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9 Common Reasons Boats Break Down So Much

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It’s a beautiful summer day: calm winds and lots of sun, a perfect day for boating. With the boat in the water, you’re ready to go and…..the boat won’t start.  But it was running great the last time you were out on the water. What could have gone wrong since then? Today we will look at 9 common reasons boats break down so much.

This scenario may be familiar. Many great boating days have been ruined by a breakdown either before the outing starts, or worse, while out on the water. Sometimes, a breakdown is unavoidable, but there are some things you can do to make those problems far and few between with a little planning and preventative maintenance. 

Common reasons boats break down:

  1. You’ve Run Out of Fuel
  2. Your Boat Feels Sluggish, or its Performance is Underpowered 
  3. A Broken Drive Belt
  4. Your Engine is Overheating
  5. Your Boat Won’t Start 
  6. You Feel a Vibration
  7. You Can’t Steer the Boat
  8. It Won’t Shift Out of Idling Speed
  9. Your Boat is Filling with Water

Lets take a look at each item on our list for common problems, solutions and prevention tips.

  1. You’ve run out of fuel

Your boat seems to be underpowered, sputtering, or sluggish. Several issues could cause these symptoms, but usually, the number one reason is that you’ve run out of fuel. 

Solution: Since the one thing you’ll likely not find while you’re out on the water is a gas station, prevention is the only solution. Check your fuel levels before hitting the water and fill your tank with gas before heading out. If you will be traveling further than your tank can take you, safely carry some extra fuel with you on your outing.


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Running out of gas isn’t just a matter of putting more in and carrying on your way. You’ll need to bleed the fuel lines to get the engine started again, and that can take a lot of fuel, more than what you may be able to carry with you. 

Prevention: Check your fuel levels before heading out on the water. You can also check your gages just to make sure they are accurate. There’s nothing like thinking you’re set for your day only to end up stranded on the water. Also, consider the weather conditions when you’re calculating your fuel consumption. The engine performance will be drastically different on a calm sunny day than when you’re crashing into a headwind. 

You’ll find more information of boat fuel here.

2. Your Boat Feels Sluggish, or its Performance is Underpowered 

As mentioned, there are a few different issues that can cause your boat to perform this way. If you’ve already ruled out low or no fuel, then it’s time to look deeper. The usual suspects are fuel filter problems, contaminated fuel, or bad spark plugs. 

Solution:  When in doubt, check the fuel filter and replace it if necessary. Don’t have one on board? At least clear the filter of debris and drain off any water that may have accumulated.

Remember to vent your engine box before starting the engine too, or you’ll have even more to worry about than just needing a new filter! If it is not the filter, it’s time to check the spark plugs. Look for corrosion and replace it if necessary.


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If you don’t have spares on hand, try rubbing them with a wire brush to brush off any gunk so you can get back to shore and get them replaced. Contaminated fuel can also cause these issues. While it’s possible to buy a “bad” batch of fuel, the problem often comes from either condensation accumulated during long periods between uses or older tanks that may have sediment and corrosion.

Therefore, the corrosion or residues may be sitting at the bottom of the tank and will need to emptying.

Prevention: Regular maintenance checks of your fuel filter and spark plugs can go a long way. If something goes wrong while you’re on the water, it’s a good idea to have a spare filter and plugs on board so that you can make these repairs on the fly.

If you’re super keen, you can keep extra fuel lines on hand too. When you’re going to be off the water for an extended period (more than three months), it’s a good idea to fill your tank with fuel and add a good fuel stabilizer. Don’t forget to run the engine long enough for the treated fuel to circulate into the engine as well. 

3. A Broken Drive Belt

It’s unlikely that you’ll hear a belt snap when it happens. It’s more likely that you’ll be privy to it by the symptoms it creates. The engine starts to overheat, and the voltage meter shows the alternator isn’t charging, or the boat will even stop. 

Solution: Your only option is to replace the belt. While there are many stories of people McGyvering a new belt out of fishing line or pantyhose or some other such thing, it’s much easier just to use a new belt.


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Prevention: Check your belts before heading out. Look for wear or nicks in the belt itself and look for any chinks or burrs on the pulleys that may cause the belt to break. You’ll need the right tools for the job, too, so have the suitable wrenches on hand. 

