How to maintain a boat and prepare for a marine survey

This article was inspired by a speech at a local yacht club. I was asked to speak about the importance of maintaining adequate boat insurance and how to maintain a boat for a good marine survey report. This article addresses the second part of the request; a prior article was written regarding the importance of maintaining suitable boat insurance.

This article follows logically from the first article as the tips contained herein will improve the condition of the vessel and will be reflected on a survey report. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive boat maintenance guideline. It gives a few specific suggestions based on our decades of experience as marine surveyors. Specifically we have specialized in insurance claims assistance and condition and valuation inspections.

A myriad of books have been written regarding boat maintenance. Most boat owners have a reasonably good idea of what needs to be done to maintain their boats. Hiring experts for specific systems such as engines, transmissions and generators is always advisable if proper maintenance is beyond your skill set.

While preparing for the speech and the articles a common theme sprang to mind. Pay attention to the subtle changes. Note conditions which are different in any way, it is your boat giving you a clue of how to save money.

Many insurance claims result from several unfortunate circumstances or the alignment of several problems, not just one event. Submersions are perhaps the most obvious example.

Submersions often result from a gradual leak that develops into a more substantial leak. There are often contributing causes including bilge pumps or their automatic switches which fail, or low battery voltage. Determine the low spot on the vessel and check it upon your arrival. Any accumulation of water higher than the norm should be dealt with immediately. Determine the source of the water and eliminate the leak. Remove the water to allow detection of any future leaks. A most honored mentor has told me repeatedly “nothing good ever comes out of water in the bilge”.

Check the function of the bilge pump and specifically check the function of the automatic switch. If you don’t know how to check the switch, now is a good time to learn. Make these checks part of your monthly maintenance program. Consider secondary bilge pumps, float switches and alternative power sources for the secondary bilge pump. All offshore cruising vessels should have a high water alarm, they are relatively simple and inexpensive to install.

Most vessels sink in their slip. While many vessels spend most of their lives in the slip, the most common causes of submersions are not associated with heavy weather or rough seas operations. Check and maintain the propeller shaft seals, the rudder ports, the deck drains and the seawater systems. Many hoses last ten years, have you considered the age of your hoses? A bilge pump cycle counter is another tool which can be useful in preventing a submersion or partial submersion event. But like any other tool it is only effective if it is used properly and any increase in the number of cycles is dealt with in a timely manner.

Through hulls and through hull valves should be inspected annually and serviced or replaced as necessary. We recommend ball valves or sea cocks and discourage the use of gate valves. Valves should be functional. Maintenance should be performed as appropriate for the valve. Pink discoloration of bronze is an indication of corrosion and any suspect through hulls should be replaced during maintenance haul outs. I have broken countless valves and several through hull assemblies in the normal course of surveying, unfortunately the failures were not the result of any superior strength, just through hulls weakened by corrosion. Often weeps, stains or salt crystal accumulation can alert the boat owner to a failing through hull or a valve. A quick visual inspection is often sufficient to discover this type of problem. Be sure to access and inspect the transom, as there are often fittings below the waterline. Look for rust stains and weeping trails for your visual clues to problems.

An owner of a vessel that recently submerged mentioned that he had noticed a problem with the culprit through hull and had made a mental note to change it at the next scheduled haulout, the haulout was unfortunately scheduled to far in the future. These are components that give the boat owner plenty of warning prior to failure but teach a hard lesson if ignored.

Heavy weather in the winter of 2009 – 2010 in the Southern California area gave rise to numerous boat insurance claims. (See Heavy Weather Boat Maintenance, a previous article). Make sure the canvas is suitable for the job you give it. Service deck drains and hatch drains as necessary. Take a look at the dock lines, chocks and cleats. These components will give you clues if they need something. Water standing on a drain, chafed dock lines, bent cleats (on the boat or more commonly the dock) are all precursors to more significant problems.

There are many simple things a boat owner can do to prevent or minimize damage from fire. Inspect the shore power cord connection and the boat’s shore power inlet. Replace any connectors which exhibit heat damage. Assure the locking ring is in place, provide strain relief and replace worn components as a matter of maintenance.

Assure that any systems or components which are added to the electrical system are installed by a qualified marine electrician. Over current protection (fuses and circuit breakers) are designed to prevent catastrophic electrical failures. Assure all devices have proper over current protection. Additionally, main AC and DC circuit breakers, and readily available battery switches are critical. Many electrical fires are foreshadowed by the definitive smell of over heated wire insulation. Turn off main circuit breakers and shut off all battery switches at the first smell.

