Runabout boat about to get washed

Hey boat owners, as warm weather is once again spreading across the country, now is the time to make sure your boat is ready for the new season.  You’ve anxiously waited all winter for this time and so the last thing you want to do is drive a couple hours to the lake only to discover that your boat won’t start or is not performing properly.  In this article, I list the top 10 must-do tasks to prep your boat for Spring.  By taking these steps, you might be able to avoid some headaches and increase your boating enjoyment.

Please note that I have included links to some products referenced throughout this article for your convenience.  If you click on a link and buy something, BoaterInput will receive a small commission to help defray some of the cost to maintain this site. 

Engine Inspection and Maintenance

The engine, of course, is critical and there are several things to check.

Inspect wires and hoses. Remove the cowl or engine cover.  Inspect the wires and hoses to see if any are frayed, lose or cracking.  Rodents have been known to build a home in the engine compartment during the winter and can wreak havoc on your engine.

Check belts. On four strokes, a timing belt or chain regulates the timing of the valves relative to the piston.  If the belt breaks, this can be catastrophic – especially if you have an “interference” type of engine (meaning the pistons will contact the valves if they are not retracted).

The alternator or serpentine belt controls things like the alternator, air compressor (Mercury OptiMax) and other engine accessories.    Though not as vital as the timing belt, a failure with this belt could cause a loss of power or the ability to recharge your battery.

Inspect all belts for cracks and frays and check your owner’s manual for the recommended service interval.  Even if the belt appears to be in good shape, you might still want to proactively replace it after a while because it could get brittle over time due to exposure to heat and cold.

Check the steering. With the engine off and the motor in the down position, turn the steering wheel (or push the tiller) from side to side.  It should move easily in both directions.  If not, this could be due to rust, a lack of grease, or the loss of fluids (hydraulic steering).  One thing that many boaters are unaware of is that there are one or more grease (zerk) fittings on the steering/tilt system of most outboards.  Watch this brief video from Mercury to find out where to provide lubrication.

Check the Tilt/Trim system. If your engine is so equipped, try raising and lowering your engine.  It should move smoothly and hold its position.  If not, you might need to grease the rams or tilt tube, bleed your system, or add hydraulic fluid.

Inspect the anodes. These metal objects attached to various places on your engine are designed to be eaten up or “sacrificed” in order to spare your engine from corrosion.  Replace them if they have corroded down to about half of their original size or weight.  This is especially important for saltwater boaters or those who keep their boat in a marina wet slip since these are more corrosive environments.

Inspect engine mount & transom. For outboard motors, check the bolts or clamps to make sure they are secure. After all, you don’t want your outboard to fall off like what happened with these ladies.  Also, while you are there, look around for any stress cracks on the transom or splash well.  This could indicate a soft or rotting transom which would need to be repaired right away.

Perform annual maintenance. The Fall is generally the best time to perform annual maintenance tasks such as changing the oil and filter (four-strokes), replacing the fuel/water separating filter, changing the spark plugs, and changing the lower-unit gear lube.  That is because any moisture or contaminants in the system could cause rust or other issues during a long storage period. But if you neglected to do the work then, now is the time to do it so that you are at least starting off the season on the right foot.

Propeller and Drive System Inspection

In addition to inspecting your engine, you should also check out your prop and propulsion system if you hadn’t already done so last fall.

Inspect propeller. A chipped or bent propeller will not only hurt performance but can also cause excess vibration that could damage your motor.  If your propeller is damaged, now is the time to replace it or take it to a prop shop for repair.  Whenever I damage a prop, I typically buy a new one and then use the repaired prop as a backup when it is returned.

Check the seals. When I am out on my lake, it is not uncommon to snag a fishing line or a trot line when covering an area.  If that gets wound around the prop shaft, it could break the seals and take the gear lube with it.  This may eventually lead to a very expensive lower unit repair.

Mercury 2-4-C greaseRemove your propeller and check for any line or debris wrapped around the prop shaft.  Next, clean the prop shaft with a rag and apply some marine grease like this Mercury 2-4-C.  This will prevent your prop from freezing onto the shaft and make it much easier to remove the next time.

Check the prop shaft. With the engine off and controls in neutral, spin the propeller and look to see if there is any wobble in the prop shaft.  Just like a damaged prop, a bent prop shaft will cause excess vibration and may eventually damage your engine.

