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Why Proactive Maintenance Matters

Things that sit idle stop working, and won’t reveal themselves until it’s too late.

Doing my last walk-through inspection before heading south for the winter, I found myself with an interesting dilemma. The forward head tripped its breaker instead of pumping water to clear the bowl. Although the boat had two heads, I also had guests scheduled to make the trip to Florida. I needed both heads operating.

During the summer, the forward head had seen little activity. I could not recall the last time it had been used. I removed the faceplate from the front of the pump motor at the base of the bowl and used a plastic hammer to try and revive the motor. After resetting the breaker at the electrical panel and replacing the front plate, I pressed the button on the front of the vanity and the motor came to life. It pumped like a champ.

I was not sure why, but at least I knew the head worked, and I hoped its resurrection would last throughout the trip, which it did. In fact, the head continued to function properly throughout the winter, and with regular use never posed a problem again.

But the whole process was a reminder that with the numerous systems found aboard boats, it is a savvy move to push, press, squeeze and tighten everything on a regular basis, rather than let mechanical and electrical items rest until they’re actually needed.

Everything on a boat is affected by age and environmental exposure as much as by actual use. A boat that sits at the dock most of its life is more likely to surprise you by what does not work than what does. While it is easy to recognize aging—say, dulling gelcoat, waterline stains on the hull, or rust discoloration on stainless steel or other metal fittings—age creeps up unannounced and is often a challenge when there is a malfunction.

I recently joined a friend who was buying a boat and wanted me there for the survey. The trawler had nice lines, but it was apparent that the owner had been missing in action for some time. A good cleansing would help, but this was the least of its problems.

The varnish trim was in bad shape, and the teak decks were missing plugs in many planks. In others, screwheads were popping through the surface. Further examination of the varnished trim framing the 10 cabin windows revealed that black mold had found a home in the caulk, a situation that led to leaks inside the cabin. This is a common problem that occurs from ongoing neglect. Perhaps if the boat had been used more, the owner would have realized the plight of the wood and rectified the situation.

If the owner ignored what was so obvious, what surprises would we find the deeper we looked?

Plenty, it turned out.

Having sat in the water for many months on end without moving, the cutlass bearings in the propeller struts had flattened out, resulting in significant vibration on our way to wide-open throttle, which we never achieved. Scored shafts added to the growing list of not-good things. The packing in the rudder bearings was shot, and water poured into the bilge. The bilge pump float switch had rotted wiring and would not report to work, but the manual switch came to the rescue. A pinhole in the ribbed hose caused the pump to work overtime as it drained and recycled water back into the bilge. The racket we heard as we left the slip was due to mussels living on the prop shafts and crunching against the hull bottom as they rotated.

Judging by the age and condition of the bilge hose, each of the five pumps and float switches in the boat also likely needed to be inspected and tested carefully, or better yet replaced. There are simply no shortcuts in maintaining a boat properly. I am always reminded of the old saying: Pay me now, or pay me later.

I felt bad for this boat—which my friend passed on—but whoever buys it will face a long list of repairs that the current owner could have identified if he had left the dock on a regular basis. Even exercising the diesels at the dock and putting the engines in gear momentarily could have made a difference, helping to move internal and external parts around.

Running various boat systems can be done underway as well as at the dock. Another friend confided in me that he thought it was odd that his VHF radio seemed amazingly quiet one Saturday afternoon until he discovered that his antenna cable had backed out of the PL-259 connector behind the set. I suggested that he check all of his electronics, including his radar, depth sounders and plotter; practice his operating skills; and confirm that all connections were tight and dry. You cannot check the tightness of a connection by looking at it. Touch, feel and be sure.

Most mariners have a tool set, but never go near the box until there is a problem. Be proactive. Coming back one sloppy day from Montauk, New York, to Brielle, New Jersey, I noticed a narrow stream of grime oozing from beneath one of the aluminum mounting plates that secured the hardtop to the front of the flybridge. Looking inside the flybridge brow, I discovered that one of the stainless-steel locking nuts was loose against the backing plate. It caused the threads of the machine screw to rock against the opening in the mounting plate, resulting in the grimy trail.

I backed out the fastener, filled the opening with a dab of caulk, reinserted the machine screw, and finished the job with flat and locking washers and a new locking nut. Then, I went around and checked every fastener holding the hardtop in place. I was able to take a turn with a box wrench on a few of the locking nuts. Use your tools regularly, and your boat will appreciate it.

When you are done, spend some time cleaning up the toolbox, shine up rusty hardware, and sort loose screws and fasteners in dry containers. Toss those half-filled tubes of solidified caulk. Still-potent caulk and sealants can be saved by taping up the ends of the tubes and storing them in latex gloves to prevent leaking.

A common headache with navigation lights is corroded contacts caused by moisture within the housing. Although this problem is less common with modern LED lighting, older bulbs and sockets are still popular and adequate. Illuminating the bulbs regularly will help dry out the moisture so the lights have a longer life and will operate properly when you need them. In addition, regular use will ensure that you know the bulbs are good.

Engine rooms can be mysterious places, but you need to be familiar with what lives there, especially the placement of hoses and fittings that bring in raw water to cool the engines, the generator, air conditioning, desalinators, gyrostabilizers, washdown and other systems. Water generally passes through a seacock with a valve handle that allows it to flow through a strainer on the way to its destination. The strainer traps grass, mud and other debris, and must be cleaned regularly to provide unrestricted flow and protect the pump impeller, heat exchangers and cooling passageways. Valve handles should be exercised once or twice a month to verify that the seacock opens and closes smoothly for cleaning the strainer.

Although better purchase can be achieved by sliding a length of pipe over the handle of the seacock, be cautious not to force it. Too much pressure could break the handle, leaving you no way to stem the flow of water coming into the boat should a hose burst or begin to leak. Some skippers keep a wooden plug near each seacock for emergency use if the hose splits, but perhaps more important is to know where each seacock is located. Some builders mount the seacock beneath a hatch, a platform or other equipment, creating a problem when you hear water pouring in.

Boats do not age gracefully like wine. Use it or lose it.