Spring Start-Up: Getting Your Boat Commissioned For Summer
By: Scott Way
As soon as winter shows its first signs of weakness boaters begin eyeballing weather reports for updates. Whether you stare longingly at your boat in the driveway while drinking your morning coffee, or you start calling your local marina daily for updates, the arrival of spring incites a growing eagerness to get back on open water. A little preventative maintenance before hitting the lake can mean the difference between boating all summer or being stuck on the dock in July for repairs, so here are 10 tips to help you make the most of your springtime excitement.
1. Gauge How Winterization Went
If you winterized your boat properly, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about when the snow clears, but that doesn’t mean you should just turn the key and leave land behind. There can always be surprises if your boat has been sitting idle for months. Remove all the coverings and inspect the boat from bow to stern. Don’t be superficial; any critter or weather damage is likely hidden in the bilge or out of sight. If rodents or critters are a concern, install an ultrasonic pest repellent in your boat. Amazon has a few good options at a low cost. A bad unveiling can delay the start of your season while you make costly repairs, so putting time into proper winterization is the lesson here. West Marine has a great selection of winterization equipment, and the cost of a cover is always worth the investment. Once spring rolls around, give the boat a full inspection for any unforeseen surprises because you give a critter an inch, it’ll take a mile (and your upholstery with it).
2. Document Any Damage
After you’ve done a superficial once-over to gauge what you’re in for, now's the time to dig deeper. Check the hull for any new evidence of cracks, abrasion, or weather damage. Sadly it’s not uncommon to find something in the spring you’ll swear wasn’t there in the fall, but weather and time have a subtle way of slowly accumulating scratches and dents. it's always a surprise how much snow buildup, falling leaves or branches, and repetitive exposure to wind and water can leave behind scuffs, scrapes, and other minor irritants that seemingly took months to become noticeable. Keep a diagram of your boat with your paperwork and mark any damage on it. You can reference the diagram throughout your ownership if you suspect there’s something new that wasn’t there in the fall. That’ll help you clarify if it’s been dealt with, whether it’s gotten any worse since you last noticed it, or whether it needs attention.
3. Wash Away Winter
As soon as winter recedes it’s too easy to toss the cover aside and hit the lake. However, it's important to temper your eagerness in the spring lest you regret it in the fall. First things first- wash away winter using proper marine cleaners. Clean all the canvas, vinyl, and carpeting as part of an annual spring startup tradition. No, it won’t be easy to get motivated, but avoiding spring cleaning increases the risk damage in- season. Vacuum the cushions, vinyl, and flooring and give the boat a full wipe down to remove any dust, dirt, or condensation. This is an opportunity to proactively check for cracks in the vinyl or upholstery so they can be patched before they get worse. Inspect your bimini top to make sure it can handle the wind/weather again, and give the hull a full cleaning with soap and water. If you spend a Saturday in the spring getting winter off the boat, you’re less likely to be sending it in for repairs in the fall.
4. Check the Engine & Propeller
Winter is a thorn in the side of all things metal, so be sure to check your boat’s engine and propeller for dents or damage that could cause an issue when you turn it over. If a superficial inspection doesn’t show any concern continue with a fluid check- engine oil, additives, fuel filter, etc. Fuel lines have a tendency to crack over winter from cold and dry temperatures, so inspect them before running any gas. Check your belts as well- if you give the belt some pressure you’ll be able to tell if it’s lost slack and seats properly or if it needs replacement. Engines aren’t forgiving, so don’t them a chance to rack up a repair bill.
5. Check Cooling System & Replace Antifreeze
If you flushed the cooling system when you winterized your boat, now’s the time to refill everything with proper marine coolant. If you skipped the flushing anticipating you’d do it in the spring, now you’ll have to do the flush and drain. Flush the system with a diluted coolant mix that’s 50/50 water and coolant and replace the system with fresh antifreeze. This is also a good time to inspect all your hoses- check for kinks or cracks and look for any developing issues. Better to patch or replace a small crack now so it doesn’t happen while you’re on the water.
