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ADV PreppingWhat To Do After Submerging Your Bike During a River Crossing

What To Do After Submerging Your Bike During a River Crossing

 Starting your engine without precautions could result in a blown motor.

Published on 12.18.2013
You never know when this is going to happen to you. Do you know what to do next?

Several years ago I was riding with a buddy in the mountains of Big Bear Lake, California.  It was a chilly spring day and Craig and I were enjoying the many woodland trails in the area after the snow had melted.  We were on our way to a trail that required us to cross a river called Deep Creek.  I had made this river crossing many times before during the summer and fall without any issue, but never this time of year.

As we arrived at the banks of Deep Creek, I could see the water was much higher than I had ever experienced.  Another group of riders came by as we were surveying the river crossing.  They decided to chat with us and spectate for awhile as we made the attempt.  My riding buddy was not too eager to make the crossing, but I was set on getting to the other side so we could get to a fun single track trail.

After analyzing the situation, I figured I just needed enough momentum to get across a deep section we had located.  Confidently, I started the engine and went straight in with speed before I could think too much about it.  The front end dipped low into the water and I could see my front wheel disappear. I could feel the icy cold water cover my thighs as the bike bucked and bounced.  For a second my momentum was halted,  but I stayed hard on the gas and the front end pulled up and out of the water.  I made it across in dramatic fashion and could hear the cheers from everyone on the other side.


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After dismounting the bike, Craig took one look at me and said “There is no way I can ride my bike across that.”  So I had a choice of either riding back across or Craig said I could ride his bike across and we could continue on.  I thought to myself it should be easier the second time anyway and decided I would take his bike across.

After walking on some rocks to get back to the other side, I jumped on Craig’s bike and tried to retrace the line I had taken.  Everyone cheered me on as I got mentally prepared for my second crossing.  Off I went into the water and again the front wheel disappeared into a deep hole.  I could feel my momentum halt again, but Craig’s bike did not absorb the bumps as well as my bike and the front end would not come up.  I could feel the bike tip over in slow motion into waist deep water.  I dabbed my right leg blindly to get a foot hold in a desperate attempt to regain my balance.  I felt nothing but water below my foot as my entire torso and head became submerged.

Quickly, I stood up in the freezing cold water and in a panic tried to get the bike upright.   But the damage was done, the bike had become completely submerged. With a little help from the group of riders that had been spectating, we pushed the bike out of the water.  I felt embarrassed and a bit guilty about submarining Craig’s bike.  I let out a soft “Sorry man.” as I shivered in wet clothes.  Craig did not seem to mind though and told me not to worry about it.  The entertainment value was apparently worth the cost of admission to the show.

As we got the bike on shore, I turned on the ignition and was relieved the lights came on.  I went for the starter button to see if it would start and one of the guys who helped us push the bike out yelled “No! You can’t start it or you’ll blow the engine!”  Our new friend seemed to have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, so I listened and learned.

That day I learned the steps to take to clear water out of your engine if you have submerged your bike during a river crossing.  At some point in your riding lifetime, either you or the friends you are riding with will have the misfortune of submerging their bike during a river crossing. It is important to know what to do next to ensure you do not cause major damage to your engine.

The video below of a failed river crossing shows exactly the steps you should take after you submerge your bike under water.

Why You Should Not Start Your Engine Right Away
Under normal engine operation, the air/fuel mixture is compressed in the cylinder when the piston rises to the top and the valves are closed. If you have submerged your motorcycle with the engine running, the engine will pump water into the cylinders. Water does not compress like air, so if you try to restart the motor you will bend your connecting rods.

If your motorcycle has stalled during a river crossing and the water level rises above the air filter or exhaust, then it is better to use precaution.  Accept that you are in for a long delay and do not be tempted to give the starter a try.

Follow These Five Steps To Get Your Bike Running Again
Below is a detailed description of the steps you should take to get your bike running again after a failed river crossing.

1. Get the bike onto dry land quickly
The faster you can get the bike out of the water the better.  The longer the bike is submerged, the more time water has to seep into your engine.  Immediately try to lift the bike out of the water, then you can figure out how to get the bike to dry land.

2. Drain the Airbox
Start by removing the air filter and get any excess water out of the filter. Set the filter out in the sun to dry while you continue to work on the bike.  Next you want to clean all the water and debris out of the airbox.  Tip the bike to the side to make sure you can get as much water out of the intake as possible.

3. Drain the Exhaust
The engine will not run if the exhaust is blocked.  You need to get the water completely out of the exhaust system.  Put the bike in first gear and, with the help of your friends, lift the front wheel off the ground and make the bike do a wheelie so you can get all the water to drain out of the exhaust.  Repeat this tipping maneuver a few times to make sure you get as much water out as you can.

4. Drain the Cylinders
Next you need to get the water out of the cylinders.  Remove all of the spark plugs so that the water can escape from the engine. Next turn the motor over with the starter.  If your starter does not work, then use the kick starter (if you have one) or get the rear wheel off the ground and turn it by hand in 3rd gear.  You should see the water shoot out of the spark plug holes as you turn the motor over.  Turn the motor over until you do not see anymore water coming out.

5. Start the Engine
Once you are confident you have removed as much water as you can from the intake, exhaust and cylinders, it is time to bolt everything back on and try to start the engine.  If the engine does not start right away, you may need to take the plugs out again and repeat step 4.  Dry the spark plugs as well as you can and give it another try.  You may also need to drain the carburetor float bowls and make sure no mud or debris are in there. If you have a low battery, you can try bump starting the engine to get it going.  Once you get it started, make sure you rev the engine to clear it out good for about 5 minutes or so.

Final Precautions
If the motorcycle was not submerged for a long time, then you should be able to ride it home at a mellow pace.  You should change the oil as soon as possible to prevent damage to the engine.  If the bike was submerged for longer than thirty seconds, then you may have a lot of water in the motor. Oil and water mixed together will look milky grey.

If you are on a long tour far from civilization and you realize you have significant water in your oil (and no spare oil), you should find a container to drain the oil into.  Let the oil settle for several hours until the water separates itself from the oil.  Poke a hole in the container at the level of the water and pour out just the water.  You can then put the oil back into the engine.  Just make sure you change your oil as soon as possible.

Author: Rob Dabney
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8 thoughts on “What To Do After Submerging Your Bike During a River Crossing

  1. Pingback: Caution Is Always The Best Approach With River Crossings » ADV Pulse

  2. Thanks for sharing the info, couple of adds, 1 is that on a lot of bikes the sump is at the bottom of the engine, so if you let the bike stay still for a while you can with care get a good dose of the water out this way until oil appears, worth knowing if you really don’t have a bottle.

    I have a quick drain oil valve mounted which makes this even easier 😉

    Also don’t forget you can use the exhaust of the non drowned bike to help dry out the filter of the drowned bike, particularly useful for DS riders running paper filters

  3. I would also say that if you can afford the time, let the oil settle into the sump. If there is any water, it will drop to the bottom. You can remove the drain plug and let water drain from the crankcase, and then replace the plug as soon as oil appears.

    Milky oil in the sight glass is an indication of water-contamination, and that is a bad thing. Water is not a great lubricant, and may cause the oil filter element to swell or come apart.

  4. Pingback: Bike submerged - starts now, anything else to check? - Page 2 - Kawasaki Forums

  5. Pingback: [Ownership Thread]: Yamaha YZF-R15 - Page 2022

  6. i just want to know if it is possible to completely submerge the engine but not the end of the exuast pipe on a 110cc pit bike and keep it running