I’d just unclamped the outboard from the dinghy and was passing it to my father when the wash from a passing boat loosened my grip and the engine started its swift descent to the bottom of the harbor. Luckily, the boat was on a drying mooring, and the outboard sat in the mud for four hours until the water was shallow enough for us to retrieve it. Pulling the engine from the mud, I initially thought we’d be throwing it into the nearest dumpster, but my dad and I figured there would be nothing lost in trying to see whether we could get it running again. Miraculously, after little more than an hour’s effort, the engine was back on the dinghy, purring away with barely a mark to show its earlier misfortune.
That episode happened some 30 years ago, and I’ve since brought other engines back from a watery grave. The technique is called pickling, and with a systematic, careful approach, an outboard that has drowned can often be revived.
Corrosion starts to set in as soon as the engine is pulled from the water and exposed to air. The first step is to give it a complete washdown with plenty of fresh water. Remove the cowling and rinse everything for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Blast the engine with a hose fitted with a nozzle, if possible, making sure to wash every trace of salt away. Washing the engine might seem counterintuitive, but it’s already wet, so don’t worry.
Remove the spark plug and shake out any water that has found its way into the combustion chamber, then spray in some WD-40 or other water-displacing oil. If the engine is small and has an integral fuel tank, drain the fuel and dispose of it in a proper manner. Remove the fuel lines and blow them out with compressed air — in a pinch you can use an inflatable pump. Next, spray liberal amounts of WD-40 or diesel into the carburetor and pull the starting rope to spin over the engine and coat internal parts. If the engine is a 4-stroke, drain the engine oil and refill with the correct grade. If it’s equipped with an alternator and starter, remove these and dry them in an oven set on very low heat — if this is not available, use a hair dryer.
Dry all external components thoroughly. A leaf blower is ideal, but rags and whatever else you have at your disposal will suffice. Spray WD-40 on the outside surfaces of the engine or use an oily rag to coat external metal parts. Reassemble everything, but before replacing the spark plugs, check to see if you have a spark. Snap the lead to the top of the plug and hold the body of the plug against the engine with insulated pliers while cranking the outboard over. Replace the plugs if you don’t see a spark.
Before trying to start the engine, you will need some cooling water, so either clamp the outboard back on the boat, secure it in a barrel of water or use a set of muffs connected to a hose. If you are lucky, your outboard will fire right up. Ryan Jacobson of Yachtworks in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suggests running the engine for 45 minutes to an hour. With a 4-stroke, replace the engine oil and filters once more and run the engine for another 30 minutes. If the second batch of engine oil is at all emulsified, change it again.
Jacobson, who pickles about a half-dozen engines a year, says the alternator and starter usually will work for a short time after an engine is pulled from the water but will soon need to be replaced. He points out that the object of the exercise is to get the engine running as soon as possible; the sooner it’s running, the better the chances that long-term internal damage will be avoided. Jacobson says he has saved drowned engines that are still going strong 10 years after the fact.
Even if the outboard starts, it is strongly recommended that it be taken to an authorized service dealer as soon as possible. They will have dealt with similar situations and will thoroughly check the engine and make any additional repairs and adjustments.
1. Flush the outboard thoroughly with fresh water as soon as it comes out of the drink.
2. Remove any fluids from the engine, gas if it has an integral tank, and engine oil and filters.
3. With the spark plug removed, spray WD-40 into the combustion chamber to displace moisture.
4. Wash, dry and reconnect electrical connections.
5. Remove fuel hoses and blow through with compressed air to force out any water.
6. Connect a spark plug to the HT lead and spin the engine over to be sure you have a spark, then reinstall the plug.
7. Start the engine and let it reach operating temperature to get everything lubricated and working as it should. Change the oil and filter a second time on 4-strokes.
September 2014 issue