Familiarity Breeds Competence and Speed


While we were on holiday (vacation) we stopped by to check on Morgan’s Cloud all tucked up in a shed at Billings Diesel and Marine and discovered that her steering was seized solid because the new type of dripless packing that we tried out for the first time had dried out and frozen to the aluminum rudder shaft.

Note to self: when you have been using a packing material (ordinary flax) for years without problems, it’s not broken so don’t fix it! But that’s not the point of this post.

To get a puller on the stuffing box gland we needed to remove the autopilot ram, steering cables, quadrant, top bearing, and top half of the rudder shaft (it’s in two parts threaded together so that the rudder can be removed without digging a hole under the boat half way to China).

What a pain in the neck. But Phyllis and I have had the rudder off the boat at least five times over the 22 years we have owned her, so we knew exactly what tools to lay out next to the lazaret hatch and the steps to take.

Two hours after finding the problem, we had everything disassembled. I was a little disappointed in myself in that out of the eight or so different wrench (spanner) and socket sizes I asked Phyllis to pass me I got one wrong. I’m being facetious…my point is how smoothly it all went.

Now imagine that the boat was new to us, or that we, like many owners, had never taken the rudder off, or that we paid others to do these kinds of tasks for us. How long would it have taken then?

The Tools

Would we have had the 1-1/8” and 1-1/16” long handled wrenches that it takes to remove the bolt holding the ram to the quadrant? Or the deep reach 7/16” socket with extension it takes to remove the top bearing? Would we have been able to quickly lay out every tool we needed within reach?

The Knowledge

Would we have known that the rudder shaft is in two parts threaded together with the joint hidden by the quadrant? Or the exact sequence of bolt removal, that takes two people, that makes the top bearing easy to remove without dropping half the parts?

The First Time

I have a vague memory off the first time I took the rudder off the boat some 20 years ago to check the bearings. I remember multiple trips to the hardware store to buy tools. I remember arranging with the boat yard to lift the boat high before I discovered the two part shaft—thank you John Merrick, builder of Morgan’s Cloud.

I remember my confusion, despite copious notes, about how the steering cables ran. I remember not understanding that the top bearing must be accurately shimmed to allow for wear, a mistake that meant I had to take it all apart again…twice, before getting it right.

Now imagine that we had been in some remote part of the world with the steering down. Imagine that there was no local source for those two large long-handled wrenches that it takes to remove the ram. Imagine that we were anchored in an open bay with bad weather coming. It’s not a pretty picture.

Familiarity is Great

Sometimes we think about changing boats. Maybe a smaller sailboat, or even some kind of efficient expedition motor boat. And maybe we will, some day. But I have to say that the reasons to make such a change would have to be awfully compelling to outweigh the safety and convenience conferred by having disassembled just about every part of Morgan’s Cloud over the years.

And if we ever do make a change, we will budget at least two years of cruising in well-equipped and familiar places, interspersed with plenty of maintenance time to pull things apart, before striking out for anywhere remote.

We suggest you do the same with any boat that is new to you. You will be glad you did.

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Eric Klem

Well said John and one of the best reasons to do your own work when possible. And I think that your opening picture also gives away another thing that allows you to fix these things, the fact that you are organized. I have often been frustrated by being aboard a boat where the tools and spares are a mess which turn jobs that should be a few minutes into hours of looking for a missing tool.

Hopefully you never run into this problem again.


Marc Dacey

It’s posts like this from people I consider to be exponentially more experienced than ourselves that convince me that “boat restoration the hard way” is, in fact, the easy way when you consider decades of ownership.

While I certainly wish we had more shop time and tool time in our back pockets, learning from a very basic level a number of “trades” has given my wife and I confidence that we can fix most anything…and few illusions that things won’t need fixing.

Marc Dacey

Hmm…the “edit post” feature seems to be off.

I would add that organization and tidiness are essential, even up to the stage of keeping detailed logs.diagrams and a hot labelmaker. This is not only because you may need to find a critical tool in darkness in a Force 9 sea, but because if you are constantly emptying boxes because you can’t recall where you put Gadget X, its little brothers and sisters are likely to end up as saloon projectiles.


Nice timing John

In Halifax, Kathy and I discovered Halcyons steering was stiff. We pulled the rams and cables. Looks like we’re into the rudder next. This will be our second time in 4 years messing with the rudder packing. The first time, a boatyard in Annapolis did it. Reading this post, I’m thinking, I should not sub it out. I realy should know it. Knowing it front and back would be very helpful when trying to figure it out offshore. Before leaving Bermuda three weeks earlier, we greased the bearings with a grease we bought in Bermuda. I can’t help but wonder about the grease and what do I know about grease? Gease + Salt? / Gease + other Greases?


