Boating is supposed to be fun! But, many boaters experience disappointment or even disaster on their first few outings in the spring.
Forgetting to bring the corkscrew for your wine, the can opener for your cans, or the fly swatter to protect yourself from the pesky flies are irritating, but aren't too serious and can easily be remedied by bringing them the next time.
But having an annoying water leak or the VHF radio not working, or your windshield wiper smearing your windshield could put a damper on your outing.
More serious problems like transmission or engine problems, leaky holding tanks, electronics not working, or missing safety items could easily result in disaster.
All of these problems are preventable with a simple.....
Spring Boat Check and Inspection
Before your first boat trip away from the dock, a check and inspection of all the equipment aboard the boat to make sure everything works the way it is supposed to, should be top of your list.
A few minutes inspecting and testing while still at the dock first thing in the season is one of the best investments you can make. It can prevent anything from disappointment to disaster.
You don’t want to get out on the water to find that you have no gears, and your VHF is on the fritz. Then when you throw your anchor over, much to your dismay, it’s not connected. You’re on the rocks. You don't want to lose valuable time and enjoyment on the water during your holiday because your electronics don't work or you forgot the corkscrew.
A few minutes is all it takes to do a thorough inspection of your boat. Turn everything on and test it. Pull out all the lines, including the anchor line and check for any problems.
Make a Check List and Use It
Your checking is better done if you go area by area around the boat; so that nothing gets overlooked. You don’t want anything to let you down, when you are out on the water enjoying boating with your family and/or friends. Make a checklist of everything you need to inspect and test on your boat.
Organize the list by area in such a way, that you can start at the top of the list and walk through the boat. Use this checklist every spring. Each time you use it, make it more complete. This will facilitate inspecting and testing your boat and, because the checklist is on paper and not in your head, portions of the list can be delegated to family members.
Make an Inventory List - all Boats
Take a written inventory of what’s aboard from last season (pail, rope, galley appliances, etc) and what items you need to bring from storage (upholstery, canvas, dishes), replenish from home (toiletries, bedding) and/or purchase (food and drinks). Doing this one job as soon as your boat goes in the water could save you gas money, keep you safe, and make your boating more enjoyable.
No two boats and no two boaters are the same. Depending on the size and type of your boat, as well as what kind of boating activities you do, your list may vary significantly from other boaters.
Safety Equipment - all Boats
- Pull out all your safety equipment. Confirm the expiry dates on date sensitive items like flares and fire extinguishers. Clean, repair, recharge or replace if necessary. Don’t buy new flares without checking their expiry dates. Flares expire four years after date of manufacture—not the date of purchase.
- Inspect your PFDs to make sure they haven’t been damaged by moisture or four-legged critters over the winter. They could be called on to save your life. Replace, if they aren’t perfect. Safety isn’t the place to scrimp dollars. You can’t walk home from the middle of the lake.
- Make sure you have the necessary safety equipment for your size and type of boat— fire extinguishers, flares, jackets, flashlight, bailing bucket, bilge pump, horn, ring buoy, heaving line, flares and other safety equipment.
- Not only is it law to have the required safety equipment for your boat, but it is also common sense to have it in case you need it. It is safer for you and your crew.
- Pull all of your bowrails, side rails and all other safety grab rails. Test for stability. If loose, back off the fasteners, re-apply fresh caulking sealant and re-tighten.
The Helm - all Boats
- At the helm, start the motor(s). Test the shift, throttle and steering. Do all the gauges register as they should? Oil high enough? Temp low enough? Any fuel left?
- Test your horn. If it is weak, applying spray lube to its diaphragm can often revitalize it. Just for insurance, carry an air horn as well.
- Check your windshields and clear curtains. Any that are fogged or scratched can hinder visibility and therefore, be unsafe. Try a fine compound or take to a canvas shop to replace the plastic.
Electrical and Electronics - all Boats
- Turn on the VHF and do a radio check. Make sure all other electronic equipment is operational. Now is the time. Not later when you are out and depending on it.
Test all other electrical and electronic systems to make sure, that they haven’t forgotten how to do their jobs. For example, are your waypoints still in your GPS or were they lost when you replaced the batteries? Do the charts still come up on your chart plotter or was the chip damaged somehow? Repair or replace software or hardware.
