Some years ago, while chasing a story about the sinking of a yacht, I talked with the owner of an emergency tow service based in Port Townsend, Washington, a popular boating destination on the edge of the often-dangerous Strait of Juan de Fuca.
His message was simple: The big rush for his business came around Memorial Day, when hundreds of boats -after standing alone, cold, and silent through the winter-head out to sea. Many came back at the end of his tow line.
Some ran out of fuel. Others choked on dirty fuel. Cooling systems failed, V-belts broke, batteries died, and cables snapped. Obviously, owners had failed to think about testing, checking, repairing, or replacing the equipment and systems that are critical to a pleasurable and incident-free cruising season.
We had made a couple of trips to Southeast Alaska without significant problems, but his anecdotes sharpened my efforts to make my aging Grand Banks 42 ready to go each spring. Then, in 2006, we decided to make a third trip to Alaska as part of a Grand Banks-sponsored tour celebrating its 50th year of boatbuilding. And I learned Brian Pemberton's by-the-numbers approach to prepping and maintaining boats.
Pemberton is an owner of Northwest Explorations, a Bellingham, Washington based brokerage firm that operates a large bare-boat charter fleet made up exclusively of newer GBs. In addition to sending many charter customers off on their own cruises, Pemberton-in his 49-foot GB-leads a fleet of four or five yachts to Alaska and back each season.
A nine-page check-out list developed by Pemberton and his staff covers all key systems from the bottom of the keel to the anchor light atop the mast. It also emphasizes cosmetic issues, which are important on all boats but especially so on charter craft. Routinely, because of strict adherence to that check-out procedure, those GBs go out and come back without incurring the kind of troubles that can ruin a cruise.
Pemberton tallied the hours of engine and generator use under the check-out program and produced an astounding total: main engines have clocked 19,000 hours of operation and generators 10,000-all without a major mechanical failure.
Sponsors of the GB tour asked participants to follow that check-out list-and to have a marine technician do the checking. I recall doing it all myself and then calling for a professional review. The tech's survey took about two hours and he confirmed what I thought-that an engine alternator had failed-and dinged me lightly for not having a working manual bilge pump.
Since then, my GB has clocked nearly 500 hours of cruising time without a system failure or engine breakdown. (Happily, I've never used the new manual pump.) As for the GB tour: Sixteen boats made the trip and several experienced some problems with electronic navigation equipment, a generator suffered a minor electrical fire, a freezer quit, and one boat reported a leaking shaft seal on an engine. As I recall, no problem threatened a successful completion of the tour. (The best thing: A Grand Banks technician cruising with the fleet whipped nearly everything into shape-except for the refrigerator and the leaking oil seal.)
So, what's the drill?
I take individual sections of the Northwest Explorations check-out list and pull related items into a single category.
For example, a check of the DC electrical system should include battery load testing, a test of circuit breaker panel circuits, and checking lights, pumps, electronics gear, navigation, and anchor lights for proper operation. If one battery fails a load test all the batteries in its bank should be replaced. Are there spares for all those lights aboard?
Similar testing is required for the AC system. Is the shore power cord okay? Are the contacts burned or corroded? Do you have a spare? Service and operate the generator, confirming it performs to specifications under load. Operate all major AC appliances, including the water heater, space heaters, refrigerators, freezers, inverters, and battery chargers. Are GFIC receptacles installed in the galley, heads, engine room, and on the weather deck? Does the vessel carry a variety of shore power cord adapters (15-, 30-, 50-amp plugs)?
Plumbing is next on my list. Check and lubricate through-hull valves for easy, leak-free operation. Are hoses and clamps okay? Test all automatic bilge pumps and give the manual pump a workout, too.
Try the freshwater pressure system. Is there a spare pump aboard? Is it time to change filters? To clean the water tanks?
Be sure wastewater Y valves work smoothly. Look for leaks and lubricate as needed. If wastewater hoses are more than five years old their time may be up. Consider replacement. Brace yourself and investigate the holding tank, macerator, and other overboard pumps. Flush with fresh water and be certain the pumps are pushing water overboard. Check the spares locker for repair kits.
My GB has chain-and-cable steering and I meticulously trace the stainless wire with my fingers, looking for wispy ends that might suggest failure. I lube the pulleys, the steering hub at the helm, and the quadrant aft. Hydraulic steering needs the same attention-look for leaks, inspect hoses and rudder linkage, and be sure the fluid reservoir is filled.
Nothing is more important for an uneventful round-trip than reliable engine(s). I service my Ford Lehman diesels-including fresh oil and filters-and change fuel filters. Following Northwest Explorations' guidelines, I make sure all engine alarms are working and that instruments at the helm provide accurate information. I watch the exhaust for proper water flow and for unusual smoke that might indicate the need for injector service. Be sure exhaust lines are sound and properly clamped.
Overheating will stop a diesel quickly. Open and clean seawater strainers. Replace the seawater pump impeller and open and inspect heat exchangers, removing debris.
If tubes are plugged, send it off to a shop for chemical cleaning. Consider installing flow alarms in the seawater inlet hoses and while under way make occasional but regular checks of operating temperatures with a handheld infrared thermometer. I spot check the exhaust manifold, coolant expansion tank, oil lines, transmission, and stuffing boxes. Once you learn what's normal, a slight change will be obvious and allow corrective action before trouble occurs.
My spares locker includes, among several shelves of general parts, a new main heat exchanger and several smaller ones for engine and transmission oil cooling. That locker also holds two replacement seawater pumps, a starter, and alternator. There are no parts stores on my cruising routes.
A sea trial is important, particularly to be sure the engines are running smoothly. I like to schedule a short spring cruise after completing my check-out work. I operate every system, from watermaker, washing machine, and furnace to the dinghy hoist, boat computer, and navigational software. If it all holds together for several days, I'm confident my longer cruises will be uneventful.
Take a walk outside. Are mooring lines frayed? Does the anchor windlass work? Do you have a spare deck switch for the windlass motor? Does the anchor chain need new depth markings? How about the windshield wiper blades? Time to replace them? Test the dinghy hoist. (The best way is to put the dinghy in the water on that spring cruise/sea trial if it's not possible in the marina.)
Got propane aboard? Are the tanks firmly mounted and rust free? Is the enclosure properly vented? Fill the tanks, too. How about the dinghy? Does it still hold air? Where's the patch kit? Does the OB need servicing? Get rid of the old gas in its tank.
You want the boat to come home looking good, too. Get out the fiberglass cleaner/polish and, if you are fortunate to have exterior teak, find time for the sandpaper-varnish routine.
I suspect most boaters return from a cruise with a list of "to do" items and ideas for new equipment and accessories. After the basics are deemed okay, it's time to get serious about them. I'm not through my check-out program yet, but I'm thinking about my wish list. It includes satellite radio, AIS, an external WiFi antenna, smoke and overheat alarms in the engine room, and a general cleanup of the panel that distributes GPS signals to the boat computer, radar, and autopilot.
I don't have much time. My boat, Quadra, is scheduled to attend the Puget Sound Grand Banks rendezvous in mid May and then head far north into British Columbia. It will be exciting cruising in a wilderness area. I intend to make it trouble free.