Recovery of a Submerged Outboard Motor from a Fresh Water Grave



submerged outboard motor recovery

This is one that I hope will never happen to you.  Well, this didnít to me, but I loaned my older Hewes Craft 16í jet sled to my son-in-law for a camping trip to a local fairly large impoundment for the 4th of July week-end 2003.  They were tent camping on Riffe Lakeís shore, a winter holding water impoundment in Washington State, and it appears some teenagers who were also camping nearby, decided during the night that they needed my 9.9 hp Johnson more than my son-in-law did. 


He had the boat bungee cord tied away from shore so the stern was in 5í of water.  This trolling motor was tilted up on the transom.  They must have swam in during the night, and had to climb aboard to remove the battery box lid, undo the cable clamps off the motorís electric starter, loosened the motor clamps, then probably got out of the boat and back in the water, but they apparently could not raise the motor high enough to take it off the transom.  They left it tilted up, but with the motorís mounting clamps loose.


1978 9.9 Johnson


The son-in-law got up at daylight the morning of their last day there, used the electric trolling motor (as to not wake the family in the tent) to maneuver away from the shore to where he started the main 70 hp Johnson jet motor.  After starting the main motor from the captains/steering seat & letting it warm up,  when he tried to turn the steering wheel to turn & get farther away out into the main lake, but the steering was bound up.  Looking around he saw the 9.9 hp binding against the main motor, but tipped precariously.  Before he could do anything MY 1978 9.9 hp Johnson fell into 15í of water.



By the time he had got turned around and had gotten the anchor out, he marked the spot with a anchored float also with a heavy fishing sinker with 6í of orange surveyors tape below water. Two evenings of diving by a neighbor, plus two other half days on the following two week-ends and using 7 tanks of air, they finally recovered it 14 days later.  When they finally found it, it was approximately 150í off from where he had done the marking. 


Visibility was only about 3 feet on the bottom as the power company was drawing the lake down.  They first worked off my boat with the diver tethered by a rope that was let out 6í at a time when he had covered the arc they thought the motor was in.  The next week-end they drove a stake back a bit on the shore then with 2 other stakes nearer the water to define a sighted line of the location they were trying to cover.  The last day they then went back to the son-in-law's brother's boat as the diving platform.


The son-in-law is not a real mechanically inclined person, so I had told him that upon recovery to IMMEDIATELY pull the spark plugs and crank out any water inside the engine.  Then to spray WD40 in the spark plug holes, then while cranking, spray more WD40 into the carburetor breather.   Well, he did not listen very good, or realize the importance of IMMEDIATE PREVENTATIVE MAINTENANCE.  Well, he was with his brother, who wanted to do some sightseeing of the lake, then stop for a hamburger on the way home.  The diver had stopped by and told me that he had recovered it about 2 PM.  At 8:30 PM I called the son-in-law and said that I had heard he had something for me.   His reply was YES, but he did not have any WD-40 with them when they recovered it and he am just going out to to the garage to pull the spark plugs.


After Recovery :  My response was rather short.  "Get to me NOW and I will take care of it", I guess Dad must have sounded rather upset as he got it to me in 10 minutes.  So when I got it 5 hours after recovery, it was placed in a de-headed 55 gallon steel drum so I could actually run it in water.  After some preliminary cleaning and trying to start with no avail, I pulled the electrical connections & blew out the 2 rubber booted connections with compressed air.  I had to initially spray starting fluid into the spark plug holes to get it to fire, which it did but I could only get it to half-heartedly run on one cylinder.  After considerable hand cranking and removal of the plugs and squirting starting fluid to get it to start, I before too long could get it to run somewhat by squirting mixed gas into the open carburetor throat.  I got about 10 minutes of somewhat running time at a medium speed before it got late enough to abandon it for the night.  The thought was that it had indeed run for a little while, so maybe there was some lubrication internally.


I did not use the electric starter, as it was bound up and the hassle of getting a battery, then get it attached, was not as important as getting the motor running.


