Your Boat Maintenance Checklist Made Easy

Boat maintenance is the part of boat ownership no one likes to talk about. However, an easy to follow boat maintenance checklist that’s tailor made for your boat can make life a lot easier.

Every boat owner has experienced the frustration of an inoperable system aboard their boat, whether it’s an engine that won’t start, a dead battery, or any one of the many issues that keep boaters from enjoying their time on the water. And while all boats, no matter how well maintained, will experience the occasional issue, staying on top of your boat’s maintenance will go a long way toward making your time on the water enjoyable and safe. Our goal at BoatEasy is to make maintaining your boat easy by offering a wide variety of tips for boat owners and by connecting boaters with experienced professionals that can help them take care of their boat or offer advice so they can tackle the problem themselves.

Proper boat maintenance will keep your boat looking great.

Boat Maintenance Tips

Maintaining a boat can be difficult and time consuming. Our goal in this article is to provide some tips that will help you streamline your boat’s maintenance in order to save you time and money. Below are a few quick tips that we’ve found to be helpful to boat owners and we’ll expand upon them throughout this and future articles.

  • Develop a boat maintenance checklist.
  • Create an annual budget for expected boat maintenance costs.
  • Find boat service providers for the aspects of maintenance you need a hand with.
  • Keep a boat maintenance log for your vessel

Developing a Boat Maintenance Checklist

Part of making boat ownership easy is to make it predictable. Unexpected problems with a boat can delay vacations, cause financial strain, and in general make owning a boat seem like more hassle than it’s worth. One way to avoid unexpected issues is to create a boat maintenance checklist tailored for your boat. A good maintenance checklist encompasses maintenance on your vessel’s systems that needs to be done at regular intervals to keep your boat operating in tip top shape and keep you safe on the water.

Creating a boat maintenance checklist for your boat will make tracking and keeping up with your boat's maintenance easier.
A checklist similar to the one I use for my boat. Feel free to copy it and modify for your own boat.

When I think about maintenance aboard a boat I like to mentally divide the boat into its composite systems. For example, in a recreational fishing boat those systems might include the engine(s), the electronics, the hull, and the various electrical systems aboard like pumps and lights. A sailboat will also have the sails and associated rigging. Larger vessels will have more systems that also need maintenance like a generator, air conditioning, etc. Dividing the boat up into a handful of categories makes planning out routine maintenance easier since performing regular maintenance on related systems is more efficient than trying to tackle them all at once. So, let’s take a look at some of the different systems found aboard most recreational boats and the regular maintenance they might need.

Engine Maintenance

Marine engine maintenance is a major part of boat ownership.

Whether you own an outboard powered dinghy or a mega-yacht, your boat’s engines need maintenance. Regular oil changes at the hour intervals prescribed by the engine manufacturer are a good starting point to keeping your engines operating at their highest potential. For boat owners that are handy, regular oil changes at the 100 hour (or the manufacturer recommended interval) are something you can usually do yourself. In addition to regular oil changes, your engine’s owner manual or your marine mechanic will inform you of other boat engine maintenance that you need to perform. This will include things like changing your oil and fuel filters, your lower unit’s oil, your engine’s impeller, and any marine engine zincs for vessels kept in the water. Staying current with your engine’s prescribed maintenance won’t guarantee trouble free operation but it will go a long way toward keeping them operating at peak performance and help familiarize you with any potential problems. A good place to look for information specific to your engine is its manufacturer’s website where you can find out exactly what your engine manufacturer recommends regarding maintenance. For example, Mercury Marine has an extensive website complete with how-to videos to help owners better take care of their engines.

Engine maintenance also includes maintaining your boat’s fuel system. The easiest way to keep your fuel system in optimal condition is to make sure the fuel your putting in is of a good quality. That is, it is free of water and other contaminants that can clog your fuel lines or damage your engine. In addition, regularly checking your fuel filters is good practice and you can do it while performing your scheduled engine maintenance.

Marine Electronics Maintenance

Marine electronics range from relatively simple handheld devices to complex suites of electronics that integrate systems like radar, sonar, thermal imaging and video to a display on your dash. While the more electronics your boat has, the more maintenance they will need, there are some general things the average boat owner can do to keep their electronics working properly. To start with, keeping them adequately supplied with the correct voltage is imperative. Check that your boat’s batteries are putting out the correct voltage and that the electronics are actually receiving that voltage. Check the wires going from your electronics to the batteries for any signs of wear and make sure they are securely connected to the electronics in a way that doesn’t stress the connection point placing strain on the delicate pins that actually plug into the device.