What I want to know is where do you get the nice plastic toolboxes with slide-out drawers? They look like heavy-duty pieces of kit.


Hi John,
Thanks for that article! It has excellent timing! As new first time boat owners, my husband and I are often disheartened and frustrated by the enormity of everything we need to learn and do. We have made, and will continue to make, many mistakes. Every job takes about four times as long as we budget for it, generally takes two people and we inevitably don’t have the equipment for it. It’s nice to know it gets easier!

David Nutt

Great article. Judy and I do all the work on Danza and it is for that reason alone we are able to own her and keep her going. I see the time when my children may take her over so as I do these maintenance projects now I write a detailed step by step manual so they do not have to go all the way back to the beginning.
Mid August we will haul her and truck her to my shop and do an AwlGrip job on her topsides. Moving a 60 foot 26 ton boat 15 miles over the road is pennies on the dollar compared to having a yard do the AwlGrip job and no doubt I will get to write another manual in her maintenance book.

Matt Marsh

One thing we used to do on the solar car team (and that I try to do now) was to sort tools and parts by task, rather than by type.

For example, we had a “brake box” that included spares of every coupler and bolt in the hydraulic brake system, extra fluid and hose, and the correct wrenches, screwdrivers, etc. for those components.

Likewise for the “motor box” which would have the puller and spacers for the high-field permanent magnets, wrenches to fit the axle nuts and motor housing bolts, cleaners that were compatible with the plastic on the main windings, etc.

You end up with quite a few duplicate tools this way, and it takes a while to put the kits together (you have to enumerate every tool and common spare part needed for every key system) but it makes emergency repairs so much easier.

Marc Dacey

I have plastic fishing tackle boxes marked “SAIL REPAIR”, “PLUMBING BITS” and “SOLDER/ELECTRICAL” for the same reason, along with a larger “HYDRAULICS” box. I label each drawer in my lockable tool boxes and group as per function: tools that grip, tools that fasten, tools that cut/crimp/strip.

As for duplicates, try owning two sailboats and an old house (yes, I know, “white people’s problems”). I have a small toolkit for the Lake Ontario boat (and yet with tools only used with the Atomic 4), a medium-sized kit for the house (although there are lots of ladders and power tools) and the largest kit for the steel boat, along with the largest selection of wire, crimp connectors and weird, single-use tools, like a prop puller.

I am seriously considering making a “sign-out log” so I know when I’ve taken one tool to one of the other “work spaces”, so I don’t find myself having to buy a cheap replacement when I can’t remember where I’ve left the good tool….

Roger Harris

That’s a real time-saver, which I imagine would indeed work very well in a road race setting where you are accompanied by a dedicated support vehicle or similar.

I’m not sure that it is very practical for boating, though. There are probably more different breakages that can occur over the course of an extended voyage than can reasonably be anticipated and provided for in separate kits (as Captain Ron says, “If anything’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen out there”). If a scenario crops up that falls outside one of the pre-constructed kits, you’d need to scramble around between them gathering the tools you need to deal with it, which would cost more time rather than less.

More to the point, space and weight-carrying abilities on a small boat are both limited. While duplication (= redundancy) is generally welcome, it should be very carefully thought out and ‘rationed’.

Thinking out the tools and parts required for various tasks is a worthwhile exercise, but personally I limit this to preparing reference lists (‘cheat sheets’) rather than individual kits (boxes of physical stuff).


La boite a outils est indispensable et devrait être fournie avec l’ achat d un bateau neuf comme notre HANSE 400 ( humour) car nous sommes tombés en pannes 4 fois de suite
1ere fois : pilote bloqué ( j’ ai désaccouplé la rotule, outils pince croco et cle fa molette suffisent)
3 fois de suite réservoir obstrue ( d origine)
Outils clefs a mollette, pinces, tenailles, clefs plates
l on peut by passer le réservoir par un jerrycan plastique et le connecter en direct au pré filtre, pour nettoyer le réservoir sur les HANSES il faut rajouter une ou plusieurs trappes de visites ( découper le réservoir a la scie) et supprimer le gicleur placé dans la canne d aspiration ce qui est mécaniquement une aberration
En conclusion une bonne boite a outils est indispensable c’ est pourquoi j adhère totalement a cet article

Dave DeWolfe


Nice post. And little things sure count with respect to emergency repairs.

One thing that I have done is to put red paint on the correct spanner for the engine bleed screw, and paint the screw itself red (green engine) . No more fumbling. I also have a list detailing a maintenance or repair and the necessary tools to do it. – e.g. to change the joker valve in the head I need spanner x and spanner y.