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Putting the Right Tools On Board

Going to sea requires you to be a jack-of-all-trades. But such versatility on your part will be useless without the proper tools on board.
Everyone has seen some version of the little plaque intended to warn guests about the consequences of putting a "foreign" object into a marine toilet. "There are no plumbers at sea," it warns.


If you go to sea in a boat, there had better be a plumber aboard. And an electrician. And a rigger. And a sailmaker. And an engine mechanic. And maybe even a refrigeration mechanic.

And the tools to do the job had also better be aboard.

No less than winch handles and snatch blocks, tools are important sailing gear, particularly for the cruiser. After the water pump fails, there is little consolation in knowing you were clever enough to have a spare impeller when you discover that the pump body is held together with Allen-head machine screws and you have no Allen wrenches aboard.

Unfortunately, such an occurrence is not rare. The same sailor that impoverishes himself or herself with spare parts too often takes aboard a collection of tools better suited to home repair.

An effective seagoing toolbox must match the specialized tool requirements of your boat's systems.
Selecting Tools  
 Basic household and car maintenance tools—like screwdrivers and wrenches and pliers—are inadequate for the systems and complexities found aboard most cruising sailboats. A well-found seagoing tool chest necessitates a careful evaluation. Some requirements are obvious, once considered—the hex wrenches to dismantle the water pump; a plug wrench for the dinghy's outboard; a feeler gauge to set valve clearances; a strap wrench for the spin-on oil filter. A stem-to-stern, truck-to-keel survey of your boat is the best way of insuring that all essential tools are aboard.

On our boat, for example, bearing replacement in the roller furling drum requires a hex wrench. Closer inspection revealed that the required size was outside the range of our set. The additional wrench cost a couple of dollars, but without it we might have been completing a passage without a headsail.

Our spare prop has not moved from its spot under a settee drawer for a decade, but seeing it reminds me that it is useless if the damaged prop cannot be removed from its taper. This is not the first time I experienced that insight. Next to the prop is a prop puller.

Stand on your head behind the engine and, in most sailboats, you will find the stuffing box. Packing or tightening it requires two wrenches. The adjustable type will work, but fixed wrenches—always the right size—are better. Make sure these are aboard.

"Engine and equipment manuals, essential tools in their own right, also provide clues to tool requirements."
Engine and equipment manuals, essential tools in their own right, also provide clues to tool requirements. For instance, shafts and bearings are often retained with snap rings. If snap rings show up on the parts list of one of the manuals aboard, snap ring pliers should be among the tools.

 Boats with refrigeration aboard have specialized tool requirements. Domestically, environmental issues essentially prohibit self service, but away from the United States, your best hope of keeping the system running is likely to depend on the knowledge and equipment you have aboard. At the very least you will need a tapping valve and a charging hose. With a set of refrigeration gauges, a supply of refrigerant, and a good manual, problems can often be resolved, even by a sailor that doesn't know the first thing about refrigeration. Without the tools, well, you can make your own conclusions.

The same logic applies to electrical problems. Every sailboat with an electrical system should have a digital multimeter aboard. A meter is essential to identifying and isolating failures. Nine out of 10 electrical problems turn out to be a poor connection. Put aboard a stripper, a crimper, and an assortment of terminals, and these problems are easily corrected. Repairing a degraded antenna connection requires a soldering tool.

Proper tool selection before leaving port can make the difference between being able to effect a repair properly or being powerless to cope with any contingency.
Every sailor, at one time, wishes for a vise, but the lack of a permanent mounting location discourages most from taking one aboard. Yet a vise can make the difference between being able to effect a repair properly and not being able to make it at all. The solution is pre-drilled holes in the cockpit, or other convenient location, where the vise may be mounted when required.

The desire for a jack is perhaps not so universal. If this seems like an odd boat tool to you, keep in mind that most sailboats are equipped with tackles and winches that can exert tremendous pulling force, but nothing that can push. A small hydraulic jack is one of the most useful tools we have on the boat. It can be used to bend a board into shape or to press fit a bearing. It can even be used to shove around a 700-pound diesel engine for removal or reinstallation—which is how it came to be aboard in the first place.

