Know your boat’s systems

It is the owner’s and captain’s responsibility to make sure systems and components are kept in good working order. These systems and components are designed to improve your boats performance, add comfort, and provide safety for you and your crew.

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Running safely means reducing speed in accordance with reduced visibility due to darkness.

Navigation Lights

Not all boating takes place during daylight hours – For that reason, 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.

What all boaters need to understand – Navigation lights on boats are colored and positioned a way so boaters can know what they are seeing on the water after dark. Boats should also carry a bright spotlight or flashlight to serve as a “headlight” for finding channel markers and spotting obstacles in low-light conditions.

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Generally, boats come equipped with the required running lights to operate between sundown and sunrise.

1. Running Lights

Boats have three lights they must display at a minimum in dark conditions.

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At the bow, you’ll find a red/green combination light or sometimes separate colored lights. Red is on the port or left side of the boat as you face forward and the green light is on the starboard or right side.

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At the stern is a white light. All three of these lights must be turned on any time you are underway between dusk and dawn so that other boaters can see you and be aware of your course.

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Many boats have permanently-mounted running lights.

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Other boats have plug-in running lights mounted on metal stanchions. Open the receptacle cover.

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Align the screw head on the tube with the slot in the light base and push the tube until the light seats itself onto the connections.

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Now, secure the tube with the locking connector by turning it clockwise and down.

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Check the lights to make sure they operate. Push the running light switch to the navigation position, which will turn on both bow and stern lights as well as the instrument lights on the console.

What do you do if your boat lights do not come on? If the 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.

2. Anchor Lights – Boats that are at anchor must display a single white light that can be seen from 360-degrees around it. This is to help other boats see the boat at rest when they are running.

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If you stop to fish or rest after dark, turn the running lights’ switch to the anchor position. This turns off the bow lights but leaves the stern light on so that other boaters can see you.

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 that is relative to your position or course.

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If you only see a white light, the boat is either going away from you or is at anchor.

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If you see a white and green light, the boat is passing from left to right.

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If you see white and red, the boat is passing from right to left.

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If you see both red and green, the boat is coming towards you.

Underway After Dark. Operating after dark is far riskier than running during daylight. Go slow. if you must run at night, keep a sharp watch and have the entire crew wear PFDs at all times.

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Make sure you have a powerful flashlight or spotlight to spot channel markers and obstacles such as floating debris, buoys, mooring balls, and docks.

Bilge Pumps

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.

Automatic bilge pumps – Most 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.

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Bilge pumps remove water from inside the bottom of the boat and discharge it overboard.

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Some smaller boats have an electric bilge pump activated by a bilge pump switch.

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Shown: An automatic bilge system uses a pump (red arrow) that is turned on by a float switch (yellow arrow).

As water enters the bilge – The paddle on the switch rises, activating the pump whenever water rises above a preset level. The water is discharged overboard (green arrow).

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The float switch drops with the water level, turning off the bilge pump when enough of the water has been removed.

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.

Do not overdo – 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.

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It’s common for a few inches of water to be found in the bilge. This is normal on all boats and not cause for concern.

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Large amounts of water in the bilge, on the other hand, may indicate a serious leak or other problem.

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If you discover more than a few gallons of water in the bilge, turn on the bilge pump to remove it and head for shore to find out where the water is coming from.

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.

Be aware – Most float switches are wired directly to the boat’s 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.

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An automatic bilge pump requires little attention from the operator: The pump screen and the area around the float switch must be inspected regularly and cleaned occasionally to prevent debris from blocking their operation.

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Debris can become lodged under the float switch, which can cause the bilge pump to run constantly.

Check the boat’s bilge pump system regularly – 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 of keeping the boat afloat. Leaving a boat in the water unattended for extended periods of time is asking for trouble.

Livewell System

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The livewell, if a boat is so equipped, usually runs off the boat’s main battery system.

A livewell system lets a boater keep bait or fish alive on the boat – Raw 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 end up pumping water directly into the boat. Some systems have an additional pump to drain the well and that will need to be checked, too.

Check regularly – All hoses and clamps to and from the livewell system should be checked regularly and replaced or tightened if necessary.

Excessive livewell operation – Running the livewell for extended periods of time 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.

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Inspect the batteries at least twice a year. Check the fluid level and clean the terminals if necessary. Distilled water is best to top up the fluid. But, remember to not overfill them – leave a little space for heat expansion.

Steering System

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Checking the boat’s steering before putting the boat into the water is a good practice to ensure proper operation.

Types of steering systems – A boat’s steering system will either be a cable-driven mechanical system or a hydraulic steering system.

Check frequently – Get into the habit of checking the system for smooth and easy operation. 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 operating smoothly.

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On a mechanical steering system, lubricate the cables monthly and check fittings for tightness.

Hydraulic Steering – It is best to have the system serviced by your dealer’s service center twice a year, or any time you notice the steering becomes 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.

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Hydraulic steering can be more difficult to maintain or repair by yourself and may require professional service.

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, follow the maintenance manual. Failure to maintain the engine may cause a malfunction far from the dock.

Improper maintenance – Not following the recommended maintenance can also void the warranty so don’t overlook this important aspect of boat ownership.

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Also, check the throttle and shift lever for smoothness and lubricate the cable at least twice a year.

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Look over the fuel system regularly, making sure all connectors are tight.

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There should be no smell of gasoline in the tank area when the vent is closed. Hoses that are cracked or flaking must be replaced.

Onboard Electronics

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Get familiar with the functions of the boat’s electronics, particularly when relying on them for charting and navigation (though it’s wise to always carry a paper chart and have a compass on board).

Multifunction Displays – Today’s electronic systems can be fed into a wide array of multifunction displays. Combo units with GPS charting, sonar and radar can be pretty complicated. Add digital switching for lights and other systems and it becomes important to thoroughly understand all the systems functions and how to operate them.

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To avoid problems with your boat and maintain the warranty, have engines and systems serviced by a dealer.

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