Our early spring with its warm temperatures has recreational boaters lining up at the launch in eager anticipation of fun on the water. Whether your particular brand of good time boating involves fishing, skiing, riding personal watercrafts or simply cruising down the river, proper preparation and planning are crucial to boating safely.
Let’s take a look at some basic early season maintenance chores and inspections required for boats that have been sitting on the trailer since last summer. We can then move on to inspecting safety and emergency equipment and a review of safe boating practices.
Begin with the trailering equipment. Are the ball and hitch assembly on the vehicle snug and secure? Check for any loose nuts and bolts. Clean the lighting connection, clearing away any mud or dirt to insure good contact. Move to the ball coupling and safety chains on the boat trailer, lubricate where needed and be sure the ball on the hitch is the right size for the coupling on the trailer. An inch and seven-eighths ball and two- inch coupler can lead to disaster. Be sure the safety chains hook securely and are of the proper length to do their job should the ball or coupling fail.
Move to the trailer tires and be sure they are properly inflated. Look for excessive wear and replace if needed. Same goes for the trailer spare tire. You do have one, right? Equally important are the wheel bearings. They are a common cause of breakdown mostly due to poor maintenance. Be sure they are properly lubricated, either by injecting grease in those equipped with fittings or by removing the tire and manually lubricating the bearings. Any automotive repair shop providing wheel and tire service can perform bearing inspection and maintenance at reasonable costs if you prefer.
Be sure the runners and rollers bearing the weight of the boat are properly adjusted and in good condition. Check the winch, the winch rope or strap and tie down straps or chains for wear and damage, replacing as needed. What about the trailer lights, particularly brake and turn signals? Don’t forget the license plate, making sure it is current and securely attached.
Outboard engines that have not been started in months may need maintenance as well. Attach a water hose and circulating “ears” to the water intakes on the outboard and get water running through it before starting the engine if you wish to check it at home. Or take a quick run to the boat launch and back the engine down into the water to start it. Consider proper disposal of old fuel that has been stored in portable tanks for long periods of time. Chances are it is contaminated with water. A new filter on the fuel line is a good idea also. Examine fuel and hydraulic lines and pumps for leaks as they pose a serious fire threat.
Be sure onboard batteries will charge and function properly, and make sure wiring and connections are clean. Clean away any acid buildup and look closely to see if insulating wire coating, fuses and connections have not been damaged by accumulated acid. If steering cables or other components are near batteries, examine them for damage or wear as well.
Take time to closely inspect the hull and transom. I don’t know how many wooden hulls are still around but wood and fiberglass hulls are both subject to cracking and puncture. Metal hulls are not immune either, particularly to metal fatigue at the transom. I have seen small, but leaking, holes mysteriously appear on aluminum transoms and still don’t know the cause.
Now is the time to check safety and emergency equipment. Begin with the personal flotation devices (PFD’s). Kids grow, so check last year’s PFD for proper fit. If Junior has had a growth spurt and moved to a higher weight class, it’s time for a new PFD. Examine both throw-able and wearable flotation devices for excessive wear and tear.
Move on to the other safety gear including extra tow or bow line, running lights, spotlight, sound producing device, daytime visual distress signal, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, cell phone charger and boat paddle, yes, a boat paddle or even two. It’s a pet peeve with me since I have seen several instances where stranded boaters could have paddled to shore or to a fixed object to tie off if they simply had a paddle. Instead they remained at the mercy of wind and current and were more difficult to locate and rescue.
Finally, safe boating practices should include good judgement, training and experience. Stay off the water when conditions are hazardous. Never operate a boat while drinking or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Learn from every experience on the water and by all means take the USCG approved Boating Safety Course offered through LDWF. Have a safe and happy boating summer.