Vintage Electric Shift MerCruiser

January 1, 2021

Happy New Year! My apologies in advance to those of you that follow my blog to read about our adventure. This post is a mechanical instructional. It is documentation of a solution we found to a common problem. My goal is to get it out to other folks that have the same problem. This blog is the best way I know to get it out on the magical interwebs.

The problem: 

When we bought our 1981 Skipperliner houseboat, it had shifting problems.  A different problem on each side.   In this post I will document how we fixed the problems.   

For a few years Skipperliner used a DC motor to activate the shift plate.  Most other years this function was achieved through cables rather than motors. Our boat has the DC motor set-up. 

The system is designed so that the engine will kill for just a split second while shifting out of gear, and then immediately start right back up.  We’ll call this “kill mode”.  This allows the gears to come apart.  Because of the design, the gears are able to go together while shifting into gear, but the engine needs to kill for a split second to allow them to come out of gear.  On the Starboard side, the engine would “kill”sometimes when shifting into gear, or sometimes shifting out of gear, and not restart.  

To complicate matters, sometimes it would remain in kill mode, which disabled the ignition making it impossible to restart the engine.  As you can image, this can be a problem when docking or just maneuvering in general.  This behavior can be observed on the tachometer as well.  The RPMs will drop for a moment when shifting out of gear as seen in this video.  (Yes, RPMs are higher than they should be in this video. Shifting RPMs should be around 600 or 700).

The port side developed the issue in which it would not always go into kill mode when shifting out of gear.  This could also be observed on the tachometer in that the RPMs would fail to drop when shifting out of gear.  RPMs would remain constant when they should have dropped for an instant.  Another tell-tale symptom was an audible clunk when it should have been a smooth transition. 

We learned that both the port and starboard shifting problems originated in the same place.  The good news is that we didn’t need to search for any parts.  They were simple micro switch adjustments.  There are 4 micro switches per side for a total of 8 micro switches on a two-engine boat.  Two are located within each shifting control box at the helm (if you have a fly-bridge, the shifter up top relies on the micro switches down below and does not have a set of its own), and two are in the engine compartment mounted on the shift plate.   

Be sure to check that the micro switches are functioning using a multimeter.  If they are functioning, you are in luck. 

The micro switches get old and the arms stretch or bend causing the shifting problems described above.  Adjustment to the micro switches in the rear is well documented on line.  These microswitches in the rear are referred to as “shift interrupters.”  A good instructional can be found here

To make the adjustments to these micro switches Dave used our wireless security camera and set it up so that he could observe what was happening in the engine compartment while shifting up at the helm.  

To solve our problems, the switches at the helm as well as switches in the engine compartment required adjustment, but start with the switches in the engine compartment.  

To adjust the micro switches at the helm, first disassemble the shifter housing. After removing the cover, split the case in half by removing the long screws that hold the two pieces of the housing together.   

The first switch is activated when the shifting cam moves over the switch arm.  These parts are labeled in the image below.  As the cam moves the arm in, it activates the switch.  If a meter is used, one can determine, when shifting, if the switch is either bad or the arm needs adjusting.  If the arm needs adjusting, it is a matter of trial and error.  Usually, the arm needs to be bent towards the cam.  The amount of bending will be slight.  Don’t be too aggressive here.  The second switch is not visible in this picture but its function is dependent upon the functionality of the first.  Operating the shifter will show the expected position of the switches based upon the position of the cam and may or may not require adjustment.  

Good luck.  We hope we’ve saved you some money and headache.  If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer them. 

Vintage, Electric Shift, Mercruiser, Skipperliner, houseboat, engine stalling, shift, micro switch,  

Introducing Nina

November 3, 2020

It should be noted that if I go off radar for a bit, it probably means that I’m up to something. This is no exception.

The past 3 years working my hinder off on Skippopotamus have been the happiest of my life. Now she is almost done. We can finally relax! But wait, what do you mean, there’s nothing to work on? Well, what do I do with myself? Sit on the couch and binge watch Netflix? Um no. I know that boredom leads to depression for me, but until this spring I didn’t fully grasp the impact.