4. Your Engine is Overheating

We’ve already covered one reason for overheating, but let’s say a broken belt isn’t the culprit. Most often, the reason for overheating is reduced water flow in the engine cooling loop. When you see the temperatures rising, back off the throttle and let the engine cool down. Once the engine cools, you can start looking for the problem. 

Solution: In most cases, the water intake is obstructed by mud, or garbage, such as a plastic bag. Once removed, the water flows freely. Occasionally, the issue can be a split hose or a loose hose clamp. In these cases, you can tighten the clamps or replace the hoses as needed.

Prevention: Like most things, checking your hoses and clamps before heading out on the water goes a long way toward smooth sailing. 

5. Your Boat Won’t Start 

Nothing puts a damper on a boating trip like an engine that won’t start. A heart full of anticipation dashed when you turn the ignition key, and nothing happens. It’s an electrical issue such as a dead battery or a problem in the ignition circuit in most scenarios. 


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Solution: Firstly, check the kill switch and make sure the shifter is in neutral. Then check the ignition switch itself. On some boats, the bolts that hold the ignition switch in place can come loose and allow the entire switch to rotate when you turn the key.

To solve this, just tighten up those bolts. Next, check fuses and wiring, looking for breaks and corrosion. With the right tools on hand, you can replace any blown fuses and reconnect broken wires or clean up any corrosion you find. Check the battery. Inspect the terminals, looking for decay or lose connections. Still, the battery could just be dead.

Prevention: Again, checking your boat over before hitting the water is the best way to prevent any problem. That aside, carry tools and spares with you so you can make repairs on the fly. Having a battery charger, power pack, or even a spare battery is a smart solution too. 

6. You Feel a Vibration

You notice vibration, and it gets worse the faster you go. Does it seem to be losing speed now even though the engine sounds like it’s racing? There’s likely something wrong with your prop.

Nicks, gouges, or dents in the blades can be the issue, or fishing line or rope or some other debris may have wrapped itself around the shaft. 

Solution: Slow down as the water flows through; the blades become unbalanced and cause the vibration. Slower speeds mean less vibration. Make your way to the shore.


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Your goal is to remove any debris wrapped around the prop or change it out entirely if you find it damaged, and doing this in the water isn’t advisable. It’s not like you can stop rubbish hidden in the water from tangling around your prop.

Just be sure to check the drive shaft carefully after clearing any garbage from around the propeller to ensure that the propeller wasn’t bent in the process. 

Prevention: Check your prop before getting in the water, looking for damage to the blades. Sometimes it’s pretty tough to prevent damage while you’re out, so the next best thing is to have a prop on hand and the know-how to replace the damaged one.

You’ll want to make sure you have gloves with you, too, so you can handle the blades without cutting your hands. 

7. You Can’t Steer the Boat

You turn the wheel, but the boat won’t go where you want it to go. It’s likely your steering system is low on fluid and maybe even has a leak.

Solution: Add some hydraulic fluid as needed until the steering system is working again. Then you may want to have a look around the console and the engine to see if you can spot any fluid around any of the fittings.

If you do, you may be able to tighten up the fitting. If this doesn’t work, your problem may be more serious. It could be a mechanical failure such as a damaged connection, requiring some more advanced repairs. 

Prevention: Regularly check your fluids and lubricate or repair any mechanical parts. Carry a jug of hydraulic fluid with you and a small funnel so you can add fluid in the even problems arise while you’re out on the water.


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8. It Won’t Shift Out of Idling Speed

You push the shift lever, and your boat doesn’t accelerate. You’re stuck at idle speed. Your shifter doesn’t seem to be engaging the transmission.

There are a few reasons this could be happening, there could be a corroded or detached cable, your fluid levels may be low, or on a boat with e-link controls, it may be a fuse.

Solution: First, check to ensure that your cable hasn’t become detached from the shift lever in the gearbox. If it is connected, then look for corrosion that may have caused the cable to stick. Should the gearbox be stuck, try to wiggle it free and clean any corrosion from the cable.

If your controls are electronic, check your fuses and replace ones that are blown. If you’re still stuck, you may have a transmission failure, and there’s not much you can do on the water. You’ll need to make mechanical repairs to the transmission. 

