You can probably get away with neglecting your car, because you'll remember once a year to drop it by the garage for a tune-up and an oil change. But boats are different ... they don't like being neglected at all. To help you remember to care for your boat, and to save you money while you're doing it, here are 33 tips to start your season.
1. Don't ever try to take anything apart aboard your boat unless you have a service manual for it. Repair manuals are available from dealers or distributors, are often free, and they can save you immense grief if you take the time to read them. Be sure to ask for a parts list, which can be extremely useful if it has an exploded diagram to show where the parts go.
In The Engine Room
2. Check the oil whenever you use the engine. If the oil level is low, top it up immediately. Don't try to remember to do it when you return, because you'll always forget. That missing oil is your safety factor and, when it's gone, any further loss is liable to fry your engine, which can be very expensive. You should also check the quality of oil while you're checking the quantity ... if it's dark and dirty, plan to change it soon.
3. While you've got your head next to the engine, take a look at the hoses and "plumbing" around the area. Water intakes, exhaust hoses, and any other rubber tubing dries out quickly in a hot engine room. A regular application of ArmorAll or a similar rubber preservative will help, but you need to keep an eye on the hoses. When they feel soft or limp when you squeeze them, it's time for replacement.
4. You're getting tired of the engine compartment by now, but take a look at the drive belts as well. Most engines have an alternator or generator v-belt, and you may have accessory drive belts for power steering, refrigeration or other accessories. Look for cracks on the inner surfaces, and replace the belt when it shows fraying. Test the tension midway between the two pulleys for the proper half-inch of movement. Too tight and the belt will wear out; too loose and it will slip.
5. If you replace a belt or hose, always buy an extra one. Stow it away in a safe place (under a bunk cushion, for example) and remember to use it at the next replacement. That way you'll always have a fresh spare on board that you know will fit.
6. When installing a hose or tubing (on engines, marine toilets and sinks), smear a light film of grease on the inside of the hose. It'll slip on easily, will form an air or watertight seal, and it will come off easier in the future.
7. Builders often seem to place the batteries in the most inaccessible location, but you should check the acid level regularly. Any time it runs low, you're shortening the life of the cells.
8. The top surface of a marine battery will soon build a whitish deposit. This is acid in powder form which can eat metal, fiberglass (such as your hull!) or other materials, and it also contributes to a condition called "surface discharge," which is a continuous drainage of energy from your battery even when the master switches are off. Make a solution of warm water and baking soda (half a box to a quart of water). Brush it on (but don't get it into the cells), wait until the affected areas stop bubbling, rinse the battery exterior with water and then dry the battery. Needless to say, you should do this whole procedure on the dock, which can then be hosed off.
9. If your engine refuses to crank over, your first check should probably be the battery terminals. A surprisingly small amount of corrosion between the terminal and the cable clamp can cause the problem. Clean the post with a piece of rough sandpaper, and sand the inside of the clamp as well. There are two schools of thought on lightly greasing the terminal to prevent corrosion: one says it works, and the other says it doesn't. Make up your own mind.
10. Spark plug wires, just like hoses, wear out. When the wire cracks, it leaks electricity and causes misfires. You can look at each wire in daylight to check for cracks or worn spots, or you can simply run the engine at night. With all the lights off, open the engine compartment and look for arcs of electricity or a blue glow from the wires. Replace all the wires if you find any with leakage.
Oil and Water
11. If you have a freshwater cooling system, be sure to check the coolant level before you fire the engine up. Once hot, you shouldn't open the system or you'll risk a good scalding. With some engines, you can remove the coolant cap and add water while the engine is running, but don't assume that's true for all engines.
12. Speaking of coolant, it wears out just as quickly as oil and you should change the water/coolant mixture in your closed cooling system twice a year. If your engine manufacturer specifies an additive to prevent rust or to aid lubrication and cooling, stick with his recommended amount. Too much additive can inhibit cooling, while too little may not protect the system properly.