More than a year ago some marina friends of ours offered their 44 foot trawler to our neighbor’s adult son, for free. The boat is in Florida, as is the adult son. Dave and I chimed in that we have next right of refusal. The adult son, Zach, was very slow to jump on the opportunity. Like more-than-a-year slow. Dave and I never had a serious conversation about taking her. Then we got bored. Not only were we bored, but we’d become disenchanted with the Mississippi River. The weather was hot, the kind of hot that makes me want to swim. It seemed ridiculous that we were surrounded by water, but that water is too polluted to swim or fish. Two of our favorite summer pastimes. Conversations about this disappointment became more frequent between us.

Around the same time, a group of us gathered to enjoy the 4th of July. Present were the owners of the trawler and the father of Zach, Bruce. The subject once again came up. Bruce did not have any progress to report. It seems Zach was having difficulty finding a place that would allow him to liveaboard. His current financial situation prohibited both slip fees and another residence. Additionally, when he visited the boat, a neighboring slip holder asked if he was considering buying her. When Zach answered that he was, the man said that he hoped he was getting her for a good price because “she’s a fixer-upper.” No doubt Zach is aware that a boat is a hole in the water where you stick your money.

Next day, Dave and I found ourselves at an outdoor patio on the shore of the St. Croix river in Stillwater, MN. We enjoyed an adult beverage while admiring the boats in the marinas and out on the water. This river is much cleaner than the mighty Mississippi in St. Paul. Conversation once again turned to our current restlessness. I said to Dave, “should we take that trawler? I don’t think Zach wants it.” Just like the time I said, “There is an entire community of people living on boats, year round, on the Mississippi River in St. Paul,” Dave’s face spoke a thousand words. Well, maybe two words. Fuck yes.

We contacted Deb & Craig, owners of the trawler, and told them that we are very serious and that if Zach declines, we will take the boat. Shortly thereafter, Deb stopped by and said she had spoken with Bruce and if we want the boat it is ours. The only stipulation is that we cannot change the name. The boat is named Nina Clipper after Nina Clifford, the famous gangster-era St. Paul brothel owner. Deb gives St. Paul gangster tours in the character of Nina Clifford. We agreed to the terms. Deb did raise the price later, to $1.

Meet Nina. She is a 1980 44′ Marine Trader Tri-Cabin trawler built in Taiwan.

It’s true. She is a fixer upper. This picture is old. She’s declined a bit since it was taken. Working off of a 2017 survey and intel from Craig, we have begun the process of returning her to ship shape. We’ve got a mechanic working on the twin Lehman diesel engines. Truth be told, we will stick thousands into her before we even see her, but at $1, we can stick quite a bit in and still come out ahead.

Our plan is to use her as a vacation destination (she has two staterooms and two heads for guests) and eventually we will move aboard and take her out island hopping in retirement. Mostly she is our sanity in this world gone mad.

How Skippopotamus Got Her Groove Back

July 6, 2020

St. Paul Yacht Club

Blank canvas

Drawing out the design.
I painted the same image on the other side and the rays wrap around the back so the back has 3 horizontal bands of color that link the sides together.
New vinyl Skipperliner graphics.

Yes, it does resemble Japan’s now retired “Land of the Rising Sun” flag. This was not intentional. There was no intention to suggest Japan in any way. I just wanted a gray-scale sunburst on the side of the boat. Originally, I intended for the center of the sun to be one of the grays. However, several people, including Dave, really wanted that center to be a color. Since I had already used dark red for the boat name graphics, I went with red.

Who Wants to Help Me Paint?

May 8, 2020

St. Paul, MN

The complete interior rehab is almost done.  Remaining interior jobs include some minor touches such as trim, stain, oh, and Dave is completely rewiring the entire boat.  No big.  Spring is in the air and it is time to turn our attention to the exterior.  The exterior needs A LOT of work.  All of the metal including railings, decks, and exterior of the hull need some sort of treatment, be it grinding, scraping, sanding, or just fresh paint.  The roof needs a lot of work as well.  This post will focus on the painting of the superstructure.