Quicksilver High Performance Extreme GreaseGrease the coupler (sterndrives). Credit for this lesser-known task goes to my friend and former colleague, Robert.  He informed me that the coupler that connects the engine to the drive unit needs to be greased periodically.  When I looked it up, Mercury recommends that I grease the coupler every 300 hours or 3 years for my MerCruiser Alpha drive.  However, the interval is much shorter (50 hours) for Bravo units.

To grease the coupler, there is often one or two zerk fittings in the engine compartment on the drive shaft near the transom.  Instead of regular grease, Mercury recommends this heavier-duty grease instead.  Only problem is that, depending on the size of your engine compartment, it might be difficult to access the zerk fittings and so you might need to get professional help with this maintenance item.

Inspect Electrical Systems and Plumbing

These “behind the scenes” systems are often overlooked but can be the difference between a fun and frustrating day on the water.

Battery.  Put your battery on a charger to check whether it is fully charged.  I like to remove my battery during the winter and will just top it off before putting it back in the boat.  Speaking of topping off, if you have regular (not maintenance free) lead-acid batteries, pop the caps off and check the fluid levels.  Batteries will naturally lose liquid during the charging process.  If the level gets too low, the health and longevity of your battery will suffer.  But be sure use distilled water, not regular tap water which may contain additional minerals that could inhibit your battery’s performance.

Also check the battery terminals and connectors for dirt and/or corrosion.  If present, clean with a wire brush or toothbrush and a baking soda/water paste.

OPTIMA Batteries OPT8016-103 D34M BlueTop Starting and Deep Cycle Marine Battery

Lights. Flip on all running and interior lights to make sure they are working.  If not, start by checking for loose or corroded connections or a blown fuse.

Plumbing. Hit your bilge switch and listen to determine if it is running.  Do the same with you livewell fill and recirculate switches if your boat is so equipped.  Obviously, you won’t be able to see whether they are pumping until you get out on the water but can at least hear if it is turning on.

Blower. If you have an inboard or sterndrive engine, your boat is equipped with a blower.  Be sure to check this, along with your horn, to make sure both are working properly.  Note that if you are ever out on the water and the blower doesn’t work for some reason, simply open the engine cover for several minutes to allow any gas vapors to dissipate before starting your engine.

Installed Electronic Accessories.  This could include Fish Finders, a Trolling Motor, VHF radio, a stereo system and other accessories.  Simply turn on each item to make sure they are receiving power.

Check Safety Equipment

Making sure your safety gear is in good order is important for the well-being of you and your passengers and may help you to avoid getting a fine out on the water.

Fire extinguisher. Examine the pressure gauge to see if the meter is in the green zone.  If not, it is time to replace.

Life Jackets (PFDs). Check to make sure you have enough life jackets of the proper size and type for your intended usage and the number of passengers you plan to bring aboard.  It is important to always air-dry life jackets after every usage to prevent mildew from forming.  If mold or mildew is present (which is common if they are stored in a closed boat compartment), you should be able to clean them by soaking them in water with laundry detergent and bleach.

ABSOLUTE OUTDOOR Onyx A/M-24 Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket

Throwables.  Most boats over a certain length are required to have a cushion or other throwable device.  Make sure yours is still in good shape.  And, if it needs cleaning, soak in water with laundry detergent and bleach as noted above.

Clean the Interior

Even if you thoroughly cleaned your boat before putting it away for the season, there is a good chance that you will need to touch it up again in the Spring because bugs or other pests like to slip under the cover over winter.  Also mold and mildew may form due to condensation that occurs with fluctuating temperatures.

Vacuum interior. Start by taking a shop vac to the interior to pick up any dead bugs, leaves or other debris.

Clean upholstery. If your interior is not too dirty, you can spot clean it with a spray on vinyl cleaner and rag.  Be sure to get a product like this specifically made for marine use.  Avoid using standard household cleaners or products with bleach which may remove the anti-microbials and damage the vinyl.  Likewise, do not use a stiff brush or a “magic eraser” on your upholstery as these may weaken the threads or fabric.

For bigger jobs, you might need to wash down the interior with a hose and a mild cleaner like Dawn dish soap which is safe for the environment.

Apply a vinyl protectant. Finally, after you have cleaned the interior, it is a good idea to spray on a vinyl protectant to shield from harmful UV rays.   The 303 Aerospace Protectant received very favorable reviews in one of my previous surveys.

303 Products Aerospace Protectant – UV Protection – Repels Dust, Dirt, & Staining – Smooth Matte Finish – Restores Like-New Appearance – 32 Fl. Oz. (30313CSR)

Wash and Wax the Hull/Exterior

If you did not wash and wax your boat last Fall, it is important to do so now so that your boat will perform better and has additional protection to guard against oxidation.

