Boating

Maintenance for Neglected Boats

So, you have a boat that’s been sitting a while. Maybe you inherited a project, found a deal on Craigslist that really was too good to pass up, or you just have a boat that you’ve left under a tarp in the backyard a little too long after life got in the way.

Whatever the case may be, you have a boat that needs some TLC in order to be seaworthy again, and you’re probably wondering where to get started.

Well, you’re in the right place.

Let’s go over the things you need to check, replace, and possibly repair on a boat that’s been sitting for a while. This should help you get that fixer-upper back on the water as painlessly as possible.

Hull and Structural Problems

Close up of a blue boat keel seen from the front or fore.

First, and perhaps most importantly, you should inspect your boat for hull issues. If the boat won’t hold water, it doesn’t really matter if the electrics are all in order, or the seats are still in good shape.

Aside from the obvious holes or cracks, check for separation between the deck and the hull. This joint is often the first to fail after an impact, but unfortunately, you won’t be able to see all of it.

Have a look at the rub rail—the rubber/vinyl and metal railing that wraps around the boat and protects it from light impacts. If this railing is bent or twisted, it can indicate a severe impact that could have damaged the hull and is worth checking up on.

If you notice issues such as water stains, or the boat sitting low in the water even when empty (which indicates saturated hull foam where the foam inside the hull has absorbed water following a leak) then chances are you have some hull issues.

Other common places to look for leaks are around the transom, and anywhere you see a suspicious stain or rust.

You’ll want to clean and possibly wax your boat before taking it out in order to protect the finish and the fiberglass or metal underneath. If you have a saltwater boat, always make sure to hose off any salt from the hull, decking, and upholstery to keep it from degrading these areas.

Engine and Fuel Issues

Boat with old tired outboard engine

Engine issues are another thing that can kill a boat or seriously ruin a fishing trip, so it’s important to make sure your engine is in good shape before you take it out on the water.

First and foremost, check the oil. Boat engines work hard and can develop all sorts of oil-related issues.

First, pull the dipstick and check the appearance of the oil. Is it milky looking or overly runny? Do you get a strong whiff of gas? These issues can indicate water in the engine or fuel in the oil respectively.

A little water in the system is to be expected if it has sat a long time just due to condensation, so a milky appearance may not be cause for immediate panic. Change the oil and see if the problem persists. If it does, you may have a blown or leaky head gasket.

If you smell fuel, or if you suspect you might have gasket issues, it’s probably time to get a mechanic involved as these are serious issues with your fuel pump or engine that you don’t want to turn into something worse, or to cause a failure when far from shore.

Finally, you’ll want to check oil filters, air filters, spark plugs, the impeller pump and coolant lines, and any other hoses and lines. A quick test for most vinyl or rubber hoses is to squeeze them and see if they feel excessively soft or mushy, as this can indicate the hose is beginning to break down and should be replaced.

Small outboard engines are usually much simpler and often lack liquid cooling. You should still check oil and air filters, spark plugs, the ignition system, and fuel lines to locate problems. A service manual from the manufacturer of your boat’s engine is highly recommended.

Electrical Systems

Instrument panel on a boat, ship, maritime transport with a compass, a tachometer, a speedometer, an ignition key and buttons

There are a number of electrical systems on a boat, and none of them are easy or fun to fix. Most boats have wiring running through the deck, through sealed compartments, and a bunch of other places that are a pain to get at.

This can make diagnosing the actual source of electrical issues difficult, but there are still a few things you can do.

First, just try charging the battery and turning everything on. Lights, communications, engines, bilge pumps, and other systems should all come on immediately and should be able to be run simultaneously. If a certain system doesn’t work, check the fuse box first as this will likely be the first place you develop an issue.

You’ll also want to check the battery itself and make sure it’s holding a charge at the appropriate level. This can be done at most auto parts stores for free.

Finally, radio and communications equipment should be tested extensively to ensure you can contact help should you need it, or respond to other vessels in distress. You’ll definitely want to check the radio (and other critical electrical systems) with a voltmeter if you suspect any issues.

Accessories, Hardware, and Safety Equipment

Safety torus and kick board for saving life on ferryboat

This is the most often overlooked part of boat maintenance. The engine and the radio get all the attention, and it isn’t until you get out on the water that you notice the anchor line is frayed and nearly severed, or the life jackets aren’t under the seat anymore.

There are a lot of little things on a boat that have to be maintained and kept in proper working order, from rod holders to cleats to the seat upholstery. Do you have your cooler? What about emergency flares and other signaling equipment? Life jackets? Rescue throwables?

These are the little things that can often make or break a fishing trip, and in the case of the emergency gear, can keep an inconvenient afternoon from turning into a tragedy. Be sure to check all these things before you head out on the water, and always tell someone that’s staying on land where you’re planning to be.

Emergency locator beacons are a hefty investment, but when you consider the alternative, they may not seem quite so expensive anymore. Consider carrying one as a backup to your radio and cell phone. A good emergency beacon will be ruggedized and waterproof, with the ability to transmit for several days.

Finally, take a look at things like seat cushions, fishing poles, water sports gear, and all the other little things you’re planning on taking out with you to make sure they’re not only where they’re supposed to be, but secured properly so they don’t get tangled underfoot or fall overboard.

Final Thoughts

Boat maintenance may seem like a daunting task, but if you attack it systematically and carefully, you’ll be fine. Also, winterizing your boat and generally getting it ready for storage, as well as doing basic maintenance like changing the oil before the start of the summer season can help keep it up and running much longer, and can save you from having to do major repairs.


Do you do your own boat maintenance? What would you add to the list of tasks above? Leave a comment below.

Maintenance for neglected boats

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