Skipper’s checklist

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 5
All boaties, regardless of the size or type of boat, need to maintain a constant watch on their craft
With the warmer months now approaching, it’s worthwhile making sure your boat is as ready as you are for a summer of fun…

The smell was indescribable and the scene that unfolded as I pulled back the cover still haunts me now, many years later. At the time I was dusting off the trusty cuddy cab prior to another season on the bays and waterways of Melbourne. The boat had been in winter hibernation, but I thought I’d give it a quick once-over, just in case there was an early break in the spring thaw. But, as I peeled back the canvas cover, a stench that could have been carved with a chainsaw assaulted me head-on.

Fighting the urge to gag, I leaned into the cockpit and quickly identified the source of the smell. On my last outing before retiring the boat, we’d come across a large school of feeding salmon. What followed was a half hour or so of some of the most intense light tackle fishing action the kids and I have had. In the end, an impressive number of fish found their way into the boat. Most were consigned back to the sea, with a handful deemed keepers for a quick sizzle on the barbie that night.

But what we didn’t notice at the time was that one or two stowaways had found their way into the bilge. And there they’d stayed, until that fateful moment when I removed the cockpit cover. It took many buckets of disinfectant and a good hosing to eventually get the smell down to acceptable levels. We later referred to the incident as the Revenge of the Salmon.

Now, a couple of rotting salmon carcasses mightn’t constitute a serious safety issue, but the incident does help to emphasise that a sharp eye – and nose – is a handy tool when inspecting a boat to ensure that all is right prior to a day on the water. And especially so if it’s been parked, moored or berthed for any length of time.

Unpleasant surprises can lie festering in your boat over prolonged periods of time. Specks of rust or a drop or two from a slowly leaking joint can escalate into major safety issues if not detected in time. So before setting forth for that long-awaited day out on the water, it pays to set aside a little time to give your boat a thorough inspection.


From a safety perspective, all boaties, regardless of the size or type of boat, need to maintain a constant watch on their craft, paying particular attention to the many crucial items that need to be in good condition to ensure the safety of all occupants. You owe it to yourself and your passengers to perform an annual check on your craft to make sure that all is shipshape.

Items such as fire extinguishers and emergency flares have use-by dates that need to be checked and the condition of batteries, fuel filters and other components needs to be monitored.

We consulted a number of safety experts to compile a thorough checklist that can be applied to most boats. It highlights areas to which you need to pay particular attention and that can be a source of potential trouble if not detected in time. As they say, prevention is better than cure. By applying this attitude to your craft, you could save yourself from a bad experience over the coming boating season…

Corrosion check: Firstly, it’s worthwhile making a general check for rust or corrosion on all metal components and fittings, in particular, fluid fittings such as fuel and oil lines, clamps and electrical connections – pay particular attention to engine fittings and, if you have an outboard, inspect under the cowl to make sure all is well. Metal fuel tanks should be carefully inspected for rust, which generally attacks the bottom first and can remain hidden from sight. Steering systems should be checked for corrosion and smooth operation. Life jackets/PFDs: Check to ensure you have enough life jackets or personal flotation devices for the capacity of your boat and that all are in good condition. In particular, ensure that mildew or mould hasn’t taken hold during the lay-off period. Inflatable jackets should be serviced every year to make sure the gas system will function when you need it – the start of the season is a good time to have this done. Also, you can check the inflation bladder by blowing it up with the mouthpiece and looking for bubbles while immersed in a sink or tub. Fuel tank/filters: Hopefully, before you put your boat into hibernation, you filled up the fuel tank to avoid any moisture build-up contaminating the fuel. Just to be sure, there are fuel stabilisers available that you can mix in with your fuel to prevent any contamination. It is a good policy to replace fuel filters prior to commencing a new boating season. You should also make sure you are carrying a spare filter as an emergency replacement, just in case. Engine compartment (inboards or sterndrives): The first thing to check for is any sign of fuel leakage, such as fumes or puddles of fuel or oil in the bilge or lower compartments. If there is any evidence of fuel leakage, do not attempt to start the engine and consult your local marine service experts immediately. You might also want to check all other hose fittings and visually check for any signs of deterioration or corrosion, especially on electrical fittings and connections. Check oil levels and look for signs of contamination, such as milky-white discolouration. If fitted, check the sea strainer for any signs of debris. Also, check your coolant level if you have a freshwater-cooled engine and check drive belts and hoses for serviceability. If your boat is fitted with a genset, you should apply all the above checks to it, too. Outboard engine: Firstly, pop the cowling. Depending on your storage situation, you never know what’s underneath – in particular, check for nests made by critters that may have crawled in for a winter home. Make sure the wiring, breather valves and vents haven’t been compromised. As with inboards and sterndrives, ensure all connections are firm and that there are no signs of corrosion or leakage. Also, check that the trim controls are working smoothly. Start the engine and run it briefly to ensure fuel and electrical systems are working properly and that your batteries are fully charged.