Remove Stains or Marine Growth. If your boat sat in the water for long periods, you might have some difficult water stains or marine growth to deal with.  This is where a bottom cleaner comes into play.  The Mary Kate On & Off Hull and Bottom Cleaner received excellent reviews in a previous survey and is a good product to use for some of the tougher stains or growth.

MaryKate On & Off Hull & Bottom Cleaner, 32 Fl Oz, for Use On Fiberglass, Removes Tough Waterline, Algae, and Barnacle Stains

Wash the Hull. Next wash down your hull with a hose or pressure washer and a mild soap such as Dawn.  Having a brush with an extendable handle also makes the job a lot easier.  Here is the exact brush that I use.

Note that Dawn will strip the wax off your hull.  This is fine if you plan on waxing it afterwards.  But, if your boat was recently waxed and you just want to clean it between trips, use a Boat Wash instead which will not remove the wax.

STAR BRITE Deluxe Telescoping Deck Brush Kit - Extendable Aircraft-Grade Aluminum Handle, Medium Multipurpose Bristles, Floats if Dropped, Ergonomic Design, Multi-Surface Cleaning - Blue (040192)

Apply Wax. Lastly apply a wax to help guard against oxidation (fading of your gelcoat due to UV rays).  There are several types of waxes and the names can be a bit confusing.

  • A Carnauba wax is a pure and gentle wax that will give your boat an excellent shine.  This Collinite Fleetwax received excellent reviews from boaters in my prior survey.
Collinite 885 Fleetwax Paste
  • A Polymer is a synthetic product that will typically bond to fiberglass surfaces better than a Carnauba wax.  As a result, it will generally hold up 2-3X longer.  The Star Brite Premium Marine Polish is what I use on my boat because it is easy to apply and lasts a long time.
STAR BRITE Premium Marine Polish - Maximum UV Protection & High Gloss Finish - UV Inhibitors Stop Fading, Chalking & Oxidation While Repelling Water, Stains & Marine Deposits - 32 Ounce (085732)
  • A Cleaner Wax should not be confused with a “Wash and Wax”.  The “cleaner” actually refers to some abrasives that are added to the wax to help scrape away some of the gelcoat.  You should only use this if you are trying to treat oxidation.
  • A “Wash and Wax”, as the name implies, is a one-step product designed to clean and provide a level of wax protection.  However, this is unlikely to provide the same level of protection as a dedicated wax or polymer and so I never use this.  But, if you are in a hurry and need to get your boat looking nice, this could be a good option for you.
  • A Deck Wax is a specialty product designed to protect and shine deck surfaces without the slipperiness of a regular wax.  Use this on surfaces that are walked on.
  • A Ceramic Coating is a newer method of creating a long-lasting shine for your boat hull.  Whereas a typical wax might last 3 months or so (longer with Polymers), a Ceramic Coating could last up to 3 years if properly maintained.  However, this is not for everyone because you need a near flawless hull before you apply the product.  As such, it may be best if handled by a professional and is considerably more expensive and time consuming than a normal wax job.

And to make the wax job quicker and easier, get yourself an orbital polisher.  An orbital  polisher rotates to help avoid creating swirl marks in the gelcoat or paint (if used on an aluminum boat or car).  Here is the specific model I use that is fairly inexpensive and receives great reviews on Amazon.  However, if you plan on doing the work away from home, then you might want to pay extra for a cordless model.

WEN 10PMC 10-Inch Waxer/Polisher in Case with Extra Bonnets

Trailer Maintenance

Though it doesn’t get the same attention as the boat, the trailer should not be overlooked.  Ensuring everything is in good shape is important to safely get to and from the water.  The following are the main things to check.

Inspect tires. Start by checking the tread depth and by looking for cracks along the tire wall.  Replace if the tread depth is 1/16” or less (insert a penny and if you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, it is time).  However, unlike car tires, most trailer tires need to be replaced because of time – not because of wear.  This is especially the case if your trailer is stored outside with exposure to the sun/UV rays.   Most recommend that you replace your trailer tires every 3 to 6 years from the date of manufacture – not date of install.

The DOT 4-digit code imprinted on tire sidewallsTo determine when your tires were built, there will be a four-digit code listed on the sidewall.  The first two digits represent the week of production and the last two represent the year.  If you store your trailer outdoors, consider buying some tire covers to prolong the life of your tires and safe you money in the long run.

