Two weeks ago, my family all headed out to spend an afternoon on the boat. We hooked up our 20’ NauticStar center console, dragged it over to the boat ramp 40 minutes away, and dropped it in the water. When I got behind the helm to start the boat…
Nothing. The engine didn’t turn over, no noises, nothing. The lights on the dash lit up, the instruments were all working, but the motor wouldn’t crank. Dejected, we put the boat back on the trailer, and started to figure out what was wrong.
Enter the Red Herring
Several months ago, after we’d bought the boat used, I noticed something odd. The key, which is encased in a rubber boot, had started to melt. The plastic around the key inside the boot was liquifying, and getting everywhere - including inside the ignition. Apparently, this is a pretty normal behavior for Yamaha keys (the sun, salt and all the other elements just eat it up), but at the time it seemed like a pretty startling condition. (There was even a bit there where I was convinced something was shorting out in the ignition, causing heat, which caused the rubber to melt)
Back to the boat ramp.
With the boat now pulled out of the water, I decided that this is it - the melting rubber has finally killed the ignition, and we need to replace it. A trip to West Marine, and we had a new ignition in hand.
Earlier this afternoon, I finally got around to getting down to the boat to replace the ignition, so we could get out this weekend. I got to the boat, pulled the old ignition out, and cut all the wires (8 of them!) off. With a couple wiring diagrams in hand, I got the new ignition hooked up, and excited for my moment of victory, turned the key.
Shit. “This can’t be good”, I thought. The gauges all worked, the electronics all worked - but again, nothing with the motor. After spending 15 minutes behind the binnacle trying to sort through the rat’s nest of wiring, I threw up my hands. Grabbing my laptop, I googled “Yamaha 4 stroke engine won’t turn over”, and found a video from a shop with the recommended troubleshooting steps.
Step 1: Check the safety lanyard. Is it in? (The safety lanyard is a feature that, when removed, will kill the engine)
Step 2: Is the boat in neutral? With the boat in gear, the motor won’t turn over (just like in a car).
Welp. Shit. Turns out, the throttle was shifted slightly forward, preventing the motor from starting. I shifted back into neutral, and boom, she turned over like the day she left the factory floor.
Turns out, I’d spent two weeks off the water, and replaced the entire ignition assembly because the boat wasn’t in neutral. You have to be kidding me.
The Power of Protocol
When troubleshooting, there are known steps for identifying and fixing a problem. Other people have usually had a very similar problem, and they’ve put together a set of steps to walk through for identifying what’s likely wrong. Whether it’s trying to figure out why a boat won’t start, trying to solve a medical issue, or trying to figure out why your company is losing cash, there are best practices and steps for walking through the problem methodically and eliminating causes.
I’ve been on boats since I was 4, and I know that boats don’t start when in gear. But in the presence of other, more interesting facts, I let my own knowledge about how to solve the problem go to the wayside. Instead of stepping back and walking through the known protocol for troubleshooting the condition, I let an interesting story - the melted key - distract me and lead me down the wrong path.
When you’re working through a problem, no matter what it is, exhaust the known protocol for troubleshooting first. Regardless of what interesting situation you think you have, or what extenuating circumstances you have, go through the process. The chances are, your problem is just like everyone else’s.