How Do You Know if Your Ignition Switch is Bad on a Boat?

There’s no worse feeling than getting on the boat, loading it up, turning your battery switch on, and turning the ignition switch just to hear crickets!

How Do You Know if Your Ignition Switch is Bad on a Boat? The three main signs of a bad switch are that the outboard doesn’t make any noise when you turn the key, the engine doesn’t shut off when you turn the key off, or the engine will just completely shuts off instantly when it is running.

With those three symptoms telling you that you have a bad ignition switch, here are all the things that you need to do to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it!

What Does The Ignition Key Switch Do?

The ignition switch on the boat is the same as the key in a car or any other engine-driven item.

When you turn the ignition switch to the on position, it feeds power to your engine.

Then when you turn it to the start position, it allows power to go to the starter on the engine.

Which in turn powers up the starter, spinning it up in order to start the engine and get it running.

If you are unfamiliar with starters, here is an article that explains all the details that you need to know about them!

How The Boat Key Switch Works

The key switch is basically just a component that controls power from one wire to another.

So there is always power sitting at a key switch when the battery switch on the boat is turned on.

If you are unfamiliar with battery switches, then just watch this sneak peek video into the Born Again Boating Academy.

It shows you how boat battery switches operate and how to wire them up!

But with those switches on that power is sitting at the key.

When you turn the key to the “on” position, the switch connects two of those wires, allowing that power to then flow back to your boat’s engine.

Then when you turn the switch to the start position. It connects another wire to that power, which goes to the starter to start the engine.

Then once the engine is started and running, when you turn the switch to the off position, it disconnects all of these wires.

Cutting the power to the engine, and turning it off.

Symptoms Of A Bad Ignition Switch On An Outboard

The symptoms that you will see happening on your boat when your ignition switch starts to go bad.

Are the same three things from the introduction.

The outboard doesn’t make any noise when you turn the key, the engine doesn’t shut off when you turn the key off, or the engine will just completely shuts off instantly when it is running.

When the key switch goes bad on the boat and you turn the key on. If the engine doesn’t make any sounds, like the fuel pumps don’t come on, or the computer doesn’t turn on, moving the throttle plates and whatnot.

(Here’s how to see if you have a bad fuel pump)

Then the key isn’t allowing that power to flow through it to get to the engine.

And vice versa, if you turn the key to the start position and it doesn’t allow the starter to engage.

Then the key isn’t allowing power to flow through it to the starter which starts the engine.

And this is the same situation when we go to turn the engine off.

The key switch doesn’t cut the power off to these circuits that it has connected.

Then there is one other situation, where the key switch is failed internally and has all these wires connected all the time.

And in this instance, when you turn the battery switch on and it feeds power to the ignition switch.

You might find that the engine will just start up all on its own!

How Do You Test An Ignition Switch On A Boat?

So now you might be asking yourself how you can test the switch if you are encountering any of these issues.

And this is where you will need to do some investigating outside of this article. Because you will need to have the key switch diagram to do these testings.

Here are a few of the most common brand diagrams:




The most common test is going to be doing a continuity test on your key switch.

Where we are going to use a voltage meter set to the ohms scale, and see if the wires are connected or not.

When they are supposed to be connected, and disconnected when they are supposed to be disconnected.

Most keys are going to be either a three-position or a four-position switch.

Where we will have an “OFF” position, an “ON” position, and a “START” position, then the fourth position is going to be an “ACCESSORY” position.

Which is used for powering up accessories with the key switch, but not having to leave it in the “ON” position. Providing power to the engine.

Some key switches are going to also include a lanyard portion to the switch. But you can learn all about lanyards and kill switches here.

To test the switch, we just need to go off of the diagram for the key switch we are testing. And make sure that each circuit is connected and disconnected the way it is supposed to be.

Which will again, differ, based on what brand of ignition switch you have in your boat, based on the wire colors.

Can You Bypass The Key Switch?

Of course, absolutely, yes, you can bypass an ignition key switch. But doing so does run a risk of other issues that you can encounter.

Like how you are going to turn the engine off once it’s on after bypassing the switch.

As well as potential fire issues, exposed wiring, and connecting other wires that shouldn’t be connected.

But bypassing can be done.

Basically, you will need to use the same diagram that goes to whatever brand ignition switch you have.

To see what wire has the 12-volt power, or battery voltage on it.

To connect it to the “ON” and the “START” wire of the ignition switch.

Which will bypass the switch and allow you to start the engine in a pinch if you need to.

How Do You Fix A Bad Ignition Switch?

In order to fix a bad ignition switch, you are pretty much in a really bad situation where you will most likely need to buy a new boat!

Actually no, I’m just kidding, all you need to do is order, or go out and pick up whatever type of ignition switch it is that you have.

And then simply remove and replace the switch.

Most of the time the switches have quick connect connectors or are plug and play.

Which makes them pretty super easy to change out and remove and replace.

Which will fix your issue and get you back on the water quickly and safely!

Check Us Out!

We hope that you have found this article helpful!

If so, we invite you to check out some of our other articles below, or check out our extensive YouTube Channel that is all about boating and boats.

And if you are really wanting to be prepared for anything, then you should join our Membership Program here at the Born Again Boating Academy!

And if you would like to support us to continue bringing you great content, please click the link below to Amazon where we get a commission from anything you are already going to buy! Click Here To Amazon! 

Where you will learn pretty much everything you will need to know for when it comes to the components that are in your boat!

Aaron Hilligoss

Aaron has been working in the Marine Industry for over a decade and holds certifications for Yamaha and Mercury Marine. It is not uncommon for him to own and be working on at least three different boats at any given point in time!

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