You Need More Than Money

You can do it!

You can do it!

The late, great comedian Spike Milligan once declared, ‘How can we lose when we haven’t got a plan?’ I know what he meant. But without any kind of plan or knowledge you’re entirely at the mercy of whoever has your ear at the time, and this can prove disastrous if the person concerned doesn’t have your best interests at heart, or if you’re ill prepared to deal with the results.

In ordinary life this need not have serious consequences, but where offshore yachts are concerned it certainly can. A badly serviced engine can let you down at just the wrong moment, or a cheap sail can blow out 1000 miles from land, whilst the current insistence on having everything including the kitchen sink on board means that you need to have as many arms as Buddha to keep it all running.

In the good old days…

Given that the more recent generations of sailors often don’t have the innate skills that their forebears did, you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster. Most of us old timers grew up with ill-tempered, recalcitrant machinery that was basically sound if spoken to nicely and generally maintained. Simple and robust – good attributes at all times, especially where it matters.

We’d grown up in an era when you had to know how to fix things, either because you couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do so or because otherwise you weren’t going to reach your destination. It seemed like a pain in the neck at the time, but as a result most of us became adept at keeping old equipment going, and in doing so we served a very handy apprenticeship for future life, especially out on the water.

But in more recent times that hasn’t been as necessary, for a number of reasons. Greater affluence has meant that most youngsters are able to afford much newer boats/cars/motorcycles that, due to the wonders of technology, are inherently more reliable than the rattling junk we had. And as so much equipment today is ‘repair by replacement’ all that’s required if you have to fix something is simply change it out.

But one day you’re going to have to roll your sleeves up

Which is when so many owners begin to struggle. I don’t hold it against someone that they have never had to get covered in oil, as they can probably do many highly technical things that I can’t—such is modern life. But for anyone who plans to go long distance cruising, I’d suggest that it’s not a great idea to set off without any basic mechanical training. There are excellent diesel engine courses available that will teach you the general knowledge, including the simple diagnostics required for these basic but vital pieces of equipment. And get yourself one of Nigel Calder’s excellent books--an invaluable addition to the library of any yacht.

If your engine is out of warranty, then learn how to service it, and start to do future services yourself—it’s a great way to get to know your engine and its layout, plus it will help to build your confidence to tackle the inevitable bigger jobs. If your engine is in warranty, don’t touch it—leave it to the factory dealer, as the world abounds with stories of owners having warranty claims refused because some independent mechanic so much as stood near the engine.

Fine-tune your BS detector

My previous boat was equipped with a wonderful old Perkins 4.108, a noisy, leaky, reliable old lump that was easy to maintain and re-build—I once changed a headgasket in situ in a couple of hours, simply because I had to—a perfect engine for a boat that was worked as hard as ours was.

But one time it developed a leak from the timing case (common) and as I simply couldn’t attend to it due to other pressures, I asked the local engineer to send down one of his guys and fix it on our day off. When I returned the job hadn’t been done, and I went up to the office to ask why. The engineer appeared, and looking doleful said ‘it’s time for a new engine, mate’ or words to that effect. I’ll spare you the short, frank and colourful debate we had, but suffice to say his take was that it was only a matter of time before the engine self-destructed, so it would be better to replace rather than repair—just because of an oil leak! That was ten years ago, and that engine is still going strong.

And I’ve seen this again and again, where inexperienced (and often wealthy owners) have been taken for a ride by an unscrupulous business. Some of it astonishingly blatant too, such as the smoky but relatively new diesel I was asked to look at by a guy I met in a marina. He claimed that everything had been done that could be done, and showed me a sheaf of bills to back up his claim. I scanned through these and noticed not one but three invoices that referred to the injectors having been removed and tested, but when I looked at the engine the paint was unbroken on the injectors and their banjos – elementary, dear Watson, as Sherlock Holmes would have said.

Check the work

And don’t always assume that the work will be done as it should have been. I once picked up a yacht for delivery from the west coast of Scotland that had been out of the water for some time. I was assured that the engine was in good condition and had just been serviced, so with the usual tight schedule and a good forecast off we went.

We had a fresh breeze until nightfall, when it dropped light, so we started the engine. Not long afterwards, I noticed the smell of a hot engine, so I shut it down and opened the casing to be confronted with oil everywhere. The oil filter hadn’t been correctly tightened, and we’d been lucky to catch it before the oil ran out.

