Skip to main content

Choosing the Right Outboard

  • Author:
  • Updated:


Outboard-powered dinghies are more than just a convenience

Outboard-powered dinghies are more than just a convenience

Two of the most indispensable items on board a cruising yacht are a dinghy and an outboard motor. At anchor or on a buoy, of course, they are your only means of getting ashore. They also have a thousand other uses. For example, they can allow you to motor across to friends’ boats, collect supplies, clean the hull, feed out a long line ashore or set a kedge anchor, just to name a few.

With this in mind, not only does the tender need to be tough and stable, its outboard motor must be as reliable as possible and powerful enough to drive it fully loaded, but not so heavy it can’t be handled on and off the boat easily and safely.

There is a large selection of portable outboards available, but first, you need to decide which type would best suit your purposes.

An outboard can’t be so heavy it’s impossible to move on or off of your dinghy

An outboard can’t be so heavy it’s impossible to move on or off of your dinghy

Size and weight

Clearly, the maximum size of outboard you can go with will depend primarily on the size and type of tender you choose. Many 35-45ft bluewater cruisers will have a 9-10ft inflatable or RIB for general-purpose tender use. However, the specific make and model you buy can also depend on the size of yacht you have and your means of stowing it onboard.

A 10ft inflatable can usually support a 6-8hp outboard, whereas a similarly sized RIB can take a 10-15hp model, thereby enabling you to plane with a couple of adults on board. You won’t be able to water ski with either of these rigs, but there are times when having the extra power to go greater distances quickly is a bonus.

Another important factor in deciding which size motor to buy is its weight. If you’re likely to be taking the motor on and off the yacht frequently, then you’ll need to compromise between power and poundage.

It’s worth noting that many of the components and engines on portable outboards are the same inside, despite having different horsepower ratings. For instance, most 4hp motors are the same as the 6hp version, only with restricted carburetors to lower the power. It follows, then, that they both weigh pretty much the same, so unless there’s another good reason for not buying the higher power model (price or features maybe) you might as well grab the extra oomph without the weight penalty.

Owing to the extra mechanical parts a four-stroke often weighs in at twice the heft of a two-stroke. This, in turn, means getting the engine onto the transom of a tender and back again can be fraught with danger—both to your back and to the engine. Because of this, however, the market in older but well-maintained two-strokes is going through the roof, resulting in many of them being priced close to the level of a much newer four-stroke.

A sensible weight of outboard for one person to carry is no more than 65lb, which equates to a 4/6hp single-cylinder model. Perhaps you can tote an 8/10hp (85lb) two-cylinder motor if you’re young, fit and strong. But be warned: these kinds of larger engines are tough to get on and off the mothership without a tackle. For this reason, you might well be better off looking for a less powerful, smaller outboard if you’re planning to buy new.

Note the gas can inserted in this Lehr propane model

Note the gas can inserted in this Lehr propane model

Good-old Gas

For decades now, gas-powered outboard engines have been the best way to propel a small tender. They’re fairly straightforward to use and maintain, even when you’re at sea or anchored in some far-flung destination.

More recently, one of the biggest changes to outboards has been the move from two-stroke to four-stroke engines, in the interest of reducing exhaust emissions. Despite the extra weight, a four-stroke offers certain other benefits as well. They’re quieter, for example, less thirsty, tick over more smoothly and you don’t need to mix up large quantities of oil and gas. That said, they also require laying down carefully to stop oil seepage, have more components to fail and are more complicated and expensive to service.

Pros and Cons of LPG

In the past, a few companies would sometimes modify certain gas outboards to use propane. However, the modifications were expensive. Then came the U.S. company Lehr, which introduced a range of propane-powered outboards that now includes five models offering 2.5, 5, 9.9, 15 and 25hp. Following in Lehr’s wake, Tohatsu/Mercury has also brought out a new 5hp propane outboard.

Propane outboards are much like their regular gas counterparts, only with a different carburation setup and employing a pressurized LPG tank—either a simple screw-in canister in the case of Lehr or a larger remote bottle. (Lehrs can also be run using a remote canister.) Over time, propane outboards have proven to be pretty much as reliable and efficient as their gas equivalents at the same time they also emit fewer harmful exhaust gases (although they can sometimes be harder to start in extreme weather when the LPG becomes more liquid).

Priced about the same, another advantage over a gas engine is that they never encounter problems with fuel quality, in stark contrast to gas, which now that it contains a large quantity of ethanol (biofuel), can block up the fuel filter and carburetor jets after a few months of use. A propane outboard also can’t be flooded the way a regular gas outboard can (and frequently does). Not unlike a regular gas outboard with an integral gas tank, a 16oz canister offers around two hours of running at half throttle with a Lehr. This same canister can then be easily changed out on passage. In practice, the main downside of running a Lehr off canisters is you need to source and store (on deck or in a suitably designed locker) a large number of compatible canisters, as the specific types are not always freely available abroad. Although you can buy a special adapter that will enable you to refill the canisters from a larger propane tank when on a stable platform, this can be somewhat tricky to do and poses a fire hazard. The lack of a visible indication of fuel remaining in and LPG tank can also be annoying, although as stated, changing the canister on a Lehr outboard, in particular, is quick, clean and easy.

As with most four-stroke gas outboards, you also need to take care how you lie the motor down due to the crankcase oil.

Note the screen interface on the handle of this Torqeedo model

Note the screen interface on the handle of this Torqeedo model

The Electric Outboard

Despite it being over a decade since the first feasible and reliable electric outboard was launched, there are still very few that can seriously be considered a viable tender outboard. Yes, there are hundreds of Asian-built electric trolling motors around, but rarely do they produce more than 0.5hp. In addition, few of these smaller motors are genuinely seawater-proof except, maybe, the Minn Kota Riptide range. Then there is the fact that the more powerful models require a large battery that is both cumbersome and tedious to keep charged and stow.

Fortunately, there are now a few electric motors that genuinely make the grade, including German-built Torqeedo, the Chinese-made E-Propulsion range and EP Carry. All three lines of outboards employ an integral, rechargeable Lithium battery pack that can be removed for charging and, in the case of E-Propulsion and EP Carry, floats. The latest 3hp equivalents of the Torqeedo, the 1003C and 1100C, have a 915 Watt-hour (Wh) Lithium battery that can push up to 3,300 lb of dinghy along at somewhere between 5-8 knots, while E-Propulsion’s Spirit 1.0 outboard has a capacity of 1,276Wh The Lithium battery on the lighter (21lb) EP Carry has a 230Wh capacity—just enough for around an hour or two’s motoring at half throttle on a lightweight dinghy.

In terms of price, the Torqeedo retails for around $2,500 and the EP Spirit retails for around $2,000, while the EP Carry goes for about $1,600. Of course, a budget Chinese troller can be had for far less (as little as $250, plus battery). But again, the Torqeedo, EP Carry and E-Propulsion motors have been specifically designed and built for cruising tenders and as such are lightweight, waterproof and in the case of Torqeedo and E-Propulsion include such features as an inbuilt remaining charge/range indicator and safety kill switch. The Torqeedo even has a GPS that shows your speed and distance traveled. In other words, you get what you pay for.

Of course, in addition to being wonderfully quiet, electric outboards don’t require refilling with inflammable gas, have no arm-wrenching pull-start or choke, no water pump and impellor, no gearbox or spark plugs (easy and cheap to maintain), need no oil/oil changes (less mess), emit no nasty fumes, and can be laid down how you like without the danger of gas or oil leaking into your trunk or cockpit locker. Power is also instant, and there is no requirement to warm them up before leaving the dock.

In terms of range—a concern for many—higher-quality lithium-powered models can be discharged much further than a cheapy lead-acid powered trolling motor, meaning they can run up to 3-4 hours at half-throttle with a range of around 10-12 miles. In calm, non-tidal waters this can even be extended to 15 miles in a small inflatable, if you’re very gentle on the throttle.

When recharging a Lithium-powered outboards it’s best to use the AC charger supplied as that contains a specific Battery Management System (BMS) for that type of cell. Charging times are around 10 hours. Both Torqeedo and E-Propulsion offer a 12DC charger option, but it takes substantially more time than the AC charger.

