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40 Tips For A Reliable Cruising Boat


It seems like almost every cruiser I talk to has a tale of woe about all the problems they have had with their boat and how much those problems have screwed up their plans. For crying out loud, if cars were as unreliable as voyaging sailboats, we would have stuck with horses!

But really, it does not have to be this way.

How can I say that? We have had a twisted mast, a defective engine, and half a hundred other things go wrong on Morgan’s Cloud but, in the last 16 years, nothing has broken that has caused us to change our plans, or even delay us, in mid-voyage—touch wood.

And since we started cruising some 23 years ago, we have only had one such incident: a broken intermediate shroud necessitating replacement of all standing rigging.

I don’t say this to boast. Undoubtedly there has been an element of luck in this record. But I also think that the boat maintenance rules that we have developed over many years of voyaging have helped too. Here they are:

#1. Prioritize the Big Five over all else:

  1. Keep the water out
  2. Keep the crew on the boat
  3. Keep the keel side down
  4. Keep the mast up
  5. Keep the rudder on

#2. Keep mission critical systems simple.

#3. Don’t install anything new for 12 months before a long voyage

#4. Always do a real shake down. For example, before an Atlantic circle, sail to Bermuda and back.

#5. Be religious about scheduled maintenance.

#6. In the quest for reliability, time spent varnishing and polishing stainless is wasted.

#7. Ditto for time spent messing with iPads, iPhones and the like.

#8. Never ignore a strange noise.

#9. Don’t let inexperienced crew play with your gear without close supervision. Boat stuff is more fragile than you might think and they will find ways to break it that you have never even dreamed of.

#10. Stuff is the enemy of good access.

#11. Good access is half the battle.

#12. Assuming the same amount of stuff, bigger boats are more reliable and easier to maintain than smaller ones—more room to work, more robust gear.

#13. Always work with really good light no matter how mundane the task. That way you see bad stuff that’s about to happen.

#14. You need a work bench, no matter how small, with a vice.

#15. Need a tool once, borrow it.

#16. Need a tool twice, buy it.

#17. Have a written parts inventory with storage locations.

#18. Have the shop and parts manuals for everything.

#19. If one member of a group of items breaks, replace them all. Standing rigging is a good example.

#20. If something breaks once, fix it.

#21. If something breaks twice, replace it.

#22. Replace anything for which parts are no longer made.

#23. When in doubt, don’t rebuild it, replace it.

#24. If it’s not broken, don’t replace it just because there is something new and cool available.

#25. Buy commercial gear whenever you can.

#26. Do routine maintenance yourself. You will see problems developing before they get critical.

#27. Delegate the grunt work—bottom painting comes to mind—so you can focus on the important stuff.

#28. Delegate highly skilled tasks you don’t do often.

#29. Always supervise anyone working on your boat. Not only can you stop screw ups, you can learn a lot too.

#30. The more time you spend planning a job before starting it, the less time it will take and the better the result will be.

#31. Keep a written maintenance schedule and log.

#32. Have a regular replacement schedule for vital things like standing rigging, and follow it.

#33. You will never do it all. Prioritize your to-do list into: vital, nice to do, someday (never gonna happen).

#34. For couples: Split up the skills that you need to be good at between you. Aspiring to both be equally good at everything (like the magazines tell you to) is BS, a waste of time, impossible, and sets you up for acrimony.

#35. Don’t be a gear pioneer.

#36. Beware the time suck of complexity.

#37. Perfect is the enemy of good.

#38. Don’t waste time making something, just because you can, that you can buy.

#39. Two things that should never be connected to the battery are the sails and the crapper.

#40. Um…err…um. (40 sounds so much better than 39, don’t you think?).

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

64 comments … add one
  • Katman Oct 17, 2012, 7:28 am

    Please explain why to NEVER connect a crapper to the batteries!

    s/v Grace
    IP 45

    • John Oct 17, 2012, 7:48 am

      Hi katman
      Because I would never want to add the complexity of motors etc to a machine that is so horrible to fix, for so little benefit. Heck, pumping is even good for our fitness!

