The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Tips, Tricks & Thoughts:


  • Great Headlamp

    I’m a huge believer in always having good light when working on our boat, so I wear a headlamp pretty much from the time I start a job below to when I knock off.

    And not one of those wimpy little things with a couple of AAA cells in them for me, I want a seriously bright light that floods a wide area.

    For probably 20 years I used a Fenix HP10 LED headlamp driven by four AA rechargeable Ni–MH batteries. And even with that battery capacity I would usually end up changing the batteries out halfway through the day.

    Over the last few years I have tried one or two lithium battery headlamps but always found them wanting:

    • Too complicated with a bunch of features I didn’t need, necessitating many button presses to get to the bright white I use all the time.
    • Poor battery life.
    • Difficult to source funky batteries that required special chargers.

    But last winter, when one of my trusty old HP10s bit the big one, I got serious about finding a lithium replacement.

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  • Under-Torquing Is Dangerous, Too

    Seems like it’s torque week here at AAC; actually, it’s torque month since we have a fascinating two-part series coming from Eric on understanding torque as it relates to engines and transmissions.

    Anyway, in the last tip I mentioned the dangers of over-torquing: wring off a fastening or weaken it so it fails later under load.

    But here’s something that I only relatively recently really wrapped my aging brain around: the danger of under-torquing fastenings, other than the obvious one of them coming loose.

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  • Why We Need a Torque Screwdriver

    Stainless steel is not as strong as it looks. For example, the recommended torque on a 10-24 (~5mm) 316 SS machine screw is just 23.8 inch-pounds (2.68 newton-metres).

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  • Tap Adapters

    While we are on the subject of tap wrenches, here’s another cool way to drive a tap: tap adapters.

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  • Versatile Tap Wrench

    I’m always on the lookout for tools that will work well on a boat without taking up too much room or adding too much weight.

    At first glance this looks like any other tap wrench, but look closer and we find:

    • Two chucks nested—no it’s not tapered as claimed in the listing— one behind the other, which allows it to securely grip any tap shank from 1/8″ to 1/2″ (3 to 13 mm). Normally we need two, or maybe three, tap wrenches to cover that range.
    • The handle can be slipped back and forth for use in tight spots. And, better yet, there’s a detent each end.
    • The top is a hex head to accept a wrench in a really tight corner.

    The build quality seems OK and the price is surprisingly reasonable. I got mine at Canadian Tire for, would you believe it, CAD$ 9.99.

    The only thing I can find fault with is that it’s a bit bulky to get into really tight corners, but I already have that problem covered off…and that will be the next tool-tip.

    This may be a Canada-only tip since Maximum tools are a Canadian Tire store brand, but rumour has it that most of their tools are relabeled Gearwrench, so that might be a source…

    Or you can come and visit our beautiful country and pick one up.

    Lot’s more on maintenance:

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  • Four Winter Layup Tools

    I don’t think any boat owner would argue with the statement:

    Moisture is the enemy of boat reliability and gear longevity.

    And that goes double when the boat is laid up over the winter.

    The above photo shows four useful tools in the battle against damp. Starting from the left:

    Davis Air-Dryr 1000

    Davis call this a “dehumidifier”, which is stretching the meaning of that word to breaking point. In fact, it’s just a small enclosed heating element.

    Nonetheless, we have used these for years and find they make a real difference, but without any moving parts or the need to keep the temperature above about ~7C, which is required for a real dehumidifier to work.

    We have three of these on the J/109: aft cabin, salon and head. We used the same three on the McCurdy and Rhodes 56 with good results, so three seems optimal even for bigger boats.

    Ceramic Heater

    Great to take the edge off when working on the boat on cold days. We don’t leave it on unattended.


    We run this hard for several days in the fall, before it gets cold, to really dry the boat out. Makes a big difference. The one in the photo is overkill for the J/109, but sure does get her dried out!

    Wet/Dry Vacuum

    After the boat is all put away and winterized, we vacuum all the water and spilled antifreeze out of the bilges so it’s dusty dry. Makes a huge difference to how dry the boat stays over the winter.

    Heated Storage Not Required

    Our J/109 has been in heated storage the last three winters, but only because our boatyard converted all their buildings to heated. Sure, it’s nice, but expensive.

    For years before that we laid up the McCurdy and Rhodes 56 in unheated buildings here in Nova Scotia, and in Maine before that, and even so, the above four tools kept her nice and dry.

