Like teak, time often becomes warped when it’s applied to a boat. Hours spent afloat on idyllic waters seem to flash by with the blink of an eye. Ten minutes in a violent squall feels like an eternity. And maintenance or improvement projects that should require an hour or two end up taking half a day—or more.


Tick and tock do not necessarily maintain a steady cadence when it comes to boats.

It’s a good thing we love our boats.

It’s also a good thing that many boaters have a grip on reality that is, well, a little bit less than firm. The evidence of this is clear: we somehow manage to talk ourselves into to pouring ungodly amounts of money into something we use just a handful of times a month, in-season, if we’re lucky. This triumph of passion over prudence is, of course, a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, the same convincing voices in our heads often persuade us to take on tasks that, while they may seem quite simple at first, turn into mind-bending betrayals of reality. Something as simple as spinning a nut off of a bolt can lead to sheared metal, bloody knuckles, broken ratchets, and unfinished business. This abrupt departure from the anticipated only becomes clear once you’re elbow-deep in broken parts and scattered tools, facing the possibility that your boat may be (shudder!) disabled and unusable for some period of time.

Luckily, fellow boaters, this is where we come in. We’re going to pick apart three of the simplest but most deceiving projects you’ll ever encounter aboard. We’re going to show you how a few minutes of satisfying work can turn into hours of torture. And we'll also clue you in on how to avoid such time-sapping black holes of boat maintenance.

Spinning a Nut off a Bolt

What could be simpler than this 30-second chore? It’s a question you wouldn’t ask, after stripping the head off of a nut that’s corrosion-fused to a bolt that happens to be positioned where only a contortionist could reach with a wrench. The first and most important thing to remember is to avoid applying any kind of pressure to that nut or bolt prior to successfully contorting—if the wrenches and ratchets aren’t firmly and properly placed, you can count on stripping something or other along with skinning a knuckle or two. And once the wrenches are locked on tight, you still need to be judicious with force. Because if you do strip a bolt head, you’ll have to go directly to the laborious Last Resort.


When the nut and bolt you need to separate look like this, you may as well cancel the rest of the afternoon's plans.

Let’s say that five minutes in, you have both wrenches firmly in place yet can’t make that nut spin. The next step is to apply penetrating fluid. Liquid Wrench, PB Blaster, CRC Knock ‘ER Loose, or a similar product can work wonders. After applying it tap the nut and/or bolt several times with a hammer, let it sit for 15 minutes, tap again, then reapply. Don’t try turning a wrench until you’re sure that the solvent has had plenty of time to provide a solution.

Sometimes, of course, those nut-busting juices simply don’t have what it takes to get the job done. You’ve been at this 30-second task for over half an hour, and now you’ll have to move on to the next step: applying heat. Lots of heat. A pocket lighter or a “micro jet” torch won’t get the metal hot enough to have the desired effect. You need a propane torch like a BernzOmatic. Note: those penetrating fluids you used earlier are petroleum-based and most come in an aerosol can, so don’t spray the stuff all over the place then move right in with a flaming torch or you could end up starting a boat-B-Q.

Heat the nut and bolt evenly, constantly moving the flame across them at different angles, for several minutes. You’ll know it’s time to try spinning the nut when it starts to glow.

In most cases, a good dose of heat will allow you to get that metal turning and this 30-second job won’t go much beyond an hour. But if heat doesn’t do the trick, recognize that there’s no way you’re ever going to get that nut and bolt to divorce. You’re going to have to move on to the Last Resort: cut the ties by literally cutting the bolt off. A Dremel Tool is the best weapon for the job and depending on the bolt’s size, will take five to 10 minutes to cut through. Truth be told, however, in many cases you won’t be able to reach the bolt with a Dremel. You’ll need to use a jig saw instead, will probably break a blade or three, and it’ll take twice as long to get the job done. In the worst case scenario neither will work and you’ll have to saw through the steel manually with a hacksaw blade. Again, bolt size is an important variable, but at this point you may as well stop looking at the clock. It'll take as long as it takes.

Expected time – 30 seconds.
Actual time – 65 minutes if you’re lucky; two to five hours if you’re not.

Changing a Screw-on Fuel/Water Separator

This job shouldn’t take but five minutes, yet has ruined entire weekends for many a boater. You can avoid major problems with fuel/water separators by simply replacing them on a regular basis. But whether it’s because you bought a used boat with old filters or you simply forgot to change them yourself, after a couple of seasons they often become one with mount they screw onto.

fuel water separator

This fuel-water separator hasn't yet become a complete nightmare, but it's clearly well on its way.