      Actually, I’m being flippant here. In areas where holding tanks are required, electric heads do have the advantage that they, or at least some of them, use a great deal less water per flush and therefore don’t fill the holding tank as quickly as a manual head would.

    • RDE Oct 17, 2012, 4:12 pm

      NEVER connect a crapper to the battery—– unless you LIKE that tingly feeling when you sit on it!

  • David Nutt Oct 17, 2012, 8:09 am

    Great list – Often it still comes down to knowing one has the ability to deal with what ever it is that comes up once out there. Stuff happens all the time, sometimes incrementally and sometimes catastrophically and having the confidence to know you can deal with it is invaluable. Being backed up by experience, parts, manuals, and luck only gives support to knowing one can deal with it or work a way around it.

  • Victor Raymond Oct 17, 2012, 8:43 am

    Great list and I agree with it all. One thing that I try to adhere to is: if the cost of the special tool is at or even near what the labor costs are, I buy the tool to do it myself for now and the future. If the cost of the tools is way less ie brushes, etc. I let them dot it.
    Case in point, in recently re-attaching all the stainless fittings back on the mast, I bought a top notch massive riveting tool to have the hundreds of 1/4″ rivets. If any would ever need replacing I have the know how, tools and rivets to do the job. That gives me much more confidence going forward.
    Thank you again.

  • David Hayward Oct 17, 2012, 9:22 am

    41) Always draw-up plans, with a material list and costing, and build a mock-up of new installations to test fix, purpose and use. It takes time, effort and some expnse but reduces frustration and increases the odds of success.
    42) Never cut material or, in general terms start something after 4 pm. It’s been a long day and one is more liable to make mistakes.

    • John Oct 18, 2012, 8:48 am

      Hi David,

      Great additions to my list. Both are great, but I particularly like number 42.

  • Jerry Levy Oct 17, 2012, 9:25 am

    Hi John:
    I agree that too much ‘stuff’ is a big and common problem, but it seems to me that often the biggest and heaviest stuff aboard are tools. Do you have any rules – and list of tools – for what NOT to keep aboard the boat?

    • John Oct 18, 2012, 8:49 am

      Hi Jerry,

      Not really. But that does get me thinking about a post with a list of the tools we do keep aboard.

      • RobertB Oct 20, 2012, 1:17 am

        I think having a post on tools would be a great idea and would start a good discussion. I also think adding a rule about knowing which tools you need for your particular boat is important. In the US this is complicated by the use of both imperial and metric hardware** by manufacturers, though I suppose there is redundancy in having both a 3/4 and a 19mm socket 😉

        ** never again

      • Jerry Levy Oct 20, 2012, 8:11 am

        The problem with that idea is that it will inevitably lead readers into getting MORE STUFF.

  • Erik Snel Oct 17, 2012, 10:18 am

    Good list, much of it is what I do as well. A couple of remarks:
    – Being on a tight budget, the ‘don’t make when you can buy’ rule is a bit different for me: if it’s things that I can easily make myself and save a lot of money, I usually will. If it does’t save money, I will not spend the time…
    – Buy commercial gear: yes, however, budget being tight, I sometimes buy recent 2nd hand commercial gear. Saves a lot of money and still has a long life ahead of it.


    • E.T. Nov 4, 2016, 8:59 am

      Erik, I agree with you, and on top of that, I as I love working on our old boat, making as much as I can, within reason(have a machine shop) , gets me parts that are superior to many available parts/products. I have time, not $$. I would rather yank out, and rebuild my engine myself for $1.500, than having a yard coming in and installing a new for $15.000. I want to know, and be able, and I can do a better job than a disgruntled $15-20/h person, while being charged $75-$90/h by the yard. I have all the tools aboard, to fix everything.

  • Tom Keffer Oct 17, 2012, 10:25 am

    David’s “4pm rule” reminds me of its corollary: always end the day on a positive note by having finished something.

    I’ve found if I don’t, I’m grouchy all evening and may not even sleep well. If I do, I have a sense of accomplishment and that I’m getting things done.

    • John Oct 18, 2012, 8:50 am

      Hi Tom,

      Now there’s a great truth!

