Spring hasn’t sprung yet. It’s still winter, and I’m still down south. I winterize my boat by sailing to lower latitudes and I like it that way. But I can’t help thinking about all of those boring “getting ready for spring” articles I’ve been seeing in boating magazines since I began reading them back in the ’50s. I’m already not looking forward to them.
I do have some familiarity with the subject because I have a center console up where it’s freezing, and I winterized and “springized” many larger boats in the days before I moved aboard. And, although it may not seem like it where you are, soon it’ll be spring, or close enough, so I thought I’d bounce around a few of my own tips that I’ve never seen in any “getting ready for spring” articles.
This is a subject steeped in tradition, so pardon me (not) in advance if my tips aren’t all standard fodder or politically correct.
The first and most obvious tactic is to give your significant other a lot of very good wine (or whatever else works), sandpaper, paint, varnish, tools and a notarized list of trade-off promises from you. (You can’t lose if you’re getting out of springizing.) It’s good to lay the groundwork at Christmas, but that’s gone by the boards now, and you shouldn’t keep anyone in a state of chemically induced cooperativeness that long anyway. And I just blew the scheme by talking about it, so let’s just dig into it.
I’ll concentrate mostly on trailer boats and relatively small boats with outboards because that’s probably what most of us endeavor to springize. Usually a yacht with one or more inboards has been professionally prepared by the yard where it resides for winter on the hard, and it will probably be professionally prepared for the next season. Also, cabin yachts with accommodations like heads, freshwater systems and inboards are usually a lot more complicated to winterize, and overlooking an issue can be disastrous. Just one mistake made by winterizing an inboard can do enough damage to require a repower. This is another reason why most of us get a professional involved with these boats. And I don’t feel like getting that deeply into this unpleasant subject anyway.
However, many things I’ll cover with regard to smaller boats will also be applicable, to some extent, to most boats. If you do have a larger boat, my best advice is to take it south where you can enjoy it all the time. Put it in a nice marina, and drive or fly down and use it as a condo. Then all you have to do when spring comes is take a lovely cruise back home when the weather is getting really nice. But for now, it’s back to the business of springizing for the rest of us.
Where the sun don’t shine
Never stick your hand (or any other body part) into a hole or crevice until you look in there with a flashlight. And if you can’t see in there, get a little inspection mirror on a long adjustable wand and use it with a strong directed-beam flashlight. It’ll be well worth the cost of paying a doctor for a snake bite, rat bite, mouse bite, squirrel bite, spider bite, bird bite or various and sundry other bites, nibbles and stings.
Creatures just love to crawl into holes on boats that are sitting unattended in the field or in the yard. And when you start messing around in their winter condo, they might be just waking up from a long winter’s nap and a bit hungry, not to mention ticked off that you’re disturbing them. If you don’t see any creatures but see a lot of grass, rag tatters, insulation and other junk, consider that something is living there and is preparing to fend off your invasion.
Never sit your butt on a seat or bag of life jackets or cushions until you’ve checked them out to be sure you’re not sharing the seat with something else or sitting on calling cards left by something else. It isn’t unusual for bugs, birds, squirrels, mice, etc., to inconspicuously burrow into a seat cushion and make a wonderful nest of the stuffing inside. Even if you’re one of those who would take great pleasure in sitting on a nest of baby mice, think of the cleanup afterward.
If you’ve left a towel or a rag in the boat piled up in a corner somewhere (and you shouldn’t have) don’t pick it up with your hands. Pick it up with a boathook and shake it out, unless you’d rather just throw it away.
Look for mud daubers and other bugs, especially if you’re getting a late-spring start. These things will not only sting you, they’ll stop up holes that you never want stopped up. I’ve seen people pull off lower units of outboards to change the water pump when it was just fine. Mud daubers had gotten into the pee hole and the stream wasn’t streaming. All they needed to do was to stick a coat hanger or other device into the hole to clear it out.
