Boat Breakdowns & Towing:
Expert Insights From Chad Walters

Nothing beats a day on the water when your engine is working perfectly, however if you are a lifelong boater, the day will come when you need to be familiar with assessing engine issues and knowing how to call for a tow.

We recently sat down with Yachts360 Broker Chad Walters, a former Sea Tow franchise owner and captain, to discuss some of the most common reasons for boat engine breakdowns and the options when it comes to being towed.

What Are Some Of The Most Common Reasons For Boat Engine Breakdowns?

There are several factors that can cause boat engines to break down or stop unexpectedly while on the water. While most issues can be avoided with proper maintenance, it can still happen to anyone.

The most frequent issues include:

  • Fuel Problems: Running out of fuel or issues with the fuel system such as contaminated fuel, plugged filters or damage from ethanol on gasoline powered boats.
  • Electrical Issues: Problems with the boat’s DC power can prevent the engine from starting. For example, spending all day on the water without properly isolating the house load from the starting load can drain the battery, leaving boaters stranded.
  • Maintenance Neglect: Routine maintenance is crucial. Regular checks and upkeep can prevent many of the issues that lead to breakdowns.
  • Physical Damage: External factors like groundings or striking objects floating in the water can damage running gear or damage the hull.
  • Grounding: In tidal areas with large tide swings these are very common and still occur in non tidal areas when operating outside of the navigational channel.
  • Catastrophic Events: Although less common, sinkings, capsizing, onboard fires, etc. do occur and pose significant risks.


What Are The First Steps You Should Take If Your Engine Cuts Off Or Will Not Start?

Before considering a tow, be sure to check a few common issues before calling for a tow. These include:

  1. Transmission: Ensure that the boat is in neutral The neutral safety switch will not allow the starter to turn unless the boat is in neutral.
  2. Starting Battery: Do you have a voltage gauge?  You should have 12.5 volts or more on a healthy battery. Do you have a battery selector switch?  Can you switch to a battery with more voltage or combine 2 batteries?  Are the battery terminal connections clean and tight?
  3. Kill switch: Most all modern boats have a kill switch located on the helm, be sure it is in the on and upright position.  Most kill switches will allow the engine to turn over but not start.

These simple checks often address the issue without needing further assistance. 



How To Secure A Tow On The Water

If you are in cell range and are a member of a boat towing company such as Sea Tow or Tow BoatsUS, simply call the number on your membership card and relay your location and any additional information.

If you are not a member, rely on boat insurance towing programs, or simply are not covered, note that boat towing companies will still tow you, however you may have longer wait times for non-emergency calls as they prioritize members. And keep in mind towing is paid by the time that the towboat is underway. So, you are paying for the towboat from the time it leaves its dock until it returns.

When Outside Of Cell Phone Range

When you are out of cell range, you can call your membership company over VHF or via satellite phone and/or the Coast Guard will relay your message.

A few important pieces of gear to consider before heading offshore include:

  • Communication Devices: Always keep a VHF radio on board to contact Sea Tow locations and other services that monitor these channels. A backup battery powered VHF is a great idea for those who frequently head offshore.
  • Emergency Gear: In remote areas, or when offshore, having a satellite phone or an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) is vital. 
  • Membership Services: Consider signing up with a towing service  and keeping your membership card or sticker on your boat. Companies like Sea Tow and Boat US prioritize their members and can assist more quickly due to their managed dispatch services.
  • FLOAT Plan: Always inform someone of your float plan before heading out which includes when you leave, where you plan to go, and an estimated return time. These can also be filed with towing companies prior to departure.


Understanding Boat Towing Coverage

There is a current debate among boaters regarding insurance companies offering towing coverage versus being a member of a towing company. While some larger insurance providers offer boat towing coverage , they don’t own a fleet of towboats.

So in nearly all cases you will be required to arrange for your own tow and pay out of pocket while awaiting reimbursement from your insurance company. Some towing companies also offer tiered membership packages with different levels of coverage and limitations of service. So be sure to do your research when deciding between towing insurance and a dedicated boat towing company.

In the end, it is up to you to decide, so be sure to research the differences between your insurance company’s offerings and what is offered by popular boat towing companies.

Safe Boating Starts With A Prepared Captain

By prioritizing ongoing education and knowing proper procedures for  when your engine will not start,,boaters can ensure not only their safety but also the protection of their vessel and the surrounding environment. Regular maintenance of your engine , coupled with a thorough understanding of boating regulations, reduces the risk of accidents and breakdowns.

As the boating season progresses, remember that preparation and knowledge are your best allies on the water.

If you have any questions about this article, towing, or tow boat companies, please contact our team or Chad Walters directly!