You've charged the batteries, cleaned the bilges, tuned up the engines, and followed all our tips to make your boat’s gel coat gleam. Good job, dedicated boater—you’re ready for the spring shake-down cruise. This is your chance to uncover your boat’s hidden ailments before they turn into full-blown sickness, and do a few final fixes.

But do you know what bugs and viruses you’re likely to discover during that shake-down cruise? Here are 10 specific things to be on the lookout for.

boat running

No matter what type or size boat you own, your spring shake-down cruise is an important event. Make sure it's an educational one, too, by looking for these issues.


1. Sticky Bilge Pump Switch Syndrome – Just because your bilge pump’s automatic float switch worked fine last fall, don’t assume it’s still in tip-top shape. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for water coming out of the discharge. If no water gets into the bilge during the shake-down, make it happen. Use your washdown hose or a bucket to cause some intentional water intrusion, if necessary, until the float switch kicks on of its own accord. And if it doesn’t activate, you’ve just learned an important lesson about your boat.

2. Congested Hatch Drain Condition – Leaves, sticks, and other detritus has a way of collecting in hatch gutters over winter layup, and this does more than merely make the boat look dirty. When water hits the deck and runs through those gutters, it can carry all that gunk to the drain at once and cause a clog. This is another issue you may or may not notice during the shake-down, so if no water gets into the cockpit, again use the washdown hose to force the issue.

3. Running a Fever – Checking the cooling system’s water flow, either by looking at an outboard’s tell-tale or an inboard’s exhaust ports, should be second nature. Same goes for regularly eye-balling the engine’s temperature gauge. But on this cruise it’s particularly important, because if the engine is running hot now’s the time to find out.

navigational gear

All of your navigational gear needs some shake-down attention, too.

4. Navigational Nausea – Sure, you already turned on the GPS to make sure it was functioning. Now check and double-check what it’s telling you, to be sure it’s functioning properly. Same goes for your compass. Something as simple as installing a new piece or hardware or electronics could have thrown it off, and you’ll want to figure that out now—not when you “arrive” five miles from your destination.

5. Creeping Canvass Croup – Even though you stowed your boat’s Bimini top, Isinglass, and covers through the winter, it’s amazing how often this stuff doesn't fit come spring. Supports can get bent during removal or installation, zippers can break, and the canvass itself can get out of shape due to extended time spent folded or rolled, or from temperature changes. You may not need that top for your initial run, but put it up anyway. Otherwise, you won’t discover how out-of-shape it’s become until you need it—and can’t get it in place. And in the future take better care of that stuff; we told you how in How to Clean and Care for Isinglass and Canvass.

6. Abrupt Obesity – Some boats have cores and/or foams that can become saturated over time, causing your boat to gain weight. Lots of weight. This is a significant issue, and one which you’ll discover on your shake-down. If, that is, you pay attention to the GPS. The most common way to discover weight-gain is a loss of speed, and if you know your boat well, you should recognize it with a glance at the GPS while you run at your normal cruising RPM. Note: a speed loss doesn’t necessarily mean your boat is heavier; it can indicate a number of issues ranging from weight gain to engine problems to prop damage. If you note a loss in speed, you’ll have to do some follow-up work to come up with the proper diagnosis.

7. Infirm Electrical Issues – Now’s your chance to test every electrical item on the boat, whether you need it at the moment or not. Turn on all the boat’s lights, even though it’s broad daylight. Try out the reefer, whether you’ve stocked it or not. Perform a VHF radio check. No matter how big or small an item’s importance, flip those switches and identify any ailing items during the shake-down cruise.

8. Safety Gear Sickness – Have you checked the expiration date on your flares? Looked at the fire extinguisher to make sure it’s fully charged? Tried a test-blast of the horn? Many items that are necessary for safety afloat require an annual inspection, and while we hope you won’t need any of this stuff on your initial cruise—or any that follow—now’s the time to check it all out.

9. Venting Virus – Spiders, wasps, and other critters have a nasty habit of building nests in boats. And quite often they’ll choose a vent for their new abode. Make sure you run things like blowers, and inspect vents like those for your fuel and holding tanks. And if you see a wasp or two out on the water, don’t fool yourself into thinking they were merely out for a fly; you almost certainly have nests on-board.

engine room

To perform a proper shake-down you'll have to get below deck level, too.

10. Hoses With Runny Noses – While you’re out on your shake-down cruise, turn the wheel over to someone else and head for the engineroom and/or bilges, with a flashlight in hand. You need to visually inspect all of your clamps and connections belowdecks, to make sure nothing is leaking where you won’t normally see it. Many boaters perform this inspection when the boat is initially launched, which is a good first step. But you also need to do it while the boat is underway because some hoses, like those for livewell pick-ups and speedo pitots, won’t be filled with water unless the boat is moving.

So you survived the shake-down cruise, and didn't find a single thing wrong? We’d be suspicious. No boat is immune to illness, and shake-downs commonly end with a headache or three. Now take two aspirin, and read 10 Stupid Spring Commissioning Mistakes to make sure your boat doesn't suffer from any self-inflicted wounds this season.