There followed one of those cheery nights of toil, letting it cool down enough to remove and re-seal the filter, searching for the non-existent spare oil, and then straining the old oil through two pairs of socks and separating it from the bilge water to let the engine be prepared for emergency use.

Ever since I’ve avoided servicing an engine out of the water unless there’s a really good supply of water to enable it to be run up for at least half an hour, to check for leaks and any persistent air locks in the fuel system. There are always plenty of engine failures as newly launched boats take to the water…

There are good guys out there

I know some truly excellent, dependable, honest tradesmen, and I’d use and recommend them without question. But I had to either find them myself, or through recommendation from people I know, trust and respect. If you’re new to an area, it can take quite a while to find out who’s who, and you may have to endure some unpleasant false starts along the way. You may be able to short circuit the quest by looking at recommendations on Noonsite or Active Captain, but I’d be very wary of any other source that uses unattributed accolades that might just have easily come from all too interested parties.

Don't be afraid

Don’t be afraid

So even if you aren’t mechanically gifted, or are filled with nerves over the thought of tackling your engine, don’t worry—it ain’t rocket science and with some basic training and a good manual to hand you’ll soon be good to go.

Look at it as an investment in your long term cruising plans, as sooner or later you’re going to have to tackle a job in some far away place in any case, and the better prepared you are, the more likely the outcome will be a positive one. One day you’ll be amazed at what you can repair, and you’ll feel the warm glow of satisfaction at your achievement.

Out on the ocean you still need those old, often ignored skills—don’t leave them out of your planning.

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Meet the Author


Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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21 comments … add one
  • Tim Jul 17, 2014, 9:35 am

    I’m fairly handy with engines but also not one to ignore a suggestion of Colin either! Nigel’s booked ordered.

    • Colin Speedie Jul 18, 2014, 4:00 am

      Hi Tim

      I’m sure you’ll find Nigel’s book a real benefit – no matter how handy you are. I do!

      Best wishes


      • Marc Dacey Jul 20, 2014, 4:21 pm

        When I got into sailing late (38 years old and in 1999), my ignorance of all things mechanical was a costly embarrassment to me. I fried my original Atomic 4 by forgetting to open the raw water seacock. I got a rebuilt block and found water in the valves and assumed I had a hole in the passages (it turned out to be a corroded out Onan waterlift). I rebuilt a third Atomic 4 myself that has been running tickety-boo since 2006. Now I replace head gaskets, do tune ups, adjust the planetary gear, etc. Slowly, and late, I have become handy. I’m shortly going to hit the start button on our other boat’s diesel, an upgrade that involved building an engine gantry, new welded stringers, new prop, new shaft, Aquadrive, Centek lift, everything. I am much more comfortable doing the work these days, because we will eventually be far beyond help…even the help that aren’t theiving incompentents who exploit the ignorance of wrench-wary boaters.

        So I agree with your sentiments here, Colin. I really had no choice but to learn, but the upside is I discovered a bit of a knack in employing the logic of maintenance and repair. So far! I would add that the Calders of the world are not unapproachable: I recently had an email exchange with American boat-repair writer Dave Gerr, in one of whose books I saw something called the “North Sea Transverse Exhaust” which is appropriate and desirable for my boat. He was generous with his time and advice. This has been my experience with most “name-brand experts”…including at this site. Which is a cheery thought, I think. And yes, don’t cast off lines without good, slightly oil-stained reference works. Sailing is great, but few things beat the satisfaction of emerging from an engine bay and having the damn thing start properly!

  • Dick Stevenson Jul 18, 2014, 3:45 am

    Dear Colin,
    Another nice article and very pertinent about the state of the boating community.
    I would wish to underline your comment about how it is hard, not impossible, but hard to find good competent engineers, mechanics and electricians, let alone more specific specialists like refrigeration etc. Although I have not owned a car in a while, I do not believe that autos suffer in the same way. When work is done on Alchemy, I want to be there, first to see it done the way I wish and, secondarily, because I generally learn something. If you must have work done when not on board, I would very much urge a thorough shake down of the worked on areas till confident of its functioning.
    Speaking of learning, as someone who grew up in an environment generally devoid of tools or of any ethic of fixing things, I have endured the myriad of mistakes of the self-taught. Those times when someone has allowed me to look over their shoulder when they do a project have been quite special. I would urge those who have knowledge and skills to keep an eye out for those in the anchorage or at the marina who are curious and ambitious, but maybe a bit experience shy. When you see someone like that and you are looking to strip a winch or do a valve lash, you might see if s/he is interested. I know I still jump at the chance to get involved in someone else’s project/repair. I figure, if it has not happened to me yet, it is only a matter of time.
    One of the up-sides of some of the crowded Bahamas anchorages in our first year out, was the morning net when there was a chance to ask for help. I often had little to offer, but “tagged along” on other’s repairs, learned a lot and met some great people.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • Colin Speedie Jul 18, 2014, 4:03 am

