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A Spring Commissioning Checklist

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A clear checklist driving a logical order of operations makes for smart spring commissioning.


It’s March, and if you’re like most sailors who’ve had to put their beloveds away for the winter, you’re champing at the bit to get down to the boatyard and spring her from the cold season’s confines. It’s understandable, but what you really need to do is slow down before you leap excitedly into the spring commissioning process.

During my career at my Boston-based marine service business, Birch Marine, I shepherded thousands of sailboats through spring commissioning and learned two key elements: order of operation, and the value of a checklist. Of the former, some things are obvious, like painting the bottom before the boat gets launched. Others are less intuitive but can still have a big impact on work efficiency. Of the latter, it’s a simple truth: The best tool in your tool bag is your checklist.

I have come to learn that “spring commissioning” can mean different things to different people. A detailed checklist is an excellent way to define a project and avoid confusion for everyone over what is, and what is not, included in the scope of the work. If the tasks are going to be shared between the boatowner and the boatyard, the checklist can help clearly define who is doing what.

Topsides cleaning and compounding is best before working below the waterline, since wax can make a mess of bottom paint just beneath the waterline.

Topsides cleaning and compounding is best before working below the waterline, since wax can make a mess of bottom paint just beneath the waterline.

Photo: Christopher Birch

Checklists are gaining popularity in all industries for good reason—they work. Bestselling author Atul Gawande’s research in The Checklist Manifesto shows that errors fall into two broad categories: errors of ignorance—mistakes we make because we don’t know enough—and errors of ineptitude—mistakes we make because we don’t make proper use of what we do know. Checklists provide a simple and effective way to address both categories of error.

A well-thought-out checklist keeps us on course within an order of operations, which is critical in boat maintenance and not always intuitive or obvious. It’s helpful to boatyard employees and boatowners alike, guiding new—and even experienced—boatowners around errors of ignorance and guiding the marine industry past errors of ineptitude.

I developed the checklist that follows during decades of spring commissioning, and years of tweaking and refinement have shaped it into a work plan that I consider thorough and optimally ordered. It’s intended for the typical mid-latitude boat that sails in the summer and waits out snow and ice on land in the winter. A slightly different list would be required for the low-latitude boat that luxuriates in warm weather year-round. Likewise, boats that winter in a shed or a backyard with the mast down, instead of in a boatyard with the mast up, would also require modification to the schedule.

New zincs, cleaned metal, and an application of PropSpeed are pretty much the last pre-launch item on the list.

New zincs, cleaned metal, and an application of PropSpeed are pretty much the last pre-launch item on the list.

Photo: Christopher Birch

Ultra Early Spring (aka Winter)

1. Complete boat repair projects.

2. Complete equipment upgrade projects.

3. Service winches and anchor windlass.

4. Service steering system.

5. Service seacocks.

6. Inspect ground tackle and renew anchor chain markings.

7. Inspect safety equipment and update associated registrations.

No surprise that boatyards are a hive of activity in the springtime, considering the amount of work to get done in this season. If you want to be sailing your boat in the summer instead of working on her, it makes sense to get started on the spring commissioning worklist early.

Most boat commissioning projects require the cover to come off and the air temp to come up. But there are a few tasks like winch, seacock, and steering service where this rule does not apply. I move these items ahead on the list, and on the calendar, into winter to free up precious workdays in the busy spring season to follow.

Boat repair and upgrade projects also need to be prioritized to the top of the list. If they drag into spring, you might never get out sailing in the summer. These are really winter projects and have no place on a spring commissioning list at all, but somehow they end up here all too often anyway. Ideally, winter projects that lie outside of routine maintenance should start early and be complete before spring.

A benefit of committing to winter boat work is that it ensures the prudent practice of regular winter boat visits. It’s always better to find that loose jack stand, new chainplate leak, or fast-breeding mouse family sooner rather than later.

Some people fret about the cold aboard the boat in the winter. I think it helps to remember that it’s a lot warmer in the boatyard in the winter than it is atop some ski mountain where a lot of other people choose to recreate in the winter. If you think about it as being warmer than some other place, then suddenly it is warmer, and you put your hat on and you’re OK. A thermos of coffee, tea, or hot apple cider helps too.

