Unless you live in a warm climate or you enjoyed taking the boat south this past winter, your boat has spent the past number of months winterized. Held up with boat stands in a boatyard, or sitting quietly in a slip or boathouse, it is time to get the shrink wrap off, spend time on the boat to get it fully functional again, and prepare for a new season on the water.

Whether you have a sailboat, a trawler, or a motoryacht, there are plenty of reasons to spend quality time on the boat well before that first sail of the season. It makes sense to get familiar with the boat again, check its systems, and refresh that slightly rusty knowledge of how things work…or should work when they do.

I made a list of random tasks from years of doing this, and I thought it helpful to share them as you come up with your own to-do lists and checklists. While some of these items were taken care of when putting the boat to bed in the fall, there is still much to do, inspect, or service. It is also my experience that just because something worked perfectly when the boat was hauled, it is almost guaranteed that something won’t work now. It is part of boating.

(Below: A good video checklist for smaller boats and getting them ready for Spring.)

Some people make it a ritual to remove all batteries when they put a boat to bed for the winter. Flashlights, portable electronics, clocks, timers, night vision goggles, stabilized binoculars, TV and other remotes, anything that has a battery. In the spring it is time to replace with fresh batteries, including the batteries in that SOS Distress Light, and those small LED navigation lights you put on the dinghy.

Spring is a great time to see if there are firmware updates for your marine electronics, as well as chart updates. Sitting on the boat with my laptop and WiFi, I will go over each device and see how its current system compares to the latest available version. Some of these updates are automatic, or nearly so, such as navigation apps on an iPad, while others require the owner to download updates onto an SD card which is then transferred and loaded on the chart plotter or whatever the electronic device is.

The frequency of these updates varies significantly. I use a Fuji camera system these days, and I get notified of updates to the camera and lenses regularly. But other gear just works, and I never give it a second thought, like when I was surprised to find I had not updated my small Garmin plotter since I installed it years ago. I just I take it for granted as it works so well. I’ll bet there are electronics on your boat that could benefit from the latest updates. And when there are no more updates because the device is no longer supported, it may be time to consider updating the equipment to current technology.

(Below: Spring is a great time to update your electronics to the latest software version.)

garmin software update for boat

Evaluate the boat’s safety gear, paying close attention to the gas cartridges on inflatable PFDs, expired boat flares, and the overall condition of traditional life jackets that may be covered in mold after spending so much time in a locker under damp dock lines.

Speaking of dock lines, now is also a good time to soak all dock lines in fabric softener to restore their flexibility at the start of the season. It is also good to inspect all fenders and add air if any feel a little spongy.

Look in the anchor locker and check the condition of the anchor rode. I found my anchor locker on our Hunt Harrier full of water one year, as fall leaves had plugged the drain. Before I could look at the rode, I needed to clear the blocked drain, adding this to my list of boat projects for the future to keep that from happening.

Look in your chart table. How many dead, cheap ballpoint pens do you find? How about that collection of receipts and other snips of papers from visits to fuel docks and marinas from years past? Is there a copy of U.S. Chart No. 1 in the chart table or on the shelf? Might be a good idea to leaf through it again to reacquaint yourself with the symbols and terms found on navigation charts. I always seem to forget some of them. Better now than when I’m on the water navigating.

Does everything on the boat work? Now is the time to find out. Check that all lights turn on, as do pumps, bilge pumps, gauges, and electronics. It would be a pain, on your first night at anchor, nightcap drink on the bedside table along with that novel you’ve looked forward to all day, only to find out the bulb in the reading light is burned out. Better to find out now, especially if it is an odd size bulb and you don’t have a spare.

When I helped a friend bring his classic Selene Yacht back to his dock, we found the depth sounder didn’t work. Everything else at his helm was fine, but we had no depth information across his suite of electronics. Funny, it worked last fall!?! Seems like there is always something.

All systems should be checked to make sure things are good. Does the autopilot need recalibration, is the steering tight (for a cable system), or does your hydraulic steering feel a bit notchy indicating a need to top off the fluid reservoir?

Exercise all electrical switches, as they need to be turned on and off regularly to stay operational and not corrode.

(Seen below: A good best practice to minimize issues before summer starts is to check all of the wiring on your boat.)

electrical wiring 

Thoroughly examine the water system. When it is filled up, check for leaks and loose connections. Be wary if the water pump cycles on and off, as there is a leak somewhere. Hoses tend to get brittle over time and if the boat is 10 years old or more, it is likely there will be issues with flexible plastic hoses.

