A recent survey of boating behaviour (Transport Safety Victoria’s 2015 Boating Behaviour Report) revealed that most boating occurs between October and April, with only four in 10 boaters using their boats between May and September. It also showed that the majority of boaters sampled (91 per cent) keep their boat out of the water.
While these figures will vary depending on what part of Australia the boating takes place in, it is obvious that defined boating seasons exist and are practised. Having your boat off the water for an extended period means proper preparation is required before going back on the water. If you do not do some basic checks, problems can occur and safety may be at risk.
I remember well an incident that I attended when working in the Water Police. A father and young son took their boat out in coastal waters on the first sunny day of spring. When they hadn’t returned by dark, the man’s wife called police. A search was commenced and the boat located at anchor well after midnight. The night temperature had dropped and, lightly clothed, both father and son were suffering from hypothermia. They were located just in time before their situation became serious.
Later on, their story revealed a number of mistakes that had compounded, leading to them being stranded.
The boat had not been used for four months and was taken out on the spur of the moment – without being checked over. It started okay on the ramp and the operator said it was a “bit rough” heading out, but thought it just needed a run to get it going smoothly. The motor ran reasonably well at speed.
They anchored and fished until late afternoon, but when it was time to come back in, the motor would not start. After a few attempts at turning the motor over, the battery gave up. They were stuck.
Overlooking basics, they hadn’t told anyone exactly where they were going or when they would be back. This meant they were stranded on the water longer than necessary. The boat’s fuel was old and had gone stale, which can occur when volatile distillates evaporate off in a vented fuel tank. It was lucky that the boat engine started at all, but poor judgement, leading them to continue on when the engine was running roughly, determined the end result. Finally, the engine was cranked over and over until the battery went flat. This left them with no power to the radio so help couldn’t be summoned.
If you’ve had your boat off the water for some time it makes good sense from a safety perspective to thoroughly check it before use. It also shows a commitment to duty of care and prudent seamanship.
Start with the trailer. Sitting dormant for a few months is a sure way to allow grease and other lubricants to emulsify or dry out. Check the wheel bearings and re-pack them using new seals and fresh grease. Test the brakes for proper operation and then make a general inspection. Where appropriate, lubricate the winch, winch strap or cable and boat rollers, followed by a check of lights and general security of mudguards, guide posts etc.
Inspect the towing hitch and safety chains and finish off with the tyres, checking tread wear and inflation. Double-check that you have renewed the registration – it may have fallen due over the off-season.
Now for the boat. Inspect the hull for any damage. Chips on fibreglass gelcoat will allow moisture into the hull, causing severe damage over time. Lubricate any moving parts. Pay attention to areas such as anchor hatches, locker hinges and latches, winches and antenna lowering brackets. Use a lanolin-based lubricant spray such as Lanox.
While you’re checking the hull, treat the boat to a new bung, as bung seals can perish over time.
Test any electric bilge pumps, including their float switches, and ensure the pump pickups are clear and clean of debris. Inspect the lights if you have any fitted and consider an upgrade to LED types – they last longer and are more reliable than standard filament bulbs.
Fuel can go stale – this is common when the tank is not sealed and evaporation occurs. All inboard tanks are required to have a breather, so the problem is very real. Discard old fuel or, if possible, add a fuel conditioner before you store the boat. It will help keep fuel in good condition. Apart from leaving you stranded, stale fuel can damage engines.
Ideally, have the engine checked over by a qualified service centre. This will ensure reliable operation and start you off on a safe footing. Some components require replacement on a regular basis and having a service will address these matters. These items include water pump impellers, spark plugs, fuel and oil filters, PCV valves, sacrificial anodes and other internal components.
On inboard engines, apart from a regular service, particular attention should be paid to the fuel system. Start at the tank and work along the fuel lines up to the fuel delivery system (carburettor or fuel injection). Look for loose or leaking fittings, and cracked or hardened fuel lines. Flame arrestors or backfire traps should be secure and in good condition.
Faulty fuel systems are a major cause of inboard engine fires and explosions. If you don’t have a specialised bilge fan to extract fumes from the engine compartment, pre-season is a great time to have one fitted.
Volunteer marine rescue groups say that around half their assists to recreational boats are the result of a flat battery.
Check the battery case for damage and leaks and that the battery is secured properly. Clean and check the terminals for a secure connection and inspect wiring for damage. If you have a lead acid battery, carefully top up the battery with demineralised water. Remember that the electrolyte in the battery is highly acidic.
Modern motors need to be turned over at a minimum rate to start. If your battery cannot achieve that engine rotation rate, it will never fire. If needed, fit a marine battery that has the Cold Cranking Amp rating (CCA) for your motor.
If there is no need to fit a new battery, have it checked by your local workshop. There are two methods and most boat workshops can do this for you: a battery load tester applies a calibrated load to the battery while monitoring voltage and determines if the battery is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The second method is an electronic conductance tester, whereby an alternating frequency signal is sent through the battery to determine the condition of its internal cell plates.
Steering systems also require a thorough check. Mechanical steering arms should be checked for full and free movement. Lubricate the internal rod at the engine with Lanox or a similar lubricant, but do not use grease – it will emulsify over time and make the steering stiff or even unworkable.
If you have a hydraulic steering system, turn the wheel hard over and if there is any further movement you may need to top up the fluid. The fluid reservoir is usually behind the steering wheel. Once topped up, work the wheel backward and forward with the reservoir tap slightly open to expel any air in the system. Have a rag handy as there can sometimes be a small amount of overflow during this procedure.
Propellers need to be inspected for security and any damage, such as nicks or bends.
BE SAFE, NOT SORRY
Safety equipment checks are a must on a regular basis, but the start of the boating season is the time to do thorough checks. By law, safety equipment must be serviceable and out-of-date items contravene regulations. Start with items that have expiry dates or require regular servicing.
Inflatable PFDs should be checked for inspection compliance. Generally, these require inspection every 12 months and, if necessary, CO2 gas cylinders and safety pins should be replaced. While some PFD manufacturers allow self-inspection, it is advisable to have inflatable PFDs inspected professionally. Your local chandlery can assist with this.
Inherent buoyancy jackets should be inspected for general wear and tear. Pay particular attention to the outer covering, fastening tapes, clips and buckles.
Distress flares expire after three years and it is easy to overlook this. Get your flares out and check the expiry date. Replace them if necessary. While you have them out, check their general condition and review the firing instructions.
If you are carrying an EPIRB on the boat, check the battery expiry and general condition, and confirm that is it registered with AMSA Search and Rescue Australia.
Anchors should be inspected for security of chain or line, including confirming attachment to the boat.
While fire extinguishers generally don’t have an expiry date, there are a number of important checks that should be done. The pressure dial must be in the green range and the safety pin seal intact. Replace the unit if either is defective. Give the unit a good shake. This helps free up any compacted powder, giving a full discharge if used.
Replace the batteries in your waterproof torch and, while you are doing that, buy a spare set to keep on the boat. Don’t forget to give your radio a test call before you leave the launch area for the first time.
Finally, go to your state’s maritime authority website or check the latest boating safety handbook and review laws, particularly those relating to ‘distances off’ and speed limits. Things do change. Refresh your memory on the ‘rules of the road’, the buoyage system and emergency procedures. If operating on inland waters, check lake water levels if applicable.
Take a look at the weather bureau website. New weather tools for boating are being added all the time, the latest being MetEye, an interactive map with seven-day forecast.
While a lot of things need to be covered, a day spent preparing for your first on-water trip this season could avoid serious issues and help ensure your boating is safe and enjoyable.