Your vessel’s electronics are likely some of the most technologically complex, and expensive, items found on your boat. Because of this, it’s a good idea to make sure your electronics are protected as best as possible from the elements, especially salt spray but also unnecessary sun exposure or excessive heat. While marine electronics are designed to operate in a harsh environment, if you can protect them from exposure you will prolong their useful lifespan and be able to count on them working for years to come. Depending on the electronics you will also want to regularly update them to the latest version offered by their manufacturer and if you store data like way-points or fishing spots, you might also want to regularly back them up on a separate device.

Boat Hull Maintenance

Wood, metal, fiberglass, even concrete, all boat hulls need regular maintenance to keep them running safely and looking good. Regular hull maintenance starts with keeping your boat’s hull clean. Washing with water and an environmentally friendly soap after each use is a good start to keep dirt and grime off your boat’s hull and deck. Plan to also apply protective coatings like wax or varnish to your hull and exposed areas at least once a year, with more frequent applications being necessary depending on climate and use. For vessels used regularly in an area with high sun exposure, waxing 3 times a year may not be excessive in order to keep the hull looking good. For more tips on keeping your boat’s hull clean and looking great, check out our other article on boat cleaning hacks.

Vessels kept in the water have an extra layer of maintenance required thanks to marine organisms that like to attach themselves to a hull and make it their home. This aspect of boat maintenance is unlikely to be something you can do yourself so finding a reliable boat bottom cleaning service is invaluable. Your hull diver will know the conditions in your area and help you formulate a plan to keeping your hull and running surfaces like your propellers and rudders growth free. In addition a professional hull cleaner will be able to check your boat’s zincs and replace them as necessary. Boats kept in the water also need regular bottom paint, while good bottom paint can last several years depending on conditions, you should talk to your hull cleaner as they likely have a good grasp of its condition and can give you a heads up on when you should replace it.

Included in the broad category of your boat’s hull are all the various metal parts from cleats and rod holders to railing and console enclosures. A good wash after use is imperative to remove any salt spray that might cause corrosion. You should also regularly check the metal on your boat and if you notice signs of rust or corrosion try to remedy it. A light acid like vinegar diluted with water is usually effective at removing minor corrosion on metal. Like with most issues that crop up with boat ownership, corrosion is easier to deal with if you catch it sooner rather than later. Your boat’s electrical systems are perhaps the most important system aboard yet also the one that suffers the most neglect. First, what’s included in your boat’s electrical system? Well, it’s everything aboard that runs off the batteries or generator that isn’t your electronics. This includes all your pumps for your bilge, baitwells, fresh water, raw water, etc. as well as lighting, and any other electrically powered accessories aboard. Unfortunately it’s rare to find a boat that has all it’s electrical components in easy to reach places that facilitate regular maintenance. Rather, pumps are often in cramped compartments that require an inventive yoga pose to access let alone work on or replace. For this reason, most boat owners rarely check their pumps and wait until they fail to replace them.

Maintaining Your Boat’s Electrical Systems

Knowledge of, and the ability to work on your boat’s electrical system is good practice for all boat owners. Even if you have a marine electrician you can count on that usually works on your boat, knowing how to troubleshoot electrical problems can save you time and money. Your boat’s electrical systems all start at your batteries, keeping them working is imperative for starting your boat’s engines as well as running everything aboard. They are perhaps the single most important item aboard and if they fail you’ll likely be stuck at the dock or worse. For maintenance it’s important to monitor your batteries age, and check that your battery charger, if you have one, is keeping them charged at the correct voltage. In addition the condition of the wiring running to your boat’s various electrical systems should be monitored for any corrosion or chaffing and replaced as necessary. Perhaps you’re noticing a theme here when it comes to maintaining your boat? Corrosion is the common enemy of all boat owners and it tends to rear its ugly head where its least expected so keeping an eye out for it and taking preventative measures beforehand can make boat ownership easier.

Maintaining Your Boat’s Rigging

Keep your boat's rigging and sails maintained.
Fortunately the rigging on today’s sailboats is a lot easier to maintain!

Regular maintenance of your sailboat’s rigging is incredibly important since a failure while under sail could be catastrophic for your vessel or passengers. Standing rigging should be regularly inspected for signs of rust or any frays on the cable itself. If you notice excessive wear on any part of the standing rigging consider replacing it as soon as possible. Sheets, halyards and other ropes should also be inspected regularly, particularly those that you’re not handling often or the sections of them that may be out of sight because they are high on the mast or inside it. Like with your vessel’s other systems, the rigging is subject to wear and tear from exposure and use and will need regular replacement every few years regardless of how well you care for it.