How are the batteries? Did they hold up over the winter, getting plugged in every so often, and now keep a charge just fine? How old are they? Can the yard load test the batteries for you? Better to address the condition of your starting and house banks before you go somewhere.

Start the generator. Does it still switch over to run the air conditioning and galley appliances as it should? Test it for when you disconnect the shorepower cord. By the way, what’s the condition of the shorepower cord, especially the plug ends?

Perhaps I am overly cautious, but I even check the grill to make sure it works. One year it didn’t light properly. When I called customer service I was told to check to see if there was a tiny white dot in the burner manifold orifice. Happens all the time she said. It is a spider egg. They love propane for some reason.

Did you remember to put the boat hook back that you “borrowed” to put up Christmas lights at home?

On deck, is the hardware free to move after sitting for several months. Do the genoa cars need to be lubricated? Check the clevis pins around the boat. I caught one just about to fall off, holding one end of the folding swim ladder on the transom. Good catch! It’s often the little things.

On an older boat, especially, I walk around with a couple of screwdrivers, and check the screws on door latches and hardware between cabins. At one Trawler Fest, we were touring a brand-new trawler that just arrived from China for the event. We were in the master stateroom, marveling at the finish on the cabin’s pocket door, when we both heard a screw fall out with the pocket door closed shut. No way would it open. Thank heaven for overhead hatches!

Does the stove work? How about the fridge, microwave, and other appliances? Turn everything on and make sure before you load up with provisions and stores. Speaking of stores, check expiration dates. It is amazing how often we have a bottle of something that we use so infrequently that it expired two years ago.

Make a list of things you notice, such as the need to replace a couple of hose clamps in your spares box because you needed them to fix something at the end of last season. Put it on the list to restock your spares kit.

Check out the toiletries in the heads. Did the shampoo or soap dispensers split from freezing? What do you need to add to get ready for the season? Throw away that scrawny bar of soap and replace it with a fresh smelling bar.

For those of us who keep a spare set of keys in the cockpit shower, are they still there?

I strongly suggest you volunteer to help your friends bring their boats home after they get launched. It is a great way to get your “sea legs” back without worrying about anything else. You’ll also notice things that are not right without the distraction of running the boat for the first time in several months.

Notice any water stains on bulkheads or around windows or ports? How about door seals that don’t close tight, or close too easily? Gaskets and seals deteriorate when they are not used or after too many hours in the marine environment. Everything from wiper blades, fuel fill gaskets, window and port seals, and locker and hatch gaskets are among items one will eventually need to replace.

(Seen Below: Water stains on a bulkhead need to be dealt with quickly when noticed.)

water stains on boat

I hope you never experience the frustration of opening a locker, expecting it to be empty, only to find a six pack of Diet Coke. The cans are bloated and two had split open from freezing and the bottom of the locker is a sticky mess. Took awhile to clean up, especially the seams along the bottom of the teak locker.

If it has been months since you and your spouse were aboard, you may find you aren’t quite as nimble as you were at the end of last season. Is it time to consider adding those additional handholds you thought might assist getting on and off the boat? In the same way, is your pet still able to get on and off the boat with ease? We don’t realize how time goes by, and it may be time to find more friendly access for your aging golden retriever—still a ready crew member but slowing down a bit and less sure of her balance.

Putting canvas back on can sometimes be a bear, especially if the snaps and zippers are corroded or pitted, which is normal after a few years. It may be time to use one of those snap and zipper lubricants available at boating stores or Amazon. I’ve also noticed each year the canvas material is harder to stretch to line up snaps, so I now use a snap tool which makes it easier. (The Ironwood Pacific Top-Snapper tool is ideal.)

By checking things on your boat at the very start of the season, one accomplishes two very important things. First, you fix any situation you come across before you head out on your first day on the water. One of the cardinal rules in the special forces community is to always do an operational check of one’s equipment. A radio with a dead battery can compromise the mission. Same thing here, only the mission is fun with the family.

Second, and every bit as important, you get familiar again with the boat, its systems, and refresh yourself on the many elements of a modern cruising boat.

Hopefully, by doing so, you won’t hear that horrible screeching sound as the rail-mounted grill twangs in outrage as you pull it across a piling that is too close. Or yank the shorepower cord out of your boat or dock pedestal as you pull out of your slip.

Or, that peculiar sense that something is amiss when the boat abruptly jerks to the left, with a spring line still attached.

We’ve all been there.



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