While your engine is running, check for a steady stream from the water pump tell-tale. You might find the flow interrupted from debris clogging the outlet or from impeller blades that may have seized during storage. You can clean the inlet with a fine piece of wire or a paper clip to unclog any blockage. Replace the impeller, if necessary.

Generally speaking, many outboard engine service centres offer winter specials, so it is worthwhile calling around to see what’s on offer.

If you haven’t had your engine serviced professionally, you should at least grease the pivot and steering joints to provide lubrication for free movement of the tilt and trim and steering. You should replace the lube in the lower gearbox unit, too. Also, check the sacrificial anodes and skeg. And finally, pull off the prop and grease the propshaft and check the hub. In the event of needing to change the prop at sea, you’ll be glad you took this last step.

Fuel: Modern fuel begins to break down after only about 30 days. So if you didn’t add a stabiliser in autumn, you may have gum in your injectors or carburettor. Proprietary products are available to add to fuel to flush injectors. Before starting, add a fuel conditioner and keep a close eye on your water separator until you’ve used the entire tank of fuel.

Bilge/pump: Check the bilge to ensure it is clean and free from debris. Also, run the pump briefly to ensure it is operational. If fitted, float switches and alarms should be tested.

Through-the-hull fittings: Take the time to lift up your floorboards or go below decks to check the through-the-hull fittings for signs of corrosion or seepage. Shut-off valves should be worked to ensure proper operation. These fittings are critical and failure can lead to loss of the boat.

Toolkit: A good, functional toolkit is a crucial part of any skipper’s safety arsenal and should include a good range of tools to cope with most situations. It’s worthwhile going over your boat thoroughly to ensure that all fittings and tasks most likely to need attention at sea have corresponding tools in the kit. Examples include a spanner or socket to suit the propeller retention nut (preferably attached to a float), a sparkplug spanner or socket and good stainless steel pliers for cutting wires or gripping fasteners. You should also carry quality repair tape and spare electrical wire and fuses. Safety Equipment: State laws require that boats carry specific items of safety equipment, which varies depending on the size and type of craft. You need to be familiar with the requirements for your own boat and it is a good idea to check on your local maritime safety authority website for any changes to regulations.

Equipment can include PFDs or lifejackets, flares, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and fire extinguishers. You need to look for any signs of deterioration or corrosion and check expiry dates on the flares and extinguisher, as well as the EPIRB battery.

Regarding EPIRBs, you need to make sure you have a 406 EPIRB and that it has been registered with AMSA. The old 121.5 EPIRBs are no longer being monitored and beginning in February 2010, it will be illegal to use them. Also, ensure you have a torch on board, with batteries in good condition, and check your first aid kit to make sure it’s complete, well-sealed and that its contents comply with their use-by dates. If you have a Dry Chemical Powder extinguisher (red with a white stripe), give it a good shake to free any powder that may have settled over the winter.

Lighting: Where applicable, check that all navigation and other lights are working. You don’t want to find out otherwise after the sun sets on your first day back on the water.

