Skip to main content

No mechanical skill? There’s a fix for that

The best way to fix a boat is to sink it. Or should that be, the best way to sink a boat is to fix it? Both ring true and neither inspires much confidence, particularly when you realize that whenever everything is going well on a boat, something breaks.

Image placeholder title

Boaters love to brag about how they’ve saved the day, not to mention the budget, by fixing whatever breaks. But some feel they’re climbing Mount Everest barefoot in their skivvies when it comes to fixing anything — on a boat or anywhere else. Well, there is hope, me hearties. You, too, probably can become at least a fair mechanic, even if you’ve never been able to figure out how to work Velcro. And if you’re already a fair mechanic, you probably can become much better.
This is for all of us who want to save the boat, save money and be a hero.

You’re better than it
For most of my life when I’ve worked on my diesels or outboards or whatever, I’ve talked to them. Well, actually cursed, yelled and screamed at them is a bit more accurate. Usually the most important starting point is to force yourself to recognize that whatever is broken is just a thing. It may be a very important or expensive or complicated or even dangerous thing, and it may be several things (a system), but it’s still only a thing or bunch of things.
It’s easy to feel the thing is a malevolent intelligent being sitting there trying to figure out how to screw you. Sometimes it does, but not by its own conscious plan. When the thing throws its gauntlet at your feet, whatever is going on is logical, even though it might not seem so at the time.
One way or the other, it makes sense, and the diagnosis and repair will make sense. So the second phase of conquering this evil SOB (“stuff on a boat”) is to figure out the sense of it. Using logic to diagnose and fix your problem is fundamental.
This approach could be difficult, even if you are a logical person, because there is sometimes a conscious (or maybe unconscious) plan involved in the fiasco. It’s the plan of the creator. But this thing or bunch of things was not created by gods or space creatures but by people. Sometimes those people were smart; sometimes they were idiots, such as those who design engines with upside-down oil filters. But they were only humans. The malfunction might be caused by the fact that something has physically broken or that the humans who created it got it wrong. This happens more than you might expect. Sometimes both factors contribute.
Also, there may be more than one thing going wrong at the same time, a coincidence in play. Some profess not to believe in coincidences, but these folks must not have had much experience on boats. There’s a logical explanation, and you shouldn’t think it’s impossible to figure it out. If you fear what the thing’s malfunction or failure can do to you and/or your boat, you are probably being very wise. But this doesn’t mean you should fear the thing itself.
Begin by trying to understand the logic or sense of how the things are supposed to be doing their job, and then the logic or sense of why they’re not. If you haven’t a clue, there’s plenty of help out there. Depending on the component victimizing you (there, I’ve personalized it again), it might be necessary to get some education in basic fundamentals. More on this to come.
Unless the cause of the problem is already obvious, a great way to figure it out is to use the process of elimination. And, no, this doesn’t mean throwing the damned “thing” overboard. Often it means sitting there looking closely at it and thinking about what it’s supposed to be doing, how it does it and why it’s not doing it.
Ideally you’ll hit on the right reason first, but things seldom happen this way. Normally you’ll need to weed out the less likely possibilities by thinking about the surrounding circumstances, all of the symptoms and anything else that seems to be in play. Develop a theory. But remember, it’s just a theory, and you can always discard it and start out with a new one if it doesn’t seem to be panning out.
When you’re using logic to come up with a diagnosis theory, you need to keep in mind the realities of the job. If you have two possible theories and one is less likely than the other but easier and much cheaper and involves much less risk, that might be what you’ll want to pursue first. This tactic of strategic engagement also may apply when you begin actually doing things. If, for example, there is more than one way to remove a part, you might want to begin with the method least likely to cause collateral damage (socket wrench extension), even though the other seems more direct (sledgehammer).

You can't have too many flashlights. The Jr. Reach LED by Streamlight can light up deep, tiny spaces.

