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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Lessons Learned the Hard Way - Thorough Boat Inspections!

Norm Cooper

Sarah Jean II
Saga 43
November 3rd, 2015

Norm shares another valuable lesson learned when sailing in the Gulf Islands this summer.  A broken  engine part almost led to a very expensive repair.  Fortunately the problem was discovered by a student who was practicing his routine daily boat inspections.  If you are not in the habit of doing daily inspections of your boat systems this story may encourage you to start this important practice.


We were anchored in Ganges Harbour on Salt Spring Island.  It was a beautiful clear morning with the promise of a nice breeze and some great sailing.  We had students aboard and were half way through a five day  cruise and learn program.  Part of our training includes how to do pre-departure inspections, including the engine.  This had become our routine on the trip and one of the students had begun the engine inspection process.  I was on deck getting ready to raise the anchor.

The student stuck his head out of the companionway and said, “Hey Norm, the dip stick feels funny.  I think you should have a look.” I asked him what he meant by funny.  He said it felt wobbly  –  different than usual.  I reached for the dip stick as if checking the oil.  He was right.  It felt really wobbly!  And then the whole dip stick assembly  –  dip stick and tube  –  broke right off in my hand!

Engine - final

For those not familiar with diesel engines, we now had a problem.  The dip stick tube leads to the bottom of the engine oil pan.  If the tube breaks, especially well down on the engine, the oil can drain out.  This would definitely happen if the boat was heeled over while sailing.  Running the engine with no oil would have lead to very serious damage.  The good news is we discovered the problem before starting the engine.  But why did this rugged part break?

Temporary Repair

Fortunately the break in the tube was just above the level of the oil sitting inside the engine.  We checked the oil level and confirmed none had leaked out.

A close inspection revealed the upper mounting bolt that attaches the dip stick tube to the engine had vibrated loose and fallen out.  This had probably happened some time ago.  The unsupported steel tube had been wobbling back and forth, much like bending a coat hanger back and forth, until it had broken.  We would have to buy a new tube from Yanmar but in the meantime we had to plug the hole.

We searched around the boat for small plugs and found that a pencil, with a bit of rigging tape wrapped  around it to act as a gasket, was a perfect fit.  We tapped it into the broken tube and fired up the engine.  It worked like a charm and stayed in place for  about a week until we could get the new part installed.  We pulled the pencil out from time to time to check the oil.

Pencil Plug - final

Mistake Made

Our routine of daily boat inspections had found the problem, but only at the last minute and only after some costly damage had been done.  It could have ended differently if we had not noticed the broken tube when we did.  A more thorough inspection of the engine, not every day but on a regular basis, using a flashlight and checking all the components, would likely have revealed the wobbly dip stick tube and certainly the missing bolt.  It could have been fixed at that time in just a few minutes and for the cost of only a new nut and bolt.

Lessons Learned

Do Routine Pre-departure Inspections: Develop the discipline of routine pre-departure inspections.  The engine should be checked every time.  But also inspect rigging looking for worn lines, broken fittings or missing pins.  Such inspections on our boat have revealed broken strands in shrouds and chafed halyards about to fail.  The longer the planned passage, the more thorough the inspection should be.

Do Frequent Super Inspections:  From time to time do a thorough inspection of key components.  Spend an hour with a flashlight and some tools checking your engine.  Look for oil and water leaks, loose bolts, chafed wires, broken hose clamps, worn belts and other potential problems.

Have Others Do Inspections:  Train other crew members on your boat to do the routine inspections.  Show them what to look for.  This means the inspection will get done every time, even if you are busy or feeling lazy.  And another person who is new to the job may be extra vigilant and notice something that you might overlook.


Dip Stick Tube - final

The day we discovered the broken tube we phoned a Yanmar dealer and ordered a new part.  There were only two available in North America!  Our temporary pencil plug repair worked well for about a week until we got back home and picked up the new part.  The repair process was awkward due to space constraints but was otherwise pretty straight forward.  The oil had to be drained from the engine but it was time for an oil change anyway!  Once done we kept a close eye on the area for leaks but have had no problems to date.

Have a Story?

We have all made mistakes and learned valuable lessons the hard way. Do you have a story you want to share with BCA members, so we can learn from your experience? If so, please submit it for publication in this column.  Thanks!

Send your story to with ‘OOPS!’ in the subject line.


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  1. Avatar Christopher K. says:

    Thanks ever so much. I love these advice bits! And I always incorporate them into my procedures. Please keep them up….

    1. Avatar Norm Cooper says:

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the feedback. Good to hear the info is helpful. The next Lessons Learned the Hard Way will be on surf landings. And yes – we got very wet!


  2. Avatar Yvonne Harwood says:

    Thank you for a great article Norm. I’ve never heard of a dip-stick assembly coming loose before, not to mention actually breaking. Maybe that is why there were only two spares in the whole of N.A. Your article has prompted the dip-stick assembly to find itself a place on my check-list.
    Your photos and captions were welcome additions to the article.