Top 5 Problems Sailors Experience at Sea

top-5-problems-sailors-experience-at-sea

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

August 13, 2020

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Sailing doesn’t have to be dangerous—in fact, sailing can be a very safe and enjoyable activity. However, sailboats can suffer from faulty equipment and a dizzying array of broken parts—and the problems they cause can be compounded at sea.

A well-informed skipper needs to understand what can go wrong with their boat, especially if they venture offshore. Nevertheless, everyone who enjoys sailing can benefit from knowing the problems sailors experience at sea.

Despite the numerous parts on a sailboat that can break, most catastrophic failures can be prevented or repaired with basic skills and minimal expense.  Here are some common failures that occur at sea, along with what you can do to prevent or repair them before they throw a wrench in your seagoing adventures.  Above all, sailors must maintain their boats and abide by all safety rules and recommendations, especially in the event of equipment failure.

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Table of contents for this article

1) Broken Masts

A broken mast is a worst-case-scenario for many sailors and represents one of the most catastrophic failures that can occur aboard a sailboat. When the mast breaks (especially far offshore) you could be effectively stranded, as many sailboats don’t carry enough fuel to motor back. Dismasting, while relatively uncommon, can cost a lot of money to repair. The fact of the matter is that most sailors do not attempt thousand-mile transcontinental voyages, but a dismasting should be considered an emergency in any situation. 

Causes 

A well-maintained sailboat shouldn’t experience a broken mast except in particularly harsh conditions, when handled improperly, or when rigging is defective. This is why it’s important to have your rigging inspected regularly. Most often, a broken mast is a direct result of excessive stress, especially on Bermuda-rigged boats with tall masts. The primary cause of a broken mast is a broken or improperly adjusted rigging. When a mainstay breaks, it transfers a large percentage of force onto the other stays. For example, if the starboard mainstay snaps, stress will be transferred to port, which can cause the mast to snap like a toothpick. Modern stainless-steel rigging can be more reliable than rope, but it’s still prone to failure if improperly maintained or adjusted. In some cases, the stays are just fine—but poor maintenance or manufacturing defects cause the stay to rip the chainplate right off the hull. Proper maintenance and regular inspections can prevent many of these failures from occurring.

Another possible cause of dismasting is improper handling, especially during inclement weather conditions. Some sailors have reported dismasting well-maintained boats after a sudden (or accidental) jibe, as this maneuver can put an enormous amount of stress on the rigging. Rolling and capsizing are also possible causes of dismasting, especially when the boat manages to roll past 90 degrees. In some remarkable cases, boats have rolled 360 degrees without major damage to rigging or masts, but a sailboat mast should never be allowed to touch the surface of the water. 

How to Prevent Dismasting

Dismasting can spell disaster, but thousands of sailors sail their boats through all weather conditions without trouble. Proper maintenance, handling, and regular inspections are a sailor’s best friend, and can do a lot of good towards preventing dismasting. Make sure your chainplates, stays, and other rigging are properly attached and adjusted and double-check all mounting points. It doesn’t hurt to keep an extra cotter pin or two around also—if there’s supposed to be a pin, make sure there’s a pin. Remember that wooden and aluminum masts have many different characteristics, and sailors should always ensure they perform the proper maintenance and select the proper hardware.

Repairing a Broken Mast at Sea

The best way to repair a broken mast is to avoid letting it break in the first place. Repairing a broken mast at sea is a momentous task, and it’s often impossible regardless of what tools you bring. Historically, sailors on boats with wooden masts utilized creative solutions with rope and iron, but jerry-rigged solutions are never a sure thing. If you’re on a boat with minimal rigging and a tall aluminum mast, your repair options are even more limited. But what about carbon-fiber masts? Forget about it—carbon fiber masts can shatter like glass, making repair dangerous and often impossible. However, real-world situations sometimes necessitate creativity, and there are ways to make it back without a mast. If you can recover your mast, it’s a good idea to do so and secure it onboard. Sailors can attempt to rig a simple sail, but proper emergency training is always a good idea before attempting a voyage where this would be necessary. If the mast breaks, radio for help immediately. 

2) Steering Loss 

Losing steering is another catastrophic failure that can occur at sea. Simple boats with a tiller generally lose steering for one of three reasons: the tiller breaks off, mounting hardware breaks, or the rudder breaks off. None of these things are good—there’s not much you can do when your rudder shears off and sinks. Boats with complex mechanical or hydraulic helms experience loss of steering for many more reasons, but regardless, it’s an emergency when a skipper loses control of the boat. 

Causes

Running aground is a common cause of steering loss, as rocks can shear off a rudder in seconds. The more exposed your rudder is, the more likely it’ll be damaged when you run aground. Additionally, boats with complex steering systems can suffer a myriad of electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic failures. Thankfully, many causes of steering problems on boats can be repaired. Most of the time, steering failure is due to aging or defective parts and poor maintenance. 

