Boat Prep for Passagemaking

As Cruising World's resident delivery captain gets ready to sail a 70-footer south to the Caribbean, he's making lists. "Hands-On Sailor" from our February 2008 issue

March 5, 2008

Boat Prep for Passagemaking

These steering cables (above) are a little loose. If I tighten them too much to reduce play in the wheel, it¿ll cause wear on the rudder bearings. This boat has twin wheels, so there are two sets of steering cables. Andrew Burton

Maybe it’s starting to get cold. Or hurricane season’s approaching. Whatever the reason that you’re heading offshore, it’s time to be sure that the boat’s ready to go. It makes no difference whether the boat is your own, a friend’s, or-like so many I deliver-one you’ve never seen before; it’s necessary to inspect all the essential gear and ensure that it’s in shape to get you where you’re going. In fact, it’s probably better to treat your own boat as if you’ve never seen it before. Otherwise, you’ll be tempted to live with jury-rigged systems. Fix them now and you won’t have a nasty failure at 3 in the morning in 10-foot seas.

In 30-some years as a delivery skipper, I’ve learned to prioritize. Some systems are essential to make the passage safely and successfully. Others are merely aboard for the sake of comfort. In the first category, I place the rig and sails, the steering system, and the integrity of the hull and deck. All the rest is luxury: It’s a sailboat, so it can get anywhere you want to go without an engine. It just takes a little longer, sometimes.

When I start inspecting a boat, how much emphasis I place on getting everything aboard working perfectly depends on how long I expect to be at sea and in what sort of conditions. Is this a trade-winds run of a few days or a long ocean crossing during which I must deal with a variety of weather? Either way, the first things I look at are the halyards-if they’re too rotten to hold the sails up, there’s not much point in performing a thorough inspection of the rig.


Attach messengers to the ends and inspect the whole length, looking for frays or just general age rot. If you have any doubts at all about them, go aloft attached to two halyards. Go to the masthead first and check that the lights work and that any electronics connections are tight and don’t look corroded. On the way down, remove any tape and inspect all cotter pins and nuts and bolts; potential chafe points should be wrapped with tape or covered with a blob of silicone. Search swages, shrouds, terminals, and chainplates for cracks. The last thing I do is give each upper shroud a good shake to see if it and the spreaders will hold up to a sail flogging against the rig at sea.
At the partners, ensure that the mast is securely blocked, and inspect the mast boot for watertight integrity. Make sure any blocks are in good shape and firmly attached. Below, check for excessive corrosion at the butt of the mast, and examine the wires that come out of the bottom for signs of chafe.

Next come the sails. Depending on the piece of ocean you’re crossing, make sure you have a storm jib or staysail aboard-and a trysail’s nice if it’s going to be a long passage. Inspect them all to make sure they haven’t rotted from being stored in the bilge. Run the storm sails up so you can figure out sheet leads before it starts to blow. On one boat I delivered, the track was so misaligned that when I needed the trysail, I couldn’t hoist it.

The main and jib should be unfurled, dropped to the deck, and inspected for wear, especially at the corners, the batten pockets, and the spots where they may interact with the rig while sailing. Replace any worn slides, and check the reef points for chafe. On a delivery, I always take along a sail-repair kit that includes a few square feet of Dacron sticky-back to repair any holes or chafe spots that develop while under way.


While still on deck, inspect the stanchions, lifelines, and lashings. I instruct my crew to move about the deck as if the lifelines weren’t there and to never rely on them in case they break; still, it’s comforting to know they’re in good shape if they’re needed.

Sheet leads should all work well; sheaves should turn, and cars should move along tracks. Are there extra blocks? Snatchblocks are useful for moving a lead outboard when you’re reaching so the sheet doesn’t chafe on the lifelines.

Look at the mainsheet and make sure that all the shackles on the blocks are tight and, if possible, seized with wire or a plastic wire tie; any sharp ends should be taped or filed smooth. Winches should all turn freely; if they don’t, remove the drum and give it a few quick shots of WD-40 to get it turning until you have a calm day on which to take it apart for a proper cleaning and lube.


Many boats use hydraulics to control vang and backstay tension. After making sure the reservoir is topped up and the hose connections are dry, test these controls; pump them up and release the pressure a few times, then check the connections again for leaks.

