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Ways to Avoid Needing a Tow on the Water

It is that time of year again.  As boaters, we are excitedly looking towards what this boating season is going to bring.  I am fortunate enough to be able to use my boat year round but there are still some things that I do in the spring to prep things for a great boating season.  One of them is to renew my membership with TowBoatUS.  I have been lucky enough where I have only needed them twice in my boating career and one of those times was when I had an issue with my tow vehicle while on the road.

Regardless of what type of boating you enjoy, I highly recommend a membership with TowBoatUS or Sea Tow because you never know when you may need it.  That being said, you still want to avoid having to make that call if you can.  Here are some of the most common reasons that boaters have to call for a tow and ways you can avoid the same issues.

Engine Overheating

I actually had someone ask me how a boat engine could possibly overheat when there is an unlimited supply of cooling water.  The fact is, if the systems that are designed to circulate that cooling water through the engine are not working, your engine will overheat.  Impellers, heat exchangers, exhaust manifolds and water passages are all things that can cause problems if they are not maintained. 

Be sure to check and replace your boat engine’s impellers on a regular basis.  How often depends on how you use your boat but typically, every two years is a good rule of thumb.  Excessive use may require annual replacement.

A bad impeller will not circulate cooling water adequately

Heat exchangers and exhaust manifolds will last a long time (10 plus years) in fresh water, but if you boat in salt water, they probably won’t last that long.  Keep an eye on your engine’s temp gauges.  If you notice gradual increase in operating temperature over time, it may be time to replace them.

All of your mechanicals could be working fine but if you have clogged water passages, this could be an issue too.  Sometimes when boats go unused for long periods of time (especially in salt water), intake passages can get clogged with barnacles, rust or debris.  Make sure you check them often to ensure they are clear. 

One thing of note to remember:  If you take an inboard powered boat that is raw water cooled (this means it does not have a heat exchanger) and use it extensively in salt water, you are asking for trouble.  Letting such a vessel remain in salt water for long periods of time will cause serious corrosion of the engine’s internal parts which will eventually lead to issues.  It’s okay to use such a vessel in salt water for short periods of time as long as you thoroughly flush the engine when it comes out of the water.

Mechanical Failure

Preventing mechanical failure is simple in concept but more difficult in reality.  It is easy to say that you should just follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance but we all know that sometimes even that cannot guarantee us that we will never have a mechanical breakdown.  That being said, there are a couple of things that you can do to minimize the possibility.

First, take the time to put your eyes and hands on your boat’s mechanical systems.  Sometimes I just jump into the bilge and check things out to make sure that everything is in good working condition.  Don’t always wait until its maintenance time, or when there is a problem, to give you boat’s engine and drives a little TLC.  By doing this, you may find that you notice issues before they ever really become issues.
Keep your mechanical systems area clean.  A clean engine compartment makes it easy to spot a problem.  How do you know that your engine is leaking oil if your bilge is already filled with oily water?  Yes, this will require you to get to know your boat a little better but that is always a good idea. 

Boat Sank at the Dock

How many of you have dock neighbors that go for months without checking on their boat?  I have a few.  A neglected boat can easily become a sunken boat.  A through hull can start leaking or rainstorm after rainstorm can dump water into your boat and after multiple cycles of the bilge pump, the battery eventually dies.  After that, it is only a matter of time before another vessel falls prey to Davy Jones’ Locker.

A neglected boat can easily sink even if it is at the dock.

A boat is not just something to enjoy, but it is something that needs to be cared for.  Make it a point to visit your boat (or have someone else do it if you can’t) periodically to check things out and make sure it does not end up on the bottom.

Bad Fuel

While it is possible to get bad fuel from a gas station or marina, usually fuel problems in boats is the result of either purchasing the wrong type of fuel or not managing your fuel properly.  For most of us, we do not use our boats daily like we do our cars.  As a result, we have to treat our boat’s fuel differently than we do our car’s fuel. 

It is very common for us to fill up our car and drive off, not giving another thought to the fuel that we just put in our tank.  That is because, for most of us, it will be gone in a week or so.  If we took that same fuel and filled up the tank on our boat, things may not be so simple.  It is common for fuel to sit in a boat’s tank for weeks, or even months at a time. 

Most of the fuel sold at gas stations contains ethanol and it has its advantages but it also has its disadvantages.  One of the disadvantages is that, over time, it goes through a process called phase separation.  I’m not going to go into the details of exactly what that is but, trust me, it is not good.  It takes a while for phase separation to occur, which is why it is typically not an issue with our cars, but it can easily occur in our boat’s fuel tank when the fuel has been sitting for 2 or 3 weeks.