I’ve also seen pitot holes for speedometers clogged by bugs. It doesn’t take much and it’s easy to fix. Look in there and, if you see something that’s not supposed to be there, figure you’ve got a problem. If you don’t see something but your speedometer doesn’t work after you launch, that little hole is still one of the first places to inspect, even though there’s nothing visible from the outside. Again, all it takes is some careful reaming with a tiny tool. The tool you use depends on the size and configuration of your hole, but often a midget Phillips screwdriver will do if you’re careful not to damage any sensitive parts inside. A small, bright flashlight can be very helpful with this part of the project.
Everybody knows about spring painting, waxing, brightwork or whatever else it is that yuppie yachting magazines talk about. But I want to continue to talk about where the sun never shines. Get a light and inspection mirror and look as well as you can into the ’tween decks area, if you have one. It can be a great place for snakes to hibernate. Not only will you be looking for things that can take off your fingers, you’ll also be looking to see what needs to be done at this time of rare opportunity. Never again will certain areas of your boat be bone dry … until you haul it again for another long duration.
One such area will be the space between the deck and the hull. This is often where the bilge pump resides, the float switch and perhaps certain through-hulls, such as the transducer for the depth finder. My Mako has a depth finder transducer mounted in a water box there and, if the box has sprung a leak where it’s joined to the hull, I can only fix it in a dry environment. If you don’t have a ’tween decks, you may have a bilge pump sump that will never be dry once you launch.
Frequently the pad or base to which the bilge pump is fastened will rot through the years. Maybe it’s time to replace the pump and/or switch simply as a matter of preventive maintenance. Once you put the boat in the water, no matter how sound the hull and tight the decks, there’s going to be water and moisture ’tween decks. That makes it harder to glue, seal new screw holes, add sealant for other projects and do other jobs. It also makes it harder to clean oil from surfaces before using glue, sealant or other adhesives.
Check all the wires you can see. It’s usually easier to do this before you put the boat in the water. A center console or other open boat won’t have the wiring harnesses of a large yacht, but what they have are still important. This is a particularly important time to check them because creatures like rats, field mice, squirrels and the like for some reason think insulation tastes good.
Also, check the fuel lines. Someone once told me I was nuts in this department. I’d never disagree with that assessment, but I didn’t hesitate to tell him about the 5-gallon jerry jug filled with gas that I had in a shed. A squirrel literally ate a large hole in the top. Fumes, fires, explosions and environmental spills are just some of the disasters that came to mind when I saw this. They can do it in a boat, too, and they have a great opportunity when it’s stored on land. They’re especially likely to go into nibble frenzies in the spring when they start venturing out, wondering where the hell they hid that last stash of nuts.
Threats from the sky
Looking into nether regions of the hull only begins to solve potential problems. As you walk to and fro around the boat, also keep your eyes to the heavens. Well, maybe not quite that far up. Look for small birds. There seems to be no better place to build nests and lay eggs (and do whatever it is they do and however they do it to get those eggs) in stored boats. Popular homestead areas are the folds of tarps, in center console “glove compartments,” in unstepped masts or any other hole, fold or cover.
One of the most potentially damaging areas is in the air intake on an outboard cowling. Mud daubers love that area, too, but they seldom completely clog it. However, a bird’s nest in there can prevent the engine from getting air, to the extent of suffocating it. Much worse, the nest material can get sucked into the air intake on the engine itself. At that point small parts might get sucked all the way in despite the air filtration system, if there is any.
Birds can give us other little gifts also: lice. Birds frequently carry these fiendish friends and leave them in nests. If you remove the nest carefully with rubber gloves and then spray, you hopefully won’t be bothered (except that they can make very long leaps). And any lice remaining on the boat will soon starve unless you elect to feed them or do so inadvertently. But if you let the nest remain, they can infest the boat and could still be alive and voraciously hungry the first time someone lies in the sun showing all that skin, or just sits or lies on a cushion.
Drips and dribbles
Moving on to a less-esoteric endeavor, it’s always wise to check for dribbles and seepage before you put the boat back in the water or before you start running it. Drips and dribbles could appear just about anywhere on a boat, and they’re often signs of bad things that are developing or have already developed.
