Spring is the traditional time to finish your boat’s regular maintenance before the start of your cruising season. Some of it was likely done in the fall during winterization, but now it is time to finish the job. For many boat owners, it is a satisfying springtime ritual, whether we do it ourselves or hire our trusted engine guy.

As I’ve said before, the added benefit of a spring ritual is that it is also an opportunity to get reacquainted with your boat’s systems, which hopefully helps avoid some of those bonehead mistakes we all do from time to time.

Now, a couple of months later, we’ve been enjoying our boats, traveling to new or familiar places and spending quality time on the water.

As we approach midseason, I have a suggestion. Why not check things over again, either at the dock or on a rainy day in the anchorage. No big deal, maybe an hour or less of your time. The engine has been running well, and all systems are operational. But the normal vibrations and movement of the boat may have begun to loosen some connections or fasteners.

In the old, mechanical days, throttle cables come to mind, the screw holding it captive working loose from throttle use.

I often find cabinet doors around the boat need tightening or adjustment after awhile, usually a simple task done with a screwdriver.

Inspect all wire connections, and make sure all wiring is tight and secure. Just like hose clamps, it is good to inspect all wiring connections. Master mariner John Payne gave wonderful electrical system seminars at TrawlerPort. He learned his trade on commercial ships and wrote a great book about marine electrical systems. He said it is standard practice on ships to do this every six months, making sure all connections remain tight.

(Seen below. Trawlerfest seminars are great to learn more about the electrical components and often have hands-on tutorials.)

trawlerfest electrical seminar

I'm not suggesting one should sit at the chart station or at the pilothouse helm console and open the electrical panel to tighten those terminal connections. I'm talking about electronics connections, pump connections, battery terminals, ground wires, alternator wiring, windlass cables, and electric winch connections, and all the motors you have on the boat. It is not surprising to discover the cause of a faulty windshield wiper is nothing more than movement of a wire bundle, which caused a single wired connection to work loose.

Loose connections are the cause of most failures of electrical and electronic equipment, and I know that only too well.

(Seen below: An example of a nightmare electrical panel and one that is almost bulletproof.)

nightmare electrical panel on boat

neatly organized electrical panel on boat

We somehow avoided serious injury and significant damage to a new yacht and houseboat when a ground wire came loose in the engine room. It was for the control box to the engine controls in the pilothouse. We lost engine control of a new 60-foot yacht at the worst possible time, as we backed down a fairway in Ft. Lauderdale after a sea trial. We could not stop the boat, traveling in reverse, and the new yacht hit squarely into the side of a houseboat, crushing the struts that held the houseboat off the sea wall. The sound of the crash was frightening.

While everyone was shaken, especially the owner of the houseboat and his dog, both thrown to the floor, thankfully, no one was seriously hurt from the tremendous impact and momentum of 84,000 lbs of canoe stern.

On another occasion, I lost the flybridge plotter on our new boat on its trip home from Florida. The unit flickered on and off for a couple of days before it stopped altogether. I bought a small backup unit and temporarily installed it for the rest of the trip.

Once in Annapolis, I found one of the screws on a terminal block had come loose due to there being too many wires on that terminal. It was hard to see as it was hidden under a tangle of wires behind the helm console.

Except for rare and uber-expensive automobiles, cars today are assembled by computer-controlled robotic machines that spot weld and install fasteners to precise tolerances and to the exact torque that is required. After driving across country, one does not expect to find loose screws or bolts on the ground.

RVs and boats, on the other hand, are mostly put together by men and women on a production floor or shop. Whether it is a dedicated team building one complete unit at a time, or along a production line where components are installed in stages, these products can be considered hand assembled.

(Seen below: A Nordic Tug in the middle of production.)

inside nordic tugs shipyard 

As a result, it is not uncommon for fasteners and wires to work loose and even fall out. I’ve heard advice given to new RV owners to keep every screw or nut they find on a cushion or floor, as the RV twists and turns going down the road. They came from somewhere.