How to Prevent Loss of Steering

Once again, the best thing a sailor can do to prevent steering loss is to regularly inspect and properly maintain steering components. This includes keeping hydraulic hoses in good shape, topping off fluids, checking for leaks, and oiling what needs to be oiled. Inspect all mounting points or hire a professional to make sure everything is in check. The ultimate responsibility falls on the boat owner to make sure everything works correctly. Also, inspect and immediately repair components after a collision or running aground.  In short, sailors should always keep their steering system in good order.

Repairing Steering Issues at Sea

It’s always wise to stock up on parts for your steering system, regardless of how simple or complex it is. Spare hoses, wiring, bolts, bearings, and more should be stocked on board at all times, along with any specialized repair tools needed to replace components. If the rudder breaks off and sinks, there isn’t anything you can do about it. Luckily, this situation is uncommon—but it can occur. In this situation, a sailor should take steps to alert nearby boats that his or hers has maneuvering issues. In absolutely dire situations, sailors have successfully rigged up a temporary rudder using various items or oars, but the goal is to prevent losing a rudder in the first place.

3) Fire

Dismasting a Sunfish at summer camp or losing a dinghy rudder on the lake may be mostly harmless (and even comical), but fires are never funny on a boat. Although boats are surrounded by water, fighting a fire aboard a vessel can be an absolute nightmare. Fire can ravage any boat in a matter of minutes, leaving the crew in very bad shape and (possibly) without a boat. Carbon monoxide and other noxious gasses can be deadly, especially in a water-tight environment such as a sailboat cabin. It’s essential to prevent fires on sailboats and to stock all the necessary firefighting equipment at all times. 

Causes

Fires have numerous causes, especially on a boat. Cooking fires are always a concern aboard any boat equipped with a galley. It’s important to be careful when cooking, especially with oil—all it takes is a sudden wave to knock a pan off the stove. If the contents of the pan are already on fire, the problem intensifies. Solid fuel stoves are common on some boats and are not inherently dangerous. However, extra care should be taken when using wood or coal to heat a boat, and the stove must have sufficient clearance from combustible surfaces. Electrical fires are also a concern, especially when gasoline is present onboard. Unlike other fuels, gasoline vapors can ignite spontaneously far from the source. Diesel and kerosene can also cause fires.

How to Prevent Fires at Sea 

Fire prevention is a necessity for all boats. First and foremost, all boats must retain adequate fire fighting equipment and a crew that knows how to use it. Firefighting equipment must be inspected too—that fire extinguisher from 1978 isn’t likely to do much good.  Also, sailors must ensure fire extinguishers are accessible from any point in the boat, to ensure that fire isn’t likely to get between the crew and the extinguisher. Remember, fire prevention is just as important as fire preparedness. Fuel must always be stored in proper fuel tanks with correct ventilation. Inspect the entire fuel system regularly for leaks, and don’t tolerate vapor where it doesn’t belong. A strong odor of gas in the cabin could be an indication that something needs attention. Also, replace and tighten rubber fuel lines regularly. Gas systems should also be kept in good condition and inspected. The electrical infrastructure of a boat should never be allowed to corrode, and all faulty wiring should be identified and repaired promptly. Sailors must store fuel properly, cook carefully, and keep their boat in good order.

Fighting Fires at Sea 

Fighting fires at sea is a nightmare. Unfortunately, it can happen, so sailors must be prepared. Ensure everyone on board knows where the fire extinguishers are, and how to use them effectively. Never throw water on a fuel or grease fire and disconnect hot and sparking electrical components at the source. Ensure that everyone on board has a fire plan. Once again, preventing fires is a great way to minimize the likelihood that anyone will have to deal with them, so it’s vital to take the proper steps to prepare before it happens, but be familiar with firefighting equipment and techniques. Also, be sure to install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in cabin spaces.

4) Leaks 

Leaks can be little, and leaks can be big. Most boats experience leaks from time to time, causes vary widely. Sometimes, leaks aren’t a huge issue—and other times, they can sink a boat in minutes. It all depends on how large the leak is and where it’s coming from. Some leaks can expand slowly or rapidly, and others stay the same size for years. Nevertheless, if a sailor finds excessive water inside the boat, it’s worth investigating.

