Picking a Marine Mechanic

I am not really sure how to start this article.  Mechanics are like Doctors, Lawyers, Dentists, Electricians, Plumbers, Teachers, Truck Drivers, even Elected Officials, some are very good while others don’t quite make the grade, but may have the ability to make you think they do.  How they operate their own businesses are their business, and you have to understand they are doing this to make a living, however if in doing so adversely effects their customers (you) , it may be time to find another mechanic.

There are good mechanics who try to do their best and to try to accommodate customers, while at the same time try to not becoming caught in the bind because of some shortsighted person who thinks that just because he appears to be a financially successful person he should be pushed to the head of the line during a very busy season.   However any business owner knows that some customers can be very pushy.  On the other hand, most customers are rather understanding.  However, 99.9% do not like to be led on or lied to.

Some dealers may tend to have favorites.  Yes, I understand that they may need to be flexible in finding room to slip a guide or a commercial fisherman in ahead of a recreational boater at times.  BUT this practice can get carried away to where a recreational boater may get pushed back REPEATEDLY so far that he may even loose his whole fishing season with his boat setting in the mechanic’s lot with nothing but empty promises.  Been there, had that happen to me.  I had a 3 week initial repair, then two months later, lost another 8 1/2 weeks of a related problem during the only part of the salmon season that I fish, with a initial promise of a couple of weeks each time, hence the reason for this article.  And this was not during the normal recreational season rush (the long wait started the middle of August) with only a week of this time was waiting on parts.

There has to be some middle ground here, and it is my belief that openness on both the dealer/mechanic and the customer’s part may be a key in a situation like this.  But when a customer calls in before bringing a boat/motor in, asks what is the mechanics backlog time, get the response just under a week, he should not have to wait for over 2 months of continued being pushed to the back of the line, stalling, and excuses like how busy they are, even for a engine rebuild.

You will have to decide which mechanic is right for you based on information that you can dig up.  From my own experience, it may well be best to do it before you actually need assistance.   I have chosen a mechanic at times for different reasons.  One is that they were convenient.  Another was that I knew him from belonging to a fishing club.  Another was because he helped me on a problem over the phone, 15 years before to trace down a electrical problem.   Another was because they were listed in the Yellow Pages of the phone book.   Kind of like choosing a personal doctor, lawyer or electrician.

Another thing you need to be a ware of is that of time of the year/work load for the mechanic.  During the off season, you may be able to make a appointment to get your motor in and repaired the same day if that is a possibility.  During these times you may have the opportunity to discuss your problem with the mechanic and even stay around (not inside his work area however) to answer questions.  But during the boating/fishing season most mechanics will be working on customers motors and not have a lot of time for walk ins.  They may have a wife, girlfriend or neighbor answering the phone and doing the office work and receiving of repair work.  So do not be offended if you do not get the chance to actually talk to a mechanic during a busy season.  They are kind of like a farmer, got to harvest the crop when it is ripe.

I will try to supply a list of things below that may be helpful in evaluating a potentially new marine mechanic that you may be needing at some future time.   Normally you will be needing a mechanic to work on your motor and not necessarily your boat, which could be a totally different situation.

Here is a sign that sure has some meaning to any service orientated business.  “An emergency on your part does not necessarily make a emergency on our part”.

Another sign seen in a different mechanic’s business was   “Labor $85.00 per hour. For rush jobs, putting you at the head of the line, $125.00 per hour”I like this one as it pretty well sets definitions of expected repairs and puts the monkey on the right person’s back.  

(1) First it may be prudent to visit as many shops as possible in your area.  Talk to the owner / counter person explaining that you are looking for a marine mechanic describe what boat/motor you have.  Is this something he/they would be interested in by having you as a customer?  See if he will allow you to talk directly to the mechanic that may be involved if you bring it in later. 

