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.
Boaters who secure vessels to floating docks in tide-prone areas need to stay particularly alert in the early part of the season. If a storm hits during a new or full moon, especially during a rising tide, that floating dock — and its associated boat — can sustain serious damage if the dock isn't riding on tall, sturdy pilings. If an early spring storm is forecast, it can be a good idea to temporarily move the boat to a fixed dock.
It's also a good idea to include some additional chafe protection to protect lines from strains caused by the stronger wind and waves spring may bring. A split garden hose, leather or rags can be duct-taped or sewn in place at critical points of contact. Some boaters use sections of an old fire hose, but I've found the rough nature of this material can scratch underlying cap rails and bulwarks.
Properly set and chafe-protected fore and aft springs are the most important defense against stormy weather. Those spring lines need to be nylon rather than Dacron or polypropylene and of a diameter that allows them to completely wrap around the base of a cleat and then make a figure eight twice around.
Spring lines should run long to outlying pilings at the most acute angle that is practical (bow cleat to stern-most piling and vice versa). Bow and stern lines should have enough slack in them to compensate for the greatest expected tidal change. Forget breast lines (lines that run directly across from boat to dock), as they can strain your cleats and cause your boat to "ping-pong" sideways.
If you take the time to properly ready your boat for that first cruise and make necessary provisions to handle early-season winds and tides, you will greatly lessen the chance of a mishap. That long winter's wait and all that preparation will seem well worth it once the last channel buoy is left behind and there's open water — and a delightful season — ahead.
**If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the sea floor is just as paved with good anchors. Not long ago, I brought up a wonderful 45-pound CQR complete with 6 feet of chain and 100 feet of five-eights-inch line. (I'm not saying where because you're not getting it back.) I do hope whoever lost it had a spare because a spare hook is as necessary as spare impellers and sufficient fuel.
You need to carry more than just an extra anchor (serious cruisers carry three or four anchors). An anchor tucked in lonely splendor in a locker does nobody any good. That backup anchor should be of the same heft as the primary, and it should be stowed with its own chain lead and rope rode of at least 100 feet. As for that chain lead, you can't have too much. It's the chain that keeps the anchor's stock parallel to the sea floor, which contributes significantly to the holding action.
Why do those anchors get lost in the first place? Often, they foul on something below (maybe on somebody else's lost gear), and the rode gets cut in frustration. The best way to avoid this is to have a hefty — of the same stuff as the rode — buoyed retriever line bent to the business end of the anchor. There's even a fitting there to take the shackled line. When the hook fouls, yank up on that line and the odds are it'll come free. With luck, maybe you'll even bring up the other guy's anchor it was fouled on. We can either be contributors to, or receivers of, the bounties of the sea.
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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.