Reader Tip: Trace Your Systems

If you have a boat that's new to you, take the time to map out the systems—you'll be glad you did!

April 16, 2013


Carolyn Shearlock

If you have recently purchased a boat, it’s easy to feel like you have no clue about how anything operates! Ditto if you’ve begun a new relationship and your significant other has a boat that you’re suddenly trying to learn.

My husband, Dave, has a background in heavy industry (blast furnace supervisor in a steel mill). He was the hands-on manager, who knew exactly how everything operated and was the first one called in an emergency just for that reason.

And when we bought Que Tal, I began to understand how he operated. When we bought her, the boat was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and we were in central Illinois. And when we made the “purchase trip,” the former owner was present and went over many of the systems with us. I assumed that on our next trip to the boat, we’d head out of the marina for a few days at a nearby anchorage.


Dave had a different idea. And frankly, his was much better.

Our next trip — actually, the next two trips of about a week each — we spent learning the boat right at the dock. Together, we traced and sketched out every system on the boat and labeled it all.

To use a galley-specific example, we began with the freshwater system. We started at the deck fill, and followed the hose down to where it entered the water tank. OK, no filters on that . . . meaning that we needed to use a filter on the dock hose. Then we traced each line out of the water tank . . . here’s one to the freshwater pump . . . hmm, there’s also a foot pump . . . this line goes to the head, this one to the galley . . . here’s the filter for the cooking water . . . here’s the air vent . . . here’s the drain and the seacock . . . and so on right to the through-hull. As you can see in the photo, we labeled every hose and drew in the direction of flow.


Several things were important about this:
• We did it together. We were both learning the boat and often one of us would have a question or spot something that was good for both us to know. Some systems one of us understood better than the other initially but when we were done we both felt that we knew our boat . . . and that we had the same understanding of it (this last part is important).

• We sketched it all out (these drawings were left on the boat when we sold her but they weren’t anything professional). Having to draw it made us know exactly where things went, not just assume!

• We found a few problems (which we took care of) and things to note that we had to add to our maintenance lists.


• We took our time and didn’t try to do too many systems in a day. We needed time to absorb it and we needed time to have fun, too.

• When we did finally leave the marina and head to an anchorage, we felt confident that we knew the basic systems. Sure, there was still a huge learning curve about sailing, motoring and anchoring her, but at least we weren’t learning everything at once, which is what we would have done if we’d just immediately left the dock.

• Since we’d been living aboard Que Tal while learning her, we’d had experience with actually using many of the systems and, particularly, the galley.


OK, for us it was easy as we’d just bought the boat and neither one of us knew her. But I know from emails that it often happens that there’s a new relationship, one person has a boat (and knows it) and the new squeeze starts going out on it, etc, etc. OK, you’re not going to go over all the boat systems on the first date! But as time goes on and the relationship becomes a little more serious and you’re spending more time on the boat, I’d really recommend trying to go over the systems together. And I think that sketching them out for yourself — not just looking at drawings that already exist or taking photos — is the best way to really understand how things work.

I also know from our cruising days that there will be some who say “but I’m not mechanical!! I’m not going to understand it!” Don’t worry — you don’t have to be super-mechanically inclined to understand the basics of how the boat works. And by tracing the systems instead of just trying to understand how something works in the abstract, I’ll bet that you find it makes sense. And once you know the basics of how things work, you’re going to be a lot more confident in using them and dealing with any problems that come up.

While many of the boat systems are galley-related, others aren’t. Here’s a quick list of the main systems that I can think of to check out (different boats will have different items, leave a note in the comments of any you think I’ve missed):
• Fresh-water system
• Watermaker
• Propane
• Toilets (water intake, holding tank, pump out, discharge, or whatever your system may have)
• All through-hulls
• Engine fuel
• Engine/transmission/generator cooling water
• Shore/wind/solar/generator/alternator power to batteries, including the charge regulators
• Battery switches
• Breaker panel and any other breakers (we had additional breakers for the windlass, washdown pump, and solar charging — you might be surprised at what you find!)

While it might have been a good idea, we didn’t trace out all of the wiring initially but did as we worked on various items.

OK, I know it seems like a lot. Don’t try to do it all at once. Take it slowly and enjoy learning about your boat. Remember, you didn’t learn all about living ashore in a day — you just picked it up over a period of years. Don’t expect to know everything at once about the boat.

While everyone’s learning style is different, Dave and I found that after each of our times on the boat, we’d go back home and read more about the various systems both in books and on the internet and things that had seemed incomprehensible to us before suddenly made sense. Our confidence at being able to master this new lifestyle just soared!

A final note — most boaters and cruisers that I talk to all say the same thing: the first year is by far the hardest. There is such a learning curve. Other boaters are one of your greatest resources — while it was hard for Dave and me to ask for help, many times we found that there was an easy solution for what we thought was an almost insurmountable problem. And in time, we became the ones that were offering the help instead of always asking for it!

For more tips on how to get the most out of your galley, visit The Boat Galley.

Do you have a simple solution for a problem on board? Send your idea and a photo to [email protected]. If we use your tip in the newsletter, we’ll send you a cool Cruising World_** Hands-On Sailor t-shirt!**_


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