Monday, August 25, 2008

Motorboating for Dummies

The first signs of trouble with my new outboard motor appeared last Saturday. I bought gas, having gotten about ten hours of boating pleasure from my three-gallon tank, and went down to the marina, but for some reason I disdained to consult my crib sheet—shouldn’t I know what I’m doing by now? First, I forgot to slip the lanyard over the stop button, which is like forgetting to put the key in the ignition, and then I forgot to close the choke, so that the motor smoked and knocked and sputtered out.

I recomposed myself and began again. I started up properly, cast off, backed out of the slip, and shifted into forward: it stalled. Rather than re-start while adrift in the marina, I rowed back into my slip, tied up, and tried again, with the exact same results. The third time I tried to re-start, I got no response when I pulled the cord. I checked all systems: lanyard, yes; gas line attached; choke open; gear in neutral; throttle at the start notch, halfway between the rabbit and the turtle. I pulled the cord: Nothing. I gave up. Apparently I was just not meant to go boating that day.

Pete was in the boatyard, rigging an old boat trailer into a “Beverly Hillbillies”-style wagon to tow furniture upstate. He took a break, and we had a beer in the shade and I told him my troubles. The cop was there, and the Boss came over and sat down. He was having a run-in with the DEP. “They’re killin’ me,” he said. We watched someone named JJ get towed in. I always get a huge kick out of it when someone gets towed in and it isn’t me.

Of course, nobody at the marina will have anything to do with my motor because I bought it from Buster, and any unauthorized work would compromise its warranty. All they say is “Call Buster.” On Sunday, I got on the phone to Buster, having made careful notes of exactly what to tell him about my 6-horsepower Mercury 4-stroke. He told me that one thing I could do was dump the gas. Everyone is always complaining about ethanol in gasoline and how, if it sits for a while and moisture gets in, it gets contaminated. I’m not crystal clear on the chemistry of it. Basically, as I understand it, when ethanol, which is made from corn, is added to gas, and the gas is left to sit, it turns back into corn.

I knew Buster was handing me a crock, just giving me something to do to keep me busy until he closed. But I was not about to dump three gallons of gasoline that I had no reason to believe was contaminated: it was straight from the pump, and I’d even remembered to buy high-test. I went down to the marina, hoping wanly that the motor had healed itself overnight. I yanked on the starter cord: nothing. I called Buster from the boat, but there was nothing he could do over the phone. I would have to remove the motor and haul it in the car to Broad Channel. I called Pete—poor guy, his cell-phone number is programmed into mine under SOS.

So Pete came down to take a look. First, he fiddled with the lanyard. It turns out to need some jiggling to engage properly. We got the motor started, but it stalled when he turned the throttle all the way to low. (I love the vocabulary of the internal combustion engine: choke, throttle. No wonder it’s intimidating.) Pete removed the cowl, and there, dangling off the carburetor, was a little piece of plastic, which he handed to me—a black plastic lever with a screw through it and a steel coil wrapped around the screw. It was the idle-speed control lever. “Show that to Bustah,” he said.

The question now was did I trot over to Buster’s with the idle-speed control gizmo, to find out whether it was a separate part that could easily be replaced or whether it was built into the carburetor, which would mean hauling the motor over there and getting a whole new carburetor; or did I go out on the bay? “Why waste a day?” Pete said. All I had to do in order to keep the motor running was not idle, and shift at a higher speed than I was used to. Pete showed me how far I could turn the throttle before the engine would cut out. “Keep the throttle at the turtle’s front legs,” he said. He scratched a new notch on the throttle with the blade of a screwdriver to show me.

So I went out on the bay. I am trying to learn my way via nuns and cans through the pols of Jamaica Bay (those grassy islands that you see more or less of, depending on the tide), and despite some major landmarks—the control tower at Kennedy airport, the high-rises of Rockaway, the Marine Parkway Bridge, and the Empire State Building, at east, south, west, and north—I got lost. When I got back, I took the part over to Buster. He spent several minutes with his back to me, looking at a computer. It turns out that the plastic bit is not a separate part that can be replaced but a chunk of the carburetor, which costs $190. I invoked the warranty, but it remains to be seen whether the damage will be covered by the warranty. Buster has to take a picture of the part and the carburetor, and send it to Mercury, where someone will decide if the part was defective. This could consume the rest of the boating season. Fortunately, while I was out on the bay I realized what Pete had been trying to tell me: I can live without this gizmo. I can wait and take the motor to Buster’s at the end of the season for winterizing, as usual. I just have to remember not to turn the throttle past the turtle’s front legs.

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