The exterior of Skippopotamus consists of vinyl paneling sheets that you might see in a public bathroom or in a shower.  We replaced most of it when we replaced the windows.  It is white, but some panels are a different white than the other panels.  And by the way, who was the genius that made white boats the norm?  White shows dirt.  Boats, by nature, are outside.  Things that are outside get dirty.  Every inch of this boat that I touch with a paint brush will no longer be white.  It is crazy.  I can take a magic eraser and get the white railings nice and clean.  A week later, you’d never know that I cleaned them.  I really don’t enjoy cleaning enough to make it my life.

The big question is, can a person paint this vinyl shower panel stuff?  Will it stick?  Will it stand up to UV rays and weather?  I called our local paint store and asked.  The man that I spoke to wasn’t sure.  To complicate matters, there is a global pandemic going on, so the store is only conducting transactions over the phone with cub-side pick-up.  The man told me about a product that might work with the caveat that it is an acrylic paint and therefore requires 3 weeks to cure.  In other words, to test whether it will stick or not, one really needs to wait 3 weeks.  No problem.  I am a planner and I started this process, well, 3 weeks ago tomorrow.


Dave and I saved samples of the siding in anticipation of this step.  I took two squares, prepped one square with three different grades of sand paper and the other I did not prep at all.  They’ve been down in the bilge ever since awaiting testing.  I have scraped at them with my fingernail a couple of times over the past 3 weeks and the primer seems to be highly bonded to the surface.  I think it is going to work really well with minimal prep required.


My sample pieces.  The one on the right has an X in the middle because it is difficult to tell the coverage when painting white onto white.  It might be tough making sure I don’t miss any spots.  I might go blind trying. 

The sample pieces are still in the bilge, but I feel pretty confident that this primer is going to work out just fine.  So, let’s talk about the fun stuff.  Design!  You didn’t think I was going to paint it one color, did you?  Do you even know me?

As we’ve discussed, no white.  The theme of the remodel thus far has been a lot of gray.  The exterior shall follow suit.  But not boring gray.

We removed windows on the rear of the boat, which is the stateroom.  We did this to make room for a closet and because we don’t need a window on the other side.  Windows invite moisture, cold, and light in.  None of which I want in my stateroom.  I think one large patio door is quite enough, thank you. As a result of the absent windows, the rear exterior of the boat has large areas of white siding.  Former marina office manager, Roger, says it looks like a shoe box.  I say it looks like a blank canvas.  In 3 shades of gray, I will be painting a sunburst on each side.  The rays of the sun will wrap all the way around to the front and back of the boat and will terminate at the patio doors on each end.  This will create a two-tone horizontal division.


When we bought the boat, it was white with royal blue accents.  The carpet was blue, the counter top was blue, the shower was blue, the fly bridge was blue…  My intention is to remove every trace of blue from the boat.  In fact, I think I already have.  Unlike our neighbor, “Blue Bob”, I do not fancy over-the-top nautical blue and white.  I like to add a little nautical flair, but I try to avoid kitsch.  The lettering for the throw ring and the vinyl name for the back of the boat are a deep red.  I plan to have our sign guy make vinyl versions of the original Skipperliner signs, replacing the blue with the same deep red.  They will be mounted in the upper, rear on each side.


Finally, Dave will build a “pilot house” on the roof to conceal the fly bridge controls.  The controls are in shambles. Dave doesn’t want to completely remove the controls in case someone would like to someday resurrect the fly bridge.  The model name of our boat, after all, is Fly Bridge…according to the title, anyway.  On the front of the little pilot house, I intend to paint a half sunburst.  I am filing the pilot house under “roof project” so look for a post on that later this summer.


Pilot house sketch.  I’m going to put LED lights inside so that the little portholes are always lit.  Won’t that be adorbs?

Oh, and by the way, I don’t want help painting.  I’m a perfectionist and you’d never do a good enough job.  Besides, I want to keep all the fun to myself!

Spring 2020 Flood/Virus Report

April 8, 2020

St. Paul Small Boat Harbor

I don’t want to jinx it, but I think spring flooding has peaked for spring 2020.  According to NOAA, the river at St. Paul crested this week.  However, last year we had two, maybe three crests.

April 8 hydro

You may recall the picture of Dave standing next to one of the spuds this past February.  I took another yesterday for comparison.  Notice the position of the stripe on the spud as well as the angle of the ramp to the docks.  The ramp is partially under water.  Now imagine that last year the crest was almost 5 feet higher.


side by side

Dave didn’t wear shoes yesterday for dramatic effect.

