Your greatest protection against mechanical breakdown is preventive maintenance, but if you do have a problem, having the right tools and spares onboard, with the skills to use them, will keep you going on the water. Once you have the basic tools and start doing your own work, your tool inventory will grow. So will your confidence regarding problem solving.
When it comes to buying boat tools, don’t blow your cruising budget on high end, or even new tools. The best way to build your kit is from mismatched, garage sale items that you don’t care about damaging, altering, or dropping. No one needs a $300 ratchet to dismantle a $175 marine head.
If you don’t have time to garage sale and are buying new tools, consider the big box store brands such as Husky. These are perfectly sufficient for all tasks onboard. You will never lose sleep over cutting a $15 wrench in half to get access to that shaft bolt.
I don’t carry geared box-end wrenches on boats anymore. One drop in a saltwater bilge is a death knell for the ratchet pawls, and aside from that, the box end of a ratcheting end wrench is often too thick for access in tight places. Go with the cheap wrenches.
Storage and organization are just as important as the tools themselves. I put all the heavy tools, like the large vise and heavy hammers, in the bilge inside a dry bag, labeled clearly. The rest I keep in small red tool bags. These are cheap and easily sourced. They stow easier than one big bag – important on a boat with odd-sized, limited storage areas. I sort the tools by category (e.g. hand drivers, electrical, specialty tools) and label each bag with a permanent marker. Keep the tool bag weight to less than 20 pounds or it gets too heavy for handy use. Avoid using red markers to label anything. If you are using a red LED headlamp at night you will not be able to read the labels.
When you encounter a breakdown, stay at sea and fix the problem or stay at the dock and fix the problem. Don’t make landfall until you know you can dock or anchor. Don’t leave the dock or anchorage until you know you can do it again at the end of the passage. Fix the problem, then proceed with confidence.
The following lists are a great start for the right tools. This is your boat, so throw out what you don’t like and add what you do.
I divide my tools into three categories: shipboard, overhaul and emergency.
Shipboard tools and parts
This is a specific set of tools aimed at solving boat-specific problems. These tools should never leave the boat and should be protected against corrosion and loss. I like CorrosionX to treat my tools, but any lubricant-type spray will do. Specific wrenches for specific jobs should be labeled and, in some cases, mounted near their use location.
A basic tool kit will include these items:
• quality waterproof LED headlamp
• magnetic pickup
• claw pickup
• razor scraper
•metric- and standard-end wrenches
• metric and standard socket sets in deep well and short well. Including various adapters, wobbles and extensions. Three complete sets in one-quarter inch, three-eighths inch and one-half inch drive
•large and small crescent wrenches
•pipe wrench large enough to grip the driveshaft
• two-pound hard hammer
• soft or dead-blow hammer
• hack saw and blades
• handheld wood saw
• gasket material
• wood plugs
• screwdrivers with Torx, Robertson, Common and Phillips heads
• allen wrenches, metric and SAE
• electrical crimps and crimpers
• butane or propane torch
• drill with good drill bits
• taps and dies with appropriate bits
• hand files and file card
• wire brush
• inspection mirror
• hose removers
• O-ring picks
• pry bars from tiny handheld ones to 24-inch versions strong enough to support one corner of the engine.
• small clamp on hobby vise
• larger vise bolted to a piece of plywood
• vise grips
• filter wrench (strap style)
• squeeze type hose clamps
• lineman’s pliers
• splicing tools for all running rigging onboard
• full sewing kit with palms, needles and patch material
Each and every possible fastener on the boat should be test fitted with a tool from the kit. If a single fastener cannot be fit, the tool for that fastener must be added, or built for that purpose. Special-purpose tools should be labeled and, in some cases, fastened by wire to the location they may be needed.
A basic parts kit will vary greatly from boat to boat, but should include the following:
• stainless steel tie wire
• gasket maker and gasket material
• wood through-hull plugs
• engine belts
• spare starter, alternator, water pump, thermostat, and zincs for the engine
• any zincs for the vessel shaft skegs etc.
• gasket material and liquid gasket maker
• fuel filters for every application in various microns
• spark plugs, if applicable
• cotter pins (stainless)
• anti-corrosion spray
• fiberglass exhaust wrap
• exhaust hoses and engine specific fuel/ coolant hoses
• stainless hose clamps of all sizes for all fittings onboard
• set screws and keyways for any onboard application
• any other key spares for critical components for steering, rigging and propulsion
• lanolin paste for rigging
• clean rags
• absorbent pads for oil
Overhaul tools for shore-based work
Complete shipwright tools range from a large toolbox to several workshops full. These tools are for heavy maintenance jobs. But any owner of a basic fiberglass sailboat that plans to voyage extensively should have at least these tools in addition to the onboard kit. These are basic tools that anyone can use with little training.
