The need to stop, look and listen to our bodies is one of the most important lessons we have all learned over the last few years dealing with symptoms of illness like coughing, sneezing, wheezing, ringing in the ears, joints cracking, gurgling stomach, laryngitis, flatulence, rashes etc. Our bodies give us all kinds of clues that there is trouble brewing, and that we need to take action now; rather than later, to avoid more serious repercussions.
It is no different with our boats that often tell us, or show us, that there is a problem, before it gets so bad that it needs a costly and inconvenient repair. We just have to Listen and Look and recognize the signs and symptoms, that our boat is showing and telling us, so that we can nip problems in the bud.
The Sound of Silence
Here are just a few of the sounds and sights you may hear and see on your boat. I am sure you will have lots more to add, once you read these. When you do hear or see any of these sounds, investigate and correct the problem. When necessary, call a technician to repair before more damage is done.
- If you turn the Key and you hear silence, check the battery switches to see, if they are turned “on”.
- If the Blower is silent, check your fuses/breakers, bad switches, dead battery, something jammed in the fan of the blower.
- When your Bilge Pump doesn’t start even though you know there is water in the bilge, check for bilge debris, blown fuse, dead battery or burned-out pump.
- If you can’t get music from your Stereo, check the battery and all connections to the stereo and the speakers.
- If your Motor doesn’t start, check that your master battery switch is on and that your batteries are charged.
- A silent Water Pressure Pump could be from a blown fuse or it may be seized.
If you hear a squealing sound when you start the motor, the belts could be loose and slipping. Nip this problem in the bud to avoid bigger issues. Push on the slipping belt with a big tool to temporarily tighten the belt. This extra tension will get it moving. If it still slips, either tighten the belt or hold a bar of hand soap against the slipping belt to increase the friction.
Click, click or groan, groan
If you turn the key and hear “click, click” or “groan, groan”, your battery is dead or almost dead. Turn on the charger and wait a while. Check all the battery terminals for corrosion, clean with a wire brush and baking soda, then re-tighten.
Grinding or Whining
A grinding or whining noise from a sterndrive, while trimming up or while executing tight turns, could indicate a gimbal bearing needs replacement.
If your gears are clunking when you shift into forward or reverse, you boat is telling you that your motor is revving too high in neutral, and you need to adjust the rpm down.
A Grinding Sound
If your gears are grinding when you shift into forward or reverse, your boat is telling you that your linkage needs adjusting or that you are shifting gears too slowly.
Listen closely to the motor
For a closer listen, press the handle of a large screwdriver, a stethoscope or a length of hose to your ear. Methodically move your listening device around the idling engine to help you isolate the source of a noise.
Engines out of Sync
When on plane, your motors are synchronized or “in sync”, you hear a slow “wamp” “wamp”. When they are “out of sync”, you hear a much faster “wamp, wamp, wamp”. Listen carefully to see if your throttles need to be adjusted to synchronize your rpms.
Change in Engine Noise
If you hear a change in your engine noise, that is different than your normal engine noise, it is an indication that something is wrong. Investigate.
High pitched chirp or whine
A high-pitched chirp or whine often indicates a bad bearing in alternators, pulleys and shaft-driven pumps. Again, dig out your big screwdriver stethoscope and test each. Then, get it checked by a mechanic and repaired.
Water Pressure Pump running too long
The sound of the water pump not shutting off after the tap is turned off, is an indication that the tank is empty, or there is a leak in the hose, fittings or joint.
Bilge Pump Running too Long
If your bilge pump keeps running longer than you think it should, check to see if there is still water coming out of the boat from the thru-hull. If not, your float switch is stuck. Fix, so the pump motor doesn’t burn out.
When you hear your anchor chain clanging at night, it is an indication that either the seas are rough or the wind has changed direction. Investigate.
The alarm from your CO Detector is an urgent call to act. Evacuate everybody, then ventilate. When safe, correct the cause of the alarm.