What is his policy as to how long normal repairs will take?  Do you need to make an appointment to get your boat/motor worked on?  Is he familiar with your brand and model of motor?  How long would major repairs take, during a slack time, then during the peak boating season?  What is his hourly labor rate?  Does he carry a inventory of normally used parts?  How long does it normally take to get repair parts if they have to be ordered?  Does he give an itemized bill and returns all old parts?   What kind of guarantee does he offer on his repairs?  Does he have secure storage while your unit is there?

If he sells boats and motors what is his policy as to servicing his old (or new) customers who have purchased from him as compared to you who are a newcomer with a 4 year old non warranty unit?

All motors may have good and bad points, but they still need servicing, does he run down a particular brand that he does not sell?

(2) Sometimes you do not have a choice of picking a marine mechanic because of the location where you live or boat.   You may have to use the one closest to your home or where the boat/motor is at the time of need.   Maybe you live or use the boat/motor at a remote island in Alaska.   In cases like this you had better start learning how to maintain your own motor.  Purchase a factory service and parts manual for starters.  And hire a mechanic for a few hours to check out your motor, but pay him for you to watch and help him during this time.  Have him give you a rundown on how to diagnose your engine’s problems and what it takes to repair them.  In a situation like this his labor may well be the best investment you ever made.  Learn to perform preventative maintenance.

(3)  Do you have a boat motor that is still under warranty?  If so, you will have to find a mechanic that can service your motor through the factory’s warranty program.  Again talk to them as outlined in #1.

(4)  If the motor is out of warranty, you may still want to use the services of a mechanic certified to work on your motor because he will have had factory training as compared to handyman Joe down the road.

(5)  Some independent mechanics service many different brands of motors, and they can be very good at what they do.  Is the current owner the son of the previous owner who retired where the boy grew up in the business with dad as a teacher?   Or is he someone who always wanted a business because he likes boating, is now retired, wants his boat in good repair, wants recognition and just runs the business but hires his mechanics?  Either one could be a option depending on ability and reputation.

(6)  How big is the operation?  How long have they been in their own business, not just a mechanic or salesman?  How long have the mechanics been employed there?  What training have they had?  How is the shop laid out?  Is it laid out somewhat orderly?  Do they have a specified sales/counter person?  Or does the owner or any mechanic close by answer the phone, schedule the repairs, order the parts, do the repairs and bull shit with the customers?  Again possibly no real right answer.

(7)  Does he seem to be knowledgeable while at the same time able to carry on a conversation without excessive bragging?

(8)  Ask him for references.  However take into consideration that he surely will not give a name of a ex-customer that was not a happy parting.

(9)  Ask other boaters and try to find out whether there is one or two mechanics in the area to shy away from and why.

(10)  Does he have a machine shop adequate to perform the required repairs associated with a modern marine repair shop?  Is he computerized?

(11) Is he close enough to a boat launch so that he can perform a “on the water test” if need be without traveling a long distance?

(12)  Sometimes just a “GUT FEELING” about someone or the business has it’s place in your selection.

(13)  Now on the other hand do not be too harsh on a dealer because there are some customers that the business owner could never please.  Some of these customers can be shortsighted, arrogant, pig-headed and just a plain plain dumb person that will never learn and what-ever happens is never their fault.

(14)  With the Internet, there are many message boards that cater to boat and motor repairs.  This may be something you might want to look into as far as becoming a little more knowledgeable.  However if you do, do not try to impress your mechanic as to your vast newfound knowledge that you really may not even partially understand.   But remember that free advice is worth just what you paid for it, while wisdom from experience is priceless!

There has to be some mechanic out there that you should be able to communicate with and will have to place your trust in, at least until you come to a situation where he grossly overcharges you, or the repair was shoddy which in turn becomes faulty which leads to more expensive related repairs.  If not, you had better invest in FACTORY service manual, parts and learn to do your own repairs if your engine lends itself to that possibility.  The aftermarket manuals usually “flock shoot”, cover a lot but never what you really need.

When an engine fires through the exhaust, you have an after-fire.  A backfire is when it fires “back,” through the intake/carb.

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