Sweat the Small Stuff

The crew of the Roger Henry man the pumps after a close encounter with Murphy's Law. The "Roger Henry File for December 24, 2009

December 24, 2009

When it comes to boats, the Devil is in the details.

When it comes to boats, the Devil is in the details. Alvah Simon

Whoever coined the phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff” has never owned a boat. For we know, it’s always the small stuff; that long chain of tiny things and little details lead up the rig, down into the bilge, through the electrical and mechanical systems, right to the bitter end of the life raft tether.

I have always believed that the outcome of a safe passage at sea is determined at the dock. For example, the difference between a calm and collected passage under a tight draw-bridge, where the confident captain tosses a jaunty salute to the bridge tender, or a last second white-knuckled passage, with the captain upside down in the bilge bludgeoning a recalcitrant diesel back to life, comes down to preparation.

So, when Diana and I decided to leave the Roger Henry for a couple days for a visit to the mainland, we went through our usual routine. Diana shut off the heater and the diesel fuel supply. She closed the thru-hull valves in the head and under the galley. I checked the dock lines for chafe and tension, secured loose equipment on deck, tied off the halyards, coiled the dock hose, and disconnected the shore power. We locked the boat and left a flashlight in the cockpit in order to see the combination should we return in the dark. We notified our neighbor of our plans and headed down the dock without a worry in the world.


But what we didn’t know was that a seal on our engine’s relatively new raw water pump had a slight leak running down the underside of the intake hose. Now a small leak shouldn’t have mattered anyway, because I had wired an automatic bilge pump switch that would start the pump when the water reached a dangerous level.

I’ve not read the life of Einstein yet, but I’m sure he was a sailor. My empirical proof lies in his statement that “The universe tends towards disorder.” The bilge filled ever so slowly. I’d tested the pump and switch JUST PRIOR to leaving the boat, but apparently, a tiny bit of corrosion in the fuse holder reached a tipping point almost immediately after I’d tested it. The blown fuse blocked the pleasant flow of electrons, and left my stout, 2,500 gallons per hour pump inert and useless.

I’m not proud of the words that leapt from my lips upon our return home. As a writer I should employ more appropriate language. “Man the Pumps!” comes to mind. When we finally pumped a substantial amount of the Pacific Ocean back into the harbor where it belongs, I set to work doing what obviously should have already been done – inspecting and cleaning the electrical connections from battery to bilge.


The value of the seal and the fuse holder were about a dollar each, but the problems they caused could have cost a lot more. It is always the small stuff.

Merry Christmas and have a New Year full of fast, fun, and safe sailing.


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