Call For a Tow

Crowbar Seamanship

By Tom Neale, 5/18/2006


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Crowbars are good for many things, but not particularly good for fixing throttle/shift control units. When a friend comes up with a crowbar to help you fix something, it’s sometimes best to step back and reflect for a minute. One of three things is going to happen. He’s going to fix it, he’s going to not fix it, or he’s going to break it. One thing is not going to happen. He’s not going to break his crowbar.

A lot of us have those single lever throttle controls where you have to pull out the lever to disengage the shift cable so that you can rev up a bit to start the engine. I have one on my 1985 Mako. I ran it one last time last fall prior to putting it to bed for the winter so I could head south. It let me know how it felt when the lever wouldn’t pull out and I couldn’t disengage the gears when I pushed the lever forward or aft. The northers were beginning to get serious, so I just squirted a liberal dose of PB Blaster into every nook and cranny of the mechanism and took off, thinking, “I’ll deal with this in the spring.” The problem with that approach is that spring comes.

So I’d been working and cussing and pulling and cussing and spraying (PB Blaster) and cussing for a good hour or three when Bill comes up. (The names are changed to protect me.) He can fix just about everything and his crowbar is his prime mover. He looked and listened a few minutes, walked back to his pickup truck, and returns with—you guessed it.

“I don’t think so, Bill. I’ve already tried to pry it out with a screw driver and the d___ thing just won’t come. Something else is going on. It’s not just stuck.”

Bill tried it anyway, and the d___ thing still just didn’t come.

“You know Tom, some times there’s only one answer. You just have to get another one.”

I replied with the universally recognized boater’s lament. “Can’t afford it.”

“Oh it shouldn’t cost more than 50, maybe 100 bucks.”

“Bill, when’s the last time you bought one of these things?”

“Never have.”

Crowbar Seamanship

1. Invest heavily in a wide array of good tools. They can be better than money in the bank. I have TWO crowbars on “Chez Nous.”

2. If you need to take courses on “fixing things” about the boat, do it. You’ll have fun, you’ll be safer, and it’ll probably save you a fortune.

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“I’m going to work on this thing some more ‘cause I think it’ll be more like three or four hundred.”

It wasn’t long before another friend came up. He makes his living somewhat officially as a mechanic—sometimes--as well as at various and sundry other things. He usually understands stuff like this. He looked at what I was doing. I asked if I could hire his services. He looked again.

“I think you’d better get another one, Tom. Sometimes you’ve just got to bite the bullet and I think it’s time to start chewing.”

“Can’t afford it.”

“Yep, that thing’s going to cost a lot.” (He also sells parts sometimes.)

“I’m going to try to fix it.”

So I disconnected the throttle and shift cables, disconnected the cable anchors, disconnected 5 wires, unbolted it from my console, and took the dripping mess to the cockpit of Chez Nous where I could be close to MY tools.

I don’t know what yours looks like inside, but mine had several layers of mechanisms, springs, cogs and other unmentionables (unmentionable because I don’t have a clue what you call them). The last layer (of course) held the answer to the mystery. The lever wouldn’t pull out because a little metal tab on a backing plate for a tensioning spring was bent. It was supposed to be bent at a 90 degree angle to the surface of the plate, but this angle was now around 105 degrees. Therefore the tab could no longer protrude into a little slot and it blocked the lever assembly from moving out. Simple.

I bent it back into shape with pliers, a hammer and a drift pin (not much farther up the tool chain than the crowbar), put the mess back together, and it’s working—at least at the moment. I think that there are a lot of people out there (including you and me) who could have come up with a better design for that thing, and since it’s over 20 years old, probably somebody has. But that’s not the lesson here for me. There are a lot of things that stop working on our boats that, if they can be taken apart, they can be fixed. Although a lot of folks in the marine industry would say, “buy another one,” there’s nothing radical about the concept of fixing things. It’s something that good “shade tree” mechanics do all the time. It’s getting to be a lost art, but it shouldn’t be.

It particularly shouldn’t be a lost art on boats. Most break downs I’ve had over my last 53 years of boating have been out in the boondocks where I fixed it myself or I was in trouble. This has long been the case of people out on the water on boats. The concept of plug and play just doesn’t cut it with a lot of maritime break downs. That may work for most of the rest of the world, but not the world on the water. The people most successful at cruising to far paradises over long periods of time have been good at fixing things by figuring out the problem and using tools. The people most successful at having steady good times cruising short distances over the weekends have been good at this. It’s a part of self reliance which is a fundamental part of boating.

Sure, it’s always possible that in trying to fix it we may mess it up more. It’s also possible that we could create safety issues. Sometimes the manufacturer does something that we don’t even know about but which is critical to our safety. Within this throttle/shift control was a small micro switch. It fell out as I pulled the second section from the third. Its purpose is to prevent the motor from starting if the boat is in gear. In other words, its purpose is to save lives. If I had put this switch in wrong or left it out, I would have defeated that purpose and the results could have been deadly. So, yes, we’re usually taking risks of doing something stupid or just plain dangerous when we don’t “go out and buy another one.” But there may be graver risks if we can’t fix it on the scene. Over the years I’ve repeatedly seen situations when, if the boater hadn’t been able to fix something on the spot with skill and ingenuity (and maybe a crowbar) he would have been in clear and present danger—as in from, for example, sinking, burning or being caught in a dangerous storm. It’s often an issue of wisely weighing the risks and taking the safest course.

There’s a very special thing about what you and I do and that we have in common. We’ve all been there done that with regard to things breaking on boats. (If you haven’t, hang on, you will.) And we like to help each other. Just take a look at the Boater’s Forum on this website for a good example of that. Just hang out around the docks and see the friendships developing as boaters share their problems and their experience. Sometimes we inadvertently give poor advice, but sometimes the professionals do too. The skipper has the ultimate burden of doing what’s safe for his boat and crew and practicing good seamanship. But sharing experience and helping each other out is a great part of being a boater. You learn, you solve problems on your own, you can make your boating safer in the right circumstances, and it’s all part of the fun.


Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale