If you own a vintage boat, especially if you are a new owner, you will need to know how to perform routine maintenance on a vintage boat. For many areas of the country, maintenance can be split up by what to do when the boat is put out in the fall, and what to do when the boat is put back in in the spring. However, boaters in some areas of the country are able to have their boats out all year long, so the maintenance schedule is a little different for those folks.
When Is The Best Time To Perform Routine Maintenance On A Vintage Boat?
It has always been my thought that Fall is the best time to go through your boat’s engine or engines in an organized manner. That way if any problems come up in the summer, they can be attended to during the layoff period in the winter. This procedure has the advantage of making sure that when a boat is put in in the spring, there are no surprises in the maintenance department that would delay or interfere with early enjoyment of your craft.
This is all well and good for parts of the world where boats are hauled annually or even for owners who use their boats only infrequently. This spring and fall time frame is a good one for compression checks, oil changes, filter changes and the like. For a high percentage of vintage boat owners, this is all that is necessary.
There are, however, some parts of the world, such as Florida, where boats are used year-round and in some cases, may be used as much if not more in winter than in summer. There are also parts of the world that, although they may well experience clearly defined summer and winter seasons, the boats get an intensity of use in the summer that demands more than the spring and fall cycle of maintenance.
Many people ask how to deal with the routine maintenance of engines and other elements of the boat propulsion system when a clear cut summer and winter schedule is not practical or when a boat is used on a regular, high-time basis. In a nutshell, what they are asking is, “Okay, spring and fall are fine, but what should I do in the meantime for routine maintenance on a vintage boat?” This is a thoughtful question, and hopefully this page will give you some clues as to how you might determine a weekly or daily checklist and what to look for.
Daily Routine Maintenance of a Vintage Boat
What is the daily maintenance required for a vintage boat? Although it may frighten some potential boat owners, there is good reason when operating any boat, or for that matter, any self-powered vehicle, to make a checklist of things to look at, even if it is operated on a daily basis. Where this daily practice is most developed is with aircraft where a first flight pre-flight inspection is mandatory and, in some cases, repeated before each flight.
Boat operation is not as demanding as aircraft operation, but failure of a craft to function adequately on the water is only marginally more forgiving than the same occurrence in an aircraft. The sea can be a lonesome place without proper fuel, a dead battery or an engine frozen because of lack of coolant or lubricant.
So, lets look at the things we should check every time a boat is taken from the dock.
Check for Adequate Fuel Supply
One of the most important things that should be looked into when taking a boat out for the first time on any given day is an adequate fuel supply. Quantity of fuel obviously is important, but quality in terms of lack of contamination from water and dirt is equally important. Fuel gauges are notoriously inaccurate and a calibrated yardstick is still the most accurate fuel gauge.
Virtually every engine installation we deal with in vintage boats has some sort of fuel filter and water trap. Most of these have a glass bowl, and it is a simple matter at the beginning of each day to make sure the bowl is full of clear fuel. Water will settle to the bottom of the bowl and can be clearly identified. Dirt will collect on the outside of the filter.
If water is present or dirt visible, the minimum that should be done is to remove the bowl and dispose of the water. Unless the fuel has a high concentration of dirt, it is a waste of time and money to change a fuel filter just because there is visible dirt on the outside. Fuel filters can handle an enormous quantity of contamination and the daily check will simply give you a clue as to the quality of the fuel you are buying or the long-term corrosion that may be taking place in your fuel tank.
While the hatches are open, make sure there are no fuel leaks anywhere. The single, most prevalent accident in gasoline-powered boats is fire and explosion caused by the collection of fuel fumes in the bilges. If your boat is equipped with blowers, use them every time the engines are started and always open the hatches.
Pre-Trip Rule #1: Have an adequate on-board supply of fuel free of contamination from dirt and water.
Check for Adequate Oil Supply
Next to fuel quantity, check the oil supply in the engine by use of the oil dipstick. Marine engines for the most part of larger oil sumps than their counterparts.
There are two reasons for this. First, most marine engines in vintage boats use engine oil to also lubricate the transmission and this requires at least a quart or two of oil in addition to the amount carried in the engine sump. This oil is circulated through the main lubrication system just as if the transmission were a part of the engine and is necessary for proper operation.
