Dinghies & Their Outboards: A Troubleshooting Guide for Hassle-Free Adventures

By: Cruising Tips, Equipment, Safety

Ah, the dinghy. Or, as a former crewmate of ours once lovingly coined it, our “little buggy float float.

It may not be the technical term, but I have to admit, her nickname for this mini-flotation device that we all diligently carry (or tow) along with us to each destination, wasn’t necessarily wrong! This “lifeline” of ours, often the only means of transportation to and from shore when we’re spending nights on the hook, is essentially that! It’s a sailor’s modern-day buggy on water, perhaps even an unsung hero and overlooked companion that we often neglect to credit when recounting our exciting sailing adventures. After all, even if it is our larger (and admittedly more sophisticated) sailing vessel that gets us to and from these breathtaking destinations, once we’ve arrived at these locales, don’t we often depend on our dinghy as our “tried and trusted steed”? It takes us to shore so that we can enjoy sandy beaches, experience unique villages, and relish local cuisines and traditions. It grants us the opportunity to enjoy a sunset from the stability of shore, or, if we’re lucky, while immersing ourselves in the time-honored tradition of “sundowners,” enjoying the storytelling and sense of camaraderie amongst our fellow seafarers. And it’s not just the captain and crew that our dinghies transport back and forth. It helps us shuttle everything from supplies and groceries to the necessary tools or parts needed for repairs or fixes on our big boat. So before we dive into what can – and all too often, what does – go wrong with our dinghies (namely, their engines), let’s take a moment to pause and pay homage to this small but valiant vessel that perhaps too often goes unappreciated.

As we have mentioned, our dinghies can sometimes serve as our lifeline, but it’s the dinghy’s outboard engine that can often prove to be its lifeline. While not an absolute necessity (our dinghies do come equipped with oars, after all), there’s no denying the added convenience and efficiency an outboard engine brings to our sailing experience. With its assistance, we can swiftly access those tight or shallow places that are inaccessible to us via our larger sailing vessels. However, like any mechanical equipment, outboard motors can frequently encounter issues that may leave sailors stranded. Fortunately, with the right troubleshooting steps and knowledge, many of these problems can be resolved with relative ease. In this guide, we’ll explore common issues encountered with these outboard engines and learn how to recognize and address them.


Troubleshooting: Before and During Engine Start-Up

Pre-diagnosing potential issues is often the easiest fix. Therefore, taking the time to recognize and diagnose problems with your dinghy or its outboard before they arise can save you a lot of trouble, or prevent a particularly long unplanned row if you find yourself stranded between shore and your boat. Before firing up the engine, you can likely address many common issues that could potentially leave you in an unwanted scenario.

Steps For Preparing Your Dinghy & Starting Your Engine

  • Check to ensure you have oars in your dinghy. If not, locate them and place them inside.
    *Given the numerical order of ‘Step #1’, it is safe to assume the author has reason to consider this a vital step.
  • Lower the engine into the water.
    For troubles lowering your engine, refer to The Outboard Motor Won’t Tilt Down below.
  • Check fuel & oil levels. Ensure that you have plenty of each and top off if needed.
  • Check the condition of the spark plugs. When these become wet, dirty, or worn they can cause the engine to misfire, run rough, or even fail.
  • Open the fuel vent about a half-turn.
  • Check that the kill switch is attached and that the engine is in neutral.
  • Pull the choke out if you are starting for the first time. DO NOT pull out if you are restarting.
  • If you are starting from a cold start, pump the bulb one to two times (no more than three) to push fuel through the line.
  • Do a slow test pull of the cord. If there is resistance, double-check that you are in neutral.
  • Pull the cord out slowly (about eight inches) then pull the rest of the chord out quickly to start. If it does not start within the first three pulls, push the choke back in and pull again with the same throttle. (If it still doesn’t start, you may need to wait a little while as the engine may be flooded).
  • Once the engine starts, push the choke back in.
  • While still tied securely to your boat or dock, check the engine’s performance by giving it some throttle in neutral and then switching to forward and reverse to test the propulsion and that your throttle is working properly.

The Outboard Motor Won’t Tilt Down

Sometimes our outboards can get locked in the tilted position. To troubleshoot, locate the small pin located on the engine. With your hand on both the pin and the back of the engine, lift the pin toward you and slowly lower the engine down. 

The Engine Won’t Start

One of the most frustrating problems a sailor can encounter is the outboard engine of their dinghy refusing to start. While we’ve addressed some of these issues in our pre-diagnosis, if your engine is still failing to start, they may be worth revisiting.

