You Too CAN Be a Good Mechanic

By Tom Neale, 7/21/2011


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

You hear a lot of folks brag about how they do all their repair work on their boat. But then there are so many others who just can’t seem to fix anything…or at least that’s what they think. It’s true that some people are more mechanically inclined than others. But many of those others are capable of doing much more than they give themselves credit for, if they so choose. They may not know it, but they can. And if you are one of those, and don’t know it, you can be in for some pleasant surprises if you want to work on this set of skills. You can save lots of money, you can be more self reliant on the water, you can be safer and ---this is what I like the best--- you can feel very good when you brag back at the dock about what happened and how you fixed it. Following are some tips on how you can become better at fixing things.

First, remember that it’s just a thing. What has broken or malfunctioned may be a very important or expensive or complicated or dangerous thing, it may be several things (a system), but it’s still a thing. It’s not an intelligent being sitting there trying to figure out how to screw you (although sometimes it seems so). And this thing or bunch of things was not put together by gods or aliens from space, but by people. And sometimes those people were smart, sometimes they were idiots. When the thing throws its gauntlet at your feet, it must be, and it is, logical. One way or the other, it makes sense and the diagnosis and repair will make sense.

Get the right tools for the job.
First, this means that you don’t need to fear it. If you fear what its malfunction or failure can do to you and/or your boat, you are probably being very wise. But this doesn’t mean that you should fear the thing itself.

Second, this means that the underlying trick is to figure out the logic or sense of what’s going on and then the logic or sense of the hardware that’s screwing up. Unless it’s already obvious, often the best method is the process of elimination. This doesn’t necessarily mean mechanical elimination (although many times I’ve wanted to throw the damned “thing” overboard). Often it means sitting there looking closely at the culprit or system and thinking about what it’s supposed to be doing and then figuring out the reasons why it’s not doing it. Usually there is more than one possibility, and weeding out the less likely involves thinking about the surrounding circumstances, all the symptoms and anything else that makes sense. Develop a theory. But remember, it’s just a theory and you can always discard it and start out with a new one if it doesn’t seem to be panning out.

Next, start getting physical. This depends upon the type of equipment you’re dealing with, how easily you can access it and the problem itself. Often it means accessing and looking at (studying) the components that you think are involved. To use two common examples: If it may be linkage, follow it from beginning to end. If it seems like a fuel issue, look at the line, filters, pump(s) etc. See if anything looks amiss. Consider whether some part seems likely to or capable of causing the problem. For example, if you’ve got a tilt motor issue on an outboard, and you see some funky looking electrical connections in the motor’s circuitry, that may be a good first place to zero in.

If there are several possibilities (and there usually are), you may want to first investigate the one(s) that are easiest to access or simplest to deal with or the least likely to cause a catastrophe if you make a mistake, even though you may suspect that the more likely candidate is somewhere else. It’s a judgment call, but you make judgment calls every day in other endeavors, and probably do well with them.

When you find a candidate that you want to deal with, consider what tools you’ll need. If you don’t have them, buy them (see more on this in Tom’s Tips below) or bring in a mechanic or knowledgeable friend, if possible. Success in any mechanical job requires the right tools and some familiarity with how to use them. When you start using those tools, be as minimally invasive as you can, with the idea that you may have figured it out wrong or that it’s going to be over your head. Proceed carefully, considering whether you’re seeing what you expect to see. If not, maybe you’re over your head today or maybe you need to pursue another theory. Both of these happen to the best of us.

Notice I mentioned familiarity with how to use tools. I also mentioned calling in a knowledgeable friend or mechanic and being in over your head. This brings up a very important aspect of the process. Like most good skills, it takes some learning. A great thing about boating is that generally boaters want to help each other. If you bring in a friend, either at the advice stage or the “doing it” stage, learn from him. Ask questions. Watch him. Normally he’ll appreciate the fact that you appreciate him.

Tom’s Tips About Tools

1. Don’t buy cheap tools. They’ll likely break or damage the equipment you use them on.

2. Be careful about buying “complete” tool packages. Usually the contents are cheap and often they include a lot of tools that you’ll never use.

3. Do buy sets such as a set of wrenches open at one end, closed at the other and a set of socket wrenches. You’ll probably need metric as well as standard.

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When you need to call in a professional, don’t consider it as simply money that you never thought you would need to spend to fix a problem you shouldn’t have had. Think of it as a learning experience and an investment in yourself and your future boating, as well as getting the thing fixed. Be there, watch, ask questions, make sure that you understand. Explain at the outset that you want to learn so that you can handle emergencies on the water when there is no help around and that you appreciate his expertise. Some mechanics object to this because it slows them down. Some object to it because they’re afraid you might see that they don’t know as much as they’re charging you for. If it’s the latter case, you definitely want to be in the know. If it’s the former case it may be fair for you to expect to pay for an extra hour or whatever it takes, or to give a fair tip. The knowledge you gain will probably be more than worth it. What you learn will probably be relevant not only to that issue, but, in general, to many others. Some mechanics, depending on the job, appreciate having a free “gofer” or helper: you.

Take it slow, remember that the very best have their learning curves, and don’t think you’re a failure if you screw something up. Think of it as learning and use the experience to help you next time. I can tell you some real horror stories of mistakes made by some very good professional mechanics, and some pretty fair non professional mechanics—like me.

One major area of mistake is to not remember how to get the mess back together. If you’re worried about this, make diagrams of what the job looks like before you begin and at various intermediate stages. Label parts. I often do this by putting them in Ziploc bags and writing on them, by putting them in plastic yogurt or butter containers, or using labels that I tie or tape on. Pay attention and, if you feel a need, make note of details. For example, it isn’t unusual when removing a series of bolts that one or more will be longer than the others. If you try to put these back in a short bolt hole you may round off the head.

Above all, be safe. If the problem is in an area that involves safety, and these include but are hardly limited to fuel and electricity and you’re not familiar with the standards and don’t have the skills and knowledge, leave it to someone who does. Or if, for example, you’re working on a steering problem and you’re not sure about what you’re doing, you may need help to avoid safety issues. Safety, as you do the job and as you use the boat after the job, is always paramount. As time passes you’ll be taking on more and more jobs.

If you just can’t get the hang of the mechanical stuff, don’t sweat it. You probably make it up in other things. Very few of us are just born with the ability to be a good mechanic or to learn how overnight. Some of us are better at it than others, and you may be one of the “others,” but that doesn’t mean that you may not be able to become proficient enough to solve a reasonable range of problems, save some money, save some days on the water, add to your safety margin and live to brag about it.

Boating and water sports involve risk.  Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk.  You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others.  Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.