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Summer Startup Safety Measures
How Not To Get Stuck Out On The Waters

The following article by Jim Kalvin was published in the June 2009 issue of “Waves.”

Summer season is here, and it's time for the locals to get out on the water and have some fun.

Personally, I could never figure out why the masses left town less than a month before the best time of the year came around, nautically-speaking of course. The water warms up; the water clears up; the water calms down. The fishing is awesome, and it only improves as the summer goes on. As an added bonus, the beaches on the outlying islands are relatively empty.

If you're one of the lucky ones who gets to enjoy Southwest Florida during this time, take a few minutes to consider your boat before heading off into our tropical paradise. Ask yourself a few questions like:

"When is the last time I used the boat?"
"When was the last time I changed the water pump impellor(s)?"
"How old is my fuel, and has my tank been full since I used it last?"
"How old are my batteries, and are they fully charged or just surface charged?"
"How long has I been since I turned on the radio?"
“I wonder if my bilge pumps still work."

Make sure that you're confident, so you won't be stranded at sea or out on one of our pristine barrier islands with, say, an over-heated engine, dead batteries, stale or contaminated fuel, or some other issue related to lack of use or neglect.


  1. Check your safety gear. I know – your life preservers are in the forward locker, but how long has it been since you actually touched one? A season's worth of humidity and moisture, mixed with a measure of heat and stagnant air can ruin the fabric in a short period of time.

    How do you tell if they're no longer any good? Try to tear one – that’s what the marine patrol officer will do. If they tear, they are unacceptable. Why? They are meant to be able to grab onto and be used to assist the rescuer in hauling an over-board sailor into the rescue boat. If the fabric can be torn, they are not in serviceable, or useable, shape.

  2. Check your flares. Without checking, I bet not more than one in ten readers can tell me the month they bought their flares, or the month and year they expire. Time flies when your flares are aging, and having out of date flares is a definite citation in the making.

  3. Test the lights. Your safety gear also includes the running lights and your anchor light. Try them all, and make any repairs needed before you hit the water. I've done the following myself (many years ago), so I know that it happens! You say to yourself, "I don't need the lights; I'm going to be back at the dock way before dark."

    Then... and there's always a "then"... then the fish really start biting (an hour before dusk), or she really, really wants to watch this particular sunset, or you can't go home the same way you came, because the seas kicked up (gotta take the longer inland route), or as does happen, you have a mechanical malfunction, and you are stranded.

    Sure wish those lights were working now, don't we? Hopefully, you took more care when checking your flares, and they will be available if you need to use them.

The short book on safety is that the rules and laws were put into effect for good reason. A lot of people went through a lot of misery and dangerous and life-threatening situations over many, many years, which was the genesis of the development and adoption of current safety regulations. They are based upon what was learned by those unfortunate souls who came before us.

Preventative maintenance and systems checks, before you put to the water, will save time, money, embarrassment, and your precious discretionary time. And they also happen to dove-tail nicely with the safety items mentioned above, because, if your craft functions properly and you are a prudent skipper, flares, life preservers, rescue mirrors, strobe lights, dye markers, and throw-rings will not be needed.

The late boating writer Dick Bradley once said, "My answer to 'seamanship' is to avoid getting into situations which call for it."

As tedious as it may seem, take the extra minutes to check your vessel out thoroughly a couple of days before you plan to go out. If you're like me, free off-work days are few and far between, so you have ample time to plan and prepare - and "REpair" if need be.

As a trouble-shooting tip for anyone on the water, remember that engines - all engines - need three basic things to operate properly; fuel, air, and spark. With a gasoline engine, the spark comes from your batteries, through your ignition system to your spark plugs. In a diesel engine, your fire (spark) comes from the compression of the fuel in the cylinder. Though the newer class of diesel engines has a very sophisticated fuel delivery system, they still operate on the same premise – though they will need a fully functional battery system for proper function.

If you do experience mechanical difficulty, every boater can check to see if they have fuel in the tank, air to the engine, and good clean battery power. A few simple checks could save you a costly call to a towing company.

It's vitally important that all marine engines have a water-separating fuel filter. Be it gas or diesel propulsion, water in the system will shut you down. Usually this water comes from condensation from within your tanks. With some diesel filters, water can be drained from the filter element without removing it from the mount, as they have a drain petcock in the bottom of the bowl along with a sight-glass to allow visual inspection. Water will be evident in the sight-glass type filter.

If at sea with a gasoline engine, do NOT try to remove the gas filter as it will spill some gasoline, or introduce gasoline vapor, int, especially with an enclosed engine compartment. If you suspect a problem with contaminated gas, there is little that can be done about it while you're underway. This should add emphasis to the earlier comment about performing a full systems check prior to leaving the dock.

Checking the air should be fairly easy. Make sure the intake vents are not closed off by mud, wasps, debris, or closed altogether. Some vessels have engine room vents that are closed automatically if there is a fire. These can malfunction, and shut off your air supply. Make sure that your engine can breathe.

To check your battery, perform a voltage check via your 12 or 24 volt breaker panel. Most have a selector switch to check each battery individually. Unfortunately, this will only give you a "surface charge" reading. It is possible to show a full battery, yet that same battery will not deliver the required cold-cranking amps under load.

To check for an obvious problem with a battery that shows a full charge, but will not start your engine, try the following: Turn the battery switches off, and then try to manipulate the primary battery cables at the battery terminals. If they move, this could very likely be your problem. Heat, vibration, and/or corrosion can cause the terminals to become loose, leaving you with a bad connection which results in a voltage drop to your starter.

If you find a loose terminal, tighten same, turn the battery switches "on", and then see if you can crank your engine.

As a final recommendation, if you turn the key, but nothing happens, make sure that your clutch, or shifter, is in "neutral". All boats are fitted with a neutral safety switch which will prevent the engine from starting if the clutch or "shifter" is engaged. This happens more often than people think - or will readily admit.

So check your gear and check your systems thoroughly. Then go out and enjoy what people from all over the world pay small fortunes to enjoy during season - right in your own backyard. The best part of it is that we have it mostly to ourselves for another 4 1/2 months.

Jim Kalvin is a native Floridian and a career mariner with 25 years in the Marine industry in Southwest Florida. He has been a contributing editor for Scripps-Howard, Southern Boating Magazine, and Marine Business Journal. He is currently the General Manager of Diversified Yacht Services, Inc.

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