The alarm from your Fume Detector is an urgent call to act. Evacuate everybody, shut off the motor(s) immediately. When safe, lift engine hatches, find and fix gasoline leaks.
If you hear the wind whistling, you may have a piece of torn canvas or a snap come loose. Fix it to prevent further damage.
If your frig is still warm after being run for a few hours, check it out. If you can’t hear a “hum”, check the switch in the frig and the breaker and the shore power and/or the battery switch. If you do hear a “hum”, it probably needs service. Call the marina service department.
If you hear water flowing or falling when you lift your motor box or hatches, look for water spewing from loose hoses or a frost plug hole. Either will sink the boat, so get back to the dock and have it fixed.
If you hear water running in the cabin, check all water supply hoses and drains.
Drip, Drip, Drip
If you hear “drip, drip, drip”, this is the sound of a leaky canvas top or forward deck hatch. It could also be the sound of a plumbing leak in the cabin. So, best to investigate and fix; otherwise. it will only get worse.
When you hear a scraping sound, your boat is too close and scraping to a dock, piling, or another boat or wall. Check your lines and fenders, taking up any slack and adjusting for the wind.
When you hear a single “snap”, that’s probably a breaker tripping. The circuit is overloaded. Reduce the load by switching off or pulling plugs on a few accessories. Reset the breaker.
When you hear your canvas flapping, it’s torn or unsnapped. Then, it flaps in the wind, gets louder and the loose piece gets larger. Fix it, before more damage is done.
Buzzing and Swatting Sounds
In the evening when you hear “buzzing”, this obnoxious sound is telling you that your canvas isn’t secure and the mosquitoes are getting in. Seal up the openings in the canvas and use one of the mosquito products to kill off the ones that got in and deter the ones outside the canvas. The swatting sound that follows is your crew taking the problem into their own hands.
If you see a liquid that looks like a chocolate milkshake, bubbling up out of your dip stick tube, turn off the motor immediately. You have water leaking into the oil through a bad gasket or crack. Schedule a visit by your local mechanic. Surgery is required.
Fuel Gauge Never Moves
If you fuel gauge doesn’t change as you are cruising, your gauge is showing you that it’s broken. Knock on the side of the fuel tank with your knuckle from top to bottom. The fuel level is where the sound changes. Get it fixed.
When you see black spots moving around on your boat, you may have ants, spiders or some other living critters. Doing nothing will only result in many more. Get rid of them ASAP!
Dark areas on Canvas or fabric or wood
Mould on a boat is nasty. Keep your boat well ventilated to discourage moulds from forming. Once you have it, it is best to use appropriate cleaners to get rid of it. Check with your marine store.
Mice and rats leave tell tale droppings behind to let you know that they have taken up residence in your boat. If they are allowed to stay, they can do great damage to wiring, curtains, cushions, food, clothing, etc. etc. Best to catch them and clean up the mess. The longer it is left, the harder to clean. And, they increase in numbers very quickly. See Ah Rats!
If you spot a light that isn’t working, check for a dead bulb or blown breaker. If your running lights or anchor light aren’t working, it could be serious. Fix before it’s too late.
If you see any of your lines frayed, it is time to replace. You don’t want any lines to give way, like your dock lines, fender lines, halyards etc.
Bad or Wrong Knot
If you see a dock line, fender line, or any line tied with the wrong knot, re-tie it correctly. This could save your boat from coming loose and taking a cruise on its own. See Tying and Using Knots Lesson.
This is your crew telling you that it is time for a glass of wine or beer as they pop the cork or cap! Time to enjoy your anchorage.
Some of these challenges you can correct yourself and others will need a marine technician. Correcting them early, is a whole lot less expensive than later.
Being proactive with your maintenance will not only save you money. It will also help you avoid the breakdowns on your holidays on the water.
Look and Listen to your boat!
P.S. When docking your boat do you hear your boat drawing in a deep breath in anticipation of a big hurt? OR do you see snickering on the faces of nearby boaters? OR hear laughter or yelling in your direction?
If so, you need docking lessons. Goto