The Ultimate Guide to Boat Maintenance

Father and son repairing a boat at a lakeside

Whether your boat frequents rivers, lakes, or open seas, your attention to detail and regular maintenance will help you enjoy your vessel for many years to come. Most boat maintenance tasks are easy to learn and perform on your own. However, major repairs should be taken care of by a professional.

This boat maintenance guide will cover boat maintenance tips and specialized information for a variety of boat types.

Jump to a section in this guide on how to maintain your boat:


General Boat Care Tips

While different types of boats have specialized needs, all boats require certain general maintenance services. These tips are helpful for cleaning, caring for your engine, and properly maintaining the materials for any type of boat.

Clean the interior and exterior

Keeping your boat’s interior and exterior clean is an essential part of maintaining the materials that make up your boat. You’ll want to clean your boat after taking it out on the water, before putting it in storage, and after it’s been exposed to severe weather or other unusual conditions.

Take these steps to thoroughly clean your boat:

  • Clean your boat’s fiberglass exterior after every outing, and wax it twice a year.
  • Use a brush and mild soap to clean canvas parts (like the cover and cockpit areas) in your boat.
  • Routinely wipe down the upholstery seats in your boat to prevent dirt, mold, and mildew build-up. Keep vinyl seats covered between outings.
  • If your boat has woodwork, clean it occasionally with the mildest teak cleaner available.


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Perform boat engine maintenance regularly

Keeping your boat engine healthy starts with preventative maintenance. Take these engine maintenance steps to keep your engine intact and in proper working order.

  • Before going out, check the fuel, ensure engine mount screw clamps are secure, and ensure the water intake is free of debris.
  • After each trip, flush the motor to eliminate sand, dirt, and debris.
  • When engine service is complete, wipe everything down and spray with an anti-corrosive agent.
  • Keep a canvas or plastic cover over the motor between trips.


Store your boat properly

Prepping your boat for storage is a vital part of maintenance. You’ll want to take precautions to avoid exposing the components of your boat to elements like UV rays, moisture, and snow or ice. Take these maintenance steps before storage.

  • Outdoor dry storage: When opting for dry boat storage outside, a fitted boat cover is essential for proper outdoor storage. Having your boat professionally shrink-wrapped is your best option for keeping your boat ventilated and protected from the elements.
  • Indoor boat storage: If available, indoor storage is the optimal choice. Before placing your boat in storage, it’s a good idea to cover the boat to avoid dust and debris.
  • Wet slip storage: Many large boats are stored on the water on what’s called a wet slip. Cover your boat before storage and consider the use of a bubbler (deicer) to bring warmer water to the surface and prevent ice damage.


Properly winterize your boat

Certain maintenance tasks are required to properly winterize your boat. Take these maintenance steps when preparing your boat for winter storage:

  • Ensure all water has been drained from the engine and apply corrosive protectant.
  • Add a fuel stabilizing additive to the fuel system and run the engine to circulate.
  • Change fuel filters and fuel/water separators.
  • Drain sinks, tanks, and heads, and add antifreeze to the plumbing system.
  • Ensure water is removed from the bilge pump, raw water washdowns, and live wells.
  • Remove drain plugs.
  • Cover the boat.


Check  your boat safety gear

Keeping quality safety gear on your boat is an important part of responsible boating. You’ll also need to make sure this gear is well-maintained, so it works correctly in the event you need it. The following items should always be on your boat when you take it out on the water. Take these steps to keep your gear maintained.

  • Life jackets: A wearable life jacket is required for every member aboard your boat. Keep these jackets in good shape by keeping them out of direct sunlight when not in use and always making sure they’re completely dry before packing them away. Check each PFD for tears or damage before going out on the water.
  • Throwable floatation devices: At least one of these is required on your boat, but often several are stored on the boat. Take care of throwable flotation devices in the same way as PFDs. Additionally, when floatation devices are attached to ropes, routinely check the ropes for fraying or other damage.
  • Fire extinguishers: Depending on the size of your boat, you may need one or two fire extinguishers. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to replace these items when necessary. Always ensure fire extinguishers are working properly before going out on the water. Each year, ensure every member of the family knows how to properly use the fire extinguishers stored on your boat.
  • Visual signal devices: Required on every boat, visual signaling devices may include flares, strobe lights, and flags. Ensure flares are stored in dry areas and check batteries and bulbs in lights routinely.
  • Sound signaling devices: These devices include horns, whistles, and bells. Store them in dry, dark spaces to avoid damage from exposure.


