Spare me the trouble


Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on making sure you have the spares you need for your power voyaging boat.

As an offshore cruiser, what is your strategy for spare parts? Spare parts are, unfortunately, rarely considered a priority. In fact, for most boaters they are often an afterthought, “extras” that are haphazardly collected “just in case” and stowed “somewhere” that will be hard to find when they are needed. You won’t need them until there is a problem, but if you are prepared they can help get you out of trouble.

Using bins for organizing spares.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were on board and away from land when a vital system faltered? If so, you will remember that things changed quickly if they were not addressed promptly. What may start out as a nuisance can quickly evolve into a very serious situation with multiple consequences. Being ready for the unknown is an important part of “dialing-in” your trawler.

I’ve been told by more than one owner that you learn about your trawler one breakdown at a time. Though it would be nice to think that everything will always work flawlessly, that is not reality. Boats, by their nature, are designed to be jostled around in a harsh marine environment and quite simply there is a lot of stress and common failures. You must accept that you need to expect the unexpected.

Spare hose lengths for quick hose repairs.

Seasoned trawler owners develop checklists and do inspections to make sure they are good to go. Obvious practices like provisioning for food and filling up with fuel and water, along with studying the weather, become second nature. We confidently plan for the best, but need to consider the worst. Less-experienced boat handlers need to spend some time comprehending the inherent idiosyncrasies of trawler systems and operations. My suggestion is to make a written list of all of your machinery (engines, generators, stabilizers, thrusters, windlass, etc.) starting with manufacturer and model number and then go online to research the details and collect information. You should have the operations manual and parts catalog for everything (I prefer electronic versions on PDF so I can search on my computer). Good manuals and catalogs will not only identify the various components, but may dictate service intervals, tools required and recommended spare parts.

Fuel filters labeled to show service life.

Before your next trip, read up on your engine and learn as much as you can. We are all familiar with fuel and oil filters and know they need to be changed out, but have you ever done this? If you are a hands-on owner you most likely have, but if you trust this type of work to a professional, they may not be around at 3 a.m., 20 miles off the coast in a rolling sea … so it would be wise to learn some of the basic replacement skills for regularly serviced components.

Do you have the correct spare parts and the tools for the job? A strap wrench or filter wrench with a bucket and some diaper absorption pads (and a roll of paper towels) make changing a fuel or oil filter a lot less messy. Try this while tied up to the dock — you don’t want on-the-job training if your filters clog up while you are underway.

It’s a good idea to mark your pencil zincs.

There are a number of ways to dissect the importance of spare parts; here is how I view them:

Routine spares, consumables: This would include machinery items like filters (Racor, oil and fuel filters), belts and impellers. Labeling your filters with the date and time will let you know when they are due to be changed. Don’t forget your engine air filters. So much depends upon how often you use your trawler, but a good recommendation is to change out filters and impellers at a minimum of once per year and carry multiple spares. One of my clients, an experienced circumnavigator, made up three oil change bins so he had everything he needed to become an instant mechanic. Belts will show signs of dust as an indicator that they are nearing their end. Raw-water sea strainer gaskets and baskets can “dissolve” over time and you can’t really fashion a replacement with parts aboard. Hull zincs and pencil zincs provide anode protection and are inexpensive to inventory but heavy to ship, so I suggest stocking up on these.

Make sure you have the right fuses for your gear.

Breakers and fuses: Many of the electrical systems on your trawler are designed with fuses or breakers that will trip to prevent electrical surges that can overload and harm devices. Having an assortment of fuses and breakers on board is essential but requires some upfront research to determine correct sizes and quantities. You may require a specialty fuse for your davit, so get a spare. Remember, in a pinch you may be able to substitute a working fuse from another component (be especially careful around AC systems). Knowing the size and type plus where they are installed will save you a lot of time when something stops running and you are trying to figure out what happened. Better yet, wire-tie a spare to the fuse cover. Good electrical wiring diagrams are invaluable resources when you need to locate where your replacement goes; you can mark them up with Post-Its for quick identification.

Serviceable parts: These are not routine but common enough. This would include items like duckbill valves for toilets. In fact, it would be a good idea to purchase a complete head rebuild kit. Windshield wipers wear out (or keep Rain-X on board). Anti-siphon vents are often overlooked and can usually be cleaned out, but you first need to know where they are installed. Light bulbs burn out. Good working running lights are critical; carry spare bulbs or consider upgrading these to LED.

Spare fuses ready to go.

Fluids: An entire sermon could be written about the fluids you need to monitor and replenish, including engine oil, engine coolant, transmission oil, stabilizer oil, hydraulic steering oil and more. Figure out what you need and how you will stow the containers. You also need funnels for filling. Lubricants and greases, cans and tubes of all kinds of important products should be aboard. I don’t really view these as spare parts, but they too should be in your inventory.

Breakables: Everything can break and it is impractical to carry a backup for each item on your boat. If you are using boom winches, I would carry a spare. It’s not much fun trying to use a halyard to hoist up a dinghy stuck in the water (make sure the spare winch is the same model and/or the bracket hole pattern matches). Pumps, and there are many types aboard, are notorious for giving out at the wrong time — actually, there is never a good time. I advise my clients to adopt the view that everything on a boat lasts for five years. That is a short cycle in the life of your boat, so be proactive and keep track of your equipment with a critical eye. Anticipate issues by tackling annoyances before they develop into problems.

Good labeling helps.

In Part 2, we will look at determining a spare parts strategy by envisioning where are you most vulnerable.

Jeff Merrill, CPYB, is the president of Jeff Merrill Yacht Sales, Inc.- He is a veteran yacht broker who provides individual attention and worldwide professional representation to buyers and sellers of premium brand, oceangoing trawlers. Merrill is active in the cruising community as a public speaker and writer and enjoys spending time at sea with clients. Jeff has written several articles for Ocean Navigator’s Power Voyaging column and is constantly looking for new ideas to improve and simplify the trawler lifestyle. If you have a suggestion or want to get in touch, please email Merrill at

By Ocean Navigator