Subscribe to our newsletter

Maintenance

Troubleshooting Your Boat's Engine

The Ten Commandments of Troubleshooting

Editor-in-Chief George Sass Jr. troubleshoots a non-responsive engine during a charter while a guest cheers him on.
Editor-in-Chief George Sass Jr. troubleshoots a non-responsive engine during a charter while a guest cheers him on.

When something goes wrong on your boat, a few simple rules can keep you from making things worse.

When something bad happens aboard your boat, do you become Clint Eastwood or Richard Simmons? Are you the ball or the bat? Or to put a fine point on it, do you address the situation in a thoughtful, logical manner or panic and collapse into a mass of quivering protoplasm?

No one likes unpleasant surprises aboard a boat, which after all is supposed to be a refuge from cares and concerns. But vulnerability is part of the allure of going to sea and comes with the territory, and fixing the problem and saving the day for crew and passengers is part of a captain’s job description. 

Unless you’re a very good mechanic with a very large tool kit and plenty of spares, you can’t hope to fix every problem. But there are plenty of issues you can fix if you approach them correctly, and that is precisely what troubleshooting is all about.  

There are two kinds of troubleshooting. Look in the back of just about any manual and you’ll find what folks who do this stuff for a living call a decision tree. Basically it’s a list of specific problems, each followed by possible solutions, usually in the form of “if this doesn’t work, try this.” 

That’s the science of troubleshooting. We’re going to talk about the art, guidelines that define the way you approach a problem—any problem. It could be a dead engine, smoke in the bilge, or a jammed silverware drawer in the galley. These ten rules won’t guarantee that you’ll solve a problem, just vastly increase your chances of success and vastly decrease your chances of making things worse. 

  1. Do the simplest thing first. It’s human nature—or maybe it’s just a guy thing—but whenever something goes wrong, we immediately suspect it’s something big. An engine makes an unusual noise, and “bad connecting rod” pops into our heads, when really it’s just that the air silencer’s fallen off. Big problems lead to big solutions, and that often leads to needless trouble and expense. Start small and work up from there.
  2. All emergencies aren’t in the engine room. Don’t rush to the engine room whenever something goes wrong. Many problems have their source outside of it: circuit breakers, seacocks, and many electronic functions to name a few. Leave the helm only when you’re fairly sure you need to. As a diesel mechanic, I was once called to a boat about an engine that had stopped as she was leaving the dock. None of the four guys in the bilges had noticed that the rather overweight captain had nudged the ignition key with his nether regions just enough to move it to the off position.
  3. Don’t overestimate your abilities. Dirty Harry Callahan was right: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Once you think you’ve found the problem, ask yourself if you’re really capable of fixing it. Does the job require special expertise or special tools? If it does, trying to fix it will probably just worsen the situation. 
  4. Never break something to fix something. Breakage is failure—and a good sign that either you don’t know what you’re doing or you’ve lost your temper. I once watched a mechanic become so frustrated trying to dislodge a stuck fuel-rack linkage, he finally pulled out his “equalizer,” a very large pipe wrench, and proceeded to twist the linkage into two separate pieces. True, the fuel rack did move freely afterwards, but the boat was definitely not going anywhere.
  5. Beware of the unknown. There’s a saying among trial lawyers: “Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.” The mechanic’s analog to that is, “never perform an operation unless you’re fairly certain that you know the outcome.” If you find yourself asking, “I wonder what happens if I remove this?” don’t do it.
  6. What’s new? When a malfunction appears from out of the blue, it’s often related to something that’s recently changed—perhaps work that’s newly been done, but not done correctly. If an engine suddenly stops, have you recently taken on fuel from a suspect source? If a starter won’t turn over, was anyone working on or near the batteries?
  7. Work slowly. This may be the hardest rule of all to adhere to. If you’re out of sight of land and darkness is coming on, it’s going to be very difficult to overcome the desire to hurry. But when you work under pressure, the chances of making a mistake increase exponentially. As difficult as it may be, take a deep breath and remind yourself that work performed quickly is often work that will have to be performed again.
  8. No tool, no job. If you don’t have the proper tool to effect a repair and decide to improvise, you’re asking for trouble. A screwdriver is not a substitute for a chisel, and pliers cannot stand in for a wrench. And if you feel like you need to employ a hammer, take a deep breath and reconsider.
  9. Respect the ER. Never forget that your engine room is the most dangerous place on your boat. Even the best ones are full of hot surfaces, sharp objects, caustic substances, and moving parts. Don’t enter one without knowing where the dangers lie. And never go in without the right safety gear and sufficient light.
  10. Know when to say uncle. No one wants to admit defeat, especially when all those people are so obviously counting on you to save their bacon. But time is always a consideration in vessel emergencies, so it’s important to know when continuing your efforts is unlikely to produce the hoped-for result and a mechanic or tow boat is called for. Live to troubleshoot another day.

See more trouble-shooting tips here ➤

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

Related Features