6. Check/Replace Battery
Batteries don’t like sitting idle, and they definitely don’t like cold weather, so a battery check is definitely in order. If you can, hook your battery up to a trickle charger over the winter. That’ll keep it stable and ensure it’s in working order when boating season returns. If that’s not an option, perform the battery check before reconnecting anything. A marine battery typically needs 12-24 hours to fully charge so make sure you give it time even if you’re antsy. Being dead in the water due to battery failure isn’t a great start to the season. Depending on the severity of winter where you live, a battery that gets exposed to extreme temperatures may never recover or hold a charge well again (In Canada, standard car batteries don’t withstand temperatures below about -40C unless otherwise stated), so ensuring your battery is fully operational while onshore is definitely worth the time. If you suspect an extremely cold winter could have caused damage (even if the voltmeter reads well), replace the battery immediately.
7. Attach Electronics
Anything electronic can be finicky, so attaching and testing all your electronics before going on the water is part of being a responsible boater. This includes your GPS and navigation systems, depth finders, radio(s), lighting system, audio system, etc. Winter weather and storage moisture and condensation buildup throughout the boat, so taking the time to source the location of any issues could save you from big trouble. Sometimes an issue like a crackly radio can be traced back to a corroded wire inside the hull, and digging around inside there is a lot easier onshore. Finding and repairing those issues now is better than finding out on-water you’ve got a fixable problem but don’t have the means or the parts to repair it. If it’s got a knob or a switch, test it now.
8. Polish and Wax
Consider this the ‘get hyped’ part of spring startup. Spit shine your boat. Not only is it a great way to check for issues, starting the season with a clean vessel is great preventative maintenance. Using marine grade cleaners with UV protection will preserve the hull and upholstery, so you’ll be adding a layer of protection before it spends the next 4-6 months in the sun. Power wash and wax the hull- that will ward off any accumulation of dirt/grime during the season and prevent permanent staining. Be sure to use a proper brush so you don't cause damage, or scuff erasers for small interior and exterior marks. If your boat has wood components, now’s the time to re-oil them. Once wood dries out it’ll start to crack, and that’s basically a one way ticket towards replacement. The more you ensure the wood saturated and well coated the longer it’ll last.
9. Trailer Time
If you use a trailer, it should have a spring startup procedure just like your boat. First and foremost, check your tires. Repetitive heating/cooling over winter can cause the bead (seal) around the rim to leak. The tire may look OK visually but could still have low pressure due to cold air contraction so check the pressures with a gauge. Check the wiring as well- make sure turn signals, brake lights, and emergency lights work correctly on both sides. Use a spotter if needed. Check for corrosion on the trailer wiring harness at the tongue, and check the receiver on your vehicle as well. There’s a good chance your receiver is full of sand, salt, and grime from a winter’s worth of driving. You should also check the welds around the trailer frame- the contraction of metal in cold temperatures, plus exposure to sand, salt, and moisture can cause corrosion leading to failure. Look for any stress cracks or evidence of corrosion that indicates a potential risk for structural failure.
10. Reload for Adventure
If you’ve done all the legwork and your boat (and trailer) is primed, it’s time to reload for adventure. Get everything back on board like waterskiis, wakeboards, BBQ and accessories, fishing equipment, coolers, and other hardware. Check all your PFD’s and make sure they’re in good working order and there are enough for each crew member. Double check your safety equipment including your First Aid kit, emergency gear (flares, radio, spare batteries, etc), and your fire extinguisher to make sure it’s pressurized (and not expired). Check your paperwork as well- make sure your license, ownership, title, and insurance are all with the boat and in good order. Registration and regulation varies from place to place, so check with your local government office if you’re not sure you’re legally operational. Now that you’re loaded up, all you need is some sunshine and warm weather to enjoy another great boating season. If you’re a stickler for details and would benefit from a comprehensive checklist, DiscoverBoating.ca has a downloadable PDF. If you’ve followed the steps above not only should your summer be problem free but you’ll be making a smart investment in the longevity of your boat and your enjoyment on the water.