I recently wrote about spring commissioning. I suggested that maybe this year to look a little deeper into the boat’s systems, such as examining the components of the steering. Going beyond the basics every couple of years is a good way to find gremlins before they become problems. It is best to find issues at the beginning of the season, such as worn halyards on a sailboat or windlass deck switches that only work intermittently.

To whatever level inspection you go, each step of preventative maintenance improves your chances of a mostly trouble-free season.


One More Thing

When the boat finally launches, with a clean bottom and all checked out, the season can now officially begin, right? Not so fast! Before your adventures get under way, I firmly believe there is one more thing every boat owner should do.

And that is to go on a sea trial.

(Below: Motor Boat & Yachting Magazine's video of how to conduct your own sea trial.)

Go for a boat ride, or test sail, and exercise all systems: mechanical running gear, sail handling (when was the last time the winches were serviced?), lights, electronics, batteries, galley appliances, heating and air conditioning. Does the freshwater pump under the galley sink still work, or has a loose hose fitting caused an air leak over the winter months and now it runs and runs?

Do the windshield wipers work? How about the horn? There are a lot of things to check on a cruising boat. Parts age, connections loosen, or, for whatever reason, things just stop working from sitting idle for a few months. It is one of the beloved aspects of boating.

I have a friend with a beautiful Eastbay 43, which he keeps in impeccable condition. He and his wife plan a cruise up to Canada this summer from Annapolis, taking in the Rideau Canal and Lake Champlain. A seasoned boater and pilot, he is making sure his engine systems are up to snuff.

He left the boat last fall with what he thought were empty water and holding tanks, so he was surprised when he launched and sea trialed the boat to find the holding tank full of water. Had he not run the boat and checked all systems he would not have known he had an issue with his holding tank.

(It is worth mentioning what he found, as the problem turned out to be among the other hidden, hard-to-imagine issues we’ve recently highlighted. Apparently, Grand Banks chose a poor material as the metal pickup tube for the boat’s holding tank. With use, and perhaps the chemicals many routinely put in their holding tanks, the pickup tube on many Eastbays corrodes to the point of losing most of its length, and much of the remaining tube is riddled with holes. Fuel dock pump out equipment, which relies on suction to empty a boat’s holding tank, could only draw off a couple of inches near the top of the tank. Before he sets off on his big summer cruise, he needs to replace this destroyed metal pipe with one made of PVC, unlikely to ever have corrosion issues.)

(Below: A Grand Banks Eastbay 43.)

grand banks eastbay 43 

Every sea trial should include bringing the engines up to full throttle for at least five minutes. Relax, this practice won’t damage your engines. Every marine diesel engine is designed to run at WOT for some period. The amount of time at full throttle is part of the engine’s application rating, from relatively light use in a pleasure boat, up to continuous duty in a working craft that runs full out much of its life.

If anything is on the verge of breaking, falling off, leaking, or disintegrating, let it happen now. Near home.

One summer morning I was returning on our 25-foot Hunt Harrier, from a run into downtown Annapolis from Ridout Creek. Coming into Whitehall Bay from a flat Chesapeake Bay, I decided to see if the boat would still hit 42 knots as she had on her sea trial in Buzzards Bay when I bought the boat. Alone on calm water, I throttled up and we cut around the buoys coming back into Whitehall Creek like a hot knife through butter. It was a lovely feeling.

That is until the smell of melting rubber and smoke came out from under the engine box. I must admit I never run the engine at full throttle (aka, WOT, wide open throttle) and doing it now caused a corroded hose clamp to let go. The clamp was hidden from sight, connecting a hose from the heat exchanger outlet into the exhaust system. Water poured from the heat exchanger into the bilge instead of cooling the hot exhaust gases. No alarm sounded, and the engine did not go into its “survival mode,” because the heat exchanger was cooling the engine just fine, but the exhaust system hoses from the exhaust elbows began melting. It was an expensive repair.

The smoke came from the melting exhaust hoses and blown crossover hose between the elbows. All had to be replaced. But the engine was fine and never overheated.

(Below: An engine room with smoke is a sight you don't want to see and could be caught with a sea trial.)

smoke in boat engine room

Despite the expense and inconvenience, I was lucky it happened near my dock. Had I run the boat at WOT at the very start of the season—like I am suggesting here—I would have had this happen early on, close to home and familiar marine services. This would have been a very different story later in the season if we were in St. Michaels or some other fun destination miles away, and I felt the need for speed after a nice Italian lunch with friends. Lesson learned.

While running at full power, carefully examine all gauges and note temperatures and pressures. If filters are on the verge of clogging, it will happen now, as will any pumps or recently serviced fittings. If an O-ring on your fuel filter didn’t seat properly when you changed the filter element during winterization, the air leak will cause a problem now. If you had prop work done over the winter, check for proper pitch by reaching maximum rpm. If a service tech adjusted the engine valves last fall, did he get them all to spec? Funny noises should be listened to.

If the engine(s) don’t reach full throttle, according to your tachometer(s), be aware the gauges may be at fault, especially true with older mechanical tachometers, prone to inaccuracies. These can later be checked against readings from a handheld tach.

When you return from your sea trial, go into the engine space. Are there any odd smells? Do you see any pools of oil, diesel, or water? Does everything seem in order?

Did all the hoses stay on?

I caution against not performing this sea trial. Ever see the movie, Captain Ron? If you never run your boat at full power, but always loaf along in the comfort zone of the trawler lifestyle, what happens if conditions change, and you are forced to boogie out of harm’s way for any number of reasons, such as pirates wanting to steal your boat?

(Below: The infamous 'Pirates of the Caribbean scene from Captain Ron.)

What would happen if you pushed forward the throttles only to find the engines shut down because an aging fuel hose finally cracked open or cooling hose came off or burst? Or in the case of a new yacht in Florida, the ground wire came off the control box for the electronic engine controls and we crashed into a dock, causing expensive damage but thankfully no injuries. There are many scenarios I could mention, and all exponentially increase when we talk about boats that are 30+ years old.

Test your alternator(s) by loading your inverter when under way, or at least disconnected from shorepower. Do the house batteries accept the bulk charge?

The value of the spring sea trial comes from gaining real world confidence. Every prudent boat owner or cruiser should perform this annual spring event. It makes for a much more enjoyable season of hopefully carefree cruising.

And, in my case, I am now resolved to never own a boat where I cannot reach every inch on the engine(s). I no longer find it fun or enlightening to experience the mysterious life of a hidden hose clamp.


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