Mid-Summer Checkup

By Peter Nielsen

Boats tend to get a thorough inspection in the spring, when commissioning demands the attention of the owner, the yard, or both. It happens again in the fall, when everything is being winterized. Problems, however, don’t usually have the good grace to wait until the end of the season. Some pre-emptive action during the summer could save you a big headache. Why not dedicate a couple of hours to a mid-season inspection?


• Tighten your belt. Did you replace an alternator or water pump drive belt last winter? Check that it hasn’t stretched to the point where it slips.

• Box too tight? The stuffing box should be leaking at most a couple of drops a minute when the engine is running, and it shouldn’t leak at all when the engine is not in use. If it’s not leaking when the prop shaft is turning, loosen the locknut a tad and then check next time you’re under power. Be careful not to overtighten the stuffing box or you could damage the propshaft.

• Fuel and oil. Keep a close eye on your fuel filter, and be ready and able to drain water from it. You should be checking your oil every time you go out. Many sailors use their engines so little that they hardly ever bother, but that could be costly.

• Plug ugly? If you depend on an outboard for auxiliary propulsion, treat it to a new spark plug. It’s cheap insurance against having the motor conk out at a critical moment. This is just as true for your tender’s outboard, especially if it’s a two-stroke.


• Check the electrolyte. Nothing kills a battery more quickly than being allowed to run dry, and sailboats are notorious for the deep discharge-recharge cycles that cause the electrolyte to evaporate. Keep a bottle of distilled water on board – a turkey baster works well for topping up the cells.

• Cleanliness is next to godliness. When it comes to batteries, it certainly is. Keep your batteries clean – wipe them down with fresh water – and make sure there is no corrosion at the terminals or in the exposed copper of the cables. Grease the terminals with petroleum jelly.

• Terminal neglect. Have a close look at the crimp terminals on your switch panel for signs of creeping corrosion. It doesn’t take much to cut power to an instrument. The junction boxes for cables from the mast electrics are prime sources of trouble. It is also worth inspecting the cables to essential instruments like depth sounder and GPS, to make sure the cable runs aren’t being pinched or chafed.


• Varnishing point. A lazy summer afternoon is a perfect time to apply a mid-season coat of varnish or oil. A quick rub-down with fine sandpaper, followed by a wipe with thinners to remove the dust and then a light coat or two of varnish, can do a lot to save you extra work in the fall. Scrub down your oiled teak with a stiff bristle brush and a detergent before rinsing it down with fresh water, then apply more of your chosen concoction.


• Pinpointing problems. Many a mast has come down because nobody spotted a cotter pin working itself loose. Spend an hour looking over your rig. Get someone to hoist you up in a bosun’s chair and inspect your masthead sheaves, shroud terminals and the VHF antenna. Make sure all cotter and clevis pins are secure and in good condition, and apply fresh the tape over the turnbuckles.

• Spreader love. Look at your rig from a distance and make sure the spreaders haven’t moved up or down – they should bisect the angle made by the shroud as it passes over the end of the spreader, so that the spreader is always in compression. Any change in that angle changes the loading on the rig.

• Love your lines. Are there signs of chafe on your halyards or sheets? Better to deal with it now than wait for it to get worse.

• Hose your blocks. Blocks love a good flushing-out with fresh water, so next time you’re at a dock make sure you give them the de-salting treatment. Furling drums also need a good rinsing now and again to get dried salt out of their inner workings.

• A stitch in time. Furling headsails are often taken for granted – set ‘em and forget ‘em. Drop yours to the deck and go over all the seams, checking for broken stitches; you may be able to pre-empt even worse damage. Mainsails are easier to check, so there’s no excuse for not doing so.

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