Labor Day often means the end of the traditional boating season in Northern waters, but I have always considered September and October to be the best months of the year along the New Jersey Shore, where I keep my boat. Crowds are gone, the weather is mild, bay and ocean waters remain comfortable for swimming, and the diminishing hours of daylight trigger migratory species like tuna, bluefish, striped bass and fluke to ramp up their feeding schedules. These months are a virtual second summer, a prime opportunity to travel to places like Newport and Block Island in Rhode Island, or Nantucket and the Vineyard in Massachusetts, to enjoy crowd-free boating in beautiful surroundings and blissful weather.
Operating your boat at this time of the year requires a more practical approach to keep you and your crew safe. While it’s smart to file a float plan any time of year—leaving it with family or friends who will know you are on the water and when you expect to return—it’s an especially important step when fewer boats are out on the water around you. I recall a southbound trip to Florida one early fall day. On the leg from New Jersey’s Manasquan Inlet to Ocean City, Maryland, I saw just one other boat until we tied up at a marina for the night. Being self-sufficient is always important on the water, but when yours is the only boat out there, the size of the ocean reminds you how small you really are.
Reduced daylight at this time of year can mean leaving or arriving in the dark, so make sure your navigation lights are in working order. Similarly, inspect the dates on your visual distress signals to ensure they are current. It may be a coincidence, but the two times I have been boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard have been in September, when boat traffic was minimal on New Jersey’s Manasquan River. I passed the inspections, but one time, my flares bore an expiration date at the end of the month. I knew it, even when the Coast Guard inspector smiled and pointed it out. Duly noted, I said to him. The next day, I bought a new set of flares.
Also, check the condition of the boat’s personal flotation devices. After a long summer of use by your crew and guests, the materials and straps can be in rough condition. Take inventory of your flotation devices, too, and consider replacements sooner rather than later. If you carry battery-operated safety equipment such as an EPIRB, confirm its expiration and replacement date.
With less traffic on the water, some eager skippers may ponder who will know, or see, if no-wake zones are ignored. Trust me, people notice.
The opposite of overly eager skippers are overly relaxed ones. Reduced boating traffic can leave you feeling more casual about your boat-operating skills. Stay alert, and be on the lookout for smaller boats, floating debris and similar hazards to navigation. Pay attention to buoys and day markers, especially in tight channels that are prone to shoaling in tidal waters. It is not uncommon for summer boaters or personal watercraft operators to knock over day markers in less-traveled waterways, so always remain in the deeper channel.
Never leave the wheel unattended, or flip on the autopilot and take a break, even if yours is the only boat you see. If you need to use the head or want to do an interior or engine room check, pull back the throttle and take the engine out of gear before leaving the helm. A beautiful day can change in a heartbeat if you let carelessness take the wheel.
When you do get into open water where you can let all of the ponies out of the stable, stretch those throttle levers and note how the boat and engine are performing. Be sure the motors can reach full rpm to check their end-of-season health, and to be sure the performance and cooling systems are up to snuff. A bent propeller, a fouled bottom or a dirty fuel filter may be the culprit if the engines lag. If the engine overheats or seems to run warmer than usual, it could mean that a raw-water strainer is clogged or that the water pump impeller is worn, damaged or needs to be replaced.
Fix these problems before you put the boat away, or get on your dealer’s work schedule for the coming spring launch. Write down the engine-performance information, including rpm, speed, water and gear temperatures, oil pressures and similar data. Note any peculiarities about the boat, its systems and apparent shortcomings.
This time of year also presents a good opportunity to turn on all of the boat’s electronics and ensure that each is working properly. I recall a friend who had me aboard for a late-summer evening ride, only to discover that his radar was inoperable. He had not used it all season, and the power plug had corroded. Another late-season boating friend had a similar experience with his anchor windlass when he learned that the chain gypsy’s motor was out of business, preventing the release and recovery of the rode. He could not remember the last time he had used his anchor.
Most boaters recognize the importance of adding a fuel stabilizer to prevent phase separation in ethanol-laced gasoline, as well as to keep the fuel in good shape during the winter or seasonal layover. However, I start adding stabilizer at this time of year and continue to do so until I haul out to ensure that it thoroughly mixes with the gas and has ample opportunity to run through the engine’s fuel system to remove gum and carbon.
Now is also a great time to check the engine compartment and lazarette for leaks while you’re tied up at the dock, and to confirm that the bilge pumps work and the batteries are charged. Make sure that your lines are secure, and that the shore power cord is properly installed, so the boat will be safe until you return.
The winter is a miserable time for boaters whose vessels are laid up. Take advantage of the next few weeks and use your boat. Go cruising, go fishing—go somewhere and enjoy yourself. Take day trips and breathe in that crisp salt air. You will end the season in good spirits and endure the winter with thoughts of even better days ahead.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.