15 Essential Tools For Your Boat

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Photography by Robert Holland

All Kitted Out

Having the right tool will make routine maintenance and most repairs simpler. Capt. Steve Creel recommends you never leave the dock without these 15 essentials.

Let’s face it, Murphy’s Law was most likely drafted with boating in mind. When something breaks, it’s usually when there is a saloon full of guests, all counting on you to charm and entertain ’em. If that high-temperature alarm comes on, chances are it’s right as you’re crossing over that sand bar. That’s why boaters like us spend so much time talking about being prepared—we’re simply anticipating a multitude of what-ifs that cover some pretty darn complicated systems. Yet if you’re like me, one of the things you love about boating is preparing and keeping your ride in perfect condition, that way we can walk right up to Murphy and punch him in the eye. And what better way to do this than ensuring you have the right tools on board. No, I’m not talking about that bargain tool kit from your local marinesupply store, I’m referring to a few specialty items that will make fixes and routine maintenance so much easier. These are what you’ll need to get the job done.


Battery Terminal Puller

Man, I cannot count the number of times I have been onboard boats with battery issues, and the terminals are just short of total mutilation from improper care during installation and/or removal. Loosen the terminal bolt, seat the puller on the terminal, and tighten the puller screw pad and the battery terminal slips right off. This puller is also useful on some (not all), windshield wipers. Harbor Freight or auto-parts stores keep these in stock. Prices range from $8 to $20.

Jumper/Booster Cables

There is no substitute for a good set of jumper cables. Every boat should have a set. Do not get cheap on this purchase. You spent $25,000 on TVs, what’s $75 for an item that will help your boat run properly? A dead or low generator battery can be boosted from the mains or house and vice versa, depending on location. Inverters have a built-in charging circuit for dedicated batteries, however, the charging circuit on some inverters will not kick in if battery voltage drops too low. Therefore by isolating the batteries from the inverter, they can be boosted from another onboard source to up the voltage. Once the voltage meets the inverter charging specs, batteries can be reconnected to the inverter and self-charged. Eight-gauge jumper wire is the minimum you would want, 6 and 4 gauge are preferred, and 15 to 20 feet in length should be enough on most midsize boats. The wire needs flexibility, (cheapies are stiff). Grainger is a good source for these. Expect to spend $50 to $75.


Klein Crimpers and Strippers

When making electrical repairs where use of a new terminal or connector is needed, the repair is only going to be as good as the installation. There are a multitude of crimpers and strippers on the market. However, I highly recommend staying away from the bargain table. Do you see a consistent theme here in this article? Klein crimpers are strong and have a wide indented bite, making sure you achieve a connection with one compression. The strippers are true to size and will easily cut insulation without scoring the wire. You can also up your game by using heat-shrink connectors. Klein Tools are available at Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Grainger. Crimpers run about $50 and strippers $25.


Hose, Tubing, and PVC Cutter

This is a smart and inexpensive (about the same price as an 18 pack of Miller Lite) tool to have onboard. It will cut through rigid PVC, vinyl, and rubber hose (except wire-reinforced hose) with a ratcheting action. This handy item makes hard-to-reach repairs a cinch when hose removal is required. Plus it’s much safer than a razor knife and much easier than a hacksaw. It can be found at any building supply or hardware store.

Ryobi Pinless Moisture Meter

If you have a pesky water leak around a deck hatch or window and when squirting it with water, you can’t see the path of the water, you may need to up your game. I suggest adding a moisture meter to your kit. When I bought my first one, I took it everywhere in my pocket, even to Flanagan’s Sports Bar. I played with that darn thing until I started to understand its characteristics. You too will need to spend some time with this tool for it to be effective for you as well, but it’s time well spent. There are several brands, but make sure you buy a “pinless” model, meaning it does not have to actually probe the surface to read moisture. Instead it lays flat on the surfaces. Lowe’s or Home Depot is a good source for this. Prices range from $40 to $60.


Magnetic and Flexible Claw Retrieval Tools and Mirror

We’ve all dropped tools deep within our bilge that must be retrieved. Well, these handy tools help you dig deep and come back with the loot. The mirror helps locate the dropped and sometimes hidden object. I shine the light from a MiniMag flashlight into the mirror when the search area is dark or shadowed. Prices vary from $3 each to $20 each and can be purchased from any marine, auto, or building/hardware store. Harbor Freight is also a good source for these.


