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Maintenance Headache

Maintenance issues are constantly stalking boaters. The simple fact is that on a boat stuff breaks and things leak. Boats are complex mechanisms with dozens of systems and hundreds, if not thousands of components. But three issues seem to account for the majority of problems afloat. Here’s what they are and how to deal with them.

Arguably, the most important component on your boat is her bilge pump. If you have one and it fails you’re in deep trouble. That’s why most boats have multiple pumps. How many your boat should have depends on her size, type, and how you use her. On his Web site, surveyor David Pascoe offers these guidelines: A boat 20 to 40 feet should have at least two pumps. Boats 40 to 60 feet may need as many as five.

But numbers are only half the story; placement is just as critical. Pumps should be mounted in low spots where water accumulates both at rest and underway. If they are, they’ll be most efficient at keeping your bilges dry. But you need to check them regularly to ensure that debris, which also ends up in your boat’s lowest recesses, hasn’t clogged intakes or fixed float switches in either the on or off position. If it has, either no water will be evacuated or the pump will burn out.

The battery bank is another common source of problems. Assuming your boat has the right number and type of batteries and they’re securely mounted, the two most likely problems are inadvertent discharge and inadequate charge. As to the first, check your battery-voltage switch every time you climb aboard, before you start the engines. If it reads 13 volts or less your charger isn’t working and/or you’ve got an electrical drain—perhaps a stuck pump or stray current. Many things can cause random discharge but one common possibility is contamination. Accumulated dirt and grime on the battery surface and around the terminals provide a ready path to ground.

If your batteries are partially discharged after you’ve been underway for some time, your problem is likely an engine alternator. Tracing this requires knowledge of your boat’s charging system. Does she have two isolated starting circuits or a common starter bank? If you’re not sure, call a mechanic.

Not all boat problems are as threatening as taking on water or being without power. Leaks are the bane of every mariner—in particular, window leaks. Don’t ignore them because they can not only damage your boat’s interior, but also degrade her structure, especially if it’s cored. And remember, even the strongest boats flex, so leaks are virtually inevitable. It’s only a matter of time.

If you have a boat with aluminum-frame windows you know they’re prone to leaks. Aluminum is highly reactive to heat; it expands and contracts more readily and to a greater degree than any other window material. This exaggerated movement will eventually wear down seals and allow water to enter around the glass, something that’s usually pretty obvious. Unfortunately the source of many other leaks will not be so clear, and in these cases there’s no substitute for basic detective work: You have to trace the leak back to its point of origin.

The important thing to remember about leaks is not to just caulk over them. Doing so will not only look terrible, it’ll simply divert the water to somewhere you can’t see. If you discover a window leak, the best course of action is to remove the frame, check it for corrosion, and then re-bed and refasten it. It’s not an easy task, but it’s the right way to solve the problem .

April Checklist: Common Problems

1.) Pumps -- Make sure your boat has enough bilge pumps and that they’re in the right place.
2.) Clogs -- Regularly check your bilge pumps for clogs and debris.
3.) Voltage -- Check your battery voltage before you start your engine.
4.) Charging -- Understand your boat’s charging system.
5.) Leaks -- Address leaks immediately; don’t wait for damage to occur.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.