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Motors and mechanics: ‘big iron’ and life at full load

The mechanic and the editor sit outside the boat shop on a hot July night, drinking iced coffee while heat lightning flashes to the north and west. They’re talking boats and doing their best to put off the job waiting inside.
The mechanic is hot and tired and grimy from fixing busted motors and systems all day. The editor is fried from spending hours squinting at a computer screen, chasing misplaced modifiers and a host of other gremlins hiding in a sea of words.

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They have a conversation prompted by an e-mail from a reader in Illinois who used to work in manufacturing, supplying parts to the auto industry. The reader remembered when 100,000 miles in a car was the standard. “Today, cars easily go more than 100,000 miles and [are] considered to have just been broken in!” he wrote. “Compare that to the boating experience. It seems each time I go out, I have to fix one thing or another.”
I read the message to marine technician Erik Klockars, and what ensues is a wide-ranging discussion on everything from poor engineering and design to $200 oil changes and the ever-tighter tolerances on the latest generation of engines.
I take notes as Klockars rattles off the challenges of keeping boats running smoothly. The car vs. boat comparison gets the mechanic talking about how hard boats work, in comparison to cars. “Boats are under maybe three-quarters of their maximum load for most of their lifetime,” says Klockars, 55, who has been in business for 34 years. “They are constantly going uphill with a heavy load. They do that all their lives. They never get a break.”
In a car, when you take your foot off the gas it coasts. It gets a little breather. Pull back on the throttle in a boat, as we all know, and it stops. “The motors can’t be babied,” says Klockars, who also is a technical consultant for Soundings. “They’re pushed all day long. It’s brutal what we’re asking them to do.”
The constant loading and the wet, corrosive environment are not conducive to longevity, which is hardly a secret. Things break. Either the boat and its systems are not properly maintained, or the quality of a part or piece of gear isn’t great to begin with. Often the installation is poor. Things just wear out — more often, they weaken prematurely and fail, the mechanic says.
When that happens you’re on the phone to someone like Klockars, whose job is picking up the pieces. This year alone he’s on tap to do more than a dozen repowers. Good fix-anything guys like him typically aren’t at a loss for work.
The mechanic from Niantic, Conn., has seen a lot of changes since he began working on boats in the late 1970s. “When I started working on motors, they had points,” he says. “Now everything is computer diagnostics and fly-by-wire.”
Motors were more forgiving, too. “We had ‘big iron’ back then — lots of metal with low horsepower and low rpm,” he says. “And we had huge tolerances in terms of what the engines could take. The tolerances were like rolling a BB down an 8-lane highway. “Now,” Klockars continues, “it’s like rolling a BB down a balance beam. Tolerances are tighter. The rpm are higher. The temperatures are higher. So when something happens, it’s catastrophic.”
And, he adds, “Things were overbuilt, but this is the marine world.” And with passion, he says, “Things should be overbuilt!”
His biggest peeve? “Poor engineering that is being paid for by the consumer,” Klockars says. “A 20-minute job, because of poor engineering or installation, can take up to three hours. The end-user winds up paying for installation and engineering shortcomings. That’s not the way you get people into boating.”
The solution? If the person who designed the product also had to work on it, things would undoubtedly improve, he says. That’s probably true, I tell him, but it’s not going to change overnight.
The guy who sees broken stuff day after day can’t overemphasize the importance of buying quality, maintaining your boat and equipment properly, and paying to have systems installed the right way, the first time. Keep your fingers crossed. Knock wood. After all, he says, we are talking about boats.
Enough talk. A hot night in July. Two tired guys. The big bay door to the shop is open. Fans are running. Bugs are swarming the lights. A water pump, thermostat and impeller need to be replaced. We’re both hoping to get home by midnight.

“I used my engine
for two years and then, taking arms against a sea of troubles, cut my troubles in half by pitching Little Dipper’s engine overside. … Life afloat was
vastly simplified.”
— Richard Baum

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.