After a winter of longing to be on the water, it can be hard to pull back the reigns on that first trip of the new boating season. The tendency is to plan an extensive day on the water cruising to lunch or dinner, kicking off your fishing season or simply enjoying a raft-up with friends. While that’s all well and good, it’s a better idea to take a shakedown cruise first – even if your vessel was operating flawlessly before it was winterized late last fall.
Quite simply, you should expect that anything that can go wrong on a boat will at some point. This theory seems to hold especially true for those first few trips of the year so it’s better to take a short ride to test things out, make an honest assessment of how your vessel is performing, and push her to the limits within sight of port where it will be easy to limp back to the dock or marina should anything go wrong.
Leave the fishing poles, lunch cooler and water toys home for this outing as you’ll want to be fully focused on the task at hand and the fewer distractions the better. Budget at least two hours to perform a full inspection and test run of your vessel, and keep a pad handy to build a punch-out list. Obviously, major concerns like an engine that fails to run smoothly or pump water needs to be addressed immediately but minor annoyances can be tended too at a later date. Recording these on a punch-out list will help reinforce their level of urgency and assure each is attended too in a timely manner.
Run your shakedown cruise like a sea trial, eventually pushing your boat to her (safe) limits as she warms up and passes each hurdle at slower speeds. Choose a nice day to make that first run as windy weather or heavy seas will prevent you from operating the vessel freely.
Following are a few check points that should be part of any spring shakedown cruise. Make it through this list and you should be set to go:
1. Before ever leaving the house, check that your registration and boat insurance policy are currently valid and file a float plan with someone responsible enough to respond effectively should you fail to check in or return on schedule. Of course, you’ll want to bring your Sea Tow Membership Card along, too, just in case.
2. Ensure you have all Coast Guard-required equipment on board including an approved life vest in good condition for each passenger and a fire extinguisher that is not expired. Update your medical kit with fresh band aids, etc. and be sure to bring along some sun block. Carry a cell phone, too, in case your VHF should fail.
3. If possible, inspect your trailer and vessel on land before heading out. Check the trailer tires for proper inflation and make sure the bearings aren’t frozen. Replace any straps that looked frayed, worn or damaged. Be sure the boat plug is in place and an anchor is on board and ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Top off your gas tank if it isn’t full already and give the entire hull a once-over as well.
4. Check the fuel filter for dirt and grime, and clean or change the spark plugs. Check the engine’s strainer for weeds, and make sure your scuppers are clear as well.
5. After launching, start your engine and listen carefully as it settles down. It may idle on the rough side for the first few minutes so be sure to allow sufficient time for it to warm up. If the engine was fogged during the winterizing process, expect it to release some smoke. This should clear up in a matter of minutes. Check to ensure a strong and steady stream of water is being pumped out the tell-tale. If it isn’t, turn the engine off and check for blockage. Do not run the engine if you cannot get water to shoot from the tell-tale or it will overheat.
6. Before leaving the dock, run through your electronics to ensure everything is functioning properly. Check that the chart plotter, depth sounder, VHF radio, freshwater systems, all instruments and lights are functioning as expected. Check that the windlass is operating properly, too.
7. Getting underway, go light on the throttle. Give your engines sufficient time to warm up and yourself time to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with the helm. Steadily build up speed by increasing RPMs incrementally. Hold each new setting for a minute or two before adding more speed. As you progress, check to ensure trim tabs are responding properly.
8. As you continue increasing speed, cut in several s-turns and circles, take the sea head-on and then cruise with a following sea. Get a good feel for how your vessel reacts to the slightest nudge of the throttle while also listening for extraneous rattles, clanking and clinking sounds. Stop, locate and either fix or record anything that sounds loose, comes free or appears shaky including fishing rod holders, electronics, cleats, guardrails, fish boxes, coolers, etc.
Yes, it does sound like a lot of work to get things going when all you want to do is christen a new boating season with family and friends. Still, making the time to shake everything out can ultimately save you a long and tedious tow back to the dock and big bucks for fixing small problems before they become big ones.
So slap a smile on that face, step aboard and set a course for the nearest stretch of safe open water. When everyone’s aboard on that second trip of the year, you’ll be sitting pretty, feeling confident and fully ready to enjoy all you hoped that boating might be.
Written by Tom Schlichter
Editor’s Note: Follow “Outdoor Tom” Schlichter on Facebook at @outdoortomcorp, or catch him online at www.outdoortom.com.