Boat Maintenance Checklist For First-Timers & Seasoned Captains

Owning a boat can be wonderful. It gives you the ability to get on the water, spend time with family and just get away from it all.

However, many first-time boat owners may not be aware of the maintenance necessities that come with owning a boat.

One important first step is to put together a boat maintenance checklist. This will provide you with guidance and accountability when you’re performing regular and seasonal boat maintenance.

To get you started, the following are some key items to consider when building your boat safety checklist. We’ll go into each in greater detail below, but before we get started, let’s just go down the list.

Boat Maintenance Checklist

This is a good general list to get started, but your checklist should develop over time. You can try our templated version or make your boating maintenance a little more custom depending on your needs.

Here’s the list:

1. Give it a good cleaning

One of the easiest boat maintenance tasks is to clean your boat.

If you boat in salt water, rinse with fresh water after every excursion. Not only will salt will corrode metal, fasteners and hardware, but it will also eat away at your boat’s gelcoat.

Even if you sail in fresh water, giving your boat a regular cleaning will make it look good and extend its life.

Ideally, you should use a soft-bristle boat brush and Marine Boatwash. In a pinch, car wash soap is a good back up option, followed by laundry soap.

2. Check your fuel system

A simple rule of boating is that your boat can’t go if it isn’t getting any fuel, and when you’re on the water you can’t walk to the nearest service station.

Inspect your fuel system for leaks or damage. Today’s small leak can be a big problem if left unattended. Also be sure to pay attention to fuel hoses, connections and tank surfaces, check for corrosion and look for evidence of softness, brittleness or cracking.

Don’t be shy about replacing these parts when necessary and then double-check to make sure all fittings and clamps have been properly secured.

Another piece of advice is to keep the tank nearly full when you’re on land. As temperatures fluctuate throughout the year, moist air can seep into an empty tank. Keeping your tank full keeps this moist air out. This helps preserve your fuel mix and keeps contaminants from building up in your fuel tank.

3. Cover and store properly

When you’re not on the water, one of the easiest ways to maintain your boat is to put a cover on it. Whether it’s a motorboat, pontoon boat or bass boat, a well-designed cover doesn’t just protect your boat from the elements, it can also prevent condensation from building up and contaminating your boat’s engines.

Having a cover that can be secured to your boat while trailering is an added bonus. This provides an extra level of protection that can keep your boat running longer and with fewer maintenance issues.

4. Maintain belts, cables and hoses

When the temperature drops, belts, cables and hoses can become brittle and crack or swell. Cracks or swells on the outer jacket of the throttle, shift and steering control cables may be a sign of internal corrosion and an indicator of imminent failure. This can cause a vital system to fail when your boat is in motion.

Also, check to make sure that belts are tight around pulleys so that they don’t slip. A good way to look for black residue near the pulley. This is often the sign of friction caused by a loose, worn or misaligned belt.

5. Evaluate your electrical system

It’s a basic rule of science that water (especially salt water) metal and electricity don’t mix.

That’s why it’s important to perform regular checks on your boat’s electrical systems. Take the time to inspect all electrical connections to ensure that they’re clean, tight and corrosion free. If you find a corroded terminal, remove them and use a wire brush to clean them, along with all cable ends.

In our winter car maintenance article, we talked about the importance of keeping your car battery charged. This is even more important for your boat. Remember to charge your battery and have it tested regularly to ensure it can hold a charge.

Even if you’re comfortable with routine maintenance, it’s always a good idea to hire a professional. An inspection by a qualified technician can help identify problems that you might have missed otherwise.

6. Check all fluid levels

We already talked about keeping your gas tank full, but it’s also a good idea to regularly check all of your fluid levels including engine oil, power steering, power trim reservoirs and coolant.

Lower than expected levels may also indicate a leak in the system. Performing regular oil changes can also help keep contaminants out of your system and allow your engine to run cleaner.

7. Replace damaged propellers and hull

Boat maintenance is an inside and outside proposition, so it’s important to perform regular checks on your propellers. Look for dings, pitting, cracks and distortion. Chipped paint is okay, but damage to your propeller can affect performance and reduce your fuel efficiency. In addition, a damaged propeller can vibrate which puts stress on the bearings and seals, leading to additional damage.

During the season, it’s a good idea to check your propeller as a part of your pre-launch routine. Also, remove your propeller and inspect it several times during the season. This gives you an opportunity to put waterproof grease on the shaft to prevent corrosion from “freezing” the shaft. It also provides you with the opportunity to re-tighten the assembly so that it performs with maximum efficiency.

Also, make sure that your propeller shaft isn’t wrapped up by any fishing lines, they can cause gear case leaks that will need to be repaired by a professional.

8. Perform outboard motor maintenance

If your boat has an outboard motor, don’t forget that it needs the same level of maintenance as every other part of your boat.

In particular, it’s important to flush out your outboard motor after every excursion, whether it’s on salt water or fresh water.

To do this, simply start up the engine and the water pump will do the rest

While you're doing this, check the water pump to make sure it has good water flow. Outflowing water should be warm, not hot.

If the water output is not strong, there may be debris stuck in the outflow tube. To remedy this, shut down the engine, insert a small piece of wire into the flow tube, then work it back and forth to clear the pipe. Then start the engine again and check the output. If that doesn't solve the problem, consider a new water pump.

Once you’ve flushed the engine, you should also do the following:

  • Disconnect the fuel line and allow the engine to burn all the fuel in the carburetor.
  • Take the engine cowling off and check for fuel or water leaks. If you find leaks, consult your boating mechanic.
  • Wipe down all metal contact points and spray with an anti-corrosive like WD 40 or Quick-lube.
  • Lubricate all the moving parts, such as the shift, throttle cables and carburetor valves.
  • Replace the cowling and wipe it down.

At the end of the season, it’s a good idea to drain your tanks. Then take the fuel to the proper recycling authority.

It’s also a good idea to keep your outboard motor covered between trips. This prevents condensation and debris from accumulating and keeps your outboard motor cleaner.

9. Review and update your boat safety checklist

Before and after every trip, there are a number of steps that are advised by the U.S. Coast Guard.

These safety checklists cover a wide range of topics including:

  • Equipment requirements
  • Operating procedures
  • Law enforcement procedures
  • Safety checks
  • Safety and survival tips
  • Float plans
  • Emergency notification

Make sure that you have an updated guide, and make it a part of your overall boat maintenance checklist.

Check Your List and Stay Safe

Creating a checklist and using it consistently is an important part of any water safety plan. While this list can get you started, continually building and maintaining your boat.

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