Outboard Shifting Hard & Outboard Shifting Problems!

Having proper control over your boat and the engine is vital to the safety of you and everyone on your boat! So if it’s hard to shift, that’s a problem!

Outboard Shifting Hard & Outboard Shifting Problems! Hard outboard shifting is a result of a gear case issue, a stuck shift shaft, a broken shift mechanism, a faulty control cable, or an issue found in the control box at the helm.

There are many different causes of a hard shifting outboard or other shifting problems. So here’s everything you need to know about these issues!

How Do Outboards Shift?

The shifting of an outboard is a pretty simple mechanical operation. Though there are multiple different types of shift mechanisms within the different types of lower units.

Based on the size of the gear case. The idea is the same. Taking two gears that are attached to the prop shaft, and then taking another gear that can move either forward or backward.

That will engage with one or the other gear that is attached to the prop shaft. Which will then spin the prop shaft in either the forward or reverse direction.

This is the most basic form of how a lower unit works of course. We want to go more in-depth on the rest of the system though here today.

The shifting of the lower unit is moved from the gear sets in the lower to a shift shaft that sticks out of the gear case.

This shift shaft will then attach to another shift shaft on the engine that goes through the midsection of the outboard.

Up to what is called a shifting mechanism that is found in the engine belly pan.

Most outboards will use a turning or spinning motion to control the shifting. But some smaller engines will pull up and push down on the shift shaft to move those gears.

Instead of the spinning motion.

But this shift mechanism will then connect to whatever form of control you have coming from your control box that is at the helm.

Where you personally move the handle either forward or backward, to change the gear position and shift your boat.

Mechanical Vs Digital Shifting

This control method is generally found in either a mechanical control or digital control.

If you have experienced a hard shifting or shifting problem with your outboard.

And you have a digital control system, usually called digital throttle and shift (DTS). Digital Electronic Control (DEC), or fly by wire.

Then when you move the handle, an electrical signal tells a computer to tell the engine to shift.

And the computer and the engine controls all the shifting and throttling. Issues with this system will usually be caused by a faulty electrical component.

Or an issue with the shift mechanism, the shift shaft being stuck, or the gear case is failing.

You will usually need a computer to hook up to the engine to figure out this type of shifting issue.

When it comes to the mechanically controlled shifting issues though.

From that shift mechanism at the engine. A mechanical control cable will hook to it and then go all the way up to the helm.

Where your control box is. And when you move the handle in the control box, that cable will move in whatever direction you move the handle.

These are generally easier to figure out when you have an issue. Because we can eliminate components from the system one at a time.

Control Lever Or Boat Shifter Hard To Move?

We’ll cover diagnostics in a little bit, but if you have a shifter that is hard to move.

Most of the time, it’s not your control box. And this generally applies to the mechanical control box over the digital.

But what we can do, is disconnect our control cables from the engine. And then try to move the control box.

If the control box still doesn’t move, then we will need to open up the box and disconnect the cables from inside the box.

Then try to shift the handle again. You’ll usually find that the handles will shift and move freely and that your cables are the issue.

But if not, then you will be left with an issue with that control box.

Something else to be aware of though. Is that on almost all control boxes there is going to be a friction control mechanism.

Either a nut that can be tightened on the side of the box. Or a screw that can be turned in the front of the box under the cover.

This is a friction control item. It will either lessen or intensify the friction being placed on the handle of the control box.

So you can adjust this, based on your situation. Most of the time, this is tighter than you might think.

Because it is meant to keep the throttle handles from creeping back when you are running at speed.

If they creep back, you’ll slowly lose RPM, and sometimes to where you come off plane. Or you pretty much have to have your hand holding the handles down at all times.

Mercury or Yamaha Outboard Hard Shifting Into Forward or Reverse

Regardless of what brand manufacturer outboard you have. Whether that be Yamaha, Mercury, Honda, Suzuki, Tohatsu. The hard shifting will be the same type of issue.

Whether that be an issue with the lower unit, (This will tell you what to look for with a bad lower unit!) The shift shaft, the shifting mechanism, the control cables, or the control box.

One of these components is going to be your culprit. But when we start talking about a shifting issue that is specific to going into a specific gear.

Or say you are having a shifting issue when you are trying to return to neutral from forward or reverse gear.

Well, this could be something else actually. In most outboards, there is something called a shift interrupt, or a shift cut-off switch.

What this does, is it is an electrical component that will sense when you are shifting gears, and if the engine or the lower unit is spinning too high.

Meaning that the RPM is higher than say 1,000. This will cause the lower unit gears that we talked about earlier to bind up. Or want to stay together.

So this interrupt or cut switch actually cuts off two cylinders of the engine. Making the engine stutter, or drop a couple of hundred RPM.

Which takes that stress and the binding off those gears, and lets them disconnect from each other.

Making it easier for you to shift into forward, reverse, or return to neutral easier.

So be aware that this is a thing and can cause you issues!

Stiff Shift or Throttle Control

Now when it comes to some stiff shifting or throttle control. This is generally a direct cause back to that friction control mechanism we talked about earlier.

But, then again, it is also many times just some bad control cables that need to be replaced! And we’ll show you how to do that in this video here!

It can also be caused by a dry detent ball, which can be found near the shift shaft at the engine. Or where the shift shaft leaves the belly pan. It can also bind there.

And it can also bind there at the shift mechanism as well. You might also find that if you haven’t used your boat in a really long time.

Which you should follow this guide here if you haven’t used your boat and want to get it going again!

Then your throttle plates and springs and mechanisms could be just dry and dirty causing you some tightness in the control.

So just looking over all these items and lubing them up with some Kroil. Or some WD-40 or something will usually get you going again!

How To Diagnose Your Outboard Shifting Problems!

So, if you want to diagnose your outboard shifting problem. You are going to want to start by disconnecting the boat from the engine.

Letting you know if you have a boat control issue or an engine issue.

Once you have them disconnected at the engine. You are going to want to try and shift the engine by hand and spin the prop, with the engine off of course.

And if the engine shifts fine, go to the helm and move the handle.

If it is stiff, you know your problem is boat side. And you can then start there at the control box to see if it’s the cables or the box.

Otherwise, you will need to move from the shifting mechanism down to the lower unit to see where your issue is there at the engine.

If the engine is not shifting properly when it is disconnected from the boat.

Check Us Out!

Now we hope that this article has been helpful for you in your outboard hard shifting issue!

If you are still wanting to learn more about your boat and you are a DIYER. Then you should consider joining the Born Again Boating Academy!

Where we cover all kinds of extensive components in the boat and how they operate. How to troubleshoot them.

And even how to rewire the entire boat if you would like to!

You can also find more helpful boating content on our Youtube channel here! Where we create all kinds of helpful boating videos!

As well as some of these other articles here that you will find helpful!

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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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