Boating season is well underway, and you are finally able to get out on the water. You’re out enjoying the day and your boat suddenly dies.  Now what? In this post, we’ll go over some of the most common boat issues, look at tools and repair kits that can help you self-correct the problem, and review how to call for assistance if all else fails.

Let’s dive right in and get you back underway.

Most Common Breakdown Issues

Out of fuel

Statistically, the number one reason boats breakdown or just die is that they are simply out of fuel.

  • First, do the obvious – check the fuel tank for fuel.
  • Next, check the fuel filter. Is it clogged? Carry a spare and “R&R” (remove and replace) if needed.
  • Inspect the fuel lines for kinks, leaks or air in the lines. 
  • If you have a fuel selector switch, check that it is in the “on” position or that that appropriate tank is selected.

Boat dies suddenly

Check the kill switch. There are many times where boaters have called for a tow service only to cancel the call when someone on board finally notices that the kill switch has been tripped.

Low power or engine running rough

You may have a partially clogged fuel filter, or your spark plugs may be fouling. Clean or “R&R” your plugs or filter. Be sure to carry spares.

Running hot or overheating

Check the water intake. Is there something clogging it? If so, remove it and clean the water intake. If it’s an outboard, ensure you can see the discharge stream. Remember, over time water pumps become brittle or sometimes get shredded. Keep a spare and R&R if needed.

Engine will not start

  • Check the battery(ies). Is it low or dead?
  • Check the transmission. Is it in neutral?
  • Check the kill switch. Is it tripped?

Engine missing/wiring

This could be caused by faulty or cracked plug wire(s). When your plug wires fail they can cause a short and instead of sending the current through the plug, the current will take the path of least resistance. If you suspect faulty wires (look for cracks in the wires), try wrapping the faulty area with either electrical tape or duct tape. Wrapping them will also keep moisture away from the cables.

Broken belt

Belts are cheap and not that difficult to replace. Breaking a belt out on the water will shut you down in a hurry. Carry a spare and the tools to replace it. Inspection of the belt should be one of the items on your pre-departure checklist. Carrying spare parts along with a breakdown and repair kit will, in many instances, allow you to at least conduct hasty field repair and return to the docks.

What to Carry on BoardBoating Tool Kit

Tool Kit

The farther you go from shore, the more tools and spare parts you should carry. For most near coastal and inland water operations, a tool kit like those sold in auto supply stores will do just fine. Look for ones that contain both SAE and metric socket sets and wrenches. Keep a deep socket that fits your spark plugs. Ensure the kit has a few different plier types as well.

Lube the tools up a bit pre-season. This will help prevent corrosion. Consider storing your tools in something akin to a water-proof container.

It’s a good idea to carry a small and cheap electrical tester. You can pick one up for about $5-$10. If you are not familiar with them, a quick YouTube tutorial can bring you up to speed. By learning just a few test procedures, you’ll be able to track down many of your electrical issues. 

Repair Kit and Spares

For your repair kit, think like the military. An online search of “BDAR Kit” (Battle Damage Assessment and Repair) is always a good start when building a repair kit for your “Trail Fixes”. Think of items that will cover a multitude of uses like duct tape, electrical tape, hose clamps, bailing wire, spare hose(s), gaskets (gasket maker), zip ties, insulated electrical wire, extra belt or a one-size-fits-all belt.

If you have an outboard, carry a spare water pump (small rubber impeller). Don’t forget to add at least one emergency thru-hull plug such as Forespar’s Sta-Plug.

Next think specific items such as fuel filters, spare boat plug and even a spare bulb or two for the nav lights and anchor light, should one fail.

When you can’t make the repair, you’ll have to make the call

If you have tried troubleshooting and your repairs just won’t solve the issue, then it’s time to make the call. This is where having a membership to services such as TowBoatUS or Sea Tow comes in handy. Most of the time, you’ll be able to use marine VHF (usually Channel 9 or 16, depending on your area) or your cell phone to contact a tow service.

Before purchasing these services, check your area of operation and ensure you have coverage when you go out. Both services may cover towing reimbursement if they are not available in your area. If you are too far out from shore or a dead battery prevents you from using the VHF, you may realize at this point that you’ll have to signal for assistance.

If you are current on your Coast Guard Minimum Equipment Requirements, or if you recently received your annual Vessel Safety Check (VSC), you will have onboard a few ways to signal attention, such as flares and sound producing devices.

Key Take-Aways

  • Some of the most common causes of boat breakdowns can be planned for and self-corrected.
  • Carry tools, spare parts, and a break-down kit on board.
  • Ensure that you have multiple ways to call/signal for help if repairs fail.

The old saying about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of pain holds true. Always preform a pre-departure check list. The issues mentioned above are usually preventable.

Performing a proper pre-departure checklist may just keep you from getting into these situations in the first place. Having some additional knowledge as well as a tool kit, a repair kit and some spare parts on board, may make the difference between you coming back in under your own power or having to call for assistance.