Fire protection equipment should be maintained annually. Both fixed and portable extinguishers should be maintained per N.F.P.A. recommendations. While legal requirements only dictate the number and type of extinguishers and that the extinguishers are “serviceable”, we suggest more attention be paid to these crucial pieces of safety equipment. We have been involved with many engine room fires which were extinguished by fixed units. Countless lives have been saved by these devices but they are rarely maintained properly. There are tricks (daylight savings time) used to remember when to replace the batteries in your smoke alarms, use the same memory trick to remember to check and service the safety systems on your boat.

Other safety devices which are commonly found lacking in the maintenance department include distress signal flares, re-boarding devices, life rafts, EPIRBs, MOB devices and life preservers. Our rule for safety equipment is if you are going to bet your life on it, hedge your bet with maintenance. If it is aboard the boat when we survey it, it must be currently maintained and functional, even if it is not a legal requirement.

Machine systems, engines, transmissions and generators, are the most reliable system on the boat for providing clues about impending failures. While rust stains and water accumulation may whisper clues of impending failure elsewhere in the boat, machine systems often shout their warnings. Many of these clues do not require years of mechanical experience or skilled senses. Many of the clues simply require the operator to pay attention and be aware of the normal function of the machines.

Most engines are equipped with gauges. Changes in any of the gauges should illicit a response. A change in the idle speed, oil pressure or operating temperature is easy to notice if one simply pays attention. Many of the operators put physical marks on their gauges to allow for ease in determination of any changes. Small pieces of tape or similar markings on the face of the gauge where the needle usually resides is a simple trick to alert even the novice boat owner of a problem.

We request cold starts during our sea trials for potential buyers. Starting an engine cold is an excellent indication of its condition. Ideally an engine should start during the first turn of the crank shaft, instantly when the key switch is energized. A hard starting engine is a bad sign. Notice if your engine becomes gradually harder to start. Pay attention to the exhaust smoke opacity (density). It often changes gradually but it is visible on most boats. Observe the engine itself and properly address any fluid leaks (coolant, seawater, oil, fuel, transmission fluid) or corrosion. Pay attention to the sound the engine makes, among simple clues are belt squeals and water pump or alternator bearing noise. Know that every component on the engine that interfaces with seawater requires maintenance. The raw water pump, heat exchanger, after cooler, oil cooler, exhaust mixing elbow and even the sea strainer require maintenance.

Our experience has provided insight to a remarkable difference in failure modes between recreational and commercial vessel engines. A recreational vessel engine that has worn out is an oddity. Recreational vessel engines generally fail due to the failure of some component part coupled with a negligent response to this initial failure. Though the negligence is often a result of ignorance, it is nevertheless preventable. Conversely, commercial vessel operators pay attention to the clues from their machine systems, perhaps because their livelihood is dependent. The high temperature condition is addressed and the running temperature is returned to normal, before the catastrophic failure occurs. This is a simple and clear example of the difference maintenance makes. Commercial vessel’s engines live longer because of better, more active maintenance.

Similar clues are provided to sailors. Standing and running rigging weathers and corrodes. Roller furling mechanisms slowly become more difficult to operate. Sail covers rip and tatter before the sails themselves are exposed to the harmful effects of the sun.

Vessels powered by gasoline engines or vessels equipped with propane cooking, require specific maintenance. Gas powered boats are required to have forced ventilation in the engine space. We commonly find blower hoses disconnected and rendered ineffective. Any electrical component in a gasoline engine room or gasoline tank storage space is required by A.B.Y.C. recommendations and standards to be ignition protected. It is difficult to determine if the starter you are trying to purchase is ignition protected or not. One sure fire way is the price tag, but asking the vendor is your responsibility. We encourage gasoline boat owners to use their nose to detect for gasoline fumes upon arrival to the boat. If the boat is kind enough to provide a clue that your vessel has a gasoline leak, return the favor by paying attention. In the event of a gasoline odor, we encourage an uneducated operator to enlist professional assistance.

A well designed propane system provides the necessary equipment for testing for leaks. Open the solenoid valve and the manual valve on the tank. Shut the manual valve and allow the solenoid valve to remain open for at least several minutes. Note the pressure on the gauge at the time the manual valve is closed. Any reduction in the pressure is an indication of a leak in the system. We strongly encourage the use of propane and carbon monoxide alarms in conjunction with propane systems. Carbon monoxide alarms and gasoline fume detectors are also suggested for gasoline powered vessels particularly if they have sleeping areas.

We hope this list of suggestions supplements your existing maintenance program and provides some useful tips in maintaining the vessel to prevent damage and to improve the condition. This will not only allow for a better marine survey report, but a better boating experience. Pay attention to the subtle changes and you may prevent the catastrophic event.