The COVID-19 pandemic however, has not yet crested here in Minnesota.

COVID prediction

Dave and I haven’t had to quarantine yet.  If we do, at least we don’t have to worry about a marina evacuation happening concurrently.  We are both well as of today.  I barely leave the boat except to get fresh air and exercise.  Dave has to go in to work every day, but he takes as many precautions as he can to avoid infection.

The virus claimed one of my heroes last night, John Prine.  In the early 90s I asked Amusement Devices to put a John Prine CD on the jukebox at the bar where I worked.  They added Bruised Orange.  I think I was the only person that played it.  This May Dave and I got to see Mr. Prine live.  I’m so glad we did.

Stay well, everyone!

Life is Like the River…

March 28, 2020

St. Paul small boat harbor

“Life is like the river, sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.”
― Emma Smith

As the cases of COVID-19 increase exponentially, the river rises ever so gently.

Last week the NOAA predicted that rising temperatures up north will increase snow melt and the rivers will begin to rise as a result.  The current prediction reflects it:

Marc 28 hydro

Although we are approaching “Minor” flood stage, this is not yet of much concern to us.  It is my understanding that we do not need to be concerned until the river reaches 17′ as that is when Xcel starts shutting off power to our harbor.  Our 12V system still needs some work to be ready for us to transition to battery/generator.  Dave needs some parts, which he ordered through Amazon.  However, ordering online is an uncertain endeavor at the moment.  Dave ordered some specialty wire for the boat.  Because he had not received any shipping confirmation, he contacted the company.  The company reported that their crew of 40 warehouse employees had dwindled to 5 because of the Coronavirus.

Some good news is that SPYC procured two brand new, 40 foot ramps for access to the lower harbor during high water.  It is my understanding that last year, the ramps were all but useless when the water got to a certain point making it impossible to access the boats.

Last night at midnight, a stay-at-home order went into effect.  Dave and I were already following it.  We are occupying ourselves by watching the the baby eaglets on the DNR EagleCam, watching Netflix, finishing small projects on the boat, and observing our new pets.

In a batch of bait fathead minnows, we received some sticklebacks, and one adorable bullhead that we’ve named Bully.  Bully lives in an antique bottle that my brother found at the bottom of the river.  See him?  Isn’t he cute?


Live from the River

March 20, 2020

St. Paul small boat harbor

Both the river and the COVID-19 outbreak have me on edge waiting to see what will be unleashed.  Is this the calm before the storm?

In spite of a rainy day yesterday, the river is only rising slightly.  Today is cold and windy, but sunny.  I do not have an update from my northern correspondent in Bemidji, but my weather app (Dark Sky) has this great “Hydrologic Outlook” for the Bemidji area:

“…Spring Thaw Update…  Overall the slow thaw process of March continues with some runoff reaching into the southern valley with Wahpeton and Abercrombie rising to around action stage.  Our current cool down will stall the thaw process through the weekend.  Next week the temperatures are set to continue the gradual thaw with daytime highs above freezing and overnight lows below freezing.  This will allow the southern basin to continue to see snowmelt runoff begin to reach the river system with slowly rising streams and rivers.”

March 20 hydro

The NOAA places us at the top of the “Moderate spring flood risk potential”.  I’ll take that.

National flood risk potential

Due to global efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, I am working from home (the boat).  I get to observe, first hand, the status of my little stretch of river.  The herons are back, the geese and ducks are paring up, and beavers show up occasionally.  Nobody new at our feeders though.

Barge traffic started with a flurry this week, however I haven’t seen a barge today.

There is so much uncertainty about the spread of COVID-19 because of the lack of testing.  There are 115 confirmed cases in Minnesota at this time, but the number of those infected is likely much much higher.  The Governor has stated that a “shelter-in-place” order is possible. That is more or less what I’ve been doing.  I don’t think I’ve driven my car since I left work last Friday.  We are so glad that we finished our kitchen last weekend now that we will be staying in for most meals.  There are a few finishing touches, but the functionality is complete.


