Before we jump into this, I want to pass on a suggestion from my last article (Preventative Boat Maintenance Part 1) about checking one’s anchor rode before starting a new season. Seattle Yacht’s Peter Whiting advises that if your cruising boat has all chain, you should swap the chain end for end every couple of years. That is a really good idea to keep the immersion of the chain in saltwater somewhat equal for its entire length. Good one, Peter!
All of us carry smartphones, use iPads or tablets, and Chromebooks are common for cloud computing. It used to be that most of these electronics were soon obsolete because of new technology that promised newer, faster, better. But our devices today benefit from wireless or downloadable firmware updates that install new functions while also fixing bugs. We are familiar with the update process, often done automatically while we sleep.
It is not just communication devices that receive these updates. When I switched from heavy Nikon camera gear to the superb optics and functionality of Fujifilm’s X-Mount cameras and lenses, I began getting regular firmware update notices by email for both camera bodies and lenses to bring them up to date. The camera systems now shoot 4K or higher video, and some of the lenses got faster focus and performance. Because of these updates, my photography gear stays current with the latest technology.
So why wouldn’t we assume that our electronic charts, chartplotters, and other electronics are also on this firmware and data update bandwagon? One of the beauties of electronic charts, of course, is having the latest chart information through ongoing updates from NOAA. The government agency works around the clock to conduct surveys, collect notices of shifting channels and navigation aids from Coast Guard and other sources. Our electronic charts keep getting better and more accurate.
As an aside, this is not possible with paper charts or printed cruising guides and chartbooks. The people who publish guides such as the Waggoner Cruising Guide, or the Waterway Guide, make updates every year to reflect changes from the previous edition. But printed material cannot possibly represent the latest in a changing nautical landscape, which is why we use them as guides only. When we brought our boat up from Miami to Annapolis one year, we carried four of the latest cruising guides and chartbooks to compare them for an article on traveling the ICW. During that trip, at any given time, we found two of the four publications were incorrect.
While it is super easy to update one’s phone or tablet, I admit it is more of an effort to update a chartplotter on a boat. It involves downloading files from the company’s website to a computer and using memory chips to move update files between devices. But as our marine electronics work so well just the way they are, it is easy to not think much about it. Until you notice, as I did, that the new system you installed just yesterday (so it seems) shows a release date of 2017. And there must have been numerous updates since then!
Similarly, while your electronic charts may still do a great job of getting you around home waters, it is worth the time and effort to get all charts up to date. I am always surprised how often I get notified that updates are available for the charts in my iPad’s Navionics Boating app. The company also adds functionality all the time, especially after being acquired by Garmin.
(Seen below: if you're planning on cruising this summer, take the time to download the Waterway Guide Marina App or update to the most current version.)
We are taught to replace our flares when they are outdated, with clearly labeled expiration dates on all pyrotechnics. But what about your other safety equipment?
The electric SOS visual distress lights that can now replace flares are all the rage, and I see no reason why a cruiser would not augment or replace the ongoing expense of dangerous flares with these simple devices. But they need fresh batteries to work. More on that in a bit.
How about your PFDs, lifejackets, and inflatable PFDs? Every new boat comes with at least that standard four-pack of rectangular red lifejackets, neatly sealed in a clear plastic, zippered bag. After a couple of years unused inside the plastic, the lifejackets are spotted with black mildew, as the bag sits at the bottom of the lazarette or under a bunk. Perhaps for the first time, take them out of the bag, clean off the mold (X-14 works great for this), and make sure the webbing straps and buckles work and haven’t deteriorated.
If you carry those inflatable PFDs that we see more people wear on open boats, they should be inspected too. Unscrew the gas canister from the trigger mechanism, and check that there is no corrosion. The canister is probably fine if the vest hasn’t been inflated by either the automatic trigger or a pull on the lanyard.
I recommend manually inflating each vest, using the mouthpiece for this purpose. This accomplishes a couple of things. It gives you some experience with handling the inflated PFD while guaranteeing the vest holds air to full capacity without leaks. Just having them on the boat year after year and assuming they would work if needed is a bad idea, especially if you removed the bulky traditional lifejackets thinking you no longer needed them to save space.
Avoid Battery Blues
Many local firehouses put up signs during the holidays to remind everyone to change the batteries in home smoke detectors. A friend takes this to heart. Every fall, at the end of the season, he goes around his boat and removes every battery he can find. Clocks, flashlights, gas detectors, alarms, remotes, stabilized binoculars, locker dome lights, BBQ igniter, whatever he finds. He then puts in fresh batteries at the beginning of his cruising season, and so avoids having something not work because of a dead or corroded battery. It makes so much sense that I have been doing the same for years.
