From time to time, I have occasion to captain boats other than my own. No matter if it’s my boat or someone else’s, and whether the trip is across the bay or 1,000 miles, I always do a “preflight” before I leave the dock. Good pilots do a preflight check of the airplane before they take off. It only makes sense to find out if something isn’t right while you are still on the ground rather than in the air. The same logic applies to launching a boat or taking one away from the dock. It’s much better to find out if something isn’t right while it’s still tied to the dock rather than in the middle of a harbor opening or in the shipping lane.
It only takes a few minutes to check your boat’s vitals before you shove off. If it’s not a part of your routine, it should be.
Before you board, take a walkaround, like a pilot. Walk around your boat on the dock and look for anything that may hamper the success of your mission. Check for wood or debris floating by the hull that may get sucked into the prop as you are leaving the dock. An oily film on the water may be an indication of something leaking from the boat or being pumped from the bilge. Check for loose lines hanging in the water and power or other cords that will need to be unhooked before you depart. Look around the area of the boat, making a mental note of any hazards that may not be visible from the helm, such as protruding portions of the dock or smaller vessels nearby.
Satisfied that the outside is ready to go, move to the deck area and check for any loose items that may slide around or fall off during rough water or a sudden maneuver by the helmsman. Make sure the decks are clear for crewmembers to move about freely when handling lines. This is a good time to take a look up, to get an idea of the height clearances and whether the antennas are up or down.
Next, check the engine room and the bilges. Upon entering, take a whiff of the air. If you smell gasoline or sulfur, open all the hatches and do not turn anything on until you have determined the source of the smell. The fumes from one cup of gasoline in a confined space, such as a bilge, have the explosive force of a stick of dynamite. A sulfur smell is an indication of an overheated and/or leaking battery, and may also be explosive.
A little water, 1 inch or so, in the bilge can be expected, but much more than that calls for further inspection to find the source. Check the oil and water levels in the engine(s). Look for any obvious signs of wear on the belts and hoses. Nothing will spoil a trip like an overheating engine caused by low fluids or broken belts or hoses. Look for any loose items, such as tools, rags or lines, that may get tangled in the shafts while underway. Look to make sure the batteries are secured and won’t slide around.
If your boat is hooked to shore power and/or water, this is the time to change the boat’s power switch or circuit panel off shore power and to unhook any power cords or hoses connected to the dock.
If everything checks out, make your way to the helm. Before turning anything on, move the shift levers and/or throttle levers to see that they move freely. Make sure to move them back to the neutral and low throttle positions before starting the engines. Start the engine(s). Make sure the oil pressure gauge shows adequate pressure and that the volt meters show a charging state. Turn on the VHF radio and set the volume and squelch. Turn on any other needed instruments, such as the depthsounder, chartplotter and radar, and make sure they are functioning properly. Make one final look around before giving the command to cast off the lines.
Although you can never foresee all the things that can go wrong on a boat, knowing you have checked the boat’s vitals will give you extra peace of mind. Not only that, but it shows your passengers and crew that you make the extra effort to see that their voyage is trouble free.
If you think it won’t happen to you, consider that BoatU.S. reported more than 70,000 calls for assistance in 2013. To avoid becoming one of 70,000, check your boat’s vitals before you shove off.