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Be Prepared - Ready for Trouble

I like my butt. And I like to get it back to shore dry and in one piece. Going on a boat without being ready for trouble is a good way of kissing it — your butt and maybe your boat — goodbye.

No one should get underway without a basic understanding of the engine.

What you need to learn and the tools and parts you need to carry aboard depend on the complexity of your boat and how you use it.

But we shouldn’t be on the water without at least a basic working understanding of how to figure out what’s wrong when something is wrong, and how to fix it or at least make do until we get back. It’s not only a part of good seamanship, but it’s also profound good sense.

There are far too many people on the water who have no clue about how to take care of themselves out here and what to do beyond “turn the key and drive.” Despite the good help that’s available, we can’t rely on calling for help every time something goes wrong. For starters, this can get extremely expensive. For finishers, help won’t always be able to arrive in time; sometimes it won’t be able to arrive at all.

Among the many factors that should make you want to be able to take care of yourself on the water are bad weather, the length of time you can swim and whether there are any of those cute little sharks hanging around while you’re trying. You won’t just be stuck on the side of the road. You’ll be stuck where you really don’t belong, and very bad things can happen. Let’s look at a few examples that could apply to most boats. None of them requires a lot of expensive equipment, high levels of skill or large storage spaces aboard for tools or parts.

First, you need to have some sense of how to figure out what’s going on. Running a boat requires situational awareness not merely of time and the space around you, but of the boat and equipment that’s keeping you on the water, rather than in or under it. It requires close attention at all times and the ability to diagnose. For example, how does your boat normally sound? Not just the engine but the engine at different rpm and different transmission positions. How does your boat’s motion in the water sound? Are there any unusual smells? The smell of antifreeze in the bilge means your engine is leaking coolant and/or overheating.

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Perhaps it’s taking a bit longer to get up on plane, or the boat is steering a little differently, or its speed has decreased, or its roll is different. Is there a different feel to the throttle? You may be losing a linkage, which could leave you out of control. If there’s more play when you shift, you could be losing a cable sheathing attachment, which could send you crashing through the dock when you try to put her into reverse. Hesitation when you rev up might mean you have a very dirty fuel filter, bad fuel or a deteriorating fuel hose. Does the engine just sound “different”? There could be a serious problem in the making or already happening. You may not be able to handle this sort of problem on the spot, but if you suspect it, you may be able to nurse your boat back to the marina, where it can be repaired without the expense of a tow and without safety risks.

If you have an inboard, it may be a pain to do so, but you’ll be amazed at the problems that can be avoided by peeking inside the engine room or engine space. These include ruptured stuffing box hoses, ruptured cooling hose, fuel leaks that could cause an overwhelming fire and much more.

Let’s look at some of the things that can be repaired on the spot.

Leaks: If a through-hull goes, tapered plugs usually work if you can safely insert them. No plugs, or you have another type of leak? Try stuffing a towel into the breach. Smear it with BoatLife Life-Calk, which sets up under water, and you’ve got an even better patch. Temporary, sure, but it may be enough to get you home.

Ruptured or leaking hose: Carry some Rescue Tape ( and learn how to use it (in a relaxed circumstance). This silicone tape is self-fusing, and you can put it on a wet hose because it doesn’t rely on sticking but on pressure and melding into itself. The manufacturer says it has a tensile strength of 950 PSI and resists heat to 500 F. I’ve used Rescue Tape for many repairs — issues that would have been very difficult if not impossible to fix without it. It doesn’t cost much and requires little storage space.

A nut has vibrated out and a linkage connection is disconnected: This often can be temporarily repaired with seizing wire, preferably stainless. This type of repair, like many others, is transient and must be checked frequently until you get home.

Water getting into the bellows on an I/O drive: You should have been checking this regularly for cracks and signs of aging, but who’s perfect? Try drying it with a towel and carefully applying high-quality duct tape. It won’t last long and probably won’t completely stop the leak, but it may get you in if the breach isn’t too bad.

A leak where two engine surfaces join: It’s probably a bad gasket, but if you have a tube of high-temp silicone gasket material on board (such as the types by Permatex, and a wrench that fits the bolts that hold the surfaces together, you can probably repair it easily for the trip back. This may take awhile, but it beats the alternatives. Or, get an old inner tube, cut it into sections and bring some along. You’ve got temporary gasket material that’ll serve many purposes.

This idea of taking care of yourself on board implies carrying spare parts. I’ve often said that the one sure way to avoid having something break is to carry a spare for it. Obviously, it isn’t practical or affordable to carry spares for everything. But there are a few parts that quickly come to mind. A spare raw-water impeller if you have an inboard may get you home if you can access the spot where the dummies who built the boat put the pump. Carry multiple fuel filters. If you get bad fuel, you’ll probably need more than one change to get home. A few quarts of engine oil and ATF may also be in order, and don’t forget spare V-belts.

Taking care of yourself on board also implies using tools. Each of us will have preferences, not only as a matter of personal choice but also depending on the type of boat. Minimally, carry a good set of wrenches (metric and/or standard, depending on your equipment), an adjustable wrench, several sizes of Phillips and straight screwdrivers, a good pair of pliers, wire cutters, a hex wrench set, a good knife with a serrated blade, needle-nose pliers, a magnet, a wand inspection mirror, a concentrated-beam flashlight and, yes, a hammer and a pipe wrench. I’ve heard some yachtie-tottie types snoot that they’d never have a hammer and pipe wrench aboard. I disagree, and not very respectfully. I know you’re blanching at all of the tools I’ve omitted, but I can’t list it all without volumes of books, and you need to suit yourself and your needs.

Be sure to carry a good selection of appropriate tools.

We go on the water for fun — but it’s fun on the water, not in an amusement park. And the better we’re prepared for the trouble that will come, the more fun we’re going to have.

September 2014 issue