Spring Outboard Commissioning

Getting your outboard ready for spring launch is just one of the projects ahead of you in the full commissioning checklist, and it’s often sort of a good news/bad news affair for boat owners. The good news is that if you properly winterized your four-stroke outboard or your two-stroke outboard before you laid up the boat last fall, getting it going should take no more than 30 to 45 minutes. The bad news is if you didn’t winterize it, you’ve likely got a long weekend or a costly visit to your marine service center ahead of you to catch up on preventative maintenance tasks.

A photo of an outboard hanging off the back of a boat.
Avoid a scene like this by properly commissioning your outboard each spring.

Either way, simply plopping the boat in the water, starting your outboard(s), and then blasting out into the unknown isn’t really the best plan. Smart boaters do a thorough check and test run long before that first fine day of warm boating weather hits. Here’s how to get a jump-start:

You’ll find that the tips in this post have a bent toward four-stroke outboards, but the only real differences between most two-stroke outboards and four-stroke outboards are that two strokes are generally a little less complex, and there’s no engine oil to worry about. And just like the old saying goes, size usually doesn’t matter. Your small four-stroke outboard has spring commissioning needs similar to those of a larger one.

The first order of business is removing the engine cover/cowling and giving the whole outboard an inspection from top to bottom. First, look for possible pest (mice, rats, squirrels) infestation and wire-chewing activities. While you may be laughing at the moment, you’d be surprised how many outboards are used as temporary housing during winter storage.

Next, check the wiring, hoses, belts, and other one-engine components to make sure they’re in good shape, firmly attached (not loose or dangling), and free from corrosion or other damage. This is also a good time to find leaking fluids such as fuel, oil, or cooling water. Check hoses for cracks and broken hose clamps, and make sure all wire ends are securely attached to their termination points.

Spark plugs are less of a problem on outboards than they used to be (especially on four-stroke outboards), but that shouldn’t stop you from removing each one, inspecting it, and checking its gap, unless you did this during layup. Make sure you follow your manufacturer’s specific instructions for spark plug removal and installation, and also for gapping. If you’re not comfortable with the procedure, certainly don’t attempt it. (That goes for just about everything in our outboard spring commissioning tips.)

Wires, hoses, hose clamps... There are several parts that that need a good going-over underneath the hood of your outboard engine. Photo by Gary Reich.
Wires, hoses, hose clamps… There are several parts that that need a good going-over underneath the hood of your outboard engine. Photo by Gary Reich.

Once you’ve inspected everything under the cowling, have a good look at the outside of the outboard all the way down to the lower unit. Here you’ll check for corrosion, dents, or other damage, especially around the propeller and lower unit area. Replace any external zincs that are corroded beyond two-thirds of their original size, and repair (or have repaired) any damage you’ve noted on the lower half of the outboard itself. Many four-stroke outboards also have internal pencil zincs that require changing periodically; check those, too, while you’ve got zincs on the brain.

We’re going to assume (or hope) that you or your service pro changed your lower unit oil before layup. It’s not only an extremely inexpensive way to keep your lower unit humming along; it’s also a great way to ensure you’re starting the season with a full load of fresh gear oil. If you’re not sure whether you did, didn’t, or can’t remember the last time you did, now’s a good time to drain your lower unit oil and refill it according to your manufacturer’s recommendations. While you’re down here, check the cooling water intakes for debris or any winter stowaways, such as stinkbugs or other insects. Give the propeller a whirl (it should spin freely in neutral), too.

Unless you have X-ray vision, you won’t be able to check your cooling water impeller without removing the lower unit. Like everything else, if it’s been ages since you or a pro replaced it, now is a great time to slap a new one in. If you’re interested in how to perform the procedure (or are just curious), check out this video on how to do it yourself.

A photo of botles of oil.
Check the engine oil on your four-stroke outboard before starting it this spring, and if you didn’t change the oil and filter last fall, head to the marine supply shop on an oil change mission. Photo by Gary Reich.

We also hope that you four-stroke outboard owners changed the engine oil and filter before you stored the engine for the winter. If you didn’t (or again, can’t remember when the last time you did was), head down to your marine supply shop, pick up the right oil and filters for your particular model, and swap out the old oil and filters for new, according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. If you did, give your oil level a check to make sure that nothing leaked out over the winter. Like the lower unit oil, keeping fresh engine oil in your four-stroke outboard is cheap insurance for long outboard life.

Oh, and yet another one from the “hopefully you did this but if you didn’t” department is your fuel filter/water separator, if you have one. Again, if it’s been so long you can’t remember, or the one that’s there is from last season is dirty, replace it. If you’ve got a larger Yamaha outboard, here are some tips on changing the on- and off-engine fuel filters. There are tons of onboard fuel filters in today’s big modern four strokes, so if your outboard hasn’t seen any filter love in a while, it’s probably not a bad idea to get it up-to-date on its service schedule now.