      Hi Dick

      all good points, and your idea to go and observe work being done is a really good one. Many people like a spare pair of hands, too, or another mind to knock ideas around with.

      In fact anything that you can do to short circuit the learning experience is good, and builds confidence in your own abilities. Thanks for making such a valuable point.

      Best wishes


    • Niels Jul 18, 2014, 9:46 am

      And you’re repaying that these days with your practical and useful advice on the Valiant Owners Group site. Many Thanks.

    • Eric Klem Jul 18, 2014, 1:27 pm

      Hi Dick,

      You make an interesting point about learning from others. I feel comfortable enough that I will tackle most things that don’t require really specialized tools but I do spend a lot of time on youtube if I get to something that I am unsure of and don’t own the service manual for. When friends ask me about learning to work on engines, I always advise them to get a chainsaw with a scored cylinder for cheap and then rebuild it which can you do all for under $150. It seems to give them enough confidence to move into larger repairs but with very low consequences if they mess something up like putting a conn rod cap on backwards. I suppose that cruisers could just do this with an old outboard instead.

      Colin, thanks for the good article. I know of at least one engineering school that recently had to institute a mandatory first year lab to teach how to use basic hand tools because people were coming in without exposure to them.


  • Jeff Bander Jul 18, 2014, 10:12 am

    I feel like this article was written for me. An ailing boat sent me on a search for knowledge. I’m still not a skillful mechanic but I’ve become a pretty good customer. I understand enough theory to have insights into what’s happening or what’s about to happen. Experience has also caused me to create a truism: “after the yard has done any work onboard I consider the boat guilty until proven innocent”. This approach has proven invaluable.

    • Colin Speedie Jul 18, 2014, 5:06 pm

      Hi Jeff

      good point to check all work thoroughly before straying too far. Everybody seems to be in a hurry to finish work these days rather than take their time and do things carefully and thoroughly. Whilst this may, on the face of it, save money in the short term, my bet is that in the long term paying a little more to have the job done right is money well spent.

      Best wishes


  • Ted Tripp Jul 18, 2014, 10:27 am

    Colin, Buddha only has two arms, just like you and me, as he was a real person. There are other deities, Hindu and Buddhist, with lots of arms you may appeal to in times of need, but not Shakyamuni!

    • Colin Speedie Jul 18, 2014, 5:07 pm

      Hi Ted

      then I humbly beg his pardon!

      Best wishes


  • Paul Kelly Jul 18, 2014, 3:00 pm

    Very useful article, Colin. I have a 29 foot Beneteau with an 18hp Volvo Penta 2002 – age unknown. I am anything but mechanically minded. Last year the starter motor packed up. It was a devil of a job to get it unbolted from the engine – first time in 25 years I reckon – but I did it, got it repaired and re-fitted it. This year I had a problem with the water pump. Same thing. Got it off, thought I had solved the problem. But the new impeller was destroyed, so got it off again and took it to an engineer who shaved a bit off the shaft for next to nothing. What I have learnt from this is not engineering, but patience and determination! My engine is running very nicely…until the next time!

    • Colin Speedie Jul 18, 2014, 5:11 pm

      Hi Paul

      good for you for having a go. As with all success stories, it’s 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, and the next time you won’t be afraid to roll your sleeves up.

      I have a practice of buying any specialist tool rather than bring a mechanic if I can. That way, although I’ve spent some cash, I do have the tool for the future.

      But equally if IO’m stumped, or stuck for time, I’ll find the best mechanic I can.

      Best wishes


      • Marc Dacey Jul 20, 2014, 4:25 pm

        Trust me, Colin, if you are the only guy in the island group with a prop-puller, you’ll be drinking the best rum around that night! If in the presence of mechanical aid, however, I suggest “walking up the hill, away from the docks, until you find the guy who fixes the truck version of what you’ve broken”.