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  • Great Core Removal Drill Bits

    I think pretty much everyone knows that when installing new fittings on a cored boat we should first remove the core before filling the void with thickened epoxy and then re-drilling for the fastener(s).

    There are a bunch of different ways to do this, but the set of Alfa Tools Forstner bits I just bought myself, while far from inexpensive, are the quickest, neatest, and generally best way I have found to make a suitable hole in the outer skin, and remove most of the core, without penetrating the inner skin.

    Way better and more controllable than a hole saw.

    Highly recommended.

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  • Wire Routing Hack

    I have been running a bunch of new cables up to the instrument pod on our new-to-us J/109 while installing a better on-deck navigation system, including radar.

    The cables run through the head under some trim in a very tight space with no room for wire ties, and they needed to stay put while I got the trim back on.

    The answer was a hot glue gun. Worked a treat as you can see in the above photos and only took a few minutes.

    I bought a low-temperature gun (100c) to avoid any risk of melting the insulation on the cables (105c).

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  • Invaluable Measurement Tools

    I have a couple of tape measures (one metric, the other imperial) in my tool bag, and even have a really nice digital calliper for when dead-nuts measurement is required, but the two measurement tools in my kit that get the most use are a cheap pocket calliper (top photo) and an even cheaper metal rule (below) .

    Both are dual metric and imperial.

    I recommend both for every cruiser’s tool bag. Buy two of each…they don’t float.

    Lots more on maintaining a cruising boat.

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  • The Perfect Mallet

    I pretty much never use a hard-headed hammer on a boat; in fact, I don’t even have one in my onboard tool kit on our new-to-us J/109.

    But I use a mallet often to move something stuck without damaging it, or drive a punch or chisel.

    This one from Lixie is just the right weight for most things around a boat, has replaceable plastic faces, and, best of all, it’s what’s called a “dead blow mallet”—the head is loaded with lead shot.

    It’s simply amazing how much better and more effective that last feature makes this mallet.

    I got mine from McMaster-Carr and it’s the aluminum-headed (no rust) 14 oz model.

    Highly recommended.

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  • A Good Hacksaw

    Since I let all my old tools go when we sold our last boat, I have been upping my standards as I buy new tools for our new-to-us J/109.

    One of my best acquisitions has been this premium hacksaw from CK Tools.

    It’s quite amazing how much easier this saw is to use with its stiff frame, padded handles, and cool high-leverage blade-tightening mechanism that gets the blade ringing-rigid (it’s an engineering term if you didn’t know), without bursting a blood vessel turning a butterfly nut like on cheap hardware store saws.

    I got mine from McMaster-Carr and chose the one that’s a little longer to get a blade storage compartment.

    Highly recommended.

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  • Good Wire Cutters

    Normally I’m reasonably good at keeping track of my tools, but there is an exception: Every few years I lose my wire (diagonal) cutters—I’m not talking misplaced, but rather gone forever.

    How this happens, particularly on a small boat like our new-to-us J/109, is beyond me, but nonetheless it’s true.

    In the past I have tended to replace them with a cheap tool. But these days I’m enjoying my high-quality tools so much that I decided, when the wire cutter demon spirited away my last pair, to go up in quality and spring for a Knipex Vanadin-Super.

    Highly recommended. Super-sharp high-quality steel blades, plenty of leverage for most jobs around a boat, other than battery cables, and a comfortable contoured handle. And maybe the bright red colour will help me keep track of them!

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  • Credit Where It’s Due: McMaster-Carr

    Phyllis and I have been buying tools, fastenings, and half a hundred other things from McMaster Carr for decades, and are such fans that I often say that if the company goes out of business I’m selling our boat and taking up golf…and I hate golf.

    Over all those years, and hundreds of orders, I can only remember McMaster-Carr making a mistake twice.

    The second time was two weeks ago when I ordered a 5mm tap and got a 1/2″ drill bit.

    I emailed them with the photo above and in less than half an hour they replied:

    I apologize we delivered the incorrect item. We will issue a replacement for the material you didn’t receive. We will deliver a replacement on Thursday between 2- 4pm.

    There is no need to return the drill bit to us. Feel free to keep or discard as you see fit.

    And two days after that, I had the tap in hand. No fuss, no excuses, no requirement to return, no RMA bureaucracy, no customs clearance hassles (they always deal with all that), and zero cost to us.

    All companies make mistakes, what differentiates good companies from bad ones is how they handle their mistakes. It don’t get no better than McMaster-Carr.

