Spring is here, finally. Time to renew, refresh, and recharge. And get back out on the water.

Depending where one lives, commissioning might take several weeks, or it may simply be a matter of turning on systems, refrigeration, and the rest of the boat after it sat idle for a couple of months.

Power or sail, large or small, the process of reawakening a boat is similar. But it is easier on smaller boats, of course, such as a small sailboat or one of our Nimbus or Ocean Sport powerboats.

Most boat owners quickly learn what needs to be done, even if the work is performed by a boat yard or service company. It is common practice to annually replace hull zincs, put on a new coat of bottom paint, wax and polish the hull and topsides, check if the cutless bearing(s) need replacement, and a handful of other things that may be necessary.

bottom painting during spring commissioning

There are spring work checklists to follow for the engine room, getting a sailboat ready with sails, caring for the battery and electrical systems, the steering system, anchor windlass, and air conditioning. Yes, there can be lots of lists.

One might need to replace a raw water impeller, or locate the zinc buried under the salon sole for a transmission cooler or replace a belt that was questionable all last season. It may be the year for preventative replacement of a battery on safety equipment, or new gas cartridges in the crew’s inflatable PFDs. But it might also be a simple job of putting freshly sharpened new pencils in the chart table.

There are still other details that I believe should be done…or at least considered. I admit they represent a lot more effort than most boat owners will want to tackle at once. And that’s okay.

I’ll go ahead and list them anyway, as my goal is to make less experienced boat owners aware that spring involves more than just bottom paint, varnish, and fresh oil. Not all of these are relevant on every boat, but perhaps they will remind you of something else that needs a quick look.


So read through the following list and see if any resonate with you.

• Begin with a clean microfiber rag, a couple of screwdrivers, small flashlight, and maybe a multitool. No need to lug around your tool bag just yet. I usually start in the galley and check or tighten the hinges on all cabinet doors and lockers. As they are used frequently, those in the galley are most likely to loosen over time. There always seems to be one door that needs attention, perhaps even a slight adjustment.

• Inspect and soak dock lines. Wear gloves and look for chafe as you run your hands over the lines, removing embedded wood splinters from pilings, and anything that either reduces a line’s strength or is a danger to crew. I find soaking dock lines in fabric softener also makes a world of difference each spring, washing away salt and dirt, and returning the lines back to normal, flexible life.

air drying dock lines

• Replace batteries in everything on the boat: clocks, flashlights, alarms, dinghy nav lights, remotes, emergency lights on PFDs. I’m always surprised how many things aboard use batteries. While at it, when replacing batteries in clocks/alarms, check that each is set to the same time, as not every device automatically follows “spring ahead, fall back.” And having multiple clocks off by 15 minutes or more around the boat is a pet peeve of mine.

• Update charts and firmware in all electronics. This is also a good time to make sure all devices are again set to one coordinate format, either DMS.s or DM.m. (I once changed the format on an iPad for a class during the off-season. It was unsettling when I was under way in the spring and things didn’t match. There is enough going on at the beginning of a season before one gets their sea legs back.)

• Review all onboard cruising guides. How old are they? Are updated editions worth the investment, as they are expensive and often don’t change all that much?

If you cruise on the East Coast, check out the new series of cruising guides from The Boat Galley. I asked owner Carolyn Shearlock for a review copy of its Atlantic ICW Quick Reference Guide and found it a welcome addition to the traditional publications from Waterway Guide, Maptech, Chesapeake Bay Magazine, and others. What sets the series apart is that it is intended to be a quick reference guide for planning as well as for last minute changes to the daily plan. Well organized and full of information, its waterproof pages quickly identify bridge height, places to walk the dog, nearest boatyard for an emergency haulout, free dockage, and other useful information.

florida keys yacht cruising guide

There are currently five guides: ICW, Florida Keys and Okeechobee, Florida’s Gulf Coast, Bahamas, and Chesapeake Bay Western Shore. Available at your local boating store or visit theboatgalley.com.

• Swap anchor chain. Depending on how often you anchor your boat, and where, it may be worth occasionally swapping an all-chain rode end to end. That obviously doesn’t work with a combination chain/nylon rode, but an inspection of one’s anchor rode is a good idea.

• Wipe down the engine(s), look for leaks. People smiled when I used to write, “A clean engine is a happy engine.” It may sound hokey, but it’s true that a cared for engine is likely to be more trouble-free than one that is not. Keeping machinery clean is always a good way to look for trouble in the making, such as the beginning of a leak or crack in a hose.

• Tighten electrical connections around boat, engine room, lazarette, anywhere where there is movement or vibration. While you are at it, check the tightness of the battery straps holding the house and engine/genset start batteries in place. One winter a tech replaced a battery but did not cinch tight the strap over the new battery. It was no longer captive and was now free to move if the boat took a serious roll, held only by a couple of battery cables. While it was very unlikely that I would be in conditions awful enough to upset a heavy battery in rough seas, why even allow for that possibility? The dedicated battery box and straps/restraints have a purpose, so ensure everything is secure and move on.

