types, and it’s important to properly install and maintain them for a safe and efficient use. With the information provided in this article, you can ensure that your bilge pump is working properly and keep your boat in good condition.

A bilge pump at work sending water out of the boat bilge.
A bilge pump at work sending water out of the boat bilge.

Importance of bilge pumps in boats and ships

An old fishing vessel moored in Sherman’s Cove in Camden Harbor in Maine came perilously close to completely sinking Jan. 22, as its batteries died and bilge pump stopped functioning close to a place where they are building a pier in the Maine bay.

A sinking houseboat in Camden Harbor.
A sinking houseboat in Camden Harbor, Maine.

There are several reasons why bilge pumps can fail, and if they do, your boat can get too heavy and sink. For example, a clogged or blocked discharge hose can prevent the pump from properly expelling water from the bilge. 

Electrical issues, such as a blown fuse or a failed float switch, can also cause the pump to stop working. In some cases, the bilge pump itself may be damaged or worn out, preventing it from functioning properly.

It is important to regularly check and maintain bilge pumps to ensure they are working properly. This includes checking the hose connections, cleaning the pump and the discharge hose, and testing the float switch. If there are any issues, it is best to have the pump serviced by a professional.

It is also important to have a backup plan in case of bilge pump failure, such as having a manual bilge pump on board. Additionally, having a well-trained crew familiar with the bilge pump system on board and knowing how to troubleshoot and repair it if needed, can help prevent bilge pump failure and minimize the risk of sinking.

Now, If a small amount of water is continually getting into the boat — like through a leaking hose connection, an ineffective shaft seal, or a minor structural leak — it is not the bilge pump’s job to keep the boat floating indefinitely. The bilge pump is there to buy some time to fix the problem of water getting into the bilge in the first place. Eventually, the pump can fail or drain the battery — and then that little leak that didn’t seem like a big deal can slowly but surely fill the boat until it sinks.

In a 1982 accident, a couple took their boat out to Lake Superior but only the husband came back alive. 

The Races family boat in Lake Superior.
The Races family boat in Lake Superior.

The wife’s body was found a few days later. Apparently, their boat was taking on a lot of water in the bilge, but the pump was not taking enough water to keep the boat afloat.

The husband maintains his innocence to this day, even after being convicted for the murder of his wife.

The Races, both in their early 30s, ate dinner at restaurant in Lake Superior around 6 p.m. May 11, 1982, to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary. 

A server there later told St. Louis County authorities that the couple were acting “very serious” and that they ate dinner quickly and left.

The boat called Jenny Lee, began to take on water, and its engine cut out an hour or two into their cruise. 

Larry claimed that Debbie got into one of two life rafts on the Jenny Lee, but, worried it wouldn’t handle both of them, refused to let her husband in as well. The other raft, Larry said, was torn and wouldn’t inflate.

Larry, an experienced scuba diver, said he put on a dry suit and tried to push the usable raft to shore with Debbie aboard. 

She reportedly couldn’t swim and, Larry said, panicked when the Jenny Lee began to falter.

Larry lost track of his wife and the raft in the churning dark, and swam back to the Jenny Lee, which he was ultimately able to get started again. 

Race set off emergency flares that were spotted by crew members on a passing ship, the Carrianna Peony, around 2 a.m.

Larry piloted the boat back to a dock near the restaurant, swam ashore, and called the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office in the early morning of May 12.

Debbie’s body was found that afternoon after extensive water and air searches. The county’s medical examiner ruled she had died from hypothermia in the near-freezing water — not drowning.

Prosecutors argued that he lured his wife onto the raft and then, while wearing scuba equipment, swam underneath and punctured it with a knife, leaving her to die in the near-freezing water. 

Their contention was that Larry was looking for a way out of his marriage and that his wife’s death put him in line for substantial life insurance payments.

Shortly after Debbie’s death, sheriff’s deputies and the U.S. Coast Guard inspected the Jenny Lee and found it to be seaworthy. 

The Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office found water was leaking into the boat at about 48 gallons per hour, but the boat’s bilge pump could remove water at a rate of about 300 gallons per hour.

Bilge pump failures are fatal, make sure to pick a good bilge pump.

Types of Bilge Pumps

Factors to consider when choosing a bilge pump

One of the most important things to consider when choosing a bilge pump is the size of your boat. Larger boats will require a more powerful pump, while smaller boats can get by with a less powerful one. 