13. There are many ways to change your own engine oil: little hand pumps with skinny necks to slide down the dipstick tube, power drill attachments, and many more. Whichever method you use, be sure the engine is thoroughly warmed up before you try to change the oil. That way you'll pick up metal particles, sludge, and anything else that wouldn't come out with cold oil.
14. Somewhere in the oil system you'll have an oil filter. Be sure to change it every time you change the oil. A filter holds one quart of dirty oil ... why put that back into your clean oil? When installing a spin-on filter, grease the O-ring with a little clean oil to help it seal and to prevent it from tearing. Tighten it only by hand.
15. Regardless of what size boat you have, you should have a gas filter in the fuel line between the fuel pump and the carburetor. This will keep clean fuel going to the engine, which can get very upset if it drinks foreign matter. You can be certain that all boats, no matter how new, have gunk in their tanks: rust, sludge, or just dirt. If you can, use a filter that will screen water out of your fuel as well as sediment. Water isn't good for your engine and, in the marine atmosphere, a half-filled fuel tank can quickly condense a sizable amount of water.
16. Every transmission requires a different method of checking the fluid level. Usually there is a dipstick, but some have a sight glass and stern drives often have a removable bolt on the side. Most inboard transmissions should be checked when the engine is idling in neutral at normal operating temperature. Be sure you refill with the proper type of fluid....any other kind causes endless problems. And, just like oil and coolant, transmission fluid wears out, so change it regularly.
17. When you wax the hull, don't forget to do the chrome, too. A good coat of wax can prevent pitting and will help remove the salt and dirt as well.
18. If you really want to protect your boat, get a cover made for it. There's no better protection, short of actually taking it into your house at night. A cover can add thousands of dollars to your resale value, as well as keeping the boat clean for immediate use. Be sure that the cover can be removed easily in small sections for stowage, that there is sufficient ventilation underneath the cover to prevent mildew, and that it has suitable weights or tie-downs to prevent it from blowing off.
19. With the increasing number of Bimini tops, dodgers, spray shields and other items made from vinyl, the boat owner should acquaint himself with some of the vinyl care products on the market. These are usually aimed at automotive vinyl tops, but they can also keep your boat "canvas" clean and fresh.
20. It's almost impossible to prevent tiny tears in seat cushions, vinyl padding, bunk covers, and other vinyl products. There are several products available in auto supply stores that do a good job of mending vinyl tears, though. They soften the material enough to melt the two edges together again, leaving only a slight scar rather than a hole. Be sure to make the repair as soon a possible, since small tears rapidly become large ones.
21. Windshield wiper blades, especially in salt water or cold weather, become stiff and smeary in short order. If possible, stow them out of the sunlight until you need them. If you leave them on for instant use, keep them lubricated with a rubber preservative and carry spares. Clean off your windshield with fresh water to remove the residue, and then try a coat of automotive paste wax (or Rain-X) on the windshield. This causes the water to bead and the wiper can handle it more effectively than in sheets.
A Few Words For Trailerboaters
22. Improper tire inflation is the primary cause of trailer tire wear, but you can check for yourself easily. If the tire wears on the outer edges, it's under-inflated. If it wears in the center, it's over-inflated. An inexpensive tire gauge should be kept in your car, because gas station gauges are usually highly inaccurate. If you don't know the proper pressure, you'll find it molded into the sidewall of the tire itself.
23. You should make sure that your trailer tires are properly balanced, too. An improperly balanced tire bounces up and down on the same spot every rotation, which not only wears down the tread, but it can also damage your trailer, suspension, or boat with the vibration. A $3 spin balance can add thousands of miles to your trailer life.
24. Just because your trailer only has two tires doesn't mean they shouldn't be rotated. Switch them at the same time you switch your car tires to assure an even wear. Four wheeled trailers should use the same rotation method as used on cars.
25. If you're planning to store your boat on the trailer for a long time, chock up the trailer to keep the tires from developing hard spots from the continual loading. Apply a coat of ArmorAll or other rubber preservative to the tire sidewalls to protect them against sunlight which can harden and destroy the rubber during storage.