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Boating Tips from Trailer to Ramp

Boating Tips from Trailer to Ramp Boating Tips from Trailer to Ramp
By Dave Adams

Whenever the phrase "school of hard knocks" is used, it could easily describe my boating experiences during the past 20 years. Recently, I had a boating day planned on the Allegheny River. With excited family members waiting at the dock, a turn of the key produced a dull click; and, yet another click. Meanwhile, off to my side, looks of dejection were reflecting from the water. Soon the scramble began and the search for tools was on. After a forgotten and neglected positive battery cable was tightened, we were able to continue our day of boating.

Since I would rather be moving across the open water than attending more lessons at the boat ramp, I decided to seek advise from the experts in the field of outboard motors. What I learned, was when a minor mechanical fault occurs, with knowledge of prevention, the proper tools to have, and how to perform a repair - the day is not over, but only delayed.

As pointed out, the most important way to avoid a break down is prevention. A simple checklist the day before you launch or the morning thereof, can prevent an unpleasant beginning of your boating experience.

According to Mercury technicians, John Kosmack of Allison Park and Ed Krummert of Millvale, the following check of boat and equipment will prepare boaters for the transition from trailer to water. Beginning with the trailer, inspect the following: boat trailer for proper hitch coupling, tie downs, tire pressure (shake the tires firmly – excessive wobble indicates a possible wheel bearing problem), and trailer lights. Next, follow-up by checking these items on the boat: good battery charge and connections, fuel condition and connections, steering linkage and operation, the lower unit plug can be removed (if more than a teaspoon of water flows from the lower plug, contamination is suspected), fishing line entangled on the propeller, and verify that all safety equipment is on board.

The complex systems of today’s outboards will undoubtedly result in failures. According to Kosmack, “Unfortunately, marine outboards will fail a certain percent of the time. Also, the anticipation and excitement generated at the boat ramp as well as lack of preparation will add to that percentage. Nevertheless, you can prevent a common failure such as a flooded engine or a slightly off placed kill switch. For the skipper of any boat, this includes knowing the basics of fuel and electrical systems, as well as having an understanding of how to perform a minor repair or what tools are needed to perform that repair.”

When discussion turned to tools, and even though new boats and motors - which had my thoughts turning towards the possibility of a new boat, surrounded me - I listened. "Ensure that adequate tools are available for a minor repair," said both Kosmack and Krummert. Every boater's tool box should include the following tools: six inch long 2 by 4 section of wood, 13/16 inch spark plug socket tool, six and eight inch needle nose pliers, regular and phillips tip screwdriver, hammer, propeller wrench (floating), electrical tape, spare bulbs, crescent wrench, extra primer ball, and spare propeller.

A lot of things can happen from the time you plan your day of boating to the time you arrive at the ramp. Having made numerous road trips to aid boaters at launch ramps and having been on the receiving end of many phone calls from frenzied boat owners, has Kosmack saying that the number one reason boaters can't start the engine at the ramp is the kill switch. "Since the late 1980`s kill switches have been installed on outboards and most boats are equipped with seats that spin. This situation inevitably leads to no start condition," said Kosmack, "If the boat is uncovered while trailering, and the seat spins, the tether can catch the seat just enough to activate the switch."

Surprisingly, most boaters will not think about the kill switch. With the switch slightly off-center, combined with the excitement of the day and the hurried pace at the ramps, the boater turns the key and the engine just cranks. In time, the engine is flooded, and boaters proceed to check the spark plugs without first looking at the switch.

If the engine is flooded, Kosmack said the correct way to start a flooded engine is to first disconnect the fuel line. Then, move the throttle cold start lever to wide open. Next, make sure choke is not closed. Finally, crank the engine for an eight second count. Repeat this procedure two or three times – to protect the starter, allow a four second break between attempts. Once the engine starts, immediately slow the engine down and then, stop the engine.

When an engine starts up but within minutes it stalls, the fuel system could be at fault. What should you check? Although some powerful outboards are equipped with electric fuel pumps, most boaters will find that on outboards, the primer ball and line are still the most common fuel delivery system. A quick look at the primer ball should be done first. Make sure it is hard and holding pressure. Next, check the vent. With a vacuum pump fuel delivery, an outboard engine will stall within minutes if not properly vented.

Also, a diagnosis of the fuel filter can be done. Most outboards have a screw on filter at the side of the engine. Before removing - look at the fuel bowl. If water is present, two colors will be seen: a dark color will be gas and a clear color is water. In this case, replace the fuel; if not, remove the filter (avoid spillage with a rag and dispose of properly) and check for dirt.

Generally, electrical problems are the boaters' worst enemy. Even though component failure is usually the main cause. The skipper can still check a few items. Regarding component failure, Krummert explains, "Loss of spark can't be tested at the water site, but something as simple as battery connections should be checked. Make sure battery connections are clean; red is connected to positive and black is connected to negative. Also, never attempt to jump start any boat, in particular an outboard. Not only is it unsafe, but many of today's electronics are sensitive to any incorrect cable hook up. In addition, the boater should never check for spark by disconnecting the plug wire. This type of diagnosis should only be done by a technician and if all the basic checks fail to start an engine - it is probably a component failure."

You should also consider, however, that the steering system can fail or perform strangely. On boats with a rack and pinion system, two simple faults are common. According to Krummert, "An object catching the linkage in the splashwell causes most binding linkages. Likewise, on many boats, a forgotten part called the cable nut might loosen over time." To check the steering system cable nut, look at the lower front of the motor. A cable will run to the bottom and a large nut holds it onto the motor. Tighten and check the steering.

On the plus side, a day of boating will not end with power tilt and trim problems, but it can cause a major inconvenience if the boater is backing down the ramp and the propeller bangs the ramp pavement. If the fluid pump is not running, check the fuses and battery connections. If the pump is running, check the fluid level. Even if slightly low, it might not trim properly. Another important item to remember is the ground wire at the trim pump is a major cause of trim motor failures.

Of course, an accident can happen. Perhaps the propeller was damaged on the ramp or by some other mishap. Luckily, you remember that you have a spare propeller in your boater's box; next, how do you change it?

Begin by disconnecting the battery and activating the kill switch. Put the motor in neutral. Then, wedge a two by four between the prop and cavitation plate (flat piece of metal above the propeller.) If the propeller retaining nut is equipped with a locking ring, bend down the tabs. Turn lock nut counter clockwise and remove. At this point, watch the sequence of parts that are being removed - behind most propellers is a thrust washer. Replace the propeller and firmly tighten the lock nut. Kosmack advises us that by using a propeller tool or socket and ratchet, the lock nut can't be over tightened.

I have spent much time boating on the waters of Pennsylvania, but my visit with John Kosmack and Ed Krummert was both fascinating and useful. What I have learned is a boating day can start as a disappointment, but it can quickly and easily be transformed into a pleasurable day with family and friends on one of the commonwealth’s fine waterways. In addition, you feel that great sense of accomplishment of having performed a mechanical repair, and perhaps, tweaked your interest in learning more about your transportation on the water.

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Engele | Posted: September 2, 2003

Very informative.