15 boat maintenance tips

Experts share their best advice on how to keep your boat in top condition

By Conor MihellConor Mihell


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1. Be vigilant about battery set up, maintenance, and safety

David Wells, marine surveyer

There are three things Peterborough-based David Wells looks for when inspecting a boat’s battery system: secure installation, shielded terminals and, for batteries with more than 800 cold-cranking amps, a shut-off switch. Wells insists boats be equipped with appropriately sized, acid-proof battery boxes. When purchasing a battery box, ensure it will provide adequate ventilation to prevent explosive hydrogen gas from building up when the battery is charging. Secure battery boxes to the bottom of your boat to keep them from bouncing, shorting, or damaging your hull. Terminal shields — which can be purchased or made from scrap heater hose and zip ties — are essential to protect against inadvertent battery shorting. For sterndrive engines, Wells says labelled battery shut-off switches located outside the engine hatch are critical for safety in the event of a fuel leak or fire. And don’t forget to inspect your battery and electrical system regularly. Wells says a boater’s first priority is to “look after things that might burn, blow up, or sink the boat.”

2. Wire your accessories properly, through a fuse panel

Gary Poole, mechanic

Don’t even think of cutting into existing wires to power electric add-ons such as stereos, speakers, or windshield wipers. “Each wire has a set amount of resistance,” says Gary Poole, a co-owner of Buckeye Marine in Bobcaygeon, Ont. “If you tap into power at the key switch, for instance, you’re on the same circuit as the engine. This could alter the computer processing unit on the engine, reducing performance, or start a fire.” Poole insists that the only way to power 12-volt accessories is through a fuse panel or a circuit breaker that’s rated for the accessories’ amperage. Install fuse panels in a protected and convenient location as close as possible to accessories. “The longer you have to run wires, the more power you lose,” explains Poole. Plus, you’ll eliminate the ubiquitous tangle of wires.

3. Keep your fuel water-free

John Gullick, Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons

All gasoline is prone to accumulating water because of condensation during long periods of storage, but this undesired trait is sped up in ​ethanol-blended fuel. As a result, John Gullick, manager of government and special programs with the Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons, says the five to 10 per cent ethanol content in fuel at both land and marina pumps should be a big concern for boaters. “Ethanol-blended fuel wasn’t designed for marine applications,” he says. Most undesirable are its tendencies to attract moisture and to quickly separate into fuel and water. “I’ve instal­led two fuel filters in my boat — a twist-on water separ­ator at the tank and a cartridge filter at the engine,” says Gullick. “I also add fuel stabilizer at every fill-up.” For winter storage, he says, etha­nol blend or not, it’s critical to keep tanks about 95 per cent full to further reduce the risk of condensation.

4. Use the proper propeller

Robert Craigie, mechanic

Match propeller design to your style of boat, your type of boating, and your engine’s ideal RPM range to prolong engine life and improve fuel economy. Robert Craigie, owner of MM Mobile Marine, near Smiths Falls, Ont., says, “If the prop is balanced, cut, and pitched properly for the boat, the boat and motor will work hand in hand,” burning fuel more evenly and ensuring good engine performance and boat handling. “You need a different style of prop for towing skiers, driving a pontoon boat, or cruising in a runabout.” Your dealer can suggest the prop that best suits your use. It only takes 10 or 15 minutes to change a prop: Remove fasteners, switch the props, and refasten with a new cotter pin. Apply lubricant on the prop shaft once a year or when needed, to ease future removal. Check regularly that nuts are secure and keep your arsenal of props in good repair; watch for dings, hairline cracks, and pitting. Damage will unbalance a prop, putting stress on the engine. “Vibration from a bent prop will cause internal damage to the engine’s lower unit or destroy its seals and cause oil leaks,” he warns.

5. Replace your impeller

Reg Garnett, marine service manager

Annual replacement of your outboard, sterndrive, or inboard engine’s water-pump impeller is “cheap insurance for engine longevity and reliability,” says Reg Garnett, director of service at Pride Marine Group in Bracebridge. The paddlewheel-shaped rubber impeller is constantly spinning in your drive’s lower unit, drawing water from the lake and pumping it into the engine to prevent overheating, explains Garnett. In the case of an outboard motor, a stream of water flows from an outlet hole at the base of the cowling when the impeller is operating properly. If this flow stops, it means the impeller has either failed or become obstructed by debris: Your engine is in danger of severe damage. Garnett recommends having your water-pump impeller changed at a marina as part of your spring tune-up, especially if working with small engines makes you nervous.

6. Learn to trim your boat correctly

Mark Payne, marina owner

Proper trimming of a boat is a dying art that extends engine life. “Power trim is grossly underutilized by most boaters,” says Mark Payne, of Pointe au Baril’s Payne Marine. “But get it right and your engine won’t be working as hard.” Payne advises boaters to pay less attention to their dashboard trim gauge and instead rely on the spray off the hull, the sound of the engine, and the tachometer. Start with your outboard engine or your outdrive trimmed all the way down. Once your boat comes up on a plane, trim the drive up, which will lift the bow out of the water and cause the spray off the hull to move towards the stern. You’ve trimmed up a bit too far when the bow slaps on the water, and the engine begins to draw air and its RPMs increase. At this point, “the trick is to trim down just the slightest amount to eliminate these symptoms,” says Payne. “You want your boat to ride right on the edge.” Wind, waves, and payload (the weight in the boat) influence how you should trim your boat. Payne suggests a healthy measure of “good old trial and error.”

7. Protect your wooden boat while it’s docked

Paul Brackley, wooden-boat builder and restorer

Paul Brackley, of Brackley Boats in Gravenhurst, is more concerned with the damages wooden boats suffer when docked than when they’re in use. According to Brackley, synthetic lines and rubber bumpers conspire to stain and mar the finish of varnished wood. “Use cotton rope and tie the boat so that the lines aren’t touching the deck, if possible,” he says. “You’ll also want to tie it up at four corners in a slip so that the bumpers don’t come into play.” Most harmful is the sun, which can dull the finish. “It’s the enemy,” Brackley insists. “If you have a boathouse, use it, and make sure you shut the door and block out the windows. You can really see the difference in a boat that’s docked in a boathouse and one that’s docked in the sun.” If you don’t have the shady luxury of a boathouse, he advises investing in a custom-fitted cover.

This article was originally published on April 3, 2010

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