On the other hand, if you're planning to run close inshore and then discover there's a stiff offshore breeze blowing (intense enough to get you thinking about staying at the dock), you could navigate the NOAA site for real-time conditions in your area, which are created with automated buoy reports updated regularly. You might be pleasantly surprised to learn of flat seas and a near-shore wind that will make for pleasant cruising.
Once you're off the dock, remember that even the best-laid plans must remain flexible. Years ago, I met one delivery skipper who learned this the hard way after he had pulled into my marina. While under way, his diesel return line had parted and he had juryrigged a fix offshore because he wanted to get the boat to where it needed to be (in the slip next to mine) on time. Because he was on a tight schedule, he had bypassed a half-dozen ports where he could have made a proper repair while en route. Having tied up near me, he went off for a celebratory beer, and that's when the bilge pump kicked in. His quick fix hadn't worked well, and he had come in with a bilge full of diesel. The subsequent headaches he suffered far outweighed the benefits of staying on schedule.
Trying to stick to a schedule should be the last consideration you have when either a mechanical or weather-related issue arises. If you're offshore, get into port — the nearest one — to fix the problem or wait out the weather. If you're still at the dock and there's some question as to whether it's a good idea to venture out, I suggest you err on the safe side and stay home. That's what I typically do, although I have made exceptions when the fish are really biting.
Many boaters are pilots, possibly because both avocations appeal to detail-oriented people who recognize the importance of well-functioning machinery. The pilot, for instance, doesn't begin his takeoff roll until he performs a "walk-around" of the aircraft on the off chance he'll spot something amiss. Boat owners can take a page from that book and incorporate a "preflight" check of their machinery before leaving the dock.
In addition to inspecting the engine room, do a thorough check after the engines are warmed up. Issues that a cold engine won't exhibit can arise after it's been run awhile. For instance, dampness on the outside of a hose that's ready to let go might not show up until liquid has been run through it for a while. That's why it's a good idea to "feel" around hoses whenever possible.
Loss of belt tension can be more apparent after the engine has been running awhile; a pre- and post-warm-up "yank" can tell you a lot. A water pump leak will be easier to spot during or immediately after a run-up. On some installations, movement of a belt pulley will indicate a worn bearing that might not show up until the engine has been run. The smell of burned wires can be telling, as can the smell of hot coolant after the engine has run for a while. Both are cause for further examination.
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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.