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Lessons Learned – Its All About Timing



If you have been boating for a long time like I have, you probably already know that no matter how diligent you are about doing the right things, sometimes things just come down to blind luck. I guess you can just say that about life as well. Sometimes your luck is good and sometimes not so good. One thing is consistent though. You can usually learn a lesson from whatever happens. Such is the case with an experience that I recently had on the water.

It was February 23 but a nice day for late winter. The temperature was in the upper 60’s and the winds were calm. The Bear’s Den II had not been out of her slip yet since November 2019. That’s not normal for me. But life happens. I was eager to take her out. Two of my friends and I headed to the marina and boarded the boat. I let the blower run while I did my preliminary checks before turning the keys to bring the twin Crusader 454’s roaring to life. After a few minutes of warming up, we cast the lines and headed out.

Headed out for a nice cruise.


As we headed across the long no wake zone, we discussed how blessed we were to have such a nice day to get out on the water. Our plans were to cruise over to another marina close by to grab a bite to eat at the restaurant there. We were a few hundred yards outside the no-wake zone when I felt a difference in how the wheel was turning in my hands. I instinctively rocked the wheel back and forth and found it to be much easier to turn than expected. I pushed down hard on the left side, let go and watched it spin freely with no response from my vessel.
“Guys”, I said. “I think I just lost my steering!”

They both stopped their joyful banter and looked at me in disbelief.
“I’m not kidding. My steering is gone. Not to worry though. I’ve got twin engines and I can steer with my throttles.”

While I was a bit disturbed that my steering was not working, I was feeling rather proud that I had already determined a solution to the problem. I took my hands off the wheel, put my left hand on the throttles. I began manipulating them to turn the boat around and point the bow in the direction of home.

I remember thinking that in this situation, I was so glad to have twin engines. What would I have done if I still had my 24 foot cruiser that was a single?? Well, I guess God felt that I needed a bit more of a challenge that day. You guessed it. Less than 30 seconds after that thought had passed through my head, the boat jerked and the starboard engine stumbled. Two or three more surges of the engine and it completely shut down. Multiple attempts to restart the engine failed.

“You gotta be kidding me,” I thought! “How could both of these things be happening at the same time?”

A few minutes in the engine compartment performing the basic checks showed no obvious signs of cause: no visual issues with carburetor; No water in the fuel filter canister; no clogs in the fuel filter; All electrical connections secure. Now we were floating out on the water with no steering and one engine. That makes it a bit hard to navigate. There was only one thing to do. I called TowBoatUS.

Standing on the deck of my boat as the Tow Boat takes us home.


Once we were back in the slip safely, my mind switched to wondering what the heck happened? How could I possibly have had two system failures within 30 seconds of each other? Why did my engine shut down? What happened to my steering? Now I know what some of you are thinking. Yes, I did use fuel treatment at the end of the boating season last year. And, while some boats have power steering that runs off of the starboard engine, mine does not.

I decided to check the engine first. I had already checked the fuel filter when we were out on the water but since I always change fuel filters in the springtime anyway, I replaced them with new ones. I also checked the carburetor for excessive buildup and made sure all moving parts were good. A thorough check for loose wiring or battery cables turned up nothing. If I managed to get the engine started, it would die within 30 seconds.
The engines on my boat use a canister style fuel filter.  They checked out fine.

I looked at the ignition system and while I did not see anything wrong, I started replacing parts . . .distributor cap, rotor, condenser, coil, points. Still, the issue persisted. I spent some time researching and poring through online forums to see if anyone had a suggestion. One contributor reminded me that there was a small fuel screen where the fuel line enters the carburetor and that I might want to check that. I eagerly pulled the fuel line connection from the carb and pulled the screen out.
“It would be great if it were totally clogged,” I thought.

The arrow points to where the in line screen or filter is between the fuel line and the carburetor.

That would be a quick and easy solution to my problem. Removal of the screen showed there was some debris in the screen but to my dismay, the blockage was minimal, maybe about 30 percent at most. I cleaned the screen and connected the fuel line back to the carburetor. Just for kicks, I started the engine and waited for it to shut down in about 30 seconds as it has been doing. I was surprised when it did not shut down. It just kept running. After about 10 minutes, I shut it down. Two more times later that day, I started the engine again and let it run for several minutes with no problems. I even put it in gear to put a load on it and it ran perfectly. I was happy with my good fortune and proceeded to look at the steering issue.



The steering on my boat is a closed pressurized hydraulic system that has a reservoir in the bilge with hydraulic lines running up to the helm and the steering ram which operates the rudders. The hydraulic pump is actually at the helm and uses input from the steering wheel to initiate the pumping force. It is a simple yet efficient system that requires no electrical or mechanical power input other than that from the steering wheel. Inspection of the system revealed some type of hydraulic leak had developed behind the dash at the helm. I could not find any damage to the hydraulic lines so I formulated a plan to remove the pump, order a rebuild kit and do the pump rebuild.

Inspection under the dash revealed a fluid leak but the hydraulic lines appeared undamaged.

The rebuild kit was basically a group of seals. The rebuild consisted of disassembling the pump, replacing the seals and re-assembling the pump. It took me about 2 hours while sitting in my living room watching Deadliest Catch. Unfortunately, upon reinstalling the pump, pressurizing the system and purging the air, I still had no response from the rudders when turning the wheel. At this point, my thoughts were that the issue was something more then just a bad seal. Hunting for a new replacement pump revealed that the model steering pump installed in my boat ( a Hynautic H50) was no longer being manufactured because the company no longer existed. After a little more research I found that Seastar had purchased Hynautic years ago and had a newer model that could be adapted to my boat using an adapter kit. I was willing to try anything so I ordered it and tried to keep my patience while waiting for it to be delivered.

Replacing the seals in the old pump was not hard and took less than 2 hours.

After installation of the new steering pump, I went through the process of pressurizing and purging the system. My heart was pounding in my chest as I sat at the helm and looked down through the open hatch into the engine compartment. I could see the control arm for the port rudder just behind the generator. I grabbed the wheel and turned it. I could see the control arm move and the rudder turned. I heaved a big sigh of relief. I was happy. My baby was back! The subsequent shakedown cruise went perfectly and all is back to normal again.

The final solution for my steering issue was a brand new pump.


So, what did I learn from all of this?

1. Even if you do the right things, something still can go wrong. I take pretty good care of my boat. In fact I would say that I do better than most. Even still, I had an issue where I had to be towed back to the dock. One can argue that I should have seen the issue with the engine and maybe some additional diligence on my part may have bared that out. I’m not sure I would have ever seen the steering issue though.

2. The more you know your boat the better off you are. While I was not able to solve the issue while out on the water, I did know the preliminary things to check and I was able to ultimately repair the issues without any assistance. The thought of how much it would have cost for a marine mechanic to fix the issues makes me shudder.

3. On-the-water towing memberships really are worth it. I have been a BoatUs member ever since I have owned a boat. Fortunately, I have not had to use them much but it is a comfort to know that if an issue does arise, you aren’t going to have to pay a hefty fee just to get back to your dock.

4. Sometimes it really is about timing. If only one of these events had happened, I would have still been able to return to my dock without assistance. If I had only lost the steering, I could have steered using my throttles. If I had only lost the engine, I could have gone back on just one engine. Both of these events happening at virtually the same time was just something that I could not have prepared for.

The positive side of this whole event is that it happened when it did. If I have to go a period of time when my boat is down, I would much rather it be late February and early March than the middle of summer. I do hope the start of your boating season will be a bit smoother than mine.

Happy Boating

Captain Frank

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