For those of us in the Northeast or lake states who just experienced a tough, seemingly endless winter, the onset of spring is like an oasis after a long slog across a frigid tundra. Joy is in the air as we contemplate a new season of carefree boating. Hmm, really? At this moment, towboat operators and Coast Guard coxswains are gearing up for their early-season cases. While they won't get as many calls as during the height of summer, those beginning-of-season mishaps are often more serious in nature.
It's the early spring cruiser who will suffer the consequences of a vessel improperly stored over the winter or too hastily prepared for that first trip. It is then too that the advantages of less traffic and unspoiled cruising grounds can be offset by longer waits for help in the event of emergency. In addition, springtime weather, tides and currents are often of greater intensity than during more placid summer weather.
My associates and I move a lot of boats in the spring. We know there are considerably fewer problems when boats are properly prepared for trips before we delivery skippers board them. I like to hear that impellers have been inspected or replaced before launch (I still yank the plates and eyeball them myself), the oil and filters have been changed and the belts inspected and adjusted. Often, I'm told the filters haven't been changed because "that was taken care of just before the boat was put up." At one time, I too was a practitioner of that mantra, but it doesn't hold water. My learning curve is a bit on the flat side, but after losing power a few times, I know filters need to be changed before the boat leaves the dock for that first cruise.
Another part of my post-storage walk-through involves inspecting and then opening and closing every seacock on the boat. I'll also "tickle" the undersides of the hoses that emanate from those valves. I run my hand around the hoses, and if they are wet, I want to know why. I'm particularly suspicious when there is a sharp bend in the hose or pipe near where it exits from the fitting. If notch-type adjustable hose clamps secure hoses, I remove the clamp and inspect the hose where it was secured to see how much damage the clamp caused; properly fitted and chafe-protected clamps are always preferable.
Finally, once the engines and/or gensets are fired up and running, I hang out in the engine room for a while just looking at everything before I get under way for that first run. Here's where I spot the unexpected spray of liquid, note the flocculation of a poorly adjusted belt, see or feel an unusual vibration and smell something out of synch — the odor of a burning wire, cooling fluid sizzling away on a hot manifold or the invigorating stench of a diesel or gasoline leak.
When planning a cruise of any longer than a day trip, you should keep in mind that some facilities might not yet be fully operational and prepared for an early-season cruiser. I usually do some Web surfing before departing, hitting the Army Corps of Engineers or the Department of Transportation sites of any state I travel through to determine the status of bridges and locks and any maintenance or construction closings or delays on particular waterways.
Most larger yards and marinas have websites, and it doesn't take much searching to connect with them to arrange for overnight dockage and determine fuel availability and prices. I've found it's usually best to use the phone for the final reservations rather than e-mail; busy yards will answer the phone but not always check their e-mails. Considering the rapid weather changes that can take place at this time of year, it's a good idea to keep an ear tuned to NOAA weather forecasts.