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Due to exceptionally dry conditions, the Department of Wildlife Resources has implemented a complete ban on any open burning (e.g., campfires, grills) on all DWR properties west of Interstate 95, effective immediately and lasting until further notice.

Preparation is Key When Dealing with a Disabled Boat

By Mitch Furr/DWR

Photos by National Safe Boating Council

Picture yourself boating on one of Virginia’s many scenic and history-rich rivers or lakes. You’re enjoying a beautiful day with your family as you bask in the sun. After some time at anchor, you decide it’s time to head back to the boat ramp and real life. As you turn the key in the ignition, you’re welcomed with the unnerving sound of a mechanical failure. The panic sets in rapidly as you come to terms with the uncertainty ahead. Well, fear not, we have a few simple steps you can take to handle a disabled boat safely and practically.

As a boater, the first priority should always be safety. Although a disabled boat isn’t always immediately an unsafe situation, it’s the catalyst that can quickly lead to unsafe conditions.

The first step to fixing a disabled boat is proper preparation. As you plan your boating activities, it’s your responsibility to inspect and ensure your gear is functioning properly, and that you have some common tools and easily replaceable parts for your boat. Often you can contact the local dealer of the manufacturer of your boat, and they have specific emergency kits for your vessel.

Once you’ve confirmed that your boat is ready to get underway, the next step is familiarizing yourself with the area in which you plan to boat. During this process you should check for local marinas and save their contact information, to include phone numbers and radio operating frequencies. In the instance that you have limited cellular service, you may have enough service to be able to make a phone call, but not enough to look up websites. Additionally, you should do the same for local law enforcement and emergency services agencies.

The next step after proper preparation is your actual response to the disabled boat. The first thing you’re going to do is assess your situation. Before you can begin diagnosing any mechanical failure, it’s important to make sure the environment is safe. Assuming you aren’t in too deep of water, or an active channel, one of your first considerations should be anchoring. This will allow you to maintain your location as you work through your options for returning to the dock safely.

Next, you will want assign lookouts to keep a safe eye on your surroundings as you begin working on your vessel. As you work through your mechanical failure, be sure to check some common issues that will keep a boat from starting that may be as simple as a disconnected kill switch, or your boat being in gear.

If you’ve exhausted your knowledge of the mechanical functions of your vessel, then it’s time to move to the next step. This is where some of your pre-trip preparation will come into hand. You’re going to need to attempt to reach out to nearby marinas to ask for assistance with towing. Some marinas may offer this as a service or even a courtesy. Additionally, if you have nearby boaters that are willing to lend a hand, this may be an option as well.

If neither of these options are available, then you will need to consider reaching out to local agencies for assistance. Most importantly, if at any time your vessel becomes in danger of capsizing, catching fire, or someone has a medical emergency then, you should immediately reach out to emergency services.

As you work through these steps to get your vessel back to shore safely, you should consider several things. The time that it may take for you to get back safely can vary—be mindful of exposure to the sun during this time and use your water and food resources consciously. Frequently reassess your surroundings as well as your vessel’s status. Emergencies on the water can have the potential to worsen rapidly, so try not to become blinded completely by one issue.

Lastly, be sure that you take time to educate yourself on being a safe and prepared boater. Visit the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) boating webpage for more resources on boating safety, so that you can be prepared to handle whatever comes your way!


Mitch Furr is DWR’s Region 1 Boating Safety Coordinator.

  • June 23, 2023