It’s now spring, time to get the boat ready for another season on the water. That is what you have been waiting to hear if you have a boat!

We each have our own routines on how best to dewinterize the boat, whether you live in the Pacific Northwest, Southern California, Lake Michigan, Rhode Island, Southport, or Annapolis. Unless you are a full-time boat owner who lives in southern climates, this is the great spring awakening.

The commissioning rituals we develop have their own set of tasks to clean, change, inspect, or otherwise maintain. It likely includes some mundane tasks, such as soaking dock lines in fabric softener to remove the stiffness. The soak also hopefully removes those little splinters of old wood pilings picked up when staying at old marinas.

(Below: This boat owner soaked the lines in fabric softener and then washed on low speed.)

dock lines soaked in softener

Cushions get cleaned, inspected, and returned to the boat, winches are serviced, and the engine room has its own set of maintenance jobs. On diesel engines, that might continue projects started in the fall winterization and intentionally left until spring. Oil changes done; valves checked. All completed last fall. Now time to change the zincs.

Some people religiously install fresh batteries every spring in all battery-powered devices on the boat, from bulkhead clocks to flashlights, portable remotes, handheld GPS, maybe smoke detectors. If it has a battery, it got tossed in the fall, and a new one goes in before the boat splashes in the spring.

In addition to these regular chores, may I offer a couple of other projects that go above and beyond the annual list? This is especially true if the boat has reached a milestone, such as it is now five years old, or 50. These are things that don’t need to be done every year but are best addressed at specific intervals rather than simply ignoring them until there is an issue. They fall under the category of preventative maintenance.

Some of these things are well known to the fellow who does your engine service, or perhaps your “yacht management” company who handles the detailing and regular cleaning among other things. These days becoming a regular customer of a marine service center is worth its weight in gold. This is particularly true as many of us are older and have the money to pay someone else to do things they have more experience in, and we just don’t have the flexibility or interest to tackle.


Exhaust System Mixing Elbows

Case in point are things in the engine room. It does not matter if you have a diesel engine or two, or a gas engine, or a diesel generator. Your boat can be a sailboat or a powerboat or a trawler. It can be relatively new or an older, vintage boat. It doesn’t matter.

In each case, you should ask your service manager what things he or she feels need to be checked. They will no doubt have specific things to put on your work order.

Let’s say your beloved boat is now five years old. As careful as you and your tech guy might be, when was the last time anyone checked your exhaust system mixing elbow(s)?

I have been lucky to spent time around some savvy tech guys over the years, and the consensus is that some maintenance items have nothing to do with how many hours you put on last season. Exhaust system mixing elbows for water-cooled exhausts are one of them, and they are particularly vulnerable to corrosion no matter how often the engines are run. They should be replaced on a regular basis, perhaps no longer than five-year intervals. And to make that point again: It doesn’t matter how many hours you have on your engine.

If you operate in salt water, given the corrosive nature of that environment, five years is a good point to pull your exhaust system apart, and inspect all parts carefully. There should be no surprises, so be prepared to replace the mixing elbows without giving it a second thought. While one may extend the working life of each elbow by buying one made from an exotic material (costing $1,000 or more), on production engines, exhaust elbows should be considered one of your consumables. You should not expect it to last longer than five years.

(Below: Stainless steel mixing elbow.)

exhaust elbows

This is true even if you have a big gas V-8 engine in your Hunt Harrier runabout, like I did for several years, and which spent most of its life on a lift in brackish water. If your boat has a diesel generator, the same goes, although it should be easier to take apart if access is good.

It does not matter if you have a Yanmar 3YM30AE diesel inboard or a Volvo D2-50 diesel saildrive in your sailboat, or a pair of John Deere diesels in your luxury motoryacht. For marine exhausts that operate in saltwater, replacing these elbows is one of the costs of owning a boat.

While we’re at it, let’s touch on dry exhaust systems, as popularized by Nordhavn. They allegedly represent the ultimate exhaust solution. Yes, dry exhausts do eliminate saltwater corrosion. However, after years of use, dry exhausts are not without their own issues. Dry exhaust systems create enormous heat, and the system must be engineered really well to move the heat safely out of the engine space and boat interior. You will usually find the bellows and exhaust pipe covered in a thick, heat-insulating blanket.

