Storing your boat: how to avoid mechanical problems

The other day we were chatting with the owner of a boat that had just moved to our dock.

“I’ll just be here a couple of days. The boat’s been on the hardstand for 18 months and I’ve just come back to get going on the rest of my circumnavigation” he said.

“Hmm” we said. “How is your engine and generator after such a long haul out?” we asked.

Well, it was not good.

There were billowing clouds of smoke pouring out his boat’s exhaust, there were the clanking sounds of an unhappy engine trying to turn over and, eventually, lots of mechanics rushing to the scene. While the owner had been back home, his boat had sat in the yard with no preventative measures applied or any care given by local boatyard staff.

It transpired that the engine had a blown hose on the cooling system and an air leak in the fuel system. The engine on his generator had lost prime and needed bleeding after sitting so long, while the AC end of the generator was now a ball of damp rust.

He had to spend many weeks and lots of dollars to resurrect the situation, trying to get things done in a rush. But he lost his weather window, anyway.

This scenario is not that uncommon. In our various periods of time spent in boatyards we have met many folk who expect their engine and all the other mechanical bits and pieces will manage with no care for extended periods.

Marine engines are built to run for long periods of time, as well as survive in a marine environment and, with regular checks and routine maintenance, they should provide the owner with a long and problem-free engine life. If the owner follows the recommended timing for the changing of oil, filters and other consumables, investigates any unusual noises, oil leaks and abnormal readings on the gauges and maintains a reasonable maintenance schedule, all should be good.

Some engine problems are completely unavoidable and for these the boat owner is blameless. Any amount of routine maintenance will not prevent some parts failures.

The majority of engine problems, however, usually stem from neglect. This situation appears to be common after long term haul-outs, where some boat owners have assumed that, if the boat is not being used, they do not need to worry about the mechanical side of things.

Can we suggest some strategies to help maintain your boat’s engine and mechanical systems while it is stored for long periods?


Before storage

Stopping the ingress of water, both fresh and salt, goes a long way to preserving things. Ensure all hatches are watertight and that there is no possibility of rainwater finding its way into the engine room. If necessary, cover the engine and other mechanical parts with a large tarpaulin.

If there has been a leak, deal with it before storing the boat. Repair the leak, wash away the salt, dry the part and, if feasible, use a preservative of some kind to prevent further degradation.

If storing the boat at a floating dock, check the stern gland and ensure the automatic bilge pump works. Install a back-up system or have someone check the engine room area regularly if you will be away from the boat.

Bag propellers to prevent marine growth on them. Some boat owners bag their props when on the hard to keep shaft grease in and dust out of the coupling.

Things that need to be regularly greased or oiled should be dealt with before storage so they sit in a bath of oil rather than water, leading to rust.

What else? Here is a short list of reminders:

change the engine oil if it is due during the storage period

drain the carburettor of any petrol engine to be stored

outboards should be flushed with fresh water

if possible, flush all the raw water intakes with fresh water, but care must be taken not to flood the engines through the wet exhausts

drain all water traps on filters in the fuel systems

if you have a fuel polishing system, run your residual fuel through it. Add a fuel treatment product to the fuel tanks.


During the storage period

Try to keep things dry in the engine room. This is especially important for generators, both AC and DC.

Some people will run an air conditioner on a timer to work intermittently but, failing that, a warm floodlight or even a fan will help keep things dry. A lot of larger marine generators come with a heating coil to keep things dry when the generator is off and the boat is on shore power. This is especially important in a wet or tropical environment.

Run the engine occasionally and, if tied up properly to a dock, put it in gear and spin the shaft to give a little load even if it means removing the bag around the propeller. A malfunctioning engine will be more costly than a dirty prop.

Running the engine lubricates all the internal parts and raises the engine’s temperature, which helps dry everything out both within the engine and in the engine area.

If you are on the hardstand and cannot run the engine, manually turn the engine with a barring tool occasionally. This will still lubricate it and ensure that all the moving parts still do move.

The shaft is usually no problem if out of the water, but turning the propeller manually once in a while will ensure the shaft and bearings do not seize up.

Also, swing the steering wheel/tiller to ensure the rudder moves freely.

Occasionally turn on the electronic equipment, autopilots and radios to let them warm up, keep them running for about 20 minutes.

If you are away from the boat during this period of storage, recruit someone on site to perform the basics every couple of weeks: checking for leaks, turning over the engine, shaft and propeller, keeping the engine room air dry, turning on the electronic and electrical systems.


Prior to relaunch

Change out any obviously worn hoses, clamps and belts to prevent problems during and after launch.

Manually turn the engine, rudder and propeller. If possible check all the mechanical things that were worked on during haul out.

Test all electronic and electrical systems, radio, auto-pilot, etc.

Hopefully these simple checks and routine tasks will ensure no nasty surprises when you reclaim your boat from its long-term storage. ≈

Sue Woods
Selden Asymetric Rib Technology
NAV at Home
Selden Asymetric Rib Technology
Race Yachts