  • Terje Moglestue Oct 17, 2012, 1:23 pm

    Great list. The only issue I got is the list is too long!

  • Dick Stevenson Oct 17, 2012, 2:29 pm

    John, Excellent list. The one thing I might add would be to spend the hours necessary to have an impeccable wiring diagram w/ wire gauges, junctions, fuses etc etc. It takes a lot of time, but makes for a good winter (or off season project). You are likely to catch a lot of problems, future and present, as you do this and you learn about your system to a degree that will surprise most who think they know their electrical system well. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • John Oct 18, 2012, 8:52 am

      Hi Dick,

      Great point. You can spend a ton of time trying to figure out wiring without a diagram, or at least a terminal listing. Even, at least in my case, if I did the wiring myself!

  • John Oct 17, 2012, 3:53 pm

    Hi All,

    Great comments. This is just what I hoped would happen with this post: Start with my list and add to it and make it better.

    Please keep it coming.

    Thanks to all.

  • Steve Oct 17, 2012, 4:26 pm

    Great list but you don’t like varnishing! Not a worry anymore for us.
    We will spend a month doing sea trials in France on the new boreal before heading over to England. Then 4 months coastal cruising on the west coast of Europe to further get to know the boat. Then crossing the pond when hurricane season is over. Hoping to have all the bugs worked out and have had a chance to test her out in most conditions. Not a year of prep but best we can do if we want to get back to the S. Pacific.
    With a new boat does anyone have some things we should do differently from the list? Has anyone ever done a brand new boat before?

  • Carolyn Shearlock Oct 17, 2012, 9:09 pm

    Corollary to number 8: don’t ignore a strange noise that your partner hears but you don’t.

    Not universal rules, but women tend to have better high frequency hearing (squeaks and squeals) and men tend to have better low frequency hearing (diesel noises, prop problems). I can think of several times that one of us heard something that the other didn’t, even when the other one had alerted us to it.

    • John Oct 18, 2012, 8:55 am

      Hi Carolyn,

      So true. Phyllis has twice heard a high frequency noise, that I did not, that, upon investigation, turned out to be something that could have been serious if not attended to.

  • Paul Oct 18, 2012, 12:05 am

    Very instructive to read the hard learned wisdom.

    I like to have everything at it’s own spot and imagine a roll over and that is stays at it’s spot. I should be able to get the things I need blindfolded.

    The crew of a boat that pitchpoled noticed that while they were able to get rid of the water in the boat, every crew-member had cuts in their legs of broken glasses…

  • Svein Lamark Oct 18, 2012, 7:59 am

    Your list is important and interesting. I like much rule 17 and 18 on spare parts and manuals. That is how to solve the problem when in a remote place or offshore. I also find it important to keep a list of persons to contact when needed. Some persons seems to know all about what is inside my radar and I do not. Guys that deal with spare parts are also good to have on the list. They know where to find the parts I do not have, to a faire price. In a foggy spring in Finland my Furuno radar was no good. It was fog and ice and I needed the radar. The first expert told me on the phone the magnetrone was too old. The other told me the price of that magnetrone was 1200 dollars in Finland, 1000 in nearby Sweden and only 200 in Norway. It was sendt from Norway and the next day the first expert told me how to install the magnetrone in the antenna. Experts that does not give this kind of help is not on my list.
    I also keep a list of persons who knows where to get used parts. This way I can upgrade a system to a higher quality at a low price. But this takes time and planning.

    • John Oct 18, 2012, 9:04 am

      Hi Svein,

      Great point. I should have had that one on my list, but missed it. We keep a list of “treasured experts” who have solved many, many problems for us.

      And when in a remote place it is a great comfort to know that there is someone who knows just about everything, say about your engine, who you can call on the sat phone for advice.

  • paul shard Oct 19, 2012, 8:42 am

    Tip 3 – Never install anything new…

    Interesting Idea – I wonder if anyone has ever actually managed to follow this one? Certainly we are often installing new gear and setting off after less than 12 months. Most cruisers I know are more like Noah – the worlds first “last minute” boatbuilder 🙂

    • John Oct 19, 2012, 9:23 am

      Hi Paul,

      I know it’s an unusual rule. But, in my experience, it is probably the most important one on the whole list and a lot of the secret to our success.

