Submerged Outboards

By Tom Neale, 7/1/2004

Submerged Outboards

After Hurricane Hugo pillaged the small shrimping village of McClellanville, South Carolina, the local citizens were on their own as the media, National Guard, and FEMA concentrated on areas of high density population. The storm surge had risen to roof top level. Almost everything had been under the salty ocean waters. Within a day or so, with no help from the outside, they had electric and gasoline pumps and generators running.

If you take the right steps, you can usually save internal combustion and electric motors that have gone in the drink. (You don’t drop electric motors? Consider, for example, that power drill that loves to go swimming whenever you take it on deck.) It always helps to get expert professional help, or help from a fellow boater who knows his stuff in this area. But sometimes out in paradise we don’t have this luxury, so read on. We’re going to talk about some good things to do if you drop over an electric motor and an outboard.

Retrieve the thing right away, and start working on it as soon as it comes out of the water. If you must wait before you begin, store it in clean fresh water until you can get around to it—but the sooner the better. The longer it’s submerged, the lower the chances of survival, particularly in salt water.

If you’re dealing with an electric motor, be sure it’s unplugged from any power source (including batteries) before you do anything. Open it up and check to see that the coils, brushes, etc. inside are clean and clear of junk. Wash it, inside and out, with clean fresh water. Be careful here. Some electric motors have capacitors inside. They are essentially very small but very powerful batteries which store enough electricity to provide a high voltage (high enough to be dangerous to you) boost to help starting. It may have discharged upon submersion, but maybe not. Don’t touch things inside and insulate yourself from the components and water.

You want to remove all traces of salt and silt. If you’ve dropped it in fresh water, you’re a step ahead, (one of the benefits of lake cruising) but it’s still probably a good idea to wash it in clean fresh water. After the washing, let it dry. If it’s small enough to put it in an oven, with as many of its closed areas as practical open, this can help to dry it quickly, as long as you don’t heat it too much. Or, you may want to carefully use a hair dryer or heat gun. The key is to get it dry with as little chance as possible to rust before you try to put it back into commission. “Getting it dry” includes getting the moisture out of the coils you’ll see inside.

Spray it inside and out with CRC 6-56 or similar lubricant. Water displacing lubricants are obviously the best to use. This should include the bushings or bearings in which the shaft turns. When it’s thoroughly dry, power it up, BUT BE CAREFUL. Electricity and water, as you know, are very dangerous things to mix. Be sure the power source has a proper circuit breaker, a Ground Fault Interrupt (GFI), is wired correctly, and that no one is touching the motor or any conducting material that it may be touching. (For example, don’t be standing barefooted on a wet dock on which it’s sitting.) If the power source is an internal battery, be sure it’s dry before reinserting it. It may have discharged during submersion.

Let it run. If you detect smells of overheating, or if it seems to be laboring or making unusual noises, shut it down, disconnect it carefully from the power source, and check it out again. Let it dry some more unplugged, spray it with water displacing lubricant unless you think you’ve done enough already, and try again. It’s good to let it run (if it seems to be running without problem) for a long time. Take it to a shop as soon as you can.

As you can see, I’ve spoken only in very general terms, because what you need to do varies with what you’ve dropped, where you’ve dropped it, and how long it’s taken you to get up the nerve to go down and get it. I’m just trying to give you a start in the right direction should you find yourself in this classic boater’s predicament without professional help around. Above all, be careful and have fun.

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Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale