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Midsummer Maintenance

By badriance - Published July 22, 2009 - Viewed 10080 times

A few years ago, P.K. Connor, a BoatU.S. member who lives in Bellingham, Washington, sent Seaworthy a letter about an incident that happened while he and his wife were sailing in Alaska. A V-Belt broke as they were crossing the bar at the entrance to a remote fjord in the Kenai Peninsula. There was no wind, almost no room to maneuver, and no one within VHF range. After rummaging through drawers and lockers looking for a spare belt, he made one using string and a lot of electrical tape. The new “belt” wasn’t pretty, but it got them home. His wife was amazed.


It’s a good lesson in the value of resourcefulness (and carrying spares), but these sorts of breakdowns and a lot of headaches can often be avoided with a little preventative maintenance. The latter starts by going over the boat’s systems in the spring but after a few weekends of hard use, it’s time for another look. A mid-season preventive maintenance checklist will go a long way to avoiding unpleasant surprises. Some of these regular items are crucial “sink-the-boat” checkups, while others will contribute to the boat continuing to do everything you need in order for you and your passengers to be safe and comfortable. Some of them have to do with getting the maximum life out of your boat and its equipment, and some will keep the gear functioning.


Through Hulls: Keeping the water out is rule one. Periodically take a thorough look around any hole in the hull that’s below the waterline. There is no such thing as an acceptable leak. With hoses and seacocks, you’re looking for evidence of a slow leak, so check for stains on the hull, perhaps mineral buildup on fittings, a rusted hose clamp or a hose with a pinhole leak. Pay attention to places where a hose might chafe against a bulkhead or another hose. While you’re at the seacock, open and close the valve a time or two; if the handle feels stiff, make a note to service the seacock the next time the boat is hauled. It’s also important to know where every seacock is, especially if you suddenly find yourself with a foot of water in the cabin. Also, look carefully at the stuffing box which should only drip (slightly) when the shaft is turning.


Despite your best efforts, there may be a leak you’ve failed to discover, thanks to the bilge pump dutifully pumping the evidence overboard. Consider installing a bilge pump cycle counter, a simple upgrade that will tell you just how hard the bilge pump was working while you were away. If the counter shows more cycles this week than last, it’s time to start looking for the source of the water.


Inboard Engines: While you’re in the engine area, look in areas near the belts for signs of black dust. If the drive pulleys are out of alignment the belt rubs against the sides of the pulley, accelerating wear. Proper belt tension will prevent slippage when the alternator loads up while avoiding stress on the engine bearings. Push on the longest run of the belt with your thumb. It shouldn’t deflect more than half an inch. Checks or cracks in the belt are a signal that it’s time for a new belt; black dust means the pulleys are not aligned, a condition corrected by adjusting the alternator. (You do have a spare belt, right?)


Give a squeeze to the coolant and the fuel hoses and look for cracks or bulges, either of which indicates the hose needs to be replaced. Wiggle the ends to verify their firm attachment. Rusty hose clamps can be replaced in less than 10 minutes. Ascertain that the hoses are supported by clips or straps and look for chafing. Finally, make it a habit to always check filters -- intake and fuel -- before starting the engine.


Some filters, such as the fuel filter, may allow visual inspection. If there is anything in the sediment bowl, drain it or remove it and wipe it clean.


Control Cables: Throttle, transmission and steering cables should be inspected for indications of chafe, splits in the covering, or kinks at the attachment points. Corrosion inside the cable will often be indicated by a swelling of the plastic jacket that covers the actuating cable. Stiff operation is another indication of impending failure. Replace any control cables that are questionable.


Hydraulic steering and trim tab systems should be checked for fluid level and leaks. If you have to add fluid, there is a leak somewhere that must be fixed immediately.


Outboards and Sterndrives: Sterndrive bellows lead a hard life; stretching, engine vibration, salt water and especially sunlight all take their toll. In tropical climates, a bellows can fail in as little as three years. Inspect each fold for cracks or tiny pinhole leaks. A failure can sink the boat, so anything other than new-looking is cause for replacement.


Inspect the sacrificial anodes (often called “zincs”, even though they may be made of zinc, magnesium or aluminum.) The aluminum alloys of the drive unit are very susceptible to corrosion and sacrificial anodes are your only defense. Tap on the anodes and assure yourself they are still firmly attached. If they are more than half gone, replace them.


Engines often have a thin, pencil-shaped anode in the coolant jacket. These can wear out quickly and should not be overlooked. Outboards also have sacrificial anodes, sometimes in unlikely places. Your owner’s manual will tell you where they are. If you have a small outboard that screws to the transom, check the security of the transom mount every time before you go out. The engine should have a loop of cable to keep it attached to the boat if the mounts loosen or fail, and if there is a kill switch cord to attach to your wrist it should function perfectly.


Check the propeller blades for dings, chips or other damage, and give a quick look at the base of the prop for entangled fishing line that can quickly ruin the drive unit.


Electrical Systems: A “dead” battery is often nothing more than corroded connections; use sandpaper to clean the connections and coat everything with petroleum jelly. If you do this at the beginning of the season a periodic visual check will be sufficient.


