We've seen far too many new boaters make mistakes simply because of ignorance. Not knowing what to do with a boat can have serious ramifications to the boat and your wallet. If you're a car owner you probably know you need to change your oil regularly, keep your tires properly inflated and replace them when the tread is worn, and your brakes need to be replaced when they start squealing. Well, boats also have their share of maintenance items but if you are new to the life they may not be as apparent.
|This is fun, maintenance isn't, but it's vital to your boat and the safety of your passengers.|
The regular stuff, yes there is a lot.
If you have an engine (or two or three) you need to take care of it. That starts with oil changes regularly, usually once or twice per year. Boat engines aren't as easy to maintain as car engines since they are less portable and it's often hard to get into small engine rooms. Unlike a car that you just drive up to a quick-lube place and can be out in a few minutes, with a boat you need special tools to change the oil. Outboard motors may be simpler but for engines located inside the boat you need a fluid transfer pump to suck the oil out of the reservoir before you replace the filter and add new oil. This isn't a hard job with the right tool, but it can be messy and you may not know how it's done. There are a million videos online to help with this.
|On the left is a fluid transfer pump. You need one.|
One thing that is often overlooked (Cygnet is no exception) is transmission or gear oil. Again you may need special tools to change yours. With Two Wrights we needed to have a pump that filled the gear oil from the bottom up. It was also a messy job, but once we'd done it a couple times we learned the tricks to make it easier. You pump the oil in from the bottom and when you remove the pump you rush to get the plug back in before the oil all drains out. It's a very strange way to do it but it's the proper way. Check your specific boat to figure out what needs to be changed and how often.
Impellers are designed to move water from outside your boat through the engine for cooling and they are notoriously fragile. Always have a spare on board. They should be replaced every year and are generally not too hard to do. They may require you to remove a couple bolts and apply some lubricant to get them in, but again the internet will provide you with instructions on the proper way to replace them. If the old one has pieces missing you need to tear apart the system to find those pieces, that's when it gets really difficult.
|Impellers are cheap and relatively easy to replace. If they are in good shape (like this one) you can keep the old ones as spares and count yourself lucky that you don't need to hunt down any broken pieces.|
Cygnet seems to have an issue with pumps. We don't know if there is something about our circuitry or if it's just bad luck, but we've spent a lot of time replacing and re-replacing pumps. Your boat will have at least one bilge pump which takes any water that leaks into the hull and pumps it out. Always make sure these are operational when you leave your boat. There is usually a float switch next to the pump, pull it up to make sure the pump activates before you close up the boat. If it doesn't work make sure the power is on and if so check the float switch and pump are operational, replace whichever isn't working. Again, it's a good idea to have a spare of each on board at all times.
|One of three bilge pumps on Cygnet. It's filthy and covered in spider webs, but it works! The float switch is on the right, lift it to test operation of the pump at least once a month.|
All the other things on your boat like hydraulic trim tabs, navigation lights, radios, antennas, etc should be checked for regular operation every time you go out. When it comes to safety critical things like the navigation lights always have spare bulbs and make sure you have the right tool to change the bulbs if you need to. There should always be a small tool kit on your boat for emergency repairs, especially on an older boat. Kevin (and many other boaters) also keeps a very sharp knife in his pocket when boating just in case something happens with the ropes that are always around a boat. They can fall in the water and get wrapped around the prop or you could have issues towing skiers or tubes. Fishing line is also a danger to your props if you don't keep a good eye on every line. We took a ride on our dinghy this summer and as we rounded a corner on the Chicago River we came into contact with three fishing lines stretched halfway across the river. Kevin immediately killed the engine to stop the lines from wrapping around the prop. We got one caught under the motor but it didn't wrap the prop and we were able to keep going with only a few swear words from the fishermen on shore.
If your boat will stay in the water for the season you need bottom paint and install what're commonly known as zincs to help preserve the surfaces below the water line. Your boat will need to be buffed and waxed often, sometimes multiple times per year if you want it to stay looking shiny. Cygnet has been disregarded in this respect for the last couple years and she is showing a lot of oxidation on the fiberglass. This can seriously alter the appearance and can cause harm to the fiberglass and take hours of work to repair. Kevin is in the midst of a massive job to bring her back to her glory, so far he's spent three days buffing and waxing and is about 20% done.
|A high speed buffer makes quicker work of the task, but it's still a lot of work, especially on a big boat like Cygnet.|
If you keep your boat at a marina you can often have them perform all the scheduled maintenance but it's expensive. Learning to do things yourself saves a lot of money and you get to know your boat better. If you do take your boat out or it will live in a cold climate through the winter months you need to pay special attention to what may go wrong while you aren't around. Boats are not like cars, they can't just be left outside in freezing temperatures without protection. We've seen far too many new boaters make this mistake. One slip at our marina has killed two boats that weren't winterized, the owners not even realizing what needed to be done. One boat sank and was destroyed, the other was towed out to get repairs that will probably be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
How do I winterize? I have no clue.
