Spring Engine Startup

Shake off the cobwebs of winter with this system-by-system commissioning plan.

Photo of Volvo engine compartment
A clean engine bay is a great way start making the boat ready for summer.
Plus, it's much easier to find dropped screws and tools.

Getting your boat ready for another season's use is one of the joys of springtime. Lots of great emotions are awakened; the possibilities for new boating adventures seem endless. Making sure your boat is ready for all the fun is a great responsibility. Even if you're Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to winterizing, there's still a lot to be done to ensure trouble-free outings.

If your winterizing regimen leaves something to be desired, now is the time to correct all of last fall's mistakes. It may be easier to tackle the project if you divvy it up by systems — steering, fuel, engine, drive, cooling, for starters. It'll go faster this way, and there will be less chance to forget something important. There's also cleaning and polishing to finish off after the systems checkups are complete.

Photo of water pump
If you didn't replace the water pump in the fall, it might be time to check it.
This one shows all the impeller vanes permanently bent over; time for a new one.

Visual Once-Over

Tip icon Prop Choice: Teenagers wakeboarding like a different ride than the parents sightseeing, so why not have propeller choices that match the need? It's like having two different boats. Think of it as switching from "normal" to "sport" mode in your car!

For those who have covered up the boat over the winter months, the first step is to check carefully for bees' nests and other potential dangers (skunks, snakes, cats) before pulling the cover off. The warmer the temperature, the more potential for bees and other critters inside. Pulling the cover off will reveal what needs to be done from the outside in. Before the cleanup commences, it's best to go through the rig and engine looking for problems. Even though your visual inspection may not have revealed critters, take a second look for small bees' nests — often-times bees or wasps will make small, almost undetectable nests in near-impossible locations. These little nests are most often ones that will cause problems for you out on the water — for example, in the overboard telltale water indicator on an outboard, in the water intakes, and in the fuel tank vent outlet. If you find any of these "mud dauber" nests, clear them out completely before going boating.

Photo of dirty air silencer
Remove the air silencer and clean it to remove belt dust, water and dirt.

Steering and Controls

Steering and shift/throttle controls are critical and failure to maintain them could cause an accident. They should be your first priority. For cable systems, ensure they work smoothly, operate properly, and are lubricated with marine-grade grease.

Photo of checking power steering fluid
Power steering and power trim fluid must be checked and topped off if necessary.

Hydraulic steering systems should be properly bled to purge air bubbles and checked to ensure they work properly (see "Caring For Your Hydraulic Steering"). Shift and throttle should be checked with the engine running on a flusher, or in the water tied to the dock. Shift the engine into forward and reverse from neutral and back again. Make sure the propeller stops rotating when the engine is shifted to neutral. Remove the propeller for this check if checking on a flusher; you will still be able to see the propeller shaft rotating as you shift gear.

Photo of fishline snarled propeller
Propellers must be removed and prop-shafts checked for fishline snarls.

Fuel System

The engine can't run if it can't get fuel. Fuel system checking and maintenance have never been more important, thanks to the havoc that alcohol-extended fuels can wreak on fuel lines, filters and components. For our article on full fuel system checkup, see "Fuel System Checkup".

Batteries And Electrical

So you don't get any nasty surprises on the water the batteries should be charged and checked to ensure that they will hold a charge. The terminals and cable ends should be cleaned and checked for tightness. A visual once-over to ensure that they're secured and can't tip over is good practice. Lights, bilge pump, horn, gauges, and all other accessories should be checked for proper operation and repaired if necessary.

Photo of boat battery check
Certainly the battery will need a full charging, as well as electrolyte topped off.

Fire Up the Engine

Sterndrives must have the block water plugs replaced in their proper locations before running the engine. Belts and hoses should be checked for tightness and cracks. If it wasn't changed in the fall, the engine oil and filter should be changed now (and don't forget next fall!).

Photo of bilge hoses check

Check all hoses in the bilge for damage. The blower hoses shown here are critical; as fuel-rich air might not make it out of the engine bay, causing an explosion.

Photo of checking belt tension

Check belts for wear, fraying, cracking and proper tightness.

The engine should be connected to a water source (with a flush muff or similar device) and started; it should be allowed to reach operating temperature while running at idle, and while checking for proper cooling (the telltale water stream from the engine) and water leaks. All fittings (tilt tube, swivel bracket, hood latches, etc.) should be greased. The gear case should be checked for damage along with the propeller and propeller shaft.

Photo of pouring old fuel out

Fuel filters should be changed before the start of the season. Here, old fuel is being poured out so it can be checked for water contamination.

Photo of engine running on flushing system

Engines should be run on land, using a flush attachment, before bringing the boat to the ramp. This way, it can be determined that the engine at least starts, runs, shifts and cools properly before the maiden voyage.

If it wasn't done in the fall, the gear case lube should be drained, checked for contamination (milky = water ingestion and seal failure, dark and stinky = potential gear and bearing damage), and refilled with fresh lubricant. Any corrosion should be sanded down, prepped, and repainted. The entire outboard cowling should be given a coat of wax to protect it from the water and sun.

Photo of gear lube check

Gearcase lubricant must be checked and changed.

Photo of milky lube

If it's milky, like in this photo, the gearcase seals are leaking and should be replaced.

Inspect the Hull

Tip icon Compromised fluids need to be replaced and maybe even flushed, prior to the next use. Brake fluid is less effective when mixed with water, and can damage internal parts.

Check the boat topsides carefully for cracks, loose rub rail and cleats, and a damaged windshield or frame. Next, climb under the trailer and inspect every inch of the hull. You might be surprised at what you find. Nicks, chips, and dings (especially those through the gelcoat and into the fiberglass) should be repaired before the season starts. On aluminum hulls, check for cracks, missing or loose rivets, and broken welds. While you're under there, check the trailer for rust, broken welds, rotted bunks, and deteriorating bunk carpet. Check the trailer lights and wiring; check the tires for weather checking Can we include a photo of this? and tread wear (see "How To Know Your Trailer Tires Are Shot"). Check the bearings and grease, and change if necessary. The winch, tongue jack, and coupler/safety chains must be inspected as well. Finally, don't forget to renew your boat and trailer registration! A ticket for expired tags is not a fun way to interrupt your first outing.End of story marker

John Tiger has owned more than 60 boats and outboards and builds racing engines, and rigs performance boats in his shop in upstate New York.

Published: Spring 2014


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