40 Tips For A Reliable Cruising Boat

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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 cruising boats, 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:

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Katman

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

s/v Grace
IP 45

Bruce Thomas

I am brand new to this forum. So I need to learn how it’s done.
This comment window is probably the wrong place to ask an off topic question. Is there a location on your site that I can ask an off topic question?

RDE

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

David Nutt

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

John,
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.
Victor

David Hayward

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.

Jerry Levy

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?

RobertB

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

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

Erik Snel

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.

Erik

E.T.

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

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.

Terje Moglestue

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

Dick Stevenson

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

Steve

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

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.

Michael Ransom

Happened to my wife when she was young and the men she was sailing back from Hawaii with dismissed her. I forget what part it was but the result was no engine for most of the remainder of the trip.

Paul

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

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.

paul shard

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 🙂

Matt Boney

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!

Dick Stevenson

John,
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

Marc Dacey

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

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

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!)

George Woodward

“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?
George

2.

RobertB

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.

Chris

41. “Budget twice as much.”

…funds, time, consoling beverages, bandages…

Simon

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

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

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,
Vince

Nelson

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..

Charles

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.

Tassio

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

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

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.

Kettlewell

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.

Dick Stevenson

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

Marc Dacey

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

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.

Bob Morris

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

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).

Blake

Anyone for adding a low numbered rule: Don’t allow a fire to get out of control.

Bill Coletti

John –

Always great content thank you. I looked on the site for a checklist to manage “#5. Be religious about scheduled maintenance.” Do you have a compilation of monthly, quarterly, annual maintenance plan / checklist? Thanks

John Gulliver

Thank you for this great list. I’m a relatively new member to this site and have found it to be both inspirational and informative. I cannot state that my dream of cutting ties to our shore based living to cruise the globe have been green lighted by “she that must be obeyed”, but I can say that the red light has been replaced with a blinking yellow one. Keep up the great work. I just might make it out there someday.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

A rather drastic rule that I found in LF Herreshoff’s « The Compleat Cruiser »: once a year, in fine warm weather, take everything out of the boat, put a fresh water hose in the boat and rinse every corner of the boat with fresh water, pump it out and allow everything to dry naturally.

This advice applies particularly to wooden boats, but it is good for all boats. Not only does it stop the constant build up of salt on everything, which means that nothing ever gets really dry and you get mildew at the drop of a hat, but it imposes discipline in two respects.

First, no build up of junk.
Second, every electrical component will withstand a knockdown, etc.

Denis Foster

Hello John,

We are in the process of organizing the replacement of the standing rig of our Hallberg Rassy 46 from 2003. It has approximately sailed only 10 000 miles mostly coastal with minimum offshore.

The rig is Ok at visual inspection by a rigger. Nevertheless since we plan with retirement to sail now more and further I think it is reasonable to change a 16 year old standing rig.

I have searched AAC for advice on this topic but can t find it precisely. Can you help me ? I would like to program this rig refit as well as possible including some improvements like switching wire to high modulus rope for our runningbackstays. Improving chase resistance…

The choice between monotoron to dyform pro.s and con.s ? What can be kept (turnbuckles?) and should be changed.

How to chose a competent rigger.

Unless my search was deficient it could be an on line book of AAC.

Thank s again for your great site.

Denis
Greatful AAC member

Michael Fournier

Have to say it. Your a bit of a curmudgeon. (That definitely comes from one himself) I understand completely where your coming from. As I’m very much the same in many ways but. We have electricity on modern boats keeping it reliable is as much about proper Nitial instalation, maintenance and proper monitoring as the manual operated items you/we deem as MORE reliable. Yes a manual winch is is reliable that is IF your arms are strong enough to operate it. If you’re on a boat with large sails and your NOT Arnold Schwarzenegger (Like my 60 year old 4ft 11 wife) a electric winch Maybe the ONLY way she can hope to control the forces of a large head sail sheet. (We down sized to a smaller boat with a cutter rig for that very reason) the truth is yes manually operated items work as long as YOU can turn them or inthe case of the toilet pump them. BUT once the loads become so large power greater then you’re strength are require manual is not a option. When that becomes the case of course depends on the physical capabilities of the crew. A racing crew of young Norwegian Vikings a 2 speed winch may do all the work needed. But two elderly sailers cruising in their retirement who want to be capable of single handing should something happen to ether of them may NEED powered winches. (My solution was to change boats to a smaller sail plan but that was trade off in space a 29foot boat is cramped compared to a 50ft boat with a private captains cabin. But the stay sail and jib are much easier to handle then a large single head sail. But not everyone is willing to give up living space.