Turn on your running lights. Are all the bulbs lit? Does your horn work? Check all other lights on the boat in the cockpit and throughout the cabin.
- If you switch on your stereo to enjoy some tunes and you are greeted with silence, check the breaker or fuse. If it’s only on one side, adjust the balance knob, check wire connections on the back of the silent speaker.
- Check your props. Even small dings damage gears and hurt performance. You can try using two opposing pairs of pliers to straighten a bent blade or tap one hammer against another like a blacksmith. Hold the larger hammer as an anvil and tap on the ding. Probably best is to send the prop out for reconditioning.
- Check for loose or flaking anti-fouling paint. Scrape, clean thoroughly and prepare before applying a new coat.
- Check the shafts on inboard power and sail boats to make sure they are centered in their bearings. Check the stuffing box as well as at the struts. Remember that a minor misalignment at the bearings is multiplied by the length of the shaft.
- Inspect and replace sacrificial anodes if they have lost half their weight–not just size. Replace a full-size anode that looks like swiss cheese. Don't paint them and make sure they are fastened tight.
- Look for dings or chips in gelcoat–especially along leading edges like the stem, keel and chines. Repair using epoxy filler.
- Check your inspection bowls on strainers and gas filters. If they are cloudy, they are no good. You have to be able to see the clear liquid passing through them. Disassemble, clean with soap and water, carefully re-assemble and check the gaskets for leaks. If they don't clean, replace them.
The Engine - All Boats
- Get down beside your motor. Pull the dip stick. Check the oil. Even though the mechanic may have just summarized it, do your own check. Check all other fluid levels like power steering, trim, battery fluid. Are the battery cables tight? Look at all the belts for frays and tightness.
- Look at the engine mounts. Make sure there is enough thread above and below the nuts on engine-mount studs. Vibration and settling can cause misalignment. Motor-mount studs should be centered between the mount bases' fasteners. Mounts should not be leaning to one side.
- Check all gasketed surfaces for signs of drips, stains or weepage. Exhaust risers and head gaskets are especially important.
Start the motor. If you hear a squealing sound, the belts could be loose or slipping. Push on the slipping belt with a big tool to temporarily tighten the belt. This extra tension will get it moving. If it still slips, either tighten the belt or hold a bar of hand soap against the slipping belt. This will increase the friction.
- Check the belts. If a belt deflects too much under hand pressure between pulleys, either it needs replacement or the equipment needs to be repositioned and retightened, or both.
Find the source of an engine noise. Narrow down the culprit by removing the belts from accessories like alternators one by one. When the noise stops, you've found the offending part.
- Listen to your motor. For a close listen, press the handle of a large screwdriver, a stethoscope or a length of hose to your ear. Methodically move your listening device around the engine to help you isolate the source of a noise.
- Listen to rotational accessories like alternators, pulleys and shaft-driven pumps. A high pitched chirp or whine often indicates a bad bearing. Get it checked by a mechanic and repaired.
- Squeeze hoses. Those that are soft and mushy, cracked, checked, discolored or shedding, can collapse under suction, starving the engine of cooling water, failing and flooding the boat, causing fuel leaks and more.
If you turn the key and you hear silence, check the battery switches to see if they are turned “on”. If you turn the key and hear “click, click” or “groan, groan”, your battery is almost dead. Turn on the charger and wait a while. Check all the battery terminals for corrosion, clean with a wire brush and tighten.
Wiggle each battery. It shouldn't budge. Batteries must not move more than one inch in any direction. Tighten or replace your straps or clamps.
- If you see a liquid that looks like a chocolate milkshake, bubbling up out of your dip stick tube, turn off the motor immediately. You have water leaking into the oil through a bad gasket or crack. Schedule a visit by your local mechanic. Surgery is required.
The Bilge - All Boats
- Check the bilge for fresh oil and/or water. Run the bilge pump. If the bilge is empty, put some water in with the dock hose to be sure it actually pumps and not just makes a noise.
The Galley - Most Boats
- Now that you’ve checked the engine room plumbing, go to the galley and head and ensure the sink taps and drains don’t leak and the toilet joints are dry. Flush the toilet. Recharge the chemical if it hasn’t been done already.
