Get your boating season off to the safest possible start with these essential hints and tips.
With the heaviest rain in years recently inundating large tracts of the country, many brimming inland waterways are navigable for the first time in far too long. And with the warmer weather beckoning, now’s a great time to pull that boat out of the shed and back onto the water, where it belongs.
First though, and especially if your boat’s been stored for some time, let’s maximise your chances of a safe and carefree return by giving the craft a thorough inspection. The extent of your check will depend on the size and style of your boat and on how long it’s been in storage, but the following tips provide a great place to start.
Firstly, haul it out in the open, remove any covers and let’s see what’s what. Check the covers for tears or sun damage as you remove them. If the boat’s a bit dusty, give it a quick clean or even a thorough wash. Before any wash, however, and while it’s still dry, slither underneath and have a good look over the hull for any cracks or problems that might have appeared since you were last on the water. Particularly check along strakes and chines, around the keel and transom, and – for tinnies and plate alloy craft – along weld lines.
On fibreglass hulls, if you spot any areas where damage has exposed any of the fibreglass beneath the gelcoat, at least re-seal the area with resin to stop water penetrating and worsening the situation. Have the area properly repaired as soon as you can.
If you’re lucky enough to own a classic wooden boat, the planks may have shrunk and opened up during the long dry. If it’s minor, the old trick of filling the bilges with water and letting the planks ‘take up’ for a few days may do the job, but that’s a marginal approach – ideally the boat should be properly serviced or repaired.
While underneath the boat, also check the trailer and see that the keel and hull supports are doing their job and haven’t slipped, warped or broken. Check for excessive rust and inspect the axle, the insides of the wheels and tyres and any brakes and associated cables or hydraulic hoses for indications of wear or dysfunction.
It’s impossible to check if the rollers are spinning freely while the boat’s sitting on them, but maybe lubricate them and check that there aren’t any that have obviously seized, and make a note to examine them again once the boat has been launched.
Slip out from underneath and, on fibreglass boats, use the handle of a screwdriver or similar to tap over the transom. It should sound solid – any hollow or soft-sounding spots could indicate the timber plate typically used to reinforce the back of the boat (on older hulls, anyway) is starting to rot. If you have any doubts, get it checked by a professional. While you’re vetting the hull, make sure your drain plugs are in good condition and screw in and out easily.
Your next job is to check the battery – are the electrolyte levels okay in an older, non-sealed battery? The best approach is to put the battery on an automatic charger overnight – or at least while you’re checking over everything else – and bring it up to full capacity. If it’s been left too long, you may have to invest in a new battery, and if so it’s advisable to get a proper marine one.
While you’re at the battery, check its connections and any master switch. Have a quick look too over all the wiring that’s visible around your boat and fix any loose wires or cracking insulation. Once the battery is charged, run a quick test of all the ancillaries to see that lights, bilge blowers and pumps, gas detectors, radios and so on are working correctly. Especially if you have a wooden boat, double check the bilge pump – not just that it spins when turned on, but that it actually pumps water at its rated capacity.
Haul all your stuff out of storage spaces, clean it and spread it out somewhere away from the boat to air out. Cast a critical eye over everything and discard anything you don’t really need. Bring yourself up to date on your state or territory’s safety gear requirements, as some have changed in recent times, and ensure you have all the necessary equipment (and that you know how to use it). Particularly check your PFDs (Personal Floatation Devices, or lifejackets) and see that all the straps, zippers and fasteners are in good condition. If you have youngsters (who tend to grow!), check that their PFDs still fit. Check too that fire extinguishers and flares are current.
Clean all your storage compartments and all the bilge areas you can reach, getting rid of any damp or mildewed areas, and then re-stow all your gear. If you go boating on less frequented waterways, include some emergency water and food supplies – just in case. Think about carrying a hand-held GPS so if you ever do need to call for help you can provide your exact location.
Pull the covers off your engine and look for any signs of corrosion or other indications of trouble. Use that great problem detector – your nose – to sniff for any fuel leaks. Trace through your fuel lines and clean out the fuel filter. The fuel itself may have deteriorated if it’s been more than, say, four to six months since you used the boat. Condensation can form in tanks and older tanks can corrode internally, contaminating your fuel. If in doubt, drain the fuel from your tank and replace it with a fresh supply. Be aware though that contaminants can lie in the bottom of your tank and mix with the fuel only after the boat has been moving around for a while on its trailer or when afloat, so remind yourself to check the fuel filter again after a short run.
