Skip to main content

SEA SAVVY - Tips from a boater’s bag of tricks

From rubber inner tubes to empty whiskey bottles, here are some clever fixes for the occasional mishap

It’s been 52 years since I first sinned. I was 9 years old, and I fell passionately in love with my first boat. She was 12 feet, wooden, and I miss her still. Since then, I’ve had too many to count, although not nearly enough. The number of boats I’ve had pales in comparison to the number of mistakes I’ve made dealing with them. But I’m still afloat and heading out South Carolina’s Calibogue Sound on a trip down the coast, even as I write this. If I can share with you


some of the tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over the years, and if they make even one day on the water better for you, I’ll be happy.

Twist and shout

For years that was my technique for pulling hoses off barbs on through-hull fittings, engine fittings and, best of all, head fittings. Actually, twisting and cursing describes it more accurately, especially when I cut my knuckles and elbows on everything nearby. But there’s an easy way to get even the hardest of hoses off.

Apply a little heat with a hair dryer or heat gun. Don’t get the hose too hot because this will only make it brittle and possibly damage it. (If it’s really tight or hard, it may be time to replace it.) Warm the hose as evenly as possible. Use some heavy rags or gloves to protect your hands, and then twist and pull. Repeat, if necessary, until the hose is just supple enough to slip off. Obviously you’ll want to be very careful with the electricity. Don’t let the heat gun slip into water or overheat anything else.

Slowly slipping rubber

In the good ol’ days, outboard engine propellers had shear pins. When you hit something they broke, and all you had to do was put in another from the handy packet you always remembered to keep aboard.

Now most outboards have “advanced” to the use of rubber inserts connecting the blades to the drive core. The idea is that this provides a cushion and that — unless you’re like me and really clobber something — there’ll be enough rubber left to provide enough friction to let you slowly (very slowly) get home. You then get to buy a whole new prop. But sometimes you need to be back at work by Monday, and the boss isn’t likely to understand your excuse about slowly slipping rubber.

There’s a temporary fix that often will work, at least on a short-term emergency basis. Tap a nail (preferably a square nail) or turn a screw into the middle of the rubber insert ridge. Sometimes one will suffice; usually at least two are needed. This normally will expand and compress the rubber so that it will slip less and maybe not at all. The effectiveness of this depends upon the extent of the tear and, of course, upon the thrust of the engine. The more thrust and the larger the boat, the less likely it is to work.

This isn’t what the manufacturers recommend; they probably advise against it. And it isn’t the “best way” to fix it. But it may be the only way to get in if you’re out in the boonies. This technique has worked for months for me when I’ve hit rocks out in the Bahamas and had no other option except to stop using my tender.

Rubber rocks

Speaking of rubber, an inner tube can be one of the handiest things you carry. They’re cheap, they take almost no room to store, and they can solve a multitude of unexpected problems.

Buy a new one. It’ll have more elasticity and durability. Because most automobile tires are tubeless, you may have to call around. It’s relatively easy to find bike tire tubes, but it’s better to have a car-size tube.

Cut pieces to suit your job with scissors or a knife. I’ve listed a few uses here, but if you have one on board, you’ll probably find more. Many of these “fixes” are temporary for emergencies. Material used by component manufacturers is generally specifically designed for the job, and you should get recommended replacements as soon as possible.

• Temporary gaskets. You can fabricate many types of gaskets from an inner tube. A typical example is the gasket for the cap of a sea water strainer. Often you’ll remove the cap to clean a clogged strainer basket and find that the gasket has deteriorated from compression and age. Cutting one to fit from the inner tube will do the job until you can buy one made for the purpose.

• Temporary diaphragms. These tear unexpectedly in pumps, leaving them useless. Low-pressure water pumps are the most likely candidates for successful temporary fixes with this method. I’ve even seen this done in the Bahamas for a fuel lift pump diaphragm on a diesel engine. It worked for a few hours. I wouldn’t recommend it because of the pressure, speed of pulsation, effect of the fuel on the rubber, and the consequences of a breach, but it does demonstrate the versatility of inner tubes.

