Get it Started

Increase your outboard comfort level with a few maintenance basics.

I know this sounds a tad weird, but in the quiet of my winter off-season, The Nurse and I give free seminars on how to leave us alone. Well, not quite that bad. We try to help people learn to become more comfortable with their outboard, so fun weekends don’t become unmitigated disasters. We just conducted one for a local women’s club — well attended, I might add. I began by asking the ladies if they remembered the most terrifying time in their kids’ lives. They gave all kinds of answers, but what I was headed for was personal: The child is playing contentedly, your mind takes a break from insanity and then you realize it’s quiet! You rush into the living room to discover your youngest has become Salvador Dali, using permanent markers on the walls you just spent a fortune to have painted. Quiet is not good. What’s better than going boating? Easy: Coming back without being towed.

Inevitably, as one presents seminars, the topic of preventative maintenance arises, as in “What can I do to make sure my outboard runs in the spring?” Here are the five worst things I deal with in the spring. Well, “worst” for the customers but standard fare for us. If you check these items when the engine is quiet on purpose, you’ll be able to deal with them when the engine is unintentionally quiet. Your gauges are important. Learn how to use them to your benefit.

Wiring is pretty simple: Electricity has a beginning point at a battery, runs to the engine, then to the ignition switch and back to the engine’s starter. If you turn the key and there is no satisfying growl from the engine, look at the voltmeter. If it doesn’t flicker when you turn the key to start, has it at least moved up from the left part of the gauge? If not, turn the ignition switch off, locate the battery selector switch, and turn it to ‘On,’ or ‘1, 2, or Both.’ Try the ignition again. If the voltmeter needle jumps up to 12v, Sherlock Holmes should be calling you shortly.

If the gauge still doesn’t move, turn the key off, go back to the battery switch, turn the selector switch to ‘Off’ and check the connections of the cables at the battery. If they’re dirty, they’re not making good contact, which means the alternator wasn’t able to charge the batteries when the engine was running and the batteries are probably dead. So, remove one cable at a time, use steel wool to clean the cable and post on each battery, reinstall and tighten the nuts on the posts, and repeat the starting process.

Having the battery selector switch on the right setting and battery connections that are clean and tight will go a long way toward making sure you have an engine that fires up on the first outing of the spring.

Having the battery selector switch on the right setting and battery connections that are clean and tight will go a long way toward making sure you have an engine that fires up on the first outing of the spring.

If the voltmeter now jumps up to 12v or more, turn the key to start. If the voltmeter doesn’t flicker, the engine may not be in neutral. Hold the key in the start position and very gently wiggle the shift lever toward Forward and Reverse. The engine should start the instant you see the voltmeter gauge move. If the needle still doesn’t move, look for the safety lanyard or kill switch, which may still have the curly red plastic-coated string attached to it, or the string may have been removed in frustration, leaving just a clip that should be firmly secured in position on the clip receiver near the ignition switch. There are two types of safety switch. One will allow you to crank the engine until the starter is burned to a crisp but won’t start because the safety clip isn’t attached to the receiver. The other type won’t allow the ignition switch to engage the starter. The clip is probably on the deck somewhere, knocked off while previously transferring the cooler from the boat to the pier.

Do you remember the last time the fuel tank was filled? Do you really think you can boat all summer while the fuel gauge stays on half? If you laugh, I know a dozen folks who’ll be delighted to use one of your arms for a paddle the next time they forget that a damp atmosphere does not a happy fuel sender make. The U.S. Coast Guard says figure one-third of a tank to go, one-third to come back and one-third a safety margin. Pick your own numbers if you want, but make sure the tank has plenty of fuel. Without water in it!

OK, congrats on getting the engine started. Wait! Where’s the stream of water that’s supposed to come out the side toward the rear of the engine? Never fear, about 95 percent of the time, mud dauber wasps have attempted to build a nest in the hole, packing mud in it until they give up. With the engine idling in neutral, run a piece of weed-eater line in the hole and move it in and out a few times until water starts to discharge. Keep the line to use when you might pick up sand from the creek bottom.

Starting in April — around the 16th, after taxes are filed — I’ll get a minimum of two calls a day (right through mid-June) referring to an engine not starting because of one of the reasons above. If you look at your boat as a tree, and each of these problems has limbs, then each of these limbs has branches that turn into work for me. At least I’ll have confidence you’ve done a great job diagnosing.