If you have conventional flooded-cell batteries, check the fluid level and add distilled water as needed. While you’re at the battery, count the cables and wires directly connecting to the battery. There should be no more than four. While this isn’t, strictly speaking, a maintenance item, it deserves attention as a matter of good boat-keeping. It is also good practice to have a non-conductive cover over the battery terminals, with the positive terminal being especially important.


Chafed electrical cables can cause serious problems, ranging from dead batteries to electrical fires. A thorough inspection in mid-season can prevent a bad day (or maybe a horrible day) on the water. Keep wires well away from engine hot spots and inspect them carefully for chafe, especially wherever they pass through a bulkhead.


Unlike the bolted connection on a home, a boat’s shore power cable relies on a sliding connection that, over time, can wear out and create excessive heat whenever a high-amperage appliance is used. Damage to the connection from arching increases the resistance and this in turn causes more arcing. Shorepower cable problems are a significant cause of boat fires, and since the damage is occurring “ahead” of the boat’s circuit breakers or fuses, the only protection is from the breakers in the marinas circuit, which may not be sufficient to prevent a fire in the smaller wires on your boat. Look for burn marks on the plug that indicate the cord and the inlet on the boat need to be replaced.


Arcing problems can be reduced by shutting down the boat’s AC system before plugging or unplugging the shorepower cable. Always lock the cord at the inlet to prevent movement, however slight, between the inlet and cord. Finally, shut off high-amperage appliances whenever you’re away from the boat.


Plumbing: If your boat has a flushing head, a brief monthly routine will greatly reduce problems with calcium buildup (evidenced by the pump handle getting harder to operate). Pour a cup of vinegar into the bowl and pump once or twice to get it into the lines and valves. Leave it overnight and then flush with one-fourth cup of mineral oil added to the bowl through the system to lubricate the seals and valves. Never use drain-clearing chemicals designed for household use.


If the boat has a shower, the sump drain and pump, as well as the filter, will need a look mid-season. The only way to prevent clogging is by regular preventative maintenance.


The drain for the icebox or the refrigerator is also prone to clogging and the easiest time to deal with it is at the start of the weekend when the box is empty.


On-Deck: Heading topside, at least once during the summer you need to thoroughly inspect your dock lines. The latter are fully exposed to the sun, dirt and maybe salt crystals, which means older lines may have less than half their rated breaking strength. Trying to eke out one more season from an aging line can be false economy, especially in the fall when heavy weather returns. If you didn’t replace the dock lines in the spring, give them a critical inspection midsummer and make sure chafe guards are well secured. 


The same is true of anchor lines. Aside from checking the line itself, check that shackles are firmly attached and retain enough thickness to be strong. If in doubt, replace them. The stainless steel wire seizing that secures the shackle may also need to be replaced. Carefully inspect the chain-rode splice and the individual links. If you have any doubts, replace it.


Sailboat owners should watch for any broken strands in their standing rigging and this can be done with a five-minute walk-around. The lower swaged fittings are more prone to corrosion than the uppers. One broken strand is cause for replacement at the first opportunity. Cracked or swollen swages are precursors of failure. Run a loose rag up the stays as high as you can reach to detect broken strands. Trailer sailors can check the standing rigging when they step the mast.


The running rigging can be prone to chafing, with the furling line on roller-furled headsails a frequent offender. The chafing typically occurs when the headsail is partially furled. When the line breaks, the sail fully sets and there is no way to roll it back up. Inspection is relatively simple when the sail is furled.




Boat trailers have their own set of maintenance requirements. Bearings seem to be the subject on most people’s minds, but keeping them well packed with grease and avoiding dunking hot bearings into cold water will do much to avoid problems. Installing Bearing Buddies can also reduce the chances of bearing failure.


Rust, the ultimate nemesis of any trailer, can hide under paint, fittings and pads. Suspension components are especially prone to rusting as are welds. Any rust should be cleaned down to the bare metal and then protected with a rust-inhibiting paint. Rust can be kept to a minimum by rinsing the trailer with fresh water every time it’s used, especially if it was dunked in salt or brackish water. Pay special attention to the suspension and brakes; mud or sand at the launching ramp can get in tiny crevices.


If your trailer has hydraulic brakes, a quick visual check on the fluid level should be part of your pre-trip walk-around. Trailer wiring and the connecting plug between the trailer and tow vehicle are frequent sources of problems. Replacing the trailer lights with sealed LED units will virtually eliminate future problems with the bulbs, but you will still want to check for light function before every trip.


You’ll also want to give a quick check to the tires and the spare for proper pressure. Trailer tires typically require much higher pressure than automobile tires. The lug nuts on a trailer tire can corrode so badly that changing a tire is almost impossible. If you haven’t yet wire-brushed the threads clean and applied anti-sieze compound to the lug nuts, do this soon. (You have a lug wrench that fits the trailer wheels, right?)


The tongue jack requires lubrication once or twice a season, followed by operating the jack through its full range of motion to distribute the grease.


Once a season have a look at the bunk pads and rollers. The rollers can develop flat spots and worn pads can cause hull damage. When you’re attaching the tie-down straps, watch for abraded areas.


Be sure when out on the water this season, that your boat is covered by quality insurance protection. The low-cost policies available from BoatUS Marine Insurance provide the unique coverages boaters need, immediate dispatch of assistance for boating emergencies, and 24/7 claims service from boating experts. Click Here for your Fast, Free Rate Quote!

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