• four-inch power sander
• shop vac with wet and dry filters, the dry one a HEPA filter, if possible
• Fein saw or other reciprocating plunge cut saw
• sanding blocks
• four-inch peanut grinder
• jig saw
• small skill saw
• drift set
• center punch set
• small sledge hammer
• ventilation fan
• knee pads, earplugs, safety glasses
• any other PPE as required. (Be sure to change cartridges frequently in VOC masks.)
Additional optional items
• Honda 2200 generator with DC charge kit
• spare battery charger
• high-output bilge pump
• plug-in drill
• plug-in grinder
Repairing unforeseen problems at sea is a bit like baking a last-minute surprise cake in someone else’s kitchen. You end up rifling through cupboards trying to come up with substitutions for the ingredients you want to use – and ultimately settle for what they have stocked, like it or not. You’ve got to bake that cake. For those situations we need a fully-stocked cupboard of versatile spares and tools.
This box comes out when no solutions can be found with your standard onboard kit. It’s based on my delivery kit, that I used as a professional captain to be ready to fix problems on unknown boats with a limited spares inventory. It’s important to keep in mind that whatever comes out of this box won’t be the “right” way to fix anything. But we don’t need perfect, we need better. This kit will get you home, where you can then fix it properly.
For example, shoving a pencil into a fuel line may be the best temporary option to prevent fuel loss while making a repair. Even if it is still leaking out around the pencil, you have limited the fuel loss and increased the time you have to solve the problem. You may use a diesel smelling pencil on your charts after. Who cares! Do what it takes to solve or improve the problem.
Need a shorter wrench? Cut it with the grinder, in the hobby vise. No grinder or hobby vise? Hold the wrench in vise grips and heat it with the torch until cherry red. This will soften the metal. Cool slowly and cut with hacksaw. Need the wrench to be hard again? Heat to cherry and quench in water.
Can’t get the hose on the bilge pump? Heat hose with torch till soft then shove onto fitting. Set hose clamp before it cools. This works for both up-sizing or downsizing most hoses.
Lose your electronics while trying to anchor or entering a shallow area? Stop the boat. Measure out the paracord in boat lengths and tie a knot at each boat length for reference. Tie one end to a wrench and the other end to the bow cleat. This is a simple lead line, ancient and proven. Proceed slowly and toss the wrench off the bow. Feel the bottom to measure your depth. Compare the depth with your paper chart. Find safe water this way and drop the hook.
Alternator frozen? Set the link belt to run the water pump, bypassing the alternator and cool the engine without making power. Go to minimum electrical use practices. Run the Honda generator to charge the batteries as required. No generator? Reduce the battery bank to a single battery by disconnecting the others. Use the solar panel to feed the battery and run basic electronics intermittently. Save the other batteries for an engine start later.
These are just examples of imperfect but invaluable workarounds. Imperfect solutions are exactly what you need.
You’ll notice this kit contains duplicate tools – that’s okay. Redundancy is good. I store this kit in a single box (I use an Action Packer tote), so that, in an emergency, it’s my tools First Aid Kit: easy to locate and everything is together. You can also break it into two boxes – spares in one and tools in the other. Label accordingly. Attach a chem light (plastic stick light that kids use at 4th of July) to each one so that instant light is on hand, at the box. Hopefully you never have to use it. But don’t be afraid to dig in there and get creative.
Emergency tools kit
• stainless tie wire for securing hoses, shackles or anything else
• lineman’s pliers for cutting and twisting wire
• adjustable v-belt (link belt for customizing lengths)
• bolt cutters for cutting big stuff from anchor chain to rigging. (Make sure you test them. I’ve had them fail, especially Chinese-made units.)
• battery-powered peanut grinder and cutting wheels. (If your boat is equipped with rod-rigging, this is the primary way to clear your rig in case of failure.)
• small magnetic parts tray
• drill pump, for transferring liquids
• winch handle, bouyat if possible
• paint filters (emergency fuel filtering from bilge)
• large ziplock bags
• O-ring kit, for replacing critical O rings, usually on the engine or fuel system
• assorted metric fasteners, for the engine, if imported
• clevis pins, for the rig
• cotter pins for the rig
• electrical tape multiple colors, for labeling lines and or taping wires or rig pins
• chem lights: red, green and white, for use as emergency nav lights, bilge lighting, compass light etc.