• Temporary insulation for exposed battery terminals or other 12-volt electrical connections. While it’s better to use insulation caps specifically made for this, if you have to make an unplanned disconnect, a piece of rubber cut from the tube will do the job until you get ashore. Use electrical tape or wire ties to secure it. Always cut off the current from any exposed terminal, if possible.

• Extra wire insulation. Wrap wiring to protect its insulation from chafe and breach. Split spiral coil made for the purpose is inexpensive and better, but you may need to protect wiring when you can’t get this product or where it won’t fit. Secure with electrical tape or wire ties.

• Oil filter wrench. If you have to spin off a filter and you’ve left your filter wrench at home, a piece of rubber will give your hands extra traction and protect them from heat. Also, use this for other jobs where your hands need extra gripping traction.

• Hose clamp covers. I’ve torn more clothes and gotten more cuts from hose clamps than anything else on or off the boat. Now I cover them with several layers of rubber, secured by tape or wire ties. Don’t forget to inspect hose clamps regularly for loosening or corrosion.

• Battery mats. If you’re going to store a battery on a surface that’s likely to be moist, placing it on a rubber mat will reduce the likelihood of slow discharge.

Unwinding without wetting

Hate to dive into that cold or rough water to unwrap a sheet or some other piece of line from your prop? Try this. It usually takes two people. Determine which end of the line is the outstanding end — in other words, the end you need to pull to unwind it. This is probably the only end you can see. Have one person go below and turn the shaft with his hands in the reverse direction that it was turning when the line got wrapped. Obviously, the boat should be dead in the water when you do this, with the engine off. The person below in the shaft space should be very careful of hot machinery and other hazards.

Have the person on deck pull on the end of the line. If you don’t know the direction of rotation, the person pulling on the line probably will be able to tell by whether he’s pulling the line in or seeing it go out as you turn. Continue this until, we hope, the line unwraps.

Sometimes the line will stop coming in and start winding again around the prop, even though the person below is rotating the shaft in the same direction. This may be because of the way the line is tangled around your gear. The deck person should shout down for a reversal, and you should go with this until you need to reverse again to continue the unwinding. With patience, you may be able to free the line while remaining dry. Both parties should be very careful not to get hurt by machinery. And yes, the person holding the line should not attach it to himself.

Peaceful pasta

Many people taking long cruises like to stock well before they go. This often includes grain products, such as oatmeal, rice, pasta, flour and cereal. If your cruise is in warmer areas like South Florida, the Bahamas or the Caribbean, you may find a delicate, crunchy, lively source of protein in these stores, which wasn’t on the packaging label. They’re called weevils. They can show up in even the most carefully packaged products, including “airtight” wrappings.

I’m told that it’s often because their eggs, harmless enough (especially when you don’t know you’re eating them), were in there waiting for warm weather to hatch. We’ve found that if we freeze our grains, at least overnight, before we go, the eggs die or at least refrain from hatching until we get a chance to eat them. We have peaceful pasta for the entire cruise.

Whiskey for my outboard

I’ve got four 6-gallon plastic outboard gas tanks made by different manufacturers. They all leak water to one extent or another. I put them through heavy usage, including gales and storms. (They’re for my two tenders.) Not only is gas far too expensive to ruin, water in gas can be life-threatening when you’re left stranded.

Several signs alert you to water in your tanks. One, of course, is an outboard that won’t start or runs rough. But hey, it’s an outboard. More specific indicators are distinct fluid globules of white sludge in the bottom of the tank and white, milky sludge inside the filter bowl — probably located on the side of the block under the cowling — or in your carburetor bowl. (You must remove this first, which, unfortunately, is a big hassle on some outboards.) The sludge in the fuel tank is hard to see unless the tank is almost empty. Be careful of fumes for obvious reasons (explosion). They also can cause injury by inhalation or contact with your eyes. If you use a flashlight to look inside the tank, make sure it is ignition protected.

