Boats have systems that add to the comfort and safety of her crew. As a boater, it’s the captain’s responsibility to make sure those systems are kept in good working order.
Not all boating takes place during daylight hours, and so boats are equipped with running and anchor lights. Unlike the headlights on a car, which allow the driver to see obstacles better in darkness, the lights on a boat are designed to let the crews of other boats see her. Boaters need to understand why the lights on boats are colored and positioned the way they are, so they can know what they are seeing on the water after dark. Boats should also carry a bright spotlight or flashlight as well, to serve as a “headlight” for finding channel markers and spotting obstacles in low-light conditions.
Boats have three lights they must display at a minimum in dark conditions. A bow light or lights consist of a red light on the port side (that’s the left side of the boat as you face forward) and a green light to the starboard side. These lights are visible from directly forward to 22.5-degrees abaft the beam on their respective sides. More simply, a boat’s red light can be seen from straight ahead to 112.5-degrees back on the port side, and the green light can be seen in the same arc on the starboard side. Boaters who understand the Rules of the Road know that they have the right of way when they see the green light of a boat on an intersecting course, and the red light tells them they must give way to the other boat. The white light, which is usually at the stern or atop the hardtop, must be visible from 360-degrees around the boat.
What do I do if my boat lights do not come on? If lights are not working, do not operate the boat between sundown and sunrise until they are repaired. If boating in darkness is a possibility, test the lights before setting out.
Navigation Lights Indicate the Direction Vessels are Traveling. The color combination of lights you see on another boat at night indicates the direction they’re traveling relative to your position or course.
Underway After Dark. Operating after dark is far more risky than running during daylight. Go slow. Keep a sharp watch and have the entire crew wear PFDs at all times if you must run at night.
Bilge pumps are placed at the lowest points inside the boat where any water that comes aboard from rain, waves, condensation, leaks or other sources will collect. Some boats are equipped with an automatic bilge system that detects water when it reaches a certain level and turns on to pump it out. Ask your dealer if your boat is so equipped, or if one can be added as an option.
Float Switch. If a float switch becomes inoperative, or the boat is not equipped with one, the boater must activate the bilge pump with a switch on the helm panel. Only allow the pump to run until the water is gone. If the pump runs dry, it’s likely to burn out and will require a replacement.
Inspect the Bilge Pump and Float Switch. Check the bilge pump and float switch operation regularly, especially when leaving the boat in the water for extended periods. The float switch is wired directly to the battery. It will turn on even if the main battery switch is turned off. But if left too long, the bilge pump will run the battery down, and that can get ugly, as the boat will eventually fill with water.
Remember that the automatic bilge pump is not foolproof. A dead battery, a broken wire, or a clogged float switch can render the automatic pump inoperative. It’s a nice system to have but does not relieve you of the responsibility to keep the boat afloat. Leaving a boat in the water unattended for extended periods of time is asking for trouble.
Many boats come equipped with a bow-mounted trolling motor. This system has its own operator’s manual, and a boater should read and understand it before operating the unit.
Trolling Motor Batteries. Isolating the trolling motor batteries protects the boat’s main batteries – the starting battery for the engine – from being inadvertently discharged, which would leave the boat stranded. But because trolling motor batteries are isolated from the main-engine system and are not automatically recharged by the engines’ electrical system, you’ll need to recharge the trolling motor batteries at the end of the day, using a portable charger, or a built-in onboard charger.
Open the compartment to allow venting during charging, and follow the instructions provided with the charger carefully to avoid danger. Connect the red cable clip to the positive battery terminal and the black cable clip to the negative battery terminal. Use caution. Crossing the positive terminal with any grounded metal will cause a short circuit and lots of sparks – not a good scenario in a closed compartment where there might be residual gasoline or oil in the bilge.
A livewell system lets a boater keep bait or fish alive on the boat. The outside water is drawn in via an electric pump and excess water overflows through an overflow tube. If that tube becomes clogged with debris, the system could be pumping water directly into the boat. Some systems have an additional pump to drain the well, and that will need to be checked, too. In fact, all hoses and clamps to and from the livewell system should be checked regularly and replaced or tightened if necessary. Excessive livewell operation without either charging the batteries, or running the boat to charge the batteries, could leave you with plenty of fish but no way to get them home.
A boat’s steering system will either be a cable-driven mechanical system, or a hydraulic steering system. Get into the habit of checking the system for smooth and easy operation, and remember, if it gets a little harder each time, a boater may not notice. Consciously test and inspect the system, and maintain it to keep it running smoothly.
Hydraulic Steering. It is best to have the system serviced by your dealer’s service center twice a year, or any time you notice steering becoming either spongy or erratic. There are refill kits available, but if you’re losing hydraulic fluid, it is best to have a trained service tech check it out.
Regular Maintenance and Service. Preferably twice a year, but at least once a year at the beginning of the boating season the engine and systems will need a checkup and some routine maintenance. Follow the maintenance schedule that came in the owner’s manual for items such as oil change and filter, fuel filter, spark plugs, impeller, lower-unit oil, and overall lubrication. Failure to maintain the engine may cause a malfunction far from the dock. Improper maintenance can also void the warranty, so don’t overlook this important aspect of boat ownership.