Marine Upholstery and Canvas Maintenance

First impressions are everything and nothing says a boat is well cared for more than the condition of its upholstery and canvas. Upholstery on benches, coaming bolsters, and seats is subject to wear, fading, and mildew. Keeping it looking like new can be a challenge even for meticulous boat owners. Maintaining marine upholstery starts with regular boat washes. However, your boat’s upholstery is more delicate than say the hull or deck so be careful not to use too abrasive a brush on it while cleaning or any harsh cleaners that may bleach or damage the fabric. Boating stores like West Marine will carry a wide range of marine upholstery cleaners that are tailored for cleaning, removing stains, and treating mildew.

Like your boat’s upholstery, any canvas you may have aboard needs care as well. Things like sail covers, binnacle covers, or even a boat cover are by design made to protect what they’re covering from the elements. However, to keep them looking good and prolong their useful life, it’s a good idea to do some basic maintenance on them occasionally. Zippers and snaps on canvas exposed to the elements can corrode or wear out so regularly lubricating them keep them pliable and make taking your boat’s canvas on and off easier and in turn make you more likely to use it. Since a lot of canvas is removable you can take it off and wash it periodically, some is even made to be machine washable making keeping it clean easy. Things like T-Tops and Bimini Tops that aren’t removable can be cleaned while doing your regular boat wash and if necessary a mildew or stain remover can be used on them like on your upholstery.

Creating a Budget For Your Boat Maintenance Costs

Boat ownership is expensive. The first time a new boat owner hears the joke about the acronym B.O.A.T standing for Break Out Another Thousand, they probably think the person telling it is having fun at their expense. However, boat maintenance, both expected and unexpected, is more expensive today than ever. At BoatEasy part of our goal is to offer boat owners affordable options when it comes to finding marine service providers that can help them with the many things their boat may need. At the same time, BoatEasy is a community of boaters helping boaters so sharing experience and learning from other boaters who’ve been in the same position as you might enable you to tackle a lot of things yourself. So, let’s take a look at what a new boat owner might expect to budget for regular expenses.

Before we dive too much into various maintenance costs, it’s worth pointing out that your boat’s maintenance costs are only a portion of your annual boat ownership budget. Things like slip fees, registration fees, insurance, fuel, and whatever you’re spending on miscellaneous expenses each trip all add up and should be included as well into your total budget. However, maintenance costs can comprise a significant portion of your yearly expenditures on your boat and their often unexpected nature can be a major point of stress for many boat owners so developing a budget that includes a close approximation of likely maintenance costs is important.

For power boat owners the biggest recurring yearly cost is going to be service done on your engines. This expense is dependent on how often you use your boat but a service that includes changing your oil and oil filters and will need to be done every 100 hours with a more extensive service done every 300 hours. For an average boat owner that uses their boat 100-200 hours a year then budgeting in 1 or two such services a year makes sense. Owners that are able to use their boat a lot more frequently or use it for commercial purposes likely put several hundred to a thousand hours a year on their engines and services like this are a monthly expense.

In addition to your engine’s annual service or services, it makes sense to budget for some recurring costs due to various components failing or wearing out. Things like pumps, lights, ropes, etc. will need to replaced every few years. Perhaps replacing all the components of a system isn’t in your budget so doing a portion of it every year and staggering it out over a couple years might make sense and help defray your boat’s ownership costs each year.

It’s easy to forget that your hull needs some attention too, even if it doesn’t have any moving parts. If you keep your boat in the water, you’re probably well aware of the costs to keep the hull growth fee as your hull diver is likely billing you monthly to clean it. For boaters who don’t keep their vessel in the water, maintaining the top sides of the hull and deck is your main focus. While regular washing after use is imperative to remove salt residue, you should also budget for anywhere between 1-3 boat detailing sessions a year. Detailing will protect the hull from the elements and prevent it from fading causing the chalky look older, neglected boats get. A well detailed boat is also a lot easier to clean after each trip and salt and grime are less likely to stick, saving you time after each trip.

Unexpected expenses, the great unknown of boat ownership. Every boater dreads calling their mechanic when they take their boat in because something isn’t working right. Is it a quick fix your regular mechanic might not even charge you for, or do you need to replace your whole engine? Unexpected expenses are one of the most stressful parts of boat ownership however, they’re something you can budget for because while you don’t know what will go wrong, every boat owner knows something will go wrong.

How much should you budget? Well that depends on your boat and how many and how complex its systems are. Anywhere between 1 and 3% of your boats value is a good rule of thumb. And just because you don’t spend anywhere close to that one year doesn’t mean you won’t have to spend double it next year. Unexpected expenses are tricky like that and can bite you when you’re least prepared for them so including them in your budget for annual boat maintenance costs is a good idea.

