boat at sea illustration

What to do if you are stranded on the water

Adventure 3 min read

The bay was slick calm, and only a slight breath of wind pushed around the sweet smell of drying salt hay. I glassed the water with my binoculars and saw an enormous school of blitzing striped bass headed directly for us. Within moments my wife, daughter, and son were hooked up, and they landed each of their fish. The striped bass moved into the current and passed us by. All I had to do was to kick on the outboard and putter up tide to get ahead of them.

Yet this time I didn’t hear the throaty outboard’s roar. All I heard was a pop followed by silence. Oh ohhh…..

No matter how much time and attention we give our boats we’ll inevitably find ourselves in a similar situation. Here are a few ideas to follow when your engine doesn’t crank.

Remain calm

It’s hard to remain calm in either rough conditions or with young kids onboard, but it’s essential. Focus on tasks that solve problems. The very first step should be to get life jackets on every crew member and especially on kids. After that, get them situated in a safe position. Sitting on bow deck or bench seat where they are out of harm’s way is the goal.

Stop your drift

Stop your drift by deploying your anchor. Not only will you keep from running aground but you’ll also maintain a fixed location. If you change fishing and boating locations be sure you’ve got an anchor that grabs in your bottom terrain. Use fluke anchors for soft sand, grapnel styles in rocks and stones, and mushrooms for weedy, muddy bottoms.   Anchor line length should be between five and seven times the water’s depth with a bare minimum of line at three times the water’s depth.

Make sure everyone is comfortable

Hypothermia and dehydration are common physical issues for boaters stranded regardless of the duration. We see a many different weather patterns on the water, so I always pack gear appropriate to any condition that might arise. My waterproof bag is filled with reflective blankets, rain gear, and wool clothing (wool stays warm when wet). In the Fall I add gloves and hats. Included, too, is a kit of dried, high-protein food like trail mix, power bars, and granola bars. There is always lots of water in the cooler. Being prepared for any weather condition is key.

Determine if you can fix the issue or need help

With properly maintained boats and motors, most on-the-water problems involve fuel, electric, or high-engine temperatures. Look to see if the issue is simple. For instance, a cracked fuel line hose inhibits gas from getting to the engine and can be patched with a strip of tape. Common electrical issues are unsecured battery terminals while outboards overheat if weeds clog the water intake on your lower unit. Fix them if you can, and if you can’t…

Get help

Help can come from a variety of resources. Call the harbormaster (channels 9 and 16) and they can refer to your float plan to determine the next course of action. Sometimes they’ll dispatch a boat while in other situations they’ll contact the U.S. Coast Guard. Boaters passing by can be flagged down for a tow. Most have been in a similar situation and are willing to offer help. If you’re on the water a lot you might invest in a year’s subscription to a marine assistance service company. Sea Tow or TowBoatUS are good ones, and there may be local options, too.

Oh, and what happened with my outboard? Mine was a blown fuse, and I had every size except for the correct one. Fortunately, my buddy was nearby, so I called him on channel 68 and he towed us in. We were back on the water the next day, and the fish? We caught ’em up.


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