Any time you read “it was a dark and stormy night,” “we were surrounded by frothy white-caps,” or” the sea was angry,” you know you’re about to hear a seamanship tale about a boat that sank or nearly sank. You also know that the author can’t tell the difference between a clincher and a cliché. But bad writing isn't nearly as dangerous as bad seamanship; unless you’re incredibly lucky, when it comes to seamanship you only get one big failure before you’re done.

boat sinking

Don't let Mom's Mink end up like this! Photo courtesy of the USCG.


As boaters, we all need to make sure we never experience that one big failure. We need to look for cases that show us of what not to do, and then not do it. Here are three prime examples of seamanship stupidity that all of us should be aware of.

1. The Trimming Torpedo – A 20-knot winds had dropped to 10 to 15 knots overnight, but the ocean was still awash in three to four foot waves. Four men in an outboard-powered 26’ center console ran through the inlet, and began a 35 mile cruise to an offshore fishing spot. About half way there, the bow of the boat dug into a wave. The bow’s buoyancy combined with the force of the wave sling-shot the boat backwards and over, rolling it into the trough.

Two incredibly poor decisions led to this disaster, both of which were revealed when the Coast Guard recovered the boat and examined it. First, the bow of the boat shouldn't have dug into that wave in the first place. Unfortunately, the captain had his outboards trimmed all the way down, forcing the bow to remain low even as it struck the waves. The second mistake was again revealed at the helm; the throttles were both found to be sitting in hard reverse. Just as the boat hit the wave the captain had thrown the throttles back. Cutting power reduced the boat’s momentum, which might have otherwise carried it through the wave instead of allowing the boat to be rolled over. Shifting into reverse only exacerbated the problem. In short, the captain panicked. Had he not touched the throttles the boat may well have been doused or partially swamped, but it probably would have remained upright and floating after powering through the wave.

2. An Impatient Patient – A 36’ straight inboard fishing boat sank to the bottom in its slip, after being launched the day before. The boat was raised and hauled, refitted, and re-launched. The owner decided to take a shake-down cruise, and made it about five miles before the boat began taking on water again. He made it back into the marina and was just 100’ from the sling when water over-topped the engine, stopping the boat dead in the water, where it sank for the second time.

The cause of both the first and the second sinking was the same: the owner had removed a through-hull fitting, plugged the hole with 3M 5200, and then launched the boat the very next day. 5200 is tough stuff and even though it’s not meant to plug openings of this size, it probably would have held for some length of time if the owner had simply read the instructions printed on the tube—and learned that it takes a full seven days to cure, before use below the waterline. By allowing less than 24 hours for the sealant to cure, he had launched the boat when that sticky goop was merely skinned over. Even after the first sinking he failed to figure out why his patch hadn’t held, and tried doing the exact same thing again, with—surprise—the exact same result.

3. Corrosive Behavior – The couple set out from their waterfront home in an 18’ aluminum skiff they’d had moored at their pier for three years. After arriving at the fishing grounds, one of them decided to walk up to the bow to get a drink from their cooler. When he stepped over the amidships bench seat and put his foot down in the bottom of the boat, it went straight through. The jagged aluminum shredded his pants and caused several deep cuts in his leg from his ankle to his knee, which became lodged in the bottom of the boat. He struggled to remove his leg from the hole, as the boat took on water. Eventually the two managed to work his leg out of the hole, but now that it was no longer plugged, water rushed it at a much faster rate. Luckily the outboard’s power-head remained above water and even though the boat became completely swamped, they managed to motor close shore, ground the boat, get out, and walk to a near-by house for assistance.

How did a man manage to put his foot right through the bottom of an aluminum boat? The answer is startlingly simple—and plenty stupid. Three years earlier, after purchasing the boat he had painted the bottom with a copper-based anti-fouling paint. Copper and aluminum don’t get along particularly well in the saltwater environment. In fact, they create an excellent electrolytic reaction which can eat right through an aluminum hull in a couple of seasons. After retrieving the boat, the owners found that they could easily push a plastic ball-point pen right through the bottom.

So there you have it: three ways that boats have been sunk due to sheer stupidity. Oh yeah – and don’t forget to put in the drain plug.

Know of an even dumber way someone sunk their boat? We want to hear about it – just fill in the comments box below.