Boats have an interesting security system that a lot of the boat industry follows, and to be quite honest, it’s really lacking.
A lot of the boats on the market use a simple metal key with a simple cut pattern. Only a few manufacturers use a digital key or any kind of theft deterrent.
To many new, and old boat owners it brings up questions about boat keys, are they universal, and what extra security steps you should be taking to protect your boat.
Boat Keys – Not Universal, But Similar
There is not one key that will start all boats, like there is for riding mowers, but the number of combinations of boat keys that are unique is not that high.
While boat keys may not be universal, they’re still NOT that unique and there is a possibility that you have the same key cut pattern as someone else. The odds are about 1 in 100 people will have the same key. It’s also possible two or three people at the same marina to share the same key cut pattern due to how “random” things tend to lean more to a few then space out evenly.
It gets even worse if you’re worried about security and theft when it comes to your boat.
Keys Are Not Always Needed!
You’ll be blown away by the lack of security that is often taken by boat manufacturers.
The key for your boat only turns a switch, and if you know what wires to touch together, you can bypass the need for a key. This not always an issue for every boat, but a lot of them make it super easy to reach behind the key switch and start the boat.
Most boats don’t use a digital key like your car does, and most go with the simple cut key that is very easy to bypass.
Even a badly skilled lock picker or someone with the correct raking tools could jiggle the locks enough to turn the key switch. I’ve even seen old keys, old motorcycle and similar, fit in the key slot and work – though you need to be careful to not break it!
Lastly, there are so few combinations of keys that many boat manufacturers send dealerships a chain of all possibilities of keys they will sell. The funny part is that these rings get lost, stolen, and most often the techs don’t use them as they can simply bypass them. I’ve even seen some shop guys keep a few keys around, as they found a dozen of keys are what is used most often.
It’s kind of scary, but there is some good news!
Boats That Use Digital Keys
Not every boat manufacturer uses a simple cut key, some do use a digital key.
Many boats that use the Rotax engine (Sea-Doo) use a digital key, but not all. There are a few manufacturers that will use the Rotax engine, but keep using the old school cut key. The Sea-Doo Switch uses a digital key, just like the other products Sea-Doo sells. Even PWCs from Sea-Doo have a digital key!
What makes the digital key better is that there are far more combinations. Where a cut key will have around 100 possibilities, a digital key can have a million. So, the chances of someone at the same marina having the same digital key is slim, even more so since not many manufacturers even use a digital key.
The way many digital boat keys works is that they don’t use batteries and can go in the water. One version use contacts to measure a resistive load, and another uses an RF chip to read a code. Both use magnets to wake up the boat to let it know a key is near.
What’s great about digital keys is that they can be programmed, since each one has a unique code. This code is nothing more than about 6 to 8 random numbers. So one key could be a fast key, one a learning key, rental and so on as Sea-Doo does with their watercraft.
Boat Alarm System
Just like cars and motorcycles, you can get an alarm system for your boat.
Some manufacturers are even starting to add them to some boats to pick up for the lack of key protection. Honestly, an alarm system would be better because boats are naturally open, and a key lock won’t do anything to stop someone from stealing your cooler or fishing gear on the boat deck.
The easiest way to get a boat alarm is picking up a motorcycle alarm like this one here (Amazon Link Ad) and hide the motion sensor. A motorcycle alarm uses vibrations to set it off, and putting the sensor in a good spot will trigger the alarm just right.
The video below gives a good demo of an alarm for a boat:
See other ways to protect your boat and trailer from theft here.
What To Do If You Lost Your Boat Keys?
If you lost all of your boat keys, then it’s often an easy fix.
The cheapest option is to remove the ignition system and look for the key code. Once you have the key code, take a picture of it with your phone, so you don’t have to do it again or if the code gets worn out over time. You can buy a replacement key online, eBay and others sell them, a specialty key shop, or call your local lock smith, and they can make you one.
Another option will require you to buy a whole new ignition and key set. The set will have the keys already cut, and all you do is remove the old ignition switch and put in the new one. Just a few wires and a locking nut and you’re done. For many boats, it’s so easy, most people can do it in 30 minutes, if not quicker.
If you have a skilled lock smith, many of them can figure out the key code with a few taps and make you a replacement key.
Boat Keys Can Be Copied
Boat keys can be duplicated at any place that makes spare keys.
Your local home improvement store to some kiosks can make the duplicate keys with no issue.
The only issue you may run into is the correct key size, as every boat is different, but you’ll be surprised by how many of them carry the key size you need. If not, a lock smith will have it and can often come to you!
Though, you will need one key already, as many of them can’t go off a key code.
Do Boats Use Push Button Start?
Some boats have a key switch that you turn to the start position, like some cars to start the engine.
Other boats will have the key, but you put it in the ON position and then press a button to start.
If your boat is not starting, then make sure the safety lanyard is connected correctly.
The Dealership Can Get You A New Key
If you need a new key for your boat and don’t know the key code, then the dealership may require the whole boat, and they’ll simply swap out the whole ignition switch and get you a new key set.
To get the key requires removing the ignition switch, so might as well get you a new one that they know will work and have spares with it.
I honestly would try a lock smith first or go at yourself to get the key code as the dealership will not be the most affordable option. And I’m for going to the dealership for most things, but for many boats it’s not hard to do yourself.
Even if you take it to the dealership, they’ll just call a lock smith or go to the local home improvement store to get the key cut for you if they don’t want to replace the ignition switch.