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5 Things for Captains to Revisit Before Spring Launch

By: Scott Way

Boat on trailer in driveway
There's lots to be done on shore before you hit the water

With spring launch officially starting, most boaters are dusting off the cobwebs on their boats and preparing for their first outing. There is always much work to be done, but it's all to easy to miss something during spring cleaning that can make the difference between a good season and a bad season. We're all looking to enjoy ourselves, and it starts with being prepared. And once you're underway, don't forget how to be a good boater.

But before the fun starts, here are 5 things captains should brush up on to ensure a safe start to the season.

1) Using a Pre-Trip Checklist

Every person, boat, and waterway is different, and no two boating trips are the same. It's important to take precautions before departure so that once you're on the water you can be confident that you, and your equipment, are squared away.

A pre-trip checklist is one of the best ways to verify your equipment is onboard and in proper working order before departure. If you keep copies of the checklist on board it will be easy to access and review, plus you can add it to your pre-departure routine. It'll make both you and your passengers more comfortable knowing you're heading out with everything you need. Try using this downloadable pre-departure checklist to make the process easier.

Some of the items that should be included on your pre-trip checklist include:

2) Using a Float Plan

A float plan is not the same as a pre-trip checklist. The pre-trip checklist is valuable for verifying the boat's equipment, but a float plan confirms your movements for the day (or beyond). Before heading out on a trip, always leave a float plan with someone you trust---especially for longer trips. A float plan provides information about where and when you are boating, as well as your expected return time. A float plan should include:

  • Name, description and information about owner/operator

  • Vessel information: size, type, color, engine etc.

  • Safety equipment on board

  • Trip details : departure date, return date, destination, proposed route, stops along the way etc.

  • Name, description and info of passengers

You can download a float plan and pre-departure checklist for your own use and make it part of your regular routine alongside the equipment checklist from above.

3) Establishing a Launch Routine

Boat on trailer at launch ramp
Establish a launch routine before hitting the ramp

Once you arrive at your launch/departure location there are several things you should do before actually launching. This process serves as an additional inspection of your vessel as you get set to launch, and it helps avoid clogging up launch ramps until you're actually ready to go. Before you go about launching your boat, be sure to check the following:

  • Remove all the tie-downs, with the exception of the winch line

  • Load any additional supplies and equipment into the boat

  • Insert the drain plug

  • Disconnect the trailer’s brake lights – so you don’t burn out any bulbs

  • Remove the motor travel supports, if used

  • Putt the trim up to prevent hitting the prop when launching

  • If you're launching the boat by yourself, you can attach a line to the bow to steady the boat upon its release. If you have two persons launching the boat, and one is staying in the boat, you may not need a bow line.

4) Revisit Your Navigation Lights & Requirements

One of the most common issues in boating is navigation and understanding the rules of the water. Having proper navigation lights lets other boaters know where you are, your orientation, and your direction of travel. If you are operating between sunset and sunrise, or in restricted visibility like fog or rain, displaying the proper navigation lights lets other boaters see where you are and take action to avoid a collision. Navigation light systems generally include red and green sidelights, which indicate port and starboard, as well as one or more white lights. You should also keep a quality flashlight on board that's both waterproof and has a strong 'throw,' meaning the distance it can project, in case you suffer a navigation light failure.

Navigation light requirements vary depending on a number of factors, so you need to conform with the regulations based on circumstances like the following:

  • The length of your boat: e.g. under or over 12 meters;

  • Whether your boat is being powered by an engine;

  • Where you're boating, e.g. inland or international waters; and

  • Whether you at anchor

It is your responsibility to have the proper navigation lighting. Even if you just purchased a new boat, check to ensure that you've got the right lights for safe, and legal, boating.

You must also carry visual distress signals in case of an emergency, whether that be an electrical failure causing your navigation lights to fail, or another crisis that means calling for help from your fellow boaters. Here's a quick how-to on all the visual aids you should have with your boat.

And here's a quick breakdown of how navigation lights work and what their requirements are depending on the type of vessel you're in.

5) Add Maintenance Checks to Your Pre-Season Process

While you are understandably eager to get your season underway and you have no doubt done some pre-season maintenance, it is important to make sure you have covered all the basics. Forgetting to check something as simple as fluid levels could leave you with a mechanical failure while underway. Here are a couple general maintenance tips you should cover during your pre-season routine:

  1. Change the engine oil at least once every season. If you didn't do so in the fall, do it now.(Refer to your engine owner’s manual for the manufacturer's oil change recommendations)

  2. Inspect all belts and hoses. Replace any that are torn or show signs of excessive wear. Inspect all fluid levels, oil levels, and the condition of your battery

  3. Look for corrosion and oxidation around any mechanical components and take preventative measures before they become a serious problem

  4. Check and service your transmission according to the manufacturer’s recommendations

  5. Check any fittings that go through your hull - like the engine-cooling intakes

If you want to become a captain in the future, you can start by obtaining your Pleasure Craft Operator Card. There are also endless resources for boaters of all types from BoaterExam.

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