What To Do If Your Boat Breaks Down On The Water

The ocean is undoubtedly a rough place. A mishmash of various elements such as huge waves, thunderstorms, fog, salt corrosion and exposure to other elements can leave you with a broken boat. While most boaters do not like thinking about this, it can sometimes happen.

In fact, if you spend some time on the water, it’s almost unavoidable that you’ll one day encounter some type of emergency. But because a boat is not a car where you can call AAA, you should know what to do when your boat breaks down.

While having your boat break down on the water should hopefully never happen to you or anyone else for that matter, it’s something that will eventually happen.

The best thing to do is to always prepare for the worse and ahead of time in case anything happens. Preparing in advance will allow you to easily manage the situation. In extremely adverse situations, your ability to quickly call for help can be the difference.

What to do During Boating Emergency

Whether you’re an experienced boater or new to the marine world, you’re probably looking forward to happy weekends out in the sea. However, a remarkable boating trip can quickly turn into a nightmare. You should arm yourself with some basic understanding of how your boat works or operates.

That being said, let’s look at how you can deal with a scare.

Do Not Panic

Whether you’re alone or with friends, the first crucial step in any emergency situation is not to panic. This is not always the case because different people react differently in stressful situations but it is probably the most important step. If you start to panic things are not going to get better, they will get worse.

It’s important to ensure that everybody remains calm as you try to get to the bottom of the issue. One good way of doing that is to show confidence.

Convince your passengers that you know what you need to do and calmly ask for help. It is better to keep their mind focused on a task at hand. if you let them roam around the boat who knows where their imagination can lead them.

Have Various Visual Distress Signals

Even a minor issue can quickly turn into an emergency that’s beyond your control. Under such circumstances, you may need a helping hand from another boater or the authorities. For this reason, you should always have different emergency signals on your boat.

Some distress signals that can help you in such situations include:

Daytime Distress Signals

Your boat should have two forms of daytime distress signals: an orange flag and smoke flare.

Recognized as an international symbol of distress, the orange flag will show fellow boaters that you’re in need of their help. You should, therefore, always have this flag on the boat.

Place it at the highest place on your boat in case your boat breaks down. This will allow others to notice that you’re in distress from miles away and they can come to your aid.

You can also use orange smoke flares that discharge clouds of orange smoke. These smoke flares basically serve the same purpose as the flag. However, the orange smoke flare is much better than the flag since it can release the smoke for quite some time.

Nevertheless, remember that the smoke might eventually run out, and so it’s important to have both the flag and the smoke flares with you on the boat.

The best way to use both the orange flag and the smoke flare is, to begin with, the flag as a way of raising an alarm. You should then utilize the smoke flare if there’s a good chance of getting spotted by an incoming vessel.

When choosing a smoke flare as a distress signal, choose an orange flare for daytime use as they’re more effective during the day the common red smoke flare.

Night Distress Signals

If you find yourself on a broken boat at night, you can choose to use the red signal flares and/or SOS electric signals. Using SOS electric signals can be of great help since it can display a very bright signal light for long periods. You should place these light signals on your boat the same way you’d place the orange flag.

Another popular nighttime signal is the red flare. You can get one designed with an aerial device or with a handheld device. Although aerial flares will only burn for six seconds, they’re much more effective for alerting boaters from far away.

On the contrary, handheld red flares can burn for about three minutes but are only effective when the rescue is nearby. 

Have an Effective Communication Channel

You’ll obviously need to make an emergency call if your boat breaks down. While you may have your mobile phone with you, chances are it won’t work because of a poor network. With that in mind, you should always have an effective communication device on your boat.

Having a dependable VHF marine radio with channels that you can use when in distress, such as channel 16, is highly recommended. VHF signals are constantly supervised by Coast Guards who could save the day.

Good reasons you should have a VHF radio:

  • VHF marine radio has a stable reception, unlike mobile phones.
  • They can withstand rough weather.
  • Very simple to use.
  • They can save lives.
  • It’s easy to locate a VHF network even in adverse weather such as thunderstorms and fog.