• New registration and other stickers. Most states require some kind of annual sticker on the windshield or part of the hull, but the updated decal usually arrives in the mail during the winter and is easily forgotten. Go find it and put it on.

• Stuffing box. Check that things are as tight as necessary, corrosion and other potential issues are minimal, and the boat is ready to go. No matter whether it is a sailboat with a puny two-cylinder Yanmar diesel or a pair of 850hp Cats that can wake up the dead when started, the stuffing box is an important part of the drive train.

What’s that, you say!?! You can’t reach it? Seriously? Why did you buy a boat where something as important as the stuffing box is inaccessible?

repacking a stuffing box on sailboat

• Replace wiper blades. On powerboats, the front windshield often has a pair (or three or four) windscreen wipers for spray and rain. After a couple of years of weather and sun, the rubber blades deteriorate. They tend to be ignored until one day they are turned on and it is disheartening when the boat is covered with spray, yet the wipers are useless as the rubber blades have separated from the wiper arms.

This is a good thing to inspect each spring and replace when they are cracked or dry.

• Clean corrosion off battery terminals, terminal strips, connection blocks, coax fittings, and inside portable battery boxes for lights, etc. Anywhere moisture can exist is a likely spot to find corrosion, such as inside flybridge console cabinets and cockpit lockers. For superficial corrosion, use Q-tips with vinegar to clean off surface corrosion as from a leaking AA battery inside a flashlight. Use alcohol to rinse the area and you will be good as new.

• Go through your tool bag(s) to begin the new season with your basic tools. You don’t need to lug around the soldering iron from a project last August, or the hose clamps and tool, heavy wrenches, and other non-essentials used for special tasks. And you did replace the batteries in the tool bag flashlight, right?

• Inspect split rings and cotter pins, especially in lifelines and rigging turnbuckles. A few minutes looking closely at such small but important hardware ensures you catch the one that is halfway off, snagged in the shrink wrap or twisted line. Much better to find and fix these at the dock instead of finding loose pins and rings on the deck when you are under way.

• Check for burned out lightbulbs in all light fixtures, especially exterior navigation and steaming lighting. If any require replacement, it will force you to review your spare lightbulb inventory, also a good thing. The cost and variety of LED bulbs today makes switching to LED an easy proposition on every older boat.

• Bilge pumps and marine heads are operational. The consequences of these devices not working are unpleasant no matter when or where. Much better to check and/or service them before the boating season gets going. It is far less stressful to work on them sitting quietly in your slip.

• VHF radio works, connections are clean, including mic and antenna. Check the radio setup is fully operational. JUST DON’T USE CHANNEL 16 FOR A RADIO CHECK!

• Exercise seacocks. This is really important advice, because it is a chance to reacquaint yourself with the location and accessibility to all your underwater fittings. If they are buried under piles of coiled lines, spare anchor chain, tool bags, water jugs, additional engine parts and oil, or anything else, now is a good time to move everything around so the seacocks are accessible.

And the other reason to exercise them (make sure they open and close freely) is that by doing so, you will find if one of your seacocks is closed where you expect it to be open. A friend’s engine guy closed a seacock after his service work (his standard procedure), but the friend always leaves it open and didn’t even think about it. It was expensive.

seacocks being exercised

• Age is not your friend on a boat. Inspect/tighten hose clamps for rust, and closely inspect all hoses, particularly if the boat is older than 10 years. Hoses do age and when you find small cracks or brittle hose it is a sure sign that replacement is necessary. Air leaks will come out of nowhere on older boats, yet those built overseas often used a combination of standard and metric hose and fittings. As the hose ages, even supposedly tight hose clamps are no longer enough to keep dissimilar sizes from leaking.

• Does hydraulic steering need fluid? Hydraulic fluid does not evaporate, so if the fluid level is significantly down in the reservoir, you have a leak somewhere. Find it and get it fixed, and top off the fluid reservoir if air bubbles finally worked out of the system, particularly on a new boat.

• Go through all lockers. Is there an open can of peanuts or bag of pretzels or Cheetos? They are no doubt stale. But if I’ve been working on the boat for hours and am slightly hungry...

As I mentioned earlier, there are detailed checklists for engine, generator, and HVAC, and each is worth more than a passing comment. Some owner manuals properly chart all service and maintenance to consider based on hours of use. This is invaluable information. But there is always more than what’s in a manual. Finding excessive belt dust in the engine room, for example, may be an alignment problem or from another issue. Very little is black and white on a boat.

I hope the above list will trigger some ideas from your own experience. Many owners find the satisfaction of boating includes anticipating these issues and solving them in time. So, it should feel good having a starting point as you get the boat ready for another season of boating adventure.

Good luck and hope to see you on the water. The itch for a new boat is back.