Skip to main content

Spring Commissioning: A Year-Round Endeavor

The best time for getting your boat ready to spend weeks at sea is after you've just returned.

I don’t do spring commissioning. Dave does. I hire him to do the work of washing, waxing and buffing the boat (usually before spring arrives) because he is better at it, and I think he really enjoys doing that kind of stuff.

For me, the notion of commissioning is when someone swings a bottle of champagne at the bow of a boat wrapped in red and blue ribbons, and it slides down the ways into the water. In reality, the getting-ready-to-cruise effort (commissioning, in other words) is a yearlong activity wrapped around the 6 to 12 weeks at sea I sometimes manage to schedule.

That’s the way it is when one owns a 33-year-old boat. One recent cruising season, the original icemaker failed. It was the only casualty, aside from a few drops of oil that leaked from the windlass. I also noticed that a corner of the skylight in the forward cabin had cracked off, creating the threat of a water leak.

So, spring commissioning—which is all about getting a boat in shape for weeks at sea—began in the fall, not long after returning from the central coast of British Columbia. I changed the oil and filters, and replaced a length of pipe in one engine’s cooling system. There was still time to lightly sand the teak handrails and add a couple of coats of varnish. Lousy weather interrupted this effort and I still have a bit more to do.

The windlass came apart around pumpkin season—its motor was overhauled and gearbox seals replaced. Around Christmas time, I went shopping for an icemaker and was pleased to find the manufacturer (U-Line) was still in business and still producing a unit with the same dimensions. That January, my 1991-vintage 8-hp outboard received new spark plugs, thermostat and thermostat housing, seawater impeller and fresh gear oil.

I removed the skylight cover late in the winter and found I needed professional help. Integrity Marine in Anacortes ordered a new piece of plastic and did the edge routing I couldn’t do. It’s back in place now.

A Proven Routine

One year, before the spring commissioning season officially arrived, I began servicing my 6-year-old 6kW generator when snow fell. It had about 600 hours on the clock. I finished changing the oil and all the filters, but the manufacturer also recommended changing the coolant and cleaning the heat exchanger (those are jobs I needed to schedule). I also talked with Dave, and he said I was next on his list for a deep cleaning, waxing and buffing. He planned to start the first day of spring.

If I were to put off cruising prep work until spring I would do just what I do every fall:

With a couple of pencils and a note pad, I would start at the bow and work aft. I would make a list of everything that needed service, cleaning, or replacement. List items by priority, and get to work, without waiting for spring.

Here are some questions to ask and things to keep in mind as you make an inspection tour: How’s your windlass? Does the anchor chain need new depth marks? When did you last do a tune-up on the OB motor on your tender? When did you last carefully inspect the cable and motor on your dinghy hoist? If you have canvas dodgers or biminis, how are the snaps and connectors? Are seams fraying? Speaking of fraying, check your mooring lines. After a hard winter, they may need to be replaced. Are your fenders spotted with dirt, creosote, and grease? (Clean them, but don’t use acetone because it will destroy the fender. There are good commercial fender cleaners on the market that do no harm.)

If there’s a lazarette in your aft deck, I bet there’s storage down there. Haul all of it out (do you really need all that stuff?) and climb down for a thorough check of the steering quadrant, hydraulic lines, or wire cables. Check the full length of wire steering cables for broken strands. While below decks, make sure through-hull valves are not hidden by piles of stuff and that they open and close easily.

web-Splinters shorepower

Shorepower cords are essential to happy boating. Check yours for corrosion or overheating. Do you have spare cable end connectors or better yet, a spare show power cord on board? When did you last walk about for a check of navigation and anchor lights? Got replacement bulbs?

Schedule haul outs, bottom painting, and prop and shaft work in late fall and early winter. (I know, winter isn’t as nice in most places as it is here.) There might be good deals during that time, and certainly you’ll have the full attention of the yard crew. After asking all of these questions, it’s time to take the next step.

I gather the manuals for every piece of mechanical and electrical equipment on board. I search for recommended service and maintenance schedules and fill my note pad with work to be done, and parts to be purchased. I get my maintenance log and check for anything I may have missed. Then, I get the tasks completed.


I spend a lot of time in the engine room where I tend to replace impellers, V-belts, filters, zincs, etc., even if it means early retirement for some parts. I prefer to do that work at home rather than out on Johnstone Strait with a northerly working against the ebb.

If this is not your thing, call your favorite marine technician and hope that work can be scheduled before summer. I talked with a boat electrician once—he wasn’t very busy—and he was able to laugh as he remembered the customer who announced he was going cruising in two weeks and asked him to install a complete suite of navigation and stereo gear “right now!”

Think About Spares and Pros

If you replace all the stuff that can break or just quit, you should have no problems cruising. But, just in case, check the parts locker for filters, impellers, V-belts, lube oil, engine coolant and spare alternators, starters, fuses and domestic water system pumps. Do you have the parts and pieces needed to repair a marine toilet? Better yet, do you know how? (I met a couple a few years ago who lacked a simple toilet part. They spent three days in a marina, alongside the dock restrooms, waiting for it to be delivered.)

Finally, when all that heavy work is done—and it can and should be done sometime between September and March or April—it would be time for cosmetics that may be possible with improving weather: washing, cleaning, waxing, buffing, painting, repairing gel coat cracks, and dings. I usually do varnish, but Dave does the rest, except for fiberglass repair. There are many good spring cleanup products on the market and everyone I know seems to favor a different kind (and their boats all look good), so I’m not going to get into that.

Detailing the hull and deck make old fiberglass gleam. Just like new!

Detailing the hull and deck make old fiberglass gleam. Just like new!

Dave and I use biodegradable detergents for washing (I can do that!) and I have noted that nothing else winds up in the water. He refinished my teak transom one year and between a drop cloth spread over the boarding platform, a big shop vacuum, and a steady brush hand, nothing landed in the water. Incidentally, he is a wizard at applying varnish in cold weather.

I have teak decks and they still look good after 33 years. I clean teak with a mild detergent, a lot of water and a brush with ultra-soft bristles. I do not use the two-part chemical treatments that make teak beautiful by dissolving the gray surface layers of wood. Once that’s all done, it’s time for testing.

I’ve previously joined others from the Fidalgo Yacht Club in a pair of spring cruises into the San Juan Islands. Once under way I’ll switch on every system from the furnace to the water maker, freezer, and the spare refrigerator. It’ll all run full-time on both trips. I dare anything to fail, but should that happen there’s still time for a fix before serious cruising begins.

I’ll also make the engines and gearboxes work harder than usual on these two spring outings. My guide is a test procedure employed by Passagemaker hall of famer Steve D’ Antonio when he’s checking out a boat. His practice, which includes significant time in the engine room while under way with an infrared pyrometer, can be found here. Read it, please.

Once everything is finished, spring commissioning is over—that is, until next fall.