Once you have closely inspected your tires, it is time to check the inflation.  It is recommended that you always inflate trailer tires to the maximum PSI listed on the tirewall when cold.  Doing so will result in less heat build-up, better wear, and increased fuel mileage.  Don’t forget to check the inflation on your spare tire as well.

Check your bearings. Bearings failing or seizing is a common cause of breakdowns when trailering your boat.  Be sure to check your bearings and add grease or clean/repack or replace if necessary.

Inspect the bunks and frame. If your bunks are made of wood, they will rot over time and the carpet might tear which could end up scratching your boat.  The good news is that they are fairly easy to replace.  You just need some pressure-treated lumber, indoor-outdoor carpeting, and some stainless-steel staples.  Be sure to check the lag screws underneath that fasten the bunks to the trailer.  These have a tendency to work loose over time.

While you are at it, crawl under the trailer to inspect the frame and leaf springs for rust/corrosion or loose bolts.  Some minor surface rust is no big deal but if the metal starts to flake off or appears brittle, it may be time to start shopping for a new trailer.

Of course, inspecting the trailer bunks and frame is easier to do when your boat is off the trailer.  Therefore, you should reinspect these items after you first launch the boat for the season.

Check your lights. Connect your trailer to your tow vehicle and check to make sure that all the lights are working.  Not only is this important for safety reasons but could also help you to avoid getting pulled over.

Boat Winch StrapInspect the winch and rear tie-downs (if equipped). These are essential to keep your boat from sliding off the back on acceleration or surging into your tow vehicle on braking.  If a strap is torn or starting to fray, it is best to replace it.  It is quick and easy to do and not very expensive.  You can get one for around $20 at Amazon.

Test Start Your Engine

Before you drag your boat and family to the lake, it is a good idea to fire up the engine ahead of time.  You will need a pair of “muffs” to run water through the block.  Never start your motor without water as this might quickly damage the impeller among other things.  Once the motor is started, check to make sure that a strong pee stream is visible.  If not, this might indicate a faulty impeller, a stuck thermostat, or a clogged cooling chamber.

Pack Tools and Gear

Floating Prop Wrench

Floating Prop Wrench

At the end of each season, I like to take everything out of my boat for security reasons and to minimize rust/corrosion or to prevent the build-up of mold and mildew.  If that is you as well, it is now time to return those items that you plan to keep on board your boat throughout the season.  For me, this includes lines and fenders, anchor, paddle, life jackets and throwable device, tools, a spare prop, prop wrench and a first aid kit.

Review & Confirm Documentation

Finally, in order to avoid getting a ticket out on the water, make sure you have all the proper documentation in place and up-to-date.  Below is a list of the main things required in my home state of Texas.  The requirements for your state might be slightly different.

  • State ID sticker (e.g., TX 0001 GG) that is affixed to both the port and starboard side of the bow.
  • A “validation” decal that covers the current year should also be affixed to your boat (some stickers are good for 2 years, others are good for 3).
  • A “Certificate of Number” card (i.e., registration card) must be kept on board your boat.
  • A boater education certification card (required for those born on or after September 1, 1993 in Texas) and picture ID.
  • Though not required in my state, it is also a good idea to have your boat insurance card on your boat or phone as well.

If you followed each of these steps, you should now be ready for a fun and relaxing time on the water.

Sources:

Why You DON’T CHANGE Outboard Belts!“. YouTube Video. Born Again Boats. 2021.

Shackleton, Rick.  “How to Maintain a Boat’s Trim-and-Tilt System“. Web Blog Post.  Boating Magazine. 20 January 2022.

Engine Coupler – Mercury MerCruiser User Manual“. PDF from User Manual.  

Maximizing Trailer Tire Lifespan: A Comprehensive Guide“. Web Blog Post.  Tires Easy.  21 February 2013.

Proper Boat Trailer Tire Pressure“. Web Blog Post.  Boating Magazine.  15 January 2020.

How to Know When to Replace Your Trailer’s Tires“.  Web Blog Post.  Carry-On Trailer.  

Jerry Mona - BoaterInput

About the author

Jerry Mona is an avid boater and angler and long-time boating industry insider. With over three decades of experience, he is often considered to be the leading research expert with boaters and has helped numerous manufacturers and trade associations to understand the needs, wants, attitudes and behaviors of boaters. He now shares many of his insights about boats and boaters for free on his BoaterInput.com website.

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