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.

8. Clean the upholstery properly, but no more than once a year

David Brunatti, upholstery specialist

Don’t go overboard when maintaining your boat’s upholstery. “I’ve heard about people cleaning with just about everything,” says David Brunatti of Parry Sound’s G. Brunatti & Sons, a marine and canvas company. “But you really have to watch what you’re using.” Harsh household cleaners such as Fantastik will damage vinyl upholstery, the most common material used in boat interiors. “They dry out the plasticizers and make vinyl stiffer and prone to cracking or becoming gummy and sticky,” says Brunatti. “This doesn’t happen right away, but it will probably occur after three or four uses and after two or three years.” The key is to use a cleaner specifically designed for vinyl, such as Armor All or 303 Fabric and Vinyl Cleaner, and to curb your ultraclean compulsions to once a year at most. You could try a mild, natural bar soap and water, but it may not be strong enough. Keep upholstery out of the sun when your boat isn’t in use and promptly wipe up spilled drinks, sunblock, and potato chip crumbs to prevent stains and premature wear.

9. Keep varnish in good shape

John Hendren, boat shop owner

Varnish is critical in preserving the value of a wooden boat. But as long as it’s protected from the sun — either inside a boathouse or by a properly fitted boat cover — a wooden boat will go a decade or more without losing its sheen, says John Hendren, owner of John’s Little Boat Shop in Omemee, Ont. When it comes time to refinish, “you can’t just slap a coat of varnish on and be done with it,” says Hendren. It’s essential you remove all of the hardware to get into the nooks and crannies; you’ll do a much better job and avoid getting varnish on the fittings. Also, he notes, a thorough sanding ensures new varnish will properly bond to the hull. “This isn’t something everyone will want to tackle themselves,” says Hendren. Once all this is complete, he applies three coats of top-quality Epifanes or Pettit varnish.

10. Avoid causing star cracks

Mike Coady, fibreglass repair specialist

Installing accessories such as windshields, cleats, and navigation lights is a great way to customize your boat, says Mike Coady, so long as you do it without stressing the gelcoat. “Anything that’s fastened to a fibreglass boat can cause star cracks,” says Coady, who owns Kahshe Boat Works in Gravenhurst. While the star-shaped hairline cracks in gelcoat, which often radiate from accessory fasteners, are largely a cosmetic problem, “over time, moisture may get in,” warns Coady. The good news is avoiding gelcoat cracks is simple. He recommends countersinking holes just through the gelcoat, or about ¼" deep, so the load is placed on the underlying fibreglass rather than the more brittle gelcoat. After installation, it’s a good idea to seal the holes with bedding compound to keep moisture out.

11. Keep on top of gelcoat repairs

Terry Hynes, fibreglass repair specialist

If you discover a chip in your gelcoat — particularly if it’s deep enough to expose bare fibreglass — repair it right away. And, especially if you find it in the fall, “don’t leave it till the spring,” warns Terry Hynes  of Toth Marine in Lakefield, Ont. Like any cloth, fibreglass wicks water. In short order, moisture will migrate into the boat’s layup, where it can cause blisters in the gelcoat—particularly if exposed to freezing temperatures. Hynes says whether you decide to repair the gelcoat yourself or bring it into a shop can depend on the extent of the damage, how long you want the repair to last, and how much you want it to match the existing gelcoat. For a small, short-term repair to get you through the weekend, until you can take the boat to the pros, “go for it as an ‘it’ll do for now,’ ” says Hynes. “But be well informed before you try to do a permanent repair and realize that you may have a hard time getting the colour to match.”

12. Extend the life of your boat top

Debbie Poole, marine fabric specialist

Your boat’s fabric top should last for years, so long as you keep it clean, weatherproof it, and lubricate zippers and snaps. Once a year, before storing, wash off any dirt, dust, and tree debris — ideal habitats for mildew. “If the top is acrylic, which most factory-installed stuff is, you can wash it in a laundry machine,” says Debbie Poole, the owner of Lakeside Sewing in Bobcaygeon, Ont. If not, lay it out and try a bucket, scrub brush, and mild soap—not detergent. Rinse well, air-dry and, if it’s acrylic, treat the outside with a weatherproofing spray, such as 303 High Tech Fabric Guard. (Unsure what your top’s made of? Ask a fabric specialist what to use.) Lubricate zippers and snaps with a marine-specific product such as Iosso E-Z Snap, and “fix tears or loose threads right away.” Nip mildew in the bud with a product such as Captain Phab Mold and Mildew Stain Remover or 3M Marine Mildew Remover, never using any products near or in the lake. Store tops indoors for winter, with window panels flat or rolled.

13. Wax your hull to health

Josh Hinan, marine consultant and sales representative

“If you want your hull to last, clean and wax it once a year,” says Josh Hinan of Town and Country Marine in Buckhorn, Ont. “Algae, zebra mussels, and tea-coloured water will stain a boat’s gelcoat.” Clean your boat as soon as you take it out of the water in the fall. Once you have it on a trailer and away from the water, Hinan recommends using a powder-based boat cleaner such as Captain Phab Algae and Rust Stain Remover or the biodegradable Slimy Grimy, both designed to be mixed with warm water. Use a scrub brush to minimize the amount of elbow grease required. The highest-quality waxes tend to come in a paste; Hinan recommends 3M products. Always apply wax in the shade to prevent blotches. Up the wax treatment to three times per season for UV-blasted surfaces that look faded.

14. When storing your boat for winter, drain well and don't shrink-wrap

Brian Hough, marina owner

Brian Hough says that when it comes time for winter storage, boats should be treated like they’re claustrophobic. “I will not shrink-wrap a boat,” says Hough, owner of  Baysville Marina on Lake of Bays, Ont. “It’s just too hard to get all of the water out. Shrink wrap hermet­ically seals all that dampness inside, where it’s going to create rust and mildew.” Hough prefers to store boats open-topped inside a storage shed. To drain as much water as possible, he pulls the bilge plug and lifts the bow of the boat. He usually leaves the boat open for about two weeks to let it air-dry further, and then puts its top back on to keep it clean over winter. If you must store your boat outdoors, cover it with a tarp. To prevent rain and snow from pooling on it, create an A-frame-like shelter by laying a pole down the length of the boat and draping the tarp overtop, tying down the edges to keep it secure in the wind.

15. Change your four-stroke's oil before winter storage

Steve Auger, Mercury Marine product support specialist

“Correctly setting up your outboard for storage is the number one thing you can do to promote engine life,” says Steve Auger. “In my opinion, winter should be renamed ‘seven months of neglect.’” While most boaters know how to bed down a two-cycle engine, four-stroke models require a different procedure. “The most important thing is to drain the oil from the engine and filter, and replace it with fresh oil for storage,” says Auger. The greatest danger to four-stroke engines is the corrosive sulphuric acid that forms as oil ages, mixes with condensation, and settles in the crankcase, whether the engine runs or not. “You don’t want to leave old, black oil in the motor over the winter,” says Auger.

This article was originally published on April 3, 2010


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