Check before you launch
Don't wait until your boat is afloat to discover things you have overlooked. Take time to check carefully.
Boatyards prefer owners to be there when they launch their boats and no wonder. That way, as soon as they’re properly afloat, the owner can nip aboard and check for leaks. Only once the owner is satisfied will they remove the slings and allow the crane or boat-hoist to trundle off to its next job.
And they have reason to be cautious. Following instructions from the owner, a certain boatyard I know launched a boat one Friday afternoon. It was the last job of the day and, one presumes, both crane gang and absent owner went their separate ways home in expectations of a fun-filled weekend. It was not to be. Saturday morning found the boat sunk on its berth. Surrounded by his family, our skipper gazed disconsolately at it hanging on its mooring lines, awash to its gunwales, while they all waited for the yard lads to be recalled to pump her out and crane her ashore again - a job which stretched into the afternoon.
When the boat finally emerged, it was discovered that the log transducer hadn’t been fitted. You should have checked it, said the owner. We specifically asked you and you said she was ready to launch, said the yard. For one crew, the season was already ruined. It was nudging into autumn before the restoration work was completed. Meanwhile an accusatory cloud hung over the yacht as boatyard and owner both sought to ease their respective embarrassments.
Most prudent owners will check their boats as soon as they’re laid up, so will know if any major work is needed well before the launch date. But no matter how assiduously we’ve ticked the various tasks off our lists, it’s almost impossible to remain sanguine when we take our last sight of the keel as the boat settles into the water.
My own method of panic limitation is to worry only about those jobs which are impossible to do with the boat afloat. Anything that can be done later -- no matter how inconveniently -- is a second grade consideration which, if you’ve overlooked it, will be annoying but redeemable. At the top of the list must be the potential pathways which might allow water into the hull.
Remember. Sinking can really spoil your day. So, here’s my pre-launch panic list
Apply whatever substance the manufacturers recommend (usually a silicone grease) to the O-rings and fit the log and echo-sounder transducers. Make sure the log’s paddle wheel turns freely and also runs true -- i.e. its axle isn’t bent. Yes, I know this can be done with the boat afloat, but there’s no point in letting even a cupful of water in later.
Check it works freely and that the bearings aren’t binding. With cantilevered spade rudders, it’s important to make sure that the neck bearing (where it emerges from the hull) isn’t rotating with the stock. The bearing should remain stationary and the stock should turn inside it. This is a particular problem with aluminium rudder stocks, where corrosion might have hardened over the lay-up period and bound the stock to the bearing surface. Don’t worry about a little bit of wear -- better a bit of slack than a very tight bearing.
On wheel steered boats, turn the wheel from hard over one way to hard over the other and make sure the rudder turns equally on both locks. If the steering mechanism has been worked on in any way - perhaps wires replaced or push-rods stripped and serviced - this is an essential check which can save you embarrassment on the way back from the launching bay. To see a boat fail to make the turn into its berth because the rudder will only turn a few degrees in one direction, might amuse the bystanders but isn't a joyous start to the season.
If there’s a stuffing box on the stock, make sure it’s lubricated and adjusted properly (see notes under Stern Glands below). Sealing O-rings should be replaced periodically, but you need to drop the rudder to do this so you might have wanted to think about this earlier. Always take the opportunity to replace them if you have to drop the rudder for any other reason.
These have a habit of drying up and seizing during the lay-up period, so don’t assume that just because they worked when you craned out they’ll still be OK.
If the seacocks are of the bronze cone-valve variety (such as Blake’s) hopefully they will have been greased and adjusted during your winter maintenance. It’s common to see the adjustable compression plate either too slack or hardened down too tight. A good rule of thumb is that it should take the strength of two fingers to turn the lever.
Excellent though they normally are, ball valves are engineered to tight tolerances and it doesn’t take much to jam them (it helps if they’re worked regularly). Some years ago, just a few days after launching, we were joined on our first sail of the season by a friend and his new fiancee. A sensitive lass, we were told, unsure whether she would actually like sailing.
Unfortunately, motoring out of Poole Harbour, I was dismayed to discover that the toilet outlet seacock was seized in the closed position. “All it needs is some gentle easing,” I told them cheerfully. “It’ll be fine by the time we anchor.”
It wasn’t fine. In my eagerness to fix the problem, I must have leaned too heavily on the valve’s lever because I managed to shear the stem in my efforts. Later I learned that the experience of perching on a bucket while the rest of us disguised the sound effects by talking very loudly in the cockpit was so traumatic for our new lady friend that any future marriage became contingent on a cottage in the country and a profusion of rose bushes. For them a land-bound future beckoned and I had to pay to have my boat lifted out again for repairs.
Incidentally, although the Blakes type seacocks are easy to strip and service, ball and gate valves are relatively inexpensive items which aren’t worth the effort of even dismantling them. It’s better to fit new -- preferably in bronze or of the Marelon type. The latter are made mainly of glass reinforced plastic.
Of course, hoses and their clips (doubled) should also be given the once over, but as these can be replaced afloat, they’re rather outside our current remit. The exception, however, are the cockpit drain hoses which must be meticulously maintained because their seacocks are usually left open.
