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How long before the trip to the BBQ had the boat been sitting?
The spark plug boot that got your buddy is bad, they do fail over time.
With the engine running and you hitting the choke, and it runs better, this tells me that you have a fuel delivery issue. The carbs are going to need to come back off the engine and be opened up. then the jets removed from the carb and cleaned with a good carb cleaner and compressed air. Once the jets are cleaned and the carb passages are cleaned, reinstall the carbs. Replace the needles if you did not do so earlier as well.