  • FAIVET Jul 18, 2014, 5:08 pm

    Un proverbe francais dit : On est jamais mieux servi que par soi meme, c est particulierement vrai pour la navigation de plaisance a fortiori celle au long cours comme decrit dans les articles ou il faut parfois souvent se debrouiller avec les moyens du bord

  • Colin Speedie Jul 18, 2014, 5:16 pm

    C’est absolument le cas – et c’est aussi bon pour la confiance et le morale de toute l’équipe, si le patron est capable de faire les reparations de n’importe quel projet, soit le moteur ou l’électronique.

    En plus, c’est amusant – de temps en temps….



  • ChrisW Jul 18, 2014, 7:10 pm

    I grew up in an environment (my father was an engineer, aircraft mechanic and child of The Depression) of if you broke it you fixed it. If it broke you fixed it. If someone else broke it you fixed it. As a consequence, I took a lot of trades courses in high school to the horror of my guidance counselors who had their eyes on something more, well, genteel. I will never forget those shop teachers. Between them and my father I didn’t learn to fix much of anything — I learned the confidence to tackle the job.

    Colin, I felt as if you were gazing down on my life from above… And with all the years and miles of broken stuff fixed (or deemed excess to need), I still get out the book when amps are involved.

    • Colin Speedie Jul 19, 2014, 4:48 am

      Hi Chris

      I think we’re looking in the same mirror, the only difference being I never got to take any courses, hence my learning curve was much more prolonged. However, ‘on the job’ training has its merits, too, and I’ve reaped the benefits ever since.

      Amps I struggle with, too. I can wire anything, troubleshoot effectively and I understand the basic principles, but there’s something about the magic of electrickery that undermines my confidence. I wish I was more adept with a multimeter, for example – maybe it’s time to take a course…

      Best wishes


  • Richard William Lord Jul 19, 2014, 6:43 pm

    Maybe another option to fulfill our “quest for knowledge” and independence / self-reliance, is checking out The United States Power Squadron..

    They offer an impressive array of evening classes concerning “everything nautical”.. From “Outboard Engine Maintainence and Repair”, to “Diesel Engine Maintainence and Repair”, “Communications” (i.e.: VHF, SSB, Ham Radio, etc.), “Electrical Wiring”, to near and offshore “Piloting”, “Celestial Navigation”, etc., etc..

    Wisdom is Power—–and all of the “Power Squadron Members” are really eager to share their knowledge.. The classes they offer are really informative,—especially for the price it’s offered at.. And the really cool thing about them is, pay for the class once (even if your not a member) and you can take the class over, and over and over again—–at no cost..!!

    Can’t beat that in my book (I live for “do-overs”..!!)

    Richard William Lord..

  • Matt Jul 21, 2014, 8:53 am

    Thanks for posting this, Colin…. I am always a little amazed at the increasingly tiny percentage of people who know how to check belt tension and oil level, let alone fix those things.

    I’ve noticed that with increasing computerization of engines, a lot of the old troubleshooting techniques are no longer enough. I have come across a few cases recently (including one on the water last month that we ended up towing home) where a relatively new motor wouldn’t start, despite everything being in apparently good running order according to every ‘old school’ test I could perform with the tools at hand, and there was nothing more I could do without a diagnostic computer to jack into the ECU.

    So, I am now starting to think that the electronic troubleshooting tools for your engine, and the training to make sense of them, may be required equipment if you’re going beyond reach of help.

    • Marc Dacey Jul 21, 2014, 9:36 am

      Matt, that is one of the reasons I selected a fairly unsophisticated, naturally aspirated engine, sans the electronics, for our refit. It’s also why I am leery of navigational integration, preferring instead discrete instrumentation that doesn’t leave me without “inputs” should something fail to light up.

      Let’s face it, it is a big challenge even for a “handy” person to get off the dock and go cruising these days; the “conveniences” of managing finances and property, which are usually paying for the “lifestyle”, can add levels of complexity, which defeats the purpose of getting sailing to distant shores in the first place. If I had to “train” for every contingency technology can offer to make my sailing life easier, I would run out of life itself. I prefer to have a smaller number of basic skills, and perhaps a simpler, less cushy boat in which to exercise them. Of course, I’m trying to do eight things at the moment, including contrasting and comparing watermakers and alternators and regulators, oh, my, and this might be the source of some crankiness.

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