The Ride Outside

By Tom Neale, 5/20/2004


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I’ve been told that a long time ago some guy bit an apple and we all got booted out of the Garden. I can accept that this bite was a pretty bad thing. I can accept that it was so bad that God punished us by making us wear clothes, know right from wrong, and suffer from sickness, plague, death, and Hell. So with all that, why did He then throw in the outboard? Come on. Enough is enough. It’s not like we ate the whole tree.

To compound the curse, we not only have to pay for our sins of the past; we have to pay for the outboard too. I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but that much? You can’t even sit on an outboard. And that’s just the beginning. You also can’t sleep in one, you can’t eat on one, you can’t even keep dry with one. It’s like you’re paying for an entire house and getting a bench in the park without the slats.

I know there are lots of good reasons that outboards cost so much. Many of the good reasons have to do with safety. But, just to play Devil’s advocate, I’ve got to wonder about those “safety” gizmos that keep them from starting. Does anyone who knows anything about outboards really think that an outboard needs something extra to keep it from starting? That’s like buying a cow and paying extra so it’ll go “moo.” But these days, there are lots of things to keep outboards from starting when they shouldn’t. There are cogs and indented flywheels so that they won’t start in gear except when the cogs are broken and then they’ll start very nicely in gear except when they’re not starting anyway. There are features to keep the motor from starting revved up, although that’s usually the only way outboards will start. There are even devices to keep them from starting unless you’re plugged into a dead man’s switch. What I want to know is why they don’t have something to keep them from stopping when it’s not safe to stop. Like when you’re racing in a thunderstorm. Or trying to get to the dock before the tornado wipes it out. Or trying to get back to the dock to buy more ice before your beer gets too hot and explodes.

Tom’s Tips About Outboards

1. The dead man’s switch generally works by connecting the ignition circuitry to ground, thereby depriving the spark plug of the “spark.” When the little tab on the end of the red cord isn’t in place on the switch, the switch is on, closing contact internally, and establishing the ground connection. Often these switches become corroded and short out inside or become stuck in the on position. This may prevent the motor from starting even though you’ve inserted the tab. Although you should replace the switch as soon as possible (these switches are very important for your safety), you can make an emergency home repair by simply disconnecting or cutting the wire running from the switch to the electrical component.

Click Here for More Tips

I’ve also got to wonder about that dead man’s switch. You know, you tie yourself to the motor with a little red line so that the motor dies instead of you, when you unexpectedly leave its proximity. I know it’s supposed to save my life when I fall over. I’m sure it would, if I could just remember to fall over only when I’m hooked up to the outboard instead of all the other times. (Seriously, I wouldn’t be caught dead or alive out here without being hooked up.) But for all that money, it looks like they could come up with a better way of doing it. They need to incorporate a live dummy switch into the dead man switch. It’s for those of us, like me, who always forget that we’re hooked up. I forget I’m hooked up when I lean over to pick up my glass of iced tea. I forget I’m hooked up when I lean out to net in a fish. I forget that I’m hooked up when I move forward to change the fuel line from one tank to another so that the motor won’t stop. But mostly I forget I’m hooked up every time I run up to the bow to catch a piling on the dock into which I’m about to crash. So I crash with the motor stopped. This means that I have to restart it to get away from all the people standing there laughing and pointing—which they invariably continue to do while I’m standing there cranking away for dear life, not remembering that little unattached red line dangling down from my waist.

Plugging into a kill switch so you can start an outboard is one of many rituals that have developed over the years. Some you pull the choke to prime, some you squeeze a bulb to prime, some you do both. Some you turn a throttle before starting, some you turn a knob before starting, some you push a lever. Some you mix the oil (you hope) for the engine and some you hope the engine is mixing the oil for you. All you put in neutral before you pull the cord, but some won’t go into neutral until after you pull the cord. Whatever the trick, each motor usually has its own special sequence. And then comes the piece de resistance–the pulling of the cord. If you’ve run out of fairy tales to read to the kids, just pull out your outboard manual and read about “pulling the starting cord until the motor starts.” But we all should consider ourselves to have been forewarned. When you stop to think about it, what should we expect from something with a shaft that clamps to your stern?

It seems that we cruising people took a much larger bite out of that apple than most other people. Cruisers usually get half way to paradise before they end up sitting in the sun for a nice long time when the thing doesn’t run—and then sitting some more, in the dark, for another nice long time. Other people get to do their outboard penance in places like the middle of a nice safe lake while trolling for bass.

Most of the trolling I’ve done has been while sitting in a small boat drifting in the general direction of Africa, watching my outboard propeller spin—not from the motor, but from the wash of the water flowing by. If an outboard could hook a fish, maybe I’d feel better about all that time it hangs over the stern doing nothing. Sometimes I’m tempted to just throw the motor over and troll with it. I can’t think of any other reason why the manuals say to tie the motor to the transom with a rope. It couldn’t be so that you won’t loose it.

But most of us are luckier than we think. I was just reminded of this when a US Customs boat went by with four 225 HP outboards on its stern. Their job is to look for trouble, and that’s really looking for trouble. My outboard experience has been mostly in the 3 to 75 horsepower range. The rumor is that the really big motors still have a few things in common with the smaller ones—like not starting, and stopping when they do. At least they normally have an electric starter. Button pushing is a lot better than cord pulling. But when they stop working, you’re back to that cord and you’re cranking a lot more metal. If they’d just include a 300 pound giant in the spare parts kit to help you pull the cord, life would be good. But that four motor Customs boat full of worried looking Customs guys (and government mechanics, I suppose) reminded me that life is better than I sometimes like to admit.

I was eleven when I got my first outboard. By then, I had enjoyed two innocent years of rowing. That little 5 horse power looked good, ran well, and gave me an incredible taste of freedom. I’ll never forget the day I first took off, flying down the river. I could go farther in one hour with my motor than I could get in a whole day of rowing. I loved that outboard. In the winter when I beached my skiff I carried the motor upstairs to my bedroom, mounted it on the foot of the bed, attached pulleys to the bed posts, and rigged rope up to the pillow so that I could steer my bed through my dreams.

Ah, the naivete of youth. The second winter my mother noticed an oil slick on the floor toward the stern of my bed. She at first assumed it was coming from one of the many unknown items I usually kept under the bed, but it soon became clear it was coming from that “machine that belongs in the garage.” During the following spring came my fall from grace: my outboard wouldn’t run. I fixed it, of course, as I have the two dozen or more outboards I’ve owned since then.

And ‘though I complain, I’ve got to confess, it’s usually worth the effort. Each time I get one running again, I twist that throttle as far as I can and take off against the wind, with the wind, across the wind–it doesn’t matter– I get that same feeling of freedom I had with my first motor in my first skiff. I shouldn’t complain so much. It’s really not all that bad outside the garden. There are lots of good rides out here, and I think that this is one of the best. And when I go on those long rides with my outboard, I usually bring something to eat. An apple.


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Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale