Neutral Safety Switch

Written by Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell

Many boats have reductions gears (transmissions) equipped with a start-in-neutral safety switch. The advantage may be obvious but sometimes it can become a headache when the engine refuses to start, or actually, the starter refuses to engage or make any electrical noise at all. Now what do you do?

Let’s start down in the engine room. First take a look at your mechanical reduction gear near the shift lever to locate a small wire system-usually 2 wires under a rubber protective cover. This is the start-in-neutral safety switch. Check it to see that the two screws are tight on the wires and not corroded. If you see a concern here take action to remedy the problem. Snug it up or clean it up…Newer electronic solenoid shifters do not have a lever on the transmission, they are always in neutral until an electrical command shifts into forward or reverse gear. The solenoids do have wires so take care not to disturb them when working in the engine room.

Didn’t find a culprit yet? Next we go back up to the helm and try to start the engine. Still no electrical noise? Check the position of the shift lever on the helm. Make sure it is in neutral or if you are unsure then wiggle it back and forth to find the sweet spot of neutral and THEN try to start the engine. Many times the helm lever is slightly out of line for neutral position preventing you from starting the engine in gear, as it was designed to do. Sometimes the lever was simply bumped by someone since the engine was last used.

Another common reason for this is when you have a fly bridge with two helms or two control stations, the upper station levers may have been bumped when cleaning the boat after the last time you went cruising. Be careful when you place your canvas cover over the controls that you don’t push the shifter lever moving it out of neutral. Or other times the lower helm station lever may have been too attractive for your grandchild to resist when you weren’t looking.

And some gears do not have a safety at all! So check your boat, learn the systems and be careful. When we train aboard your new boat this is one of the pre start tests we do to learn your boat and systems. Make sure your engine is in neutral before starting, avoid surprises. Now you know why we old graybeards grab the shift levers and cycle them before starting the engines. Just a habit and a good one at that.

Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell are USCG 100 ton Masters and Cruising Coaches who offer Personal Boat Training Online or Onboard your boat anywhere! The Caldwell’s help build your cruising confidence with hands-on training and with their training videos filled with tons of tips for the boater who loves learning. If you have additional questions for Captain Chris or Captain Alyse, please email them at