And I am astounded how many devices with batteries one finds on a modern cruising boat. We counted SEVEN remotes one year on our 36-foot Downeast cruiser, before the age of smartphone apps. They controlled computers, stereo, television, navigation, and autopilot equipment. And you will find an impressive number of working and non-working flashlights while searching most cruising boats. Where do they all come from!?! I always find one or two dead flashlights buried in the chart table, along with that silly foam palm tree key fob picked up at a marina years ago. One never knows what lurks in a boat’s junk drawer!
And don’t forget to check the tool bag, ditch bag, and engine room. Specific safety equipment, such as an EPIRB or electronic man overboard device, have special lithium batteries that have their own expiration dates., so they stay as is until it is their time.
(Seen below: Companies like Garmin are now integrating all devices and controls into a digital switching platform to eliminate multiple remotes.)
This mostly pertains to sailboats, but not always. Our power catamaran had a big winch on the stern for warping the boat into a dock. I really liked having it for other purposes, such as lifting heavy gear off the transom.
Like the previous discussion on anchor windlasses and thrusters, winches are exceptionally reliable and work well almost all the time. But at least once a year, and more often if sailed a lot, take the time to regularly service each winch. It is not hard but does require your full attention.
I learned early on to get into the zone when I service winches, as I carefully disassemble each part of the winch, making note of where it came from so it goes back in the same place and orientation. Pins, gears, pawls, springs, bearings, and drums all need to be taken off, and old grease and dirt removed with degreaser or mineral spirits. Once cleaned, all parts should get a light coating of new grease (and oil on the pawls and springs) per the maintenance instructions for the winch, and carefully reassembled. Take great care not to drop anything, as springs and pawls are especially prone to bouncing their way into the water.
There is a decidedly satisfying sound and feel of a newly serviced winch that has the nicest click as it turns by hand. And on to the next winch to repeat the process.
If an often-used propane grill gets put away when it cools off, and then sits for months at the bottom of a locker in its bag, during the off season, it needs to be thoroughly cleaned and parts replaced as necessary.
According to Magma USA, the single biggest mistake boaters make when cooking with propane grills is setting the temperature too high for grilling. It is much better to use a lower heat setting and put the cover down while cooking.
The company says the high heat causes stainless steel to lose its corrosion resistance, as some amount of chromium and nickel burn out of the steel in excessively high heat. This causes the steel to turn blue, then brown, before it begins to corrode and disintegrate. I have seen that happen on many grills, at home and on boats.
Disassemble the grill to the point where you can clean it as thoroughly as possible. Then inspect the parts to see what should be replaced. Check and clean the gas valve orifice on the control valve regulator, which can become clogged by debris or spider eggs. (If you see a white dot in the orifice, it is an egg sack. For some reason spiders like propane. A customer rep at Weber Grills told me this is one of the most common problems owners have when their grill does light.)
If your grill has a battery-powered electronic igniter, replace the battery.
(Seen below: An easy 'how-to' guide for cleaning a MAGMA grill using common household products.)
The outboard engine on a dinghy has been an ongoing source of trouble for years. Ethanol-laced gasoline wreaks havoc on small outboard engines, which is unavoidable as it is often hard to find ethanol-free gasoline. The inevitable gumming up of carburetor parts is a headache for people out cruising.
It makes sense at the beginning of the season, when the outboard has not been used for a while, to have the carburetor cleaned out and the engine started to check for normal operation. I suggest this is one task worth learning to do yourself. It is not hard, uses regular tools you already have on the boat, and takes the mystery out of an outboard that refuses to run properly. You can’t always assume you can find a small engine mechanic nearby.
The growing popularity of Torqeedo electric outboards is proof that many cruisers choose reliability over boat speed. Unless one needs a big dinghy that travels at high speeds and covers long distances, an electric outboard is a fine alternative for taking the dog and crew ashore. At every boat show, I see new companies selling electric outboards, so this is no passing fad.
Ready to Rock
I am fascinated by the demanding training and thorough preparations that contribute to the success of our special forces in their operations. They leave nothing to chance. In the same vein, going the extra mile to prevent issues and gear failures provides confidence that the boat is ready, all gear has been checked and maintained. While things still happen and Murphy’s Law is ever present, we do our best to control what is in our control.
As I look out the window and watch unusually breezy winds churn up the waters of our creek from Tropical Storm Arthur, I can just imagine the conditions out on open water.
But I also know from experience that running a nasty inlet, churned up by contrary winds and waves, is no match for a fully found cruising boat that has everything running at 100 percent. A crew must stay alert, of course, but they can remain relaxed, knowing that all is well, no need for scary “what if” scenarios running through everyone’s heads. They already took care of business.
Now it is time to enjoy the adventure.
Go back and read: Preventative Boat Maintenance - Part 1