Another important factor to consider is the type of water you will be pumping out of your bilge. Saltwater pumps are typically made of corrosion-resistant materials, while freshwater pumps can be made of cheaper materials.

There are two main types of bilge pumps: manual and automatic. Manual pumps require you to manually turn them on and off, while automatic pumps turn on automatically when water is detected in the bilge. Automatic pumps are more convenient, but they also tend to be more expensive.

Installation and Maintenance of bilge pumps

When installing a bilge pump, it’s important to make sure that it is properly connected to both a power source and a discharge hose. The discharge hose should be long enough to reach the side of the boat, where the water can be safely discharged. 

It’s also a good idea to install a float switch, which will turn the pump on automatically when the water level in the bilge reaches a certain point.

To keep your bilge pump in good working order, it’s important to regularly check the hose connections and make sure that the pump is free of debris. If your pump is not working properly, it’s best to have it serviced by a professional.

Other factors to consider when looking for a new bilge pump are: the Size of the boat, Type of water and the Cost.

And here are some bilge pump options we reviewed for you.

Manual bilge pumps

Manual Bilge Pump for Boats Kayak Canoe Hand Water Pump | by Better Boat

Manual bilge pump by Better Boat.
Manual bilge pump by Better Boat comes handy when needed.

This hand bilge pump with hose features a filtered nozzle to prevent seaweed, leaves and debris from clogging pump, an extra long hose giving you a farther reach and a watertight rubber gasket seal that optimizes the suction power of this hand operated water pump in order to quickly and efficiently expel excess water. 

This hand bilge pump with hose is lightweight and portable, making it easy to store and ideal as a manual bilge pumps for boats, kayak water pump and as a portable bilge pump. 

Whale Gusher Urchin Manual Bilge Pump – up to 14.5 GPM Flow Rate – for Boats up to 40 Feet

Whale Gusher Urchin Manual Bilge Pump.
Whale Gusher Urchin Manual Bilge Pump

This Whale Gusher Urchin is an effective manual bilge pump, delivering long-term durability and reliability and smooth, efficient pumping. Manufactured by hand, this pump has an innovative clamp ring that can be removed easily in order to rotate the head to suit the available space or specific installation position. 

This pump has a compact design to fit in the greatest variety of available spaces, a robust molded base, rugged and lightweight polypropylene construction, and a molded grip handle. 

Whale designs and manufactures reliable marine water systems which are easy to install and use; providing boating enthusiasts with water, waste management and durable bilge pumps.

Automatic bilge pumps

OASIS MARINE Automatic Submersible Boat Bilge Water Pump, 12v 750 GPH Automatic with Float Switch 

Oasis Marine automatic bilge pump.
Oasis Marine automatic bilge pump.

Heavy duty motors with stainless steel shafts and tough thermoplastic bodies with Heavy Duty flow designed for the toughest applications.

Totally submersible and ignition protected to comply with all existing safety standards. Water cooled motors for long life, with anti airlock design and moisture tight seals.

Snap-lock strainer base for easy installation and removal, and silent vibration free running. Latest design includes a removable base for easy cleaning and servicing.

Rule-Mate Automated Bilge Pump

Rule Mate automated bilge pump.
Rule Mate automated bilge pump.

A Genuine Product, don’t settle for less. It Features a solid state water sensing technology that eliminates the need for a separate float switch. 

Pump turns on when water level rises and shuts off when water is removed, will not pump oil — straight motor oil that enters the bilge will not turn the pump on. Snap-off strainer for easy cleaning and Anti-fouling impeller.

When water enters the bilge and reaches a certain height, 2-3/4″ (70mm), a sensor turns the pump on. After the water is pumped out, another sensor shuts the pump off. 

ETTE Foot Operated Water Pump for Marine, Boat Deck, RV and Galley

ETTE Foot Operated water pump for marine, boat decks and galleys.
ETTE Foot Operated water pump for marine, boat decks and galleys.

Self Priming with Fresh and Sea Water 1/2 Inch Hose, Rubber and Nylon Base, this foot-operated pump is small size and simple to use and store & operate.

It is ideal for simple freshwater or seawater system and It can be used at places such as boat, RV, and galley.The compact sized foot pump makes it easier to be installed and stored at confined places 

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Max Francisco