I Learned About Boating From This: Bad Gas

Sometimes a thing as simple as bad gas can ruin your boating fun.

I Learned About Boating From This: Bad Gas
I Learned About Boating From This: Bad GasTim Bower

Ah, boating season is finally here. The ice is off Lake Michigan, and we can’t wait to get our boat out, trolling for salmon and fishing the rocks around Chicago’s marinas for smallmouths; watching the Chicago air show; and heading to the Indiana Dunes lakeshore, where hundreds of boats line up and have a beach party just about every Saturday. As a senior master-certified mechanic for one of the Big Three automakers for 30 years and the go-to guy for all my buddy’s boat problems, I meticulously maintain my 20-foot Renken 3.0 runabout so it’s at the ready for such adventures. Poor maintenance leads to breakdowns and safety issues.

I tune it every season, change all the filters, use full synthetic oil, change all bellows every five years, and replace the gimbal bearing too. I change the water-pump impeller every two seasons and rebuild the carb as needed. My wife thinks I’m obsessed with maintenance, but I never fear running out 10 miles or even across the lake.

So, there it was, May 2015 and the first weekend out. Friday, I fired the boat up in the driveway. Oh, it sounded sweet. I packed a cooler, and Saturday morning we were off to the ramp, launched and running smooth. There was a smile on my face through the no-wake zone. I was just itching to hit the big lake. I rounded the last bend and told my wife, "OK, here we go!" I hit the throttle, the boat jumped out of the hole, and then … chug-chug, cough-cough. Dead in the water.

I restarted and the same thing happened. This couldn’t happen to me. Well, there I was, adrift. I was stumped, and the humility started when I radioed my buddy who was already at the beach to ask for a tow back to the ramp.

Back at home, I checked everything, including timing, compression, fuel delivery, the coil circuit and more. All was good. The engine did exhibit a terrible misfire, but I just thought, since it’s old, maybe there’s a water leak at the head gasket or manifold. It can’t be fuel. I use good-quality fuel and always use stabilizer.

I talked over the issue with my boating mechanic buddies, and we all agreed that maybe it had an internal intake leak. So, I tore it apart, and the intake manifold looked like new. There were no gasket leaks. Next, I pulled the head (hey — I'm there) and brought it to a machine shop for a quick valve job and milling. Then I put it back together. I rebuilt the carb while waiting for the machine shop, as well as replaced the fuel pump and the anti-siphon valve on the tank. I headed over to a local lake and launched it, gave it some throttle and … arrrggghhh! It was still running bad.

I'm crying at this point, for I'm a master technician. I'm stumped, my fellow techs are stumped, and the engine company's online techs are stumped.

At this point, my ever-patient wife said, “Why don’t you drain the fuel and fill it with fresh gas?” Since I had just filled it before we went out to the big lake, it ran great last season when I put it up for winter, and I had stabilized the fuel as always, I told her that could not possibly be the problem.

A minute after she left for work, I drained the tank dry and refilled it. I went to the small lake, and damn if that engine didn’t run like a scalded dog.

Wanted: Your Stories
Share your boating mistakes and mishaps so that your fellow boaters might learn from your experience. Send us your first-person accounts, including what went wrong, what you'd do differently, your name and your city, to editor@boatingmag.com and use "ILAB" in the subject line. If your story is selected for publication, we'll send you a $100 West Marine Gift Card!"