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Break Out Another Thousand

Cheap boating might be possible, but not, alas, for the ignorant

Photos by Edward Ericson Jr.
Various views of the author's boat and the fateful verdict on cylinder no. 3 (top).

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By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 5/20/2009

Getting a cheap boat has been my life's ambition, one I expected to fulfill long before 2009. My father and five of my seven uncles had or have boats. I grew up fishing with them on Long Island Sound and, by my observation, boats are affordable to men who work in auto body and machine shops, men of gumption, judgment, and mechanical ability. Men such as myself.

This may seem a revelation to people who buy new boats from boat dealers. You folks think that a little 16-foot runabout costs like $16,000, the outboard motor clamped to the stern another $8,500, plus $3,500 for the trailer. Then you need a few thousand to outfit it, plus your docking fees, ramp fees, taxes, maintenance, maybe storage during the winter months. People like you--people with $30,000 to spend on a water toy--you make me ill with your gleaming white foredecks and your clean fingernails and your engines that start every time with a turn of the key. I never met any of you while growing up, and I've done my best to avoid you since.

A little boat should cost $1,000, I say, because that's exactly what my uncle Bib paid for his 3-year-old Winner 15 in 1975, complete with trailer and a Johnson 50 motor, and I'm pretty sure he still runs that boat today.

And so it was, with dreams of rockfish mornings and sunny afternoons bobbing on the bay, that I found the perfect boat just a few days before Thanksgiving. It was sitting on a trailer on a private boat ramp in an Essex back yard. It's a 1984 Renken, just under 16-feet long, with a 90-horse Mercury outboard motor. The owner was deceased, his widow and son said. The motor turns over but needs a fuel fitting, they advised, adding that it would almost certainly start right up once equipped with that $20 item.

I climbed aboard. There was some give in the floors but they said that wasn't a big deal. I noticed a couple of cans of starting fluid rolling around the deck--evidence of the boy's attempt to get the motor firing, I assumed. They said the boat ran last season. I bought it for $1,000, trailer included.

Now, despite my experience with boats and close observation of boat maintenance, there are several important reasons why I had no business buying a boat on that autumn day. Among them:

1) I did not know that fiberglass boats can rot, and that soft floors are a sure sign of that.

2) I did not know that starting fluid destroys outboard motors.

3) I did not know anything else about outboard motors either.

I did realize that the rusty stick between the trailer's tires was an axle, and that it would need replacing. This I did, along with a few sundries (lights, wires, rollers, winch, bolts and nuts, safety chains, etc.) in time to get the trailer safety inspected and registered on its initial 30-day temporary tag. Cost: $500 and three weekends.

Turns out the trailer was the easy part. What follows is a highly-abridged version of my first boating lesson.

April 5: The cover is off. I unscrew the plywood "plate" in the middle of the deck. Beneath it the floor joists molder. One is about half gone; two more have that slick brown sheen of wood you might find on the beach. I curl one finger under the deck and scratch, breaking off a playing card sized flake of rotting plywood. What this means, I suspect, is that the boat requires major work--like, cut-out-the-floor-and-rebuild-the-frame work.

On the other hand, maybe it'll hold up for a season or two.

Now to the motor. My initial goal is to discover its year of manufacture. I fail. After removing the three-piece cover, I examine the power head. It has six spark plugs, three carburetors, and one wire that goes nowhere. One of the head bolts is broken off. I plug in the fuel line I was warned to replace when I bought it. I connect one of the gas tanks and squeeze the ball. Gas leaks from the fitting, as predicted.

To the internet to try to learn something about outboard motor mechanics. A few minutes' research yields an important bulletin about using starting fluid in old outboards, in which the gas mixed with oil does double duty both to fuel and lubricate the engine. Turns out, the grease-cutting properties of starting fluid rob the engine of lubrication, resulting in bad things. "Never use starting fluid," I am advised. Use WD-40 instead. This would have been good knowledge to have last fall.

I spray some WD-40 in the carb throats and turn the key. The motor turns over, but does not fire. Fuel leaks from the fitting. Further examination reveals a screw of some sort missing from the middle carb. Realizing that internet research is not going to get this motor running, I order the Seloc engine repair manual ($26, including shipping).

April 11: Examination of the manual indicates that the missing carb screw is either the "high speed jet" or the "back drag air jet." This seems good and bad news. The good news might be that this is one of the few parts (along with the fuel line) that the motor needs. The bad news, of course, is that my sellers made no mention of this missing part, indicating (along with the deadly starting fluid) a frightful ignorance of boat maintenance, an ignorance rivaling my own.

With the manual as a guide, I locate the Merc's serial number. A guy on the internet named "Bear" says my serial number corresponds to 1982. I also learn that, before one begins the painstaking process of bringing a non-running outboard motor back to life, one should test the compression in each cylinder. Compression is a necessary ingredient in making power, and also as good an indication of the overall condition of an engine's internal works as one can get without dismantling the engine. Apparently, trying to fix a boat engine without first testing the compression is like doing CPR on someone before checking to see if his head is attached.

According to the manual, I want to see similar compression readings in each cylinder. If they vary by more than 10 percent, there will be no point in messing with fuel fittings or carb settings, as the motor will need rebuilding, another fact it would have profited me to have known back in November.

April 25: With knowledge gleaned from the internet and the Seloc manual, I head to West Marine (motto: "We make boating more fun!"), emerging with 2-cycle oil, a flush device (to run water through the engine when it starts) and the fuel fitting. Total cost: $33.36. Another $45 to Pep Boys for a compression tester and I'm ready to do what I should have done six months ago, before spending $1,700 and five weekends.

I remove the spark plugs, spray a bit of WD-40 in each cylinder to keep from messing them up, spray a little more in each carb, and turn the key to obtain the following readings.

1: 130 pounds

2: 135 pounds

3: 0 pounds

4: 138 pounds

5: 136 pounds

6: 130 pounds

Try number three again. Still zero. With the tester on any of the others the motor cranks with that rrr-rrr-rrr sound, the sound you get when trying to start any motor, the sound of compression. With the tester screwed into cylinder three, a turn of the key results in wirrrrrrrr. A steady whine, no resistance, no pulse.

The consensus among boat-engine mechanics I consult is that rebuilding would be folly (one source in Connecticut offers a rebuilt power head for $5,250--about $1,100 more than a rebuilt newer motor). But I am told, the parts might be worth something.

So if anyone is in need of a lower unit from an old Mercury 90, give me a call. I'll be available, land-locked, for the foreseeable future.

And you new-boat guys? Just shut the fuck up, OK?

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