By Mark Fike
I have two boats. One is a very simple Jon boat with a nice, but older, Tohatsu motor on it. The other is a center console that is over 20 years old. Like any boat owner, I have found that boats are a hole you throw money into never to recoup unless you trade in great memories for cold cash.
Given the length of time I have been operating boats, I am never too surprised at what types of problems I run into with my boats. My center console is a nice boat but older and it is used only in the summer and early fall. This is unfortunate, but necessary, due to my work schedule. Because it sits for long periods of time, I usually have some fuel or spark-related problems with it each year.
With my little Jon boat, it gets used nearly year-round for duck hunting, fishing and scouting. The Tohatsu seems easier for me to maintain, but even that motor has had its issues.
When owning a boat, expect to have repair bills and maintenance bills on a regular basis just like you would have with a vehicle, possibly more since the boat and motor are exposed to water. Just because you have repairs and maintenance does not mean you have to just fork over funds every time a problem arises with the boat motor.
My center console has had a LOT of fuel-related problems over the years. I have learned that if I want to continue being able to afford owning the boat, I need to be able to diagnose and repair at least some of the issues. Checking the simple stuff is not hard to learn.
Motor dies while running on a regular basis?
My boat motor had a habit of running great when I primed the bulb and started it. Soon enough, it would start to sputter and then die. There are a number of things that can cause this. Check the primer bulb. When they go bad, they won’t stay hard. They go flat. It is a cheap fix to replace a primer bulb. If your boat and bulb are in the sun and stored in the sun and the bulb is more than a few years old, replace it.
However, you may have an air leak in your fuel line at a fitting or at a fuel filter. Check those connections first. Tighten hose clamps. One time I had mud daubers clog my air vent to the fuel tank. The previous owner pointed that out to me when I inquired about the boat acting up. It was an easy fix!
My fitting going from the tank to the motor at the motor itself got worn enough that when I would run the boat, it would just randomly die after sputtering. I did all of the above on the water and later got suspicious of the fitting because of the way the line kinked up at that fitting when towing the boat with the motor up. I replaced that fitting and the problem went away.
I have often had the above problems but was able to get home by simply priming the bulb every few minutes on the way home. It was frustrating but it saved me a tow bill to the dock! I knew then that the problem could be fixed fairly easily if I took the time to hunt down the problem.
When you have a fuel-related issue on a boat with a built-in fuel tank, you can start in the middle and figure out where the problem lies. Get a portable tank (with good gas) and connect your motor to that and run it. If the boat runs fine, then the problem is in the lines or the tank itself. A check valve that is gummed up with the ethanol fuel we now have can cause a pile of problems. Avoid ethanol fuel at all costs.
If the problem persists, then you know the problem is in the motor and you can check any fuel filters (inline), carbs, fuel injectors or the fuel pump there.
My Tohatsu ran great the first four or five years I owned it. Then it would start to randomly stutter and straighten right out and run again fine. I had a tune-up done on it and it ran great at idle which is how the shop would have run it to test it.
A few months later when I was able to go duck hunting, it was acting up like it had before but more frequently. I called the shop and asked them what all they did to the boat motor. Turns out they did not change the plugs since they looked great and the motor ran fine for them.
I checked the plugs and they did look really good. Hardly any fouling was on them and they looked new. This problem persisted for another year but never bad enough I could not continue fishing. Then I decided to take it to a great boat mechanic I know. He fussed with the motor like I did, replacing the gas, the fuel line was replaced, carbs cleaned and rebuilt, etc. On a whim, he decided to change out the plugs even though they looked good and I told him they were good and not to worry about them.
The problem was solved immediately for less than $15 in parts but a few hours of labor. I should have changed the plugs no matter how they looked. My mechanic agreed. He told me about his son-in-law who had just changed plugs in his jet ski when the ski started running bad. He put the old plugs back in it and the ski ran great. The plugs right out of the box were bad! It is not the first time this story has been told.
The point of this article is that every boat owner should attempt to check fittings, hoses, filters and plugs before dragging the boat to a mechanic. Check the simple stuff first. You might just save yourself a lot of money with an inexpensive fix.