Used Boat Deals: Moderate Fixes, Big Savings

One way to get a deal on a used boat stems from someone else’s misfortune: divorce, death, job loss, and so on.  All of those those things can lead to someone needing to sell a boat quickly. As I’ve said elsewhere,  as long as you’re not the cause of the misfortune, you might get a good deal on the boat and help out the seller at the same time.

Replacing a drive coupler is an expensive repair -- the part alone is upwards of $500. But the repair can be used as a bargaining chip worth much more. MerCruiser Marine Photo.
Replacing a drive coupler is an expensive repair — the part alone is upwards of $500. But the repair can be used as a bargaining chip worth much more. MerCruiser Marine Photo.

Another source of a great deal is someone else’s ignorance. We’ve all heard the urban legend about the widow who sells her late husband’s 1953 “Chevrolet” for a few thousand dollars. As the legend goes, the buyer shows up to discover it’s a Corvette, which he snaps up and flips for huge profit.

In the marine market, there’s no shortage of ignorance, which you can use to your advantage. Say you find a sterndrive boat that’s been sitting because the owner put it in the water one day and it exhibited a vibration, or went into gear but wouldn’t move. He’s baffled, and he’s so terrified of what it might cost, he wants out.

That’s where you come in. Odds are good the engine has fallen out of alignment with the drive, which is normal and happens over time. All boats should have their drives pulled and alignment checked annually to make sure that something is not moving. It’s also a good time to check and lube the universal joints, inspect the bellows, inspect the gimbal bearing, check the splines, and lube the drive coupler. If a previous owner never did that maintenance, that could lead to misalignment.

The alignment tool goes through the gimbal bearing to the drive coupler to test alignment.  Sterndrives.com photo.
The alignment tool goes through the gimbal bearing to the drive coupler to test alignment.
Sterndrives.com photo

In the case of vibration, the engine alignment probably just needs to be adjusted, which is simple enough if you have the factory drive alignment tool, which is little more than a metal dowel that acts as a go/no-go gauge. Any good shop has this tool, and the labor rate should be around $300. When the engine is properly aligned, you should be able to slide the alignment tool fully into the coupler easily and remove it with two fingers.

This video, courtesy of BoostPower Marine, shows the alignment tool and how it’s used.

In an instance where the boat goes into gear but the boat doesn’t move, a likely cause is the drive coupler, which is basically what connects the engine power with the input shaft to the drive itself. Bolted to the flywheel, the coupler is made of steel and compressed rubber, which can tear loose from the steel. That’s why the drive will go into gear, but the boat won’t move. The engine isn’t spinning the input shaft. Another sign it needs replacement is when you rotate the engine by hand and the alignment tool goes in easily with the engine in one position, but not in another. That indicates the drive coupler is not running true and probably needs replacement.

Replacing the coupler is a more expensive repair because the engine has to come out. But there’s a huge bargaining chip on the price of the prospective boat. If you know what’s wrong and the other guy doesn’t, you can use that do your advantage.

It’s not as good a story as bringing home a 1953 Corvette for a few grand, but then again, you weren’t shopping for a ‘vette, were you?


 

Boat Trader has plenty of  Buying and Selling advice, but also check out the hundreds of articles in the Boating section, with tips on everything from seamanship to maintenance, how-to, where to find replacement parts, and much more.

 

Sterndrive Engines: Big Block or Small?

The 454 Mag big-block inboard, mated to a MerCruiser outdrive.
The 454 Mag big-block inboard, mated to a MerCruiser outdrive.

I might be overthinking this, but let’s just say for the sake of simplicity that the price difference among all three is negligible, the hours are comparable, and that they all have a Bravo One drive. One has a 310-horsepower 454 big-block engine, another a 300-horse small-block, and the last one a 385-horse 454. How do you know which one is right? This is a good example, because the used market is well stocked with boats equipped with all of these engines.

Well, a lot of people might just shoot down the middle and go for the 310 horsepower big-block. No so fast. At 1,177 pounds with the drive, the big block is pretty heavy. The small-block propulsion package isn’t much lighter at 1,025 pounds, but it’s the better choice. Why? More power per pound of weight. The big-block in this example only has 10 horsepower to push around that extra 150 pounds or so.

It doesn’t sound like much, but the performance would be superior and the fuel economy would be better, too. I was never a fan of the 310 horsepower big-block, anyway. The internal components aren’t strong enough to handle any power upgrades.

That leaves the choice between the small-block and the 385-horsepower big-block, which is usually known as a 454 Mag MPI, and it’s where big blocks start getting good. For my money, I’d go with the big-block, but that’s for personal reasons. Every engine in every boat I’ve ever run has always become less and less satisfying the longer I’ve had it. With the 454 Mag MPI, it has the beefy internal components you need when adding power later. The 454 Mag MPI has the forged crank and rods, and higher flow heads than the 310-horse big block, so you can add a blower without fear of scattering the bottom end.

On the other hand, if 300 horsepower is plenty for you and your family, the small block is the way to go. It’s lighter and smaller, which also might mean larger stowage compartments under the engine hatch. Parts might even be cheaper because the small blocks were produced in greater numbers.

It might seem like I’m picking nits, but you’re going to have to live with the boat you choose for a while. It’s best to pick nits now rather than later. Of course, I might be overthinking it.