Despite recent advances, four-stroke gas outboards remain the standard

Despite recent advances, four-stroke gas outboards remain the standard

Other Things to Look At

Shaft Length: Most small outboards are available with a choice of two or three different length shafts. For the average inflatable, a short shaft is fine. Longer shafts are really designed for high-transomed, rigid fishing craft or small sailboats. Note that electric outboards tend to have longer shafts than gas motors in order to ensure the prop doesn’t cavitate due to the instant power.

Propellers: Manufacturers will offer a choice of props, but usually recommend a relatively shallow pitched one for general tender use. Sailboat outboards will normally be supplied with a deeper pitch prop for more drive at lower rpm and better displacement when stopping or reversing.

Gearing: In a small dinghy, having a side-mounted gear shift doesn’t usually cause any problems. However, it’s often easier to use a front-mounted gear shift when the motor is hard to reach. Smaller 2-3hp motors often only have forward and neutral (F-N), requiring you to rotate the entire outboard through 180 degrees to go astern. This can make things a bit tricky when you’re coming alongside and need engine power for stopping quickly.

Throttle: All modern portable outboards now come equipped with twist-grip throttles on the tiller. Electric models also have a forward-neutral-reverse (F-N-R) selector on the tiller that selects the direction of travel by simply turning the grip clockwise or counterclockwise, with neutral being between the two.

Shallow water drive: Pretty much standard on all small outboards, this feature allows the leg to pop up in the event of a grounding. On a model with a reverse gear this should also automatically lock the leg to prevent it lifting when going astern.

What follows are some of the leading outboard brands and what they have to offer up to 10hp now on the market.

Smaller gas-powered outboards like these are the true workhorses of the cruising community

Smaller gas-powered outboards like these are the true workhorses of the cruising community

Gas Outboards

Honda (2.6/4/5/6/8/10hp)

Apart from its little 2.3hp air-cooled egg whisk, Honda’s three new single-cylinder outboards (BF4/5/6) all include a 7.75ci powerhead. Other features include an internal 0.4gal fuel tank, and the BF5 and BF6 also have a remote tank fitting. The fuel pump, filter and carburetor drain are easily accessed, plus they have automatic decompression for easy starting and a low oil pressure monitor with LED indicator that limits revs to 2,300rpm. Improved engine mounts reduce vibration. The large handle and fold-down tiller are ideal for stowage.

Tohatsu/Mercury (2.5/3.5/4/5/6/8/9.9hp)

All made to the same designs and built in Japan, the Tohatsu is the base model for the popular Mercury (and Mariner) brands, although they offer various different control features. The 2.5/3.5 are simple with F-N gear only. The 4hp motors and larger have front-shift F-N-R gears, start-in-gear prevention, a remote tank option, through-prop exhaust and low oil-pressure alarm.;

Yamaha (2.5/4/6/8/9.9hp)

The 2.5hp Yamaha is small, neat and lightweight. It also has F-N-R gears. The larger capacity (8.48ci) 4/6hp motors pack a lot more punch and are consequently heavier, but their large handle makes them easy to move around. With auto-decompression start, a remote fuel tank option, thermostatic cooling control and an oil leak prevention system when stowed, they also pack in a lot of nice features.

Suzuki (2.5/4/5/6/8.9.9hp)

The lightest of them all (the 2.5hp model weighs just 30lb), the Japanese Suzuki range of smaller outboards is well built and performs ably under duress. The 4/5/6hp models are all based on the company’s new, larger 8.42ci engine, which has a 6A alternator option and a lubrication system that allows it to be laid down and stowed on any side.

Evinrude (3.5/6/9.8hp)

Evinrude offers a small, lightweight 3.5hp model that is ideal for sub-8ft inflatables, a bigger 6hp with a 7.5ci engine for larger tenders, and a 9.8hp model as well. The outboards are less sophisticated than some (the 6hp, for example, lacks a reverse gear). But they are soundly built and easy to maintain.

Lerh (left) has been a leader in popularizing the use of propane in outboards; Mercury (right) offers the option of propane as well

Lerh (left) has been a leader in popularizing the use of propane in outboards; Mercury (right) offers the option of propane as well

Propane Outboards

Lehr (2.5/5.0/9.9hp)

The first to introduce a dedicated range of propane-powered outboards, the Lehr 2.5hp and 5.0hp outboards are reliable, clean and easy to use. They both accept either a simple 16oz Coleman-type propane canister or can be connected to a larger remote LPG container. Other, higher horsepower models are also available.