      • Matt Boney Oct 18, 2014, 3:19 pm

        John I agree with you.
        On the UK Cruising Association site we have just had a huge debate on a thread about what should be included on a new boat, and how long this might take. This attracted huge viewing figures and generated lots of controversial posts – more of a mass-debate!
        The original poster was asking what should be included in their FIRST boat they were buying in October and taking to the Med in November because they didn’t want to spend the winter in the UK!
        She listed two boats that they were viewing, a well kitted out Oyster 485 and a Waquiez 48. All for a budget of £200,000. She finished up buying a Hanse 540! It had everything that she wanted, but nothing that she needed for her 12 months in the Med before her ARC trip next November. It didn’t even have a Bimini, and probably needed £70,000 worth of extras for the two of them and their two mountain dogs! All of this to be installed during the coming November before their trip across Biscay to Lagos in December!
        She couldn’t understand all the criticism she was getting!

        • John Oct 20, 2014, 9:37 am

          Hi Matt,

          Yikes, that’s not going to end well!

  • Dick Stevenson Oct 19, 2012, 9:17 am

    Again wearing my occasional hat of challenging what I see as unsupportable statements promoting large cruising vessels, gear on any vessel should “robust” enough and bigger boats should not be “more reliable and easier to maintain than smaller ones” because they have more robust gear. Also, I think you can’t assume the same amount of stuff. It is just unrealistic to think I on a 40 foot boat will have the same amount of stuff as your 56 footer at maybe 3 times the volume. More room to work would be nice, but I am not sure it translates into a more reliable vessel. I think, in some ways to the contrary, a larger boat could be argued to be more of a challenge to reliability as the temptation to put on equipment like electric winches, furling mains, hydraulic headsail furling gear etc. may be hard for most to resist.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy, Ramsgate, England

    • John Oct 19, 2012, 9:37 am

      Hi Dick,

      I guess we will have to agree to disagree on this one. Keep in mind that I have owned both a 45-foot boat and a 56 and the latter is way easier to maintain and repair than the former, for the reason’s I list. For example, the benefits of working on an engine in a full stand up engine room with a full workbench adjacent have to be experienced to be believed.

      Having said that, you are quite right that if you use having a bigger boat as an excuse to load it up with stuff and complex gear, the rule breaks down. The key is to do as we do on MC and basically have a 45-boat in a 56-foot hull. And we have none of the complex stuff you list.

      Also, our volume is not three times, more like 1.6-2 times. As I remember, your boat is a bit over 30,000 loaded and we are about 50,000. Also, we are much finer in the ends, particularly forward, than the Valiant.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating bigger boats for all. The same rule works no matter how big your boat. For example the Adventure 40 will have no accommodation aft of the companionway. That area will be given over to a workbench, engine access, and storage. Consequently she will be a lot easier to maintain than a boat with the accommodation and pushed out to the ends. Essentially she will be a 32-foot boat in 40-foot hull. Now if an owner then fills all that space full of stuff and adds a whole bunch of complicated gear…well I can’t fix that.

      • Marc Dacey Jan 18, 2013, 1:36 am

        Another S/V Alchemy here, oddly enough. We have a full-keel pilothouse cutter in steel with something like that: instead of a V-berth, we have seven feet of “triangular workshop” …not just a bench, but a full setup for line storage, spares cases and three secured tool cases, in front of a full height collision bulkhead. The engine is under a 24 by 48 inch hatch, soon to be a “clamshell” pair of aluminum doors, gasketed and lockable. In the engine bay, I can stand beside the diesel and access any part save the bottom, which would require laying down. Behind and across are all the water tanks, with fully accesible tops. Aft is the water heater, waterlift and space in netting to carry a dozen fenders. It’s a thing of beauty and definitely is what other sailors mention as being envious of.