Before Launch

8. Remove and recycle the winter cover (or move to storage if reusable).

9. Clean, compound as needed, and wax from the waterline to the rail.

10. Sand and prep bottom for bottom paint.

11. Prep and paint transducers with transducer antifouling paint.

12. Paint bottom with overnight dry time between coats.

13. Clean underwater metal and lights and renew all zincs.

14. Apply PropSpeed antifouling for underwater metals and lights.

15. Double-check all winter work.

16. Set out dock lines and fenders for boatyard staff before launch day.

The first sunny weekend of spring always brings out droves of boatowners gleefully stripping away winter boat covers as if they were stripping away winter itself. Caught up in the excitement of this happy milestone and eager to get to work on the boat, many sailors temporarily tuck those covers under the boat with the intention of properly disposing of or storing them later. Unfortunately, procrastination won’t be your friend here. The cover and its frame will just get in the way down there under the boat—or worse, end up plastered against the neighbor’s boat in high winds. Making that cover gone completely is a smart task to prioritize.

With the boat uncovered, cleaning and waxing the topsides from the waterline to the rail is the best next step. Waxing work makes a mess of the bottom paint just below the waterline. Scheduling bottom paint after the waxing work solves this problem nicely. You can wax away with reckless abandon knowing that the upcoming bottom paint prep will scour away all waxing marks and/or waterline stain remover streaks.

Transducer spray painting finds its way onto the list after bottom prep but ahead of bottom paint because it’s easier to cut the bottom paint around the painted transducers than it is to keep the transducer spray paint off the surrounding bottom paint.

Cleaning props, outdrives, shafts, and thrusters comes after bottom paint. That way, any bottom paint that accidentally gets splattered on these underwater metals can be cleaned up during the prep of those components. To ensure good metal-to-metal bond for proper electrolysis protection, old zincs should be removed before metal cleaning prep, and new zincs should be installed and masked before application of PropSpeed.

Launch day, yay!

Launch day, yay!

Photo: Christopher Birch

Launch Day!

Although it’s not technically a holiday, launch day is surely a moment in the year worthy of celebration. Take the day off from work and be with your boat on this day. Take a day off from boat work too and just kick back with family and friends after she’s launched with a party in the cockpit. Or maybe laze away the afternoon under a blanket in the cabin with a good book and something to sip on.

Bottom painting gets saved for near the end of the pre-launch list. 

Bottom painting gets saved for near the end of the pre-launch list. 

Photo: Christopher Birch

After Launch—Back to Work

17. Service batteries.

18. Commission air conditioning system and/or heating system.

19. Commission engine(s) and generator.

20. Service stuffing box on shaft(s) and rudder post(s).

21. Commission freshwater system.

22. Commission ice maker.

23. Commission head(s) and sanitation system.

24. Commission refrigeration system.

25. Re-rig summer running rigging.

26. Inspect, tune, pin, and tape rig (also check mast lights while aloft).

27. Varnish.

28. Clean, compound as needed, and wax from the rail up including all stainless.

29. Bend on sails.

30. Install canvas.

31. Clean bilge, anchor locker, cockpit lockers, and engine space.

32. Clean cabin including all storage lockers and contents thereof.

33. Clean and inspect dinghy.

34. Commission dinghy engine.

35. Perform a full systems check.

36. Other?

Servicing seacocks and valves, as well as replacing old, worn-out ones, is a job best done in winter.

Servicing seacocks and valves, as well as replacing old, worn-out ones, is a job best done in winter.

Photo: Christopher Birch

Battery Service: Battery care demands careful planning. An old wives’ tale says you should remove your batteries from the boat and store them in a warm dry place for the winter. I don’t know where this came from, but it has no basis in fact. Your boat batteries do just fine in your cold boat all winter, just like your car batteries do just fine in your cold car all winter. The reality is that removing batteries is a bad idea and doing so can damage your boat.

Freshwater has an uncanny ability to get inside a boat on dry land in the winter; an insurance person once told me that more boats sink on the hard than in the water annually. Garboard drain plugs come with their own risks and aren’t as common on sailboats as they used to be. With no way out, rainwater coming down the inside of the mast coupled with hull condensation and a potential deck leak can easily overfill a boat bilge. If you’ve removed the battery, the bilge pump is rendered useless and flooding damage can occur. It’s best to keep batteries onboard and wired in the winter, just like they are in the summer. Proper bilge winterization will ensure the bilge pumps don’t end up frozen inside a block of ice.

However, just because you leave the batteries in the boat doesn’t mean they don’t need regular attention. Solar charging during the winter should keep the batteries topped up. A good spring commissioning list should also include battery service. Old-fashioned flooded batteries will need to have water levels checked and cells hydrometer tested. All battery types will also need to be load tested and have their posts cleaned and greased. For effective load testing, this work is best completed after the boat’s battery charger has had a chance to run through a proper overnight three-stage charge. For many boats, the power outlets in the boatyard offer insufficient amperage to power up the onboard charger. And in many boatyards, overnight power hook-up is prohibited. The best place to take on this pre-battery service charging is dockside in a slip with a suitable power post to mate with the boat’s shorepower cord. This can’t happen until after launch.

