Mike Baron, United States Coast Guard Division of Boating Safety
Preventive maintenance is essential, but it’s not a guarantee against engine problems. Preparation, planning and knowing when to get help are keys to coping if you face engine failure while afloat.
Preparing for the possibility of engine failure is much like preparing for any boating emergency: Ensure you have the right equipment, the right information and contingency plans.
– Carry basic tools and spares: water impeller replacement, in-line fuel filter, spark plugs, belts and a belt wrench, props, oil and coolant, screwdrivers, duct tape, and the manual for your boat and engine.
– If possible, carry basic safety equipment, including an anchor with sufficient chain and line for your boat and the water conditions, an oar and floating tow line.
– Take an emergency supply of warm clothing/blankets, extra water and food, a first-aid kit and extra signaling devices (extra pyrotechnic visual distress signals, as well as options such as a bright water-resistant flashlight, a signaling mirror and a whistle).
– Invest in a VHF-FM marine radio, preferably one with Digital Selective Calling; in an emergency, a cellphone is not an adequate substitute. You may not have cell access, and rescuers can’t pinpoint your location effectively. If you go boating often or far out, consider buying an EPIRB.
– Know who to contact in case of an emergency. On the ocean, the Great Lakes, and some rivers and designated bodies of water, it’s the U.S. Coast Guard; in other areas, it may be other local responders.
– Ensure that you and your passengers know how to use all the safety equipment.
– Plan excursions in line with your experience and skill level; don’t go far out on the ocean (or a large lake) in a small boat unless you are highly experienced and skilled.
– File a detailed float plan.
If your engine fails, drop anchor (after maneuvering out of the channel, if possible). You want to stabilize your position and avoid drifting toward any other dangers. If you don’t have an anchor aboard, improvise. Tie a line to a large bucket; in a pinch, you might use something like a duffle bag.
Ensure that all passengers put on a life jacket, if not already wearing one, and prepare to sound a horn or other audible device to warn other boats. Turn your radio to VHF Channel 16, so you are ready to warn others or call for help, if needed.
– Check for any simple problems you might be able to repair on the water:
– Check the engine cutoff switch.
– Check for common electrical problems.
– Smell for burning odors. If there is an odor or smoke, turn off the battery switch and cut and isolate any wires that are damaged, to prevent further shorts or damage.
– Make sure the battery connections are solid and the battery is not dead.
– Check that the fuel line is not disconnected or damaged.
– Look for loose or broken belts.
– If the engine seems to be overheating, check and clear clogged intakes (for outboard motors) or filters (for inboard engines).
– Check your boat and engine manual for additional troubleshooting guidance.
Get ready to communicate clearly by radio. Know and prepare to convey the following: your position, how many people are on board, the nature of the distress and a description of your vessel (make, length, color, type, registration numbers and boat name). Nearby boaters may be able to assist, or help with a simple repair.
If you feel confident that the situation is not life threatening and the boat is not in immediate danger, transmit a Pan-Pan urgency message (pronounced pahn-pahn) to communicate that the safety of your vessel or a person is in jeopardy. If you are in a situation where grave and imminent danger threatens life or property, use the mayday call.
If you don’t have a radio, use your cellphone to communicate the same information to emergency response.
If you are unable to communicate directly, strategically use your onboard visual distress signals. Use flares when you see other boats or when other boaters are likely to be out; sound your horn intermittently. Raise your orange distress flag.
While You Wait
Remain calm. Have everyone stay aboard the boat. If it looks like you’ll be waiting for a while, minimize sun exposure to prevent dehydration. Use tarps, canvas or a blanket to improvise shade. Conserve energy; moving around needlessly also causes you to dehydrate more quickly through perspiration. Ration supplies (and don’t eat if you don’t have water). Conserve your water. Prepare to catch any rain or capture condensation.
You can take steps to minimize the chances of engine failure:
– Have your boat’s engine and other systems serviced in accordance with manufacturer recommendations. A general rule is every 12 months or every 100 hours of use.
– Take advantage of a free Vessel Safety Check at the beginning of every boating season.
– Complete a boating safety course to get more comfortable and familiar with safety and emergency procedures.
– Be familiar with your boat; practice routine repairs so you are comfortable with the tools, parts and process.
– Take proper care between trips — particularly when winterizing at the end of the season. Use a fuel stabilizer for periods when the boat is not in use.
– Flush out outboard engines after every trip (even when boating on fresh water).
– Complete a systems check before every start — or at least once a day when your boat is in use. Check fuel, oil and water levels. If the oil level is high, it could signal water in the oil sump (and the oil itself may look milky); too low could indicate a leak.
– Inspect, clean and, if needed, replace damaged wiring.
– Never run your boat with your fuel close to empty. Know your tank’s capacity, and ensure your fuel gauge is accurate.
– Regularly scan your gauges for early indicators of problems while aboard.