My favorite solution to this problem is to use your boat several times a week like we do our cars but we all know that reality sets in for some of us and we know this is not possible.  My second favorite solution is to use marine grade fuel which does not contain ethanol.  Also for some older boats, it is recommended that you NEVER use ethanol fuel because their fuel systems were not designed to tolerate it. 

In any case, if you know that you are going to go for a long period of time without using your boat, make sure that you use a quality marine grade fuel stabilizer to keep the fuel fresh.  This will help prevent fuel issues when you are ready to get on the water again.  If your boat has a diesel engine, the same rule applies.  Untreated diesel fuel left to sit for long periods of time can develop fungi and develop a gel consistency.  A good quality diesel fuel treatment will help prevent this.  

Use fuel stabilizer if you will not be using your boat for long periods of time.

One more important piece of advice is to change your boat’s fuel filter annually.  It is a small price to pay to avoid fuel problems when on the water. 

Ran out of Gas

This one seems so simple but it is amazing how many recreational boaters run out of fuel when on the water.  I actually towed a family about a half mile back to their dock one year after they ran out of fuel.  I asked them how long they had been out on the water that day and they said that they literally had just left the dock and were heading out to their favorite hang-out spot when the tank ran dry.  Seriously??

Always have more fuel in the tank than you plan on using.  The rule of thumb is plan to use 1/3 of you fuel heading to your destination and 2/3 heading back.  You never know what unexpected thing can happen along the way.

Also, know that boat fuel gauges are notoriously inaccurate.  What the gauge reads is an estimate, not an exact amount. 

Dead Battery

There are a lot of reasons why a boat’s battery can run dead but the most common reason why a boater gets stranded on the water with a dead battery is they cranked up the stereo for too long without charging the batteries.  If you do like to go hard with the music while you are out at anchor, consider a separate battery bank for the amenities that you use while at anchor (house batteries) or make it a point to run the generator to charge the batteries if your boat is equipped with one. 

One of the easier ways to avoid this issue, however is to use your boat’s battery switch to isolate the one of the starting batteries while not underway so it will not be dead when it is time to go home. 

Ran Aground

There is an old saying that you are not a real boater unless you have run aground.  If this is true then I am a real boater because it has happened to me.  If there is one thing I recommend you have on your boat, it is a depth finder, especially if you have a larger boat.  Knowing how much water is under your keel is a vital thing. 

Adequate charts (along with the knowledge on how to read a chart) of the area where you boat is also helpful.  Keep in mind that as a chart ages, it becomes more and more inaccurate, particularly in coastal areas and rivers where water flow and tides can change the shape of the bottom.  And speaking of tides, if you are a coastal boater, don’t forget that you have them.  You may be anchored in 10 feet of water now but that can change to 3 feet in a matter of hours depending on where you are.  Before you head out, check the tides for the areas where you will be boating so you know what to expect.  

Spending a bit of time reviewing charts and tides can help prevent this.

Boating at night in unfamiliar waters can be dangerous without the proper navigation equipment and experience on how to use it.  It is better to wait for daylight than to risk running aground or into some other dangerous situation.

Line Tangled in Prop

Dock lines, anchor lines and tow lines are all subject to getting tangled in your running gear.  If this has happened to you before, you know it can bring you to a dead stop.  A line that has been tightly wound into your prop can be very difficult to remove and may even require the boat to be hauled out of the water. 

A dock line left hanging overboard can easily drift towards your boat’s propeller once underway.  Even worse, forgetting to retrieve the anchor before getting underway can do some major damage to your boat’s hull or running gear should it come into contact with the chain or anchor itself.  Make it a practice to check for all lines and make sure they are safely aboard your vessel before putting it in gear. 

Consider using polypropylene rope for throw able life preservers,  towing skiers and tubes etc. because it floats.  The fact that it stays on top of the water will keep it away from your running gear and it will also make it more visible to you when you are at the helm.

Hopefully these tips will help you spend less time staring at the stern of a tow boat and spend more time enjoying your boat.

Happy Boating

Captain Frank
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  1. Keep your shit in order and you wont need a towboat. Been boating 15years and have always made it back under our own power

  2. Get a sailboat

    1. Happens with sail boats too but not as much

  3. I had my engine overheat because of zebra mussels in the water intake. Just umrolled the Genoa and sailed back to the slip we had left a half hour before

  4. Just get Sea Tow

  5. I don't agree with the engine that is permanently in salt water and having to rinse with fresh water suggestion. Most of the rest is poor seamanship

  6. Just call and ask for Mike. He and my favorite dog “ Captain “ will get you taken care of if it’s your final option.

  7. Which the average weekend boater never does. Work, Kids playing ball, taxes, etc. The average joe cannot check off everything so do yourself a favor and become a member at TowBoatUS Lake Allatoona and pay waaaay less.

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