The second reason marine engines have larger oil sumps is that most of the vintage boat engines were derived from the industrial or large automotive engines which generally had a quart or two larger sump capacity than their purely passenger car versions. IN today’s world, this may or may not be true. Many modern marine engines installed in a level position, either V-drives or out-drives, use the basic oil pan that was used in the automobile version, and the sump capacity is much smaller. This practice, however, was not adopted until some time after the classic boat era ended and does not generally apply to the vintage engines which which many boats are powered.
It is also important at all times to keep a sharp eye out for oil leaks and a daily check is the best time to do so. Although oil leaks are not dangerous to boat operation in the same way that gasoline fumes are, they are about the messiest thing you can deal with in a vintage wooden hull boat.
Of all the things to dislike with vintage boats, oil in the bilge is #1 on my list. It is unsightly, extremely pervasive in that it gets into every nook and cranny, it clogs the bilge pumps and leaves the bilge not only unsightly, but unattractively odoriferous.
Oil leaks can occur almost anywhere where two pieces of metal are bolted together with a gasket, where a surface seal is used such as the flywheel end of the crankshaft and where oil lines are connected for oil filters, oil coolers, or an oil pressure-sensing unit. Just because an engine has no oil leaks on Monday is no guarantee that there will be no oil leaks on Tuesday.
Over the years in the manufacture of production engines, oil leaks both on the shop floor and in the hands of customers have been the most perverse and difficult problem that anyone can imagine. Invention of silicone gasket material gave us a major tool in the control of oil leaks, but they still will occur from time to time, and a daily check is a good way to find them early.
A simple way to check external oil fittings is to run your finger under the bottom of the fittings, if you can reach them, as the last drop of oil will invariably cling to the fittings. A clean shop towel can also be used in suspected areas, and if proper oil maintenance is practiced, new oil leaks are readily identified by the clear, bright color of oil that can be wiped from fittings or gasket joints with a clean rag.
It is not a bad idea to wipe an engine off occasionally, as oil leaks can be spotted on a clean engine much more readily than on an engine which has accumulated a layer of dirt. Once you get in the habit of daily inspection, you will be surprised how much you will learn about your engine and how quickly you will be able to check on an oil leak and fix it before you have an oil-soaked bilge.
Pre-Trip Rule #2: Check your oil supply daily and keep a sharp eye out for oil leaks.
Check the Electrical System
An engine that has a proper supply of fuel and oil need only have proper ignition and the engine will run. The best thing that can be done on a daily basis is a simple check of battery connections, security of high tension ignition leads, and making sure the primary wires to the coil starter solenoid and generator or alternator are secure. One suspect area that you should pay attention to are crimp-on wire fittings.
When vintage boats were designed, it was unthinkable to use a crimp-on wire connector. Those readers who have original wiring will note that wire ends are carefully soldered and there is virtually no chance for a wire to come loose in the shank end of a connector.
In the past several decades, however, the crimp-on connector, which is a attached to the wire with a crimping tool not unlike a pair of pliers, took over the wire harness business. When crimp-on connectors are put on in the factory, they are done in a crimping machine with carefully measured crimping forces.
If the force is not high enough, the wire terminal will not stay on, and the same thing happens if the crimping force is to high. When the force is too high, the shank end of the connector squashes flat and not only does this in some cases produce high resistance, the individual strands of wire are fractured and the connector will soon separate.
Individual owners and many small shops depend on the skill of the mechanic to properly use a crimp-on connector. A challenge in routing maintenance on vintage boats is that much of the wiring has been changed over the years and crimp-on connectors are almost universally used. A daily check with a light pull to detect looseness is not unreasonable.
Pre-Trip Rule #3: Give your electrical system, particularly battery connections and other electrical wiring, a daily look for looseness or deterioration.
Check the Cooling System
The one last thing that should be done on a daily basis is a quick look at the cooling system. Most of our vintage boats are cooled directly by lake or sea water and although a few engines have been converted to fresh water coolings, these newer systems did not appear in production boats until well after the vintage boat era ended.
Water pumps on most engines are gear-driven, but some, particularly early Chrysler marine engines, drove the water pump from an extended shaft on the generator which in turn was belt-driven from the flywheel. A quick look and a moment’s use of hand pressure will ascertain the tension in the belt system. In some engines, a loose belt will not only disable the generator or alternator, but may also impair the cooling capacity of the water pump.
