Common Issues With Sailboats

Common Issues With Sailboats | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Gabriel Hannon

August 30, 2022

Boat ownership is the key to the joys of the sea, but if you are not careful, some common maintenance and use issues can ruin your time on the water.

While there are dozens of possible issues that come up while underway, it is crucial to identify and work to prevent a few key issues before you hit the water so that things like hull leaks, hardware corrosion, and worn equipment don’t get in the way of your sailing!

The sheer number of moving parts and different factors to consider about both your boat and the water makes it nearly impossible to enumerate all the possible issues that can arise while sailing.

While this may seem almost nightmarish, it is part and parcel of the joys of sailing. The sheer variety of conditions and events that a day on the water can present means that the experience never gets stale, and even the best sailors can’t always guarantee smooth sailing.

The ability to both prevent issues before they come up and resolve them once they happen is a key aspect of seamanship, and it all starts by considering the things that can go wrong so that you have a plan in place to make them go right.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I believe that understanding common causes and methods of prevention for leaks, corrosion, and equipment wear are the building blocks to many fine days on the water!

Over the years, I’ve seen any number of boats limp back to my dock and boat owners sheepishly approach me in the hardware section of the maritime hardware store for a replacement part they never knew existed before it snapped in two.

Hulls crack, boats fall off cranes, sails turn to ribbons, ropes jam, goosenecks snap, and water finds its way into tanks; that’s just how it goes. Still, the more knowledge you have, the more of these issues that you can avert or work out, so let’s get started!


Table of contents

Leaks and Saturation

If there is one ubiquitous reality to sailing, it is that, as much as you want your boat to stay dry, the water wants in even more. Any joint, screw, mount, hatch, seacock, or plug can be a flashing welcome sign for slow dribbles and flash floods of invasive water alike. This is to say nothing of hairline cracks in your fiberglass or spider cracks and larger holes from collisions. Prevention takes many forms, and different types of leaks require different severity of response. Some amount of leakage is simply the reality of any sea-faring vessel, but if you do not account for any source of water, you might soon find yourself with more of a leak than you had bargained for.

In addition to leaks, in the long run, constant exposure to water catches up with all boats eventually. Through long-term leaks, improper paint coverage, or poor builds, the core of the boat, foam cores in more modern fiberglass hulls or wood panels and cotton filling in wooden boats, can become saturated. Such saturation greatly reduces the performance of the boat, both on the speed and stability fronts.

Regardless, remember that your boat is designed to be in the water, and some boats even use expected water leakage in their design! Wooden boats, in fact, are designed to leak a little on first splash as the water is expected to fill in the wood, causing it to swell and form a tight seal as the planks expand. This type of design is less prevalent in modern hulls, so don’t expect a leak to spontaneously disappear, but know that you don’t have to panic over every drop of water.

Leak Responses

Bilge Pumps

First and foremost, with the knowledge that water is going to get in, you must have a way to get that water back out. Bilge pumps are your first line of defense against water in the interior. Depending on the style, there are a few things that you have to check off your list to ensure a functional bilge pump.

First, the electrical connections to the bilge pump must be properly waterproof, as poor waterproofing of the connections can lead both to failure of the pump and potential shorts throughout your electrical systems.

Second, ensure that the pump activation system works. Sometimes this is a switch on the console that you must remember to activate regularly, but which must also be turned off lest you drain the battery. Other times the pump works on a timer, and still others function using often finicky float switches, which activate the pump once the water gets to a certain level.

Third, bilge pumps are great at expelling water, but not so good at getting rid of seaweed or other junk, so periodically check to ensure that the pump and hoses are not clogged.

Finally, a broken impeller, i.e. the little water wheel that makes the pumps go, will drastically reduce the pump’s effectiveness, so be ready with all the information about your bilge pump in order to pick out a spare impeller!


While we should have a way to get our water out, there are some simple steps to prevent leaks. As water can find its way in through a crack of any size, it is always good to check your hull and deck for hairline cracks. Gelcoat, or the outermost layer of fiberglass resin οn your hill, is prone to small cracks, and there are plenty of gelcoat patch kits, from small batches of faring putty from Marine-Tex for one or two instances to full gelcoat mixing kits for a tired old hull, that can resolve those issues before they lead to leaks or saturation of the structural fiberglass. Epoxy-resin kits, like the West Systems marine epoxy, can fill in larger holes and cracks and is the stepping stone to more complete fiberglass repairs. A good check of your gelcoat and an occasional new coat of either paint or gelcoat will do a lot to keep your hull dry!

While that resolves issues on the hull, the topside is also prone to small leaks that can add up over time. Most of these leaks come from improperly sealed fittings and hardware, and can actually be relatively easy to fix! For hardware that comes with a gasket of some sort, replacement gaskets can be ordered and installed in place of improperly set or damaged seals. Most importantly, almost all hardware requires fasteners to install, and those are perfect pathways for water to get in. Proper sealing upon installation is crucial; never screw into your boat without a maritime sealant like SikaFlex or 3M’s 4200 around the base of the hardware and under the head of the screw. Not only will this prevent leaks, but it will also ensure a more secure installation!


In the long run, improper leak management leads to a saturation of the boat’s core. A once snappy whaler can end up barely able to get on a plane, and an old houseboat might find its decks a good deal closer to the water. Once your foam core is saturated, it is difficult to replace and often requires professional maintenance. You can recover from saturation, but it is much easier to prevent it before it happens!

Corrosion and Wear

While leaks are sure to catch the attention of any boat owner, corrosion prevention and wear awareness are crucial to avoiding common breakdown issues maintenance. Corrosion, in particular, can happen to any metal hardware on the boat, while anything, from metal to running rigging to sails, can show trademark signs of wear and fatigue that demand attention, care, and eventual replacement.


