Cruising Boat Checklists

I’m a huge believer in checklists. We have used a pre-departure checklist on Morgan’s Cloud for decades—a yellowed and dog-eared copy sits on my desk as I write.

However, I have never published it because it assumes, like most of the checklists I have seen from other yachties, that the reader has substantial offshore experience on that particular boat—think tens of thousands of offshore miles—and so is far too cryptic.

For example, Phyllis and I knew exactly what steps, and the tools to perform them, were required before we could tick off “bosun’s chair rig inspection” on our McCurdy and Rhodes 56, but putting that on a list for others is near useless—different boats, different levels of experience, different cruising goals.

So every time I thought of taking on the task of producing a checklist that will actually be useful to others, I recoiled from the level of detail required to do it right.

Now I’m Ready

The good news is that all of this procrastination (think years) has given me a lot of time to think about what a really useful checklist will look like and so I’m finally ready to take this on.

Manageable Pieces

To keep the project manageable, I’m going to do this in separate articles in a series, one for each major area. This has the added advantage that, for example, motorboat owners can just skip the rig checklist.

Refit Resource

As well as being useful for those out there cruising, these checklists will be a great resource for the majority of us who can’t afford new boats and therefore must refit old boats to get out there.

This won’t be just theory since Phyllis and I are now deep into my fourth older boat refit.

And, yes, I still believe we can get out there for US$100,000 or even $30,000, at least if we work hard and smart.

To that end, these checklists will be part of working smart and saving money since it’s generally less expensive if we catch a problem early.

Self-Survey Resource

Wait, it gets better. These checklists will also be a great resource to use when checking out a boat we want to buy, prior to hiring a surveyor.

Not only will this save us from paying for a bunch of surveys on boats that then fail, with lists in hand we will be able to do a better job as well-informed and diligent owners than many (maybe most) surveyors.


All that said, it’s important to be clear that just printing out checklists and ticking them off will not, in and of itself, make us safer or reduce the chances of gear failure.

To understand why, let’s compare our situation to airline pilots who:

  • Have hundreds of hours of rigorously-regulated training.
  • Fly as co-pilot for many thousands more, including every possible manoeuvre required to operate the aircraft, before taking command.
  • Are rigorously trained and certified on each aircraft they fly.
  • Receive regular refresher training.
  • Have access to detailed manuals explaining every detail of how the planes they fly should be operated.

The point being that having a checklist and using it is only a tiny part of being a competent pilot, and the same applies to us cruisers, inshore or offshore.

Accompanying Articles

So rather than just lists, we will be publishing a series of articles, as well as linking to relevant ones in our archive, to provide a maintenance manual to go along with the lists.

It’s About Being Observant

And while thinking about the pilot metaphor, another thing to think about is that pilots run their checklists using scores (hundreds in some cases) of instruments that monitor the health of the plane and read out on a gauge or screen.

But the health of our boats is not anywhere near as well measured, so when we run through our checklists we need to totally focus our attention and be on the lookout for even the slightest detail that has changed, or just doesn’t look right, regardless of whether or not it’s on the checklist.

Thus, I think a better analogy for us than a pilot running a cockpit checklist is the same pilot doing a preflight walk around, or an expert mechanic crawling through an air frame looking for anything that doesn’t look right.

For example, we might have “check roller furler for free rotation” on our checklist, but if we are really observant and not just fixated on the list, we will also notice the elongated hole in the toggle below the drum.

Easy to see on the photo of the furler on our new-to-us J/109 at the top of this article, but much harder to catch when installed—our surveyor missed it.

Think About Implications

Following on from the above, we could, for example, just replace the toggle in the shot above and go sailing while patting ourselves on the back.

But a truly diligent boat owner will think further:

  1. What could cause that much wear on a comparatively low-mileage boat?
  2. What else might be damaged by the same cause and therefore should be checked or replaced?

And will, at that point, dig deeply into other things that are probably not on the checklist.

To assist in this process I will share things we have learned over the years about following those chains of potential failure points.

We Have To Prioritize

On the other hand, it’s great to write that we need to follow every detail that doesn’t look right to its cause. But in the real world, where every cruising boat owner is constantly faced with far more maintenance tasks than we can ever accomplish in the time allotted, aiming for perfection will mean we never go anywhere. We have all seen those “perfect boats”…the ones tied up at the marina for years on end.

To actually get out there cruising we need to be realistic about what’s mission critical. Think stuff that affects my big five:

  • Keep the water out.
  • Keep the crew on the boat.
  • Keep the keel side down.
  • Keep the mast up.
  • Keep the rudder on.

So in these articles and associated lists I will again stick my neck out by suggesting maintenance items that can be reasonably safely deferred to a time when we are not overwhelmed by all the things that must be done before departing on a cruise.

By the way, if we don’t feel overwhelmed by details before leaving for a cruise, we probably don’t understand boats and cruising.

Replacement Intervals

To make these checklists even more useful, I’m going to stick my neck out even further and make recommendations for gear replacement intervals.

Obviously these are all just my opinion, but an opinion based on a lot of experience, as well as input from talking to many other long-distance voyagers over the years and 19 years of running AAC while being exposed to huge amounts of wisdom from the comments.

That’s probably the best we can hope for given that actually bringing definitive science to replacement intervals would, I’m thinking, require a budget that would make NASA blush—think fully instrumenting a bunch of boats to measure load cycles and then data gathering for decades.

Yup, I’m covering my ass here, but at least I’m also tackling a difficult subject rather than totally copping out with “consult your rigger” or some such.

There Will Be Oversights

Despite 60 years of continuous boat ownership (yup, I started at age 10), and over 150,000 miles of offshore experience over 50 years, I can’t guarantee I won’t forget a vital item on one of these checklists.

But the good news is:

  • First, Phyllis will, while editing each list, use her tens-of-thousands of offshore miles of experience to fill in some of my oversights. And not only is she an experienced offshore sailor, she is also a detail freak who loves lists—I call her (lovingly) the list terrorist.
  • Second, a bunch of very smart and experienced members with millions of miles of cruising between them will fill in remaining oversights in the comments.
  • Third, members who are new to voyaging will question items that don’t make sense to a beginner’s mind—at least as valuable as input from the experienced.

Given that team effort, I’m confident that we will end up with the best set of voyaging checklists ever.

A Shortcut To Boat Reliability

One more thought before we dive deep into the details.

While I wrote above that checklists alone won’t be a shortcut to reliability, they will be if used in conjunction with the linked articles.

That said, I’m not going to kid you, the level of focus on the details and diligence suggested by this series will, at least at times, seem so overwhelming that I wouldn’t blame anyone who gives up halfway through and then goes and watches fun YouTube videos about cruising.

But trust me, although those videos tend to gloss over gear failures or even imply that it’s all part of the fun of cruising, a gear failure while cruising is anything but fun—I have had enough to know!

Conversely, there are few things more fun and satisfying than completing a voyage with no failures, or at least any that force us to change our plans (there will always be small stuff that goes wrong).

I know this because about 20 years ago Phyllis and I started regularly achieving that goal, so that we could really enjoy the amazing places we visited and the process of getting there, rather than suffering through that age-old aphorism: cruising is working on your boat in exotic places.

It took us decades of hard experience to get to this point, but these checklists and articles, if used diligently, will let you bypass a lot, maybe even most, of our pain.

Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man [sic] learns from the mistakes of others.

Otto von Bismarck


If you have any suggestions to make these checklist articles better, please leave a comment.

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