Water temperatures are warming, bait is returning in droves and the stripers won't be far behind. As Old Man Winter makes his exit, the onset of spring triggers heart palpitations among even the most casual coastal angler, let alone die-hard sharpies. But it's also the time that tests the patience of fishermen the most. Launch the boat without first doing the necessary checks and service, and the season can be over before it ever begins.
"Preventive maintenance will save money in the long run," says Ed Gensinger, who owns Riverfront Marina in Brick, New Jersey. "If you don't paint the boat's outdrives in the spring before you put it back in the water, by July-when the season is in full swing-you'll be shut down because of barnacles. You either pay now or pay later. The salt water environment is extremely harsh, so the adage 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' certainly applies."
Gensinger, who services 150 customer and transient boats each spring, says the preseason maintenance routine depends on what was done in the fall when the boat was hauled. If the fuel tanks weren't drained then, stabilizers or fuel additives can help minimize problems with contaminated fuel caused by water or ethanol. Gensinger recommends starting the season with a new fuel filter and fresh-filled tank.
Boats need periodic maintenance to keep in fishing trim. Engine service, including a thorough visual inspection of mechanical systems, is another preseason must, says Mike Travers, owner of Travers Marine in Pasadena, Maryland. Labor rates average $90 an hour on the Mid-Atlantic coast.
"We winterize 120 boats each year and that service includes changing all the engine lubricants," he says. "You don't want water sitting in the running gear all winter and you don't want oil sludge buildup. The only bad oil is dirty oil."
Re-installing batteries that have been stored during the off-season deserves careful attention. Do-it-yourselfers should tighten connecting nuts with pliers, Travers cautions, or even replace wingnuts with locknuts to ensure a solid connection. Failure to do so could cause sparks and arcing when the ignition is engaged, possibly melting the battery's lead terminals. If batteries are more than three years old, consider buying new ones.
Engine-room blowers should also be checked to ensure they run properly after sitting idle. Verify that all bilge pumps are in good working order in both the manual and automatic modes. If they aren't already, bilge pumps should be wired to run automatically, even when the battery switch is in the off position. And keep oil-absorbing pads or sheets well away from the float switch.
After servicing mechanical parts as necessary, Travers runs the engines in dry dock on a hose hookup to make sure they can handle the pressure without leaks. With inboard engines, oil pressure and transmission fluids are checked, along with all pumps, hose clamps, seacocks, impellers and strainers, including gaskets. After 15 hours of operation, it's always a good idea to recheck the hose clamps to see if they need further tightening.
If big maintenance jobs, like replacing cutlass bearings, are recommended on a winterization bill, Travers suggests scheduling the work quickly, before the service departments get too busy.
Don't wait on props, either. Tuning or repairing propellers can usually be done in less than two weeks before the season gets underway. Wait too long and the turnaround time could double or even triple.
After sitting around unused, the boat will need a thorough scrubbing before the season. Condensation is a major problem with shrink wrap, so check for mold and moisture damage. Wash and wax the entire boat-hull and topsides-with marine cleaners and a quality wax like Scotchgard or Woody Wax or a combined formula like Star brite's Sea Safe Wash & Wax. Besides improving fuel economy and easing future cleanups, waxing also lets you inspect the boat for spider cracks or voids in the fiberglass that might have gone unnoticed otherwise.
If your boat is equipped with outriggers, check the halyards and snubbers to see if they need replacing. Clean and treat seat cushions, canvas and enclosures; check and lubricate snaps and zippers with WD-40.
And don't forget about the trailer. Inspect bolts and springs for rust. Ensure the tires are inflated to the correct pressure, have no dry rot and aren't rubbed by fenders. Make sure the surge brakes didn't freeze up over the winter and they have enough fluid. Repack bearings and check that all lights work correctly.
Servicing the boat properly each spring may tax your patience and delay that first trophy. But it'll make for headache-free fishing and extend the season on the other end.