This year our wintertime seemed more like springtime and more comparable to Florida's winter weather.

The fall sprawl was extended this year and most of us probably have put off our performance maintenance tasks for the year. If you haven't already done so, the month of March is a prime month to perform preventative maintenance on your boats.

South Carolina really doesn't have an off season, but the fishing during March is usually slower fishing that the rest of the year.

We constantly devote more and more money and time into our floating investments and each year our boats are financially worth less and less, but the benefits will almost always outweigh the costs. Any financial advisor will disagree with the purchase of a recreational fishing boat, but a psychologist might disagree. Boats make us happy, even though we're consistently applying funds to keep them in operating condition.

The longevity and the level of enjoyment of a boat are determined by the way the owner cares and maintains the vessel. Regularly-scheduled care will extend the life of a boat. Marine mechanics can service a boat as needed, but many of the tasks can be performed more cost effectively at home. Excessive, unexpected contributions to the "hole in the water in which an owner throws money" can be reduced with scheduled preventive maintenance.

Before I begin my annual maintenance, I inspect the entire package from bow to stern making a list of "to-do" items and rate them from "important" to "not so important." Electrical and mechanical devices and surfaces on boats need attention every year. The elements (especially salt and corrosion) will break down components at their weakest links.

There are a few tasks everyone must perform to boats to ensure a safe and trouble-free fishing season. The absolute "must-dos" are changing the gear oil in the lower unit and changing the oil/filter in four-stroke engines every 100 hours or once per year. Also, you must replace the water pump or impeller (and housing) at least once every two years, if not sooner.

Depending on how much one operates a boat and how much stress is placed on an engine will determine how quickly the lower-unit oil degrades. Gear oil is inexpensive and must be changed regularly to insure proper lubrication.

Fortunately, several warning signs are obvious:

• The lower screw on the lower unit is magnetized and collects metal shavings from wear. If an excess amount of metal is found, ave a professional mechanic should service the engine and inspect the lower unit for irregular wear.

• Notice the color of the spent gear oil. If it has a milky color, water may have entered the lower unit.

• Changing the water pump or on the lower unit every two years usually is overlooked as a preventive maintenance task until overheating occurs. The water pump or impeller draws water from the lower unit into the engine that cools the engine. As the plastic impeller ages, the fins begin to become brittle and will chip. These chips can get lodged in a motor and prevent cooling of the engine.

• In addition, the impeller sits on a cam plate that can wear over time, decreasing compression that prevents adequate water flow into the engine. This task should take approximately an hour to complete. The impeller kit can be purchased for less than the cost of a good steak dinner.

• The cooling system for boat motors is important and needs to be in excellent condition. Most outboards these days have a multitude of sensors, but the sensors can fail.

• It's a good idea to check and clean (if necessary) spark plugs, bilge/aerator pumps, the water separator and inspect hoses, wires, nuts, and bolts for wear and possible replacement.

• Screws throughout the boat will vibrate loose and should be tightened.

• The trailer wheels and tire should be inspected for wear at least once per year.

• Owners of fiberglass boats should wax the bottom at least once a year, and the topside should be waxed every couple of years, excluding non-skid surfaces used for traction in walking on the deck.

In the past, I relied on my arms and shoulders to "wax on, wax off" (no, I'm not a karate master), but this year I decided to take advantage of the technology with the purchase of an orbital buffer. Waxing no longer should be a grueling task since the buffer will do most of the work.

• Don't forget to add fuel stabilizer to the gas tank if the motor won't be used much this winter. After adding the stabilizer, run the motor for 15 or 20 minutes to distribute the compound throughout the engine.

• Routine gas treatment throughout the year will internally clean combustible regions of the engine.

• Speaking of fuel, make sure to have a full tank of fuel during the winter. The air in the gas tank contains moisture and will precipitate water into the tank. However, don't fill the gas tank to the rim when it's really cold. Gas will expand during warm days and spill from the vent down the side of a boat.

• Install an extra cranking battery with a battery switch. An extra cranking battery is an absolute must. The battery switch will prolong the life of batteries and gives the power to easily switch between batteries for cranking and for charging while in operation.

If a boat doesn't have a battery switch hooked to it batteries, at least detach the battery cables from the cranking battery while in storage. With this preventative task, the components slowly will drain current from batteries.

• If a boat's electronics aren't powered by maintenance-free batteries, be sure to top off the reservoirs.

Preventative maintenance is important for boats, vehicles, houses, or any object of value.

Many of these tasks can be performed by marine service centers, but boat owners can save time, money and aggravation by learning and completing these tasks for themselves.