Transmission Shift Cable Breaks While Docking

Elliott Bay Marina is a wonderful place to keep a boat, but docking can be difficult—the fairways are narrow, as are the slips. And the slips are oriented east-west while the winds are typically from the north or the south, so if any wind is blowing, it’s against the side of the boat as we back it in. North winds are worse, because they blow us towards the boat beside us rather than the finger peer. Yesterday morning when we returned to the marina, the winds were blowing 17 knots from the north with gusts to 19.

We had the boat turned perpendicular to the fairway ready to back into the slip. We have no bow thruster so, when there is a crosswind, we need to lean the bow slightly into the wind as we work backwards into slip. I shifted the port engine into reverse and felt the cable break, leaving us without port transmission control.  I ran down to the lower helm and, mysteriously, it too broke. Now we have a problem.  We’re sideways in the fairway with only a few feet on either end of the boat separating us from collision. 

A two-engine boat with only one operating prop sounds easy. You would guess it’s not worse than a single prop boat. But with the prop biased over on one side of the hull, it’s remarkable how poorly the boat responds to the helm and actually turns and, with a strong wind, the boat simply won’t turn into it. Our first focus was keeping away from other boats and to keep the boat centered in the fairway as we gained speed sideways driven by the brisk wind. That done, we starting backing and filling in an attempt to get the boat turned around with limited fore and aft clearance. The boat slowly came around bit by bit and, after 5 or 6 iterations of backing and filling, it did straighten out. By this time many spectators were along either side of the fairway. Once straight in the fairway, with the wind behind us, the boat actually was fairly easy to manage.

We took the boat around to the outside guest dock where there is much more space and landed there to make repairs. We did have a spare transmission shift cable, but the parts connecting it to both the upper helm and lower helm shifters had broken. A quick trip to Fisheries Supply solved that.


The next challenge was running the new cable. The cable runs on a circuitous route through an incredibly narrow slot between the two windows in the salon. After much effort and WD-40, we finally managed to pull the new cable through, taped to the old cable, and got everything connected up and working again.

Four hours later, after lunch and repairs, we glided back into our slip. The wind was still brisk and from the north but it’s amazing how much less exciting it is to land with everything operational.

Thinking about it later, we couldn’t figure out why the parts connecting both ends of the throttle cable could have broken, and were concerned we might have a transmission problem. And then we realized—the cable must have seized, causing the fly bridge end to break when we shifted. When I tried shifting down below, that broke the other end.

We’ve had cable failures before. They typically rust up and get stiffer and stiffer but continue to operate. To have a cable fail without warning and lock up so tight the cable ends break off is quite unusual.  Yet another argument to keep speed moderate when near other boats in that you could experience an unexpected failure at any time.


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2 comments on “Transmission Shift Cable Breaks While Docking
  1. It’s hard to recommend a precise cable change period in that lifetime is so dependent on conditions. I fully expect the lower helm cables to last another 10 without problems. I’ve changed 2 of the four cables to the outer helm already and the first one changed now needs to be changed again. If there is water intrusion, they’ll fail early. If not, they same able to go for decades.

    What I would recommend is be sure you notice any change in friction or difficulty of shifting. If they hang up or drag in any way at all, I would recommend replacement. If one fails or needs changing, consider changing all since the cost of the cables isn’t high and the work to change them can be.


  2. Jay Niederhauser says:

    James, after your experience, would you recommend scheduled replacement of control cables? On what time basis? Any impact of binding of cables as a factor in failure? Scheduled replacement of control cable fittings? Best Regards, Jay

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