For example, just a little moisture seepage in any area where the transom of an outboard boat joins the hull could mean that the constantly stressed joint there has been compromised and that water has entered the transom. It may be in the coring, which means serious problems are looming if they’ve not developed already. I’ve seen transoms actually pull off boats by a quickly throttled outboard when problems like this are neglected.
Also, moisture seeping from any place in the hull could mean that water has entered the laminate and that blisters have developed or are in the process. With the hull drying out all winter, it’s a good time to repair blisters or water intrusion into the laminate before they get too bad. If you see moisture seeping from the hull, or signs of it, assume the worst but tread softly. It might be merely water under the paint or gelcoat, so don’t act too invasively unless you know you need to.
Another area of seepage patrol is the inside of the boat, even if it’s an open skiff. If you find moisture where there shouldn’t be, it could indicate a deck leak, a leak from the anchor locker or another area. This often will stand in a pocket within the lining or behind cabinetry during the winter and eventually migrate from whatever pockets it’s settled in to offer you some telltale clues. When you’re running the boat during the season, the jarring around could prevent this from happening, and if it does you may assume it’s simply spray or some less serious cause.
Look for indications of frozen moisture in the laminate. Moisture can seep into fiberglass laminate; it’s what causes blisters. But sometimes it will freeze, expanding and separating the laminate. This can result in much more serious intrusion and blisters after you launch. Indicators of this could include seepage from irregular spots in the hull and raised areas that could be blisters or laminate separated by freezing. Water freezing under paint can cause it to separate from the hull, but this is much easier to detect than freezing within the hull material.
Also check your engine for drips and dribbles. Unfortunately, the possibilities are multitudinous. With inboards, any sniff of antifreeze is a suggestion of a problem, from a bad hose to a cracked block. Anything running down the block or any other part of the engine likely indicates problems. You can narrow it down by determining what’s leaking — for example, transmission fluid, lube oil, antifreeze/water or sea water. Trace the leak or drip to its source. Again, there might be no problem or serious issue. It’s better to do this in the spring before launch and running because the stresses of running a boat will often cause drips and dribbles that indicate different issues or no issues at all.
Outboards are easier to check, but checking is just as important. Pull the cowling and thoroughly inspect around the powerhead. Drips or dribbles there will probably be limited to oil, assuming it’s a 4-stroke. (The raw water that cools the engine should drain when you store the outboard in its vertical position.) There could also be drips from the fuel components, but that’s unlikely when the engine isn’t running. You should check for this soon after you get the engine started.
It’s also important to check the lower unit on an outboard. There should be no water seeping from any cavities there. It should have all drained when you stored the engine in a vertical position. If it didn’t, something could be wrong with the plumbing or there may have been an internal freezing issue. Also, check the tip of the skeg for water or oil, the exhaust ports and the center of the prop. Run your dry hand across the tip of the skeg to be sure that nothing’s there that shouldn’t be.
Of course, this is also the time to check for water in the lower unit oil, the level and condition of that oil, and whether you should change it (usually you should), all according to manufacturer specs. The lower plug in the lower unit often will be slightly magnetic to attract pieces of metal that have worn off. Check and feel for these. Depending on the engine, its use and age, some particulate may be normal, but large pieces aren’t and may require the help of a pro. The same may also apply to the drain plug for the powerhead lube oil.
Most outboards can be run — following the manufacturer instructions — while on the hard, clamped to a safe and sturdy saw horse or similar structure, or clamped to the stern of the boat while it’s on the trailer. It’s easy to slide an adapter over the water intake and turn on the hose. (Be sure the adapter is adequate and approved by the manufacturer.) This should be done for several reasons. Obviously, it’s nice to know the engine won’t start while it’s still in your yard, rather than at the ramp when dozens more spring boaters are waiting to launch. Beyond that, you can get an idea of how well it has survived the winter, whether the gauges work, whether there’s a fuel leak and other potential issues.
