Fighting Onboard Gremlins

Paying attention to these five basic areas of your boat should keep these beasties at bay.

Fighting Onboard Gremlins

The old dictum “sh*t happens” has a yachting corollary — “stuff disappears.” Ask any experienced skipper. And so it is up to you to pay attention to five very basic — and extremely necessary — areas aboard your yacht because, if you don’t, stuff will simply disappear.

Over the years, I’ve discovered the gremlins aboard a boat have an insatiable appetite for oil, tools, fuel and spare parts. They seem to be undecided about the liquid in batteries: Sometimes they want more, sometimes they want less. Let me take you on a tour of missing stuff.

Batteries
Yes, I know that we've been drilled since our first Power Squadron class to check the level of lead-acid batteries each and every time we use our boat. Right. This is where it's really easy to slip into the "it was OK last time so it's gonna be OK now" syndrome.

Gremlins love to drink from the batteries, and this leads to two serious problems: The batteries overheat and the plates deteriorate. It won’t be long before you’re buying new batteries. And, oh yes, the engines won’t start. Be sure to add this to your routine maintenance, and we recommend replacing batteries every two to three years and ensuring they’re in covered boxes.

Stuffing Box
If your boat is not equipped with a dripless shaft seal the stuffing box is where the gremlins like to add water, so you need to check the stuffing boxes regularly. But here's a tip: Don't expect to see it dripping when you're at the dock. No, stuffing boxes usually leak the most when the shaft is spinning, and that's when you don't want to be anywhere near those moving parts.

So, you should learn to check for the signs of a leaking stuffing box. The most visible are going to be indications in the bilge area that the spinning shaft is throwing water droplets. Look for discolorations in the bilges or for corrosion on parts next to the shaft. And, after a day on the water, take a quick look inside the engine room (yes, I know it’s hot) just to see if water is on the hull sides next to the stuffing boxes. If you’re getting more than a few drops a minute, you need to tighten the stuffing box ... which leads us to tools.

Tools
Gremlins love to steal tools. They'll take the only wrenches that fit the stuffing box locknuts. Or they'll take the last Phillips-head screwdriver, or leave you with a tray full of sockets but no socket wrench. You can almost hear them giggling. Without the right tools, especially when you're away from the dock, you're in deep stuff.

So make sure that you have a fully equipped toolbox, that any tools you’ve lent to your buddies on the dock have been returned and that you’ve carefully thought through all the possible tools you might need when you’re under way.

A good tool kit will have a range of screwdrivers, a full set of open-end wrenches, several pliers (needlenose, slip-joint and locking), socket wrenches with handles of varying lengths and Allen wrenches. To this, I’d add a hacksaw and several blades (great for sawing a tangled rope off the prop) and a Swiss Army knife. I like having a voltmeter for checking on electrical shorts, and a file can fix that sharp corner after you’ve cut yourself on it. I make sure everything is quality, too. Don’t even think about going to buy the all-in-one tool kit from Wal-Mart. Take the time to walk around your boat and identify areas that may need servicing, and ask yourself if you have the right tools on board to do the job right, and with ease.

Oil
Here again we enter the land of "it was OK last time so it's gonna be OK now," because everyone knows that if the oil level in the engines was OK last night, last week or last month, it's OK today. I have to tell you that the gremlins really do love the sort of grinding-shrieking sound that an engine makes when it has a meltdown from lack of oil.

Yes, on some yachts it’s a pain to dive into the engine room to check the dipsticks just as your guests are settling down with their pina coladas. Do it! Even being a quart low can add to the wear on the bearing surfaces, because those little metal particles are more condensed when you have less oil. Oil is literally the lifeblood of the engine.

Gremlins aside, oil doesn’t just disappear. A steady loss of oil can suggest a leak (usually visible and very messy) or it may indicate internal wear on the engine. Either way, follow up and have it checked. We recommend a daily fluid check before leaving the dock. Drips and issues can be easily identified if you keep a tidy engine room and bilge and clean engines.

Spare Parts
Last, we come to the sort of stuff that usually doesn't disappear, because it wasn't ever there. Cruising yachts often carry enough spares so the crew can solve just about any problem, wherever they are in the world, and that's smart. But it's easy to forget about spare parts when your marina is only a few minutes from a marine hardware store.

Whether it’s spare belts for the engine, extra nozzles for the gas stove or a collection of fuses for the electrical system, you need to carry a thoughtful and seamanlike collection of spare parts — unless, of course, you want to be on a first-name basis with the local Sea Tow crew. Take an inventory of nuts, bolts and washers and compare it against items throughout your boat. These have a habit of disappearing too.

Just as important as having the right parts is storing them so they won’t deteriorate. Spark plugs or injector nozzles stored in their original cardboard boxes can absorb moisture and rust solid. Water pump impellers warp if they aren’t stored flat, and even V-belts can take a twist that pops them off the pulleys.

Your engine manufacturer can supply prepackaged kits of spares in watertight containers, but don’t forget you’ll also need to have the right tools aboard. And having the right manuals isn’t a bad idea either.

Don’t let stuff disappear on your boat. It takes only a few moments to make sure everything is where it should be, and you’ll always have a pleasant day on the water.