- Switch on the water pressure and check for leaks throughout the whole system. Once all the air is out, the pump shouldn’t run. If it does, check for leaks. Run the water long enough to flush out all the pink fresh water antifreeze. Empty and refill to flush out all the winters skunkiness.
- Inspect and test all your galley appliances, doors, drawers, etc. Does the frig cool and the stove heat? Do all switches and dials work? Make sure all cupboard doors and drawers open and close without binding and that the catches catch. You don’t want your food all over the floor when you hit the first wave.
- Check the bearings and brakes. Jack up your trailer and spin the wheels. If you hear grinding, you probably need new bearings.
- With your trailer still jacked up, grab the top of the tire and push then pull on the bottom. Then do the other side. If they rock or wobble, service the hub and bearings.
Bowriders - Additional Check
- Check the gauges at the helm with the the motor running, to be sure they all read as they should. If not, check for a loose connection on the back of the gauge or on the motor.
- Test the shifter/throttle lever. Is it smooth into both forward and reverse? Does the throttle advance only after the shift is fully in gear? If not, call the marina mechanic.
- Sit in your bucket seats, adjust and swivel. If they are stiff, lubricating may help.
- For boats with snap-out carpet, be sure all the snaps are connected, so that the carpet doesn't slip out from under your feet. If one is missing or damaged, get a canvas expert to replace.
- Pour some water on your windshield and turn on your wipers. If one doesn't move, lift the blade to unstick it from the glass. If it still doesn't move, check the wire connections at the motor and the switch. If it still doesn't move, call a mechanic. If it does move and misses half the glass, it is time for a new blade.
- Install all your canvas. Remember that those little zipper teeth are weak and the snaps are tough. So, zip up all the zippers first, then pull to attach the snaps. In cool days of spring, canvas and window panels contract, making it a real thumb buster to get it stretched the last half inch. A tip is to install the canvas in the warm sunshine when possible; otherwise, leave some snaps undone until next weekend.
- If the zipper cart is hard to move, rub the track with a lead pencil. The lead will lubricate like oil, but without the stains. Check for loose threads or frays that may be binding the zipper cart--just like the kids snowsuits.
- Do you get all the canvas pieces mixed up every time? Identify with a few inches of red wire on the port panels and green wire on the starboard. Feed the wire through the hole in the tab and twist to secure it. You likely have some telephone wire kicking around your workshop or garage. Pull away the outer cover, and there's your red and green. You don't need the yellow and black.
- Click here for boat docking lessons for a single I/O and click here for boat docking lessons for a single O/B.
Cuddy Cabins - Additional Check
- Flush and charge the head with head chemical being sure to follow the instructions on the container. If you don’t do it correctly, it won’t work properly. Look for leaks—there are many connections. Does water come in? Does the bowl empty?
- At the helm, start the motor(s). Test the shift(s), throttle(s) and steering. Turn on the VHF and do a radio check. Make sure all your other electronic equipment is operational. Now is the time to report to your marina service department, a list of what’s not working. Not later, when you are out and depending on it and they are too busy to help.
- If you have a pink liquid in the bilge, that’s just fresh water antifreeze. You can pump it out the next time you are in open water or to be environmentally friendly, soak it up with some of the absorbent pads like Bi- Sok available at the marina.
- Click here for boat docking lessons for a Single I/O and click here for boat docking lessons for a Twin I/O.
Larger Cruisers & Yachts - Additional Check
- Turn on the taps in the galley. Is the water pink? If so, you need to empty out the remaining fresh water antifreeze. I would recommend that you fill and empty your water tank a couple of times to rinse it out, then refill with clean water. If you turn on the tap and nothing happens, check the water pressure switch. If the pump runs but the water doesn’t, fill the water tank. Try again.
- If you plug in your shore cord and nothing works, turn on the main breaker and check the cord connections, even bend the tabs a bit on the shore end of your cord. Check the dock breaker. Test other outlets with a portable lamp or tester. Start at the on-shore end and make your way to the outlet that you started with. Inspect your shore cord for cracks and frays. If there are any, replace it.
- If you call your buddy on your VHF and he doesn’t reply, check for power, channel selection and volume. Check the antenna connection on the back of the radio. Call your marina service department.
