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What if your Engine Quits on the Water?

by, Capt. Eric Grubb

This great question was recently submitted to the Port KY site from a boater who frequently goes out with her friends and children. Like for most stressful situations, having thought out a plan in advance will keep you and your passengers safer should you ever find yourself in this situation.


Above, a MerCruiser 4.3LX that performed flawlessly due to impeccable maintenance and frequent use.

For discussion, let's assume you are running your boat down the middle of the river and find that your single engine suddenly quits. Following are some points to consider:

Stay safe!

Check your position and make sure you're not in the path of barges. If so, hail them on your VHF (that's a whole other story, see link below).

If you're not in the path of barges, consider your position. Are you close to the shore drifting toward shallow water? Do you have an anchor available to hold your position? Are you in the middle of the channel? Even if you can't see an approaching barge, there may be another around the corner.

See if you can flag down another boat to help you get to a safe location. On the other hand, are you drifting toward a beach or dock? You many consider beaching to hold your position. Do you have an oar? Can you make it to shore, better yet somebody's dock or a boat launch ramp?

Now that you're safe, can you restart the engine or un-foul the propeller? For example, if you caught a large piece of drift in your sterndrive-mounted prop, you may be able to raise the drive and clear it. If you've spun-out the prop hub, perhaps you can limp home. You may even be able to do an in-water replacement if conditions allow.

Mechanical Issues

Speaking of mechanical issues, keeping your boat maintained in top condition is cheap insurance, especially compared to the cost or inconvenience of a tow. Have you had a tune-up recently? Is your carb in top condition? Do you use fuel stabilizer? Can you remember the last time you had your impeller replaced or had your lower unit serviced?

You should consider carrying a small spare parts bin that consists of items you or somebody you know could install. A few ideas include:

  • serpentine belt
  • water-pump impeller (inboard and some I/Os)
  • distributor cap
  • spare fuel filters or water-separating fuel filter
  • quart of oil
  • gear lube (I/Os)
  • pre-mixed antifreeze (closed cooling systems)
  • spare propeller and hub kit (outboard and IO)

Are you cognitive of your position?

Knowing where you are is easy close to home, but becomes more difficult to pin-point in unfamiliar waters. If you call for help, it really helps to know where you are rather than to make you rescuers have to look for you. The first thing a rescuer will ask for is your mile marker or a landmark.

Suggestions for situational awareness are River Charts (link below), Port KY River Card (Reference, Not for Navigation), or your GPS chartplotter loaded with current chartography.

Who to call for help?

Do you have a VHF? You should! (see link below for more information.) You cell phone may work depending on your location, unless it's Thunder weekend and there are 500,000 people making phone calls.

Here are some people you can call:

1) USCG -Note: Generally, the Coast Guard will only respond to a distress call or signal. They monitor channel 16 between Madison and Evansville in this area.

2) Can you flag down another vessel? That's more difficult during off-peak times or farther up-stream, but will be easier on a busy weekend. Remember that you have a responsibility to help other vessels in distress if you can do so safely.

3) Can you get in touch with a friend? At times that can be your best bet.

4) Are you close to downtown? The LMPD River Patrol has given many a tow. Note that they are not 24/7, and they will refer you to a local tow service if one is available.

5) At the time of this writing, choices for local tow services included River Runners in Louisville and River's Edge Tow in Charlestown. River's Edge Tow, for example, towed three boats during the 2012 Thunder Over Louisville event.

6) Note that other agencies you may see operating in this area include the USCG Auxiliary, the Jefferson County Sheriff (generally below McAlpine), KY Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and the IN Department of Natural Resources Fish & Wildlife. Localized units include the Westport, North Oldham and Harrod's Creek Fire Departments.


Given that it may be a while until help arrives, are you equipped to stay out longer than planned? Did you bring an extra jacket for when it cools at night or maybe pack an extra water?

For longer trips, there is safety in numbers. If you're headed to Madison, for example, traveling in a group makes it much more convenient for the unlucky sole who experiences a problem. I've seen situations where one boat will stay behind with a disabled vessel while another phones ahead to a marina to have parts waiting.


If you're boat shopping, this whole discussion is ammunition for considering a twin. While you technically double your expenses and chances of failure, you will find it much nice to be able to limp home with the remaining engine.

Having said that, engines are more reliable than ever, and a second engine may not help much in the event of an electrical or fuel contamination issue.


Above, the engine room of a Sea Ray 280. Eric personally took the boat home twice on a single engine, once with a bad starter solenoid and another time with a blown gearset in the sterndrive's upper unit. The luxury of the 2nd engine, in both cases, saved the need for a tow.


Having your engine quit or an alarm sound can a bad situation, but it can be more difficult without a plan. Remember that you and you alone are responsible for the safe operation of your vessel, so take some time to think about your available choices in advance.

Once you've studied your options and gotten your boat in top condition, you'll be in much better shape to have a fun day on the water.


Above, a FUN, FUN, FUN day on the water for some local youngsters!

Referenced Links

VHF Radio Article: link

Ohio River Navigation Charts: link

Port KY River Cards:
Available at Marine Sales & Service and Sea Ray of Louisville (free)



Eric Grubb
Founder, Port KY
Licensed Master

Eric grew up around boats, trading summers on board his parents' Sea Rays for many man-hours of swabbing the decks. He grew up by the little town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, overlooking the the Dashields Locks and Dam. He has traveled the Great Lakes, Lake Huron's North Channel, Gulf of Mexico and several rivers to include the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Mohawk (Erie Canal), Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers.

As a commercial pilot, Eric flies jets and is a flight instructor. He has owned recreational boats ranging from PWCs to most recently, a flybridge convertible that he keeps in a Louisville marina (MM 590). You can also find him with his family on the "Escape Pod," an 18' fishing boat. His most memorable journey was aboard the J. S. Lewis, a 155' towboat in service since 1931.

Eric is a USCG Licensed Master with a Commerical Tow Assistance rating, and is a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Riverman and the Louisville Sail and Power Squadron. After moving to Louisville, he conceived the idea for Louisville's Port KY website while searching for information to help him become a safer and more knowledgable local boater. He has worked hard over the years to educate other boaters by promoting safety classes through Port KY and by hosting captain's classes and related events.


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