The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Tips For A Reliable Cruising Boat

The Best of AAC To Get YOU Out There

This is a completely rewritten version of an old article. Why this article?

Cruising boats have got ever more complicated at an ever faster pace in recent years, so it has become ever more difficult to stay focused on what really matters.

Articles like this can remind us (me too) that it’s not about lithium batteries or sexy electronics systems. It’s about doing the basic stuff right so we can actually go cruising.

It seems like almost every cruiser 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. If cars were as unreliable as cruising boats, we would have stuck with horses!

And much of that is beyond our control. But still, there’s a lot we can do to make our boats more reliable.

How can I say that?

Even though we have had a twisted mast, a defective engine, a mast damaged by a trucker, (all beyond our control) and half-a-hundred other things go wrong on our three boats named Morgan’s Cloud, in the last 24 years nothing has broken that has caused us to change our plans—touch wood.

And since we started cruising some 35 years ago, we have only had one such incident: a broken intermediate shroud necessitating replacement of all standing rigging.

Undoubtedly there has been an element of luck in this record.

But the maintenance rules that Phyllis and I have developed over many years of boat ownership have helped too. Here they are:

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Colin Speedie

No comments, so far? Unbelievable…..

For this article is a distillation of everything a would-be cruiser needs to know to go to the edge of the chart and do so in comfort, style and come home still friends. If you follow these hard won guidelines you won’t go wrong.

But it’s harder than you think. I’m becoming a dyed-in-the-wool Luddite as Lou and I chase the dream of a light and sweet cruising home (from home). But even after all the years skippering boats commercially (and nothing will put you off complexity as much as that, trust me) I still get tempted by cute kit. But I fight off the siren’s song and stick to the simple KISS principle, more so by the year.

So far, our very basic old boat has delivered us some of the best moments of our sailing career together and we’re ablaze to get going again this summer. And she will have less complexity, weight and maintenance requirement by the end of this season than at the beginning. Getting back to the pure basics of sailing has proved immensely rewarding – so far. Less time fixing = more time sailing and having fun. What’s not to like?

So, please read this piece again, print it off, and absorb the sheer volume of true sea wisdom that our combined centuries of knowledge (and that includes yours, dear readers – you know who you are) and just say no to gadgetry and complexity. Keep your sailing simple and you’ll spend half the time repairing the unrepairable and twice the time listening to the cry of the seabirds – you know it makes sense, really – don’t you?

Best wishes


Ernest E Vogelsinger

Thanks for your comment Colin – I inadvertently missed the republishing of this article, but your comment had my alarm bell ringing. Most of this is priceless advice.

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Well, the publishing notification came in a full day after the notifier mail on your comment 😉

Colin Speedie

Well, that’s complexity for you!

Mark Wilson

My comment inspired by painful experience: carry spares for every thing that has broken in the past.

Think back over all the sailing you have ever done and make a list of all the things that have ever disrupted your plans. If the same problem has tripped you up more than once carry a complete spare unit. That’s your particular bad luck item. For me it’s starter motors. Three times ! I now carry a spare motor and an extra solenoid. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that because your engine is new you’re safe. They maybe cause fewer problems but they will still try and ruin your day if you don’t keep a sharp eye on them.

Michael Lambert

This is such a good list. Speaking of lists, a maintenance schedule is high on my list of things to create, but it’s daunting. Is anyone aware of a boilerplate google spreadsheet I can build off of?

Dick Stevenson

Hi Michael,
I think this was posted before:
Alchemy’s maintenance log intro                                                                             Dec 2021
A maintenance log (ML), to my mind, should function as documentation of work done, as a tickler for work on the horizon, and as a place to write down work notes (such as the need to purchase more filters). I am a firm believer that if something is not written down: it does not exist. Another mantra: the older I get the less I like to think. This ML helps with both.
My ML is on paper and put together as a yearly “book” for the time Alchemy is commissioned. I have rejected computer recording for at least a few reasons, none compelling: so I guess it is mostly personal preference. One is that sitting down every few days or so and filling out the log on paper is just satisfying and glancing through the pages allows me to see what’s ahead. Second, like a Ship’s Log, I consider it a document that reflects the running of Alchemy. Also, any crew can access and see where things stand. Also, I trust paper. Lastly (and least important) surveyors who have seen the ML have said that it will boost sales price to see maintenance documented in this way. For me, having all maintenance chores in a few pages right in front of me facilitates my thinking and planning in a way that having the log on a computer would not do for me. I am no luddite, but I am of a certain generation.
Alchemy’s ML consists of two parts: those done on a regular basis (cleaning and lubing winches) and those done on an hourly usage basis (engine and genset and outboard). Those regular chores are listed based on whether done daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, annually, 2, 3, 5 and 10 years (renewal of some licenses) and prn (as needed: such as re-varnishing the cabin sole or sail replacement). There is space left for notes and a check space for the tasks completion. We then print out a year’s (or a season’s) pages and keep those pages with the hourly maintenance sheets in a binder.
This list is for a Valiant 42 which set up for live-aboard cruising and is moderately complicated for her size. Each skipper will need to adapt their list to their own boat: for example, I have no zinc on my propulsion engine and have a composting toilet.
Below are examples. I will post a full list when I have edited it some.
Daily: chk bilge and engine oil.
Weekly: chk raw water strainer
Monthly: chk propnane system for leaks
1/4ly: polish fuel (or prn)
Semi-annually: work all seacocks
Annually: strip & lube all winches
Bi -annually: end for end chain
5 years: chk/anti-seize all mast & boom fasteners
PRN (as needed and preferably before needed): rebuild head
Winter: remove all batteries from flashlights etc
Spring: put new impellor in engine
Listed of dated items: renewing licenses
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Jim Schulz