        The trade off is that I have no passage to the aft cabin, and I have to go on deck to access the workshop. The first bit I like as it gives a sense of privacy from the saloon; and the second will be solved by putting a watertight hatch well above the waterline to access the workshop forward. Yes, it will involve an odd “window” in the foremost part of the salon, but I keep the function of the collision bulkhead while being able to “stay inside” to get to the workshop. I could also work on the boom that way, I suppose…chuck it through the hatch.

        We (me, wife and son) will sleep on passage in proper sea berths. By keeping stowage space primary, and living space smaller than the boat’s size would indicate, we are going to be safer and happier, I think.

        Love the list and will link it to my own site.

  • Dick Stevenson Oct 19, 2012, 1:36 pm

    John All your points are well taken. It takes a lot of discipline to treat a larger boat like a smaller one, but if you are able to accomplish this then you will reap the benefits you describe. Dick

    • Scott Kuhner Oct 20, 2012, 5:12 pm

      John, I tend to agree with Dick on the size of the boat. We did our first circumnavigation on a 30 ft Seawind Ketch. Keeping that boat ready to go to sea and handling it at sea was very easy and due to the lack of “stuff” it was very easy to maintain and service. Our Valiant 40 has much more gear and requires more work, which makes me believe that I would never want a bigger boat. BTW the smaller boats are also much less expensive to own and maintain. On our first circumnavigation, we spent an average of only $3,000/yr. Now I do admit that that was 40 years ago 1971-1975. My creed has always been KISS. (keep it simple stupid!)

      • John Oct 20, 2012, 8:43 pm

        Hi Scott,

        You are absolutely right.

        But having said that, none of your comment is germane to my point, which was that given the same amount of stuff (read gear and complexity) it is easier to maintain a reliable boat if that boat is bigger since there is more room to work and the gear is more robust. Also, I never suggested that smaller boats were not cheaper—I may not be the sharpest knife in the draw, but I’m not stupid.

        I simply can’t understand why it is that every time I mention a bigger boat some people seem to assume that I mean a more complex boat. Size and complexity are two different things.

        And yes, I am just a tad irritated.

  • George Woodward Oct 19, 2012, 5:54 pm

    “Ditto for time spent messing with iPads, iPhones and the like.”
    I’ a Luddite by inclination but now I have a smartphone!
    1. It functions as a cockpit repeater for my Raymarine chart table plotter with the ability to operate the chart plotter from the cockpit.
    2. It provides a second stand alone navigation system as backup and a system I can take on other vessels and the dinghy (a way point for your mooring has its uses)
    3. In UK coastal waters
    a)there is an app which provides transceiver AIS with alarms.
    b) email can be received
    c) And it remains a phone!
    Lots of other geeky stuff, photos etc if you are that way inclined. But at around £110 for a Galaxy style phone providing navigation redundancy, portable navigation, and in Uk waters transceiver AIS what a bargain. what’s not to like?


    • John Oct 19, 2012, 6:47 pm

      Hi George,

      I have an iphone and an ipad and think they are both great. And yes, they do good things around boats.

      But they don’t make your boat more reliable, and that’s the point of this post.

      Recently, I have seen a lot of sailors spending huge amounts of time and money on their electronic gadgets when one glance at their boat’s deck hardware and rig tells me that they have not devoted enough energy to those vital systems. I also suspect that they are behind on their boat’s engine maintenance too.

  • RobertB Oct 20, 2012, 1:03 am

    May be a dumb question, but….
    Why #39 regarding sails connected to batteries? I was assuming this meant electric winches, but don’t they all have manual capability (some just by inserting winch handle)? Danger of inadvertently draining the battery? For many reasons I don’t have a need/desire for electric winches…..though I would like to understand the thinking behind the rule.

    • John Oct 20, 2012, 8:52 am

      Hi Robert,

      Not dumb at all. And yes, I am referring to electric winches and electric roller furling systems, both for the main and jib.

      And yes, you are right, most have a manual override, although in the case of roller furling systems, of marginal usefulness.

