Sportboat Buying Check Points: #4 - 07/20/2011

There are so many things to consider when buying a new boat, anyone can overlook one or two. But one thing you should be sure to check, and carefully, before signing on the dotted line is your intended vessel's engine compartment. You'll be spending more time here than you think, and if your engine is difficult to access, or lives in a cramped or poorly arranged space, you'll tend not to visit it as often as you should. It's just human nature. But fall short on maintenance and daily inspections and you'll pay the price down the road.

Sportboat Buying
This Sea Ray 270 SLX has a MerCruiser 8.2 MAG sterndrive. The Merc is a good, reliable motor, but it still needs maintenance, which means you have to be able to get at it easily. That's why engine room design is important.

Check Point #4: Engine Rooms

Sportboat Buying
Compared to smaller inboard boats and, even worse, sailboats, sterndrive sportboats generally have decent engine access. The engine aboard this Bayliner 255 SB is easy to reach all around, thanks to a large hatch in the cockpit sole.

A. Is Daily Maintenance Easy?

Modern marine engines are generally very reliable, but they'll last longer and give you fewer problems if you follow a pre-start procedure religiously. And that procedure will include checking all fluids – lube oil, transmission, heat exchanger in a freshwater-cooled engine; inspecting the engine, and under the engine, for fuel or oil drips that weren't there last time; checking belts for correct tension and signs of wear – a poorly tensioned belt will wear out sooner; looking for corrosion on electrical connections, including the batteries; checking for excess water in the bilge; operating all seacocks – almost no one does this, and then when water's pouring in through a broken hose they discover the seacock is frozen.

Sportboat Buying
In the perfect world, we'd all have engine rooms like this one, aboard a Hatteras 72 Motor Yacht. But most of us must make do with compartments that are way more cramped.

Once you become familiar with your engine, all of the above can be done in a few minutes. But you must be able to get to all sides of your engine to check fluids and belts, and, when it's time, to change fuel and oil filters, and to change the oil itself. Other equipment in the engine room such as the battery, pumps, blower and other equipment must all be readily accessible. All below-the-waterline thru-hull fittings must be easily accessible.

Sportboat Buying
Here's the other extreme, a triple-engine Cigarette raceboat. When these big Mercury Racing engines need help (which is often), step one is to pull them out – a luxury few of us have. Mechanics pull these engines out almost as easily as you kick off your Top-Siders.

B. What About Repairs or Removal?

Remember that on virtually all boats of all sizes the engines and all related gear are installed in the boat before the deck is placed over it. That makes it easy to install the equipment, but it may mean maintenance can be difficult. One key to proper maintenance is ease of access, a factor that not all boatbuilders worry about. Sometimes it's hard even to see critical components, let alone reach them. Fortunately, most sportboats have decent engine access – but try reaching all the vitals of a typical sailboat engine!

Sportboat Buying
Look at all the room around the engine on this Baja 245; it's a boatowner's dream. Even guys with a little extra around the middle can take care of this engine.

Whether you can reach all the critical parts of your engine will depend on physiognomy: Thin people have it easier, especially those with extra-long arms. Those of us with more robust figures often cannot squeeze into the small spaces on many boats. (That's why the best mechanics are tall and skinny, and double-jointed.) We advise trying the engine room on for size before buying any boat.

C. Can Water Get In?

Both the engine room air vents and the exhaust risers on stern drive engines should be as high off the waterline as possible and not susceptible to water ingestion. While all builders do this as a matter of course, the design of the boat will dictate how high these two critical aspects of the engine room can be. The large the body of water and the more aggressive the boat will be used, the higher off the waterline you want them.

Sportboat Buying
Boats with through-transom exhausts, like this Baja 245, must have flappers over them to keep water out in following seas or when backing down.

Most sportboats have underwater exhausts, but some people add exhaust cutouts for a little added power and noise; these exit through the transom, and can take on water in certain conditions. That water ends up in the exhaust manifold or, in extreme cases, the cylinder head. Any though-transom exhausts should have flappers or other means to preven this.

D. Is the Hatch Easy to Lift?

The hatch to the engine room should be easy to raise. Most builders now install gas-assist struts and some even have electrically-actuated lifts. When looking at new boats, be sure to open every engine hatch. If it takes more than one or two steps, e.g., grab a deck ring and pull the hatch up, or lift it by a handle, or push a button and watch it open electrically, you'll find excuses not to do it. "I'll check the oil next time" is every marine mechanic's favorite phrase, because he knows you won't, and eventually you'll need his skills. His expensive skills.

Sportboat Buying
The engine compartment on many boats are lifted with the help of a gas-assist strut. If the hatch is light, this is fine, but heavier hatches are better fitted with electric lifts.

What if your electrically operated engine hatch won't open? Before getting the chop saw, look for an access port over the pin on the hydraulic cylinder that opens the hatch. That will let you remove the pin and open the hatch manually, although it could be heavy. Have something ready to prop it open. If there's no access port, call your mechanic. This is something you should have asked about when you bought the boat; next time, you'll know...

Sportboat Buying: 10 Check Points #1-  Performance
Sportboat Buying: 10 Check Points #2- How Much Horsepower? Which Brand Engine
Sportboat Buying: 10 Check Points #3- Which Drive System? How Many Props?
Sportboat Buying: 10 Check Points #4- Engine Rooms
Sportboat Buying: 10 Check Points #5- What Hull Shape is Best?