10 Common Solutions for Boat Engine Problems

Some tricks can fix a motor on the spot. But if all else fails, a tow back home is in order. A membership with a towing service is worth the investment.
Courtesy Sea Tow Services International Inc.

One of the worst feelings in fishing is when you turn the key to head home and nothing happens. Fortunately, if a modern DFI four-stroke outboard is cranking, it will invariably start. That’s not to say you can’t have an issue. But if your motor successfully took you offshore and is turning over, there’s every likelihood it’s going to fire up, provided your batteries are up to snuff and you have gas. 

That said, a lot of bad stuff can happen when you’re out on the water. The good news is most problems can be handled by owners who don’t hold a master mechanic status. The bad news? Due to the highly computerized, electronics-dependent ­nature of modern motors, there are some problems you can’t MacGyver your way into fixing. We’re no longer in the “good old days” when carbureted two-strokes were king.       

Fortunately, most engine problems occur at the ramp. And even better, most of them can be fixed on the spot. Let’s look at 10 common solutions to restart your motor. 

Shift Lever in Gear 

Going through the list, one of the first things to check is the shift-lever position to ensure it’s in neutral. Try jiggling the lever while turning the key because it just might do the trick.

Attach the ECOS

Captains should always wear the engine emergency cutoff switch (ECOS) lanyard when underway in case they fall overboard. Still, after arriving at a fishing destination, it’s easy to get distracted and forget you’re wearing it. When it’s time to head back in, if you turn the key and nothing happens, make sure you check to see if the ECOS is attached. 

Battery Switch Off

Many boats have a battery switch that lets you turn off the batteries between trips to ensure that minor current leaks don’t drain them while not in use. But sometimes you can forget to turn the battery switch back to the “on” ­position before you try to start the boat. It’s an easy mistake to make. Newer “intelligent” switches have on and off positions that channel power to tasks, like starting. But if the starting battery is too weak to turn the motor over, flipping the switch to the ­emergency position will direct all the ­batteries to start the engine.

Check the Battery Connection 

“Modern engines have become increasingly battery-­dependent,” says David Meeler, Yamaha’s new product introduction manager. “So, any interruption in the electrical ­supply—no matter how brief—can potentially prevent the engine from starting or running.” 

A clicking sound when you turn the key often indicates a loose battery connection. Even after giving the cables the jiggle test to see if they are solidly affixed, corrosion can prevent a battery terminal from making the necessary connection. After checking the shift ­lever, safety lanyard and battery switch, Meeler recommends removing the cables to the starting battery and, regardless of how clean they might look, cleaning the terminals with a wire brush before ­firmly ­re­attaching the cables. 

Look for Blown Fuses 

A blown fuse can prevent an engine from starting. The time to start looking for the location of all the fuses on your boat is not when you are stranded offshore in 4-foot seas. Fuses can be located in the battery box, on the main wiring panel, and on the engine itself. Learn the location of all fuses on your boat while it’s on land or at the dock. Have spare fuses available.

Prime the Fuel System 

If your boat has multiple ­fuel tanks, there will probably come a time when you forget to switch over to a tank with gas, and your engine’s fuel system will run dry and stall out. When this occurs, the motor must be primed to eliminate air from the fuel lines. Most modern engines can be primed automatically by turning the ignition key to the first position and waiting 30 seconds before attempting a start, but it’s also a good idea to squeeze the primer bulb until it’s hard to make sure the system is pressurized.

Tighten Electrical Connections 

Sometimes, connections can come undone when running in rough conditions. After shutting off the battery switch, remove the cowling from your outboard and look at the various electrical connections. Most snap together the same way the main wiring harness does. Wires can also break or come undone. Inspect each connection to ensure a tight fit. Also check your main wiring panel and look for ­anything amiss there.

Fuel-Flow Problem 

Air in the fuel lines can interrupt fuel flow when there’s a loose fitting, a split line or a cracked primer bulb. Silicone “rescue” tape is an excellent temporary solution if you can discover the leak’s location. While increasingly rare these days, another issue is heat soak, which happens when hot fuel vaporizes in the ­fuel line, causing gas bubbles to form and preventing a restart. Meeler recommends breaking out the rods and catching a few fish while the problem sorts itself out. A little extra time will allow the gas to cool and reform as a liquid. 

Read Next: How Many Outboard Engines Do You Really Need on a Fishing Boat?

Venting the Fuel Tank 

The fuel system for a boat needs to be vented in order to provide enough pressure for fuel to flow through the lines to the engine’s fuel pump. According to Meeler, if a motor stops running, you notice performance is sluggish, or the engine slows down on its own, there could be a blockage restricting the fuel vent. 

A good first place to check is to unscrew the fuel fill cap. If you hear a rush of air going into the tank or a sucking noise, the vent to the boat’s ­fuel tank is likely clogged. You could try running a heavy monofilament leader (never wire) down the vent if you can find it, but it will probably require being blown out by compressed air once back home.

Anything Electronic 

When one of the ­electronic modules malfunctions, like the ECU/ECM, ignition or fuel pump, you might see a fault indicator light or hear a warning sound, but there’s not much the average Joe can do about it other than radio or call a tow provider. This brings up a final point. You can probably purchase a couple of years of towing service for the cost of one rescue. It’s the best ­bargain in boating. 

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