In my quest to unearth the secret decoder ring of outboard troubleshooting, I did make a startling realization: Being a marine technician requires psychic abilities. Not only must techs master each system on every engine model, but they’re also expected to read minds. When boaters have outboard troubles and all they can offer as a possible explanation is, “It’s making a funny noise” or “It won’t start,” techs are left palming the crystal ball of their clients’ brains and attempting to absorb details by osmosis.
They don’t teach that at Yamaha University.
In fact, several technicians in my Outboard Systems class struggle with this phenomenon daily at their respective dealerships.
“It can be hard for boaters to explain what the problem is,” says Sandy Poole, a technician with Marine Outlet Inc. in Temple, Texas. “You’ll ask them what kind of noise the engine’s making, and they can’t describe it. You wind up making your own sound effects until they say, ‘Yes, that’s it!’”
Engine troubleshooting is a lot like crimescene investigation, where every detail factors into nabbing whodunit. “There are 100 different noises that can each point to 100 different problems,” Poole explains. “People have to be specific about what happens and when.”
Making note of speed, rpm, weather conditions and oil and fuel levels when problems first surface helps techs form logical conclusions.
“A customer might think it’s silly to tell us something happens only when the stereo’s on or only when it rains, but believe it or not, all that information is helpful,” says Drew Melody, a Yamaha Master Technician with 25 years experience working on Yamaha outboards. Melody is the service-department foreman at South Wharf Yacht Yard in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Through the years, Melody has developed his own version of 20 Questions to Pinpoint the Origin of Outboard Problems.
“A lot of times a customer will say the engine overheated, but they won’t tell you that they found a garbage bag wrapped around the lower unit,” he says. “[Customers] have to play a major role in telling us what’s going on.”
Equally problematic, explains technician and Yamaha classmate Alvin Miller, is that boaters sometimes ignore the obvious first signs of outboard trouble. Located in the tourist-heavy town of Islamorada, Florida, Miller operates a mobile marine service throughout the Florida Keys and frequently takes calls from vacationing families who aren’t well versed in boats or engines.
“I had a customer call up and say that every time he goes to get up on plane, the alarm goes off,” Miller recalls. “He tried two or three times, and the same thing kept happening. Run, run, run; alarm, alarm, alarm. Turns out he wasn’t even looking at his gauges when the alarm sounded. Oil wasn’t transferring from the remote tank. He overheated because he pushed the motor too much.”