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Beware the pitfalls of Outboard Cheapskate Disorder

2015 June 1

I’ve been diagnosed with OCD, or Outboard Cheapskate Disorder.

It’s a malady that owners of sportboats seem predisposed to.

The symptoms are clear. You have OCD when you love the idea of an outboard, but you hate your outboard. You take joy in its performance and simplicity when it works well, yet you treat it like road kill. You almost never look at it, and if you do you quickly look away. There’s a good chance you may run over it with your car but worry more about your tires.

This is a relatively new disease. There was a time not long ago when almost all sailboats big enough to need a motor were also boats that displaced all the water in their way, making outboards unsuited to the task of powering anything longer than about 27 feet. In the displacement era, diesel-powered, through-hull shafts and propellers reigned supreme. 

We had one of the best on a previous boat equipped with a bulletproof, dripless two-cylinder, 18-horsepower Universal engine spinning a shiny brass two blade folding prop that would power our racer-cruiser into a 25-knot headwind without complaint, and stop us in 10 feet with a hard-throttle reverse as we came into the slip at the end of the day. All it asked for was a new impeller every couple of years.

But along came the lightweight planing hull, skimming over the surface of the water, and designers declared the heavy iron-genny obsolete. 

Dealers said, “Imagine the convenience: When it breaks (and it will) you simply take it to the lawn mower mechanic for service! No more visits from the only grease monkey in town willing to work in a bilge.”

What they didn’t say, of course, is that while an outboard-driven sportboat may be big and fast enough to go just about any place, it will never do it upwind in a breeze higher than 10 knots. Period.

OCD starts like this: Faced with the choice between a 58-pound, 6-horsepower, single-cylinder outboard, or a much heavier and more expensive 9.9-horsepower, two-cylinder, most buyers will do some quick back-of-the-envelope math and realize that the difference will buy 500 feet of expensive high-tech line. They’ll also note that they can save 40 pounds of weight on the transom and go with lightweight and cheap.

Then, faced with a long up-wind delivery and a GPS predicting arrival sometime in the year 2025, the now marina-bound owner scans the bulletin board and buys a second outboard off of a vintage fishing boat, this time a stout 18-horsepower. Two motors, one for getting from the slip to the race, and one for speedy deliveries. Brilliant! The delivery, while faster, is really a MacGyver adventure; spraying out gummed carbs, stopping for gas and extra tanks, and lashing things down while the stern-mounted motor bracket bends and twists under extreme forces and the poor boat pretends to be a foiler.

I have at least seven friends who have told me this same story. They share the dream of light, easy, portable and cheap, but own twice as many motors as they intended, and don’t care for any of them.

My case of OCD is extreme.

A few years back, in a moment of OCD clarity, I hatched a plan to find the cheapest and lightest outboard available. I had run over the original machine one too many times, and had maxed out my sailing budget with Aramid-everything. I sought the all time low cost and found it in an amazing frankenstein of a motor. 

The company, a maker of engines for lawn mowers, had outfitted one of its garden-duty machines with a shaft, a gearbox and a propellor and called it the first-ever under $700 5-horsepower, four-stroke and marketed it as “green.” Since it was air-cooled it didn’t exhaust into the water like all other outboards. Of course that meant that you could cook an egg on the exhaust manifold, a bonus for morning deliveries, and it sounded exactly like a lawn mower. You could get it in black or camo.

It was a masterpiece of “defeaturing” —an engineer’s code-word for “We are making this for skinflints and tightwads.”

   The designers had determined that this superlight motor would only need one, not two, mounting bolts to hold it to the bracket. I trusted that they’d done their engineering and tightened mine well.

    A crowd usually assembled on the dock to listen to me start up the mower motor before each race. I ignored their hushed whispers and sneers, sure that I had found sportboat propulsion mecca. So we puttered down the channel on the way to open water, smelling fumes and feeling green. Then kerplunk. Silence. My motor had rattled loose and decided to see what the bottom looked like. Perhaps there was grass down there. We got a tow to the racecourse.

A month later, feeling like a polluter, I dove down and recovered the drowned outboard.

I spent a weekend drying the carbs by spraying in every chemical available at the gas station, and got it started again.

I sold it on Craigslist for cents on the dollar and made the decision to go with the 58-pound, 6-horsepower, single 

cylinder which I now run over frequently. I’m not looking forward to the next upwind delivery.

There is no cure for this OCD.