Rows of street lamps stretch into dusky mist, tracing the geometry of a slumbering New England dock. Their misty halos dim as warm light creeps from under the brightening eastern horizon. Now nautical twilight, and from abstract silhouette the mind connects angles of docks, gently swaying cabintops and antenna structure. Quickening pace with increased clarity, you descend the metallic ramp toward the floating dock. Your clanging steps shake dew from the cold handrail. Your sounds stir a harbor's still repose into life. A lone gull wakens, perking beak upwards. Sensing light and sound, it cries, ascending overhead, sparking pigeons to flight from piling roosts. Cormorants hear the morning cue. They stretch black wings and depart from jetties and guano covered boats. You pause, check the boat trim along the bootstripe while breathing in the peace and early morning mist.
Into the scene, a pickup rumbles into the harborside parking lot. The worn truck turns into it's usual spot, one of the few coveted spots that vanish with daybreak. Your eyes follow the old salt: the creaking car door, the worn jean leg emerging, down the dock to the neighboring slip. Sun crests horizon, it's radiant light breathing cats paw over still water. The hobbled old skipper steps lithely aboard, sending ripples ringing out from the hull. Immediately emptying his hands onto a settee, the gray head ducks into a hatch. He begins a ritual. Here is deliberate purpose set to motion. A ritual, performed without fail, engraved into being, performed faithfully every morning he steps aboard, prior to casting off any line.
While the scene painted here may seem cliche, it is nonetheless repeated in harbors on every coast. Seasoned mariners, worn shrewd from experience, check vessel condition, done so habitually it is ingrained into subconscious. It's importance is verified, through close calls, through survived open sea breakdowns, through a neglected shaft-packing trickle now angrily spraying full stream and spotted in the nick of time. The engine check, a valued mark of good seamanship, when performed before any lines are cast off, saves boats, saves lives.
Performing a check is vital. It's reasons go beyond the obvious disaster averted scenarios. Like FAA requirements for pilot pre-flight checks, USCG requires maritime professionals to daily log a written checklist. This becomes permanent record of vessel condition. This record could be summoned by admiralty courts investigating professional mishaps involving loss of property or life. In this way, the written checklist fulfills the C.Y.A. regarding liability. It is also a way for crew to commit vital boat components to muscle memory. This is essential in times of emergency. Perhaps most importantly, the daily check-up is a failsafe against overlooking obvious problems. This habit should be adopted by every boater before turning the key.
Yet the ease of a modern turnkey mentality has become norm. At some point Murphy's Law catches up. You find yourself on the shoulder of some abandoned road waiting for a towtruck. At sea, with no safe shoulder to duck into, an offshore breakdown can be the start of a harrowing adventure. The more imminent survival issues always make the search for a solution far more exciting. I vividly recall one breakdown just off the dock, only it happened in the commercial ferry lane in peak summer. I was aboard a borrowed speck of a 13 ft whaler with bad fuel and fouled carburetor. As a car-carrying ferry, seemingly as big as a city block, bore down on me I spoke to the engine in foreign tongues and willed it out of the way, seconds before nearly getting steam rolled. In retrospect, I wish I had paused for a spot check dockside and saved one of my nine lives for a more exciting story. Engine checks and routine preventative maintenance are worth a thousand words. A word from the wise, a few minutes devoted to the boat before heading out will dramatically reduce preventable breakdowns, costly tows and many gray hairs. This practice is required of transportation industry professionals for good reason. So before leaving the security of the harbor perform these simple checks. It will instill confidence in your friends that they're in the hands of a very capable skipper, whether it's just a beverage cruise around the pond or headed offshore for trophy fish.
JD Daily Vessel Checklist
So where does an engine check start? I'm a big fan of the checklist. Ordered lists go quicker. After two days, following a list may seem silly, so why bother? Here are some irrefutable reasons:
Make a tailored list for your boat and stick to it. USCG commercially inspected vessels are required to maintain a daily checklist, but any recreational boat should likewise have one.
- Repetition promotes accuracy and quickness.
- Distractions arise. A list prevents skipping over stuff when someone drops in for a chat.
- Use the "see and touch method" employed by pilots. This promotes muscle memory and accuracy. By seeing a gauge and touching it your mind ingrains critical components into memory while assuring you've given it proper attention. Thereafter, your mind will perceive quickly when things are amiss.
- Use the checklist to familiarize other crew with critical equipment. Walk new crew members through the boat with the checklist. They'll feel useful, and learn boat vitals and emergency equipment after a walk through. Future trips, they'll be able to perform it on their own. You'll thank yourself while consumed with those thousand pre-trip preparations.
- The checklist is part of your ships log and record keeping. It is a dated written record of vessel status. Should worse case scenarios require you to defend yourself in a court of law, you will have validation for proper running equipment.
With the checklist in hand, now is the time to cord off access to the boat before raising hatches and floorboards, especially if you are dockside. This prevents unsuspecting crew from plunging straight into the bilge- it hurts! Opening hatches is important safety for gasoline powered boats, boats with propane onboard, or any other heavier than air fuel. Turn on blowers to evacuate any fumes while you're at it. With hatches open, check for water below and eyeball all seacocks and shaft packings. Thus begins your check. Here is an example of a sample checklist with items to inspect. Print a copy to bring onboard your next adventure. See you on the water.
-- Michael Reardon