Bilge Filling With Water
First of all check the type of water filling the bilge, especially if cruising in salt water.
If sailing in a salt water environment do the following test before calling the emergency services - do not waste their time.
Dip your finger in the bilge water and touch it to your tongue - if it is salt you will taste it. Immediately try to find the leak it could be a hole in your hull, or a leaking pipe from a seacock, or a stern tube leak, is it in a particular area ie the engine bay, if it is in the engine bay it is a cooling water leak, or it could a leaking exhaust pipe particularly on the exhaust first bend, where leaks are common on older systems, if it is in the exhaust be wary of exhaust gases accumulating in the area, shut down the engine. Now is the time to practice some DIY on the exhaust bend to get you home. If it is the cooling water system can it be fixed to get you home? In both cases if the leak persists shut the cooling water inlet sea cock.
If it is not salt your fresh water system has sprung a leak, or grey water tank is leaking - first of all shut down the fresh water pump. If it is a system pipe leak shut the fresh water pump suction valve on the tank.
If there is still a leak your tank has sprung a leak - continue pumping out and plug the leak.
Bilge Pumps & Bilges
A normal arrangement is to have two bilge pumps, one on stand-by all the time and generally with a green light on to indicate the pump is ready. The circuit for this pump bypasses the normally switched circuits on the panel.
When the boat and the DC system is shut down, this circuit remains live to power the pump in automatic mode. This bilge pump is possibly never used; however, it is set to come on when there is sufficient liquid in the bilge to lift the float switch. This switch can be tested manually by lifting the float, and the pump should start. Another method is to fill a bucket with water and put the pump into it; the float switch should activate the pump and discharge the bucket's contents overboard; this proves the discharge pipework is clear of bugs, nests etc.
To help keep the bilges dry, keep a stock of infant nappy pads (ie Pampers); they are very useful to put in the bilge where liquid of one type or another accumulates. Just leave a nappy pad in the area; over time, it will absorb and grow to the size of a football.
Keeping the bilges clean will remove most of the oily smell and other smells that can permeate the boat over time.