By John Page Williams
Photos by Lynda Richardson
Hooray for spring! It’s time to get out on the water. But first, make sure your boat is ready to run smoothly, reliably, and safely. (And even if you have been fishing all winter, it’s a good time to check over your rig for an even busier season to come.)
Here’s a list of things to look at. Some are obvious, some not so much, but all are important. A couple of hours spent looking the rig over could save you a lot of headache on the water.
If you had your engine(s) winterized at the end of the last season (a practice that’s highly recommended), much of what follows has been done, but it still pays to check the systems over.
- If the engine is a four-stroke, change the crankcase oil and filter. If that job got done in the fall, check the level on the dipstick anyway.
- Visually inspect the engine’s powerhead for corrosion spots, chafed or damaged wires and hoses, and anything that looks like it’s out of place. If you spot a problem, get it serviced.
- If there’s a belt in the system, check it for tension and wear. If there’s a problem, get it serviced.
- If they haven’t already been checked, pull the spark plugs, clean them with a wire brush, and (if applicable), check the gap on each.
- Spray the powerhead lightly with a moisture-displacing lubricant before you replace the powerhead’s cover.
- Lubricate your engine’s zerk fittings with waterproof grease from a gun (an inexpensive and valuable tool). Your engine’s owner’s manual will tell you where they are, if you don’t already know. Those fittings protect important exterior moving parts like the shaft that allows the motor to turn for steering, whether with a cable or a tiller.
- Check lower-unit lubricant level according to your manufacturer’s recommendation, and change it now if it hasn’t been done for a year. Creamy-looking oil means that a seal is leaking, and it needs immediate repair.
- While you’re at it, inspect your propeller(s) for dings and bends in the blades. Remove it, grease the splines on the shaft, and replace it, being careful to keep the thrust washer and the hub nut in the proper order.
- It the propeller is banged up, it’ll cost you fuel and speed. If it’s badly off balance, it can cause damaging stress on the prop shaft bearing. Propeller repair shops can work inexpensive miracles. Send it out for repair and run with your spare (you have one, don’t you?) at the beginning of the season if you have to.
- Run your hand along your fuel hose. It should be stamped USCG Approved, J1527. If not, replace it. Gasoline with ethanol is especially hard on fuel hoses. Is the hose supple, with no cracks, bulges, or soft spots? How about the primer bulb? And is the bulb fastened tightly at both ends?
- Replace the fuel filters. If you haven’t added a 10-micron, spin-on canister filter to the fuel line, do so, even for a small motor. It’s important for keeping water out of the engine, especially with ethanol-laced gasoline.
- Check the fuel tank. If you haven’t already topped off your tank, do so, adding appropriate additives. They should include a fuel stabilizer, especially if you’ve been running ethanol-laced gas, and a cleaner that prevents carbon build-up and crud accumulating in fuel injectors or carburetor jets. If your engine is an old-style two-stroke, make sure you add good-quality outboard oil to its fuel.
- Check over your hull visually. Is it structurally sound? Did anything like a falling tree limb cause damage over the winter? Are there scratches or gouges on the sides and bottom that need attention? Can you fix them, or do they need professional attention?
- If necessary, give the whole boat a clean-out and wash-up.
- Does your steering system move smoothly? Is there any play in the wheel? If so, get it fixed. Predictable, reliable steering is obviously a big part of safe boat operation.
- Inspect the outer jacket of the throttle, shift, and steering cables for cracks and chafe spots. If they’re damaged, replace them (they are nearly as important as steering). Extend the cables and smear a light coat of waterproof grease on the exposed ends.
- Reinstall the battery or batteries. If necessary, add distilled water to lead acid batteries. Clean and tighten electrical connections, especially terminals of battery cables. Charge it/them fully with the proper kind of charger. Coat battery terminals with an insulating film of grease, or apply a protective battery terminal spray.
- Check your running lights. Clean and tighten their connections. Replace the bulbs as necessary.
- Check your VHF radio and GPS antenna connections. Disconnect and spray them with moisture-displacing lubricant. Reconnect and turn both on to test them.
- Are your VHF and GPS interconnected properly for sending distress signals to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system? If not, BoatUS offers a great deal of information on this life-saving set-up at www.BoatUS.com/MMSI. If you’ve installed the system, verify that your MMSI is correctly entered into your radio, and check that the information for you and your boat is correct on the BoatUS MMSI site.
- Check the wiring to your fishfinder’s display and make sure the cable to the transducer is fastened tightly. Make sure that all of your electronics are mounted securely.
- Check your fishfinder’s transducer(s) for damage. Are the mounts secure? If transom-mounted, are they set at the proper angle for clear readings at speed (generally with the trailing edge 3-5 degrees lower than the nose).
- Test your bilge pump. If you keep your boat in the water, is it wired to turn on automatically to bail out rainwater? If you keep it on a trailer or a lift, can you turn off the system to prevent a current leak from draining your battery?
- If the boat lives on a trailer of lift, do you remember to pull the drain plug(s) when it’s out of the water (and put it back in before you launch!).
- Check your flares to make sure they are current and your fire extinguisher(s) for charge. Even if the extinguisher’s gauge shows it to be OK, take it out of its mount, invert it, tap hard on the bottom, and shake it before fastening it back. If there’s a problem, replace or recharge as necessary.
- Check your life jackets and throwable cushion(s) for rips and chafes. Make sure they are healthy enough to pass an on-the-water safety inspection (and keep your crew afloat if necessary!).
- Check your horn, whistle, or other required sound-producing device.
- How’s your first-aid kit? Go through it and throw away any materials that are damaged. Re-stock as necessary.
- Ditto for your tool box.
- If the boat is on a trailer or a lift, connect it to a fresh water hose, start it up, and run it at idle for ten minutes. If it has been winterized, it will want to burn out the fogging oil that protected its internal surfaces while in storage, which will create temporary blue smoke. If the smoke doesn’t disappear by the end this test run, you’ve got a problem that needs professional attention. Better to learn that now than on the water.
- Plan on a conservative shake-down for your season opener. Start the engine(s) at the dock and let it idle for a couple of minutes. Make sure the cooling telltale coming out of the back of the engine is a healthy stream.
- Check your gauges to make sure they are recording engine data properly, especially the water pressure gauge. Move slowly away to allow the engine to warm up for at least 15 minutes. Then accelerate gradually and observe how the boat rises onto plane. Take a short boat ride, varying your speeds, but stay within easy towing distance of shore till you are sure everything is up to snuff.
- Have a long, safe, and happy boating season on Virginia’s waters!
John Page Williams is a noted writer, angler, educator, naturalist, and conservationist. In more than 40 years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia native John Page championed the Bay’s causes and educated countless people about its history and biology.