Santa has been and gone, but Jonty Pearce still hasn't found a solution that will keep his bilges nice and dry

Jonty Pearce: I know that a lot of you will look at the title of this piece and think “Thank goodness! Jonty has finally realised the true worth of his writing”, but I’m afraid that rather than referring to the quality of my literary performance I’m thinking about the unpleasant way that dirty water swills around Aurial’s bilges. How does it get there? Well, I’ve excluded leaks from both the hull and freshwater system and have narrowed it down to a combination of leaking windows/deck gear and the inevitable stern gland drip.

Aurial is designed with a lifting keel that drops through a 2 ton cast iron grounding plate, which in its turn is bolted into a recess of the rounded hull bottom. This arrangement allows no provision for a suitable well to collect any fluids entering the bilges: if there were, it would be the ideal place to install a bilge pump. As it is, the factory fitted manual pump sits below the engine tray, its strum box keeping the bilge pump inlet at a height that always allows an inch or so of water to remain after the pump sucks ‘dry’. And in a round bottomed bilge an inch of water can spread to form quite a puddle. I’ve never yet managed to get the bilges dry.

To compound the problem an earlier diesel tank fuel leak had contaminated the bilges so there is sometimes a light oily scum on the top. Various bilge oil absorbent systems have been tried, although my current favourite is good old nappies. In the case of an increased drip from the stern gland stuffing box or an automatic bilge pump failure, Aurial’s design allows a fair depth of water before it seeps over the floorboards. Late on one memorable night, after our 3 hour drive down to Milford Haven at the end of a long 10 hour work day, the combination of a non-functioning bilge pump and a steadily dripping stern gland had brought the bilge level to floorboard height. In the process any diesel residue had been spread over the developing pond, so when I opened up the companionway doors I was assaulted by the foul stench of stale diesel. Carol, known colloquially as ‘The Indoor Dragon’, claimed that I forbade her approach due to the fire risk of her heated breath. My version of events is that she refused to sleep in such conditions and took her sleeping bag up to the car while I pumped out the oily bilge through a filter until it reached the level at which the stuffing box bolts could be nipped up. With the bilge finally at ‘normal damp’ height I settled to sleep, but admitted that Carol had the better night of it.

Automatic bilge pumps are one of my pet hates. I have gone through a number of them. Sometimes the sensor fails and the pump is not triggered; sometimes a stuck sensor sends the pump spinning into overheated dry meltdown; sometimes the pump just seizes, and most recently wiring that had previously been overheated failed and corroded into inactivity. Oh, and sometimes some stupid idiot (me) forgets to leave a bilge pump switch at the automatic position. I now have one manual bilge pump and two automatic ones; a ‘Supersub’ in the starboard bilge and a ‘Gulper’ with a solid state sensor under the engine well. Both are monitored by a nifty activity recorder, and I trust if one pump fails the other will do its duty.

It can all still go wrong. Constant vigilance is the key: checking the pumps work, checking the switch position, and monitoring the stern gland. I have come to accept that Aurial is naturally a wet bottomed boat, but gladly the bilges don’t smell – as long as I don’t get another diesel leak. Christmas brought me many gifts, but I’ve come to realise that one present that I’d really cherish will always elude me; a neat, dry, clean bilge that I’d be proud to show to my friends. Maybe next year, Santa!