Roundup: Modern Outboards – Chesapeake Bay Magazine

CBM Takes a look at the outboard options

By John Page Williams

We are fourteen years into the era of clean outboards mandated by the Clean Air Act of 1992, California
Air Resources Board regulations, and similar directives from the European Union. For those of us old enough to have grown up with carburetor-fed, two-stroke outboard motors, it’s hard to believe that that much time has passed. The old technology got us out on the water for many years, but we breathed a lot of blue unburned oil smoke, spent a lot of money on fuel that got wasted, and changed out oil-fouled spark plugs frequently to cajole our engines into idling halfway-smoothly. If we ran our engines a lot, we had to replace them every few years.

No more. Give credit to the leaders who nudged the process along and thank the marine manufacturers for recognizing that clean air and water are part of the boating appeal, acknowledging that the old technology was dirty, and responding robustly to the engineering challenge with several generations of increasingly clean, quiet, silky-smooth, and remarkably efficient outboards, large and small. That power range now extends from lightweight 2.5-hp clamp-on dinghy engines to fire-breathing 627-hp V-8s. We boating writers who have sea-trialed these engines through the transition and measured speed improvements in relation to fuel flow marvel at the improvements, and, as boat owners, we
smile broadly.

It turns out that the polluting blue smoke and high gas bills from old-style outboards were clear signs of fuel waste, which new technologies could remedy very much to the direct benefit of us boaters. The seven gas outboard manufacturers selling in the United States have responded with fierce competition to produce better and better engines built on an array of digital, metallurgical, and lubrication breakthrough technologies. It’s not uncommon now for well-maintained engines to run reliably for 3,000 hours, with some topping 5,000 (an average recreational outboard runs 50 hours per year). 

In parallel, boatbuilders are designing hulls around specific engines. In a significant number of cases, the outboards are replacing straight-shaft inboards and inboard/outboards on boats 30 to 50 feet long, with digital control systems and sophisticated transom brackets allowing two, three, or four engines to run as an integrated team. At Judge Yachts in Denton, Md. for example, all orders for the 36 Chesapeake over the last four years have been for hulls with twin V-6 Suzuki 300s or 350s. Using “digital-backbone” cable technology adapted from the auto industry, modern boats have hull, engine, electronics, and accessories integrated as completely as we expect from a new Ford F150 or Chevy Suburban.

To the manufacturers’ credit, they have paid attention to all boaters, from cruisers looking to power small inflatable dinghies, anglers in 15-foot jonboats, and families in 23-foot runabouts, to offshore anglers running to the canyons. Check the full horsepower ranges of the manufacturers and you’ll see as much attention paid to 9.9s, 60s, 115s, and 150s as the big V-6 and V-8 engines. 

So, who makes the best? Tough question. Competition is so fierce that none of the players can afford to turn out lemons. Consider also that these engines are far more complex than their predecessors. Sophisticated electronic engine management systems and self-adjusting valve trains have done away with old-style tune-ups. So, what these modern marvels need mostly is regular lubricant changes, clean fuel, and freshwater flushes. If something goes wrong, diagnosis means plugging them into laptops with the manufacturer’s proprietary software. Thus, for a prudent skipper, the decision on which brand to buy comes down to who will service it. As a boating writer, I have developed respect for all of the brands summarized here, but as a commercial operator whose skiff works for a living, I’ve based my choice on who can keep me running when the chips are down.

So, who is offering what for 2019? 



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