A photo of an outboard engine's lower unit.
You should pay a lot of attention to the components in and around your lower unit such as the water intakes and zincs. Photo by Gary Reich.

Don’t worry; we’re almost ready to fire up the engine. First, though, you’ll want to check the fuel system. If you are using an external tank, check the outside for leaks, cracks, or any other damage. Next, thoroughly inspect your fuel feed line, bulb, and fuel line clamps. Do the same if you have an internal tank, but follow the fuel line all the way from the engine to where it attaches to the fuel tank (and at every junction, including the water separator/filter). Replace any sections of fuel line that are cracked, worn, or damaged, and replace rusty or damaged hose clamps, too.

For outboard owners with hydraulic tilt/trim, this is a great time to exercise that feature all the way up, and all the way down. It should move freely, and without any pauses or jumps. You’ll also usually find plenty of Zerk (grease) nipples in the trim and tilt area as well as around the steering mechanicals. Give them a good shot of the prescribed lube to keep things sliding along.

Before we turn the ignition key or pull the starting cord, making sure the lower unit is either in the water, or you have a freshwater cooling supply hooked up—either through an internal/external connection or by using “earmuffs” that fit over the cooling intake on the lower unit. While the engine is running, continually check those muffs or other connections to make sure your engine is getting sufficient cooling water. If the engine fails to start, start troubleshooting as recommended by your manufacturer. You can also check out this video on troubleshooting an outboard motor that will not start.

A photo of the fuel supply system on an outboard engine.
Inspecting your fuel supply all the way from the engine to the fuel tank is a vital step in commissioning your outboard each spring. Photo by Gary Reich.

Congratulations, now it’s time to get things started. Follow the recommended starting procedures for your particular model, and then allow the engine to run, in gear and at idle for 10-15 minutes, checking for any signs of leaks, cooling problems, or other issues.  Now is also not a bad time to gently take the engine out of gear and into reverse, then back to neutral and forward again.

And essentially, folks, that’s it. While we can’t promise that you’re motor doesn’t have any hijinks planned for you this year, starting off on the right foot will go a long way toward providing a blissful boating season.

An earlier version of this article appeared in May 2016.


Get Your Boat Ready for Summer: Commissioning Checklist

For boaters in the haul-out-and-hold-on zones of the chilly north, spring is a pretty exciting time. As soon as the weather breaks, thousands of us start burrowing in garages and workshops, getting our gear together for boat commissioning. Of course the ease and speed of commissioning a boat in the spring is directly related to how well it was winterized when the leaves turned in the fall. Assuming that you put your boat away right, here’s a checklist of time-honored basic commissioning tips to help you get underway ASAP.

If your boat was shrink-wrapped for the winter, don’t toss that wrap in the dumpster — recycle it.
If your boat was shrink-wrapped for the winter, don’t toss that wrap in the dumpster — recycle it.
A good marine paste-wax will shine a hull better and last longer than labor-saving all-in-one products. All photos: Doug Logan
A good marine paste-wax will shine a hull better and last longer than labor-saving all-in-one products. All photos: Doug Logan

Hull, Topsides, and Deck

__ Uncover your ride. If you use a high-quality tarp (not one of those lousy blue things) dry and fold it carefully for next season. If your boat is shrink-wrapped, take or send the old wrap to recycling. Do not throw it in a dumpster. It will come back to haunt you as a ghostly plastic nightmare.

__ Wax your topsides with good marine paste-wax. It shines better, protects better, and lasts longer than “easier” products. No pain, no gain.

__ If you use an electric buffer, inspect the pad carefully for any debris that you might grind into the gelcoat. And keep that buffer moving – don’t hold it in one spot to hit a problem area, or you’ll have a Problem Area.

__ Don’t wax non-skid deck areas! Wash them and you’re done.

__ Use acid-based rust and stain removers sparingly, be careful how you rinse them, and avoid using them over an aluminum trailer.

__ Apply your antifouling paint. Don’t paint your running gear with copper-based paint without a barrier coat, and don’t paint your transducers at all.

__ Replace hull zincs.

__ Stick that drain plug in before launch! Many a boat has headed directly to a Davy Jones rendezvous after this little detail was skipped.


__ For outboard engines, review full commissioning notes.

__Open outboard cowlings and look for problems of rot or condensation over the winter.

__ Check all hoseclamps and fittings. Tighten as necessary. Check hoses for cracking and chafe.

__ Check your wiring. Electrical connections suffer in the winter from temperature changes and humidity. Clean your terminals, change them if necessary, and spray with a corrosion inhibitor.