      The reason I ban such systems in my search for reliability are because they:

      • Add a huge amount of complication that is very vulnerable to breaking, particularly electric roller furling systems.
      • Allow a crew member to exert a huge amount of force on a mission critical system (the rig and sails) with little or no feedback. I have seen things broken in truly spectacular ways with electric winches and electric roller furlers that never would have happened with a manual winch because the person grinding it would have realized that something was jammed before breaking something, because of the load on the winch.
      • Use a huge amount of power and, if used regularly, require the whole electrical system to be up-sized.
      • Allow a small crew to run a much bigger boat than they would be able to manage without them, so when the system breaks, and it will, they are truly up the creek.
  • Chris Oct 20, 2012, 4:38 pm

    41. “Budget twice as much.”

    …funds, time, consoling beverages, bandages…

    • John Oct 21, 2012, 8:10 am

      Hi Chris,

      Now that’s true. How about you, as an engineer, come up with the mathematical relationship between maintenance tasks done and the level in the whiskey bottle. We could publish it here at AAC as “Chris’s Law”—Newton, eat your heart out.

    • Simon Oct 22, 2012, 1:34 pm

      Now, the bandages are a point i like added here for some reason 🙂
      so easy to forget and so essential once you need them

  • Ian Oct 20, 2012, 8:57 pm

    Classic advice for all contemplating a decent voyage and away from the luxuries of the marinas and Caribbean boutiques. At last someone that tells it like it really is and not as the adverts and magazines which tell the next lot what they need.

  • vince bossley Oct 20, 2012, 10:32 pm

    Hi John, Has it crossed your mind that you may have been in port too long (like me) and need to go sailing?
    Yours, in levity, Lol,

    • John Oct 21, 2012, 8:07 am

      Yikes, I hope that’s not the case. I’m on the beach for the whole winter!

  • Nelson Oct 21, 2012, 6:43 am

    Great list John I agree with all of your points and those added by others. If I may add a few of my own to stir the mix..

    Corollary to rule one (if cruising in isolated or developing country type locations): If you can’t fix it it shouldn’t be onboard.
    The further off the beaten path you cruise the less backup and service you will have access to. Logically you need to be more reliant on yourself or you will end up spending time waiting for phone calls, parts, courier’s and customs. This waiting isn’t good for crew or vessel as the grouchier the crew become and the more likely you’ll miss the weather window.
    Don’t be afraid to read or learn from others and train yourself to repair these systems. Yes I’m also referring to the diesel engine which (as you indicated in The Best Days Of Our Lives?) for most of us is a mission critical item. I myself have made mistakes and it has cost a little money but I’ve now done four or five top end rebuilds and had my engine’s pistons, con rods and rings etc out. A proper month long commercial marine engineers course rounded off my training nicely. 
    This has kept my vessel moving through some remote locations when a more “modern” philosophy would have had us stuck for many months perhaps seasons. It IS scary to have a go especially when it’s the first time pulling the head off but you are the best engineer for your vessel. You will take the utmost care and every step attempted will broaden and deepen a knowledge base that will become steadily more valuable the further you venture.
    With the knowledge, workshop manual, set of spanners, torque wrench and the right parts, you can fix any problem you’ll ever have from the beast that lurks below.

    Rule twelve (and it’s subsequent comments is interesting) Having personally sailed a fair way on a 4 tonne yacht I look longingly at the 7-9 tonne vessels that have the room and space to properly store, access and work on kit. The only additional complexity my wife and I would probably adopt in our future vessel would be a fridge. For us a larger vessel would be easier to keep at sea given the same discipline we currently exercise. An example of this would be most of the high latitude charter yachts aka Pelagic.

    Keep up the good work..

    • John Oct 21, 2012, 8:06 am

      Hi Nelson,

      Great comment.

      I have to confess that I have never got that far into my engine. My reasoning has been (rule 28) that I was better off to have an expert who has done thousands of engine teardowns do it because he or she is less likely to leave a ticking time bomb behind them. I would still watch and learn though (rule 29).

      But that is only one view. The other side of the coin is that I would, as you say, be much more deliberate and careful than the professional to whom it is just another job and I would learn more by doing than watching.