To some extent, the same is true on a cruising boat.

One year I was under the cockpit of my Baba 30 sailboat. I bought the boat new and took exceptional care of it as a single guy living and sailing this lovely, Bob Perry-designed cutter.

I removed the wheel steering from the boat the previous year, as a tiller made it more fun to sail and was a better match for my new self-steering wind vane. The increase in space under the cockpit sole without the steering system was huge, and it was now possible to get down much closer to water heater, pumps, and the rudder shaft and bearings.

After climbing down through one of the cockpit lockers, I lay like a pretzel in the space. I happened to reach up to see if I could feel the underside of the hull/deck joint. Imagine my shock to find all the nuts on the regularly spaced bolts (that I could reach), had backed off several threads. None were even finger tight. The boat was not falling apart, of course, but no doubt 5200 was holding everything together, not the 10mm fasteners used for the boat’s hull/deck joint.

There was no point in trying to tighten them, even if I could reach them with the proper tool. Most of the fasteners were hidden behind the boat’s interior.

Slogging into stiff winds and chop can jar things loose. After the boat pounds into head seas during an overnight passage, one might find later that something no longer works. Whether it is a seal on a windshield wiper arm that finally wears out after running for hours on end, or the UV-damaged windlass switch covers on the foredeck leaked and corrodes the switch after hours of being submerged in salt water. Or a split plastic fitting from a bit too much side load or maybe a battery shifted against it. Or the weight of an improperly supported wire bundle has caused something to unscrew. (ABYC has strict guidelines to avoid just this situation.)

These examples explain why better built (and more expensive) boats and RVs are somewhat overbuilt so these things don’t happen…as often.

A close inspection of one of Northern Marine’s expedition yachts, built by craftsmen coming from commercial ship building, will reveal differences from what you’ll find in recreational production boat building. The same is true for yachts coming out of the high-end European yacht yards.

(Seen below: The Northern Marine 57 is designed and constructed to travel long distances comfortably.)

northern marine 57 

I spent time on a Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat and got to experience its performance in rough weather. This is one tough motorboat. Nothing is left to chance, there are no unsecured wires or other lines, everything is secure and tight. Drop this boat off a huge wave and it just shakes it off and carries on its mission.

I also toured an MV-22 Osprey right before the Covid pandemic. The massive tilt rotor aircraft is the primary assault support aircraft for the Marine Corps. The Marine pilot showing me the unusual aircraft explained some of the basics of what we were looking at and I couldn’t help but notice the impressive wiring and cabling inside the aircraft. Same with the hydraulic lines. All had meticulous attention to detail.

This awesome beast has a reputation for survivability in combat and difficult weather conditions. Perhaps you’ve seen them practicing as you passed through Camp Lejeune on the ICW in North Carolina.

I am quite sure neither the Coast Guard’s motor lifeboat nor the Marine Osprey will be stopped by a loose ground wire.

So, if one can access all the electrical connections in the boat, and make sure everything is tight at the beginning of the season, that is great. And then to repeat the process midway during the season is hands down the best way to ensure the boat stay good to go for the entire season.

You will also notice if a certain connector, clamp, or fastener tends to regularly come loose. You can then keep an eye on it, or what I would do, is rethink its installation to perhaps find a better location where it won’t have whatever factors cause it to come loose. Perhaps it is the shortest wire in a bundle, and is too short, so it always has a strain on its connection.

Best of all, this process only requires a couple of screwdrivers, a flashlight, and maybe a wrench.

Before you finish the job, check your boat’s strainers, such as engine, generator, and air conditioning. Better now than in the middle of the night…

As I have said before, if you buy a new or newer cruising boat instead of one built 30+ years ago, and get these little issues squared away every so many months, you are good to go. And you will likely have many trouble-free years of safe and enjoyable cruising.

Without having to spend all your time fixing the boat in exotic places.

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