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Boat Engine Failure While At Sea – How to Troubleshoot

For the next few months the VISAR column will focus on various aspects of self-assistance in distress situations and tips on how to avoid getting into one to start with. Readers may find some of the advice given screamingly obvious, perhaps even insultingly so. However, given the occasionally astonishing and frequently remarkable calls received by VISAR’s Rescue Coordinators it would appear that stating the blatantly obvious may have some merit. The funny thing about any sport is that we rarely train or practise for things that might go wrong, so when, on the rare occasion they do, even an experienced boater can lose sight of what can be done to mitigate circumstances.

Engine Failure:

This column certainly isn’t going to get into the mechanics of engine repair and trouble-shooting beyond the very basic. There are a couple of excellent books to which boaters can refer for advice; Nigel Calder’s books are particularly good and make engine maintenance comprehensible for even the least experienced of boaters. What we will examine is what you can do if and when your engine dies on you.

Needless to say, the best thing that you can do is to undertake a good preventative maintenance program and making sure that before you leave the dock fuel, oil and water levels are where they ought to be.

You’d be astonished by the number of calls that VISAR receives from boaters saying that their engine has died and that they are in urgent need of assistance. Generally, the first question that is asked of the reporting party is “are you a power or sail boat?” If the reply is “sail”, the inevitable subsequent question is “Are your sails up?” You’d be amazed at the high percentage of answers that are of the “No” variety. At this stage, or if the vessel is a powerboat, the request to drop anchor (or raise sails, if appropriate) is made.

Often, people will inform the coordinator that the depth of water in which they find themselves is too deep for the length of rode they have on board (but they’re still in imminent danger of running aground). Unless they are off one of the drops that bound the Virgin Islands the answer is “well, please do it anyway, eventually your anchor will grab and in the meantime it will do something to slow your drift.”

Once your situation has stabilised then you can start troubleshooting the cause for the engine shutdown. As you know, the most frequent cause of such occurrences are either overheating or fuel starvation.

So, check your raw water outlet if you can get the engine restarted, are you seeing a nice steady stream of used cooling water through the exhaust? If not, check the intake. Outboard motors, particularly those on dinghies, which are dragged up on the beach, are prone to getting the small intake at the base of the foot clogged or blocked. Inboard engines can suck a plastic bag into the intake and completely stop the flow of cooling water. Rubber impellers should be slightly flexible to the touch, not tough or brittle. Once they begin to degrade they no longer push sufficient volumes of water to cool the engine.

Fuel starvation in outboards is generally due to the fuel line becoming disconnected from the engine. Check your connections properly. If this fails, it could be that the priming bulb has failed and is letting fuel run back down the lines to the fuel tank. This requires replacing. On inboard engines check that all filters are clear – can you see water or dirt in the bowl or filter? Change and clean the filters if possible. The final recommendation is to check the levels in your fuel tanks – gauges do fail!

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