      But, in fact I take this a step further. I don’t have engines rebuilt when they get to the point of needing it. I replace them (rule 28). My reason is that I have just seen too many small diesels that were rebuilt fail again and again afterward. But maybe if the owner had done it your way, that would not of happened.

      On balance I think I would still advise most voyagers to stay away from rebuilds, either professional or DIY.

      One reason being that in a remote place you are still going to need the professionals for things like fuel injection pump work or re-boring the block.

      Anyway, it’s an interesting one.

    • Charles Nov 27, 2012, 6:07 pm

      I like the way the Pardeys think about Rule 1 – If you can’t fix it and you can’t go without it, don’t have it on board.

      and I absolutely love Rule 37.

      Rule 4o-whatever we’re up to: No multiple-integrated systems! If one bit fails, so does the rest of it. Leave those on shore.

      • John Nov 27, 2012, 9:12 pm

        Hi Charles,

        Great rule 40. I could not agree more. For example we won’t have one of those integrated charger/inverter packages. Too much in one box. Instead we have three smaller chargers in parallel and a separate inverter. Backup, easier to fix, more flexible, easier to mount, and cheeper—what’s not to like.

  • Tassio Oct 22, 2012, 8:46 pm

    Nice list John! Got inspired by it!

    I copied and will keep it accessible as a reminder. But the # 1 and # 2 got pushed down. My document now starts….

    1. Try and persuade John and Phyllis to come take care of Netzah for us.

    2. If number one fails. Try and get John’s discipline to proceed with this list.


  • RDE Oct 22, 2012, 11:09 pm

    I never have understood the fear so many people have of seeing the inside of a little diesel engine like they find in their sailboat. Once you remove the injectors and fuel pump and have them tested/rebuilt/replaced by a specialty shop properly equipped to test them, the rest of the machinery is so basic that it is simply a matter of following directions, labeling parts as removed, and putting it back together.

    Out of perhaps 30 engine rebuilds, ranging from Ford tractors to v12 Ferrari’s and 1500hp Cats, the only problems I’ve ever encountered were when I failed to double check work performed by “professionals” on component parts. And an engine rebuild doesn’t take a huge machine shop or wall full of tools. I rebuilt a 1955 300SL Gullwing Mercedes engine from the bare block with a toolbox that I could carry in one hand plus a few measuring devices.

    • Victor Raymond Oct 23, 2012, 10:59 am

      Hello Richard,
      There are diesel and there are diesels. I have two ends of the spectrum. The Perkins is a nightmare of tubes, hoses, wires running from one side of the engine to the other.
      The Yanmar on the other hand is so simple to look at. You can almost figure it out without a manual. Of course the complexity lies within certain black boxes which you either have as spares or you don’t.
      I would love to know if today’s Perkins, that John has, is much better in that regard.

      • John Oct 25, 2012, 11:14 am

        Hi Victor,

        I’m not sure I would equate the neatness of an engine with reliability or serviceability.

        For example the port side of the Perkins M92B does have a lot of pipes on it that comprise the cooling system. But this surface mounting actually makes servicing the engine easier, not more difficult. Leaks are easy to trace too.

        In general, I have found the our new Perkins easier to service than our old Cummins (which is known as a good access engine). My experience with Yanmars in limited and 20 years old, so I can’t compare.

  • John Oct 25, 2012, 11:06 am

    Hi All,

    Sorry for the long silence, we have been on the road.

    Interesting discussion on the merits of rebuilding your own engine.

    Keeping in mind that this post is about running a reliable boat, which is, in my view, in large part about working efficiently. I think that I would add a rule 27 a: Know and play to your own strengths.

    For example, in my case I was never the guy that rebuilt or hotted up car and motorbike engines. Therefore, rebuilding an engine myself would be a first foray into such things at age 61—probably not efficient.

    On the other hand , I was into electronics and electrics from an early age and I have completely rewired two boats and do all my own electronics installations.

    Further, I think that setting the goal of being able to, and actually doing, every single thing on a boat yourself sets you up for never leaving the dock and actually going anywhere. That is unless your boat is very, very simple.

