When my wife, Christina, and I set off for fulltime cruising, we sold our house and got rid of a generation’s worth of stuff. It was tough, but we got it done.
The hardest part was letting go of the tools I had gathered and used over a lifetime of building and repairing boats. Table saws, a bandsaw, planers and a drill press would not fit in a 40ft boat. As painful as it was, we finally pared the tool collection down to the minimum. It all fits into a five-drawer toolbox and three extraneous tackleboxes. Plus, we have a few odds and ends in critical places—the tools for routine generator service, for example, are in a box near the generator, while tools for routine dinghy service are in a waterproof bag by the cabin door with the lifejackets. I’m quite sure that my onboard tools now weigh less than 500lb—maybe!
The number and type of tools you should carry depend on what size boat you are sailing, where you are going, and what skills and abilities you have. What you need on a 30ft weekender is not the same as what you need on a 45ft ocean cruiser.
Here is a list of tools for you to consider. If you primarily daysail close to home, you need very few tools. If you do weekend cruising, you need a basic tool kit, but no more. As your skill increases and you cruise farther from home, however, you will need and acquire more tools. Among other things, any job goes faster with the proper tools, and in the end, you save money and time by buying the tools you need to do the job right.
THE BARE ESSENTIALS
Let’s assume you are putting together a basic toolkit for a new-to-you boat. You’re likely to have many of these items from working around your house or your vehicle.
• Three straight-slot and three Philips-head screwdrivers of different sizes; screwdriver blades are designed to fit specific screw slots; same with Philips-head screwdrivers, which fit specific sizes of screw heads
• Sets of open-end and box-end wrenches and sockets in both SAE and Metric sizes
• Nut drivers (very handy when working with hose clamps)
• Hacksaw and spare blades
• Hammer (ball peen)
• Channel-locks (large and small sizes)
• Vice-grip pliers (large and small)
• Needle-nose pliers and diagonal cutters
• Crescent wrenches—two large ones to help you adjust your turnbuckles
Now you have a toolkit that will cope with most mechanical issues on your boat, and which you can build on according to your needs.
BETTER THAN BASIC
When you’re going farther afield and need to be more self-sufficient, there are many tools that will not be used often but will be invaluable when they’re needed.
• Electric drill with charger, spare battery pack and a full drill index, screwdriver bits and a countersink; since you won’t use this tool too often, be sure to always keep one battery charged
• Digital volt and ohmmeter, and a copy of a basic guide to electrical systems, such as Nigel Calder’s Boat Owners Electrical and Mechanical Manual
• Infrared pyrometer, aka laser temperature gun, to help troubleshoot engine issues by monitoring the temperature of the exhaust system and other components
• Clamp-on ammeter, a great tool for diagnosing engine-starter problems and checking for AC current leakage through your shore power cord
• Refractometer or hygrometer for checking the condition of wet cell batteries (also keep a gallon of distilled water handy)
• Vacuum tank for changing oil for the engine, transmission and the outboard
• Drill pump for changing oil and emptying the engine drip pan
• Camera: before you start any work on an electrical or mechanical system, take a few pictures of what the system looks like before you start removing pieces, especially if it is a complicated repair requiring substantial disassembly
• A good headlamp
• Propane/butane torch for loosening tight metal joints
• Label maker for identifying all sorts of components, wires fuses etc.; an underutilized and very important piece of kit
• Smartphone endoscope camera, which allows you to see under and around tanks and under the engine; especially handy for finding leaks in the rudder stuffing box
• Handheld vacuum cleaner for cleaning dust and debris so it does not get into the bilge
LOTIONS AND POTIONS
In addition to these tools, you will also need a selection of fluids and greases for various applications, and to keep things running smoothly in general. Here’s what’s in my toolbox.
• CRC 6-56 or WD-40 for water dispersion and light lubrication
• Leak Lock for threaded fittings in non-petroleum systems
• Locktite 363 for threads in fuel and hydraulic systems where you should not use Teflon tape.
• Waterproof grease, such as trailer bearing grease or Vaseline: a light application on the threads of your fuel tank fill will seal the threads against water intrusion and prevent the cap from becoming frozen due to corrosion
• Anti-seize Tef-Gel or Lanocote to protect against corrosion where stainless fasteners pass through aluminum parts
• Silicone grease or some other type of dielectric grease to keep exterior electrical connections and shore power cord fittings dry and corrosion-free
• Kopr Shield conductive grease for battery connections and to seal engine zincs
BITS AND PIECES
So you thought that was it? Not yet. No boat is complete is complete without a set of fishing tackle boxes to help you keep small, but essential things like electrical connectors and fasteners organized. These also let you easily assess your inventory, so you can restock as needed rather than running out of parts when you are in the middle of a project. Here’s what I have in my box collection.
• Electrical box: contains a selection of wire terminals, butt connectors and heat-shrink tubing along with a wire stripper and ratcheting wire crimper.
• Plumbing box: stock it with a wide variety of hose clamps and plumbing fittings to match your boat’s plumbing.
• Fastener boxes: one for screws and another for nuts and bolts. You can scan your inventory and restock as needed rather than finding that you do not have the screw you need.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR TOOLS
Over time you will gradually acquire a lot of tools. The basic tools must be readily accessible, while others can be stored away or buried in a locker. As you are doing so, however, be sure that they are not going to get wet there. Remember, salt is the enemy of tools as well as boats in general.
After using your tools, spray any steel ones with WD-40 or CRC 6-56. In addition, here is a trick for taking care of your tools when changing the raw water impeller. First, spray the area around the water pump with water dispersant oil spray. Change the impeller. When done, wash the entire area around the water pump and any tools used with freshwater. After that, dry the area and any tools you used with a water-dispersant oil. As a general rule, any time you have your toolbox out, check all the tools and lubricate any which are showing rust.
While you’re at it, be sure to keep your tools organized. A bucket of miscellaneous tools is an inefficient system, to say the least. Also, be sure to replace all broken or lost tools. If you lose your ½in box wrench, it might be tempting to grab a crescent wrench or a pair of pliers the next time you want to loosen a ½in nut. However, you may also discover, as I have, that a crescent wrench is also a great tool for rounding off a nut’s shoulders. Again, replace all broken or lost tools at the first opportunity. There are few things worse than needing a tool you do not have.
Full-time cruiser Tom Hale has spent his life around boats and boatyards