Any metal fitting on your boat, from your anchor chain to your stays to your hardware, even the engine, is prone to corrosion, especially in saltwater. Washing off your boat after every use is the first step to avoiding the long-run breakdown of your metal hardware. This is key not only on days when the chop is up and you’ve gotten a good spray on the hull; the very smell of saltwater that makes sailing so appealing is an additional indicator that corrosive salt is in the air. Every opportunity you have to wash this away is another time that you reset the countdown on the lifetime of your metal fittings, so take advantage of that!

Masts and booms are particularly vulnerable to this type of wear. In this case, it is often the interaction between the different types of metals between the spars, often aluminum, and the fittings, ideally stainless steel or titanium, that causes corrosion, which is then accelerated by the salt in the air. Weaknesses at these joints often don’t manifest until the spars are put through excessive pressure, but that is often the worst time to have a break which is rarely reparable on water, so make sure you pay close attention for signs of corrosion. Joints like goosenecks, boom vangs, and blocks are good places to examine before each sail.

As for underwater corrosion, most large boats need to reinstall their ‘zincs’ about once every year or two. For small boat owners transitioning to a larger boat, this might be a foreign concept, but zincs are key to keeping hardware, like props, keels, rudders, and other underwater hardware, from corroding. In brief, any submerged metal can essentially form an electrical circuit through the conductive saltwater, and this can cause the metals to break down over time. A zinc plate somewhere on your hull will draw all the current to the zinc and away from your hardware, acting as a ‘sacrificial’ conductor to preserve the other metals. Zincs drastically increase the lifetime of your hardware but need to be replaced annually or bi-annually.

When Running Rigging Stops Running

When it comes to sailboats, nothing is better than being able to trim your lines and see the sails respond immediately. When the halyards aren’t too heavy to pull, the control lines are precise and cleat cleanly, and the sheets bring you right to the wind, you can be perfectly in tune with the boat. When things jam, get twisted, or, even worse, snap, you may well be in for a long sail.

Lines and Hardware

There are a few keys to ensuring that your lines and tackle hardware remain in ship shape. First, you ought to have the right diameter and length rope for each line on the boat. All your fittings are designed for the diameter and length given in the boat manual, which you can often find online, so if you find it hard to trim a line and all of your fittings are clean, that is the first place to look.

Even when you have the perfect lines, they often wear going over said fittings or snapping into a clear that commonly used points, so make sure that your entire rope is not aging too quickly. Signs like discoloration, fraying, or even entire separation of the cover are indicators that it is time to replace that line.

Line aging often comes because of improperly maintained cleats or turning blocks. Corrosion and heavy use often eat away at these finely calibrated mechanisms, so always make sure that you clean and grease any moving parts and replace or tighten springs when they get loose!

Finally, make sure to wash your lines and store them properly! saltwater ages lines and causes them to get crusty if put away just after sailing, which can cause long-term problems for the rope and the fittings. New high strength Dyneema and Spectra lines also wear easily in the UV from the sun, so try to store these away from direct sunlight when possible. Improper coiling or leaving knots and kinks in your line can exacerbate wear areas or prevent you from trimming smoothly when you need it most.

As something of a line connoisseur, I firmly believe that a solid investment in the best possible line is one of the easiest ways to buy happiness on your boats. Companies like New England Ropes, Marlow, and Ronstan continue to improve their braiding and strength technology, so always make sure that your ropes are fresh and up to the challenges of the open water!

From Sails to Tissue Paper

Finally, there is the care of the engine on your sailboat: the sails. These are sometimes the easiest things to overlook, especially at the end of the day when you just want to roll them up and get off the boat, but this is one of the spots where you can easily add years back on to their useful lifetime. In addition, certain small habits while sailing can help make sure that you don’t experience tears or rips when not necessary.


There are two fundamental principles of sail storage. The first is that you want to get your sails out of the sun and weather as much as possible. If not in use, you should always store your sails in bags or below decks, as an extended sunburn is as bad for you as it is for your sails. The UV can break down your new sails and take all the crisp out while simultaneously making your delicate windows a little too crispy in a few weeks, so watch out! Spinnakers, genoas, and other thinner sails are particularly susceptible to this. Similarly, leaving your sails out means more opportunities for wind and rain to catch hold, flap them around, and rip.

Second, never put a fold into your sail that isn’t already there! Always roll in the same way and never try to ‘stuff’ a sail into its bag. Each crease that you add to the sail is another bit of age and can drastically reduce its lifetime.


Similarly to the keys for storage, there are two tips that can help you prevent sail aging and, more importantly, unnecessary tears. The first is to try at all costs to minimize luffing. Luffing puts the sail under unusual and repeated pressure and can weaken the stitching along the seams, leading to tears. This means reefing in heavy wind and dropping sails whenever you are at anchor.

The biggest takeaway, however, is to make sure that you are doing everything you can to avoid rips while raising and dousing sails. This is where a great majority of tears occur, especially to off-breeze sails. Always be prepared to douse your sails early and ensure that everyone on the boat knows the steps to do so. Try to do this sailing as close to dead downwind as possible, as this will relieve the pressure from the sheets and will tend to keep your sails off of sharp shrouds.

While these are not the only things you want to watch out for on your boat, these few issues are absolutely vital to consider and monitor across the season and should keep you from having to spend any sunny days at the boatyard or sailmaker. Happy Sailing!

Common Issues With Sailboats
Gabriel Hannon

Gabriel Hannon

I have been sailing since I was 7 years old. Since then I've been a US sailing certified instructor for over 8 years, raced at every level of one-design and college sailing in fleet, team, and match racing, and love sharing my knowledge of sailing with others!

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