Maintenance Tips for Specific Types of Boats

Owner checking a boat propellor as part of its maintenance checklist
While boat owners may have much in common, the type of boat you own may not be the same as those of your boating buddies. General maintenance is similar for many vessels, but each type of boat has specialized needs to keep its unique systems working properly. Use these specialized tips to keep your unique boat in top shape.

Jump to a specific type in this section:


Maintenance tips for a sailboat

Often, sailboats spend days or weeks sitting stationary on the water. You may be on the boat or storing it at the marina. Either way, certain maintenance tasks need to be performed routinely when your boat is on the water.

  • Check the bilge: Check the bilge daily, or every few days, for water, oil, or fuel leaks. Make a point to check the bilge after heavy rain, or before starting the motor when it hasn’t been running for days. Test the bilge pump to ensure it’s set on automatic and working properly.
  • Check and clean out sea strainers: Your generator, air conditioning/heat, refrigeration, or anything that requires a raw or saltwater cooling system to run, depends on the cleanliness of your raw water sea strainers. Check the sea strainers routinely, and clean as needed.
  • Check raw water flows: Routinely check the flow on your raw water cooling systems. Make sure you can see cooling water flow easily out of the boat from the aircon/heating/refrigeration/Genset systems.


Maintenance tips for a pontoon boat

Pontoon boats have the same cleaning and engine requirements as other boats, but pontoons have additional needs. The pontoons on your boat are what keeps it afloat. Taking care of the pontoons will keep your boat’s overall performance in check at all times.

Tips for pontoon maintenance include:

  • Check for dents or leaks regularly: Be sure to inspect your pontoon boat for any dents or damages before and after each time you take it out on the water.
  • Remove salt buildup: After sailing in saltwater, clean the bottom of the boat and pontoons to eliminate salt buildup.
  • Use aluminum solution for cleaning:  Care for all aluminum parts on your pontoon boat with a specialized aluminum cleaning solution to keep your boat looking new.
  • Check for leaks: Routinely take note of how your boat sits in the water. If it’s sitting lower than usual or one side is low, you may have a leaking pontoon. It’s important to have a leaking pontoon fixed immediately by a professional. Leaking pontoons slow down your boat and put excess strain on the motor.


Maintenance tips for a saltwater boat

It’s vital to keep all boats clean and maintained, but saltwater boats are exposed to additional irritants. Salt accelerates corrosion, so it’s essential to take extra care after each outing. These saltwater boat maintenance tips will help prolong the life of your boat’s hull, materials, and engine when it’s periodically exposed to saltwater.

  • Flush the engine: After taking your saltwater boat out, it’s important to wash the outside of the engine and flush the engine with fresh water to avoid corrosion inside the engine. Cleaning the boat while it’s still wet makes salt removal easier.
  • Remove build up on the hull: Saltwater leads to faster decay and barnacle and salt buildup on your boat’s hull. Clean and wax your boat’s exterior two to three times each season to avoid excess buildup and keep your boat’s hull smooth and sleek.
  • Clean and condition vinyl: A mixture of UV rays and salt exposure can be rough on your boat’s vinyl cushions. Apply a vinyl protectant to your boat’s vinyl seats and other vinyl decor every 7 to 14 days to prevent deterioration and damage.


Maintenance tips for a wooden boat

Well-kept wooden boats are beautiful and classy, but it takes significant work to maintain their beauty. If you own a wooden boat, you’re probably up to the challenge. These tips will help you avoid the damage wood can sustain from warping, dirt, improper care, and even cleaning mistakes.

  • Prevent plank swelling: Caulk, sand, and paint only when the boat still holds enough moisture to keep planks swelled.
  • Caulk with care: Always remove old caulking before applying new caulk.
  • Sand thoroughly before you varnish: If you use varnish, make sure to apply at least five coats after sanding. Reapply a new coat or two before each boating season.
  • Clean before sailing: Make sure the boat is spotless before going out on the water, sawdust and grime can block seams, drains, and scuppers.
  • Wash with saltwater: Always wash down wooden boats with saltwater instead of freshwater to avoid rot, mold, and mildew during the boating season. Wash with fresh water and allow to dry out completely before storage.
  • Prevent warping: Make sure the boat is properly supported during travel and storage to prevent warping.