Day one After Recovery :  The next morning I pulled the flywheel to find rust on the flywheel magnets and the stator.  This year of motor has electronic ignition so everything under the flywheel should have been sealed.  There is no drain plug in these carburetors, so I pulled the carburetor,  disassembled it, blew it out with compressed air and found some water from the jets.  To pull the carburetor on this model, you have to take off the flywheel, manual starter spool, the in gear anti-start dog to get to the port side carburetor mounting screw. 



Under the carburetor was found a small dead half-baked sculpin.  Everything was cleaned, lightly oiled and then reassembled.


Then came the starting fluid game again and playing with the choke to keep it running.  Yah I know, the super Whiz Bang web mechanics say to NEVER use starting fluid, well I will bet they have never tried to get their pet motor back to life after a watery burial.  And my goal was to get it running enough that I could use a richer fuel mix to coat the internal parts.  It would still only run on one cylinder, until it warmed up, so I suspected some electrical connection was still wet.


I got it to run that day for about an hour and half, but only at medium to higher speed.  Trying to slow it to a trolling speed resulted in it dying.  I  suspected there was still some water possibly in the slow speed passages of the carburetor. 


The weather was rather warm, like in the high 80 degree level during the day, so this may have helped somewhat after I quit trying.


There was also water in the electric starter, which was removed, cleaned and oiled. 


Day Two After Recovery :  The next morning I got at it early, (6AM).  This motor started easily, with minor carburetor and throttle idle adjustment over a period of an hour, I got it to run constantly for 5 hours.  The last 2 Ĺ hours was at a trolling speed, but it died only when the gas tank became empty.  It then appeared to be functioning pretty much as before and with the same reliability as before as to starting/idling.


Then came the external loving cosmetic clean up as I was very glad to have the old friend back and functioning again.  Now comes a complete look over with light oiling of many exposed parts.  The padlock will be on the transom clamps this time. 


Subsequent Findings/Repairs :  I let it set until the next week-end, then on Friday night I started it up in preparation to go to the Willapa Bay salmon fishing the next morning.  It would run, but seems to have a intermittent miss on one cylinder until it gets warmed up.   One thought was that maybe the reed valves had gotten rusty or some debris under them.   So the carburetor and intake manifold was removed, and new reed valves installed.  Nothing visual was found wrong, but at least I had more peace of mind.  It seems that if the motor was ran often enough, it would run fine.   But if it set for a month or so then the miss would return. 


I had purchased another replacement motor during the recovery efforts, thinking that maybe I would never see this one again, so I let the dunked recovered motor set over the winter.  The next spring I again wanted to get my recovered motor back on the boat.  The missing on one cylinder was still occasionally there until it would get warmed up.  The thought now was that one coil is not totally waterproof and that there may be some slight moisture still inside it.  When the motor runs enough to warm things up, then things straighten out and it ruins fine for a week, but if it sets beyond that then the miss returns.  So with the next fishing season, it was back on the boat and used with no further problems.  Matter of fact, during 4 trips to the bay salmon fishing, it trolled steadily for 20 hours with only coughing once and that was taken care of by revving it up enough to blow the carbon out of one spark plug.


While using this motor during the 2005 fishing season, the power pack died.   Replacing it got the old motor going again for another run time of 43 hours this time before I had to change the spark plugs.   I am not sure whether a coil finally dried out or that possibly it was the power pack all along.  It now is running as good as it did before the dive.


Since this was a freshwater grave, where I cleaned and oiled all the parts shortly after recovery and with the days being warm at the time, I now can not tell that it had ever been in the water.


In Conclusion :  All in all, looking forward, I suspect the son-in-law will not ask to borrow the boat again, as he confided that he never got much sleep for the 2 weeks until the motor was recovered.  And it took him over 2 days before he could muster enough courage to even tell me what initially happened.  At the time I did not have boat insurance on this boat, and he was in as situation where he could not afford to replace the motor.


He had a hard time understanding what he had done wrong or why it even fell off the transom.  I told him that the electric starter cables plus the tied down battery box would have at least held it for a while, probably enough for him to catch it before it went to itís temporary grave.  That is when he went back to the boat and checked the battery box only to find the battery terminal wing nuts were OFF.   He had said that on the fatal morning he found the battery box lid off, so he had snapped it back on, not thinking about why it was off.   I suspect he never gave it any thought as to what may have happened during the night, and possibly was thinking of catching another 18Ē Kokanee that morning.


