Cool Tools for Odd Jobs
All true cruisers possess a dark trove of secrets. One hopes that your list of the embarrassing kind is a short one. The most useful hoarded secrets are the ones that defy nautical common sense and aren't for sale in booths at the boat shows. These are the practical tools and street smarts that only come to a sailor through hard-won experience. I'd like to share a "dirty dozen" roundup of products that you won't find in the boating books but are usually stocked in neighborhood hardware stores and supermarkets. These items are the ones that have worked well in a variety of strange and challenging situations during my long life around boats.
On my 2006 year-long expedition-style cruise to Patagonia and Cape Horn (see "South to the Horn," May 2007), I rediscovered the value of these handy items as well as the value of the clothing that serves so well on the ski slopes of my home town of Telluride, Colorado. Wicking long underwear, fleece layers, and breathable waterproof jackets were essential partners in keeping out the brutal weather at the end of the world. One item that proved its worth time and again was a good pair of ski goggles. They allowed me to search for fang-toothed passages in the midst of stinging squalls with horizontal rain. The goggles were comfortable, inexpensive-and indispensable.
Plastic resealable bags are the multitool of cruising. Their utility easily exceeds food-storage applications. "Bag it or lose it" is my position on such essential parts as the springs and pawls of winches, screws, the nuts and bolts of water pumps, impeller O-rings, wafer-thin gaskets, and the like. Every part of every job should immediately be placed into a bag, then each bag labeled with an indelible marker to identify the job-specific contents and their final destination. Bagged spare parts in the depths of lockers are also labeled, visible, and protected. A thin sheet of fabric softener inside a larger-size bag of clear plastic will keep piles of shore clothes dry and sweet smelling during a round trip to Bermuda or a voyage to Tierra Del Fuego and its damp and trying conditions.
Plastic cable ties are a miraculous modern improvement on duct tape, seizing wire, and tarred hemp twine. At your local hardware store, buy them by the gross in assorted lengths and in styles ranging from thin, pastel colored, and flexible to fat, black, and indestructible. I use them for attaching anything to lifelines, shrouds, pulpits, steering pedestals, or my safety harness. Halyard and anchor/chain shackles are locked closed and secured with them, eliminating the chance of receiving a puncture wound caused by the twisted ends of seizing wire. Ties back up all my hose clamps and keep those loose, curling, stainless-steel clamp ends from snagging clothes or skin. Use cable ties in an emergency to hold waterproof tape or other materials around a leaking hose, even one under low pressure. I mark my anchor chain at 20-foot intervals with brightly colored ones; don't cut off the excess so you can feel them easier in the dark. Once I even used them as effective precautionary handcuffs when rescuing a very frightening (and frightened) three-man crew from an open boat drifting in the trade winds off the coast of Haiti.
Don't throw away those only slightly punctured bicycle inner tubes. The high-quality, strong, and stretchable rubber in the discarded inner tubes has as many applications in a pinch as a politician has excuses for being caught in a lie with his clothes off. Using an oar or a boat hook as a splint, you can wrap two damaged ends together and mend a broken boom or a snapped whisker pole. I have used sliced-open tubes to wrap a leaking connection to the exhaust hose of my Aqualift muffler, completely stopping the escape of noxious fumes belowdecks. This application also works on any flexible or rigid hose on the boat with the help of a few hose clamps or the cable ties mentioned above. You can also use tubes stretched between two shrouds to launch water balloons across a goodly distance to surprise friends lounging in another boat's cockpit on a hot afternoon.
After spending a long afternoon polishing stainless-steel winches, pedestals, dorade canopies, stems, anchor chocks, and windlasses, it's always disheartening to wake up the next morning and see the gleam already beginning to fade, especially since the ultra-space-age miracle stainless-steel polish costs as much as a fifth of 15-year-old single-malt scotch. A trick to keep the shine going without resorting to the high-priced spread is a simple can of spray-on furniture wax. Keep a well-used soft cotton rag and a can of wax in a resealable bag in a seat locker; following a passage, just give the stainless steel a quick swipe after hosing it down. You'll be amazed at the difference.