Spare-parts portfolio

Before most sailors go voyaging, they try to replace parts and get their boat ready for the trip. However, the odds are that something significant will fail before you return to the domesticated world, and it’s also possible that you’ll need some urgent help from a shoreside technician at some point. Given these facts, now is a good time to take an organized approach to spare parts.

If you are skim-reading this, thinking you have already covered all your bases, you may be at the greatest risk of coming up short. Spare-parts management is no place for sloppiness. One of the riskiest assumptions is that your new, still-in-the-box replacement part will match the currently installed part it is supposed to replace. Whenever possible, install the spare part shortly after you receive it, then keep the one that was installed as the spare. It’s a smart move because it refreshes that component and guarantees that the one you are keeping as a spare will indeed fit. (Make sure you pickle all parts before you store them.) When buying new parts or consumables like filters and bulbs, ask your chandler for a cross-reference list of other manufacturers’ equivalent part numbers. Even though your chandler will prefer you mail-order the part from them, don’t miss this opportunity to prepare to shop at places that carry other brands.


Start collecting digital copies of your owner’s manuals. Most manufacturers have them in Adobe Acrobat PDF format, the most common digital format for documents. The reading software is free from A company’s entire product line can fit on a single CD-ROM as a PDF. PDFs offer the ability to search manuals for keywords in addition to the traditional table of contents and indexes. If you have a printer onboard, you can print the relevant pages for reference and not worry about soiling (or losing!) your paper owner’s manual in the bilge or engine room. These printouts are also handy when you go ashore searching for replacement parts or a technician’s advice. Collecting digital manuals from the manufacturer’s representative at the time of purchase is the easiest way to build your library, and some manufacturers have them available online, some at no cost.


Challenge your crew to imagine the kinds of failures that would impact your owners and guests. One engineer I know handpicks one crew every day to create a hypothetical failure scenario or broken part for him to solve. Eventually, one of those scenarios — or one like it — will happen; when this engineer’s mast spreader broke, he had a replacement (made from his salon’s settee!) installed in less than an hour because it was one of his previous scenarios. These daily challenges prompt creativity (of both potential failures and their solutions) and help build up the stock of replacement parts and specialized tools you’ll need in an emergency.

Maintenance schedules

Most engineers have some system monitoring their scheduled maintenance chores. If you have a system that works, stick with it. However, if you’ve been caught overlooking scheduled maintenance in the last year, adopt a system right away. There are too many variables to go wrong with properly maintained hardware to risk failure caused by neglected equipment. Some engineers’ systems are very simple, such as a recipe box with monthly dividers and 3×5 cards that say “flush generator coolant.” Because your maintenance schedule will include hourly dependent tasks, some engineers use P-touch Labelers to make notes directly on the Hobbs hour meters and check them regularly. (Example: change generator oil every x hours.) There are countless systems you might adopt; it’s critical only that you be consistent and diligent.

A powerful data tool

Though almost every boat has a digital camera someplace onboard, few crews leverage this powerful data tool. If you don’t have a digital camera, I suggest you invest $200 and gain the benefits of a photographic memory. Store your camera in the toolbox you use most often and make a habit of snapping at least two pictures before and during a component repair or service. It might help you when, only hours later, you can’t remember which way wires or cables were led, or how particular parts are oriented.

If you’ve ever needed a mirror to see around corners, you might consider using your camera and its electronic viewfinder for the same purpose; it’s a technique that can capture part and serial number placards that are obstructed from view. This method avoids the mistake of transposing reversed numbers, and the camera’s flash supplies all the necessary light.

Use your camera to record wear; it’s a quick way to indefinitely capture a part’s status and exact location. The time and date feature is especially useful for warranty claims, even though the date could potentially be altered by the camera’s operator.

If you have a fire on your boat, you will have to account for each piece of significant hardware, should the boat be lost or severely damage. Next time you have the camera out, take a dozen pictures of the salon, galley and bridge, and save the disk someplace off the boat. If done with great care and thoroughness, these images can also be a great asset to shoreside technicians who may sometimes need to help you troubleshoot failed systems.

Camera techniques

To make sure the images are useful, you’ll need to learn a little bit about your camera. You will also want to check your pictures frequently by reviewing them in the camera’s electronic viewfinder to make sure they are accomplishing what you need them to. Be familiar with the macro setting: On many cameras, it is identified by a flower or some other close-up icon. It will allow you to take clear pictures of objects less than a foot from the camera lens. When working in indoor spaces with shiny, flat surfaces (like an engine room), be aware of the direct reflection caused by the camera’s flash. This can completely wash out the important elements, especially on light-colored surfaces; take your pictures at an angle or steady the camera and disable the flash.

Scale is sometimes important to convey, especially if you will be sending pictures to someone who has never seen the part before. There are several ways to do this. One of them is to include a ruler someplace in the picture. If that is too difficult, any familiar-sized item will do. A standard-size Post-it note (1.5 x 2) will stick easily on most surfaces and can be used to indicate orientation (forward, aft, up, down, etc.).

In order to share your pictures, you’ll need to spend some time learning how to connect your camera, computer and satellite phone. It is seldom as simple as the camera or computer makers suggest, so you’ll want to practice sending pictures when you aren’t in a panic, and when you have easy access to a landline to call for technical assistance. Make a reminder sheet if the process is complicated.

Most of all, don’t forget to compress your pictures; even the lowest-quality setting on most cameras creates files that are up to 10 times larger than they need to be for most uses. Crop the parts of the picture you don’t need and save the image no bigger than 20 square inches at 72 dots per inch. This should keep your file sizes less than 60 kB, good for quick file transfer.

Finally, do not delete pictures when you are done with them. Data storage on hard drive, diskette, CD-ROM is very, very cheap compared to the benefit you might have when you need to call up an old image. The two pictures you capture on each repair will quickly build a helpful library. We recommend voyagers develop a simple system for organizing these photographs, perhaps with a directory (folder) with the date and name of the system (example: 02-09-02 Watermaker) and keep these in a single folder (example: Hardware Pic Archive).

As yachts get more sophisticated, voyagers must be increasingly diligent and proactive. We have to balance traditional skills with some level of technology to keep all those circuits running.

Rush Hambleton is a circumnavigator and founding partner of Bluewater Logistics LLC in Newport, R.I. Bluewater Logistics delivers custom, consolidated owner’s manuals online and by CD-ROM.

By Ocean Navigator