Outboard Boat Engine Won't Start: Common Issues and Fixes
We've all been there - your boat is in the water and packed with guests and gear. You're finally set to take off and go to crank the motor only to find that the boat won't start. Along with a few choice words, your first reaction will probably be something along the lines of "oh great, I wonder how much this is going to cost me".
Don't fret just yet! As with any modern motor, there are simple steps to follow to identify the source of the problem and begin troubleshooting the issue. With any luck and with the help of these common outboard starting fixes, you'll be able to identify and fix the issue in no time and save the day (as well as some money).
Engine Won't Crank or Cranks Slowly
Check the Gauges
If the engine doesn't crank at all, turn the key to the on position and check to see if other lights and gauges operate correctly. If everything else is dead too, check the outboard's main fuse.
If your boat has a battery switch, ensure that it's switched to the on position and try again.
Most outboards will not crank if the boat is in gear. If the engine won't crank but other lights and gauges work correctly, check that the gear shift is in neutral.
If the engine cranks slowly or doesn't crank at all, it's possible your battery may be dead or low. Use a voltmeter to check the condition of your battery. If the voltmeter reads below 12 volts, your battery most likely is the problem and may need to be jumped or replaced.
If your battery is holding adequate charge, the cables or connectors may be faulty. Check and clean the battery terminals and connectors to rid them of any corrosion buildup. Inspect the cables for any cracks, corrosion, or other obvious signs of wear that may impact their performance. Once the terminals and connectors have been cleaned and the cables have been inspected, securely attach them back to the battery and see if this solves the issue.
Check Your Starter
If you hear a clicking sound or a low whine when you turn the key, the starter solenoid may be the issue. Before having a mechanic take a closer look, first try the old method of tapping the starter motor lightly with a hammer before turning the key again. This may knock the internal connections back into place allowing them to make better contact. This method may get you out of a bind once or twice, but you should quickly replace the solenoid before its condition worsens and leaves you stranded for good.
Engine Cranks But Won't Start
If your boat has an emergency shutoff switch, check that the cap is firmly in place or the engine might not start.
If you experience trouble starting the engine, engine hesitation, loss of power, or decreased acceleration, you may have failing spark plugs. Check the spark plugs for signs of damage. Any spark plug that contains moisture or black soot indicates that it is damaged and should be replaced.
This one is obvious, but check that the boat actually has fuel in it. You never know when fuel gauges will fail! If the boat has fuel, check your primer to make sure fuel is making its way to the engine. If your boat has a primer bulb, pump the bulb to ensure it fills with fuel and feels firm after several squeezes. If it doesn't, check for obvious signs of leaks or that the primer bulb itself doesn't have a bad valve. If your boat is equipped with an electric primer, check that it's working properly by removing the hose leading to your intake or carburetor and manually operate the primer to see if fuel squirts out. If it does not, you may need to have your primer serviced.
Exhaust and Compression
If you have run through this checklist and your engine still won't start, you may have either blockages to your exhaust or your engine may be lacking compression. Since these issues may require a more resources and experience than the average boater has, we recommend taking the boat in to a certified mechanic at this point to help troubleshoot the issue.