Causes

Before diving into the causes of leaks aboard sailboats, it’s important to determine if the boat is leaking at all. Some boats tend to accumulate water in the bilge, which may not be a sign of a serious leak (especially if the boat sails often). A small amount of bilge water and a well-functioning bilge pump are a fairly normal and acceptable combination for many people. If the bilge fills sporadically, it may not be a major leak either—some boats have galley sinks and showers that drain into the bilge, which is a possible cause. However, a soggy bilge can be problematic and unsanitary, and an excessive amount of water is a cause for concern. One of the main causes of leaks is faulty or leaky seacocks. Any hole in the hull around a puddle of water should be immediately suspect, regardless of how well the owner thinks it’s sealed. If seacocks aren’t the cause, the plumbing could be. Saltwater intakes or drains can leak and cause an accumulation of bilge water. In worst-case-scenarios, a hull defect could be a source of water intrusion. Cracks in fiberglass hulls, corrosion in steel and aluminum, and rot in wood can cause leaky hulls. However, traditionally-planked wood boats may not have a structural defect if they leak. A properly constructed wood boat shouldn’t leak like a strainer, but aging cotton caulk can cause water to intrude. Leaky wooden boats (especially if allowed to dry out) should be re-caulked in suspect areas, and affected planks checked for rot. Also, don’t forget to check the deck, windows, and hatches—boats can leak from the roof, too. 

Preventing Leaks

It’s pretty easy to prevent leaks on most boats. Proper maintenance is key, especially with wooden vessels. All areas of corrosion should be repaired promptly, and seacocks thoroughly resealed whenever removed or repaired. Plumbing should also be kept in good order—this includes septic systems, which can also leak. If a hull defect or mounting point cracks and begins to leak, it should be repaired immediately. Structural leaks can triple in size in seconds, especially if stressed.  Practically speaking, whenever a leak is discovered, a boat should be inspected and repaired before going back out on the water. Hatches, vents, windows, and roofs should also be checked and re-sealed from time to time. Regardless of how dry a boat is, sailors should always have a functioning bilge pump and a backup hand pump.

Repairing Leaks at Sea

Unlike many issues, some leaks can be repaired at sea. For example, a leaky forward hatch is a common problem. Sailors can stock replacement weatherstrip or marine caulk to perform a quick-fix in a pinch. Internal plumbing leaks can often be temporarily resolved simply by closing the seacock or cutting off the source. Roof leaks can also be repaired with fiberglass or other sealing compounds at sea. More severe hull leaks often require drastic measures, and the best bet is often to return to the closest port to perform repairs. Again, functioning bilge pumps are vital and can prevent a lot of headaches when the bilge inevitably gets wet.

5) Engine Failures

Mechanical and engine failures are extremely common on boats. Saltwater, humidity, corrosion, fuel and oil contamination, and clogging are all common causes of engine trouble on a sailboat. Marine engines are not unreliable by nature, but the harsh conditions in which they operate often cause trouble. Also, many marine engines are tucked into dirty and cramped spaces, making maintenance and repairs difficult. While the causes of marine engine failure are too numerous to describe, we’ll look at some of the most common.

Causes

Engine failure on a boat can mean many different things. Perhaps the engine fails to start, maybe it doesn’t crank over. It could have power loss, rough idle, misfires, or it might just seize up without warning. Fortunately, catastrophic engine failure is pretty uncommon. Failure to start or stalling is not. Often, the cause of a sudden stop is a clogged fuel filter. Water in the fuel is another concern but can be minimized by incorporating a fuel-water separator. Ignition systems sometimes fail on gasoline engines, and diesel engines can have faulty injectors.

Preventing Engine Failures 

Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance!  Most mechanical failures on marine engines are preventable if routine maintenance is performed on time, and repairs made correctly with high-quality (and correct) replacement parts. Gas and diesel engines are vastly different beasts, and each should be maintained according to manufacturer specifications. Check fluids regularly, repair leaks, and replace aging wear parts before they cause problems. It’s a good idea to have a mechanic inspect the engine as well. The cooling system should also be kept in top-notch condition. The biggest causes of major engine destruction aboard boats are lack of oil, water, and overheating. All of these conditions can be effectively prevented in most situations with basic upkeep and repairs.

Repairing Engines at Sea

Nobody wants to repair an engine at sea. Repair work is often hot and dirty in the best conditions. However, basic tools should be stored aboard in the case of a minor failure.  Spare parts, such as washers, spark plugs, should be stored aboard.  In the case of a catastrophic failure, the engine often can’t be repaired at all, but it can be prevented at sea, especially overheating.  If an engine is water-cooled, overheating can occur if the intake is clogged with seaweed or debris. Overheating should be prevented if possible, as it can cause a severe internal failure such as a blown head gasket. Nobody wants seawater in their cylinders, so clear water intakes as soon as the engine shows signs of overheating. Locate your water intakes, but always use good judgment before clearing them, as a rotating prop isn’t something you want your hand close to. Be safe, educate yourself on your boat and its specific needs, and prevent breakdowns before they happen with common-sense upkeep.

Top 5 Problems Sailors Experience at Sea

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