If you break down in a car you can get out and walk, but on a boat, it usually means calling for assistance (and if you're not sure how to do that, watch our How To Use a VHF video). Since we boaters are an independent lot, we don’t particularly enjoy groveling for a tow.

The solution? Well, there may not be one—everyone needs a hand once in a while—but sometimes, you can get yourself home with a little ingenuity and an emergency fix-it trick or two. Here are some rather unusual methods of limping back to the dock.

emergency tow

Yes, we'll take a tow when we need it. But if an emergency quick-fix can save the day, it's time to get cracking. Photo courtesy of the USCG.


1. The Super Seacock Solution

Clogged raw water intakes can cause an engine to overheat. Maybe it’s due to barnacles or maybe the intake sucked up a piece of flotsam, but whatever the cause, you can’t motor for the marina unless you can get the water flowing again. In some cases it’s easiest to simply jump over the side, swim under the boat, and clear it from the outside by hand. But in cold or rough waters, this may not be an option.

Here’s how you can fix this without getting wet: cut a length of straight hose that’s long enough to reach from the seacock to above the waterline. Then shut the seacock, and remove the engine’s intake hose. Now take the straight piece you just cut, put it on the seacock, and open it up again. Finally, you need a ram-rod; you can use the tip of a fishing rod, a wire coat hanger bent straight, or maybe even a mop handle. Jam it down the hose and through the seacock, and clear out the clog. Once the job is done, close the seacock again, replace the original hose, and get back on your way.

2. The Pantyhose Patch

It’s not just a law of the sea, it’s a mechanical law that affects engines of all types: sooner or later, you’ll probably break a belt. The first step to solving this problem is good, old-fashioned prevention—nothing beats regular maintenance. But if a belt snaps at sea you’ll need to either replace it, or eat a big slice of humble pie and ask for help.

Fortunately, there are a couple of items that serve this purpose well. One of the best is pantyhose—yes, pantyhose. Stretch tight, tie a knot, and limp your way home. Another good replacement belt can be found on your lifejackets. Simply remove the strap, adjust length as necessary, and clip it in place (but before you turn the engine over, make sure there’s enough clearance for the plastic clips to pass around the mechanicals). In both cases, run the engine at minimal speeds.


This little spring can mean the difference between getting your engine started and being stranded.

3. Bobber Busters

You turn the key and hear something spinning, but the starter doesn’t engage the flywheel? If you’re an angler and your starter has a Bendix-style spring, you’re in luck. Just break out your biggest bobber, and stomp on it. Now sort through the broken plastic pieces and find the spring that was inside. You can use it to replace the spring in the starter. Note: the bobber springs aren’t nearly as hearty, and you’ll probably get just a few starts out of one. So once the engine cranks over, don’t shut down again until you’re safely back in the slip.

4. When You Need to Stop

A runaway diesel is rare, but when it happens, the results can be catastrophic. To shut down a runaway, grab your CO2 fire extinguisher and send a blast of carbon dioxide into the air intake. That’ll stop it immediately. (The downside? Now you definitely need to call for a tow.)

5. Water, Water, Everywhere

Got a hose that sprung a leak? Then you need to make a quick-fix patch. Cut a plastic water bottle off at the neck and at the bottom, then slice it down the middle. Wrap it around the leaky spot, secure it with hose clamps or tape, and get back on your way. If the leak is in a hot-spot (like an exhaust hose), substitute an aluminum soda can for the water bottle and follow the same drill.

6. The Write Stuff

Did your throttle cable vibrate free of the little doodad connecting it to the throttle? That’s a bummer, but there’s a quick-fix that will save the day. All you need is a regular old pencil. First, jam the end of the throttle cable into the eraser. Then hold the pencil next to the throttle arm so you can judge the proper length, break the pencil off as appropriate, and use tape to secure the end in place. Note: in high-traffic areas or when you’re about to hit the slow speed zone on your way in, someone should stay close by the throttle and be prepared to adjust it manually, in case the cable pulls out of the eraser.

sinking boat

Hmmm... too bad they didn't have a sack of potatoes aboard. Photo courtesy of the USCG.

7. Save-The-Day Spuds

Nothing gets a captain worrying like a hole in the bottom of his or her boat. And if you suddenly find yourself sinking, obviously, you’ll want to patch the hole ASAP. But, with what? Anything. That said, one item that serves this purpose exceptionally well is a potato. Spuds have the perfect consistency to jam into a jagged hole and plug it tight, even when under pressure. You can also wedge a chunk of raw potato into a broken through-hull fitting or a seacock. And when it gets soaked, it won’t become loose or soggy.

8. Hydraulic Hijinks

Your hydraulic steering starts leaking, you can’t control the boat, and you don’t have any spare hydraulic fluid onboard—what a disaster. Or, maybe not. Open up the fill, and pour in some water. The steering will likely be mushy and it’ll get worse and worse as the water leaks out (regular re-fills may be necessary depending on the severity of the leak) but in truth, just about any fluid will work in a hydraulic steering system in a pinch. (Naturally, you’ll want to get the entire system cleaned and serviced as soon as you return to port, or permanent damage may occur).

9. Rip Repairs

A rip in a sail can certainly ruin your day, if not leave you stranded. Most sailors keep a roll of Dacron sail repair tape on hand for just such a situation. But in a saltwater environment, there’s a good chance salt crystals are present on the sail. And those crystals can greatly reduce the sail tape’s ability to adhere. Here’s your quick-fix: wash the ripped area with rubbing alcohol, which will evaporate quickly after melting away the salt crystals. Now you can make your repairs and get back underway, fast.

10. For Just About Everything Else

Want to make sure you’re prepared for every eventuality? Read 10 Emergency Fix-It Items that Belong on Every Boat. Then get those items, and find a place to stow them aboard. And if you run outboards, be sure to read Five Outboard Engine Quick-Fix Tips.