Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

 Successfully starting an outboard motor is one of the most empowering, satisfying feelings on Earth. I have always said I have my favorite sound is the cough an outboard makes as it starts and catches. I think it is because one, it started, and two, it means we are going somewhere. So, in order, here’s your quickie guide to outboards. We use two four-horsepower new Yamaha four strokes in our fleet. Previously, we had two two-horsepower outboards. Here’s a step-by-step guide to operating them:

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

If the outboard is stored tipped up, almost level horizontally, prop out of the water, rock it a bit like a seesaw and find the fulcrum, the pivot point. From there, look for a lever that once released will allow you to pivot the motor to an upright position that allows the propeller to sit in the water.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

When you are under sail, you will probably grab the back of the outboard where there is a handle, and pull it toward you or the front of the boat to engage that hook and bring the prop out of the water, reducing drag, increasing boat speed. Make sure you remember where the release is so you can use the outboard to return to port, prop back in the water.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

First, fuel. This is intensely important. While some people have memorized that four strokes need pure fuel – no oil added – and two strokes need mixed fuel – fuel with oil mixed in – I heard a rumor that some of the new four stroke outboards take mixed!

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

I do know, in the garage, there are several motorized items; chainsaws, saw on a stick, leaf blower, mower, edger, and they all seem to take something different. One of our chainsaws uses the “green cans” of fuel, the other uses the “red cans.” I also know some of those things in the garage need pure fuel – like the mower – and some need mixed – like the leaf blower. For safety, every can should be labeled with the ratio of fuel:oil, and for which implement it is intended. That way, if any do-gooder finds them self falling to edging instead of motoring; they won’t ruin a motor in the process.

So, those four strokes – if some use pure, and some use mixed, (fuel), then I needed a better way to distinguish which needs what. Actually, years ago, I also realized that the stickers do fade or wear off the motors, and sometimes you don’t know if you are looking at a two- or four-stroke, so, I devised a really simple method to tell them apart because if you use the wrong fuel, they will quit.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

Look around the engine – on the outside, if you see a glass bubble about the diameter of a nickel or a quarter, it looks like a fish eyeball, then you are intended to look in this “window” and see the oil level. Well, if you are seeing the oil level, then the oil must not be mixed with the fuel, so, this outboard will use pure gas.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

To be sure about which fuel to use; remove the cowling – you need to know how it comes off anyway – and find the oil dipstick. It probably will be yellow, and have a raised “gravy boat” drawing on it, like Alladin’s lamp. Open it, and look at the oil level. Fill if needed. If there is an oil dipstick, then the oil is separate. Use pure fuel. If the oil runs out, the engine may be damaged, and it will quit.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

If you are still not sure, check the owner’s manual. You can either consult the original, or search for it online, create a pdf, and save it to your notes app in your cell phone for future questions and ease of finding it while you are far from the dock.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

Top off the fuel – now that you know which type you need. If someone has not provided you with a fuel tank, you will have to mix your own.  If you don’t fill the tank, faster rather than later, it will quit.

Here is a great calculator for on mixing fuel, from Tohatsu, that allows you to change the oil measurement and the mixture ratio.

The owner’s manual might give you a very rough estimate on fuel consumption, but the manufacturer has no idea what size boat you put the motor on, how many people are on the boat, how much wind you are motoring into or with, what type of seas you are slamming into or surfing down, what tide and currents you are riding or fighting, or even how dirty your bottom is. Take extra fuel with you. Some are very miserly and only sip fuel – others are gulper and will use it fast. And it will quit.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

Take care while filling the outboard on a small sailing vessel. Warn crew to not rock the boat, and have them stand on the dock if possible while fueling. Close the hatch to the cabin so fumes don’t “fall” in there, and open it when finished fueling to air out any lingering fumes. Keep a small rag handy for any spills, and take care not to spill all over the boat or in the water. At the fuel dock, if you are filling tanks for your dinghy; offload tanks to be filled, close the hatches to keep the fuel from falling inside; then open them after fueling to air out the cabin.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

The older-style fill tubes allowed you to see directly into the fuel tank so you could judge when to slow down filling – the newer models have a flapper to keep fuel from squirting out, so that means you can’t see how much more to put in, so, remove the cowling so that you can see the actual tank and slow down when appropriate.

Replace cowling, replace fuel cap, and while you’re right there, set the fuel cap to “open.” This allows air to enter the fuel tank to displace fuel being burned. If the cap is closed, fuel cannot feed through the motor, and it will quit.

Some caps are marked “open” and “closed,” others you simply “unscrew” them a bit – it’s a smaller cap on top of the main fuel cap.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

The choke – the symbol for the choke is a small circle with a line through it, representing a flutter valve or shutter valve. Beyond the scope of this article, but, it controls rate of fuel flowing through the engine. You can see it below, the furthest item to the left, to the left of the red kill switch. It makes the mixture in the carburetor richer – rather like a fast idle.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

If the engine is cold, pull it all the way out. If the engine is warm, you may be able to start the engine with the choke in a “halfway in/halfway out” position if it has that. A very warm engine may start with no choke. Consult the owner’s manual for more detail if necessary.

