Good to Go?
The boat’s in the water, the rig has been tuned, and you’re ready to go off on your first summer cruise. There are just a few things you ought to check before you head off, says Peter Nielsen
Electrics: It’s really annoying to run out of battery power when you’re sailing or at anchor. If you didn’t do so as part of your spring commissioning, check your lead/acid batteries and top them off with distilled water. Make sure the cable connections are tight and free from corrosion. If your batteries are old, it may be wise to invest in a lightweight portable jump starter; or if you keep one in your vehicle, just bring it with you on the boat when you go cruising.
Alarms: If you have an inboard auxiliary engine or cook onboard with propane, diesel or alcohol and haven’t installed a carbon monoxide alarm, now’s the time. CO is a silent, sneaky killer. A household CO detector is better than none, but you are better off with a marine-grade version, which are not as prone to false alarms. These are more expensive than household units, but much cheaper than a funeral. If you have a propane alarm on board (another good investment) make sure to test it. I’ve done this by waving an unlit gas lighter around the sensor.
Fire control: Are your fire extinguishers charged up and not too old? You’ll find the date of manufacture on the bottom. Most supposedly have a 12-year shelf life, but think about replacing them every six years—they’re cheap enough. USCG requirements only mandate one to two “approved” extinguishers for boats under 40ft, but having attended several tests in which various types of extinguisher were used to put out various types of fire with varying degrees of success, I would strongly recommend you buy one or two more, including a “clean agent” type to use on electrical and engine fires. Keep one in the cockpit, one near the galley and one in each stateroom—it’s best to approach a fire already armed. There’s an excellent guide to onboard fire extinguishers here: Know Your Fire Extinguisher. You would also do well to purchase a fire blanket, which is ideal for smothering galley fires without the mess of a dry-powder extinguisher.
Bilge Love: First, clean your bilge to get rid of contaminants like hair, pieces of paper and stray odds and ends that might clog a bilge pump or intake or make a float switch stick on. That done, check the connections on all electric bilge pumps for corrosion and dump some water into the bilge to check the float switch and pump’s operation. Also test the manual pump—modern boats are (generally!) so watertight that the manual pump gets neglected, and you may find that the diaphragm has dried up and cracked. If you or the yard has done work that involves removing hoses from through-hulls, make sure they’ve been properly replaced and are double-clipped below the waterline.
Steering: I have personal experience of steering failure, and it is no joke. Inspect the chain, cables and sheaves according to the maker’s recommendations. While you’re at it, try installing your emergency tiller—you may find you have to remove the wheel to use it, and better to know that in advance.
Lifejackets: Type I, II and III PFDs need no care apart from freshwater washes after use and inspection for physical damage at the start of season. However, Type V inflatable lifejackets need a careful inspection. Leave them inflated overnight to make sure they are airtight and then replace the bobbin. There’s an online SAIL article covering the process here: Inspect Your Lifejackets. Confession—I once wore an inflatable PFD or an entire season without realizing there was no gas canister attached. Remember too that the USCG does not count inflatable lifejackets as PFDs unless they are actually being worn, so if it’s not your habit to sail in a lifejacket, make sure you have a couple of other types on board in case you get inspected.
Flares: Are your flares up to date? You won’t know unless you check. Make sure you have enough in-date ones on board to satisfy the USCG, and that your other signaling devices are in good order and easy to access.
Lifelines: Coated lifelines are notoriously prone to corrosion. I personally have seen two such snap when weight was put on them, in one case catapulting an unfortunate shipmate overboard. Inspect them carefully, especially where they pass through stanchions, where the coating often cracks. Also, check the terminations and make sure the split rings and clevis pins are in good shape.
Rigging: If the mast has been down for the winter, don’t take the yard’s word for it that the rig is ready to go. Even the best of riggers make mistakes, and at launch time they’re often under such pressure that it’s easy to overlook things like inserting split pins into clevis pins—an omission I’ve spotted on both forestays and backstays over the years. Another common yard mistake is to not spread the tines of the split pin enough, or at all. Once you’re happy, tape up your turnbuckles so protruding tines can’t snag skin, clothing or sails. Switch on all the mast lights and the VHF radio to ensure the wiring hasn’t been damaged or re-connected incorrectly.
Deck gear: Hose down all your blocks and traveller cars with freshwater and make sure they turn freely. Ensure shackle pins are wired so they can’t come undone when you least want them to, which in my experience is the only time they actually do come undone. If you have no seizing wire, black (UV-resistant) plastic cable ties will do for the short term. If the yard has bent on your sails and run your reefing lines, raise the mainsail to make sure they’ve done it correctly. Give your halyard and sheet winches a spin—when was the last time you serviced them? If it’s more than two years, you probably should spend a therapeutic afternoon stripping, cleaning and reassembling your winches. If you have an electric windlass, make sure the cable connections to the motor are free from corrosion—the most common source of windlass woes.
Electronics, etc: Hopefully you removed all the batteries from your flashlights and other small electrics/electronics last fall. If not, remove them now to make sure the contacts are clean and the batteries haven’t leaked. Then replace the batteries and test them. Fully charge handheld VHFs, GPS units and any other equipment that has Li-ion batteries. Switch on all your nav electronics and check that everything is working the way it should.
Engine and Spares: No doubt you replaced the oil and fluids in your inboard in the fall and, if you have an outboard, had that serviced properly. There just remains the small matter of ensuring you have the right spares to get you through the most common engine problems you might encounter on a cruise: fuel and oil filters, alternator belts, impellers, engine coolant and oil.