  • Ensure there’s sufficient fuel in the tank and that it’s reaching the engine. Inspect for any leaks and ensure the fuel line is attached securely to the engine. Check that the line is not pinched or contorted in any way that would restrict its flow. Check also that there is nothing applying pressure to the bulb.
  • Ensure there’s sufficient fuel in the tank and that it’s reaching the engine. Inspect for any leaks and ensure the fuel line is attached securely to the engine. Check that the line is not pinched or contorted in any way that would restrict its flow. Check also that there is nothing applying pressure to the bulb.
  • Is the fuel vent open? If not, loosen it a half-turn.
  • Check oil levels. Fill up if needed and ensure there are not any clogs or kinks in the line that may be restricting flow. Sometimes build-up of salt and grime can also interfere with the ignition system.
  • Finally, if your outboard has been sitting for a while without use, you may find that the fuel and/or oil has expired and is no longer usable. Over time, these can go bad and may cause problems with the engine, resulting in loss of power, poor acceleration, and even misfiring. In extreme cases, it can even cause damage to the engine.

If the engine is an electric start, a dead or weak battery could be the culprit. Check the battery charge and connections to ensure they’re secure and functioning correctly.

An outboard motor needs a mix of fuel and air to run. If excessive fuel is given to the engine, it will be starved for air, causing it not to start or to flood. Below are the most common causes of a flooded engine.

  • Attempting to start the engine more than 3 times with the choke pulled out: the choke gives extra fuel to the engine to assist in a cold start. By attempting to start too many times, this additional fuel will cause flooding of the engine.
  • Pumping the bulb excessively: again, this will send too much fuel to the engine. This bulb should not be pumped more than 2 or 3 times when starting the engine.


If you suspect your engine is flooded, the first step is to wait. Allow the engine to sit for a few minutes to allow excess fuel to evaporate and drain away. Then you can try the troubleshooting steps below.

  • Disconnect the fuel line & push the choke in: pushing the throttle towards the ‘fast’ position, pull the chord several times. This will allow more air into the engine and should help clear the flooding.
  • Once the engine sputters, you can try starting by reconnecting the fuel line and keeping the choke pushed in.

Troubleshooting: After Engine Start-Up

The Engine is Sputtering, Stalling, or Cutting Out

If your outboard engine starts but stalls or cuts out unexpectedly, several factors could be at play. Luckily, in most scenarios, the cause can typically be traced back to a few simple issues.

  • Check the kill switch: during a bumpy dinghy ride, it is not uncommon for the kill switch to become detached from the engine.
  • Check fuel and lines: if your engine surges and dies (or sputters and spurts), the problem can most likely be traced back to the fuel, either lack thereof or its delivery to the system. If low fuel or no fuel is not the issue, check the fuel lines, filters, and carburetor for any blockages or restrictions that may be affecting fuel flow. 
  • Inspect the propeller: ensure your propeller is not obstructed or has become tangled with any seaweed, fishing line, or other debris. Check for damage such as dents or bends that may be affecting its efficiency.
  • Additionally, a faulty ignition system or insufficient compression may also be factors of intermittent stalling. While inspecting these items for signs of damage may help, resolving these issues may require calling in reinforcement, such as a certified mechanic.

The Engine is Overheating

Overheating is a common issue with outboard engines, particularly when operating in warm climates or at high speeds. If you notice any smoke emanating from the engine, it’s crucial to TURN IT OFF IMMEDIATELY. Failure to do so can quickly lead to significant damage as the engine struggles to cool itself. Once the engine is off, you can proceed to diagnose the cause of the overheating.

  • Water Intake: if your engine is overheating, there’s likely an obstruction preventing water from flowing through the water intake system. Outboard motors rely on a constant flow of water to keep them cool. Check the water intake ports for any blockages caused by debris or marine growth. Flushing the cooling system with fresh water may also help to remove salt or debris that could cause corrosion or other damage.

Strange Noises or Vibrations

Unusual noises or vibrations from the outboard engine can indicate underlying problems that require attention.

  • Mounting Hardware: loose or damaged mounting hardware can cause vibrations. Inspect the engine mounts and bolts for tightness and replace any worn or damaged hardware.
  • Exhaust System: check the exhaust system for leaks or damage that may be causing unusual noises.

Proper Engine Shut Off 

  • Ensure there is no pressure on the throttle and that the engine is in neutral.
  • Ensure there is no pressure on the throttle and that the engine is in neutral.

Troubleshooting the outboard engine on a sailboat dinghy often requires patience, knowledge, and attention to detail. And while we appreciate that our “little buggy float float” is always standing ready to whisk us away onto new adventures, we must concede the fact that now and again we must still have those oars ready for unexpected rowing adventures.  However, following the steps outlined in this guide should help fellow sailors diagnose and resolve common problems quickly to ensure a safe and enjoyable sailing experience.



Knowing how to operate and maintain a dinghy and outboard is an essential part of seamanship. Dinghies help us get ashore, transport provisions, and travel between vessels. Going Ashore Made Easy: The Essential Dinghy And Outboard Manual is a must-have for every sailor and powerboater.