The water pumps themselves are usually equipped with one or two grease cups which should be turned finger-tight daily. This makes certain that the water pump bearings have a small amount of grease. Although pumps can operate for many hours on a thimbleful of grease, a little extra grease does not do any harm.
If tightening the grease cup is left to a weekly or monthly chore, it can be easily overlooked. A quarter turn daily may use a little extra grease, but it won’t hurt the pump and it will insure lubrication.
Once the engine has been started and is running for a minute or two, make sure water is discharged from the exhausts and that no water is leaking from exhaust connections inside the hull. The exhaust elbow, which is the spot where the cooling water and the exhaust gases from the engine mix, is a favorite point of failure. Standard elbows are made of cast iron and, in time, they will rust through and discharge both water and exhaust gas inside the hull.
Replacement elbows, although more expensive in the short term, are made of Johnson bronze and are virtually indestructible. When a cast iron exhaust elbow fails, it is probably a good idea to install a bronze replacement. These bronze replacements are readily available for most popular engines. Welding a cast iron exhaust elbow is a short term fix, for sooner or later it will leak again. While you are at it, you might as well do the job right.
Pre-Trip Rule #4: Check the cooling system for proper pump operation, proper water flow and water and exhaust leaking inside the hull.
Want a printable version of the daily, pre-trip checklist for routine maintenance on a vintage boat? You can find that daily checklist here.
Are Daily Checks Necessary for Routine Maintenance on a Vintage Boat?
To someone who has not practiced the daily checklist, it may seem like overkill to do so much work just to go for a boat ride. The truth of the matter is that once this type of checking becomes automatic, you can go through the entire process in less time than it takes to read this article to this point.
Once the hatches are open and you have developed a systematic approach, it is only a few minutes at the most to make sure that nothing is obviously wrong before you pull away from the dock. I know it may seem trite, but “better safe than sorry.” Hardly a weekend goes by where most of us have not seen a boat towed in for lack of fuel, dead battery or some other malfunction that could easily have been prevented by routine maintenance on a vintage boat.
Beyond Daily Maintenance on a Vintage Boat
Routine maintenance on a vintage boat goes beyond daily upkeep. Daily maintenance is a good idea, but it does not take the place of more intense routine maintenance if your boat is used a lot during the boating session. One of the best things you can do is to install an hour meter, either under the dash or in your engine compartment, which measures the actual number of hours an engine operates. These are readily available online.
Find the best hour meters here!
How Often Should You Perform Non-Daily Routine Maintenance on a Vintage Boat?
With the hour meter installed, you can set up a routine maintenance schedule based on the number of hours your boat is used. The first thing you will probably find is that the hours build up a lot more slowly than you thought. A full day on the water may end up showing only two or three hours of engine operation, but nevertheless it is important as a basis for engine maintenance.
A common engine interval for routine maintenance on a vintage boat is 50 hours. Industrial engines equipped with oil filters and operating with good quality oil can easily go 100 hours, and with some of the newer, full synthetic oils, oil change periods of 200 hours are routinely used.
If you are an average vintage boat user, you will probably not reach the 50-hour mark before the end of the boating season. As a result, that traditional spring and fall oil change maintenance periods will adequately serve to keep your engine and mechanical drive components in good condition. Assuming, however, that you are a high time user or live in an area where year-round activities are the norm, the 50-hour mark is a good practical number for the time that routine maintenance on a vintage boat should be done.
50-Hour Inboard Checklist for a Vintage Boat
If you wanted to make a checklist of routine maintenance on a vintage boat, there are nine items that would make the list of what to look for at the 50-hour interval. Not all engines and boat systems, however, are identical and some engines may have special requirements. Your engine may, for example, be equipped with a thermostat or rubber impeller pump which would have their own service requirements. Check the operating manual if you have one or seek the advice of a marine mechanic if there are some elements of your engine which are not covered.
What are the 9 items for 50-hour routine maintenance on a vintage boat?
- Change the oil. Do this with the engine hot and use a good quality multi-vis or full detergent, heavy duty oil rated API, SG, SF, CC, or CD.
- If your engine is equipped with an oil filter, change the oil filter.
- Change fuel filters and make sure the fuel system is free of water.
- Clean or replace spark plugs and check high tension ignition leads for cracks, brittleness, good end connections, and any indication of flashover.