At the wheel, check for play; if it’s excessive, tighten the steering cables. See how many turns it takes to go lock to lock, then find and mark the center of the wheel. Make sure that you actually get thrust from the propeller in forward and reverse gears. You’ll feel really silly if, when it’s time to leave, you cast off the dock lines, wave good-bye to friends and family, put the engine in gear, and nothing happens. Check that cooling water is coming out of the exhaust, and take the boat out and briefly run the engine up to full throttle in gear; your top cruising speed should be about 75 percent to 80 percent of maximum rpm.

Determine that the running lights work, and remember to have several spares aboard to replace the inevitable burned-out bulbs. Much as we deplore stowing gear on deck, rarely is there room for dinghies and diesel jugs below, nor would we want the smells associated with the latter-allowing the crew inside is bad enough. So make sure any lashings are tight and strong enough.


Before going below, have a look around the deck and note the general condition of the boat. Is everything in its place? Are all the lines led so they won’t chafe? Remember, “A tidy boat is a happy boat.”

The same can be said of the interior. The old saw about a place for everything and everything in its place is never proved so true as when the boat heels in the breeze for the first time. Loud crashes from below are a signal that perhaps your stowage plan isn’t working out.

Before you check the mechanical equipment, get the tools out and inspect them. Do you have a full set of wrenches, both standard and metric? Do your adjustable tools adjust, or are they too rusty? Are there screwdrivers of various sizes and types, a hacksaw with new blades, a hammer, spray lubricants?
Diesel engines are simple. Almost all they need to be happy is four things: clean fuel, clean air, clean lubricating oil, and cooling water. That’s what I check when I look at a boat for the first time. Start by thoroughly cleaning out the fuel pre-filter-it’s the one that’s not on the engine-and replacing the cartridge. Make sure you have plenty of spares. Before one trip, a helpful owner added a biocide to the fuel just as we were topping up before heading offshore. This loosened the algae in the tanks, and as we bounced along offshore, the tank was shaken up; we ended up going through two seasons’ worth of fuel filters in a week. Being offshore is going to jostle the fuel tanks anyway, so plan on detritus getting sucked into the fuel lines.

Take a look at the engine’s overall condition. If it’s really dirty, clean it with Fantastic or Simple Green, which will make it easier to find any oil, water, and fuel leaks. To that end, also clean under the engine, and line the engine bed with fresh oil-absorbing pads. Check and tighten engine belts as necessary. Start the engine and watch for anything unusual, such as excessive vibration or loose fastenings. With the engine in gear while the boat is under way, check the stuffing box for leaks or excess warmth. (See “Service Your Stuffing Box” by Steve D’Antonio, January 2008). Hold the side of a screwdriver on the shaft as it turns; if there’s vibration, you could have an alignment problem or a bent shaft. (See “Play It Straight” by Steve D’Antonio, page 102.) Your spares inventory will depend on your budget and the length of time you expect to be away. At the very least, you should carry a couple of spare impellers, a full set of belts, and some pieces of hose.

Ocean-racing boats are required to have a softwood plug attached to each through-hull; this should be mandatory on cruising boats as well. Check that the shutoffs are accessible and turn easily. Make sure all the bilge pumps work and that the manual ones have handles attached with a lanyard. Try to get any mung out of the bilge that could plug up the pumps.

Run through all electrical equipment. Check that each switch on the electrical panel does what it’s supposed to do. Open up the panel and look behind it for any signs of problems, such as burn marks caused by shorts or corrosion around connections.

Power up the nav gear to make sure it’s telling the truth. Check the GPS position, and make sure the radar heading marker points in the same direction as the boat. Locate manuals for all the boat’s equipment and familiarize yourself with what’s in them.

High on your list should be making sure that all the safety gear is in place, including jacklines made of strong nylon webbing running the length of the boat on both sides and from the companionway to the wheel. Finally, if you want to make the passage in a reasonable amount of time, make sure the bottom of the boat is clean; there’s a reason racers always do this.

If this is your first time heading offshore on your own boat, bear in mind that lists can be intimidating and endless. Prioritize your projects, take care of the must-dos, pick a good weather window, then go. If you wait until every item is checked off, you’ll spend the rest of your life at the dock.

Andrew Burton sailed nearly 300,000 miles as a delivery captain before becoming a family man and an associate editor at Cruising World.


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