Boat engine heating is almost always a result of a problem with the cooling system in your vessel, fans, belts, wiring, or other gauges.
While there are usually many possibilities, most of them are connected to one another to perform the overall process of cooling your engine.
An overheating engine is not only a dangerous occurrence, but overheating can cause additional, expensive damage to your boat and engine if not properly caught and taken care of immediately.
Here are a few reasons why boat engines overheat and how you can take care of the problem:
Why do Boat Engines Overheat?
Boat engines heat mostly because something has gone wrong with the cooling system on board.
There are many reasons why the cooling system might fail, why the engine is in trouble, or if overheating is caused by an external source.
Here are a few reasons why your boat engine might be overheating:
1. Spark Plug Wires & Ignition:
Spark plugs are what help your engine produce power in the first place.
The way that they work is that supply the spark that ignites the air and fuel, which creates small combustion to supply power to your engine.
If your spark plug wires are fraying, were installed incorrectly, aren’t the proper length, or any other problems, you could overheat your engine.
This is because the spark plugs are producing more heat to ignite the engine than is required, ultimately getting stuck.
Not only will your engine overheat, but it may not start at all.
2. V-Belt Malfunction:
Make sure that if you have an inboard engine, you are checking on the V-belt.
The V-belt on a boat is what connects and transmits the force from the engine to the hydraulic pump for power steering on your boat.
If this belt isn’t working, you may be running an engine but not going anywhere anytime fast.
This means that your engine will overheat from the strain of trying to operate your boat, but without a hydraulic pump and power steering, you’ll just be sitting at the dock or coasting without control.
These are usually easier to fix than most problems, so keep a spare belt around just in case.
3. Coolant & Fluid Levels:
As we’ve mentioned, coolant and cooling systems are what keep your engine functioning in order to prevent it from overheating.
This is one of the basic things that you need to keep an eye on and check.
Never check this while the engine is already hot, as the liquid will be under pressure and will steam, potentially burning you.
Make sure that your levels are sufficient to keep the coolant from drying out, and if you have a closed system for coolant, make sure that all parts are functioning properly.
If you aren’t sure how to do this yourself, consider getting your boat maintenance by a professional or someone who knows what they’re doing on a regular basis – probably every few weeks or even months, depending on how much you use your boat.
4. Damaged or Worn Water Pump:
The water pump impeller on your engine – usually on both inboard and outboard engines – has a significant impact on your engine’s temperature.
A broken or worn pump and rotating blades will prevent the pump from supplying a flow of cooling water to the engine like it is supposed to.
This is not only a way to overheat your engine, but broken impellers can also cause a blockage.
If you think that your impeller is broken or blocking necessary fluids from doing what they are supposed to, make sure your engine is properly turned off and cooled and then get them fixed immediately.
They may even need a full replacement.
5. External Temperatures & Speed:
Boating on a hot day is the ideal way to enjoy your summer vacation.
However, full-throttle sailing and hot days can overheat your engine just as easily as any damaged or broken parts.
It is important to take it easy on your engine and keep it from overworking itself.
Furthermore, not only will you overheat your engine this way, but you can very badly damage important materials and components that your engine possesses.
Therefore, one hot day can lead to many bad days and engine failures in the future if you aren’t careful.
6. Radiator & Temperature Gauges:
Some engines will include a radiator and temperature gauges that help you not only keep your engine cool but monitor the temperature.
If you see that the temperature gauge is in the red, showing that your engine is too hot, it could be the radiator that is malfunctioning.
Radiators, like in cars, will use a closed-loop cooling system to transfer anti-freeze or other coolant liquids through your engine to keep it from overheating.
If the radiator malfunctions, is missing a valve or is broken in some way, you could have an overheating engine very quickly.
Keep an eye on your temperature gauge or thermostat in order to make sure that you catch the problem before it is too late.
7. Weight & Cargo:
Just like on hot days, overworking your engine could simply be running it at full-throttle but having too heavy of a ship to go anywhere.
It is always vital that you know your engine’s ability to sail with you, friends, family, and cargo on board. With too many people, luggage, drink coolers, or pool toys, you might end up overworking your engine without even being able to get up to full speed.
Most people will use this opportunity to simply increase their engine speed, only getting more frustrated when they find that they aren’t going anywhere.
If this is you, slow down the boat, consider how much cargo and how many people are on board, and reevaluate the situation.
How Bad Can it Get if Your Boat Overheats?
Overheating your engine can be dangerous and even hazardous to your boat and your own health.
If an engine overheats to the point it catches fire, you could very well lose a vital part of your ship and either sink or end up stranded.
If your engine doesn’t catch fire but simply quits or doesn’t start at all, you could find yourself similarly stranded on a lake or in the ocean.
This means you will have to call for a tow or call in an emergency to the coast guard or local rangers.
It is doubtful that your boat would catch fire, but on the off-chance that it does, absolutely always have a fire extinguisher on board.
How to Tell if Your Boat is Overheating:
It isn’t hard to know if your boat is overheating:
- If your engine is steaming or emitting any kind of vapor, cut the engine immediately, wait for it to cool, and evaluate the situation.
- If your engine feels as though it is slowing down or your boat is losing power, the engine may be overheating or even overworking against a heavy ship or rough waters.
- Slow down and wait for it to cool.
- If it continues, you may need to lighten the load or simply slow down for the remainder of the trip.
- If you shut off the engine and it doesn’t start back up again, you may need to wait for it to cool down before it starts up again.
- Always, always, always keep an eye on your thermostat.
- It will usually tell you first if the engine is overheating.
Any of these signs are a good indication, but if you have something that is a little more complicated or difficult to detect, it might be the water impeller or the V-belt.
If it is the impeller or belt, that will require more difficult repairs that will require you to go back to shore.
What to Do When Your Boat is Overheating:
If your boat is overheating, the biggest thing to remember is to wait for it to cool down before you touch it or try to check on it.
If you try to perform maintenance on an overheating engine without turning it off or waiting for it to cool, you could seriously injure or burn yourself.
Furthermore, it is important to slow down your boat and try not to overwork it.
Finally, if you find yourself stranded or on fire from an overheating engine, perform calm and proper safety procedures and call for help.
How to Prevent Overheating in the Future:
Preventing an overheating engine in the future comes down to protecting yourself by monitoring and performing regular maintenance on your engine or boat.
Every little thing on your boat is what helps it operate properly. If anything falls through the cracks, is too old or worn down, or simply quits working properly, you need to make sure you’re on top of it.
If you find the problem later on the water when you’re with family and friends, it is much harder to fix the issue, and you may end up stranded.
Finally, if you aren’t sure what maintenance is required on your boat, take it in for regular or routine inspections.
There is no need for you to put yourself in danger or damage your engine by doing it alone if you aren’t qualified.
Shelby Sullivan is our specialist when it comes to pontoon boats and recreational watercraft. She is often found sailing the freshwater lakes of Michigan. She is also a light-traveler who enjoys camping and traveling the world. Read more about Shelby here.