- Remove the distributor cap and check the distributor for cracks and clean both the inside and outside. The inside will always contain a certain amount of carbon dust, as the explosion proof distributors are non-vented and can accumulate a very fine powder which results from the high tension electrical process.
- Check ignition points for any pitting and for proper gap adjustment. An almost universal gap adjustment is .025″ to .030″. Remove grease cups from the water pump and repack with a good grade of grease. The all-purpose lithium greases now readily available in auto parts stores or online work well.
- With the engine reassembled, check ignition timing with a timing light and dwell meter. Timing should be within a degree or two of the flywheel pointer and a conventional dwell time for ignition is between 30 and 40.
- Check all electrical connections and make sure the generator or alternator is doing a proper job of charging the battery.
- With the engine operating, check all oil pressure fittings and filter housings for any leaks and make sure the fuel system as well as the cooling systems are all leak-free.
Get your free downloadable 50-hour checklist here.
Other Annual Routine Maintenance on a Vintage Boat
In addition to the above list of items for routine maintenance on a vintage boat, there are other items which are usually done on an annual basis, but if you have the time, are probably worth a look.
Measure Compression Pressures
It is a good idea from time to time to measure compression pressures. For most vintage engines, compression pressures should run between 120 and 140 psi. If one or more cylinders show compression pressure readings of less than 100 psi you should be alert to the fact that some engine maintenance is in the offing, the minimum of which might be a replacement gasket or a valve job, or it might be serious piston ring wear.
If oil consumption is low, a quart or less in 25 hours, in all probability the lesser maintenance option of reseating the valves and replacing the head gasket will restore good compression to all cylinders.
Some engines on vintage boats are equipped with either Chris-O-Matics or other forms of hydraulic shift transmissions. the 50-hour routine maintenance on a vintage boat schedule is a good time to make sure hydraulic reservoirs are full and that the shift units are operating properly. Hydraulic fluid in muscle-type hydraulic systems, unlike engine oil or automatic transmission fluid, need not be changed on a regular basis.
The muscle-type hydraulic systems operate at little more than ambient temperature and the fluids are not exposed to products of combustion or the high temperature of clutch pack operation. The systems are analogous to the hydraulic brake systems in automobiles which do not require draining and refilling the system more than once or twice in the life of the automobile.
It is also a good idea either at the 50-hour routine maintenance on a vintage boat schedule or annually to remove the battery or batteries from a boat, carefully clean the terminals, clean out the battery boxes and the outside of the battery case, make sure the batteries have the proper water level and put them on a shop charger at least overnight.
Batteries come in three basic formats: standard battery, low-maintenance battery, and a maintenance-free battery. The difference in these three kinds of batteries is in the construction of the internal plates and the quality of the separators.
Although battery technology has progressed in the past 20 years, batteries are still primarily made up of lead-lead antimony plates with dilute sulfuric acid as the electrolyte. The antimony is used to make sure the plates that require structural integrity do not crumble. The improvement in battery technology has come about as we understand better how to fabricate the plates. As a result, the low-maintenance and maintenance-free batteries generally are characterized by having less antimony which reduces internal resistance and as a result there is virtually no boil-off of the electrolyte. The low-maintenance and maintenance-free batteries are somewhat more expensive, but well worth the investment.
How To Make Engines In Vintage Boats Last Forever
If a boat owner practices routine maintenance on a vintage boat with a daily look-see schedule and pays attention to the 50-hour mark, the engines in our vintage boats should last almost indefinitely and operate trouble-free. A little prevention is worth several pounds of cure. Engines in vintage boats do not wear out from use; they generally fail from neglect, and setting up the kind of schedule outlined here cures this problem.
Routine Maintenance on a Vintage Boats with More Advanced Engines
Some people ask about routine maintenance on a vintage boat with more modern engines of substantially higher horsepower. I suspect the reason these questions come up is due to the difficulty of finding parts to keep the vintage boat engines operating and the almost universal quest for higher boat speeds. There are as always several sides to the issue.
There is a lot to be said for keeping a vintage boat engine operating. They are simple, reliable, trouble-free, long-lived power plants. Replacing these engines with modern, high speed, more powerful engines certainly has a fatal attraction, but some serious thought must be given to what you expect from the end result and whether or not it is really what you want to do.
Routine maintenance on a vintage boat takes some time, but once you get the hang of it, you will see it is well worth the effort.