Ratchet/Open-Ended Combination Wrench Set

With a tool box already overloaded with ratchets and sockets of multiple sizes and configurations, I was slow to embrace the ratchet wrench. In hindsight, my reluctance was pure stubbornness. I now use these wrenches more than ratchet sockets. Ratchet sockets have become the go-to tool for hard-to-reach places only. These wrenches are available in SAE and metric at Sears, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Ace Hardware, and others. The price for an 8-piece set retails for around $50. There are variations of these wrenches such as offset reversible and flex reversible, which cost a little more.


Estwing Hatchet

This is the tool I keep handy during a storm or hurricane warning! And if folks in my marina would simply cleat their boats properly, it wouldn’t be necessary. I’ve been working through storms or hurricanes since 1978, and I have only had to use this once. We had a Bertram 33 moored at a large marina during a storm surge that was either going to float the fixed dock or sink the boat. We tried to release it, but the knotted cleats would not give it up. We secured an additional line to the transom and with one swipe of the razor-sharp hatchet, the boat and the dock were saved. Sorry about your dock line, buddy! The Estwing Hatchet costs around $50—keeping yours in razor-sharp condition is extra but well worth it.

Vise-Grip Snap-Crimping Pliers

This is a handy tool if you have a boatload of canvas and can help you make simple, but often costly canvas repairs. Canvas snaps can be repaired in place, no need to remove the canvas. West Marine sells a Heavy-Duty Snap Kit with Vise-Grip tool, which retails for around $80. There are less expensive versions available. However, I have a toolbox drawer full of them: This is the one I use.


Ideal Stripmaster Compression Tool

These tools make working with coaxial connections a breeze with F-type compression connectors, or even better, the Belden Snap-N-Seal F Connector, which has an O-ring seal making a near watertight connection to the cable. The stripping tool creates a very clean cut that makes working with the ground shield effortless. The compression fittings are more secure than the crimp- or screw-style connectors. The set will set you back a few bucks, but it is worth the cost if you have an abundance of coax cable applications onboard. Set retails for about $100 at Grainger, Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Ironwood Pacific Top Snapper

Use one of these and you won’t need the more expensive Vise-Grip Crimping Plier. It eases off stubborn snaps without breaking the crimp or tearing the canvas. (Note: I always put a dab of StarBrite PTEF grease inside the button snaps. PTEF grease is found in the trailer section at West Marine). The Top Snapper is available at West Marine. The price is around $20.

nail polish

Loctite Thread Locker

If you have a machine screw or nut that always wants to vibrate loose, typically you would use a thread locker to secure it. Thread locker can be purchased from a marine, auto, or building-supply store. However, should you not have any thread locker on your boat and you are nowhere near such stores, no worries. If you have a woman onboard, there is a good chance she has nail polish! Don’t be picky; any color will work, including clear. Cost? For a man using fingernail polish to repair a boat? Priceless.

Scissors and Shears

Scissors and shears are a must-have for every tool box. They are useful for cutting emergency gaskets, fiberglass material, sandpaper, air-conditioning filters, chicken, and much more! Ok, the poultry scissors should be in the galley, but as long as she doesn’t know, I’m not telling! Again, my advice, captain, is don’t skimp on quality. A good pair of galley shears, such as Henckels will set you back $40. Mechanic’s Kobalt shears run around $30, and Fiskars project scissors are about $25.

Shop On

West Marine Marinetech Rope-Cutter Gun

If you splice your own dock lines and do other cordage projects for your boat (a good skill to have), this is a nice complement to your kit. It burns right through nylon and polypropylene with ease, while sealing the cut ends with one step. The price is about $70 at West Marine.

Adjustable Face Spanner Wrench

This tool has multiple applications serving as a deck key for fuel- and water-fill caps, access deck plates, sea-strainer caps, water filters, some pumps, and outboard motors. Stop using the “double screwdriver twist” method and butchering your deck plates and strainer caps; get out your wallet and purchase the right tool. The bronze one is made by Groco and can be found at West Marine for $20. A stainless steel model by Facom can be purchased from Grainger for about $80.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.