__ Check throttle and shift cables, lubricate with marine-grade Teflon or grease.

Both inboard- and outboard-powered boats require sacrificial anodes. Make sure to replace your zincs at the start of the season.
Both inboard- and outboard-powered boats require sacrificial anodes. Make sure to replace your zincs at the start of the season.

__ Check your seacocks for free movement and lubricate as needed. Open those that need to be open for launch (raw-water intake!) and close those any that need to be closed.

__ Make sure your strainers are clean and clear.

__ Check steering cables or hydraulics for proper tightness, wear, leaks, smooth movement of engine or rudder.

__ Double-check fluid levels — lube oil, transmission oil, lower unit oil, coolant, etc. (You changed these in the fall or left them in good shape.)

__ Check heat exchangers for deposits and obstructions; clean as needed.

__ Check cooling water impellers, replace if necessary.

__ Check belts for wear and proper tension.

__ If your engine needs new spark plugs, wait to change them until after you’ve burned off last fall’s engine fogger residue.

__ Check engine zincs, replace if necessary.

__ On stern-drive boats, carefully inspect outdrive bellows for cracks and deterioration from winter weather.


__ Spray all connections with contact cleaner; test brake and signal lights.

__ Test your brakes, if your trailer is equipped with them.

__ Grease wheel bearings (if you didn’t grease them in the fall), lubricate hitch mechanism, overhaul winch cable or strap and check for wear/weakness.

__ Carefully check your tires (you blocked the trailer up in the fall to prevent settling, right?), including treads and sidewalls, and inflate to proper pressure. Do the same for your spare.

Make sure your flares are up-to-date. You can keep your expired flares for back-up, but stow them away from the fresh ones to prevent confusion in an emergency.
Make sure your flares are up-to-date. You can keep your expired flares for back-up, but stow them away from the fresh ones to prevent confusion in an emergency.


__ Make sure flares, fire-extinguishers, and other required equipment is up-to-date.

__ Check PFDs and restow in an easy-to-access place.

__ Test bilge blowers and bilge pumps.

__ Overhaul your anchoring gear and restow it so that you can deploy the anchor quickly.


__ Registration renewed and sticker on?

__ Boating license on board or in your wallet?

__ Sunscreen, bug repellent, toilet paper — all personal conveniences topped up and handy?

Check. Check. Check! See you on the water.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in April, 2016.

Boat Maintenance: The Satisfaction of Hard Work

It's a fact: fixing up and maintaining boats can be hard, painful work. It's also some of the most satisfying work you can find.

As I begin to type this blog, I look down at the backs of my hands, and they look like they’ve been put through a cotton gin. My hands ache from tugging on wrenches. My fingertips are callused and numb from starting nuts and bolts. The tendons and muscles are throbbing, and there’s a fine layer of dirt and petrochemicals in the crevices of my fingernails. The knuckles are all scabbed and cracked.

I suppose that’s what fitting out a used boat for its first outing will do for you.

Of course I could have started earlier. Work kept me from getting to it after I first bought it in December. Then, of course, came Christmas and New Year’s, which is a busy time of year for everyone. Once the college bowl games were over, I went out to the driveway, looked at everything that needed to be done, lost all motivation, and walked back in the house — and then it hit me. I had promised to take my kids boating the first weekend in March, which was two months away, and there could be no more delays. So I headed back out to the driveway, surveyed what needed to be done, opened my toolbox, and got to work.

It’s a used boat, so I had to change all the fluids. It also needed a bellows boot on the stern drive, which revealed that it needed a gimbal bearing repair. Then I needed to take it to a shop to have the engine and drive aligned properly. I had to find the slop in the steering and throttle cables, clean all the electrical connections, and replace an exhaust manifold gasket.

I still had to make time for my family and have some energy left for them, too. With no daylight-savings time to provide light after dinner, that meant working in the dark. And I really don’t like working in the dark. Then, on the Monday before the weekend I promised to take the kids out, I looked at my wife and said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it. There’s just too much to do.”

By the Friday before the first outing, I was in a sprint. I dropped the kids at school, came home, hooked the boat and trailer to my truck, and took it to the shop where they could align the engine and drive.

I got home just in time to get the kids off to a couple of “away game” play dates. When they were gone, I began to load the truck and trailer for the weekend. I went back to pick up the boat from the shop and arrived home just in time for the kids to come home.

I don’t think I have worked that hard physically in a long time, and I can’t tell you how many times I questioned my own sanity. But a promise is a promise to 8- and 10-year-old children. At the end of that first weekend, as I pulled the boat back onto the trailer, I knew it was all worth it. The kids were all smiles. Nothing leaked, broke, or failed, and that brought a sense of satisfaction that made all that hard work worthwhile.

During the drive home, something else occurred to me. All across the country, there must be thousands of boaters experiencing the same sense of satisfaction. I hope they found hard work as rewarding as I did.

Brett Becker