Prevention: A lot of times, transmission failures are due to low oil. Checking your fluid levels regularly and servicing cables are vital to protect your transmission. Keeping the oil at the correct level and the lines clean can prevent failures on the water or alert you to an issue before you even head out for a day of boating.

9. Your Boat is Filling with Water

You’re ticking along, and you start to notice the boat feels ‘heavy” or the bilge pump seems to be working overtime. Maybe you even see water beginning to fill the vessel. Wait a minute, did you remember to put the drain plug back in? If not, you may want to do that.

If yes, then your problem is likely a broken hose or a loose clamp unless you’ve struck something large enough to damage your hull, which you would have noticed right away.

Solution: Shut off the engine. By shutting off the engine, it should stop any cooling related leaks. If you’ve found the leak, whether it be a broken hose or a loose clamp, you can swap out the offending part.

If you don’t have spares onboard, you can wrap your hose with tape or shorten a damaged end to make do until you can get to shore. 


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Prevention: Inspect all hoses and clamps before using your boat and before you get into the water, check your drain plug to make sure that you’ve replaced it. Carry spare hoses and clamps with you on the boat. This will ensure that if there is a leak, you can fix it quickly and not have to rig a solution from whatever you may have lying around. 

Final Thoughts

Spending a day on the water should be a fun and relaxing way to spend your spare time as with most things, prevention is key when it comes to having a stress-free outing. Regular maintenance is so important for this. After all, engines and water don’t typically mix.

Boats live in an environment that puts it at risk of damage. Also, a boat engine runs at higher RPMs than other engines, which increases wear and tear. It’s a great idea to check everything over and service your boat after it has been sitting for long periods or if you’re in an area that only allows for seasonal boating, service, and inspect your boat after winter storage.

If you can’t do this yourself, consider taking some courses to teach you basic repairs. Breakdowns still may happen, and because of this, it’s a good idea to carry a full array of consumables on board, such as hoses, clamps, filters, fuses, belts, and impellers.

You’ll also need to have all the necessary tools with you to make any repairs. It may be wise to have a dedicated toolbox full of tools that you store on the boat at all times. Carry extra fuel as well. Fuel gauges can be notoriously inaccurate and can leave you stranded.

You may have heard the saying that “a boat is a hole in the water that you keep dumping money into,” but that won’t be the case if you’re diligent with your preventative maintenance routine. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should a boat gas tank never be filled?

A boat gas tank should never be filled more than 90% according to Boater Exam.com. The reason being is that the space left by not filling the tank, gives the gas enough room to expand, and also prevent an overflow.

Remember to ensure that the valves and air vents of the gas tank are open prior to filling the tank.


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 What should you do to avoid capsizing?

Some tips to avoid capsizing your boat are: do not over load your boat, make sure to balance to load of all gear and passengers.

Turn your boat at normal and controlled speeds, when anchoring make sure to secure line to the bow of the boat. Never secure line to the stern.

Lastly, never drive your boat in bad weather or rough waters.


  1. Top 10 Common Boat Engine Problems, BoatingMag.com, https://www.boatingmag.com/top-10-reasons-boats-break-down-0/, Accessed October 28, 2020
  2. Most Common Break Down Reasons, Anchor Marine Repair, https://anchormarinerepair.com/boat-repair/commonreasons-boats-break/, Accessed October 28, 2020
  3. Benjamin Hunting, TOP 5 MOST COMMON BOAT BREAKDOWNS, Know How Blog, Napa, http://knowhow.napaonline.com/top-5-common-boat-breakdowns/, Accessed October 28, 2020
  4. Reasons Why Boats Break Down, Aquamare Marine, https://www.aquamaremarine.com/uk/reasons-why-boats-break-down/, Accessed October 28, 2020
  5. The Most Common Reasons Why Boats Break Down, Merrimac Marine, https://www.merrimacins.com/most-common-reasons-why-boats-break-down/, Accessed October 28, 2020
  6. Ben Meakins, 10 top causes of engine breakdown – and how to avoid them, Practical Boat Owner, https://www.pbo.co.uk/expert-advice/10-top-causes-of-engine-breakdown-and-how-to-avoid-them-27876, Accessed October 28, 2020

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