A filter wrench that starts to slide before the filter canister turns is your first indication there could be a time-consuming problem in your future. But be careful not to over-tighten and over-torque that wrench or you might crush and rip the filter. Sometimes it helps to wrap rubber gasket material or even an old windshield-wiper blade around the filter, and cinch the wrench down around that grippy material. Consider yourself lucky if this trick works and you can complete the process in less than 15 minutes.

Assuming it doesn’t work, you’ll have to move on to the screwdriver method. Unless you like the idea of bathing in gas, first, completely drain the filter. Then position the screw driver below the mount’s lowest point but as high on the filter as possible. The higher (and thus the closer to the threads) you locate it the lower the chances you’ll rip the filter when you apply pressure. But remember, some of these mounts have parts that aren't visible from the outside, which are lower than the lip of the filter. Google the model number along with the word “diagram,” if you’re not sure about yours. If you damage the mount, it’s on to the Last Resort and your time investment in this endeavor will increase radically.

With the driver properly positioned, use a hammer to punch it all the way through the filter. Take a deep breath, apply some force, and see if the cartridge will turn. If it does, you lucky devil, you may get through this job in under an hour. If instead the thin metal folds under pressure, the job just got a whole bunch harder.

Now you’ll need to use a pair of Vise-Grips to rip the bulk of the filter away. Then clamp the Vise-Grips tightly on the rim of the former filter, where it butts up against the mount. Using your hammer, tap on the head of the Vise-Grips and see if you can get that metal moving. Still no dice? By now two hours have gone by, and quite frankly, you have no hope short of the Last Resort: go to the marine supply store, buy a new fuel/water separator system, and remove and replace the entire affair.

Expected time – Five minutes.
Actual time – Two hours to the better part of a day.

Fishing a Wire

Whether you’re installing a new chartplotter, rewiring a bow light, or replacing a set of stereo speakers, fishing a wire is a common task. One that should take, oh, 10 or 15 minutes, right? Hah! If you’ve ever done it, then you already know that fishing a wire rarely goes as smoothly as expected. We’d better get started.

You may need to fish through a chase, tube, or inwale, but whatever the circumstances you’ll almost certainly hit some sort of blockage or bend. Either can ruin your day. The first step in getting past them is good preparation. Make sure your wire is securely attached to your fish, or at some point when you push, prod, or yank, the wire will come free and you’ll have to start the job over. Yet knotting the wire is never a good idea since it drastically increases its diameter, making it that much harder to get through narrow channels and abrupt bends. Instead, wrap the wire as flush as possible three or four times around the first foot of the fish. Then use tightly-wrapped electrical tape to join the two together.

wire fish

Tightly-wrapped electrical tape is the best way to secure a wire to the wire fish, while minimizing its diameter.

Quite often, you’ll spend 15 minutes or so threading the fish through, and make it past a tough spot, but face a lot of resistance as you try to go farther. When this happens, pull the fish back out and give it some lube. Soapy water works well, as do sprays like WD-40, but keep them away from the end of the electrical tape or it may come un-glued.

You’re still getting stuck? There’s a good chance the fish is running under wires and/or hoses in the chase, and getting stuck beneath them. Darn gravity—it makes your fish want to sink as low as possible, and that’s one reality we can’t change. But you can make it easier to get through by grabbing the bundles of wires and hoses and the ends of the chase, and shaking them as you push the fish. You may be able to accomplish this on your own or you may need a buddy to help, and you may need to shake them where your fish enters or from the opposite end.

If you still can’t fish that wire through, you may be tempted to cut your losses and go directly to the Last Resort. There’s just one problem: in this case, there is no Last Resort. Unless you can invent a completely different way to route the wire, you’ll have to pull the fish out and start all over again. Sometimes it helps to position the fish differently (start under the preexisting wires, or on a different side of the chase,) but usually success is just a matter of try, try, and try again.

Bonus Tip: When you first tape the wire to the fish, also put on a piece of braid fishing line. This stuff is as thin as thread (so it won’t increase the diameter of what you’re trying to fish through) but strong as steel. Once you get it through, tie it off on either end of the chase and leave it there. Then the next time you need to fish a wire through, you can just tie it to that braid messenger and pull from the other end—no wire fish required.

Expected time – 15 or 20 minutes.
Actual time – It’s impossible to say; a day of unsuccessfully trying to fish a wire has led more than one desperate boater to relocate whatever they were installing.

If you’re an experienced boater, we’re guessing that while reading about one or more of these “simple” projects you found yourself nodding your head in agreement. You remembered a reality you’ve been forced to embrace yourself, watching time tick-tock away as your task transformed from easy to extreme. Those of you new to boating, however, may have a hard time believing that something which should be so easy can become so difficult and time-consuming -- that a 15-minute time investment can mushroom into hours or even days of work. And that may make you wonder if owning a boat it could possibly be worth it.

Trust us, it is. And welcome to our reality.