Cooking with gas: If your boat is equipped with a gas or liquid-fuelled barbeque or cooking facilities, you should make sure all connections are tight and sealed and that containers have not leaked during the down-time. If you have any reason to be in doubt, you can arrange to have your boat checked by a qualified technician with appropriate gas detection equipment.

Lines ’n’ chains: Over time, lines can deteriorate and anchor chains and fittings can suffer due to corrosion. It’s worthwhile using the pre-summer check to inspect your mooring lines and make sure your anchoring system is in good condition. If in the slightest doubt, replace or repair anything of which you’re unsure.

Rig: For sail folks, even though your boat may not have gone out over the winter, the rigging is still subject to the forces of the wind and motion of the boat. You should check the standing rigging for signs of fraying and check the rigging screws for deterioration and slackness. Check the running rigging, too. The halyards could have chafed if left loose and could fail when load is applied.

Sails: If you have the opportunity in the pen or at the mooring, or if you have a trailer-sailor, hoist or roll out your sails before you go out and check for any signs of deterioration or any small rips or tears that may become bigger when load is applied. Electronics: These days there is hardly a boat on the water that does not boast some form of sophisticated electronic hardware. Given the destructive saltwater environment to which most boats are exposed, it pays to give all your electronics a thorough check to ensure everything is in good working order before you head out. This especially applies to marine radios, so be certain everything is right to go, including in both transmitting and receiving modes.

Wiring: While on electronics, it is a good idea to check all wiring, especially where it passes through bulkheads or is exposed, to ensure that it is not frayed or susceptible to rubbing. This is especially important in older boats that have been fitted with new electronics, along with the necessary extra wiring. You never know who has fitted the non-standard electronics, and there is a risk of short circuits if the wiring has not been installed professionally.

Battery: If your boat is going to spend a significant amount of down-time between outings, it is worthwhile disconnecting the battery terminals to retain the battery’s charge and extend its life. Keep in mind that batteries lose charge over time anyway. In the case of engines running sophisticated engine management systems, you should consult with an authorised service centre to ensure you adhere to the factory-recommended procedure when disconnecting or reconnecting your battery. The main thing is that you have enough charge to start your engine.

If you have the old lead-acid batteries, check the electrolyte levels and the amount of charge, preferably using a dedicated load tester. When performing this check, turn on lights and other equipment to load the battery as this will give you a true indication of its condition. Once you’ve completed your engine check, it’s worthwhile starting it up to ensure the battery is up to the task. If it sounds like it’s struggling to cope, get your local service centre to check it out. And lastly, make sure the battery is securely fastened. Spares: Since you’re conducting a thorough check, make sure you include your spares kit on the checklist. Consumables such as sparkplugs, fuel filters, oil and fresh water are prime candidates here. Especially look for any signs of deterioration or corrosion and replace if in doubt. A couple of spare bungs and a spare ignition key are also crucial items to include in any spares kit.

Trailer: While trailers deserve a special article in their own right, if you have a trailer boat you should at least give the trailer a good once-over to ensure that wheel bearings, tyres, brakes, the winch, hitch, fittings, lights and connections are up to scratch. Trailers can suffer a lot of abuse over time and need constant care and attention to ensure they do not let you down. Prevention is the best line of defence, so if you’re not using your boat for any length of time, it’s worthwhile giving your trailer a thorough wash with fresh water, using liberal doses of de-watering spray to keep electrical connections and other fittings free from corrosion. Wheel bearings deserve special attention and if you are mechanically-challenged, the best bet is to have a qualified technician check and service or replace them if necessary.

Skippers and boat owners have a responsibility to their passengers to make sure their vessel is safe and fully equipped to be on the water. It is your boat, after all, and you should be intimately familiar with everything aboard. By giving your boat a thorough once-over annually, you are reassuring yourself that all is shipshape, giving you the confidence to enjoy your boating.

Warmer days beckon. Spend a little time now going over your boat so you can spend a lot of great quality time out on the water with family and friends.

And while I think of it, to avoid your own salmon surprise, be sure to check for any ‘stowaways’ before you put your boat away after the coming boating season …

How to-Safety