Get physical
Next, start getting physical. This depends on the type of equipment you’re dealing with, how easily you can access it and the problem itself.
Here’s an example. You may have a transmission that isn’t behaving as it should. You think you need a rebuild. But you’re not going to be able to pull the tranny apart and rebuild it, and it’s a lot easier to check out the linkage first. Follow it from beginning to end. Look for disconnects caused by lost circlips, cotter pins or the backing out of a threaded connection. Perhaps a clamp has loosened, allowing the sheathing to move and adversely affecting the travel of the cable itself.
Another example: a tilt motor issue on an outboard. Examine what you can readily see. You might find a faulty electrical connection under the steering console. You see some funky-looking electrical connections at the motor or elsewhere in the circuit, which is a good first place to zero in. If the tilt motor itself is particularly rusty, that’s a clue that you might need a new motor. And if you see a slight sheen of hydraulic fluid on the motor or water, you may have a leaking O-ring or other seal and be low on fluid.
Perhaps nothing jumps out at you. But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon the present course. It perhaps means you should study it and think about it some more and start digging deeper. Sometimes leaving the problem and coming back to it a day or so later will give you a better perspective.
I once had a tilt motor that seemed to be in the first throes of failure. I spent hours trying to see what was wrong. I finally found that it was a tiny pinhole leak in one of the hydraulic hose stainless fittings. It sprayed such a fine stream of fluid that I couldn’t see it until it affected a bolt on the motor, which became inexplicably greasy.
I only noticed this when I peered into the area, just trying to figure it out, and the spray splattered onto my glasses. From there it was simply a matter of removing the old fitting and screwing in another.

Thinking through how the hydraulic system works and then isolating the problem led to the successful repair of this old outboard's lifting system.

Scope it out
When you think you have a diagnosis or are close enough to a diagnosis to start doing mechanical things, such as turning bolts or removing, opening up or replacing parts, carefully scope out the job before you begin. Ask these kinds of questions: If I can get the bolts out, will there be enough clearance around that part to pull it out of its hole? Or can I even get to the culprit? If not, you’ll have to remove something else before you begin the core job. This is very frustrating, but much less so than trying to get hands and parts where they won’t fit.
Also ask yourself: Is whatever I’m thinking about doing going to compromise watertight integrity or some other critical aspect, causing me to have to rush to get it back together right away, or will I be able to leisurely deal with whatever I find? Are there electrical components nearby? Is there a dangerous fuel or gas issue, or will one be caused as a consequence of what I’m doing? Will I need more than one pair of hands? Will I be able to see what I need to see and reach what I need to reach?
Usually if you suspect problems such as these in advance, you can figure out a way to deal with the issue once it arises, and you won’t find yourself, in the middle of the job, trapped in a tight hole somewhere in the boat, yelling for help.
While scoping out the upcoming job, look for other special problems. For example, rusty bolts can be difficult to remove. If wiring terminals are corroded, you might want to replace them after you disconnect them. Disassembling a component that looks complex could be easier if you study a manual first.
Disassembling metal — such as an end plate on a heat exchanger — that looks discolored could mean it’s impaired by electrolysis and may crumble or be too weak to reuse. A hose that looks old and cracked might require a replacement on standby and turning off a through-hull valve or water pump (which normally you’d do, anyway). A screw or bolt in a location you can’t see or reach can require special preparation and tools.
Never underestimate the importance of patience. It’s one of the least understood and most helpful parts of doing your own work. As you scope out the job, note whether there is something that’s going to take a long time or will require “letting it sit” and coming back tomorrow.
This can include a frozen bolt. If the system you’re working on happens to be under the saloon, for example, you might not want to begin the job until you have a period when you won’t be using the boat. Even if you don’t notice a patience issue in advance, assume you’ll encounter one. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of sleeping on something you can’t figure out. This is always better than plowing ahead with a crowbar and sledgehammer.
And never underestimate the importance of safety. Safety issues in boat work far exceed those of most other endeavors. Don’t take chances.

The leak was difficult to find, but the repair (replacement of the left coil) was easy.

Tailor your preparations
After scoping it out, determine what tools and other items you’ll need. For example, an old hose or wiring with impaired insulation could mean you’ll need some Rescue Tape handy for temporary repairs or safeguards while you get to the root of the problem. The bolt you can’t see means you’ll need an inspection mirror, a mechanic’s light and perhaps a safety net of aluminum foil spread under the bolt to catch it if you drop it.
Rusty bolts mean you’ll need a good freeing agent, such as CRC’s Freeze-Off. It also will require a lot of extra time for judicious tapping. Badly discolored metal could mean you’ll need some JB Weld on hand for a temporary repair until you can assess whether you need a new part, or it may mean you’d best not tackle the job until the boat is hauled. Any time you plan to open a heat exchanger or other component on the engine or anything else (such as a head) that has a gasket, you should have a replacement gasket or good gasket material (such as the types made by Permatex) for temporary or permanent replacement.

Learn the normal operating temperatures of different parts of your engine and other mechanical items. Some can be touched with the bare hand, but test first with a thermometer.

