As you prepare to go about your rites of spring, think about two of the most basic tenets of safe and enjoyable sailing: keeping the water out and making sure the vessel functions properly. In the crush of fitting out at the start of the season or before an extended voyage, there are numerous details that go along with adhering to these two principles. But carefully looking over your pre-launch checklist and preparing things like through-hulls and steering, and giving the engine a thorough going-over, can go a long way toward hassle-free enjoyment afloat.
While it’s easier to check the following items with the boat still on the hard, you should be able to inspect and service critical systems even if you’re a full-time liveaboard and the boat’s in the water. Here then, is the fitting out to-do list I use on a periodic basis.
Through-hulls should actuate smoothly. The older cone-shaped valves can be easily disassembled and greased, while ball valves respond well to some grease applied from the outside while they are closed (be sure to work them until they turn smoothly). If the boat’s out of the water, be sure to close any nonessential through-hulls before launching. We usually launch with just the engine’s intake open.
Every hose connection below the waterline should have two hose clamps in good condition, and any hoses should be free of cracking and inspected for weak spots or chafe. Also, be sure that an emergency plug is either tethered to the hose or in a very obvious and quickly accessible location.
Bilge pumps ought to test normally in both automatic and manually switched-on mode. Our ketch, Lyra, also has a high-water alarm, simply a float switch wired into a siren. Consider adding an alarm if your vessel doesn’t have one — ours has gone off twice in the 10 years we’ve owned the boat, saving us our engine and, in one case, a possible sinking. Manual bilge pumps should be crack-free and checked to make sure they are working properly.
Steering gear will operate smoothly if inspected and maintained properly. In the event that the boat’s out of the water, hold the trailing edge of the rudder firmly and throw your weight back and forth on it. There should be little to no play or vibration in the rudder shaft, tube or shoe at the base of the skeg (if your boat has one). Look for any stress cracking around the rudderstock, both inside the boat and on the rudder.
Cable steering should have no wear on the chain or sprocket. Tension should be not quite tight enough to thrum if you tap the wire. Any burrs can be found by running a paper towel along the cable — look for any bits of paper that are left behind. If there is any metal dust below the chain sprocket or any sheaves, it indicates that abnormal wear is occurring, and there may be an alignment or bearing issue. Wiping a light coat of motor oil on the chain and cable will complete the inspection.
Auxiliary power is, in many cases, a modern cornerstone of safe and enjoyable sailing. While many of us prefer to think of ourselves as intrepid sailors battling the elements and braving the salty brine in the grand tradition of Joshua Slocum, the sad fact is that most of us tend to rely on the trusty iron genny rather more than not as we battle tide, weather or simply stay an extra couple of hours at anchor before moving on. It behooves us to ensure that the engine is in tip-top working order.
One of the most important tools at your disposal is a comprehensive maintenance log. Update it frequently and as thoroughly as possible. This will provide a detailed history of the work you’ve done but should also include contact information for parts sources and mechanics, and commonly used part numbers for quick troubleshooting and maintenance later.
Hopefully, your engine oil and fuel filters were changed in the fall. With the motor still cold, the motor oil, transmission oil and coolant should be at the manufacturer’s recommended levels, and any clear bowl, such as that found in the fuel filter, should be clean. Place fresh white oil-absorption pads under the engine to show any drips that occur both before and after running the engine. Each fluid in the engine has a distinct color, scent and feel — be familiar with each as it comes new from the container.
Engine oil will typically discolor within a few hours of run time, but should never smell like soot or fuel. If there is any cause for concern — or just for peace of mind — an inexpensive way to glean an amazing amount of information about the health of the engine is to send an oil sample to a lab. There are a number of kits and companies, such as Blackstone Labs, that will analyze the engine’s lubricants for about $30 per test. They will check for unwelcome things like water, antifreeze, carbon and fuel in the oil. The lab will want at least 20 hours on the fluid change for accurate analysis.
It is time to change the coolant if there is discoloration or you find sediment in the reservoir. Always use the recommended coolant type for your engine; mixing different coolants can cause major problems associated with precipitates or acid.
Before heading out for the season’s shakedown run, make sure the intake through-hull is open and the strainer is clean.
While it’s fine to change the impeller on the manufacturer’s recommended schedule, consider removing the water-pump cover and checking for any wear, cracking or missing paddles. Also look for any sign of salt trails or dripping seals, which can indicate a problem. I recently had a virtually new impeller burn up when it lost its prime due to a rushed cleaning of the gasket surfaces. There was a clear salt trail down the face of the water-pump cover. If the motor has a zinc, be sure it’s been replaced.
When I first start the engine after a prolonged period, I like to warm it gently while still at the dock. I’m careful to listen for any unusual noises — tapping valves, squeals, clunks when shifting, etc. Are there fluid drips or seeps on or under the motor? Are the batteries charging?
Also check for normal water flow out the exhaust, and watch for smoke or a sheen on the water.
This is also a good time to check your stuffing box to make sure that it’s functioning properly. There should be about a drip per second on the older-style packing boxes and none at all on the dripless variety. The dripless glands should never be hot to the touch (Take the motor out of gear to check this!), and the accordion-style cover should have no cracking. Hose clamps mating either type of stuffing box to the shaft log should be robust and in perfect condition, and the shaft should spin with little or no vibration.
I prefer to run up the engine in steps to full throttle once underway, checking everything each time I increase rotations per minute. Diesel motors need to be run hard from time to time to clean out soot deposits. Doing so will help keep your injectors and turbo in top condition. Also, a few minutes of hard running early on will ensure peace of mind when you need to open it up to make port on an outgoing tide on a windy day. If all is well, cool the power plant down and check all the fluids again before its next use.
A few other items that are often overlooked merit some attention before loading the family aboard and merrily pointing the bow toward the next adventure.
Freshwater systems in cold climates will have antifreeze in the lines and often in the tanks. The quickest way to clean them out and prepare them for use is to add just a few gallons of fresh water at a time while running all of the water-using appliances. Run the tank dry and repeat until water runs clear, and smells and tastes clean.
While the hose is out, spray down traditionally leaky areas to locate any new drips. The mast boot, portlights and anything that is through-bolted (particularly over bunk areas!) are all good bets.
Check anchor chain and line for overall health. Are all the shackles moused or zip-tied? Is the rode’s bitter end attached to the boat with a piece of line that will hold the boat but can be cut?
Treat canvas. Sunbrella recommends (we do too) 303 Fabric Guard. This is best done with the canvas laid out on the dock or grass, but can be done in place. Annual treatments will waterproof and protect the fabric, often extending its life by years.
Green Brett spends his sailing season as a charter captain aboard the family’s Reliance 44 ketch Lyra in Newport, Rhode Island