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  • Good Rivet Gun

    If you need to pull 1/4” stainless steel rivets you need a good gun. This one has worked well for me.

    Available from the good people at McMaster-Carr.

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  • Dripless Shaft Seal Bellows Adjustor

    Ever tried to get the bellows perfectly compressed to specification on a PYI dripless shaft seal, or similar, while at full-arm stretch in the bilge, and then get the little set-screws tight before the stainless steel rotor slips back?

    Sucks, right? But if we don’t get this adjustment right think sunk boat.

    Our friend Phil, he of the amazing salvage, made this gadget up for our friend Hans, he of the great in-boom furling tutorial.

    Very simple, very clever, and easy for a machine shop to make.

    And, after getting the bellows adjusted right, we could even take the jacking screws out and leave the tool clamped down against the rotor for added security against slippage.

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  • Cruiser Tools—Jesus Pliers

    Years ago, when the world was young, I worked as a mainframe computer technician for NCR Corporation—yes they made computers, great big ones.

    In the workshop, which I shared with a bunch of techs who fixed mechanical cash registers and accounting machines—fiendishly complicated contraptions that it took great skill to work on—a common cry was “where the blazes are my jesus pliers”.

    A name that was, I suspect, conferred on the tool because if you needed to get a circlip off, praying to a deity was the only alternative without the pliers.

    Point being, it’s not a tool we often use on boats, but when we need it (look at your steering gear) you gotta have it.

    Yes, I know you can get them off with two small screwdrivers. Good for you.

    But sooner or later we will damage a vital clip that way, or drive a screwdriver through a tender part of our hands.

    I buy the combo ones that will remove a clip inside or outside.

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  • Cruiser Tools—Files

    On our McCurdy and Rhodes 56 I had a whole bunch of different files, but that was a 25-ton boat where weight, while important, was less of an issue.

    Since selling that boat, along with all my tools, I have found that the three files shown above will do most things, and while I have a few more at home in the workshop, these live in my tool bag on our new-to-us J/109:

    • Fairly fine metals file flat on one side and curved on the other
    • Four-in-hand
    • Rat tail file, quite coarse

    I use the middle one by far the most. Makes short work of removing a lot of fibreglass, epoxy or wood, and will even work on aluminum. One of the most common tools I reach for with a lot of functionality for its size and weight.

    More Tools:

    • More recommended power and hand tools for voyagers.
    • And here are four more that most cruisers don’t have, including me up to a few years ago, but should.

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  • Tools: The Little Details Matter

    I just took the Edson steering system on our J/109 apart to service it. A fiddly job that requires undoing a bunch of fasteners in awkward places only accessible through the top of the steering pedestal after removing the compass.

    This job was way easier and probably took half as long using my new Wera tools than it would have with my old less feature-rich tools.

    The picture above shows just one of the cool features: the sockets are knurled to make it easy to spin off a nut by holding the socket. Particularly useful at that awkward point where a fastening is too loose to activate the ratchet in the handle and too stiff to turn by hand without the added leverage of holding the socket.

    You can read more about these tools and what I bought here.

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  • Killer Dyneema Scissors

    I have been doing a bunch of splicing of single-braid Dyneema (AmSteel) lately—lots of storm preparation.

    The stuff is seriously difficult to cut without making a mess of it, particularly when cutting single strands to taper the bury, but these scissors from D-Splicer do a lovely neat job and will even cut through a full 12mm with a single easy snip, even though mine are only meant to go to 10mm.

    I have had a couple pairs of scissors that purport to be for Dyneema before, but these are way better. Highly recommended and worth every penny of their admittedly eye-watering price.

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  • Brion Toss Splicing Wand

    I have owned this great tool for at least 25 years. I don’t use it that often, but when I do, it saves so much agro.

    The photo to the right shows the way I was using it locked in a vice to Brummell splice 1/2″ Amsteel.

    No way my little D-splicer was going to work to get 40 inches of tail threaded through.

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  • Justifying Expensive Tools

    The enjoyment of one’s tools is an essential ingredient of successful work

    Donald Knuth

    This quote makes me feel a lot better about blowing the price of a nice second hand car on new tools after we sold the McCurdy and Rhodes 56 with all my old tools. Thanks to Stan Honey for the heads up on the quote.

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  • Great Borescope

    How we knew what the problem is in our mast way out of sight:

    Black and white messenger is for the main halyard. Deflection is clear. Sheave to left.

    Make sure you get this one with the longer focal length.

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