Trouble-shooting hints from John Reeves (including trunks…)

Many of the craft on our rivers have outboards, and there are plenty on the cut too. I have experienced problems and can share solutions as even fairly new outboards can have issues sometimes. I am not an engine person but have learned a lot by necessity, and I would guess that many boaters share my inexperience. I started with a 1998 Honda 9.9 four-stroke electric button start and now have a relatively new Honda BF10 remote key electric start.

While I would still prefer to have an experienced engineer do even a simple service, I can fit and remove an engine and Morse control unit, including cables and steering arm. A few pointers might help engine novices.

When for some reason it is stuck in reverse or forward gear

If it will go into neutral using the Morse lever then the cable seems to be connecting with the engine parts. You can check the movement by removing the engine cover and moving the Morse lever without the engine running. You should see the rod at the end of the gear cable (and in fact the one for the carburettor too) moving backwards and forwards, operating levers up and down in the engine. If all seems well there, the same movement is presumably not getting to the gearbox at the bottom of the outboard. This most likely means that the rod through the top part and the one in the bottom part have become disconnected. There should be a hex double-ended 2cm nut connecting the two where there is also a locking nut on one rod. There is a small gap between the two parts of the engine and you should be able to see or feel the bolt in the centre; if not then it has probably fallen out into the water and you’ll need to source another. If it is still there you might be able to screw it back on and use a spanner to tighten the locking nut (probably 10mm). The Morse can be put alternately into reverse and forward to enable you to screw to the two rods. It is fiddly so you might prefer to get a knowledgeable person to do the job for you; I certainly did! My boat is only 26ft so we were able to swing it round at 90 degrees to the towpath with ropes so that we could do the job without taking the engine off the boat.

I guess you might be unlucky with an old engine and the bolt still be in place but a rod has broken or its screw end become worn. Alternatively the rod in the top part might have become disconnected from the levers. These last two rather imply some serious mechanics, replacing long rods perhaps.

If not going into neutral then it is likely the cable has snapped, so take the cover off, operate the Morse lever and check that the gear rod is moving. If it does move normally then the cable has not broken, so either it has jumped out of its nipple hole and clip or the lever mechanism has become disconnected for some reason. If the latter, then if you cannot sort out why the gear levers are not moving when the rod moves you are likely to have to call an engineer. If the end of the rod is not connected to the levers because it has fallen out of the clip housing (which happened to me after a service on the K&A this year), line up the large hole of the clip with the hole in the lever arm, push the grooved nipple at the end of the rod into the hole and push the clip down so that it engages round the groove and holds the rod firmly against the lever.

If yours has a slightly different form such as a spring clip or split pin, the same principle applies; push it in and attach the holding item. Check it is secure by trying to pull it off again without touching the clip or pin, then move the Morse lever backwards and forwards to check that it now operates the levers correctly before replacing the engine cover.

In the likely event that the cable has snapped (which happened to me on the Thames in 2017 above Oxford and I drifted into a bridge and then a weir barrier; no harm done!), you will need to remove the old cable from the engine and also from the Morse. If you want to make sure you purchase one of the same length at a chandlers you are likely to need to do this before buying it in order to match it up. Many professionals recommend that we change both cables when one breaks for two reasons: i) the other may be the same age and worn too and likely to break at some point soon, and ii) you will then have a spare that you can keep for emergencies over the years to come. If you are a novice like me, make a note of each stage of taking things apart so that you can do the reverse procedure easily. Undo the clips or split pin of the nipples at the rod ends of the cables so that the rods drop out freely. Depending on your engine you may need a screwdriver, spanner or hex key to undo the bolts which hold down the entry point of the cables at the corner of the engine housing. Take care here as the cables are held in place by a specially grooved thin metal housing that has been pushed down into slots to hold them into place before getting the rubber entry bung to fit over it.

Once you have undone the bolts and lifted the corner of the engine housing and removed the rubber bung, carefully lift out the metal housing and store it with the rubber bung. These things are all small and easily dropped into the water behind your boat if you don’t take care. If you have the opportunity it is good to place a large fine net around the engine underneath in case of accident, but this is time consuming so I admit I have never bothered myself; so far no bits have been dropped, but I guess there’s always a first time. Unscrew or unbolt your Morse from its mounting point unless it is at a point of good access without doing so. Remove the cover and examine the mechanism for how the cables are secured and clipped into place. If you have not done this before then follow the cables from the engine so that you can identify which is the fuel/accelerator arm and which the gear; alternatively move the Morse lever and see the one that moves in the same direction whether in reverse or forward is the fuel cable. Note their positions so that you are sure when reconnecting later. Release the clip mechanisms, noting how they are mounted and store them carefully. Do everything in reverse after purchasing new cable(s) and check the operation of the levers in the engine before replacing the cover.