Doing it
Take it slow. The very best of us have our learning curves, so don’t think you’re a failure if you screw up. Think of it as learning and use the experience to help you next time. If you’ve gotten into the job and realize it’s over your head, stop and get some help. This happens to all of us.
Take steps to enable you to remember how to get the mess back together, such as making diagrams of what the job looks like before you begin and at various intermediate stages. Label parts. I often do this by putting them into Ziploc bags and writing on them, by putting them into plastic yogurt containers or by using labels I tie or tape on.
White tape and indelible markers can make good temporary labels. Pay attention to details. For example, it’s not unusual when removing a series of bolts that one or more will be longer than the others. If you try to put these back into a short bolt hole you could round off the head.

Building your arsenal
Early in the process you’ll need to acquire good tools. You simply cannot have too many good tools. I consider tools to be the greatest investment I have, not that that’s saying much. After more years of trying to fix stuff than I like to admit, I’m still acquiring tools. Some of the things I use regularly wouldn’t even be considered tools by most folks, but they do wonders for me. However, you can’t buy every tool in the shop when you’re starting out. The trick is to get enough to get you going and then add over time.
Often promoted are the ready-made “complete” tool sets. They’re usually offered as a special deal and come in wonderful here-today, gone-tomorrow plastic cases. The number of tools touted on the box is supposed to make the deal even better. Although some of these can be good buys, I avoid them. The tools often are cheaply made and the collection contains items they couldn’t sell any other way and things you’ll never use.
I do, however, buy sets of particular types of tools — for example, wrenches, socket wrenches and screwdrivers. The same piece that’s in a set such as this often costs much more if bought individually.
Don’t buy cheap tools. That lifetime warranty isn’t worth a hill of beans if your socket-wrench driver strips out and you’re in the boondocks of paradise. Sure, you can just take it back and get another — if maybe you can charter a helicopter. Cheap tools can do far worse than self-destruct. They’re likely to damage whatever you’re working on.
For example, if that ill-fitting wrench slips on a bolt head, it might not only round off the head, but it also may give you a crash course in arc welding as it grounds out on a nearby hot contact, which, incidentally, shouldn’t have been left hot in the first place. Or it could allow a nearby dull edge to deftly devoid your knuckles of all skin.
It’s sometimes hard to know whether a tool is well-made. I generally go for well-known brands, such as Craftsman and Snap-on. Take a tour inside a Snap-on truck some day, and you’ll never want to leave.
I’ve developed the opinion that some companies make different tools for different retailers. I bought a nifty jointed socket wrench driver from a reputable manufacturer in a “price store,” and its shift lever broke soon thereafter at the worst possible time. The shaft was tiny and the metal looked porous. You’d never know this until it breaks.

Basic tools
Begin by collecting tools you know you’ll need and build as you learn of other needs. A basic set might include an assortment of wrenches with open and boxed ends, a ratchet set with attachments such as shaft extensions and adapters, at least three sizes of straight-edge and Phillips screwdrivers, a set of miniature screwdrivers, an inspection mirror (on a collapsible wand), needle-nose pliers, regular pliers, channel-lock pliers, a wire cutter, a good multitool, two sizes of adjustable wrenches, a good pipe wrench, steel punch pins, a pry bar and a hammer.
If you can afford it, get standard and metric. If you don’t need metric on your first job, you will eventually. And sometimes manufacturers use standard and metric in one assembly.
Several special-purpose, high-quality flashlights are critical. I like the Stylus Reach, Streamlight Jr. Reach LED, 3AA Haz-Lo LED headlamp, and Knucklehead with clip, all by Streamlight.
Before you write that letter to the editor calling me an idiot for leaving out that important widget, save your time. First, you’re probably right. As soon as I finish writing this, I’ll remember a few million more important basic tools for the beginning set. And second, the editor already knows I’m an idiot.
I recently heard a dumbstruck boater, who has been successfully doing all of his own work for years, talking about an alleged mechanic “guru” writing in a boating magazine that he’d never allow a hammer on his boat. The basic hammer, if used properly in the right circumstances, can be invaluable. For example, if you apply a good penetrating lubricant to a frozen bolt and tap it the proper way with a hammer — perhaps using a drift punch to precisely direct the impact — you usually can break it loose.
Often a hammer is the only way for a person of average strength to loosen the lock nut on a stuffing box. Once I moved a 12-kW diesel generator around 5 feet across an engine room floor, with no help, by tapping its pan with a maul through a large punch. It took hours, but it worked, and there was no damage. And don’t let some guru camped up in the clouds tell you you’ll never use a pipe wrench. At times it will prove invaluable.
The good news is that as you tackle more and more jobs, you’ll find it fun and rewarding to add to your tool arsenal. You’ll recognize the need for specific tools as you tackle jobs that require things you don’t have. You’ll also recognize the need for certain tools as you look around (as you should) while doing a particular job and wonder, Now what will I need when that other thing goes kaflooey?
As you browse in stores or on the Internet, you’ll see tools that you’ll recognize as having great potential for some facet of your boat. You’ll learn and perhaps form your own opinion of different issues with tools, such as the number of points in a socket or box wrench.
While adding to your arsenal, beware of Christmas and other popular gift days. It’s been my observation that shelves become flooded with “great new idea” tools that look as if they’ll perform miracles. I’ve come to the opinion that many of these prove to be disappointing. Inventors and toolmakers do come up with some really great improvements that can make a huge difference in particular jobs, but don’t believe in every miracle claimed on packaging.
Be imaginative. Many items not normally considered tools can be invaluable, such as Q-tips, paper clips, pipe cleaners, scraps of inner tubes, an ice pick, stainless wire, metal coat hangers, scraps of wood — I could go on forever.