You need to make sure that you replace any area that has water with antifreeze. Not the type of antifreeze that you put in your car, that's toxic to the environment, the antifreeze that is common in RVs that is usually colored pink. Windshield washer fluid is also usable but you need to make sure you get the type for -40º or you'll have issues. If the boat will sit in the water this is crucial, your boat may sink if not winterized. You'll start by flushing the engine with antifreeze to replace any water that was in there. On Cygnet we run the engines until they are at the proper operating temperature and then close a thru-hull valve that lets water in from outside and open the strainer baskets. Then when the engine is running we pour gallons of antifreeze into the strainer and the engine sucks it through all the cooling channels and keeps that water from expanding when frozen. If water is left inside the engine it can freeze and the pressure can crack the engine block, like what happened to our neighbor this past winter. That's very bad news. You also need to run antifreeze through the water lines for your toilets and sinks until the water you see coming out is pink. If you have a shower on board the antifreeze needs to be put in the drains since there is most likely a reservoir that holds water and a pump to pump it out, this all needs to be protected too. Even the smallest amount of water can cause problems. The bilge should be dried but if that's not possible antifreeze should be poured in to keep it from freezing, and this may need to be done often throughout the winter since water is continually entering the boat as it sits in the slip.
|Pink RV antifreeze can be found at most hardware and home centers.|
Make sure you take all the cans of soda and bottles of water and anything else that could freeze out of the cabinets and refrigerator. Sunscreens and lotions and soaps in the bathrooms need to come out, and anything else you can think of that could freeze and cause problems or a mess.
Heat can be used to keep the freeze at bay but it isn't always reliable. We had another neighbor that didn't winterize his water lines since he occasionally uses the boat in winter. One day the power went out and the heaters stopped working and the lines froze causing them to burst. It was a lot of work to make the repairs in spring. When we used to keep Two Wrights on the North Branch of the Chicago River we'd try to push the season as late as possible and there are cold nights in October that could cause a hard freeze in the unprotected engine. We'd put a 100W incandescent light bulb in the engine compartment to keep that area just warm enough to not freeze. Now we use an electric heater in our engine room but we still winterize the engines. In winter of 2018/19 we had nights down to -22º F (-30ºC) that caused our water lines to freeze. Fortunately the cold didn't cause damage to the lines and once the temperature rose again we had flowing water but it was scary to think we may have ruined our water lines.
If you plan to use heaters to keep your boat warm make sure they will turn back on if the power goes out. Digital thermostats are nice but unreliable when power is cut. Knobs and switches are the best way to go when it comes to buying heaters for your boat.
|Cheap, efficient, and generally safe space heaters keep Cygnet from freezing.|
|We tape off vents and run heaters from quality cords to keep Cygnet warm in winter.|
Of course there is also the wrap. We wrap Cygnet in heat-shrink plastic to keep the snow, ice, and wind off of her. It is expensive and we take it off after only three or four months but it helps greatly in the cold. If your boat is stored outside in winter a wrap can help keep your boat in better condition and can also help preserve any canvass covers you may have.
All this will need to be undone when Spring comes but it's usually a lot easier than in the fall. With our engines we simply open the thru-hull valves and turn the engines on, the water pumps flush the antifreeze out naturally. With water lines to your sinks it may take many gallons to flush out the system. The pink antifreeze won't hurt you, but it's best not to drink it and it's not great for showering or washing dishes. Hot water heaters tend to hold the antifreeze inside so they take an especially long time to flush out.
|We made the mistake of wrapping in white this past winter instead of clear. Never again.|
This isn't an exhaustive list of all the maintenance you need to do, there are other things like wood care, fiberglass repairs, sail repairs and maintenance, and protecting the boat from the elements that we haven't even mentioned. This blog could be fifty pages long if we covered everything but this will hopefully give you an idea of what you're getting into with maintenance on a boat. Do your research and find out what you need to do for every system you have on your specific vessel. Talk to people who own boats and find out their secrets and techniques. Maintenance is vital to keeping a boat working and needs to be done regularly.
Next time on a very special Water We Thinking: It's too much, I'm done with boats, how do I sell this thing?