Tohatsu/Mercury (5hp)

Tohatsu and Mercury have introduced a pre-converted range of 5hp propane outboards that boasts all the features of their regular 5hp gas models and are operated using a remote propane tank.;

These electric outboards built by (from left) E-propulsion, Torqeedo and Electro Paddle are truly up to the rigors of cruising

These electric outboards built by (from left) E-propulsion, Torqeedo and Electro Paddle are truly up to the rigors of cruising

Electric Outboards

Torqeedo (Travel 503S, 1003CS, 1103CS)

These are well-proven German made outboards with high-capacity Lithium batteries and myriad useful features, such as a GPS display that gives speed, charge status, range remaining, magnetic kill switch, solar charging and more. Having been in the business a number of years now, the company has ironed out any bugs that may have plagued it early on to create a truly seaworthy rock-solid product.

E-Propulsion (Spirit 1.0, Navy 3.0 and 6.0)

Chinese-built equivalent of the Torqeedo also employs Li-ion batteries. The company’s Spirit 1.0 offers roughly the same power as a 3hp gas outboard. It’s Navy 6.0 offers just under 10hp of power.

Electro Paddle (EP Carry)

The U.S.-made EP Carry is a handy, lightweight model with a detachable, floating battery said to recharge in just five hours. It is best suited to powering smaller dinghies with small payloads over short distances. It stows compactly and is incredibly simple both to use and to lower and retract when approaching shore. 


• If you want a remote gas tank for increased range, you’ll have to buy a 4hp or larger motor.

• Likewise, you need a 4hp or larger motor if you require a reverse gear.

• Having the gear lever easily accessible makes maneuvering in choppy waters a lot easier and safer.

• If you buy a 10hp or larger motor, fit a motor crane on your stern for safer launch and recovery.

• To get a 9ft RIB on a plane with three adults on board you’ll need a 15hp motor minimum, which is, frankly, way too big for general-purpose tender use.

November 2019



The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Thomas Thor Tangvald

The first boat Thomas Tangvald ever owned was just 22 feet long. She was an odd craft, a narrow plywood scow with a flat bottom, leeboards on either side, and square ends—little more than a daysailer with a rotting deck and tiny cabinhouse tacked on. Thomas paid just $200 for more


USVI Charter Yacht Show Showcases a Flourishing Industry

As the U.S. Virgin Islands continues to attract sailors seeking to charter and explore the pristine territory on their own, the immense growth and expanded options for a crewed yacht or term charters have exploded here over the past five years. Last week, the USVI Charter more


Personal Locator Beacon Wins Top Design Award

The Ocean Signal RescueME PLB3 AIS Personal Locator took top honors at the 2022 DAME Design Awards, while Aceleron Essential, a cobalt-free lithium-iron phosphate battery with replaceable and upgradeable parts, won the first DAME Environmental Design Award. Announced each year more


EPIRB in the Golden Globe Race

Tapio Lehtinen’s boat sank early this morning southeast of South Africa while racing the Golden Globe Race, a faithfully low-tech reproduction of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe. The boat went down quickly and stern-first according to the skipper’s emergency transmissions. more


Victory, Tragedy in the Route du Rhum

The 2022 Route du Rhum was a highly anticipated event in the ocean racing calendar, but few could have predicted exactly how challenging, dramatic, and tragic it would ultimately prove. French yachtsman Charles Caudrelier took home gold aboard the Ultim maxi trimaran Maxi Edmond more


Boat Review: Lyman-Morse LM46

Lyman-Morse has been building fine yachts in Thomaston, Maine, ever since Cabot Lyman first joined forces with Roger Morse back in 1978. With experience creating and modifying boats built of various materials, backed by its own in-house fabrication facility, the firm has more


Know-how: All-new Battery Tech

Until very recently, the batteries in sailboats used some form of lead-acid chemistry to store energy. Different manufacturers used different techniques and materials, but in the end, the chemistry and the process by which the batteries charge and discharge electricity remained more


At the Helm: When Things Go Sideways

I don’t like sea stories. My number one goal on every passage is to get the crew back in one piece. My number two goal is to get the boat back in one piece as well. If I can’t do both, I’ll take the former. Do this long enough, though, and things are going to happen, no matter more