Troubled Waters: What to do when you drown your motorbike

Water crossings on a motorcycle? I hear you: if you wanted to cross water, you’d have booked a cruise instead – at least it’d come with a buffet and jackpot machines. Sorry folks, we don’t usually get to choose what natural terrain throws across our path.

Cherie Tan Anyhowly DR650 The Gasoline Addict


Motorcycle River Crossing
My friend Michael “Soh-fast” Soh, demonstrating to purists that you don’t need the marketeers to tell you what makes a “proper adventure bike”.

The adv-riding world probably doesn’t need another instructional article on how to forge rivers, and I, for one, am no authority on doing it with stylish aplomb. On the contrary, I’m quite an old hand at falling into the wet stuff.

River Crossing DR650
How not to cross a stream in Kyrgyzstan. (photo credit: Christopher Liu)

When a water crossing goes wrong, you’ve got bigger problems on hand than soggy underpants. If your motorcycle’s air intake, air filter box and exhaust vent are submerged, water can get sucked in, especially when the engine is running. Heard of “connector rods”? These motor components are often spoken of in the same sentence as “catastrophic mechanical failure”. You see, the engine is designed to compress gases like air and fuel vapour, while water is quite unsquishable – so when enough of the liquid gets into the combustion chamber, the connector rods that push the piston can get bent out of shape from the sheer pressure. Too much garage mumbo jumbo? The gist of it: water inside your engine is bad, bad news.

Drowned dirtbike XR250R
A buddy to the rescue after my throttle wrist moved faster than my common sense. It’s true then – still waters do run deep!

In most dualsport motorcycles, the air filter and breather tube are pretty high up under the seat and aren’t easy to drown. Also, you can technically ride through a river even if your exhaust is underwater, as long as you keep the throttle open!

Hold on to your panic panties – your motorcycle should be able to take a quick dip. Start to worry only if it won’t start up and you see murky engine oil in the sight glass.

Should things get nasty in deep water, learn from my misery of yesteryear and save yourself a costly engine rebuild. Here’s a quick action plan for if your bike does a Titanic. You’ll need a spark plug remover and a buddy for extra muscle – especially when it comes to hauling your soggy wheels up to drain the exhaust. Remember, if you’re pretty sure you’re about to fall, hit the kill switch!

What to do when your motorcycle drowns

Milky engine oil
Milk tea? Nope, that’s what a drowned bike pisses. Even if you manage to revive the engine, you aren’t home free until you flush out the sullied engine oil. Change the oil repeatedly if you have to, until it looks clear in the sight glass. Happy trails!

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