When for some reason the engine suddenly dies or will only idle

In many ways this is very similar to diagnose and solve as with the gear comments in section 1 above as it is likely that the carburettor cannot function and call in fuel because its connection line has been broken. It is of course possible that the fuel strainer/filter is blocked and will only allow a trickle through, or that the fuel pump is faulty, or indeed that you are low on fuel and the pressure is at a point when a minimal amount is getting through from the supply tank. But if it has been a sudden loss of power (as happened to me recently at a lock on the K&A just as I was entering it; I had to be rescued with ropes by a kind lady walker.) then in all probability the cable has broken or the rod at the end of it has jumped out of its clip housing (or a split pin fallen out perhaps).

Assuming the sudden loss of power, remove the engine cover and observe the rods and levers when moving the Morse control lever. If the carburettor rod moves well then the cable has not broken and the problem lies in the engine. If the rod has fallen out of its clip housing then follow the advice as per the gear rod I gave. If it is secure then the mechanism is possibly not operating the carburettor levers correctly. If you can follow the connections you might find something has broken or become loose that you can solve. If not then it is likely to be an engineer call for you. If the carburettor rod at the end of the cable does not move when the Morse lever is pulled then the cable is broken or there is a problem at the Morse end where it might have worn in some way. You will need to remove the Morse cover to check the latter possibility, and, assuming that it sits correctly in the Morse mechanism, you will need to remove the cable and get a new one from a chandlers. Follow the advice for changing a gear cable I have given and consider changing both cables as is suggested there.

If the loss of power has been gradual then initially check for cable problems as earlier but it could well be one of the other reasons listed in the introduction to this section, or indeed a problem in the carburettor itself where the needle may be stuck for example. There may be a myriad of other reasons, but you can check anything you feel confident with such as looking at the fuel filter. You could start by topping up with fuel if it is low; I did that in March this year and it solved a problem, even if I don’t know why! I then squeezed the fuel line bulb a few times until it felt hard and all was well after that. On one occasion a few years ago I had removed the engine cover too quickly, and therefore rather carelessly, and caught its clip on the fuel line entering the fuel pump after the filter. It broke the gun metal end of fuel pump off and I was left with a jagged stump and nothing for the rubber line to fit over.

Talk about loss of power, well you can guess; a strong smell of fuel to go with it. I was in a hurry coming down the Southern Oxford and had to get via the Thames to Newbury on the K&A for a rendezvous and did not have the time to call out an engineer and wait. It was my old 1998 Honda so I hatched a plan and hoped it might work; it was worth a go anyway. I had to find a way of holding the rubber fuel hose against the fuel pump on what was left of the nipple that had been ripped off by my carelessness. I decided that if it didn’t work that I would only need a new hose and fuel pump which was exactly the case even before the attempt anyway. I took some yellow synthetic twine and wrapped it tightly round the rubber tube many times, securing with a reef knot and then smearing it all with a five-minute epoxy curing glue. The remaining 2ft at both ends of the twine were then tightly wrapped around the fuel pump several times and again tied with a reef knot and the whole smeared with the same epoxy resin. Magic! I gave it about 30 minutes to cure (24 hours fully set) and tried the engine again. It burst into life and as far as I know is still going strong to this day .

So as a novice you can do it! Just take care, think, and get advice if you can (I couldn’t on that occasion as I was in remote countryside at the end of April with very few boaters about). If you are like me and can be impulsive, slow yourself down to canal pace, make notes, avoid doing the obviously stupid stuff if you can, and be prepared to admit defeat and call in the experts if necessary. The trouble with the latter is that they might say, ‘I’m busy right now; I’ll try to get to you in a fortnight’s time’. That happened to me when totally stuck in Coventry during my first week on the cut. The engine just would not go even though it seemed to try every time. I gave up after phoning all sorts of marinas, service companies and engineers over two whole days, including some RCR (I was not a member then) suggestions.

I was a total novice as you are about to realise. I decided to try to do something myself. I pulled the outboard up out of the water for the first time that week and found an enormous pink plastic bag wrapped around the prop; okay, time for you to have a laugh, that’s fine. I kept a pair of swimming trunks and wet shoes on board after that (and still do) and found myself in the river or canal ten times that summer tending my prop (mostly around the London area I have to admit).

So guys and gals of the boating fraternity, if you have an outboard, be prepared to have a go when you experience problems, but call on help when you have to. I hope these experiences, tales, and advice have or will help somebody. Happy boating!

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