Commissioning the boat’s engine and systems will require serviced batteries confirmed to be in good health, which explains why I have battery service placed in the work list after launch but before any system commissioning work.

To keep land dust to a minimum, varnish work is best done when the boat is in the water.

To keep land dust to a minimum, varnish work is best done when the boat is in the water.

Photo: Christopher Birch

Engine Commissioning: While it is possible to run a sailboat’s engine on the hard using a hose instead of seawater for cooling, the process can be challenging. For starters, a functioning water spigot near the boat may not exist. And running an engine on land with a hose, if done incorrectly, can easily result in a burnt out impeller or a flooded engine. An unserviced start battery presents an additional concern. Lastly, a freshwater commissioned engine is susceptible to ice damage should a cold snap come along before launch. The easier solution is to just wait to commission the engine after the boat has been launched and after the engine start battery has been fully charged and serviced. To do this, you may need a hand moving the unpowered boat from the travel lift bay to a slip for charging before engine service and use. It’s helpful to talk this through with the yard staff before launch day.

Stuffing box adjustment will require the boat to be in the water with the engine running. That’s why this project finds a home on the list after launch, battery charging, and engine commissioning.

Sails, Canvas, and Rig Tuning: Just because a certain commissioning project is the one you’re most excited about doesn’t mean it’s the one you should tackle first. Sometimes it’s helpful to think backwards and prioritize what you need to do ahead of what you’re inclined to do on a whim. Nowhere is this truer than when slotting in the optimum time to bend on sails and canvas.

On many boats, canvas cockpit enclosures make it difficult to reach the aft end of the boom to secure the clew of the main and to rig reefing lines. Bending the mainsail on before setting up the cockpit enclosure makes the work go more smoothly.

But before you bend on the sails or install canvas, it would be good to clean and wax the decks. Somehow, the winter cover manages to trap dust and dirt in instead of keeping it out. The problem is exacerbated by all the grime that, despite all your best prevention measures, still managed to climb the ladder on the soles of your shoes from the muddy boatyard below during winter. It would be a shame to drag out clean sails, freshly returned from their winter spa treatment at the sail loft, onto a dirty deck.

Another reason to keep the Sunbrella stowed until later is that canvas dodgers and enclosures get in the way of good waxing work. You want to clean and polish the stainless bows and the smooth portions of the deck and cockpit that the canvas denies access too. Waxing work makes a mess of the edges of canvas, a problem you can resolve completely by simply keeping the canvas stowed until waxing is complete.

But before you get out the deck soap and wax, it would be wise to get the varnish work done, as crawling around on deck doing that work always tends to make a mess. Also, splatters of wax buffing dust sanded into the varnish will not be helpful for topcoat adhesion. Don’t get too eager with that varnish brush though; it’s usually so much less dusty out on the water than on land. The varnish work will go better after launch in the warmer, longer days floating in the water.

It would also be best to get the rig inspection done before deck washing, as an errant dab of turnbuckle grease may need to be cleaned up after. Also smart: Complete the rig inspection before running sails up the roller furler, because you may well need that jib halyard for use as a second safety halyard on the bosun’s chair.

But before you send someone aloft in that bosun’s chair, you should swap out your winter running rigging with the summer running rigging. For safety’s sake, you want to make sure the bosun’s chair is secured to your best and newest halyards and not your chafed up old undersized winter lines.

All this rig work must be done after the boat has been launched for two reasons: First, rigging sails when the boat is on the hard can result in a boat blowing off her stands and capsizing violently into her neighbor—or worse, a pedestrian—in the boatyard. It’s always best to pull the sails off the rig before haul-out and bend them back on after launch. (Many yards mandate this practice.) Second, rig tensions change when the boat moves from sitting on her keel to floating in the water. Tuning a rig before launch will result in poor tune after launch, necessitating a redo.

Intuitively it might feel like setting up the dodger is a good first step after launch to keep the rain off of things. We all love our dodgers and canvas enclosures because they keep us dry and snuggly and cozy and out of the weather. Sailors may benefit from this shelter, but boats don’t need it. Boats are built to be out in the rain. The optimum time for canvas install comes towards the end of the list.

Is this thinking backwards? Or thinking ahead? It doesn’t matter really. What matters is that you’re thinking in order.

I use several summer checklists in that season. Order of operation is even more important in the fall during winterization and—no surprise— I have a checklist for that too. But wait, let’s keep this in order: first spring, then summer, then fall. One checklist at a time.

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