Annual Boat Maintenance Checklist

A few simple tasks performed routinely can help you keep your boat looking and running like new. Learning how the parts of your boat should look will help you understand when things aren’t quite right. Use this checklist to maintain every part of your boat throughout the entire year.

Boat engine maintenance

Maintaining your boat’s engine requires inspection, cleaning, and minor repairs. Taking care of the items on this checklist as often as possible will help you keep your engine in smooth working order.

  • Inspect the engine for corrosion, cracked hoses, and loose bolts signaling the outboard motor is loose.
  • Check all engine fluids like power steering fluid, coolant, and oil.
  • Inspect clamps for rust.
  • Routinely, check for water in the fuel.
  • Check engine and propeller belts for wear and replace as needed.
  • Check the fuel primer bulb for wear.
  • Check the propeller for dents or damage and ensure the propeller nut is tight. Make sure the propeller is free of oil buildup and the shaft is clear of debris like fishing line.
  • Keep a schedule to make sure you change the oil and filter on time.
  • Replace spark plugs as needed.
  • Replace damaged fuel hoses.
  • Flush the engine after being out in saltwater.

Boat exterior maintenance

Your boat’s exterior is exposed to water and all the things that could potentially come into contact with the boat’s hull. Inspecting your boat’s exterior for damage and keeping it clean will help extend your boat’s lifespan. Check the items off this list to maintain your boat’s exterior.

  • Clean your boat’s exterior frequently.
  • Check the drain plugs.
  • Inspect your boat’s hull for damage after being in the water.
  • Wax the exterior of your boat once or twice a year.

Boat interior maintenance

Keeping your boat’s interior clean and well-maintained will help prolong the life of your boat and improve your boating experience for years to come. Your boat’s seats and inner working parts are essential to enjoying your days out on the water and making sure everyone on board is safe. Use this checklist to ensure everything onboard is in working order.

  • Clean your boat’s interior, including seats and all surfaces frequently during boating season.
  • Pump out your waste tank frequently.
  • Wash and waterproof canvas once a year.
  • Routinely check the bilges to ensure they’re dry.
  • Check electrical wires for fraying or damage.
  • Check the battery for a proper charge.


Boat Maintenance Schedule

Man refinishing and polishing his boat

Boat maintenance tasks vary. Some are designed to prepare your boat for storage or returning to the water. Others are ways to ensure you and your passengers will be safe on every trip. Use this boat maintenance schedule to learn what maintenance tasks you need to complete and how often to perform them.

Things to check and maintain every time you use your boat:

  • Clean the hull and deck.
  • Check the propeller and hull for damage.
  • Check the battery and ensure the electrical systems work properly.
  • Check steering movement.
  • Check the bilge pumps for debris and proper function.
  • Check fire extinguishers.
  • Check drain plugs.
  • Inspect the engine.

Things to check and maintain once a month on your boat:

  • Treat the fuel with decarbonizer.
  • Clean and protect the interior.
  • Clean the bilge pump.
  • Wash the exterior.
  • Pump the waste tank.
  • Check the fluids.
  • Lubricate grease points.

Things to check and maintain every season or every three months on your boat:

  • Tighten all accessible bolts and fasteners.
  • Wax the boat’s exterior.
  • Replace the water pump impeller.
  • Change oil and filter.
  • Check engine mounts.

Things to check and maintain once a year on your boat:

No matter how well maintained your boat is, it’s vital to have a checklist to follow before putting your boat into winter storage or taking it out for a new season. Even if you take your boat out during the winter, it’s essential to winterize your watercraft in areas where temperatures drop below freezing.

Preparation checklist before storing a boat:

  • Ensure all water has been drained from the engine.
  • Flush the engine and apply anti-corrosive.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for fogging your engine.
  • Check fuel filters and fuel/water separators.
  • Change the fluids.
  • Run antifreeze through your inboard or stern-drive engine.
  • Winterize the fuel system by adding a fuel stabilizing additive and running the engine to circulate.
  • Change fuel filters.
  • Winterize the plumbing system by opening all faucets and allowing them to run dry before closing them and adding antifreeze to the system. Work antifreeze through the system by systematically opening each faucet (starting farthest from the tank) until antifreeze comes out.
  • Pump out holding tanks.
  • Remove drain plugs and ensure all water pumps are dry.
  • Make sure all switches are turned off.
  • Make sure batteries are charged and stored in a dry area.
  • Wash and waterproof the canvas.
  • Check the hull for blisters or cracks and wax the boat’s exterior.
  • Cover your boat or have it professionally shrink-wrapped for storage.

