Even though hurricane Earl wasn’t likely to give us much of a punch in Branford, CT, just east of New Haven, I decided to take the engine off my 13-foot Boston Whaler. I figured the boat itself was safe enough -- it lay in a slip on the inside of the inmost of several long docks, and only if the outermost docks came adrift and started some sort of chain reaction would trouble find my boat. However, depending on the tide, only about five feet separated my raised propeller and a granite seawall. So if there was some give in the whole system… well, I decided not to tempt fate.


My favorite Mercury, now with tiller arm hanging fractured and forlorn and casting broken at the elbow.

I’ve run this Whaler for 43 years – since 1967. It’s had only four engines, always decreasing in horsepower, because the energy I’ve had to lug them around has also decreased, along with my interest in going head to head with Miss Budweiser. For the last six seasons I’ve run it happily with a little Mercury 8-hp. two-stroke, the nicest, most reliable little engine I’ve ever had. And I just mangled it. You always hurt the one you love.

Got the engine off the transom. Got it off the bouncing bow of the Whaler and onto the dock. Got it onto the hand-truck (my BFF since turning 50 a few years ago). Wheeled it up the dock and up the ramp and across the road to my station wagon. Turned to open the hatchback. Hand-truck started to swivel. Caught handcart. Engine twisted in restraining line. Whole thing went over with me holding onto it. Moderate tap on pavement. Wrestled whole thing back up. Tiller arm hanging fractured and forlorn. Casting broken at the elbow. Bad, bad words.

When I got home I went to the Mercury website, suspecting that Mercury was concentrating on four-strokes these days and not making this excellent little engine any more.

I was right. Would parts be available? I clicked over to Mercury's parts source and found a note that said the best way to find a specific part was to enter the engine’s serial number. No problem. In went the serial number, and boom – thumbnails of exploded drawings for my exact engine model. Just what I was hoping for.

But then things turned south. Clicking on the thumbnail for the “swivel head and steering handle” took me to a detailed parts list, but there were no images associated. It was a good-looking façade, but like so many websites that make big promises, this one hadn’t been fleshed out by a summer intern with a scanner. Result – even though I had a part number and description, I was hesitant to order without getting a visual of the tiller.

The next step was to go to the Mercury Literature Request page, where I was invited to buy a service manual in paper or on a CD, for $74.95. This seemed like a slippery slope. So I copied the part number, pasted it into Google, and low and behold, up popped Boats.net with the exact, detailed exploded drawing I had been looking for. Zoomable. Clear as a bell, with parts keyed to the drawing and listed below, reasonable prices for each part, and a shopping cart. Paydirt.


Repairing the outboard wasn’t too complex mechanically, but it smelled of hidden surprises.

At the Mercury site, the price of part 821468A66 (steering handle arm) was $64.23, the MSRP. At the boats.net site, the same part was listed at $52.03.

But before ordering the new tiller I went and studied the engine in my shop some more. In this particular model, the throttle, gearshift, and engine-stop button are all located in the tiller. The tiller arm casting is set against a bunch of washers and spacers, then there’s a bushing that goes through the swivel hole in the cast swivel-head. And on the inboard side of the swivel hole there’s a retaining plate with two machine screws, one of which I was going to have to jury-rig a tool to get at. Also protective conduit, retaining clips, throttle friction knob, and various other small parts.

The longer I looked at the project of dismantling this whole assembly, the more Clint Eastwood’s words came to mind: A man’s got to know his limitations. That wasn’t quite right, though; the project wasn’t too complex mechanically, but it was also one of those missions that smell -- to those familiar with the smell -- of surprises, retraced steps, weathered and fragile plastic bits, small springs flying off into dark places, an obscure broken part that hasn’t been discovered yet, and more bad, bad words.

I like fixing things, and I like saving money. On the other hand, I like my local authorized Mercury dealer and repairer, too. In fact it was this family dealership, Birbarie Marine, who sold me the engine six years ago, and sold my family the very same Whaler in 1967. So as I loaded the engine back into the station wagon and headed across town to Birbarie, I consoled myself with the idea that this was more of a continuation than a capitulation. A man also has to recognize the limitations of his time and the experience and efficiency of others.

If there’s a corollary to “No good deed goes unpunished,” especially on the water, it’s Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war. So I think of my poor Merc’s broken arm as a small sacrifice to Earl’s steering winds. It had to be done. But jeez, it barely even drizzled.