Before you head out for your first foray this year, run through this countdown to make sure all systems are a go.
Grab your prop shaft and shake it vigorously from side to side and up and down. More than just a little bit of movement means the bearing needs to be replaced. A worn cutless bearing can cause problems ranging from annoying vibrations to a damaged prop shaft. You can’t replace the cutless bearing while the boat is in the water, so if it shows signs of wear, do it before you launch.
Cracked blocks and manifolds from water left in the engine over the winter are the most common freeze-damage claims for BoatUS Marine Insurance. Lower units can also be damaged if water trapped inside freezes and expands, cracking the housing or causing seals to fail and draining the oil. Before you even move your boat, inspect the engine for any signs of freeze damage, such as cracks, rust streaks, leaking oil, or puddles. Check underneath the lower unit on an I/O or outboard to make sure there are no suspicious oil spots. If you find anything that doesn’t look right, have it checked before even thinking about launching your boat. Yes, the damage is already done, but you could make things a whole lot worse if you try to run the engine.
Shaft Seal/Stuffing Box/Bellows
Wherever mechanical parts pass through the hull — such as the prop shaft on an inboard, or the shift cable, drive shaft, and exhaust on an I/O — water will be looking for a way to get in. Failed bellows and shaft logs are two of the most common causes of sinking in the BoatUS Marine Insurance claim files. Even if they looked fine in the fall, carefully inspect them now, before your boat goes in the water. Check your bellows on your I/O before you launch with the sterndrive raised and lowered, looking for cracks or sea life, such as barnacles or oysters, that are sharp enough to tear it open. If one bellows is bad, they should all be replaced. On an inboard, watch the shaft seal or stuffing box when the boat is launched. No water should come through a dripless shaft seal. A stuffing box should allow a couple of drops a minute through when the engine is running, and little or no water when it’s not.
Bilge Pump And Switch
The best way to make sure your pump and switch have survived the winter intact is to do what Mother Nature would do — add some water to your bilge. You’ll instantly know if all parts of your system are working. If not, check electrical connections at the pump and switch, which is the most common area for failure.
Throttle, shift, and steering cables slide inside a sheath, so it’s hard to see their condition. Grab hold of one and twist it around. If you hear crunchy sounds, the cable is rusty inside and needs to be replaced.
A faulty electrical connection can leave you stranded on your first day. Make sure your battery cables are tight and free from corrosion. If you had flickering lights or odd electrical problems last season, your gremlins are probably due to loose wires or connections. Give a tug on your connections to check for tightness. Better to have them come apart now than out on the water.
Even if you changed the lower-unit oil last fall, verify that it’s still topped up. Check the engine, transmission, and trim-tab oil and any hydraulic fluids your boat may have. If there’s less in there than when you laid up in the fall, you need to find the reason why before simply topping up.
Hoses And Thru-hulls
Check every one of your hoses and thru-hulls before your boat goes in the water. Over time, seacocks get stiff and may not be able to be closed when you really need them — like when water is gushing into the boat through a split hose. Make sure every seacock opens and closes freely, and take a look at the hoses and clamps as well. In fact, do more than take a look — give the hoses a firm, twisting tug to find any hoses and clamps that are past their prime.
Over the winter, your cockpit and deck drains may have accumulated a lot of crud, from leaves and dirt to critters. A clogged or slow cockpit drain can sink a boat, especially an older one that might already be squatting lower in the water. Send a high-pressure burst of water from a hose into each drain to make sure it runs free. While you’re checking how fast it drains, inspect the thru-hull fitting as well. Plastic fittings degrade in the sun; if they crack, they can sink a boat.
First, check your required flares — they may have hit their expiration date over the winter (flares expire 42 months after manufacture and are marked with the date). Next, locate your fire extinguishers and make sure the pressure gauge is still in the green. Check that you have enough life jackets, they’re the right sizes for your expected crew (do they still fit the kids or grandkids?), and they’re in good shape with no damage or heavy mildew. If you have sleeping accommodations on a boat with a gas engine or propane stove, make sure there’s a working carbon-monoxide alarm, most can be tested like a smoke alarm by pressing the test button. Also, take the opportunity to make a test call on your boat’s VHF and on your handheld, if you have one (you can call your local TowBoatUS for a radio check). DSC-equipped VHF radios have a test button.