Don’t forget to winterize your outboard motor

For some people, boating is a year round sport. This is a good thing, since boats thrive on use. In fact, given that the boat and its motor are scrupulously maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t last for decades.

I’m not one of those people. I’m passionate enough about fishing to more than justify owning a boat, make no mistake about that, and I never intend to be without one. But when all is said and done, my hands fit a gunstock better than they do a either a fishing rod or a trolling motor tiller.

Every year, I swear I’m going to devote a few of my precious outdoor days to fall fishing — which can sometimes be the best of the entire year — or to big lake waterfowl hunting, but the truth be told, nine years out of ten I should have winterized my boat and outboard motor by the end of August instead of waiting until my most beloved hunting seasons either are or are about to be underway.

In an ideal world, what for many outdoorsmen is their most expensive toy should spend the winter in a heated indoor environment, but most of us don’t live in Utopia, and neither do our boats. Instead, the lucky ones are stored in unheated sheds and the rest are parked with no defense against the elements beyond a tarp.

Oh well, winterizing is easy, it doesn’t require anything beyond the most basic tools or mechanical ability and it can pay huge benefits next spring. I’m going to start the discussion with outboard motors, because preventable propulsion problems are the number one cause of first-trip-of-the-new-season migraines. And, by the way, that fact remains true for motors that are stored indoors.

I’m far from convinced that today’s alcohol/gasoline blends are going to do very much to save the planet, but I do know for a fact that they’re very hard on outboard motors. If you’re fond of taking risks, leave last year’s fuel in your outboard motor’s carburetor over the winter. If you’re really lucky, you might get away with it. If you’re only sort of lucky, the carburetor’s jets will be plugged with varnish. If you’re one of those guys who wouldn’t have any luck at all if it weren’t for bad luck, not only will your outboard’s carburetor need repair but all of the motor’s fuel hoses will have to be replaced.

The best solution is to disconnect the fuel line and run the motor dry. If you remembered to do this while the boat was still in the water at the end of your last outing of the year, give yourself an attaboy. The rest of us will accomplish the same end at home by supplying cooling water to the motor via a garden hose and a device that fits over the motor’s water intake slots.

Always change the specialized oil in the motor’s lower unit as part of the winterizing process. The seals on all older outboards and many nearly new ones leak enough to allow water into the lower unit even if they’re tight enough to keep the larger oil molecules inside. This water’s relatively harmless when the temperature is above freezing, but it can wreak havoc inside a motor that spends the winter months outdoors.

The trick to working with lower units is to remove the lower drain plug first. Very little oil will leak out until the upper plug is removed. The new oil is then injected through the lower opening until it begins to flow out of the upper one. Replace and tighten the upper plug while maintaining injection pressure. Then replace and tighten the lower plug.

My grandfather taught me that grease was the most effective mechanical breakdown preventative ever invented, and what was true for farm equipment is also true for outboard motors. Grease is usually injected through zerks. Expect to find zerks on the motor shaft casing, the gear shift, the steering cable and anywhere else parts move against each other. Zerks are designed to fit the tip of a grease gun. Fortunately, full sized hand pump grease guns — I’ve tried the mini-sized guns and didn’t like them — aren’t expensive and will last several lifetimes. They can be hard to find for some reason, but buy a gun with a neck made from a metal pipe rather than a flexible hose. You won’t need the flexible hose to reach tight places on an outboard motor, and the solid shaft is much easier to fit onto a stubborn zerk.

After the motor has cooled, remove the spark plugs, give each cylinder a healthy squirt of Sea Foam ® penetrating oil and then replace the plugs. Sea Foam is one of the best rust inhibitors I’ve ever used, and it’s so flammable it can be used as starting fluid, thus eliminating the sometimes valid concern that an oily cylinder will be hard to get to fire next spring.

Next week I’ll take a look at what you’ll need to do to get your boat and trailer ready for its hopefully not-too-long winter’s nap.

Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]

Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]

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