How to avoid a disastrous return to your boat (Preparing the boat for time away from her)

From time to time Deb and I leave the boat and travel, sometimes together and sometimes only one of us at a time.  As I think most readers of the blog will know, I travel for work quite a bit, typically it is short trips, but at times, it just makes sense to combine several out of town tasks into one trip to get them done quicker and minimize cost.  Add to that the fact that at times Deb will meet me for a weekend and then travel with me for some of my trips as well.

So like most people with a boat, our biggest fear is coming back to the Marina and seeing the masts leaning to one side as we pull down the street, or worse yet, seeing that they are not as high as they should be.  It doesn’t take long for something simple to turn into something major.  If you think about it, it is almost surprising it doesn’t happen to more people more often.  The average live aboard sized boat has 6-15 holes punched in the hull with valves on them to control flow in and out of it, that is a lot of possible points of failure when it comes to hoses, fittings, clamps, seacocks, and even just the sealing of the thru-hull to the boat itself.  

Deb and I have 2 different procedures we follow depending on the situation.  That wildcard for us is whether or not we are boarding our cats or one of our neighbors are stopping by and feeding them.  (Thank you Betty!!)   The reason that this impacts the procedure is that we will leave the air or heat on if they are on board and that changes the procedure of what is open/closed, etc.

For times when the cats will be on board, we have the following checklist we follow that has two sections, The first thing we do is complete all of the items below which are completed below decks (and in some cases below floors)
-Ensure all hatches are latched and dogged to avoid any leaking that may occur from rain while we are away.
-Ensure all ports are closed.  On DreamChaser we have 16” and 8” round ports that open and while not much water would come in from rain, we just don’t want to chance that, nor chance one of the cats deciding that they can pop out a screen and take a hop out of it.
-We verify that the seacocks are closed for the drains that have seacocks below the water line.  For us this is in the forward and read heads.  The galley sink actually has a seacock that is about 6” above the water line and while we should close this one, we don’t typically do so.  There is risk here, but it is minimized based on the fact that it is above the water line.  In a disaster, it would not allow water in unless the hose broke at the seacock and the boat was already over 6” down in the water.  (this would likely mean that water was already 3 feet of more water over the floor boards in the salon)
  • -We ensure that the seacocks are closed for both of the heads and their discharge valves.  
  • -We close the seacock for the engine cooling water intake.  This one is not located in the most convenient place and it surprises me a bit because it is the largest of all of the thru-hulls on the boat.  (Tip:  A lot of people also will store the boat ignition key on the actual handle of the engine cooling water seacock.  This will not allow you to start the engine without remembering to open it)
  • -We close the seacock for the generator cooling water intake as well.
  • -We do a visual inspection of the Bow Thruster from inside the boat to ensure there is not anything that doesn’t seem correct or showing any signs of water coming in.  This is not really a needed step, but a bow thruster is still new to me so a 10” hole cut through the entire boat on both sides with a tube glassed in it’s place makes me want to check each time :)
  • -The next thing we do is validate that the regular bilge pump is on and flip the switch manual for a moment to validate that it comes on.  We then validate that it is in Automatic mode.
  • -We do the same with the second and third bilge pump as well.
  • -We then validate that the water pump is turned off at the switch in the galley and not at the breaker panel.  We do this so that it is easy to turn on the pump, fill the cats water dish and then turn it back off again.
  • -We make sure that nothing electric is running or turned on with the exception of the air conditioners/heaters and 1 small fan.  **
        • -We set the air conditioners to a temperature that will allow them to keep the cats comfortable but not the same temperature we would if we were down below.  For example in the summer we set them to 80 and in the winter we set the head to 60.  
After these items are complete, we go top sides and start our visual inspection and adjustment where needed.
-Review the weather for the time period we intend to be away.  If it is just for a few days, there tends to be a decent degree of accuracy in predicted wind direction and speed.  If more than 5 days, we prepare for unknown weather due to the lack of accuracy when it is out that far)
-Validate that the headsail it furled all the way in and that the Jib Sheets and the Roller Furling return line are all cleated securely. 
-If it is during a season when storms are prevalent, we will also affix a separate piece of line as high up as we can reach from deck around the furled jib.  (Tip:  This is something we have learned after visiting marina’s after storms.  It seems that a large percentage of boats end up getting damaged simply because their headsail unfurled and either pulled the boat into other boats, or the sail tore up spreaders, or other boats when it tore lose and flapped in a strong wind for a long time.  
-Validate all sail covers are on and secure and that everything on deck is stowed securely.  (Chairs, cushions, etc)
-Ensure fenders are secured in the proper position
-Validate all dock lines are secure, and adjust based on wind predictions if needed.  For example,
when we were in Kemah, TX, a northern blow for over 24 hours would drop the water level about
2 feet, essentially blowing water out of Clear Lake and Galveston Bay out into the Gulf of Mexico.  We would want to accommodate that drop in water level if tied at a fixed pier. (Note the proper way of tying a cleat to the right.  Wrap once around the base, around the horn, figure 8 to the other horn, and then the last wrap with the bitter end under the standing, pull tight.  You should have 2 parallel strands under a single line.  No reason to wrap it a bunch of times.  This is a proper and sound cleated line.) 
-Ensure all hatch and companion way covers are on and secured with all proper snaps or fastening mechanisms.  
-As we disembark the boat, we also will validate that the electric connections are secure and that there is enough slack in the line to allow for the amount of line we adjusted.
-When the cats are not going to be on board (Sometimes we will take them to be boarded as well), we do all of the items above with the following exceptions or additions.
-We turn off the breaker to the Air Conditioner/heating units in the boat.  
-Close the seacock to the water inlet for the forward Air Conditioner
-Close the seacock to the water inlet for the rear Air Conditioner

The list sounds long but the reality is this takes us about 5 minutes to do before each trip now.  It may even be a bit quicker than that most of the time because we get into a routine and it typically starts with me closing the seacocks below the floor boards down below, and then I go topside and begin to checks there while Deb finishes the rest of the checklist down below.  

I have found that having a checklist is really helpful.  After living on the boat for the last 3 plus years, we can certainly do these items without the checklist, but we still take the time to just look it over each time to avoid any careless mistakes or missed items because we were in a hurry.   Getting in the habit of using the list can really help minimize chances of disaster while you are away.  A great example of how this can be really handy and why happened to us again just this week.  I was out of town, and planning to come home on a Friday.  Things changed and Deb and I found ourselves both needing to go to another location.  Deb flew there on Thursday, I changed my flight home to meet her on Friday and we ended up going home a week later.  The list allowed Deb to validate that she still had all of the items complete, even when her mind was elsewhere in the details of needing to book a last minute trip and run to the airport on short notice.

 I know a lot of people are advocates for disconnecting the shore power from the boat when they leave to avoid risk of electric fire or electric shorts.  I have given this quite a bit of thought and in my case have felt it was better to keep shore power connected and disconnect or turn off all of the devices that are not needed.  I came to a realization that if a leak were to form in a 3/4” thru hull, I could have enough bilge pump power capacity to keep up with that leak.  What I would not have is enough battery power to run it until I returned, and for that reason, I felt that leaving the shore power on to continue to feed the batteries in this scenario was less risk for me.  This is an individual decision each captain/skipper needs to make for his or her own vessel and situation.
I hope you find this information useful and if so, please do take a few moments to comment below, like or even share this post to others.  I have attached a link below to the checklist that we use, (Stored in our “Reference Material” Section of the website).  Feel free to share or download this, modify it based on your boats characteristics and location, and use it for yourself to minimize risk of damage or catastrophe while away from your boat.