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Published: April 2013

Low Water Warning

In one symptom of a broader problem, the stretch of the Mississippi between St. Louis, Missouri and Cairo, Illinois was almost closed to navigation in January. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Corps and private dredges have been working around the clock, seven days a week since last May to remove sediment deposited by the 2011 flood and fight extreme low-water conditions caused by a multi-year drought across much of the country.

Photo of powerboat on a lake Photo: Cliff Steele

Last summer, that drought reduced the level of many inland lakes in the West, Midwest, and South to multi-decade lows. Most of the Great Lakes were and still are one to two feet below chart datum. That change can easily make the difference between gliding over an underwater obstruction and running into it. Claims for grounding and striking submerged objects increased markedly on most inland lakes last summer and by 50 percent in the Great Lakes. Water levels do not look as if they will be near normal anytime soon. According to the Climate Prediction Center, the drought is expected to persist or intensify between now and the end of May in 12 Midwestern, Western, and Southern states including Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Nevada, and Colorado. While some improvement is expected around the Great Lakes, the Climate Prediction Center warned that in areas like the Southeast, "…any recovery will occur very slowly, as it will take time for any increased rainfall to chip away at the large moisture deficits that have accumulated over the course of a multi-year drought."

Most boaters rely on their knowledge of their home waters to navigate, rarely looking at a depth sounder or a chart. But if you boat on inland lakes, rivers, or the Great Lakes, local knowledge cannot be depended upon when water levels are a foot or more below normal. Encounters with stumps and rocks can lead to serious injuries, both to the crew and to the boat. When in doubt, slow down. If you don't have a depth sounder or a fish finder, this may be a good time to purchase one. They are inexpensive and some models can be installed in boats with solid fiberglass bottoms without putting a hole through the hull. Finally, don't water ski or dive overboard before ensuring the water is sufficiently deep.

Caveat Emptor

Photo of a custom-built fuel tank

"Buyer beware" is good advice for just about any purchase, anytime. But in a recession, companies are more likely to find ways to cut corners, and buyers need to be even more aware than normal. When a member decided to replace the fuel tanks in his 28-foot Panga, he picked a builder that advertised marine fuel tanks custom built, tested, and certified to USCG standards. He specified aluminum tanks and was annoyed when the boatyard billed him for fiberglass tanks. But he wasn't about to remove the newly installed tanks, so he paid the bill. After just a few trips in the boat, the member and his wife started smelling gasoline. They took the boat back to the builder several times, and each time they were told the issue had been resolved only to have the smell return. They finally gave up and had another builder pull the tanks out of the boat. These turned out to be made from plywood covered with a thin layer of epoxy. These tanks would never have been able to pass the Coast Guard pressure testing required for certification and represented a serious hazard to the safety of the vessel and her crew. If you're having work done on your boat by a business you are not familiar with, a couple of visits to see the work underway can help ensure that corners don't get cut.

Keep The Water Flowing

Photo of failed impeller
Photo of prefailed impeller

This impeller — or what's left of it — came apart during the first outing of the season. Not only did the engine overheat due to a lack of water flow, chunks of impeller were drawn into the engine's cooling system, where they got lodged in hoses and the heat exchanger. That caused the engine to overheat even after replacing the impeller. Over time, impellers get a "set," which makes them less efficient and, eventually, cracks form where the vanes attach to the hub. Once the vanes start to break apart, it's too late. After two or three years, impellers owe you nothing; just to be sure, replace them every other year. It's a far easier job to change an impeller than it is to dig out dozens of pieces scattered throughout your engine.

How Much Alcohol Is In Your Tank?

Gasoline mixed with ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is like the obnoxious guy who shows up at your party and proceeds to get drunk; he wasn't invited, he's a troublemaker, and with enough alcohol, he'll wreck the place. And like the drunk guy, the more alcohol in the gasoline, the more problems.

Ethanol cleans old gunk out of fuel systems, which clogs filters, and it absorbs water, which can cause phase separation. Phase separation happens when the ethanol can no longer absorb any more water and the ethanol/water mixture falls to the bottom of the tank, which can cause engines to quit, or worse, damage them. While nearly all marine engine manufacturers allow up to 10 percent ethanol to be used, last fall, the EPA began allowing E15 (15 percent ethanol) into auto gas pumps for use in 2001 and newer cars. Trailerable boats are especially vulnerable to getting too high a dose of ethanol and it's possible E15 could accidentally find its way into marina fuel pumps. E15 will almost certainly damage engines, which is not covered by a manufacturer's warranty, and it's even more likely to cause phase separation problems. Some marinas claim to sell ethanol-free gas, but how do you (or they) know for sure?

Fortunately, there are test kits available that easily determine the ethanol content of gas. They're inexpensive, easy to use and some show by change of color the percentage of ethanol. If you take a sample from the bottom of your tank, they can tell you if your gas has phase separated. A sample of gas can be obtained from a primer bulb for outboards. I/O's and inboards are a little trickier depending on tank accessibility. If you can easily (and safely) draw a sample from the engine's intake, you'll get the best results because the intake comes from the bottom of the tank where phase separated gas settles. The best time to test the ethanol content — and possibility of phase-separated gas — is before cranking up your boat this spring. Test kits are available for purchase online; Google "ethanol test kits."

Check Your Hitch

Photo of a trailer hitch

Last spring, a member was towing his antique boat behind his truck in Wisconsin when the trailer separated from the truck at 55 mph. Fortunately, the safety chains held and after a quarter mile of white-knuckle fish-tailing across both lanes of the highway, the owner was able to bring the trailer to the shoulder. Because the boat was properly strapped down to the trailer, it was not damaged. According to the investigator, the owner had borrowed an adjustable ball mount from a friend; somehow the pin came out of the mount, causing the mount to come loose, which freed the trailer. Even though the owner claimed he had 30 years of experience trailering boats, it seems likely that somehow the locking cotter pin was forgotten.

Before you head out this spring, check your hitch set up; make certain the ball is secure to the mount, and that pins holding the mount to the receiver have locking pins. Chains should cross so that in the event the trailer comes loose, it will fall into the "X" made by the chains. It is a good idea to replace S-hooks with screw-pin shackles; they're more reliable and solid than S-hooks, which can bend under load.End of story marker

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