Exterior grilles on inlet skin fittings should be cleared of any build-up of antifouling. The engine cooling water inlet is the most important as any choking off of the flow could lead to overheating. As you’ll probably need the engine immediately to move away from the launching bay, it’s also not a bad idea to check the raw water supply right to the block: this will include the seacock, inlet strainer, water pump and hoses.
If of the conventional stuffing box type, these should be checked annually, adjusting or repacking as necessary -- and don’t forget to fill the remote greaser with a water tolerant grease. It’s tempting to over-tighten stern glands. Don’t, or both the shaft and bearing surfaces will overheat and wear rapidly. Stuffing boxes are meant to leak; two or three of drips of water a minute being a useful indicator that you’ve got it just about right. Of course, this is difficult to judge with the boat ashore so you may need to adjust it later.
Face seal types such as the PSS and Deep Sea Seal, should be inspected annually. They depend on the thrust from the bellows to maintain the right degree of contact pressure, so it’s worth checking the bellows’ compression while you’re about it. Assuming there’s no damage and that the securing hose clips are in sound condition, they shouldn’t need any other attention.
The Volvo lip seal gland wears gradually and should be replaced about every seven or so years, depending on how much use they have seen. They require a squirt of their special grease every 200 hours or annually, depending on which comes sooner. Shortly before the launch is an obvious opportunity.
As one of the best investments you can make, it never pays to skimp on cathodic protection. If there’s even the slightest chance that what’s left of your anode won’t make it through the season, dip your hand in your pocket and buy another. Although shaft anodes will certainly help protect the prop, they are unlikely to extend their protection to the engine.
And remember, with ‘oval’ anodes it’s the fat end that points forward. As fishes have discovered, this is the best way to minimise drag and who are we to argue with them? In truth, I don’t imagine the drag penalty of having it mounted the other way round is likely to be very significant (particularly when the anode becomes misshapen with erosion) but as the manufacturer has gone to so much trouble it seems a shame not to play the game.
The cost of new fastening studs is minimal. If in doubt replace them.
Both the prop nut and its securing split pin (or tab washer) must be in good condition. The propeller itself might soldier on for years with minor problems but if the nut dezincifies and splits you could lose the prop -- possibly the first time you go astern. Checking the split pin is one of the last things I do.
Of batteries and bilge pumps:
Most boatyards want you clear of the launching bay almost as soon as you hit the water. That means you must start the engine. To have the foreman glowering down on you as you beg for the loan of a battery is not to be taken lightly. Anyway, batteries should be charged regularly over the winter, if only to protect them from damage. To begin the season with them even partially flat makes no sense at all.
AFTER THE SPLASH
So, now you’re afloat. You’ve gone below and checked for leaks, and everything looks fine. If you have a Volvo lip seal or any face seal type stern gland, you should vent any air pockets by displacing the bellow slightly and allowing a small quantity of water to flow through. Running them dry, even for a few minutes, can damage them, and it’s all too easy to forget this simple task in the flurry of a launching.
With the engine started, check there’s a good flow of cooling water coming from the exhaust and you’re on your way back to your berth or mooring. What next?
Sticks and string
I don’t know about you but I hate climbing the mast with the boat blocked off ashore, so the thought that there may be something amiss up there haunts me until someone’s had a look. That someone is usually my wife, Chele, who’s a good deal lighter than me. While I grind the halyard winch, she ascends to look for any signs of trouble, and also checks the tension of the upper diagonals (D2s on a double spreader mast) which are discontinuous and must therefore be adjusted at the lower spreaders. She also makes sure that all split pins are well turned over and properly taped if there’s any possibility of them snagging.
Then we turn to the rigging. The backstay will have been released to clear the way for the crane and must be re-attached and tightened. If the mast has just been stepped, the whole rig will need tuning. And here it’s worth dwelling on the touching faith some owners have in the yard crew. With the mast again upright, they seem reluctant to make any adjustments, believing that a wealth of expertise has already been invested in spinning up the rigging screws. This is rarely the case. Not many of those amiable gents who launch our boats know a thing about sailing -- let alone the subtleties of a properly tuned rig. Their job is simply to make the stick secure -- after that it’s up to you.
Another job that should be done soon after launching is to give the engine a good run and make sure it’s happy and that all ancillaries -- the alternator being the most important -- are working properly. If any belts have been replaced they will stretch at first and must be re-adjusted after an hour or so of service. Run the engine for some time at full operating temperature (and preferably under load) to make sure it isn’t overheating. Later, on indirectly cooled engines, check the fresh water level in the heat-exchanger (once it’s cooled) and top up if necessary. There may have been air pockets in the system, now displaced by all the churning, and the level could have dropped.
I know it can be a wretched task, but conscientious owners may also want to check the engine alignment. Although it’s well known that traditionally planked hulls will take up a different shape in the water than when blocked off ashore, the same unfortunate tendency isn’t always attached to modern yachts. But many will -- particularly the lightest of the species. Again, this is a subject demanding more space than we have here, but basically it involves separating the shaft coupling and ensuring that the shaft axis matches that of the engine’s output.
Of course, but whatever we need to do it’s best to do it early and methodically. The list will vary from boat to boat and I strongly suggest you compile one that suits your own circumstances. Naturally enough, we’re all eager to get out on the water and enjoy ourselves but a pause for calm at the time of launching can increase our preparedness and, ultimately, our pleasure.
Well, that’s the theory anyway. Now, if only I can remember to put it into practice….