Valuable additions to the tool chest are not always so obvious. I destroyed the slot in many a frozen screw before a friend suggested an impact driver. This tool translates a smashing blow from a hammer into tremendous torque and works just as well on nuts and bolts. In the corrosion-rich environment aboard a boat, it is very useful.

"Whenever appropriate, we avoid corrosion-prone screws and bolts altogether by using pop-rivets."
The corrosive environment is also the main reason I carry taps and a handle. Indispensable for chasing corroded threads and useful for attaching hardware to the mast, four common sizes have handled all our needs for almost three decades. And I do not recall ever needing a die.

Whenever appropriate, we avoid corrosion-prone screws and bolts altogether by using pop-rivets. We carry several sizes and the two tools necessary to install them. Besides a rivet gun, you’ll need a drill, which will see use for any number of other jobs as well.

This is a good place to mention power tools. With the advent of efficient (and cheap) inverters, using power tools aboard is quite practical, even aboard the most modest cruising boat. A half dozen basic power tools can facilitate a virtually unlimited range of complicated repairs, without regard to proximity to shore. Of course you can also find most power tools available as cordless units.

While you are trying to identify what tools need to be aboard, you should also be looking to get rid of those that don’t pay their way. The safety of the vessel can depend upon having the right tools aboard, but unnecessary tools are only expensive ballast. We once had a collection of more than 20 screwdrivers; today we carry eight. Five sets of wrenches have been reduced to two. A claw hammer was jettisoned in favor of a more useful hatchet. Only the coping saw sees use, so the miter and cross-cut saws went back ashore.

Effective tool stowage can be a conundrum to the most resourceful of cruisers. It may take some trial and error, and a supportive mate, until you find a system that works best for you.
  Effective tool stowage can be a real challenge. Over the years we have tried various methods, none of which was entirely satisfactory. A tool box is the starting point, but one large enough to hold all the necessary tools is heavy, unwieldy, and a stowage problem in itself. Multiple boxes help, but invariably the tool you want is not in the box you pull out.

A few years ago we got rid of all the boxes (except one small one) and stitched rolls for the tools from heavy canvas. The wrenches are in one roll, the screwdrivers are in another roll, the chisels in a third roll, and there is even a roll for the socket set. The canvas protects the tools and the rolls stow nicely and quietly against the hull, but they have their own drawbacks. For example, if a job requires a wrench, a screwdriver, and a socket, three rolls must be gotten out and opened, then rerolled and restowed when the job is finished.

I like the idea of a tool drawer, securely mounted and of sufficient size to contain almost all the tools aboard, and am envious when I see such a system. I console myself with the knowledge that the few drawers aboard our boat are used for items that we access more often. Meanwhile, the tool rolls are stowed lower in the boat, minimizing the effect of their considerable weight on boat trim, and occupying space that might otherwise be wasted.

First Aid Kit    Every time a screw needs tightening or a hose clamp needs replacing, the most time-consuming aspect of the job can be dragging out and restowing the required tools. We avoid that about three-quarters of the time with the mechanical equivalent of a first aid kit. Our kit is a small canvas roll containing just five tools—a Phillips head screwdriver, a slot screwdriver, a push drill, a small adjustable wrench, and a small pair of slip joint pliers. These adequately handle perhaps 75 percent of the small maintenance and repair jobs that arise while we are cruising. This compact kit is stowed on a shelf in the main cabin, instantly accessible.

Every boat owner should take the time now to carefully evaluate his or her boat’s specific tool requirements. The place to discover that the bolts on your foreign-built diesel are metric is at the dock, not 600 miles from the nearest tool supply. Remember, there’s only one McGuyver, and he only exists on TV.

Suggested Reading:

The Rewards of Self-Sufficiency by Sue & Larry

Tool Kits by Mark Matthews

Working in a Bosun's Chair by Sue & Larry


Buying Guide: Electrical Panels and Circuit Protection Boxes

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