Marley’s Mantra

By Tom Neale, 9/5/2014


I don't think Bob Marley had a boat. If he did, he probably got somebody else to keep it floating. I get this idea because of a famous phrase in one of his best songs: "Every little thing's gonna be all right." Not on a boat is every little thing going to be all right. Yes, I know he was inspired by three little birds. I also know what birds do to my boat. And I also know that a boat is full of little things, many of which we don't see and probably don't know are there ... and they're always going bad. And that's not all right.


Usually when we think of the stuff that can go wrong on a boat we think of the big things ... like when you drop your outboard over or a piston rod comes through the crank case or the mast falls off. These all qualify for things I don't like, but the pain of it is that there are so many little things on a boat that you don't even know about and they all fail at some point. And usually they fail when they're doing big jobs. Let's look at just a couple. These examples don't even scratch the surface. But some of them can put your boat under the surface.

Set screws
Set screws.
Just A Tiny Little Screw

One of the first things that I think of is the tiny little set screw. I think of it because I just noticed that one had worked its way out of a stanchion making the connection with the rail anything but tight. When's the last time that you tightened one? Unless you've tightened a lot of them recently you may be in for a problem. Some of these are relatively large and obvious, like the ones holding your shaft into the shaft coupling. Generally you tighten these with a wrench, and that's easy enough. Sometimes there's a hole through the screw head and stainless steel wire purports to keep them from backing out over years of vibration. Don't count on it. When that set screw loosens, the next time you "throw her into reverse" the only thing that may back up is the shaft and prop ... back up and out.

But your boat probably has much smaller and more insidious set screws. And to make matters worse, you probably have to tighten them with a tiny Allen wrench which you stick up inside. Now, we all carry tiny Allen wrenches around in our pockets, don't we? Not only is it a pain to go find an Allen wrench that actually fits (and it may be metric or standard) but we've got to remember to do it in the first place. These set screws are not only small, they're usually recessed into whatever they're "setting." You can probably find these little thingums all over your boat. And they're all prone to vibrating loose, unless they've corroded in which is a whole 'nother problem. Among the neat problems these little things can cause when loose are failure of a boat to speed up or slow down or reverse, failure of a steering wheel to steer the boat, the slipping out of a woodruff key thereby enabling a wheel, (like maybe your water pump pulley) to spin until the engine overheats and it's ground out the interior of its hub and I could go on and on.

Little Things that Smile
Seal with stainless spring
Seal with stainless spring.

There's one little thing on your boat that's really misleading because it always looks like it's smiling at you. Now here's something, I think, that Bob Marley would love. It's called the Joker Valve. If Bob Marley ever saw a joker valve he probably liked its looks, but I doubt he'd like what happens if it fails. You may not have heard of the joker valve, but odds are you depend on one or more in your boat. It's simple. They let something flow through one way but not the other. Sometime that something is air, as when you empty a piston in a head. Air has to get in as the waste water exits if you've got the intake closed up in order to empty the bowl. So the joker valve opens up and lets it in. But when the intake is open to fill the bowl with clean water, you don't want that water to exit the little hole the air just entered. Your ever smiling joker valve handles it. Of perhaps greater importance is the larger joker valve that lets the waste and water out of the head but doesn't let it back up into the head after the pumping is finished. When either of these little valves fail, the results can be, well, unpleasant at best. These little things are relatively inexpensive and you can install replacements yourself, but it's usually not much fun. Usually they fail from clogging, or material deterioration caused by wear, aging or calcium deposits. Those on the downstream side of pumps in heads have to be thick enough and of a composite dense enough to not tear but also supple enough to let stuff out and then seal to prevent backflowing. The base also has to serve as a gasket in the plumbing. Raritan, a master of heads and other products, has especially developed a new generation of joker valves just for your boating pleasure. You may not know it, but those valves will be there smiling, opening and closing, helping you with your boating pleasure. Bob would probably be happy with one of those.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips About Little Things

1. If you know about your little things you've got a head start, but how do you know?

2. Always think about why something is working like it is.

3. What has to happen to make what is happening happen.

4. Often you'll realize that there's got to be one or more little parts that are part of the equation.

5. Take a look, ask a friend, hire a mechanic, read a book or whatever to learn what's making your boat's components work.

6. Take them apart and look if it's safe and practical to do so. It might be fun as well as educational.

7. Then prepare yourself to fix it.

Click Here for More Tips

Also in the department of keeping liquids where they belong is the lowly little seal (and I don't mean the kind that eats fish and poops in the water). You've got seals in many places on your boat and each is important. Whether its water, transmission fluid, lube oil or whatever, there's a little seal holding it in, you hope. Some are easy to replace, others require special tools so that you can press them in and out. They range from simple packing as in your stuffing box or perhaps your old engine's oil seals to more esoteric little guys like a rubber U-cup with the edges held close to the shaft by a tiny stainless steel spring. If you don't know about that tiny spring and it comes out when you replace the seal, you've bought yourself another dose of trouble.

Little Things That Slide Too Much

If you've got cable steering or shift you know that the cable slides back and forth in the sleeve and moves something at the other end. You also know that the cable has to be attached securely at each end, say to the throttle at the helm and the fuel control at the motor. But there's more. That sleeve has to be held in place by little things called cable clamps. They're often exposed to the elements. If they rust off, lose a screw or by some other means come loose, the sleeve may move with the cable and you get not joy.

Little Slots and Keys

Failure of a woodruff key or square key can mean a multitude of problems. Usually it fails because of years of running and slight wearing which can increase quickly, wobbling the little key and rounding the little slot. When you find a key in trouble, you've got to replace it ... which means you've got to have one that fits. And although I really don't know, I imagine there must be thousands of fits. Or maybe "misfits" is the better word. If it's a woodruff key, you've got to get its rounded bottom into the rounded slot (and these are both usually tiny, not to mention the space in which you must work) and get it perfectly aligned with the shaft and then get the pulley or perhaps raw water pump impellor on it without pushing it out at which point it'll drop into the bilge and disappear forever. Carry lots of keys of all types and learn the applications (as, for example, certain rubber impellor driven raw water pumps) which are such a hassle that usually you have to replace the key on a work bench, not in the tiny space around your engine.

I could write books (and songs) about all the little things that can go wrong on a boat ... and if it's my boat, usually do. Bob Marley's Mantra doesn't work for my boat. But I often hum his song to myself as I'm fixing one little thing after another. It makes me feel good. And even if every little thing's not all right, maybe every little thing will at least be better, for little awhile.


Boating and water sports involve risk. Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk. You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others. Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.

See www.tomneale.com