RELATED: Use our quick guide on boat storage for everything you need to know on how to prep and choose the right type of storage for your boat.

Pre-boating season maintenance checklist

Although you properly prepared your boat for storage, there are several steps necessary to get ready for a new boating season. Follow these steps after removing your boat from storage before taking it out on the water for the first time during a new season. Carefully follow this checklist to ensure your boat is ready for another season on the water.

  • Inspect the fuel system for leaks or damage, paying special attention to connectors and tank surfaces.
  • Ensure ventilation, exhaust, and engine are working properly.
  • Test the battery.
  • Check electrical connections for corrosion.
  • Check all fluids.
  • Make sure the propeller is secured properly.
  • Securely place drain plugs back in place.
  • Make sure the registration is up to date and put the sticker in place.
  • Perform a safety check: Replace batteries in smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Check lights, horn, and safety equipment.
  • Ensure that life jackets are in good condition and each passenger has the right size.

RELATED: Use our complete guide on how to de-winterize a boat to get it ready for boating season!

Average Costs for Boat Maintenance Costs

It’s a well-known fact that boat maintenance is part of the cost of owning a boat. In fact, the rule of thumb is that yearly boat maintenance costs approximately 10% of the boat’s purchase price. Costs of maintenance may vary somewhat depending on your boat type and the age of your boat. For instance, sailboats occasionally need new sails and wooden boats need new paint or varnish every 3 years. Additionally, newer boats require less maintenance than older ones.

Cost to insure your boat

Whether you’re making payments on your boat or you’ve already invested a significant amount of money, insurance will help you protect your investment. While it might not technically be considered maintenance, your monthly or yearly insurance costs are an important part of ownership. Yearly boat insurance costs vary widely by the size and type of your boat. The cost of insurance for a $20,000 boat is approximately $300 a year, while the cost for a $100,000 motorboat is around $1,500 a year.

Cost to store your boat

Where your boat is stored will help you keep it properly maintained. Indoor storage is more expensive than outdoor storage, but it can save you money over time by helping you avoid damage from outdoor elements and freezing temperatures during storage. Boat storage costs vary by the type of storage facility you choose and any extra amenities you take advantage of while your boat is being stored. You could pay a little under $100 a month for outdoor storage of a small boat or as much as $1,000 or more for slip storage of a boat over 40 feet long. You may be able to find more cost-effective storage methods by avoiding traditional storage facilities. Neighbor provides boat storage options for less than 50% of the cost of traditional facilities and includes insurance while your boat is in storage.

Engine maintenance costs for a boat

Maintaining your engine is one of the most important parts of keeping your boat in usable shape. Yearly engine maintenance tasks like the ones mentioned above require new parts and supplies. While these costs seem extensive, they can help you save money by avoiding costly repairs in the future. DIY engine maintenance costs typically include fluid changes and products like replacement hoses and clamps, anti-corrosive agents, batteries for safety equipment, and filters. When you compare the cost of your supplies to the cost of professional maintenance (which can be between $500 and $1,000 for an outboard engine) you’ll save quite a bit by taking care of routine engine maintenance on your own.

Costs of interior and exterior boat maintenance

Keeping your boat properly maintained means you need specialized products to clean it and keep materials protected from the elements. These prices vary widely by boat type. For example, wooden boats require frequent varnish updates, and pontoon boats require specialty aluminum cleaners. Your boat’s hull will likely need to be repainted every 3 years or so, no matter what type of boat you own. Taking care of your own cleaning and maintenance in a timely manner as described above means you’ll only have to pay the cost of supplies. The cost of having your boat professionally detailed can cost between $15-$40 per square foot, which if done properly yourself can result in significant savings over time.

General repair costs for a boat

No matter how careful you are, you can’t predict everything you’ll encounter under the water. Eventually, you will bump a dock, run aground, or hit your propeller against an unmovable force. It’s impossible to predict the cost of yearly repairs, so it’s a good idea to price the cost of necessities like a new propeller, hull repairs, and bilge pumps.

Boat maintenance is an important part of boat ownership. Staying on top of these tasks will not only save you time and money in the long run, it will also help you extend the life of your boat and allow you and your family to enjoy more time spent out on the water.

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