How to Operate an Outboard Engine - 10/17/2018

Tracker Boats Safety Series


Captain’s Report


Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard

Outboard motors are a great part of boating and they seem to be getting better all the time. Like any engine, they need a little attention and care to ensure long, trustworthy service. Knowing the basics of how an outboard works will help take some of the guesswork out of keeping the boat running as it should. As always, the owner’s manual is the best place to get questions answered about a specific motor. But here are a few tips to keep that outboard purring, and help the owner keep his or her crew safe, every time.

Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Using an outboard motor is fairly simple, provided the operator understands the basics of good operation to be safe.

Cooling System. The cooling water intake is in the lower unit of your outboard. That means that the engine must be tilted down into the water for it to cool properly, unless the boater is flushing the engine after a day on the water, and then only with great caution. Never attempt to start the engine unless it’s tilted down into the water. Doing so can be dangerous if anyone is near the propeller and can cause damage to vital cooling parts or seize the engine.

Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
An outboard motor is cooled by water that is picked up through louvers in the lower unit, then pumped up to the powerhead.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Tilt the motor to the down position, then begin the starting procedure.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
There should be no trace of leaks or scent of gas…
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Sniff the bilge to make sure. Gasoline is highly flammable and explosive in a confined area.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Some outboards have a primer bulb connected to the fuel line. Squeeze the bulb until it becomes firm, which means the fuel has reached the fuel pump on the engine and will make starting easier and faster.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
When using a portable fuel tank, be sure the vent on the top of the cap is open. If a boat has a built-in tank, it’s always vented.

Built-In Fuel-Tank Vent. You might want to check the vent to make sure it has not become blocked. Check your owner’s manual for the location of the fuel vent. Most have a screen to prevent insects or small animals from entering. The screens can become clogged. Light brushing with an old toothbrush can clear the screen.

Before Starting

Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Attach the stop-switch safety lanyard to the Run/Off switch and set to on.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Make sure to attach the other end of the stop switch lanyard to a belt loop or life jacket.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
The lanyard will turn the stop switch to OFF if you were to leave your seat for any reason and the engine will stop.

Stop Switch and Safety Lanyard. If this switch is not in the proper position, the engine will not start. By properly setting the lanyard stop switch to the run position and attaching the other end to a belt loop or life jacket, the system will allow the engine to start. This is a safety feature, designed to immediately stop the engine if you leave your seat for any reason, intentionally or by accident. This is an important, possibly life-saving feature. NEVER start the engine without using it.

Starting Procedure

Starting the outboard is a simple procedure, but it’s best to be familiar with the steps outlined in the owner’s manual, as the advice here is good general guidance.

Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Place the shifter in the neutral position, in the middle of the shifter range, and you’ll feel a detent when you shift to it.

In-Gear Release Button. By pressing the in-gear release button, the operator can increase the throttle without shifting into gear, allowing the engine to rev in neutral. When you come back to neutral, the lockout releases and normal shifting resumes. This procedure may be slightly different if your boat is equipped with a SmartCraft® Digital Throttle and Shift system, or DTS. DTS is standard equipment on Mercury Verados and optional on other Mercury engines. Other outboard manufacturers utilize similar features. Be sure by checking the owner’s manual specific to the boat and outboard setup.

Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Push the in-gear release button and advance the throttle. The boat will stay in neutral, but the engine will be getting more gas for the start.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
If it’s cold, or if this is the first start of the day, additional choking may be necessary. To add choke, some systems have the operator push in the key as it is turned.

If the Engine Does Not Start. If the engine doesn’t start within about 10 seconds, stop cranking, recheck the fuel line, pump the bulb again and double check the safety stop switch. Wait about 30 seconds, then try again. Prolonged cranking can overheat and damage your starter, so don’t overdo it. If nothing happens when you turn a key, the shifter is probably not set to the neutral detent. All marine engines have an in gear starting lockout that prevents you from starting the motor when it’s in gear. Make sure the lever is in neutral and try again.

Warm Up. Allow the engine to warm up for a few minutes before pulling back to idle speed. Check to be sure you have water pressure for the engine cooling.

Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
When the engine starts, release the key and immediately reduce the throttle so the RPMs indicated on the tachometer are below 2000. If you do not have a tachometer, reduce the throttle to a fast-idle speed.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
On outboards, there should be a visual indicator that the cooling system is working in the form of a stream of water coming out of engine. If there is no stream, first check to see if the hole is clogged.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
A paperclip or small wire is a good tool for clearing a blockage.

No or Low Water Pressure. If there is no indication of water pressure after about a minute, or pressure is low, you may have a problem with your cooling system. Follow these steps:

    1. Shut off the engine.

    2.Trim up the engine and check the water intakes.

    3. Make sure the intakes are free of weeds, mud or debris.

Blocked water intakes are the most common cause for this malfunction, and can occur any time you are out on the water. If you get a warning buzzer, high heat indication, or low water pressure at any time, stop the motor, trim up and check the intakes.

Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Clear mud and debris with the motor off and tilted until you can see the intakes. Scrub the intakes on both sides of the lower unit with a soft deck brush to clear any blockage.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Carelessly discarded plastic bags can be a real menace. Besides being an environmental hazard, they can wrap around the lower unit and cut off the water flow instantly.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Don’t be careless: Stow all plastic bags, trash, and other items where they cannot blow out.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
Check your gauges for the proper operating range. The Amp meter or voltmeter should show a positive charge.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
A water temperature gauge, if you have one, should be in the suggested operating range.
Chapter 4 – Managing an Outboard
And check the fuel gauge, it never hurts to double check. Make sure you have plenty of fuel for all the activities you have planned for the day.

As with any piece of complex equipment, it’s best to get familiar with the operation of an outboard motor by reading the owner’s manual. Understanding the basic steps of using the motor will become second nature with experience, and trouble-shooting problems will be a simple exercise, provided the outboard is properly maintained.


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