In the good old days, I used a whiskey bottle to remove water from my 6-gallon tanks. I removed the ends from my spare outboard gas line and set up a siphon by squeezing the bulb. I would hold the suction end of the tube just beneath the surface and drain the tank from the top into a clear container — the whiskey bottle. Each time the bottle filled I poured its contents into a clean fuel tank. This enabled me to save the good gas.

As I reached the water at the bottom of the gas tank, I could see it collecting in the bottom of the whiskey bottle and I “properly disposed” of the fouled gas. When the tank was as empty as I could get it, I’d wipe up the residue with paper towels or rags. I “properly disposed” of those, too, of course. No, whiskey bottles aren’t approved containers, but they sure made some friends on the docks.

Now I use an easier and safer way. This is important because gasoline can be dangerous around a boat. First, we protect our plastic tanks with covers that we make from Sunbrella. This helps to keep out water and protects the tanks from UV damage. In addition, we use a small Racor 025-RAC-02 in-line water separator filter with the S2502 elements. You can see sludge accumulate in the clear bowl. These work well for my 25- and 15-hp outboards. Larger engines require larger filters, which are made by Racor and other good manufacturers.

I also use a Racor fuel-filter funnel water separator when buying gas from questionable sources. The models are RFF1C for 2.7-gpm flow, RFF3C for 3.9-gpm flow, and RFF8C for 5-gpm flow. The larger the better, not only because of flow rate, but also because you can separate out more sludge before you have to empty them.

The separators have a Teflon-coated stainless steel filter cone. The funnel body is an industrial-grade polypropylene. Many people don’t realize that petroleum products flowing over plastic generates static electricity. Racor says it injects carbon into the plastic of the funnel body to make it electro-conductive so that, if grounded properly, it can reduce static electricity buildup and, thus, reduce the likelihood of arcing. Racor recommends grounding the funnel by using a wire with a metal clip on each end and clamping one to the upper rim of the funnel and the other to the fueling source, such as the metal gas can or nozzle from the pump. In theory, firmly touching the funnel to the source and destination tank (which should always be properly grounded) could accomplish the same thing, but Racor considers this method to be safer.

For these issues and others, you should read and follow the directions that come with the filter. For example, Racor also says that certain 2-cycle oils and other additives may impair the effectiveness of the filter, though I haven’t noticed any problems using the filters for this purpose. They are intended to remove only free water from fuel, not water that has been emulsified, as may be caused by certain additives containing alcohol or detergents.

The filter funnels also make it much easier to remove water from the tank after it leaks in. Simply pour out the contents through the filter and into another approved container. You’ll see the water at the bottom of the filter. Do the pouring ashore where there is no danger from settling or collecting fumes. Dab out the last drops of water from the corners of the tank with paper towels. This method sure beats drinking all that whiskey in order to have the empty bottles.

The metric method

When I started working on boats at age 9, far up a river in Tidewater, Va., life was much simpler. This was due in part to the fact that we didn’t have to worry about the metric system. Your wrenches and bolts always fit. Times are better now, of course, especially for tool manufacturers.

I used to complain and whine about metric nuts, bolts and tools until an 80-year-old waterman working on his 40-year-old Chesapeake Bay deadrise set me straight. “Metric,” he said, “is just a natural progression from standard. Any time you’ve got a rusted standard bolt or nut that’s crumbled around the edges so that your wrench won’t grip it tightly, just go get the metric tool box. You can almost always find a metric size that’s just a little smaller than what that bolt head used to be, tap it on tight, and turn ’er loose.”

Try it. You may be surprised.

There’s a lot more to be said about loosening rusty nuts and bolts. This is but one of the many subjects we’ll talk about in upcoming columns. Each month we’ll pick a problem or two and discuss practical solutions in detail. We’ll talk about things both mechanical and seafaring in nature.

And a warning: This isn’t always going to be “by the book.” We all know that it’s best to follow the tech manuals when we can. But sometimes, in the real world out on a boat, we just have to do what it takes to be safe and sound, even if it’s a bit unorthodox. So don’t be surprised if from time to time you see a few tricks that you’d never hear about from Momma.