Thanks for reposting this John, it’s timely for me and I’m already in the middle of breaking rule #2 so want to keep the potential damage minimal.

I have a question about your thoughts on complexity and how it’s defined. You mention avoiding one piece of kit that does multiple things. As I’m refitting our electrical system I have specified a few items that could fall into that category, all made by Victron. Inverter/charger vs separate devices, Lynx Distributor vs separate negative and positive charge busses, Cerbo GX vs separate control panel for inverter, and probably a few more. Depending on how you define complexity these could create a more simple system ie fewer links in the chain, but would make the system less fault tolerant. For example if the Cerbo goes down we lose external control of the inverter although we still have the switch on the unit.

I’m probably overthinking as usual, but the question came to mind while reading so I want to throw it out there.

Thanks as well for linking to your post about apps to manage projects and costs. It reminded me that my project management has crept into too many app “buckets” and I need to rein it back in.

Steven Schapera

I have the same dilemma: inverter chargers are so sophisticated now, I’m not even sure I can find them as separate units!

Dick Stevenson

Hi Steven,
Mastervolt makes separate units. I have always had good luck with MV products.
One down side with (some) inverter/chargers is: when you are running a space heater for example on shore power and the charger is working as it usually is when plugged in. Now the shore power goes off line and the inverter part of your inverter/charger seamlessly (meaning no one notices) takes over. It will not take long before your batteries are way depleted, perhaps damaged.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Stein Varjord

Hi Dick,
I agree that this is a significant problem. I guess it could be alleviated by some sort of alarm on the shore power connection, but I don’t know how. I actively DON’T want the inverter to take part of the load if the shore power is overloaded. If I overload it, I want a slap in the face to wake up from my medicated landlubber behaviour.

We do run space heaters and the water boiler on shore power, in addition to the battery chargers. Otherwise everything is 24V (and a few things still 12V). The inverter is almost never turned on. Just don’t need it.

I think an inverter is only for the odd case when we need a power tool or such a short moment. Otherwise, everything we usually need while off the pier should run on DC. Inverters waste way more power than they claim, if we look at all elements in the chain.

David Eberhard

The joys of Victron. I love the stuff, will not use anything else. Why? My inverter/charger has survived being at and on the sea since 2009. It just refuses to die.

We have two Victron systems. The one at our off grid cabin in the woods has all the bells and whistles as you describe. It works just fine. Keep in mind though, it is very stable. No rocking, rolling, beating to weather. No salt water flying around. You get the idea.

The system on our sailboat consists of the inverter/charger, solar charge controller and a voltage/temp sensor. Tied to 4, 8-D AGM batteries. That’s it. It works flawlessly year after year. It also did not take much any time to figure out how to program it. It works as it should pretty much right out of the box.

We do keep it in charge only mode, all the time, so if the AC on the dock fails, it doesn’t go to inverter mode and discharge your batteries until the bank is dead. If we need AC, with no shore power, we just turn the inverter on. When done, we change it back to charge only.

Our spares consist of a spare charge controller and a 50 amp charger, without inverter, just in case the main inverter/charger fails. All Victron

Jim Schulz

Thanks for the example of your simple system David. I do really like the manual switch for charge only mode on the inverter/charger, to keep accidental discharges away.

You mention voltage/temp sensors in your system. As I review my plans to see what can be simplified, a lot of the complexity seems to come from temp/voltage/current sensors. These sensors give the benefit of some automated process control in the charging system – mainly the Wakespeed but also in the inverter/charger to a lesser extent I believe. The solar side sensors just provide monitoring.

A question I ask myself is how much sensing is worth it? It seems like for the Wakespeed the answer is to give what it asks for – battery temp, alternator temp, voltage, current – because the benefit outweighs the cost. The inverter charger seems less likely to cause problems since we have a lead acid system, but maybe temp sensing is still worth it? The solar side seems like it’s just monitoring something that is either there or isn’t and we don’t have much control over it either way, so it could be the first sensor to drop.

Tim Greenaway

Hi John
Something very basic-what labeller do you recommend(especially as I want to label the reefing line/halyard clutches which are exposed to weather). I’m in the UK