After this later investigation, he then decided the teenagers (ages about 16 to 19) who were camped on the lake shore close to them must have gotten tired of ROWING their 12' skiff around, and they must have swam in at night to borrow the kicker motor.   What amazes me is that the next morning that the main motor had enough electrical connection to start, (same battery, same battery terminals) but the guess is that itís starter cables were placed UNDER the kicker motor starter wires and they must have been binding enough on the posts to make connection enough to start it that morning.


Recommended  Procedure After Recovery:

(1)    As soon after recovery as possible, pull the spark plugs and crank the motor over to facilitate blowing any water out of the internal parts of the engine.  Squirt WD 40 into the plug holes, replace the spark plugs, into the carburetor breather, then pull the starter cord to disperse this oil internally.   Do this a few times to ensure a good internal light oil coating.  You do not want any internal rusting.


(2)    Try to get it running, if this involves using some starting fluid, so be it.   If it does start, even sporadically you know you at least are part way home.   Then if it needs more fuel coaxing, switch to a pump oil can and regular outboard mixed fuel.


(3)    If you can not get it to start or stay running right, pull the carburetor, clean all the internals, blow them out with compressed air, reassemble.  If you do not have compressed air, then soak and flush the internals with rubbing alcohol.  This will absorb the water, then dry out.


(4)    If you still experience problems, it could be electrical, pull all the electrical plug in connectors, blow them out with compressed air.  Use water displacing oil (WD 40) if need be and reassemble.  Pull ALL the ground connections & clean them, reassemble.   If it is an older motor which uses points and condensers, you may have to run some crocus cloth thru the points to remove any oxidation.


(5)    Once it is running, let it run for a considerable time, but using a fuel mix of double the normal ratio to lubricate the internal parts.


(6)    Clean and oil all the external surfaces.


Another Story :  In my efforts to upgrade my trolling motors, I purchased a 9.9 hp 1994 Johnson off eBay in the summer of 2005.  The son wants a good trolling motor so the 78 is going to him.  My efforts were now concentrated on the 94.  When I bid on this one, the pictures were slightly out of focus along with more than a little darker than required for good viewing.   I made an assumption that everything was there since the seller said the motor was ran the week before it was put up for sale. 



My mistake, never assume anything when it comes to an eBay sale.  The motor was a manual start short shaft motor.  When I got it, the complete manual starter assembly was missing along with many pieces like the power pack and coils were just thrown loose in the box.  The choke knob was missing and the linkage from the throttle cable to the stator plate was broken.  The carburetor's butterfly choke was seized up enough that the choke pin was broken off, allowing the knob to disappear.  I removed the carburetor, freed up the choke butterfly, (which was frozen in solidly) cleaned and did a reassembly of this unit.


I contacted the seller about the manual starter and he said "you got what was in the picture that I posted".   I gave him the benefit of doubt and thought that he could actually have started it by using the emergency rope wound onto the flywheel.  He then said he got it from a friend.  I asked if he would contact the friend to see if he still had the starter where I would buy it from them.   Well, the friend could not find it.  It took about 6 months looking on eBay before I found a replacement manual starter and I won the bid on that.


OK, now came time to try to start it.  These motors use a slightly different carburetor breather so I could not squirt starting fluid into the opening.  Here you have to remove a 1/2" round plastic snap in plug, squirt thru the opening into the carburetor throat.   OK, placing the motor in my tank, hooking up a fuel line, pumping the primer bulb, and pulling the rope, no fire, not even a pop.  I checked the plugs, fire there, replaced the plugs, with one rather hard to get in and squirted starting fluid finally got a pop.   Pump the bulb, squirt, crank, it sputtered but it would only run for a few seconds.  During this limited run, I tried to see if the water pump was functioning, no, not at all.


