After towing them home, I wondered if this incident was the exception. What caused the most springtime breakdowns and are they easily preventable?

Nobody wants a disappointing season opener whether it is a sporting event or the first spring day on the water. Especially like the one that happened not long ago when a couple in a disabled pontoon boat waved frantically at me. 

As I pulled alongside, the man said, “I can’t imagine what happened, the engine started a little hard at our dock and then ran okay for a while but now it died and we are two miles from our place. I tried restarting a couple of times but the battery just died too.”

After towing them home, I wondered if this incident was the exception. What caused the most springtime breakdowns and are they easily preventable?

Service managers Luke Burris at Bass World Sports and Dan Swanson at Iguana Boat Sales unanimously stated that in their experience it is all too common for boaters to have preventable breakdowns in the spring.

“We see a lot of lower unit problems. People don’t have the lower unit oil changed and seals inspected, then water seeps into the gearcase and freezes causing gear failure.” said Burris. Sometimes fishing line becomes wrapped around the shaft behind the prop, which damages the seal, and then water infiltrates the lower unit oil. Both outboard and outdrive engines are susceptible. 

Swanson echoes Burris’ comments and adds, “Owners should not allow a boat’s lower unit to be submerged for extended periods. Make sure the lift raises high enough to keep the lower unit dry.” He also believes lower units should not be tilted up because rainwater can seep through a damaged seal into the lower unit oil. However, some current Evinrude outboards have a nose cone drain that prevents this problem. 

The skeg (sternward keel extension) should also be out of the water because ice can freeze around docks. Burris said, “If the dock or boat moves with the skeg frozen in ice, the skeg can break off causing an expensive repair.”

Burris also reminds boaters to have their water pump impeller changed at least every two to three years while performing lower unit service.

Swanson raises the issue of a marine engine’s cooling system. “Most people don’t realize the engine’s cooling system needs to be winterized too, both inboard and outboard,” he said. Also, annual service can help keep the intake and outlet ports free of debris and algae growth, which helps keep the engine from overheating.

Swanson emphasized the importance of keeping the battery charged during the winter. “Boaters should have a trickle charger installed to keep the batteries fully charged during the cold winter months. A common mistake is failure to keep a battery charged then the electrolyte freezes and ruins the battery,” he said.

A fully charged battery (1.300 specific gravity) has a freezing point of -95 degrees while a discharged battery (1.100 specific gravity) has a freezing point of 18 degrees. Once a battery freezes, rejuvenation is impossible.

My bass and pontoon boats remain on automatic or trickle chargers all winter. However, my trickle charger failed last year because of improper installation and damaged the battery, no doubt because of a powerline glitch. Lesson learned — make sure the charger’s output circuit is properly fused. My dock has a 20-ampere GFI breaker feeding all circuits, and turning 20-amps loose in a failed trickle charger is never a good thing.

My new Guest 3 Stage Automatic 2 Amp trickle charger is equipped with a 5 Amp “bus” fuse in the charging circuit. Where not already supplied, the simple fix is to install an ATC/ATO auto/marine 2-blade fuse holder and fuse in the charging circuit. These fuse holders and fuses are available at most automotive stores in the Lake area.

Another very avoidable springtime issue is deteriorated gasoline from being stored all winter. It can clog carburetor jets, fuel injectors and filters, plus Ethanol blended gas can phase separate and seriously damage an engine. This can be prevented by adding a fuel treatment like STA-BIL 360 Marine to the fuel tank. It helps guard against deterioration, ethanol issues, condensation and corrosion. Similar products include Star Brite’s Enzyme Formula Fuel Tank Cleaner and Seafoam’s Motor Treatment.

Boat owners take heart, if you failed to do any of these maintenance steps, some might still be resolved this winter by qualified service personnel, upping the odds of your first springtime boat trip being a happy season opener.