• cable ties, assorted, which have many uses
• para-cord, 100-foot minimum for lashing, constructing emergency lead line etc.
• battery powered navigation lights
• powerful flashlight
• waterproof flashlight
• scuba mask
• stainless hose clamps, various sizes
• fuel hose, 20-foot minimum, sized for the fuel system
• fuel squeeze bulb, sized for fuel hose
• twenty-foot each of two-strand marine wire in 10,12 and 14 gauge, used for running power direct from batteries
• blade fuse holders inline
• blade fuse kit
• glass fuse kit
• wire nuts for temporary wiring fixes
• crimpers and crimp tool
• volt meter
• gasket material (Felpro kit)
• old-school hand crank drill for submerged drilling
• hand bearing compass with bulkhead mount
• wood plug kit
• potatoes, for plugging holes and eating
• various plumbing fittings such as repair splices, sized for critical plumbing
• propane torch
• small portable inverter with alligator clips
• Samson and three-strand splicing fids (Include a splicing book if not practiced.)
• handheld GPS with a good supply of batteries
• full drill index
• metric and SAE tap and die set
• various spare hoses to suit boat
• six-part-block and tackle or other reduction handy-billy
• good medical kit
• high visibility sharp knife with hard sheath
• wood chisel, one inch
• heavy duty trash bags
• wax toilet seating ring, for plugging holes underwater
• splash zone two-part epoxy putty (Underwater epoxy)
• cold weld epoxy kit for gluing metal
• dielectric grease
• fiberglass tape quick repair kit
• chunk of plywood to cover largest hatch
• long screws and assorted blocking
• spare shackles for main sheet tackle
• spare blocks for jib sheets
• 100 feet of one-inch tubular webbing, for jacklines and emergency repairs or reinforcement
• safety shears
• generic electric fuel pump, 12 volt
• flat bastard file (Keep it oiled)
• small triangular file
• infrared thermometer
• paper charts
• spare starting battery, charged and secured
• battery post adapters
• 75- foot, three-eighths-inch Dyneema for emergency rigging repairs (Learn to brummel-splice Dyneema)
• jetboil camp stove, a good alternative for cooking and heating hoses etc.
• fire hose chunks for anti-chafe
• axle grease, for anything that needs grease
• a full oil change with filter
• spare engine fuel filter
• 10 to 20 pre-filters (Racor 2010) in 2, 10 and 30 microns
• bucket with toilet lid
• two-sided tape or sticky velcro
• hobby vise (clamps in place)• gearbox oil
• spare shaft zinc (Mount on shaft inside boat as a shaft keeper.)
• spare sail cloth. (Old cloth is fine. Study the book “The Sailmakers Apprentice”)
• small axe or sledge hammer for cabinet destruction
• spare deck plates
• handheld VHF with batteries
• small solar panel with alligator clips for emergency charging
• Alaska cool tool, which makes clamps from common wire
• neoprene (old wet suit pieces for gasket, hole plugging and rudder seal)
• jumper cables
• penetrating lubricant such as Aerokroil or PB blaster
• brake cleaner, forcleaning oily surfaces before repairing with adhesives or epoxy
• instant gasket maker, high temp (Permatex ultra copper)
• 3-M 5200 sealant
• several small vise grips which can be left in place
• small bottle jack
• LED headlamp with red mode
• waterproof watch with light
• baking soda for neutralizing battery acid
• wire brush
• fastener kit, including screws, etc.
• flare tool for copper fittings
• wheel puller
• emery cloth
• para-anchor with rode and snatch-block bridle
• climbing harness
• pry bars
• O-ring picks
• fish tape, for clearing clogged hoses, running wire, etc.
• spring clamps
• heat exchanger O-ring gasket
• spare impellers
• hacksaw and blades
• paper charts and plotting tools
• cheap battery charger
• duct tape
Keep notes in your logbook of deficiencies in your tool inventory and the spares you use. Review the list after a voyage and fill in what you are missing.
A full tool kit will extend your budget, as you can solve problems at the dock, as well as at sea. When running my own boat, I cannot think of a voyage I could ever have afforded, if hiring a mechanic were required for the problems I encountered. From sail repair to engine work, the more you can do, the farther you can go. ν
Jesse Osborn, along with his wife Samantha, owns Seven Seas Sailing Logistics, which provides captain services, consulting, teaching and project management for sailboats.