OK, I rebuilt the fuel pump, tore the lower unit off and started to replace the water pump impeller, only to find that salt corrosion had ate a chunk out of the aluminum housing at the water pump.  I rebuilt the this housing with J-B Weld.  Next I checked the oil in the lower unit.  None.  I filled it with kerosene, then let it set for a week, turning the shaft occasionally to try to dislodge any debris.  After draining this unit, I found some metal grit.  Now this called for a gearbox disassemble and inspection.  I found the clutch shifter dogs were worn on the forward side.  This clutch dog being symmetrical, I rotated it so that the worn dogs were now in the reverse side, thinking reverse will be used minimally as compared to forward.   I replaced all the seals and the prop shaft bearing.


I ran a compression test but they tested at only 70# with 3 pulls, and when looking into the spark plug holes the cylinder walls were RUSTY.  I pulled the side covers and the head off.   Yes, both cylinders were rusted more than just a light coat.  The top cylinder had enough rust on one side that the rings could not touch the walls completely.   Later in rebuilding it in honing the cylinders I got about 95% of the pits out without increasing the bore appreciably.


In pulling the powerhead off, I find that all the cadmium plated steel under the stator was rusted bad.  The shifting shaft was rusted enough that it was frozen in the plastic bushings.  The upper motor mounts inside the upper housing are all salt corroded, and this is a place that normally never sees saltwater.  Also the lower crankshaft seal extension extension had considerable salt corrosion, way above any place that would normally have see saltwater.  There was silt residue in places where a normal external hose washing could never get to.  It is apparent to me now that this motor also had a watery grave sometime in it's history, but this time it appears to have been in saltwater.   And since it came from Texas, maybe the result of a hurricane.


When I got the pistons out, the crankshaft and bearings did not appear to be damaged, so I can assume that someone got it running for a while at least after the dunking, long enough to get some of the oil mix in the gas to lubricate the crank and the rod journals.  There is a slight amount of rust at the reed valves.  Initially I never really thought much about most all the external bolt heads were rusty, along with the frozen choke, but now it all adds up.


During reassembly I found the lower spark plug threads were cross-threaded and needed to be drilled out then Heli-Coiled back to the proper threads.


Now the rest of the story is that the water jackets in the block under the head are about 85% solid salt corroded.    The thermostat was about corroded solid.  With the block apart, when I honed the cylinders before installing new rings, I also had a chance to roto-root all of the water passages with an 1/8" drill bit.  The sad part here is that this motor has a flush plug factory installed on the upper RH water jacket with the word "FLUSH" cast into the water jacket near the plug.


While trying to start this for the first time after the rebuild, I could not get it to run more than a few turns by squirting fuel into the carburetor.   After many carburetor removals, I later finally decided and then later verified that the main jet inside the carburater ,the main jet supply tube was also plugged with a very fine silt.


In the end I will have a newer motor with the better/easier shift and will know that it is in good shape when I am done, because I have cleaned and repaired everything plus put many new parts in it.   I won't really loose any money on the deal but only because I am doing all the labor myself, however this is not really what I had bargained for when I started. 

I guess in the end , I was the sucker during the e-Bay bidding where others may have suspected, or who may have read between the lines as to the situation and let me have it a a decent price.   Early on I thought that this seller was not a boater, (and this may be true) that he may have been taken advantage of by his friend.   But the more I see here, I got lied to by omission and a bad photo on purpose, plus he is over 1500 miles away then with my money.


So looking back, it is still best to actually inspect any motor that you are interested in purchasing from a private individual.   Even in a face to face purchase, especially on the newer motors that have computers in them, try to get it to a marine mechanic and get them to do a computer printout of the history of the motor.  Even if you have to pay $75 for their diagnostic work, it may well save you $3000 for a non-warranty engine rebuild, (been there - done that).


This is not to say that all e-Bay sales are questionable, but if the seller is genuine, they will give more than one good photo, even one showing it running.   In looking back it is possible that the person I purchased this motor from did not know any history of the motor & was only trying to sell it.  He did however lie to me about the previous recent running of it.  Again do not assume anything in a mail order purchase.


Or at even some private face to face sales, the seller may be trying to cover something up.  Also be careful of second person sales.  Just be careful.





Copyright © 2003 - 2016  LeeRoy Wisner  All Rights Reserved

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Originally started 5-30-03, Last updated 01-06-2016
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