  • Kettlewell Nov 26, 2012, 3:31 pm

    I have to disagree on the bigger boat being more reliable, even when you have the exact same stuff (which is never the case). The smaller boat can often be made much stronger for its size than the big boat, while still maintaining a reasonable weight and cost. And, because there is less of everything it is easier and cheaper to maintain, so more likely to be done. Just for example, take two sloop rigs. You can double the rigging size on the small boat over the standard, and be way overkill on the strength, but still have a size that isn’t overly heavy, hard to handle, or expensive. Plus the loads on everything will be much smaller on the smaller boat. On the smaller boat you can have a hugely oversized anchor, and still be able to haul it up by hand or use a manual windlass which is much more reliable than an electric. In any case, it is a false argument, because the bigger boats always have more “stuff.” In any case, just looking at who is doing what out cruising the smaller and simpler the boat the less time they spend in port fixing stuff and the more time out there doing it.

    • John Nov 26, 2012, 6:24 pm

      Hi John,

      Good points. These things are never simple. On the other hand I really have found that bigger boat gear does tend to
      have more in common with commercial gear than that made for smaller boats and is therefore more reliable.

      Of course if you load your bigger boat up with a lot of stuff, like most people (but not us) do, my rule breaks down completely.

  • Dick Stevenson Mar 21, 2013, 4:04 am

    Dear John,
    Pertaining to your “40 Rules for a Reliable Sailboat”, I would contribute another as we embrace our “spring” chores: Do lots of cleaning, especially in obscure places. I find the vast majority of my “pre-symptom” problems cleaning. Cleaning is also good for the spirit as it allows day dreaming and thinking that is getting harder to come by in our “connected” world.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • John Mar 21, 2013, 8:55 am

      Yikes Dick, didn’t you know that too much cleaning leads to obsessive compulsive behaviour? I have enough trouble with that already. 🙂

      Just kidding, you are absolutely right. It’s amazing the number of potential problems we have found over the years while engaged in our annual bilge scrub out.

      • Marc Dacey Mar 21, 2013, 11:08 am

        I suppose a corollary to keeping things clean is to keep them accessible. One of the upsides of owning a custom boat is having no compunctions about sawing through a non-structural part of the interior to make an access hatch or other “points of egress” to a particular potential trouble spot, like the lowest part of the head hoses, or making the aft cockpit sole removable to get at the transmission or the stuffing box.

        Of course, this demands all sorts of planning and a deep knowledge of what is behind the trim. As fewer cars owners can do minor repairs in their driveways, I would suggest that fewer boat owners know where some of the wire runs, hoses and vent lines actually go in their boats.

        My experience of proposing such modifications of access is that owners of production boats are quite resistant to cutting holes in their “highly designed” vessels, even though it is newer, often “modular” designs that the most egregious cases of “burying” critical gear occurs.

  • Ray Durkee Apr 5, 2014, 11:51 am

    I have another rule that is probably a corollary to several: Unload your boat of most everything (tools, spares, stuff) every two years or at the conclusion of each major cruise and put back the stuff you consider essential. I have been surprised at the stuff I squirreled away that have little or no hope of ever being useful or are so hidden or poorly organized that I would never know it was there.

    • John Apr 5, 2014, 1:18 pm

      Hi Ray,

      That’s a really good idea. Having said that one of the criteria for a good cruising hull is that it should be able to carry a high load in relation to its displacement without severe impacting performance or comfort.

  • Bob Morris Oct 20, 2014, 11:25 am

    With many boat supplies (but obviously not all) if it can be sourced from other than a “marine” supplier it will probably cost a fraction of what the retail marine stores get.

    • Marc Dacey Oct 20, 2014, 3:51 pm

      Not everyone has the space or the need to do this, but you can save money by buying in bulk. I recently got 45 feet from a 50 ft. spool of 2 ga. wire for about 50% of the price I would have paid “per foot”, and I already know I’ll use it. Things like stainless steel clamps, heat shrink and various terminals and lugs are much more reasonable when bought in bulk (and perhaps subsequently traded with other forward-thinking boaters).

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