Think First

Not every dead-in-the-water scenario has to be a can't-get-home scenario.

Did you ever have an “Oh, @#*!” moment on the high seas? Don’t be embarrassed if you did. At least you remembered to install the drain plug before launch. You did, didn’t you? Aw, man! You’re better than that. If it makes you feel better, I once launched a 24-foot Grumman pontoon with neither drain plug. The bond between us? We didn’t take an instant to think prior to doing.

Not thinking is what can turn a “let’s go boating” day into a “we’ve done everything except boating” day. If you take time to think, you can be a hero. My customers have encountered day-ruining scenarios over the years. Here’s what could have been done to bring ’em home.


Often a prop develops a spun hub — that’s the rubber-clad device that joins the propeller to the engine’s prop shaft — from striking immoveable objects. You increase the throttle and the engine responds by going faster, but the boat doesn’t. Because the hub has probably sheared in forward motion, put the engine in reverse, very gently, and move all the passengers forward in order to keep the transom high. Head for home — or to a safe haven — in reverse, utilizing the shear to your advantage.

Picture this: You installed a new stainless prop with all the factory hardware but lost the stainless cotter pin down the center of the prop and went to the hardware store to get “something” to replace it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t stainless and wasted no time rusting into uselessness. The next time the engine was put into reverse, the prop shot off the shaft and sank 50 feet. No problem: spare prop. Problem: no hardware. The inner spacer is probably still on the shaft, so install the emergency prop. You wouldn’t be lucky enough to have washers aboard, so use a dinner fork tine or a belt buckle to create a cotter pin. When you engage forward, the prop will be spinning forward, thrusting rather than pulling, and the cotter pin and washers won’t be necessary until you engage reverse again. At that point, maybe your emergency parts will hold it together…

You’ve been at the beach all day, stereo blasting. The stereo system doesn’t draw a lot of amps, but at day’s end, even though the battery switch was on ALL, the ignition key invites only a strained “rrumph.” Turn the battery switch to OFF. Make sure the bilge pump won’t engage. Switch the battery selector to one battery, which should have removable cell caps. Carefully remove the caps — shield your eyes — and add some drinking water to the cells. Install the caps. Inside of 10 minutes, one battery should crank the engine over. You’ll have only one chance, though. When the engine starts, the alternator will recharge the battery relatively quickly. Read: Do not shut the engine down until you’re home!

“It’s overheating! The light came on. What do I do?” First, look aft to see if there is a telltale water stream emanating from the engine. Then sniff. Do you smell something overheated? If the fi rst answer is “yes,” the second should be “no.” If the fi rst answer is “no,” the second should be “yes.” But wait. What makes you think it’s overheating? The light? The ubiquitous light, described in detail in the owner’s manual you left at home. The light that denotes overheat under one pictogram, oil change reminder under another, and CK ENG under another, warning you to get qualifi ed help for the engine. You’d be amazed at how many bell and light warnings aren’t related to overheating. Perhaps if you’d read the owner’s manual you would have known that only the oil change reminder needed to be reset.

Did you make certain the water pictogram is lighted? Is it pumping but really overheating? Try this. You should have that cheap multi-use toolkit supplied with the engine. Remove the thermostat cover, remove the thermostat, replace the cover and let the water course through at low operating rpm to get home safely.

When you see a connecting rod blow through the side of the engine cover, you can rightfully start humming “Row, row, your boat,” unless you’ve been waiting for this moment all your life (credit due Phil Collins for the lyrics) and actually stop to think. Forward progress has been hampered, darkness is here, your cell has no reception and probably the next thing you see will be the orange and white U.S. Coast Guard helicopters spending millions of taxpayer dollars searching for you. Does your boat have a center console? Did you stuff the console cover into the console? Do you have an oar or paddle? A boat hook? Twisted dock line? Fileting knife? Cut the twisted line every 2 feet, for 6 feet. That’ll provide nine strands of line. Lash the boat hook to one side of the console’s grabrail and the oar/paddle to the other. Grab the console cover, hold it sideways and cut holes in all four corners. Use four strands to tie it to the pole and paddle. Leave the engine tilted down for steerage. Now you’re headed somewhere, either with the wind to safety or tacking to safety. It’ll be slow going, but it’s better than sitting dead in the water.