It’s Complicated

Friday the 13th of March, 2020

St. Paul, MN

This blog series is about flooding, however, right now the Coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is a global pandemic and it is on the verge of knocking this country off its blocking.  What does this have to do with flooding?  Well, as far as Mother Nature is concerned, nothing.  Pandemic or no, the river will do what it will.

As of right now, the hydrograph (below) looks tame.  However, I know from experience that it can change very quickly.  If heavy rain shows up in the forecast, or if the northern, snow-covered part of the state suddenly gets very warm, that line can spike.

March 13 hydro

I checked in with my northern Minnesota correspondent in Bemidji this morning.  I asked for a comment on current snow cover and melt.  Here is what she had to say:

“The world to the north: Indeed, we have snow cover! That said, the recent weeks of March sunshine have caused the high snowbanks to shrink and have even exposed grasses and earth on south facing hillsides. Many ditches are visible, although far from nurturing any marsh marigolds or running water. Nights are so cold: way below freezing, thus keeping runoff to a minimum. If one looks out the window in my part of the woods, it is easy to believe it might still be January or February.”

Here is the interesting way that the pandemic and river conditions could drastically impact Dave and my lives: we could lose utilities and be sick/quarantined at the same time.  Last year, during the worst part of the flooding, it was almost impossible to get to and from the boats because the ramp was mangled.  Also, the City shut off utilities and evacuated the marina.  Now if Dave and I are quarantined, we’re not going to go stay with people.  Quite frankly, we don’t want to stay with people anyway.  We’ve been talking it through.  Here is what we’ve come up with:

Electricity: We have a gas powered generator.  We can run it enough to charge the batteries for our 12-volt system plus keep the fridge and freezer cold.  However, we do need to get some gas.

Gas: Our furnace runs on LP and Dave is in the process of hooking it up to 12V so the ignitor/blower can run off battery power.  Our oven and stove are LP and we have quite a bit of LP on board at the moment.

Water: We have a tank that holds about 100 gallons.  If we keep an eye on the hydrograph (which I do, multiple times a day) we can be ready and make sure it is filled before the City shuts off our water. We will then conserve our potable water by using river water for anything we don’t consume.  We can take sponge baths and hold off on laundry until water service resumes.  Also, our fancy Swedish toilet does not use water.

Food: We’ve stocked up a bit on non-perishables.  We have more food on the boat than probably ever before.  We’ll finish our new counter top this weekend, just in time for lots of at-home meals.

Current water level: 9.71′

Xcel starts shutting off selected electric and gas: 17.5′

Power to lower harbor (us) is shut down: ~17′

As you can see in the below Facebook post from the former marina manager almost a year ago, the City evacuated at around 17′ as well.

Roger's post

Also note, that the river was at 6′ on March 18, today is March 13 and we are above 9.  Dave and I are sitting on the edge of two major situations.

Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Stay well and stay home.


February 24, 2020

February 24, 2020

St. Paul, MN


The outdoor temperature in St. Paul is above freezing.  It is only a little bit above freezing…that’s good.  We need a slow melt so that all of the water that is tied up in snow and ice will come down the river gradually. The melt and precipitation right here in St. Paul will not affect us all that much; it is the melt and precipitation that happens further upstream that will determine the amount of flooding.

Below is a map showing the watersheds of the upper Mississippi River and the Minnesota River.  All precipitation that falls on those watersheds will have an affect on the water level and velocity of the Mississippi River in St. Paul as it heads south toward the Gulf of Mexico.



I frequently check the weather for Bemidji, MN as it lies near the headwaters of the Mississippi.  Northern Minnesota received a lot of snowfall this winter.  That snow is sitting on the ground, waiting to melt.

Below is the current forecast for Bemidji.  Not too bad.  Little precipitation and even when the temperature rises above freezing, it drops back down overnight.  This is good news.  However, days will get longer…and warmer.  So I watch.


NOAA has not yet begun to post river forecastsfor St. Paul.  The forecasts are issued during the navigation season, which has yet to begin.


The main channel at St. Paul is mostly open as you can see in the image from one of the St. Paul webcams below.

webcam 2

As of this morning, our boat was still frozen in the slip.  In the webcam image below you can see that there is ice between Raspberry Island and shore.  In the upper right corner you can see a couple of our neighbors’ boats.

webcam 4

More updates to come.