Remove the spark plugs from your engine and check them as well as the ignition system wiring and components. Even a quick visual check can sometimes spot a looming failure. If it’s a four-stroke engine, pull the dipstick and examine the oil level and quality. It’s best to change the oil if it’s been lying idle for months, and certainly change it if the oil on the dipstick has discoloured. Check the oil filter and any carby spark arrestor too, as well as all drive belts. If your engine has a closed cooling system, ensure the coolant level and quality is right. If there’s a separate transmission, check that too.
Look over the prop and prop shaft, ensuring the prop nut is secure. For inboard powered boats, examine the shaft log and any grease fittings. Examine the cables or hydraulic lines of your steering and test that the wheel turns smoothly with no untoward level of effort. Add grease or lubricants where needed and maybe spray some WD-40 or similar on surfaces that need protection.
START YOUR ENGINES
Once the engine, transmission and prop look okay, connect a cooling water supply and start up the engine. Let the engine idle for a while and listen for any nasty sounds; try very short bursts of revs to check that the throttle works properly and that the engine responds properly. Monitor the gauges on your dash and see that they are working as they should and that their readings show all is well with the engine. Back at idle revs and, after double-checking that nobody is near the prop (nor the hose for your water supply!), alternately engage forward and reverse gears to see they are working as they should.
Again after checking nobody is close to the back of your boat, operate any outboard or sterndrive tilt and trim facility to ensure smooth operation. If you have power steering off a pump driven by the engine, test that too. While at the transom, check the working of any trim tabs or cav plates.
Shut down the engine and again look around for any fuel, oil or water leaks. Wherever practical, check that hose clamps are tight and that hoses are in good condition – old hoses can be sucked flat with the engine running and that’s not going to be good news when on the water!
Erect any bimini or other cover (after remembering how it goes up and down) and see that it’s all in good nick. Sooner or later your crew will need the shade and shelter it provides.
Haul out your anchor and look over its shackle connections, chain and line. Check that the end of the line is secured to the boat so you never lose the lot overboard. Unloop all your mooring lines and your heavy duty tow rope too, whilst keeping an eye out for frayed ends or sections weakened by wear. Clean up your docking fenders and ensure they’re ready for use.
Walk around the boat giving all your deck hardware a hearty push and heave to make sure everything is still tight and ready to take the strain. Particularly check any guard rails. Check too radio antenna mounts and any transom or through-hull fishfinder transducers, plus GPS or radar fittings on larger boats.
At the front of the trailer see that everything is clean and ready to hook onto your tow vehicle. Check that any hydraulic brake reservoir is full with clean brake fluid and that the manual brake handle operates smoothly. Look over the electrical plug and ensure its connections are clean, then insert it into your tow vehicle fitting and check that all the trailer lights are working properly. See that the trailer’s safety chains and shackles are all set to go and strong enough to restrain the trailer and its precious load in a worst-case scenario of it breaking loose.
Examine the tyres for any cracks in the sidewalls and for adequate tread depth. Check the pressures too. If you can, it’s a good idea to jack up each wheel in turn and see that it rotates freely, with no unusual noises from the bearings. Grip each side of each wheel and try to move it in and out to check for play in the bearings, and then check that the bearings are properly greased. If the trailer has been sitting in the one spot for many months, check that a flat spot hasn’t developed in the section of tyre taking the weight for all that time.
Finally, take a few minutes to stroll around the boat and trailer and carefully consider every aspect of it. If you can recall any problem spots from when you last used the boat, double check those are now okay.
And now, go get it wet – and have some great fun once again on our top waterways!
Many thanks to Les Butler, who kindly hauled out his 4.5m Sportscraft from a two-year hibernation for our photos. Les has owned the boat for 25 of its 30 years of life and has used it for everything from family cruising through watersports to fishing – both inshore and outside. The boat has never let him down, although Les did update the engine in 2003 to the 85hp Yamaha that now graces the transom.