Avoid Spring Engine Issues

What boat owners do to their engine in the late fall has tremendous impact on what their engine does to them in spring.

Every spring for the last umpteen I’ve been as excited as a little girl getting a new Easter dress: this is the year the summer folk fund my 401(k)! Apparently they haven’t gotten the word yet, as every year I learn another synonym for empty: nada, zilch, zero. If I were smart I’d take the money I earn writing about them and invest it in my 401(k), which should tell you my cornbread ain’t baked in the middle just yet.

The steering system, the fuel system and the batteries are three areas of potential trouble when spring rolls around, usually because of something that was done — or, more likely, not done — last winter. See if any of these conversations sounds familiar, and then read how to avoid having them next year.

What the owner says:
My son-in-law is here to celebrate his master’s degree in engineering, and we thought we’d check over the boat before taking it for a spring cruise. Right off the bat the steering felt funny.

What the tech hears:
The steering has been getting stiffer the last few years and would hardly turn this spring. We sprayed lubrication on that shiny arm and gave the steering wheel a good yank. There was a funny sound, and now the wheel turns but the engine doesn’t.

What the tech says:
Funny sounds are best reserved for the comedy channel. What’s happened is over the years rust has built up in the steering/tilt tube and clamped down on that shiny piece, also known as a ram. When you cranked the steering wheel with strength, the gears in the helm (under the dash) couldn’t accomplish what you wanted and broke the teeth — the funny sound you heard.

What the tech makes certain the owner understands:
This repair will be either really expensive or half-expensive, depending on examination. If the helm is removed and the cable, once extracted, shows no damage to its spirals, then the cable is probably OK, depending on what the tech sees at the transom. At that point, the ram has to be tapped back out of the tilt tube, the tube ground clean and the ram reinstalled. The helm will have to be replaced. Where that yank on the wheel gets expensive is if there is no access to the cable end at the engine to tap it free and the boat has to be “on the hard” to remove the engine for the repair. Add the probability of replacing the entire cable without knowing how the hull was built and steering cable run from console to engine, and that “yank” just became really expensive. Hopefully there won’t be a “next time,” and you’ll ensure that rust doesn’t have the opportunity to infest the steering/ tilt tube, but reassembly will include notes to help the next tech. To paraphrase, “Money saved is money burned.”

What the owner says:
We started the engine as usual, let it warm up, put it in gear and it quit. I followed the winterization process to the letter last fall and didn’t expect this to happen.

What the tech hears:
I went online and found 27 YouTube videos that explained in excruciating detail how to winterize an engine. Before my eyes glazed over from too much information, I was able to completely fill the fuel tank with stabilized fuel, which included the remnants of the rusty cans I used for the yard tractors, ran it until warm, fogged through the intake, and finally squirted oil into the cylinders through the spark plug holes.

What the tech makes sure the owner understands:
None of the YouTube videos said to reinstall the gas fill cap, so he didn’t. He should have. None of the YouTube videos insisted the owner use fresh, treated fuel in lieu of rusty year-old fuel/water/whatever mix in the available cans, so he didn’t. He should have. In this case the winterizing procedure was followed, with the exception of the “understood, unstated” parts. Now the fuel tank needs to be pumped to remove the trashy gas and the winter’s rain, the water-separator canisters need to be changed at least twice, the engine fuel fi lters need to be changed, and the complete engine fuel system needs to be disassembled and cleaned. “Money saved is money burned.”

What the owner says:
I replaced both batteries this weekend and the engine will tilt slowly, but the starter won’t crank the engine over. All the dash items work, though.

What the tech hears:
I removed the cables without counting how many went where, and I reinstalled the same corroded cable ends. Well, all but one, but could that really create this problem?

What the tech makes certain the owner understands:
When the owner changes the batteries, if he has five small wires and two large cables going to a post, each of those ends must be shiny-clean before installing them on the new battery, and the same number of cable ends need to be placed back on where they came off the old battery. Simply tie-wrap the bundle before removal and it’ll be ready to reinstall, all clean and with the proper count. The confines of a bilge or battery area force some things to be done by feel. Not counting cables generated this problem when the main ground cable from the engine dropped behind the battery boxes. There was enough ground available through the accessories to induce a feeling of euphoria, but not enough to get out on the water until the owner found the errant cable, installed it and returned the unused, new starter he’d purchased. “Money saved is money burned.”

It’s a shame it’s so expensive to learn DIY lessons. But if it weren’t expensive, would you remember?