Marine Motors and Mumbling Men

by Howard Eskildsen

When we bought the Fairy Boat new in 1988, I had the impression that all we would have to do was drive it and fuel it.  If any problems arose, we could just call the dealer, since we had an extended warranty.  I overlooked one small detail; the boat was at Flaming Gorge, Utah, 200 miles from the dealer.  Had I thought of it, though, I probably wouldn’t have worried much since it was brand new and nothing could possibly go wrong.

I discovered the fallacy of my logic a month later when we pulled to the fuel station after a day on the gorge.  After fueling, I turned the ignition key and nothing happened.  About the same time, my wife, Fairy, noted that the lights in the cabin didn’t work either.  Bewildered, I opened the hatch over the engine as if that would somehow help.  What could I do?  I hated doing mechanical work and had always turned such problems to someone who “knew what they were doing.” 

The fuel dock attendant suggested that the main fuse by the engine block was probably blown and told me how to check it.  With trembling hands I undid the safety clip and pulled the fuse holder apart.  To my surprise, the engine did not fall through the bottom of the boat.  The fuse was almost too hot to handle, but the fuse bar was intact.  Perhaps the problem lay elsewhere. 

After a tow back to our slip, I phoned the dealer, who suggested that I bring it back to them, since no mechanics in the local area were approved for warranty work.  Right, I thought, the boat was 28 feet long and nearly ten feet wide.  To get it there, I would have to borrow a truck, take two days off work and tow it 200 miles each way at a cost of over $200 in fuel and oversize load permits.  The only viable option was to figure it out for myself. 

I got out the manuals and spent the next several hours studying the wiring, while mumbling the R-rated mantra that always accompanies such tasks.  I eventually discovered that the only working electrical items on the boat were the bilge pumps and the hydraulic pump that raised the outdrive.  Since those circuits bypassed the 50-amp fuse on the engine block, the fuse had to be faulty.  I replaced it with the fuse from the outdrive circuit, and, sure enough, all the electrical worked again. After a couple more fuses blew, I finally discovered that the holder was so loose that it heated the end of the fuse enough to melt the solder and break the circuit even though the fuse bar was still intact.  Some crimping of the fuse holder with a pair of pliers fixed the problem.

At the end of the season, I had to take the boat to the dealer to have a recalled outdrive cable replaced.  While they had it, they agreed to do an acid wash of the bottom, and replace some cracked stereo speaker covers.  When we returned to pick it up, it had not been acid-washed and the speakers had not been fixed. The parts manager solemnly informed me that they could not replace the covers without replacing the whole speaker.  The forced smile on his greasy face and the tattooed arms folded across his chest inspired about as much confidence as would a prisoner on a work release program.  Seconds later our salesman came in and announced that speaker covers were available for $5 apiece at any auto stereo store and suggested that the parts manager buy a bunch to keep on hand.  “I’ll do that.” He mumbled while glaring at me out of the corner of his eye.  At least the recalled outdrive cable had been replaced—I think. 

The next year, we moved to Kennewick, Washington and put the boat on the Columbia River.  The summer passed without mechanical problems, and I hired a local shop to winterize the boat, which they partly did. After servicing the engine, they pumped the water tank dry and added antifreeze.  They couldn’t get the water pump to prime, however, so they never pumped the antifreeze through the lines and faucets.  Fortunately, I checked it right after they were done and corrected the problem.  When I got ready to start the motor the next spring, I discovered that the engine, which normally holds seven quarts of oil, had only two quarts in it.  The mechanic mumbled something about being glad that he didn’t have to replace my engine, and generously gave me the five quarts of oil that were supposed to have added when they originally serviced it. 

I accepted their apology but decided to do my own winterization after that.  The next fall, I nervously serviced the engine with manual in hand and fingers crossed.  I didn’t want to screw up and cause the block to freeze.  It went so well that I didn’t fog the engine, and instead ran it every couple of weeks through the winter.  This extended the boating season and gave me confidence to do more work on the boat.  By spring, I could drain the engine block and risers, reattach all of the fittings and have the engine ready to run again in less than 15 minutes.  I had actually benefited from the shop’s incompetence. 

A year later, we were running upriver and the engine coupling to the outdrive started slipping.  We were able to limp home at idle speed.  The rotund service representative at the local shop put on his best business face as I described the problem.  They did the repairs, and later, the same fellow laughed at how hard the mechanic had worked to get the outdrive off the back of the boat.  He then added that they had greased the gimbles and u-joints while the drive was off since that hadn’t been done in a while. 

I was startled by his comment since they had “serviced” the outdrive a couple of months earlier.  It turned out that they neither lubricated the gimbles and u-joints, nor did they check engine alignment when they serviced the outdrives.  A long, vigorous discussion of what it meant to service an outdrive followed.  I was going to ask them to convert the engine cooling to a fresh-water system, but after that experience, decided there was less risk to the engine from the raw water cooling than from the mechanic.

From then on I checked their work closely, and did as much of the maintenance as I could myself.  Things went reasonably well until the summer of 1995.  A month before we moved the boat to LaConner, Washington, the local shop serviced the outdrive for the last time.  When they finished, we put the boat in the water and tied it to the dock by the ramp.  The lines strained under a twenty-knot wind that shoved the boat away from the dock.  I got the engine warm and then Fairy cast off the lines.  A ten-foot gap opened between the boat and the dock before I could put the shift control in foreword.  Nothing happened! 

I worked the control back and forth to no avail.  We barely missed a 40-foot boat at a nearby dock as the wind drove the Fairy Boat towards the shore.  To minimize damage from the inevitable grounding, I raised the outdrive.  About halfway up, the propeller engaged and shoved the boat in the worst possible direction.  I immediately lowered it again and it disengaged.  I shut off the engine, and soon Fairy and I were in chest-deep water, pushing the boat back to the ramp dock. 

The service representative roared with laughter when he saw our dripping clothes and heard of our plight. My face turned beet red, and Fairy held tightly to my arm to keep me from flying across the counter and clobbering the sap.  Finally, I croaked out the words, “Fix it!”  They did, for a price.  The shift cable housing had mysteriously come loose from its outdrive attachment when they serviced it earlier.  They replaced the cable and assured me that all was well, and I could put the boat back in the water again.  Before launching it, I pulled the dipstick on the drive just to be sure.  Nothing but shiny metal reflected through the opening; the lower unit had no oil in it!  I made one more trip to the shop.  That time, no one was laughing when I left, and they filled the lower unit “free of charge.” 

Finally, we moved the boat to San Juan Marine in LaConner, and a strange thing happened there: they did the mechanical work right.  Dan and Jim Gillette who own and operate San Juan Marine, had puzzled looks on their faces when I asked them to grease the u-joints and check the alignment when they did the end of the season maintenance.  Finally, Jim looked me in the eye and said plainly, “That’s part of what we do when we service the outdrive.”  Later, Dan advised having fresh-water cooling installed if I planned on keeping the boat on salt water.  They did the conversion, and it has been flawless, as has the rest of their work. 

Since moving the boat to LaConner, I haven’t spent nearly as much time in the engine compartment.  Boating has been a lot less exciting, and a lot more fun.