I'm not in the habit of poking around in other people's engine rooms uninvited, but we were waiting at the dock and everybody else was telling fish tales, so I wandered aft and came upon an open hatch. The engines were ticking over, and I was admiring the layout, when I spotted a streak of rust on a starter motor. Sure enough, there was a drip from the raw-water pump mounted above the motor, and judging by the rust streak, the leak wasn't new. When I took the owner aside and mentioned it, he laughed and said it had been leaking all season but didn't seem to be getting worse. He was planning to overhaul the pump soon anyway.
I could say I became outraged at his irresponsibility and stormed off the boat in pompous satisfaction, but that's not what happened. Instead, I helped cast off the lines. The blues had been hitting hard, and I wanted to get in on the action as much as anyone else on board. Fortunately, we made the trip and returned without incident.
For many of us, the boating season is short. So, if you work hard all week and then, come Friday, discover something as seemingly minor as a leaky pump, it's easier to decide to go rather than to stay and do some troubleshooting. If you're playing the odds, you can probably get away with it, but frankly it's just not smart to do that when you're going offshore. Sure, I went along for the ride on that sport-fishing boat the day I saw the leak, but I wasn't the skipper. If that boat had been my responsibility, we would not have left the dock until that pump was replaced or rebuilt and that starter given a good once-over.
Here's my rule of thumb: Anything that might put the boat in jeopardy or compromise its performance needs to be rectified before the mooring lines are tossed. It's as simple as that. Many boat owners have a highway mentality: If something breaks, they tell themselves, they'll call Sea Tow or a similar organization that they perceive to be the marine equivalent of AAA. Yet as proficient as marine tow services are, a disabled vessel offshore is not like a car with a flat. Once the boat is down, the odds are really no longer in your favor.
Mechanical trouble is not the only concern a boat owner has to weigh when deciding to leave the dock or stay. Weather must also be considered. Fortunately, weather forecasts are now very sophisticated. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration FM and even longer-range forecasts have a high percentage of accuracy. However, they aren't going to interpret for us. For instance, if you're planning a day's fishing and the forecast is for onshore winds and seas with an offshore shift, you should know you're going to get rapped in and out. Will the trip be worth it? Also, whenever the forecast calls for a change of some sort during the time you plan to be offshore, it needs further investigation. If NOAA predicts a change in wind direction or strength, it's probably a good idea to delve beyond the immediate forecast and tune into the weather discussion or go to weather.gov/om/marine/home.htm to find out why. You could be looking at a front that will intensify without much warning, which is a good reason to modify your cruising plans and spend the day working on the boat at the dock. Coastal boaters who cruise in the early spring or fall should know that an onshore wind shift can sometimes precede a fog bank.