Let’s start with the basics. Say you have a canoe or 12-foot aluminum car topper rowboat that can also take a small outboard. You can pour a little water into them to check for leaks and patch the leaks with five-minute marine epoxy.
Now check the engine. If you ran some fuel stabilizer through it before winter, it will probably just need a new sparkplug and fresh gas and oil. You should have some spare propeller shear pins, a cotter pin, and adjustable pliers. When your propeller hits a rock (and it will, especially if you fish close to shore) the shear pin will break, saving your propeller. I recommend practising changing the shear pin at home. I had to do this procedure on the water more than once. Pull out the ignition lanyard key first, for safety, to prevent accidental starting.
Many folks have electric trolling motors for their canoes. This is a good idea. You can paddle on your outbound trip, then motor home. This will keep you from paddling beyond your strength and if the wind picks up, you can motor and paddle, to get home quickly. When I was a kid, we had a 12-foot wooden boat with a trolling motor. Many times, the little motor carried me, my brother, and my Dad for an afternoon’s fishing, with or without paddling.
Next look at your boat trailer. Check the condition and pressure of the tires. I had a twin axle trailer for one of my larger boats that always had one tire that lost pressure. Check the wheel bearings, tie downs, and safety chains (they must be grade 70 chain and shackles, not discount-store stuff), and the strap or wire rope on your winch. Trailer lights are often finicky, so consider using dielectric grease on the connectors and on the bulbs themselves, to prevent corrosion. Remember to have a spare tire for the trailer.
For roof racks, ensure that the load rating matches your boat and that attachment points are secure. Ensure your tie-downs are secure, in front and back. If you have a car topper, you will probably need a second person to lift the boat, but there are now rooftop boat loaders that carry 12-foot car toppers or sailing dinghies, for lone boaters. (They look amazing; I want one!)
If you have a boat, you should have already taken the safe-boating course and gotten your licence. If not, do that before you take a boat out. Courses are available online and it’s the law.
The course will tell you what safety gear you will need, but here are some things to keep in mind.
When boating, tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. This can be as simple as putting a note on the driver’s seat of your car when you arrive at the water. Have CSA-approved life jackets or PFDs for everyone. Wear them.
If your only way of communicating is by cellphone, seal it in a couple zipper bags. (I have a device called a Personal Locator Beacon, which will send the whole world to find me, if I trigger it, but I tend to overdo things for safety.) Have water, snacks, and some cheap rain gear (or at least have a large contractor garbage bag, which will become a poncho when you cut three holes in it). Take a compass. (I once spent two hours on a lake in heavy fog, wishing I had brought one).
One final thing, especially for canoeists. Have a flag of some sort to mark your entrance point from the trail to your launch point. This will save you from getting lost when trying to find the landing point and the trail at the end of you trip. Surveyor’s tape works well, as do plastic bags).
This may all sound like overkill, but it’s based on firsthand experience. I’ve built small boats, owned or sailed small boats—inboards, outboards, inflatables—and crewed on large yachts. (Search for “life raft servicing” on YouTube to see me talk on that subject).
With a few precautions, you can enjoy a safe season of making memories on the water. Boating has a lot of great recollections for me, from building small racing boats as a teenager, to almost sinking in my sailing dingy, to rescuing a large American yacht that sailed too far up the Northwest arm and then got stuck in the mud. But that’s a story for another time.