Your Boat Maintenance Budget

  • Engine service – 1 or more times a year depending on use.
  • In water hull cleaning – usually monthly billed by the foot, includes changing zincs when necessary
  • Boat detailing – 1 to 3 times a year. Generally anywhere from $12-20 per foot of boat length.
  • Regular boat washes – $1-3 per foot. If you’re doing them yourself after each trip be sure to factor in the cost of your cleaning supplies.
  • Replacing miscellaneous components aboard as they wear out or fail.
  • Unexpected expenses – 1-3% of your boat’s value.

Connecting With Boat Service Providers Near You

Finding professionals in the marine industry you can trust is important. While there are a lot of aspects of boat ownership that a handy boat owner can handle themselves, particularly with a little coaching from experts or watching videos of someone else doing it. However, there are some things you may not be able to do or want to do yourself. BoatEasy was created for just this purpose. Our site connects boat owners with knowledgeable marine service providers near them. As boat owners ourselves, we know how hard it can be to find someone who is able to help you with your boat or is even available when the peak boating season is here. And while we’d love to have you connect with one of our many fabulous service providers on BoatEasy, if you can’t find someone that can help you, feel free to reach out, we may be able to help. Your goal as a boat owner is to have a “team” of professionals that can handle the challenges you’re likely to face with your boat.

Part of finding a service provider for your boat is developing a relationship with them. They’ll get to know your boat, how you use it, and what kind of problems you may have with it. They’re also familiar with your area so problems other boaters near you are facing they’ll have experience with and can help you with. Most boat owners likely have several service providers they use for a variety of things. From a mechanic to handle their engines, in-water hull cleaners that can keep their boat growth free, detailers, a marine electrician for those pesky electrical problems you just can’t solve yourself, and maybe even a captain or mate to give you an extra hand and lend their expertise on your trips. The point we’re making here is talk to professionals in your area before you need them, get to know them, what you can expect to be billed, and have your “team” on standby so to speak so that when you do need a hand with something they’re there to handle it.

Keeping a Boat Maintenance Log

A ship’s log is an ancient maritime tradition. A good log records the days events, the weather, and can be a wealth of information to look back on. While most boat owners today don’t keep a ship’s log in the traditional sense, keeping a maintenance log for your boat is something we recommend to all boat owners. A maintenance log will let you track maintenance over the years and have a better idea of when components may need replacing. In addition it will help you keep track of your boat’s maintenance costs and aid in forecasting expenses.

What should you include in your boat’s maintenance log? To start with it should include all service you do on your boat or contract someone else to do. This keeps a running tally of work done and its expenses. In your log you should also include any receipts for parts you replaced, often things like pumps have a warranty for several years so should they fail within that period you may be able to have them replaced. Finally somewhere in your log be sure to include contact information for professionals you’ve talked to or used for services in case you need to reach them again in the future. Whether you choose to create a digital log or go old school with a notebook or folder is up to you, but keeping it somewhere along with your vessel’s documentation is a good idea and can increase your boat’s value when selling it.

Making Boat Maintenance Easy

If you’re looking to buy a boat and reading this and other articles on maintaining your boat, I realize it may seem daunting. There is a lot to do and the harsh environment boats operate in contributes to a constant need for maintenance just to keep them operating safely. And, if you’re the type of boat owner that wants to keep their boat looking aesthetically perfect then your maintenance schedule just got a lot busier. In the end I think all boat owners come to terms with what degree of maintenance they’re comfortable with and that is reflected in how their boat looks. Some boat owners insist on keeping their boat looking perfect and put hours of their time and a considerable amount of money into keeping it that way, others take a more utilitarian approach and focus mainly on keeping things functioning.

While staying on top of your boat’s maintenance may seem like a never ending challenge, things do get easier as you do them. I think I speak for every boat owner that has ever changed a pump in their bilge by saying the second time went a lot easier than the first, and each subsequent time was a lot easier. There’s no real secret to boat maintenance, it takes time or the ability to hire someone else to handle it, and even the best maintained boats will still have issues occasionally. Our goal at BoatEasy is to take the hassle out of boat ownership so if you’re interested in connecting with other boaters and professionals in the marine industry you’re welcome to join BoatEasy, it’s free and a great resource for boaters across the country. Hopefully this article provided some helpful tips that can simplify your boat maintenance routine.

One Response

  1. This is a fantastic and very complete list of maintenance issues that many new boat owners are not aware of. During the COVID pandemic, many families forewent planned vacations. But the appeal of boating as social distancing and time with family has been strong. There are many new owners in the past year that really need to understand these “after the purchase” responsibilities.

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