A little boat maintenance goes long way

The owner of a 2-year-old boat spent the better part of a recent day waving frantically at passing boaters as his 18-foot runabout drifted aimlessly down Conowingo Lake toward the dam.

Bad luck and prevailing winds kept his craft from blowing toward shore, thus causing him considerable discomfort when he realized the boat's path would take it toward one of the open spillways.


By the time he was spotted by a passing fisherman, the craft was only a few hundred yards from the dam. Another 15 minutes and both he and his passenger would have plunged over the 130-foot-high impoundment to the rocks below.

After arriving at the marina, it only took a mechanic a few minutes to diagnose the malfunction.


"I see these types of problems every summer," said Butch Young, manager of Glen Cove Marina. "Some folks must figure things like fuel filters, spark plugs and gasoline last forever. These are the kind of people that keep me in business."

Young says although the vast majority of the problems boaters encounter occur during spring, a substantial number of similar difficulties are experienced at the height of boating season -- especially on weekends.

"I see everything from bad spark plugs to frozen steering cables," said Young. "Most of these problems can be easily prevented if boaters take time to do a little late-season maintenance."

* Spark plugs -- Every boater should carry a spare set of spark plugs and the tools to change them. However, depending on your engine's vintage, frequency and type of use, you may have to change spark plugs two or possibly three times during the season.

If the boat is used only to tow water skiers a dozen times during the year, there's an even chance you'll be able to change plugs once a season with no difficulty.

Fishermen, on the other hand, should change spark plugs frequently, especially if their outboard is an older model without oil injection. Recreational anglers spend hours running at idle or trolling speeds. Under these conditions, the engine rarely reaches efficient operating temperature, and fuel consumption is higher, thereby increasing the volume of unburned oil passing through the engine.

* Points -- Although newer engines are equipped with electronic ignition systems, older outboards and I/O's still rely on points to fire their ignition systems. The points on an I/O are easily accessible and should be changed at least once a year, but outboard manufacturers hid them under the flywheel.

Unless you want to remove your outboard's flywheel, a task requiring specialized tools costing hundreds of dollars, take the motor to a reputable mechanic.


* Filters -- Every engine, regardless of age or design, has at least one fuel filter and in some instances, two, that need replacing.

* Battery -- One of the most common causes of engine failure is a dead battery. Generally, marine batteries are tough, provide lots of cranking amperage and should last at least three to five years. However, because they're subjected to a marine environment, terminals frequently corrode. This results in an engine that's dead as a doornail, leaving you stranded in the middle of a lake or river.

This situation is easily avoided by washing the entire battery with a solution of baking soda and water, rinsing it thoroughly with cold, fresh water. Then check the fluid level of each cell with a hydrometer.

Each cell should have a specific gravity reading of 1.275 when fully charged. Clean the terminals with course steel sponge or a terminal cleaning tool, cleaning both the terminals and all cable connections. Spray with a liberal coat of WD-40 or similar agent, wipe with a soft, dry cloth and connect the cables to their terminals.

* Electrical panel -- Your boat's electrical panel also needs a little TLC to keep it in top condition. A light coat of WD-40 should be sprayed on each fuse connector, the back side of all switches and on your key before inserting it in the ignition switch. Do not spray WD-40 on electronic components with printed circuit boards.

* Trailer -- A little squirt of WD-40 also goes a long way to improve the operation of hatch latches, running lights, anchor lights, cooler hinges and other metal accessories subject to the environment.


If your boat is trailered, a light coat of WD-40 should be applied to the base of all light sockets, trunk connector, trailer plug, the hitch coupler and all roller bearings. While you're at it, spray the winch cable, gears and winch ratchet to prevent them from corroding.

The final step is to check tires and wheel bearings. Many trailers constructed within the past two years have a new type of axle system that essentially repacks the wheel bearings each time grease is applied to the hub fitting. Older trailers should be equipped with spring-loaded caps that provide a constant supply of grease to the bearings. However, it's imperative that caps be kept filled with fresh lubricant or they will not function.

By performing these minor tasks during midsummer, you'll be able to extend your boating season several months.