A mechanic's stethescope can help isolate unusual sounds and familiarize you with the sound of normal operations.

Choose your weapons
After you’ve scoped out your job, choose your weapons. I pick out what I think I need and place them within reach of the working area. This is important because working areas often are so tight it takes a lot of time and pain to wriggle into position. I also try to assemble things I might need, such as tape, gasket material, oil and rags. Good cotton rags are indispensable. If you don’t have enough T-shirts to tear up, you can buy bags of rags very cheaply.
For some jobs, it’s important to have a helper, even if the person is only a “go-fer.” At first, your mate may find this demeaning, but it shouldn’t be. Seldom will a good mechanic come aboard your boat to do a difficult job, or even an easy job in a tight area, without a helper. You simply can’t anticipate every problem that’ll arise, and sometimes you need more than one set of hands to do things. And, if you’re like me, when you drop something you’ll never see it until your helper who has been watching points it out.

Learning the magic
Like Harry Potter and friends, you need to learn a lot more than waving wands to do your magic. Entire books couldn’t cover all the tricks of the trade, but knowing as many as possible will enable you to work magic with your tools. I’ve mentioned a few above.
Here are some others:
• using GoJo or a similar product to slide an engine block down along a board
• putting towels into steaming hot water and then wrapping them around a hose that won’t come off a through-hull nipple
• using dishwashing soap to lubricate the inside of a hose you’re trying to slide over a nipple
• using a punch to line up two bolt holes in matching surfaces while you bolt the other holes into the surface
• turning a propeller shaft with a wrench on one of the coupling bolts
• using a cheating bar (a long pipe that goes over a wrench to give you extra leverage) when absolutely necessary without breaking anything
Tricks of the trade are, in theory, learned over many years of doing the trade. But you can start picking up tips without that. Watch a mechanic you hire or talk with friends who have done the job before. Boaters usually like to share their knowledge and are willing and anxious to help. You’ll find them on the dock, in boating or yacht clubs, in owners’ groups and elsewhere. Tap into this resource. One day you’ll find yourself helping others.
Boating magazines are often helpful and the Internet offers a gold mine of information. The BoatUS website ( has an Ask The Experts section with responses to questions from a variety of known and experienced people, a Resource and Reference Center, and forums. A huge amount of information is available to the public on this site, and even more to BoatUS members.
There are also many helpful forums where boaters share experiences with mechanical problems. However, it’s important with any forum to consider that all postings might not be legitimate or may give well-intentioned but inaccurate information. Closely monitored forums are less likely to have this problem.
The websites of manufacturers often host forums and/or technical sections designed to help a product’s end user. Many manuals are available as PDFs on the Web. Also, many manufacturers offer helpful technical information by phone. There may be one or more chat rooms dedicated to your particular boat and these can be valuable.
Manufacturers, magazines and other sources offer seminars at standalone events and/or boat shows. Some charter companies and owners clubs offer hands-on training, from diesel repair to general use of the boat. The bottom line is you don’t have to feel alone as you crouch down in some hole in your boat wondering what to do about the disaster unfolding before your eyes.
As I finish this, trying not to think of the basic tools I failed to mention above, Chez Nous is floating, the current is soothingly gurgling around the hull, the wind is whispering in the rigging, and the diesel is quiet because it’s shut down, not because it’s broken. I finished my latest job in the engine room this morning, my tools are hidden away and life is good — except that I’m not sure why a gurgling noise is coming from the bilge.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.