Shop Talk

Boater meets motor in a crash course to prove that she (yes, she) can learn how to fix anything.

I know what it’s like to be a girl in a man’s world. I write about boats, which is still a pretty dudecentric career choice. Fortunately, my gender has never proved a handicap — unless, however, the topic is engines.

So this spring I enrolled in Yamaha University’s Outboard Systems class. My goal wasn’t to open my own shade-tree garage. It was this: to learn the basics of outboard maintenance and operation, and figure out how to speak the language. I’d be the only lady in a roomful of professional marine technicians taking the first steps of a steep climb toward achieving Yamaha Master Technician Certification.

Rolling up to class at 8:15 a.m. Monday, I could feel my confidence deflating. I’m not gonna lie: The shop-hardened, ink-covered, flannel-clad techs standing outside the Yamaha doors chain-smoking and drinking coffee were a wee-bit intimidating. Although they smiled politely and said, “Good morning” as I crept past, I knew I’d have to prove myself.

There would be 10 students in the class — nine other guys and me. Our instructor, Wayne Riddell, is a company veteran and has spent many years as a go-to problem solver officially known as a Regional Technical Adviser. He also developed the Yamaha University curriculum.

“I’ll be your entertainment for the week,” Riddell joked as we politely shook hands.

“I’ll probably be yours too,” I replied, not joking.

At first glance, the course books and materials looked fuzzy through my nontechnical lens. My classmates dealt with this stuff every day; to me, everything was brand spanking new. I thought AC/DC was a band; the only “Ohm” I’d ever heard of was a Gap perfume (spelled “OM”). And what the heck is a diode?

Our first lab exercise taught proper use of a Fluke multimeter. Two weeks earlier, I was staring down shelves of these doohickeys at Fry’s Electronics and asking my husband what on Earth they were for; today, I would use one for shorts-to-ground and resistance testing, important first steps in basic engine troubleshooting.

“What’s a boater without a fluke meter?” I started thinking to myself.

Rather quickly, I began to get the hang of things. Before long I was adjusting pole settings on tachometers, changing dipswitches and rigging fuel gauges. I could take apart a carburetor and trace trim assembly circuits, interpret and distinguish remote oiltank sensor alarms, and hook up the engine’s ECU to a laptop in the hopes it would throw a recognizable diagnostic code.

By week’s end, I wasn’t all that far behind my marinetech classmates. Sure, I lacked their field experience, but I absorbed enough to feel confident calling a dealership the next time my outboard copped an attitude.

Street cred reinstated. Sweet. But the most important lesson was yet to come.

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."

Coming into my outboard training, I figured the tech language would be my most troublesome barrier. Turns out, language problems do create a chasm between the problem and a fix — but not how I thought it would.

At South Wharf Yacht Yard, veteran yard supervisor and fellow Outboard Systems classmate Marc Andre is typically the first person a boater sees when tying up at the dock. He usually bears the brunt of customers’ engine woes — that is, if they can bring themselves to admit the truth.

“Sometimes, we’ve got to pry it out of them,” says Andre. “It’s almost like talking to a teenager.”

The embarrassment keeps boaters fudging — and the tech guys guessing.

“At the beginning of the season, I had a customer call and say he had oil in the bilge and a low-oil alarm was sounding,” recalls Melody. “I asked him if anything happened, and he said no. Turns out somebody crashed into the back [of his boat] with a pontoon. The pontoon went right through the motor and cracked a valve cover.”

In this case, Melody says, “What they didn’t tell us could have blown up the motor.”

His advice: be honest. Spilling the beans on a junior-level mistake might take a few notches out of your captain’s belt, but it could ultimately save thousands in billable hours, and keep you and your passengers safe at sea.

Skirting the facts is bad, but playing backyard mechanic is even worse. “A lot of people try to fix things themselves,” says Andre. “Even if they think they put everything back right, they should still tell the techs what they touched.”

Remember, Melody says: “Technicians are here to help. We want to keep [people] in boating so they pass it on to the next generation. If they trade in their boats for RVs, we’re all out of business.”

20 Questions You Should Answer Before Dialing Outboard 911

When customers drag a sick outboard into Drew Melody’s South Wharf Yacht Yard service department, they don’t always come prepared with a detailed list of symptoms. Luckily, after 25 years of experience repairing engines, Dr. Drew knows exactly how to pry it out of ’em. He’s developed his own list of Top 20 Questions to help marine techs troubleshoot. “One or two answers,” he says, “can save the customer time and money.”

Before making that next 911 call to your technician, first get the 411 on these babies:
[1] When did you first notice the problem?
[2] Did it happen over a period of time or start immediately?
[3] Did something specific or noteworthy happen before the problem started?
[4] What audible alarms sounded (if any)?
[5] What were your gauges reading? did the Check engine light come on? overheat?
[6] What were your fuel and oil levels at the time?
[7] When was the last time you used the boat prior to the problem?
[8] When and where did you last fuel up, and how much fuel did you put in the tank?
[9] Have you changed the prop to a different pitch or had any prop work done recently?
[10] What was the weather like?
[11] Does the problem occur only when the boat's in neutral, or when it's in gear?
[12] How fast were you traveling, or at what rpm?
[13] Is the problem limiting you to a specific rpm (you can't go above a certain rpm; you're stuck in "limp home" mode)?
[14] Was the boat at full capacity? did you have more people on board than usual?
[15] What were you doing at the time (cruising, towing a wakeboard, pulling a skier, etc.)?
[16] Did you hear any noises? Could you see any fluid leaks, sheen in the water, etc.?
[17] Who was operating the boat when you first noticed the problem? Were you/he/she operating it any differently than normal?
[18] Have you recently modified the boat (new transducer, through-hull fittings, etc.)?
[19] When was the last time you replaced your batteries and performed the recommended routine, scheduled maintenance (fuel- and oil-filter changes, etc.)?
[20] How many hours are on the motor?