Dry exhaust systems endure many cycles of extreme thermal expansion and vibration from the running engine. This constant movement will eventually cause metal fatigue in the metal slip joints, flexible bellows (often called a wrinkle belly), and welded fasteners intended to lessen vibration and movement issues. Exhaust bellows are not foolproof and can still fail after thousands of hours. So doing a proper inspection is worth the effort.

By conducting this inspection at least once a season, one avoids the surprise of gear failure. Small cracks in welds are an obvious preview of things to come, which will almost certainly fail when it won't be fun and games.


A Clean Battery is a Happy Battery

I assume you routinely check the charge status of your batteries. Another nice thing to do in the spring is to clean them up a bit as well. They can get grungy during the season. Using baking soda is a fine way to keep the tops of your batteries clean.

Get a medium-sized squeegee bottle, the kind you already likely use to add distilled water to a lead acid battery. The soft plastic bottle with a crooked spray tube is perfect for cleaning off the acid on and around your batteries. Mix one or two tablespoons of baking soda (aka bicarbonate of soda) with enough water in the bottle to dissolve it into solution.

Then squeeze the bottle to spray the solution to the tops of your batteries, encrusted battery terminals caked with deposits, battery tops, and attached straps. The base solution instantly goes to work bubbling the acid into submission and neutralizing the surrounding area.

It is wise to wear eye protection and wear gloves to protect yourself from splashed acid, just in case.

A clean battery should make you feel better and is a sign of a well-cared for boat.

clean boat battery


Steering Systems

When was the last time you checked your hydraulic steering system? It is a good idea to check the hoses and connections between your helm and the steering ram at the rudder with a clean rag at least once a year. Spring is a good time to make it an annual routine. As hydraulic steering oil does not evaporate, if you must add oil to the reservoir, you have a leak somewhere.

The hoses that snake their way back to the steering ram on older boats can get brittle and crack over time. On larger boats, and particularly ones with multiple helm stations, this inspection can take time. The components of hydraulic steering are mostly trouble free until they are damaged, or they wear to the point where seals break down.

boat hydraulic steering system

Off topic a bit…if you own an older boat or trawler from the ‘70s, and it has its original hydraulic steering, you might consider upgrading to one of the newer hybrid electric/hydraulic steering systems designed to replace older systems. They use much shorter hydraulic lines between the drive unit and the rudder(s), connected by wires to the steering unit at the helm(s). This is a subject onto itself, but it might be something to mention to your tech guys and see what they think.

If your boat has mechanical steering, such as found on a Grand Banks trawler and most sailboats of a certain age, it is also a thing to check, ideally at the start of the season.  The venerable Grand Banks 42 Classic uses a system of sprockets, pulleys, stainless steel cable, and chain for very reliable steering. Many sailboats use a quadrant on the rudder, with wire cable running through pulleys that transmit input from the chain around the sprocket on the pedestal wheel steering.

Just imagine running downwind at speed with a big spinnaker up on a sailboat in big seas with the wind really tooting…and then losing the steering system. Happened to a friend on his Oyster down in the Caribbean. All hell broke loose. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt.

So, pick one of those lovely spring days when you don’t mind getting contorted and a little dirty. Apply the recommended marine grease to all grease fittings in the steering system, which may include lubrication points in the bushings of pulleys, pillow blocks, and control arms. Inspect the wire cable, and check for cracks in the cable, chafing points, or broken strands. A loose rag is a good way to find these nasty breaks in the wire cable. DO NOT run your bare hands along the wire!

Pay attention to twisted cable runs, or where the run seems out of alignment in a section of wire cable that would otherwise be fine. If a pulley has come loose, or its angle changed for any reason, you may have a situation that will cause the wire cable to fail prematurely. If you feel a wobbly pulley sheave, that is a good thing to notice, and it is fixable. It is also one of those things you won’t notice with just a casual glance of the steering system.

Watch for a sloppy feel at the wheel or helm. Cables can stretch from use, and is usually easy to tighten up.


There is Always More to Check…

There are many other things that I could go on about, such as checking and cleaning electrical connections at the windlass and foot switches, and making sure all navigation lights are working. But this is springtime, after all, and we want to get out on the water as soon as possible.

Those things can wait until another day when it might just feel good to go down and mess around on the boat.

And there are plenty of times like that!