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.

6. You drive with an alarm sounding.

Worst-case scenario: You ignore your engine alarm because a) you don’t know what it means or b) you think you know better than the monitoring system. Driving that mile back to the cottage could cost you thousands of dollars to replace a seized engine.

Be the pro: Drive at your peril with the engine alarm screaming. It’s telling you something needs your attention, now—most often high engine temperature or low engine oil or pressure. Shut her down to prevent permanent damage after checking the telltale or the temperature gauge to rule out an impeller issue. Next, consult your manual to decode the various sounds your buzzer can make (one long beep versus several short ones, say), check the gauges, and look for signs of overheating (a hot and steamy engine, and even bubbling decals). No easy fix? Get a tow in.

7. You use ethanol-laced gas in your old engine.

Worst-case scenario: Your marina stops offering ethanol-free gas, but you don’t prepare your engine and fuel system for their first sip of alcohol. Now the new gas has caused severe damage to your fuel system components.

Be the pro: Gasoline with ethanol is on tap at highway gas stations, but marinas have resisted stocking it. Its hygroscopic (water-loving) nature can muck up your older engine. Water vapour condenses on cold surfaces inside the tank and gets into the fuel. When enough water collects (about one per cent), a water-ethanol mix separates from the gas and sinks to the bottom of your tank. In your fuel lines and engine, both the water-ethanol duo and the now low-octane fuel can cause metal corrosion, rubber or plastic deterioration, and engine-operation problems.

Unfortunately for your engine, new federal regulations, on top of existing provincial ones, may make it harder for marinas to reliably source ethanol-free gas. Ask a mechanic to check that both your engine and fuel system are compatible with the new fuel. Most late-model boat engines can handle ethanol, up to a maximum of 10 per cent. But with some older ones (mostly pre-1990s), you may need to replace rubber or neoprene hoses and gaskets (about $40 for a new hose on a 10-hp outboard, for example), since these materials can turn into goo when exposed to ethanol. Plus, the resin in some built-in fibreglass fuel tanks made before 1991 can dissolve into the fuel and gunk up filters or the engine.

Once the engine and fuel system are ​ethanol-ready, you still need to minimize the moist air in your tank. Store portable tanks and boats with built-in tanks in the boathouse, if practical, to get them out of the sun and reduce condensation-causing temperature swings. With a portable tank, close the vent between uses. Keep built-in tanks, which are vented to the outside air, topped up through the boating season and, if the gas will be sitting for more than a month, add a fuel stabilizer recommended by your mechanic. Store tanks empty over winter or, if that’s not possible, fill them right up.

8. You drive at top speed all the time, even after you’re up on a plane.

Worst-case scenario: Driving at top speed is hard on your engine and causes extra wear on its internal components.

Be the pro: Yes, you need a burst of power to get up on a plane. But once you’re settled atop the water, throttle back just until the boat maintains a steady planing speed and a level running angle. Depending on your engine, boat, and load, driving at full throttle, especially if you haven’t set your trim properly, burns as much as double the fuel necessary to go almost the same speed: Running at three-quarters throttle could give you a 25-per-cent fuel savings, while operating at two-thirds full speed uses only half the fuel.

9. You drive with a prop that’s out of balance or damaged.

Worst-case scenario: You ignore that little shimmy telling you the prop has been dinged. The vibration eventually damages the seals in the propeller shaft, which allows water into the lower unit. Water gets into the gear case and dilutes the oil, reducing the lubrication, which causes gears or bearings to seize. The lower unit is damaged and you have to replace it—ka-ching!

Be the pro: If your prop hits something, or you feel a shimmy in the steering or in the boat itself, stop and inspect the blades. If there’s damage—a bent or burred edge, or a missing piece—take the prop to your marina or prop shop for repair or replacement. Ideally, you’ll have a spare propeller (and a floating prop wrench) on board and will know how to install it. If not, limp back to the dock and switch it there.

Your prop shop can repair most minor nicks or bends in an aluminum prop for $90 to $135. A new one costs $150 to $400. If there is water in the gear case, the oil will look milky. Don’t just change the oil—you need to fix the damage that let the water in too. Stainless steel props are harder than aluminum ones, so may not get dinged as easily, but a hit may cause more extensive harm, such as a bent shaft or damaged lower unit.

10. You use nylon line to tow a boat.

Worst-case scenario: While being saved, you tie your nylon bow line to the rescue boat, but it breaks and snaps back mid-tow, unleashing a whip of rope that causes serious damage or injury.

Be the pro: Nylon rope is great for anchoring and for tying up at the dock, but because it both stretches and sinks, it’s not an ideal choice for a tow line.

Your best bet is braided polypropylene rope: It’s strong, won’t stretch, and will float (keeping the line clear of spinning props). Transport Canada regulations require boats to carry a 15-metre (50') buoyant heaving line. High-quality heaving lines are usually adequate for towing cottage boats under 20'—if you go smoothly and slowly. The pull on the rope increases rapidly with speed. Go twice as fast and you exert four times the tension; triple your speed and you exert nine times as much. Ease into it and take up the strain gently. For towing heavy boats (whatever their size) and those longer than 20', you’ll likely need a rope thicker than most heaving lines. Boaters on rough water will want more, and fatter, rope than those on small, calm lakes. Stow the line in your seat locker so it’ll be on hand if something goes wrong. Even better, when you see a drifting boat, complete with a damsel or dude in distress, you can be the hero.

With thanks to our experts:

Sara Anghel, National Marine Manufacturers Association; Morton Biback, Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons; Scott Brundle, Town and Country Marine; Kevin Crittenden, Legend Boats; Bob Eaton, Boating Ontario; Harold Foyster, The Boat Guy; David Harris, Harris + Ellis Yachts; Terry Hynes, Toth Marine; Brian Hough, Baysville Marina; Frank Kelley, Mercury Marine; Lori Mason, The Store Mason’s Chandlery; Gilles Morel, Canadian Petroleum Products Institute; Deborah Paris, Paris Marine; Jay Poole, Buckeye Marine; Tim Salmon, The Prop Shop

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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