Double-Check Boating Equipment

By Lee McClellan, Kentucky Afield Magazine

Avoid a "first trip of the year" nightmare.

In the first truly warm weeks of the year, it is easy for people to overlook some things in their haste to get their boat on the water. Over the years, I've learned from personal experience about checking your boat and trailer before launching it for the first time of the year.

A few years ago, for example, my wife, a friend and I went to Herrington Lake to bass fish. I idled our boat just across the lake from Bryant's Camp boat ramp when I felt an unsettling coldness on my feet and ankles.

Six inches of Herrington Lake flooded the floor of the boat. We were sinking. I quickly fired up the motor and beached my boat on the ramp. We put the boat back on the trailer and let the water run out of the hole where the plug used to be.

Water poured out of the hole like a garden hose. Other anglers at the ramp could hardly launch their boats from laughing. Some walked by our boat with tears in their eyes, shaking their heads and chuckling.

After all the water was gone, I put in a spare plug I had on board, screwed it down, and pulled as hard as I could. It didn't budge. We launched again and went on to catch several respectable largemouth bass that day.

The problem stemmed from a swollen gasket around the old plug. After a late winter trout fishing trip to the Dix River, I had removed the plug and tossed it into the recessed compartment in the stern of the boat. There it had swollen from contact with some spilled gas and oil.

The plug had not fully seated because of the swollen gasket. I thought the plug didn't feel quite right when I put it in, but I was too excited to get the boat in the water on the warmest day of that year. Water pressure and movement quickly dislodged it after we launched.

This taught me the importance of always carrying a spare plug on my boat. Before you take out your boat this year, first inspect the plug each spring to see if the rubber gasket is dry rotted, cracked or swollen. Periodically check the plug's snugness before launching.

A few years ago, I was on a friend's boat while fishing for smallmouth bass on Lake Cumberland. We hadn't fished long when I heard gurgling. I looked over and saw water gushing through the vent in the middle of the floor. It looked like Uncle Jed's black gold discovery on the opening credits of the Beverly Hillbillies television show. My buddy quickly fired the motor and we made our way back to the ramp.

The culprit was a broken housing on the livewell's intake pump, which allowed water to seep into the hull. If a boat has a livewell, inspect the outside housing of the intake pump for cracks or other damage. Inspect the seal around this housing for dry rot.

A similar incident happened one summer night on Laurel River Lake. The boat felt funny and I heard squishing when I walked. We were taking on water from a crushed pump intake housing. After a trip to the ramp, we jury-rigged a patch with plastic sandwich bags and went back to fishing. I never really relaxed that night, however, until we pulled the boat out of the water.

On another occasion, a friend and I were driving home from a smallmouth bass fishing trip at Lake Cumberland. An explosion erupted behind us and we swayed all over the highway. After some scary moments, we managed to stop on the shoulder of the road. The tire on the boat trailer had blown out.

Many trailers have a carpeted piece of marine-grade plywood on the inside of the wheel well, to protect the boat from rocks and other highway debris. This piece of wood had shaken loose and lodged in the wheel well, causing the blowout. It was no fun putting a boat and trailer on a small hydraulic jack at 10:30 p.m. along the side of a busy parkway, trying to dislodge this hunk of rotted wood to put on the spare.

Inspect this piece of wood to make sure the screws or bolts are still secure and the wood isn't rotten. This wood gets soaked every time you launch and retrieve and it is easy to overlook its maintenance.

Don't make the mistakes I've made through the years. Take the extra time to check the boat plug, the livewell intakes and the condition of the trailer components. This will make the first boating trip of the year an enjoyable one, not a nightmare.

Lee McClellan is an award-winning writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.