- Check your BBQ propane. Check inside all fittings for spiders and cobwebs—an old toothbrush works well. Apply a smear of liquid soap to improve the seal on all connections—hose to tank and hose to BBQ. Connect the hose and turn on the tank valve. Watch for soap bubbles. There should not be any. If there is, turn off the tank to check and replace washers. Retest until there are no bubbles before lighting.
- If, when trying to light your BBQ, it won’t light, check the fittings on both ends. Maybe the tank is empty. Give it a shake. If you can hear and feel sloshing inside like jelly, you still have fuel. Disconnect fittings at both ends and check for cracks in the O ring. Replace if cracked. Moisten the O rings with some saliva and reconnect. Turn on and light.
- To simplify garbage handling in a galley, hang a grocery store bag on a door or drawer handle. Tie and toss to larger garbage box after each meal. It’ll keep down the flies and smell. Keep a handy supply of bags by rolling grocery bags and tying with a twist tie to make “sausages”.
- If your frig is still warm after being on a few hours, check for a “hum”. If you can’t hear a “hum”, check the switch in the frig and the breaker and the shorepower and/or the battery switch. If you do hear a “hum”, it probably needs service. Call the marina service department.
- If you find a ball of shredded paper inside a cosy spot like a roll of canvas or pail of rags, you’ve probably got mice or rats. Little black droppings and yellow spots will confirm. They’ll stay aboard all summer, snacking on leftovers, crumbs, peanuts, bags of cookies and garbage. The only solution is to set several mouse or rat traps baited with peanut butter or cheese in the area where you discovered their presence. Don’t thrown out the nest ‘til you’ve killed off the whole family—where there’s one, there’s usually several more.
- Click here for boat docking lessons for a Twin I/O and click here for boat docking lessons for Twin I/B and click here for docking a houseboat.
For Sailors - Additional Check
- Sailors should raise the sails on a calm day in the slip to verify that all the rigging is in good condition and nothing jams. Make sure all equipment functions properly like winches and furling.
- Warm up your outboard, then put your hand in the outboard motor's telltale stream. It should not be hot. If it is, check the water pump and thermostats.
- Click here for lessons on boat docking a sailboat.
Fishing - Additional Check
- Fishermen need to check all their fish finders, downriggers, bait well pumps etc.
- Warm up your outboard, then put your hand in the outboard motor's telltale stream. It should not be hot. If it is, check the water pump and thermostats.
- Your outboard motors primer ball should remain firm once pumped up and the motor is running. If not, check for leaks or replace.
- Click here for lessons on boat docking a Single Outboard and click here for lessons on boat docking a Twin Outboard.
For Cruising Power Boaters - Additional Check
- Cruising boaters should test their anchor winch for jams and frays and wiring connections and basic stuff like is the anchor shackled to the line? Pull out and check and inventory all your other anchors and rodes.
- All equipment related to long trips and remote anchorages should be checked and repaired if necessary.
- Click here for boat docking lessons for a Single Inboard and click here for boat docking lessons for a Twin Inboard.
First Run of the Season - All Boats
- On the first run of the season, here's a few things to listen for.
- Listen for a grinding or whining noise from a sterndrive while trimming up and while executing tight turns. This could indicate a gimbal bearing needs replacement.
- Lift your motor box or hatches. Look for Niagara Falls spewing from either loose hoses or a frost plug hole. Either will sink the boat, so get back to the dock and have it fixed.
- Also check all the fuel line connections and around the base of the carbuerator for leaks.
Leave your Dock with Confidence
Once everything is inspected, tested and operational, you can leave the dock with the confidence that your boat’s equipment won’t let you down.
This may sound like a tedious process, but after you’ve done it once, it will become routine.
Airplane pilots wouldn’t think of taking off without doing a pre-flight check. They make sure that everything is in perfect order, before starting the engines to ensure a problem-free flight.
Start your checklist by printing out this newsletter. Take it to your boat, Test and check off all the items in this newsletter that are applicable to your boat. On the reverse of these sheets, add inventory and additional items to check for your boat.
Return to your Dock with Confidence
More importantly, USE you checklists so your boating experience will be much more pleasant–without the avoidable problems that so many run into.