What If You Breakdown On The Water?

Owning a boat can have a lot of benefits, which we will list in another article, but what if you experience a breakdown? Unlike a car, you can’t just jump out and leave it on the side of the road. The marine environment is harsh, and you need to keep on top of preventative maintenance. You also need to make sure you have all the right gear and know what to do if, despite good planning, things go wrong.

In this article we give you nine quick tips to keep you afloat and having fun.

1. Keep Preventative Maintenance Up-to-Date

The first thing you want to do is make sure your boat is in good order. Don’t skimp on preventative maintenance. Find a good mechanic and keep your boat in top condition, with regular scheduled maintenance. Be realistic and factor it in to your costs. Have it checked before you take friends and family for the big trip, especially if you haven’t used it for a while.

2. Maintain Safety Gear

If you’ve broken down and you’re now sifting through your boat to find the missing safety gear, it’s too late! Always keep tabs of the safety gear you have on-board. A good time to check this is when you first purchase the boat. You should also check expiry dates, wear and tear and missing items at least once a year.

3. Care for Your Boat

After a great day out you might be tired, and not really feel like hosing down your boat, cleaning out the rubbish, flushing out the engine or putting on the covers. But think about the cost of extra repairs and maintenance, or the condition your boat will be in next time you use it. Trust us, it’s worth the effort at the end of a trip, for the sake of the next one.

4. Prepare for Your Trip

Check the Weather

Checking the weather is must! Who wants to go sunbaking in the rain? It can also give you an insight into water conditions and if it’s suitable to take your boat where you’re intending to go.

Do a Pre-Trip Inspection

A quick peek into the engine bay before setting off is always a great idea, and can save a potential breakdown. If your engine bay is filled with oil you must figure out why. Maybe it’s time for further inspection, or to be taken to someone who is qualified. Ignoring potential problems could be regrettable by the end of the day. Before you get too far from the wharf, always double check that you’ve put the bung in.

How many people are you taking?

Everybody is your best friend when they find out you have a boat! Makes sure you accurately gauge how many people are coming, and if your boat is suitable. You just can’t fit more people than your boat is licensed for. Taking each passengers weight into consideration and where they are sitting if your boat is small, can have an impact on how well your boat handles and its top speed/acceleration. You can take all your friends out at once, but you’ll just need a bigger boat.

Bring Your Boat Licence

Always make sure you’re carrying your valid boat license. Maritime conduct random checks at the boat ramp, so be prepared.

Fuel Up

It’s obvious, but can still be forgotten: make sure you have adequate fuel!

Empty fuel gauge equals breakdown

If this is your fuel gauge you’re in trouble!

Keep Comfortable

Remember to pack things like snacks, water, a hat, sunscreen and a warm jacket. If something unpredictable happens, you might really appreciate them.

Log Your Trip

NSW Marine rescue have an app for your phone, which tracks where you are going/have been. You fill in details of your boat and personal information (tow car, boat rego etc), and then you can log a trip. The app also provides a checklist for going offshore, and a weather report.

5. Stay Aware

Sure you can relax, but keep an eye on your boat, the weather conditions and the amount of fuel you have remaining. Things can turn bad very quickly out on the water.

Is your boat making strange noises? Does the engine stutter or is it harder to start than usual? Don’t ignore it until you have no choice. Investigate while you still have options.

6. Assess the Situation

Sometimes things just don’t go to plan and you breakdown.   Here you will need to assess the situation and keep calm. First priority is to ensure you and your passengers are kept safe. If you break down in a high traffic area, putting the anchor down isn’t a great idea. Figure out which way the wind is blowing, and decide if where you’re headed is safe. If you’re headed for a rock-face with crashing waves, you need to try and divert, or get the anchor down to buy some time. Once this is sorted, ask someone to keep a lookout while you inspect a few things.

7. Check the Basics

Kill switch

Sometimes it can be as simple as the kill switch was knocked out, and the engine won’t fire.

Tip for avoiding a breakdown – Kill switch must be fitted for the engine to run

In-gear lockout

Most engines have a safety cut-out that prevents the engine from cranking whilst in gear. Check that you’re in neutral. In the photo above the control is in forward gear, a position where the engine will not crank if the key is turned. This feature stops owners starting their boat and propelling it forward accidentally.


What are the gauges reading? Have you got any warnings on the dash such as engine light, overheating or water in the fuel? Always take note before and after you fill up, to ensure your fuel gauge is calibrated correctly and giving an accurate reading, especially if it’s a boat you’ve just bought.

Water Entry

Check for water in the bilge, specifically around the engine. Water and engines don’t work well. If you have a leak that you didn’t know about, and your bilge is filling with water this is a one-way ticket to a useless engine. Did you remember to put the bung in when launching? Have you been over some rough water with a lot of water crashing over the sides? Your boat should have an automatic bilge pump fitted, but some of the smaller trailer boats don’t – they have a switch on the dash which you need to turn on and off manually.

A sinking boat after a breakdown
Unfortunately this boat has taken on too much water in the engine bay, and the engines are completely submerged. Luckily this boat didn’t breakdown whilst being used.


If you’ve been moored, anchored or tied to a wharf and you go to start the boat and you get nothing, or a clicking sound, it is likely the batteries have been drained. If you have a dual-battery setup, you’ll be able to turn to the 2nd battery, and get going. Otherwise if you have a small outboard, you may be able to pull start it. If you don’t have these options, you’re going to have to call for help.

8. Limp home

Sometimes you are able to get back on low power or one engine. Most engines have a “guardian” mode designed to limp back, without damaging the engine. Limp mode is usually activated by a number of things such as overheating, oil pressure, low coolant, or water in the fuel.

9. Call for help

Who to call for help?

Commercial breakdown companies


They are much like the NRMA on Sydney Harbour offering vessel-side assistance for a membership fee. They will come to you and can offer things such as:

  • Towing
  • Jumpstart/Battery replacement
  • Pump-out
  • Running gear un-tangling

Local Marina, Slipway or Workshop

Some workshops offer a towing and breakdown service. Ask them when you’re getting your preventative maintenance done.

Local marinas also sometimes offer tender and towing services.

Marine Rescue

If there aren’t any commercial towing companies available, and the situation is an emergency you will need to contact NSW Marine Rescue.

  1. Channel 16 on VHF (distress and calling channel)
  2. Channel 88 (27.880 Mhz) on 27Mhz radio
  3. Phone on 9450 2468
  4. Emergency via 000

When contacting them via radio two emergency calls are used:

  1. Mayday mayday mayday for grave or imminent danger.
  2. Pan pan pan for help urgently required.

You will need to broadcast:

  1. Your call-sign
  2. The nature of your emergency
  3. Your location

If it’s not an emergency but you are stranded and need their help sometime soon, make a normal radio call requesting assistance. Always keep in mind that if you see another boat in distress you can call for assistance for them, too.

Owning a boat can be rewarding and relaxing, cruising around some of the world’s finest waterways, but breaking down can turn a great day out into a nightmare. You can avoid many breakdowns before they ruin your day by paying attention to the condition of your boat, and taking care. These 9 tips should give you a basic understanding of what to check/do before a trip and what to do if you do have problems. Buying a well-maintained vessel also has merit, as does finding the right boat suitable for your needs.

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