Fuel switch – AKA pet cock – somewhere, you will find an on/off manual lever for the fuel supply. All outboards are like cars; they pretty much all have all the same thingies, only in different places. It’s your job to find them; just like finding the windshield washer in a rental car; it’s there, just gotta find it. Depending on the outboard, this switch may have two or three settings. Small simple outboards tend to have “on” and “off.” Sometimes there might not be words, but a symbol of a fuel gas pump, like the picture on the instrument in your car that shows you on which side of the car your fuel fill lies.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

On a larger outboard, there may be three settings, and it’s like a bad game of Pictionary. The first time I saw this one, I thought one setting is for fuel, one setting is for sending off in the mail for a replacement outboard, and the third setting surely means get out your shotgun and put this beast out of its misery.

Only one of those was correct – fuel off is the one that looks like a fuel pump with a line through it. When that line wears off, I’ll be thinking it means fuel “on.” The symbol that looks like my open mailbox actually means to depict the throttle handle, and a dark bit representing the internal fuel tank – so, setting the lever there means internal fuel is accessed. The shotgun? Nope, it actually is supposed to mean an external fuel tank – get it? – a big black flat tank, the kind with a bulb you pump, and a float meter, and a fuel hose that fits into the socket on the motor. Make your choice. If you leave it on the “fuel off” setting, there might be enough fuel in the carburetor to get you either upwind of a much more expensive vessel, or near some rocks with a good onshore breeze, and when that fuel is burned, it will quit.

Throttle. I rather like the older models with a turtle and a hare – hard to misinterpret “fast” and “slow.” Here you are looking for an indication of a setting position for starting, and maybe one for stopping. Newer models have a graduation of lines – shorter lines is slower, longer lines is faster.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

On the throttle handle, there also might be a small plastic knob – that might be your “cruise control” that holds the throttle in that position to keep the speed somewhat constant. If the engine is vibrating a lot, the screw might loosen, the throttle sink below run to stop, and it will quit.

Next check that curly red cord – that is attached to the “kill switch.” Just like on a jetski or a treadmill, if that is yanked off the engine, it will quit. Make sure the clip is under the button – there is a “C”-shaped clip that rests under the kill switch. If it’s not under there, the engine will not start. Note where the – possibly red – button is – that will be your kill switch. You have to depress it longer than you think to get the engine to quit. If you don’t hold it down long enough, the engine slows, shudders, then restarts!

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

Ok, set the throttle to the start or fast position, and get ready to pull.

Check that the engine is in neutral – some engines have no neutral; they simply spin the propeller faster the more you throttle, others have a lever. Usually toward the front of the motor is “forward,” and toward the back is “backward,” and upright is “neutral.”  Some outboards have only forward, and you must turn them 180° to drag the boat backward. They might not have a neutral setting – it’s go slow, or go fast,

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

First, think back to how you start a lawn mower – you don’t pull from the machine. You actually pull out a bit of slack, feel for the resistance, then pull. If you pull from the machine, with your hand at the motor, if you are off – stroke, you can get some nasty, nasty whiplash. That rubber handle will find either the soft flesh on the side of your knee, or your chest, and beat you like a policeman’s blackjack. The bruise is nearly guaranteed to turn purple today, then sickly yellow tomorrow. And cause you to use salty language.

Before the pull, though, there are a few good habits  – check behind your elbow, on whichever side is your pulling/starting hand – make sure you are not going to knock out anyone’s teeth, or connect your elbow with something fixed and make your funny bone activate. The other consideration is bracing yourself – wedge yourself or balance yourself in such a way that you won’t fall backward when the engine starts.

If you perform several pulls without starting the engine, it just might flood. And then it won’t start. Wait five minutes, be patient, and try again. I know, that’s not a fun prospect if you are drifting toward rocks. So, it’s a good idea to practice your starting technique at the dock several times so that when you are on the water, you are familiar with that particular outboard, and can start it in one or two good strong pulls.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

Double check that you are in neutral, and “pull like it stole from you!” Be ready – as soon as it catches, you will want to throttle down and start obsessing about how soon you should ease the choke back into the engine. Move the choke back into the motor, and test out the forward and reverse; make sure the engine operates correctly.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

Look for the cooling water that should be streaming from somewhere in the back of the engine. Unless it’s an air cooled engine. Then you won’t be able to hear yourself tell a crew member that the engine is cooling correctly, because it will be loud. If it is a water cooled engine, you will see the stream. If not, it could be full of dirt from a dirt dobber, or have sucked something into the intake. Check both. If the engine is not producing water, it will overheat. Then it will quit.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

All right; get out there, raise your sails, kill the engine and tilt it out of the water. If it spews fuel, close that air vent. Remember to re-open the air vent and start the engine anytime things look dangerous, the current overcomes the wind and you can’t sail, when going through bridges in case the wind dies between the spans, or anytime you even think you need it.

, Meet the Outboard Motor – Sailing the Small Boat

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What to read next: Teaching Sailing on Small Boats

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  • Angela Waterford June 25, 2019 at 11:48 am

    It’s interesting to know that two-stroke outboard motors need mixed fuel. I think I’ll buy one from a good store for my small sailing vessel since my brother will go out fishing next month. If I can buy a two-horsepower outboard motor for my boat, that would be great.

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