What to Do When Your Boat Breaks Down on the Water

By Diane Tait

Image courtesy Pixabay

One of the great benefits of living in Jacksonville is there’s so much to do on the water.  If you own a boat, you know there are many ways to enjoy yourself both inshore and offshore.  Whether you’re looking to go sailing on the St. Johns River, motor down the intracoastal waterway to St. Augustine, or head out to sea to do some fishing, north Florida is one of the few places in the country where you can go boating year around.  While enjoying a day on the water is a great way to spend your leisure time, there comes a time in every boater’s life when the motor quits, and they find themselves adrift.  The difference between this becoming an inconvenience or a life-threatening experience comes down to just two things: experience and preparation.  To help all you boaters out there keep yourself, your crew, and your guests safe while afloat, I’ve created a list of eight things you need to do to make sure your day on the water doesn’t become a watery disaster.

Rule #1 – Don’t Panic  A breakdown can happen to anyone.  There you are motoring along when all of a sudden, the motor quits and you find yourself adrift.  The first thing you need to determine is why the engine stopped.  Some of the culprits are simple to fix, while others are not.  Did the engine quit because it ran out of fuel?  You’d be surprised how often this happens.  If you have plenty of fuel, check to see that the prop hasn’t fouled on something.  Catching a fishing net or tangling with a crab pot will stop an engine cold.      

Rule #2 – Determine if you’re aground or adrift.  If you get can’t back underway in a hurry, you need to determine if your boat is aground or adrift.  If you’re aground, this could be the source of your problem.  If adrift, your best bet is to drop anchor to keep your vessel from winding up somewhere that could put it in harm’s way, like a shipping channel.  A tugboat pushing a barge is the last thing you want to see heading your way when you’re dead in the water.

Rule #3 – Is your vessel taking on water? – If your boat hits a submerged object or runs aground, it may start taking on water.  If this is the case, it’s imperative you determine the source of the leak and try to staunch the flow.  Sometimes stuffing a rag in the hole is all it takes to slow or stop a leak.  At other times, it will take constant bailing to keep your vessel from sinking.  If you can’t stop the water from coming in, this takes the matter from an inconvenience to an emergency that needs to be dealt with immediately.  Have everyone on board don life jackets and hail any nearby vessels to render assistance.  If there are no vessels in sight, it’s time to call the Coast Guard.  If you can’t reach the Coast Guard or it’s going to take too long for them to reach you before your vessel sinks, you need to launch a life raft or dinghy to get everyone aboard to safety.  

Image courtesy Pixabay

Rule #4 – Make sure your passengers & crew are safe. Depending on the situation, you may come to find that one or more people aboard were injured when your vessel came to a sudden stop.  Depending on the severity of the injuries, you may need to hail the Coast Guard to come to your assistance.  If the injuries aren’t severe, you’ll need to administer first aid while afloat.  Even if there are no injuries, your responsibility as captain is to make sure everyone aboard is kept out of harm’s way while you deal with the situation. 

Rule #5 - Assess the weather?   If you’re an experienced boater, you may choose to try to correct the problem yourself, weather permitting.  If you see a storm approaching, the last thing you want to do is waste time trying to bring your motor back to life, especially if you have others aboard.  In that case, your best bet is to either find a nearby boater willing to tow you to safety or call for a tow.  You’ll also want to make sure everyone aboard dons a lifejacket if the weather is about to turn ugly.  Don’t make a bad situation worse by losing someone overboard.

Rule #6 – Who & how to call for help.  If you find you’re unable to rectify the situation, it’s time to summon help.  This can be done in one of four ways.  If you have a marine radio, you can use it to summon assistance from other vessels, a commercial towing service or the Coast Guard.  If you don’t have a marine radio, you may be able to use your cellphone to signal for help, provided your vessel is in range of a cellphone tower.  You can also use daymarks or flares to summon assistance.  Even turning an American flag upside down is a distress signal.  If your boat comes equipped with an EPIRB or a personal locator beacon, activating either will send a satellite signal along with latitude and longitude to help guide rescuers to you.

Rule #7 – What to do if you’re forced to spend the night on the water.  While this is more likely to occur to those who head offshore, I know an experienced sailor who was once forced to stay aboard his 23-foot sloop for two days on the St. Johns River due to a nor’easter that made heading back to port impossible.  He finally accepted a tow from a passing powerboat that nearly swamped his vessel in the process.  By the time he got back to the marina, he was soaked to the skin and hadn’t eaten in 24-hours.  The lesson here is to make sure you always have enough food and water to last you, the crew, and your guests for at least 24-hours.  You never know if you’ll be forced to spend the night on your vessel.  Fortunately for my friend, his vessel had a cabin where he was able to stay out of the worst of the elements.  If your boat doesn’t have a cabin, do you have enough foul weather gear for everyone aboard?  Drowning isn’t the only hazard afloat.  Hypothermia can be just as deadly if you’re forced to stay aboard overnight.

Rule #8 – Expect the Unexpected  Experienced boaters are always prepared for unexpected situations that can occur afloat.  They make sure their vessel is well-maintained and well-equipped so they can deal with anything that can turn a pleasure cruise into a life-threatening situation.  This includes briefing their crew and guests before leaving the dock, carrying enough lifejackets for all those aboard, provisioning the vessel with everything needed for an extended stay even if they only plan on a day sail, and carrying sufficient boat insurance to cover the vessel and everyone aboard. 

Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance.  To find out more about how you can save money on boat insurance, go to her site or fill out the form at right.


  1. There's nothing scarier than being stuck in a dead boat in the dead of night.

  2. Boats can seem like a hole in the ocean that you put money into but nothing comes back out. This article provides many great tips to keep that hole from breaking the bank,


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