10 boating bloopers & how to avoid them

No matter how savvy we think we are, we boaters make mistakes. Here's how to prevent some of the most common ones



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Every marina owner hears the story at least once each spring—some poor schmuck drops his boat in the water without the drain plug in place. Usually he discovers the error quickly, flips on the bilge pump, makes a mad dash back to the dock, and then scrambles around to find the plug.

Other times, however, the schmuck is not so lucky. Last year, one cottager drove across the lake to his boat-access cottage, discovered when he stopped at his dock that water was pouring in, hauled his boat partway up on shore so that it wouldn’t sink, waded into the frigid water to stuff a rag in the hole where the drain plug should have been, and drove back to the marina. And finally found the plug—in the boat’s glove compartment.

No matter how savvy we think we are, we boaters all make bloopers. Just ask boat mechanics and marina operators, which is what we did to find the common mistakes that boaters make—and how to prevent them.

1. In your excitement to launch a new season on the water, you put the boat in without the drain plug in place.

Worst-case scenario: You figure out the plug is missing but then can’t find it. Your trusty boat fills up with water and sinks.

Be the pro: Leave yourself a visual reminder: When you haul out in the fall, tape your plug to the steering wheel or tuck it into a plastic bag attached to your boat key. For runabouts with an open floor, leave the plug on the floor near the hole, ideally fastened by a chain.

2. You never learned how to back up your boat trailer.

Worst-case scenario: You can’t get the trailer to back straight down the ramp, so the impatient guy in line behind you offers to launch your boat himself.

Be the pro: Going slowly to maintain control, practise manoeuvering the trailer between two pylons in your driveway or a parking lot. And here’s an insider’s trick: Place your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel when backing up. In that position, all you have to remember is to move your hand in the direction you want the trailer to go: Moving your hand to the right turns the back end of the car to the left and the back end of the trailer to the—wait for it—right!

3. You ignore impeller maintenance.

Worst-case scenario: Your impeller becomes blocked or worn out, and the engine overheats and seizes.

Be the pro: The rubber impeller, part of the water pump, pushes water through the engine to keep it cool. When it wears out, no more cooling. It’s a $50 part that can cost you thousands in other repairs if you don’t replace it regularly (every three to five years for normal cottage-weekend use).

How can you tell if your impeller’s in trouble? If your engine temperature gauge suddenly rises 10 per cent or more above its normal range, the impeller may not be working.

If you don’t have a gauge, cast an occasional eye over the “telltale,” the stream of water that squirts out of the engine on outboards. If it loses pressure, dribbles, or stops altogether, turn off and trim up the engine, and clear anything—such as weeds, a plastic bag, or an errant rope—covering the water intake. If you can’t see anything, or clearing a blockage doesn’t solve the problem, get a tow in right away. Some overheating engines will run on low power for a short time, but experts warn against driving that way for more than a minute or two.

For each outing, let your engine warm up for a few minutes and then check the telltale or the temperature gauge before you head out. That way, if there’s a problem, you discover it at the dock, not in the middle of the lake.

4. You neglect to inspect the bellows.

Worst-case scenario: The bellows decay and water leaks into the hull—on a Wednesday, with no one to notice. Down she goes. That’s what happened to a family on Lower Buckhorn Lake, Ont., last year. They arrived at their cottage to find their 20′ bowrider and its V6 engine sitting on the bottom. All the boat’s instrumentation, furniture, and electronics, plus some engine components, were totalled.

Be the pro: Strictly an issue for inboard/outboards, bellows are the through-hull rubber housings that, when flexible and watertight, seal holes in the transom at or below the waterline where the shift cables, driveshaft, and exhaust pass through. Eventually, they crack with exposure to water and sun—or muskrat teeth. Check periodically for water in the hull, which may indicate leaky bellows, and whenever your boat is out of the water, inspect the bellows for brittle, worn, cracking, or hardened rubber. Ask your mechanic to examine them while winterizing and as part of regularly scheduled maintenance. Replace the bellows at the first sign of wear, or every five to 10 years (though some models need more frequent replacement). This can cost from $300 up to $1300, or more if further damage has already occurred.

5. You drive or store a boat that has taken on water.

Worst-case scenario: A cottager on Lake Panache, Ont., ended up with a severely damaged boat after two-metre waves broke through the boathouse doors and washed over his vessel, topping up a bilge that had water in it already. Although the boat wasn’t fully submerged (it hit bottom first), it took on enough water to wreck the electrical system.

Be the pro: It’s easy to forget about the bilge—out of sight, out of mind—but emptying it is important: Kept dry, it is less likely to fill up when the boat is exposed to heavy rainfall or waves. You’ll use more fuel driving around with a full bilge and that extra weight will affect performance. Plus, if you pump out the bilge after docking and it’s full when you return, it’s an early warning that you’ve got a problem—perhaps an ill-fitting top or a leak below. Be sure to check the bilge and run the pump before you set out.

Your boat may have an automatic bilge pump with a float switch so that it empties when the water reaches a certain level. If not, you can have a pump installed. You still need to check periodically that the pump is clear of obstructions, such as plastic bags, and that it’s working properly—coming on when needed and turning off when not. The last thing you want is for the bilge pump to stay on, draining the battery.

This article was originally published on May 3, 2011

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Jun. 28, 2011

8:57 pm

All great points. I have to admit, I'm a bit "bilge-obsessed"...always checking it, or getting my husband to check it...tied to the dock, underway, on the trailer after coming out of the water or after a rain storm... Here's an unfortunate tale, though. We had a new bilge pump installed, and our usual mechanic took it upon himself to install an expensive, automatic version. Not pleased about the price, we still thought it was great, as we now wouldn't have to check all the time. Welll, whether it wasn't nstalled properly, or there was some other problem, on our next visit we arrived at the port where we keep our boat (typically in the dark, after 7 hours of driving) to find the battery was dead. We were puzzled, but that's an easier problem to solve. (We have one of those Nautilus portable chargers.) When the battery was dead again, the next day, we knew something was up. Turns out, the automatic bilge pump was running often, and was the culprit. So, we went back to manual. With our current boat, we've resisted the urge to get an automatic bilge, because of that experience. We have enough boat-related problems, without adding to them.

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