As a general rule, the outboard shouldn’t be run above idle unless a pro is involved. Also, when shifting into gear it’s critical that care be taken that no person or thing is in the vicinity of the propeller. A classic mistake occurs when the hose feeding water into the intake is close to the prop. The owner has dutifully checked that water is flowing from the pee hole after starting the engine, so he assumes all is well as to cooling. But then he turns the wheel, which moves the outboard, which tangles the hose in the prop. When the engine is put in gear, it pulls loose the hose and adaptor, and unbeknownst to the owner, the outboard no longer is taking in cooling water and the water pump is stripping its veins.
Preserve your integrity
One of the most often repeated lies in the trailering community is, “Well gosh darn, officer, I checked those lights just before I left and they were working fine.” Simply hook up your vehicle, plug in the harness and check the lights. It’s so easy to save yourself from this lie and a sojourn in purgatory.
I believe most of us don’t check the lights because it’s such a pain when you find one or more not working, and it’s so much easier to lie than fix it. This shouldn’t be such a trauma. The lights probably don’t work simply because a little corrosion has developed over the winter. Usually the fix is easy. Start with the main harness plug. Squirt a product such as WD-40 into the receptacles and on the prongs, plug and unplug a few times and you’ll probably have solved the problem. If that doesn’t work, you may need to check more deeply by looking for connections and disconnecting and spraying them. The disconnect and reconnect helps to clean the contact surface.
If you’ve simply got a reluctant bulb, remove it and then clean and spray the contacts. A new one will probably only cost a buck or two, if that. Usually the repair isn’t hard and doesn’t take much time.
Big brother from the sky
I’ve discussed flying insects and birds and, in case all of that wasn’t enough to get your attention, consider that some birds (and heaven knows what else) are “protected.” Now this is a term that’s very much in vogue with many government employees and many just-plain-wonderful people who are concerned about the things that we all should be concerned about. The problem is, this term always seems to apply only to birds or mammals or fish or reptiles. I think it would even apply to the T. Rex if they found one walking around in New York City stepping on thousands of people.
You can be absolutely sure it never applies to boat owners. So if you get an osprey building a nest on your boat, you may have serious problems, including legal. I heard a story, from a very reputable source, of a poor owner who walked down to his boat very late one spring with the idea of shaking it out and getting it ready for summer. It was on a lift in his boathouse and he found an osprey nest on top of the console cover. This was notwithstanding the fact that this conscientious gentleman had spent hundreds of dollars having an official osprey stand erected near the boathouse to make life easier for these “endangered” and protected creatures.
To make matters worse, the nest contained babies. The feathered family seemed to be anything but endangered, but the guy knew that they were because the government said so. He dutifully did the right thing and called the local environmental authorities. They promptly came and informed him that he’d done a wonderful thing and that, oh, by the way, he couldn’t move his boat or in any way disturb the ospreys, including mentally and emotionally, until the babies were gone — of their own volition and without any prompting.
It was reported that throughout the summer he would be seen late at night sneaking down the shore and leaving little fish hanging from trees, but the osprey elected to remain in their home through most of the season. The boat, of course, sat unused and poorly maintained, filling with stinking pieces of dead fish and osprey droppings because even changing a spark plug would have surely given an emotional jolt to the birds.
This entire matter points to a very important lesson. It’s spring, and the earlier we start spending quality time with our boats, even just sitting there freezing our butts off on the hard, the better it is. The beginning of the season should be way before the season actually begins. If we do nothing else, we should just be there and enjoy being there. And, incidentally, unless you’re a bit of an odd duck, that usually helps ospreys to reach a decision to build their nests elsewhere.
I could give a lot more tips, but at the moment I’m in Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, Fla., and all I have to do to get in some good fishing in this nice, warm weather is to launch my dinghy and run out the inlet or up a creek. So I’m not going to worry about springizing anymore. They say spring is a wonderful new beginning. I like having that new beginning all the time.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at www.tomneale.com.
Thsi article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.