Have Effectively Working Safety Gear

As a boater, you should never be in a situation where you’re left wondering where you kept your safety gear when something bad happens.

Regularly check for wear and tear, expiry date and ensure that you replace missing items as soon as possible.

For a complete list of what to keep on your boat check out this boat emergency equipment list.

Keep Boat’s Maintenance Up-to-Date

The most important thing to do even before taking your boat to the port is to ensure that it’s well-maintained and in good shape. Do not assume preventive maintenance because this can be the turning point between a good outing and a bad one.

It’s vital to find an experienced boat mechanic to keep your boat in top working condition. 

While regular maintenance is advisable, they can be costly and so it’s okay to be realistic. Nevertheless, make sure that you have your boat checked before taking it out for a trip, particularly if you’ve not used it for quite some time. 

As we’ve noted above, your safety is the main priority. So calling for help from a fellow boater, a towing company or the authority might be your only option. But in some instances, you’ll have to do the necessary repairs to get your boat up and running without assistance.

Consequently, there are some common reasons why your boat might break down out on the water and we’ve compiled what it would take to save the day. 

The Most Common Breakdown Reasons

The Boat is Spluttering and Short on Power

Your boat is not running on its normal strength and you’ve ruled out lack of fuel. Your boat could be running on spoiled plugs or could have filter issues.

To avoid such problems bring with you a spare fuel filter for every boating trip. But if you do not have a spare with you on this fateful day, don’t panic. Just remove the filter and clean it. Remove accumulated elements and debris, as well as any accumulated water.

There’s also the possibility that the fuel in the boat is bad if you have not used it in a long time. Leaving your boat’s fuel tank empty for extended periods can leave water and condensation in the tank, which may cause problems too. In essence, ensure that these problems are solved beforehand.

Dealing with a Broken Belt

While it’s almost impossible to hear your boat’s belt breaking over the boat’s engine noise, you’ll know that there’s an issue when the warning light comes on. When your belt breaks, your boat will have no water pump, no alternator and will overheat or stop working. 

Carrying a spare belt will save the day. But if you don’t have any, consider using a pantyhose or a fishing line, but this wouldn’t work for long. In most cases, corrosion on pulleys can damage your belt. It’s, therefore, advisable to inspect your belt and pulley and ensure that they are effectively working.

Your Boat’s Engine is Overheating

You’re out on the water and you notice that the pointer on the temperature gauge is ascending. Well, your boat could be soon overheating and this could mean that water is not efficiently flowing in the cooling loop. 

Unlike cars, boats do not have radiators. Instead, your boat depends on the water flow to cool its engine. So if something happens and the water stops flowing, it’s highly likely that the engine will overheat.

You should trace the source of the problem. Generally, water intake issues can be caused by obstruction. Things such as weeds, plastic, and mud can obstruct the hose pump. Locate them and remove them. Again, loose, burst or slit hose can be the source of your problem, so you should have it replaced.


As a boater, it’s inevitable that you might one day find yourself up to the proverbial creek without a paddle while on a boating trip. As you can imagine, it can be a dangerous situation, especially if you didn’t expect it. Such situations can happen to anyone. So it’s vital to prepare for the worst ahead of your boating trip.

Your safety and that of those on board should be your priority. This may require you to make an emergency call, but this may be impossible if you weren’t prepared.

For this reason, you should always have visual distress signals such as flags, smoke flares and electric light signals that may help you alert fellow boaters or the authority that you are in need of help.

Having a VHF radio is also advisable as this will be an effective way of calling for help while out on the water. 

Again, you shouldn’t let a problem on the boat turn worse. With adequate planning and some basic understanding of how your boat works, you’ll get yourself out of most situations without calling for assistance. 

All in all, ensure that everybody is SAFE out there! Do not let an emergency turn into a full-blown crisis where people end up in the hospital or even losing their lives.

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