Tools of the Trade

Save time and money onboard by keeping the right set of tools on your boat for any situation.

To be a self-sufficient cruising sailor, you'll need a comprehensive tool kit with items that can serve multiple purposes including a variety of wrenches, a butane torch and safety items.Green Brett

For most sailors there comes a point each year when the boat gets hauled, perhaps for a quick coat of bottom paint, but more often for more extensive work and for an extended period to wait for the coming sailing season.

Time on the hard allows an owner to tackle both basic maintenance and bigger projects that are too disruptive or time consuming to do when the boat’s being actively sailed. Hopefully, the work done during this fitting-out period pays off with trouble-free use when you’re back in the water.

Over the years I’ve done a number of refits and fit outs, both for myself and professionally. A look at my tool kit may be helpful for boat owners who prefer to do this type of work themselves.

My basic kit fits in a tool bag and stays with the boat all season. It includes a fairly comprehensive collection of everyday tools and just plain handy stuff — think hose clamps, duct tape and bubble gum that can be used to cure a whole realm of woes.

If you think of things that typically need to be addressed over the course of an average season of cruising, a relatively small tool kit and some ingenuity will cover most of your needs. This is not a complete tool list. Your boat, skills and personal preferences will add or remove some items. But this is what I carry in my tool bag:

Multiscrewdriver: This has two Phillips-head and two flat-head bits and can be more useful than a reversible jacket.

Versatile multitool: Several types are available, but probably the most popular are made by Leatherman and Gerber. A multitool is far more than a knife. It has pliers, an awl, scissors, a saw and other lifesaving and heroic tools that can save your marriage when the sump overflows.

Weapons for nuts and bolts: You'll want to have a full socket set to go after the endless assortment of nuts and bolts you'll find on your boat. It should have both standard and metric sockets along with an extension or two. Also carry as complete a set of combination wrenches as you can. These can often reach where a socket wrench cannot. Large adjustable pliers will work in a pinch when you find that your wrench set isn't as complete as you thought. Ditto for small, medium and large adjustable wrenches, often referred to as crescent wrenches. And don't forget Vise-Grip pliers. If nothing else, this tool is remarkably good at cracking lobster shells. And lastly, don't leave your Allen keys at home. Be sure to have a full set of metric and standard Allen wrenches, also known as hex keys, on hand. From stanchion bases to zincs, Allen keys can come in handy in surprising places.

Vacuum cleaner: Although it doesn't fit in my tool bag, I find a vacuum to be indispensable. If your boat has a way to charge or run a vacuum (12-volt car vacuums are available at auto-parts stores), nothing cleans up a mess like these suckers do.

Tape measure: These are useful for figuring out how much line you will need to tie the dink over the hatch, or how much hose to buy when the head clogs.

Electrical tools: Often, broken electrical items such as lights and chart plotters aren't working because the wiring is bad. Much as a doctor needs a stethoscope, the DIY boat owner will need a multimeter to track down corroded terminals, blown fuses and broken wires. Wiring pliers that can strip wire and crimp fittings are a must.

You’ll also want a small assortment of heat-shrink tubing, butt connectors and terminal ends. The marine environment is notoriously tough on wiring; be prepared to renew that bad connection. Zip ties neaten wiring, hold chafe gear in place and keep spare hoses tidy. These modest plastic strips are often more useful than duct tape. And don’t forget to buy white electrical tape. You can use it for temporary electrical connection insulation, to hold the tail of a knot in place and to wrap sharp cotter pins. The uses are endless.

Permanent markers: Changing the oil? Write the date and engine hours on the filter. They're also handy for penning notes to be inserted in bottles.

Small butane torch with refill bottle: From melting line ends to soldering and heat shrinking, think of the possibilities for putting a controlled amount of flame to use.

Eyes, nose and ear gear: Boat work can be hard on the crew. Make sure you have a dust mask; it's better not to breathe some things. Protect your eyes with safety goggles — not just your sunglasses. And boats are noisy. Consider using ear plugs if you are trying to sleep underway, and definitely use them (or a pair of protective ear muffs) if you're working near a running engine, or sanding and grinding.

Hammer: The modest hammer is a must-have tool. If nothing else works, bang on it.

Items for finding, grabbing and poking: A magnifying glass is invaluable if you need to look for cracking and pitting in stressed structural areas such as chainplates, turnbuckles and steering cables. Have a mirror handy as well to see around and under hard-to-get-to cavities. From fishing your sunglasses out of the cockpit scuppers to cleaning the limber holes in the bilge, coat-hanger wire will come to the rescue. A toothbrush is perfect for cleaning small parts, and holds up well to most solvents. You'll also want to have a wire brush in your bag to clean battery terminals and metal surfaces for inspection. Dental picks are handy too for digging into tight spots and retrieving items from hard-to-reach places. A three-pronged parts-retrieval claw at the end of a long tube is great for grabbing the wrench that just fell into the bilge.

Odds and ends: I always have a box of disposable gloves handy. Keeping marine chemicals off the skin is critical. Tef-Gel, which I use to isolate different metals (such as using stainless-steel screws in aluminum spars) and to lubricate seacocks, is great to have on hand. Paraffin wax blocks from the grocery store are inexpensive and good for lubricating metal cutting blades, sail tracks and hatch slides. Rounding out my tool kit are a small notebook so I can make lists and diagrams, and a digital camera (though more often these days I use my iPhone) so I can get a look at inaccessible areas such as under the engine, or remember what a part looks like when I get to the hardware store.

Green Brett works on a variety of boats in Newport, Rhode Island, where he charters the family’s Reliance 44 ketch, Lyra, during the summer season.

This article first appeared in Cruising World's April 2015 issue as "What's in the Bag."