Skip to main content

How to Prepare for a Day on Your Boat

Know Before You Go

Sound seamanship practices start at the dock before things get too exciting. 

It often seems that when ardent boaters sit around the cockpit talking about seamanship, the conversation inevitably transitions to the topic of harrowing feats. These may include a deep-dive into the finite set of skills required to run an inlet while on fire, with only one engine. Or perhaps there’s discussion of how to survive being hit by falling orbital debris while cruising distant Pacific atolls. Stories like these certainly make for memorable evenings ’round a bottle of rum—and for captivating reads in magazines like this one. However, I maintain there are steps that we can take before we even leave the dock that reflect sound seamanship practices and which may help us avoid calling on our survival skills. Here are a few tactics that I put into practice this winter while cruising around South Florida, and some further tips from our panel of experts.

Checking the boat's bilge
through-hull fittings

Crawl into the Bilge

My wife still has not joined me for an excursion into our old dusty basement, which resembles an abandoned archeological dig. Yet she’s my partner in crime when it comes to bilge exploration. This is almost a monthly project. Keeping a clean bilge obviously helps to eliminate odors, and also reduces bacteria growth. It also helps to reduce corrosion. I clean it, wipe down components, tighten fasteners, and hand pump those areas that the bilge pump just doesn’t reach. All this, of course, allows me to see any potential issues such as leaking pumps. For instance, I recently discovered an issue with a leaking holding-tank hose at the Y-valve. It was seeping just enough to cause some unpleasant odors. 

What’s In My Seabag?

Garmin GPSmap 76 handheld

I never go anywhere without my 13-year-old Garmin GPSmap 76 handheld. I take the time and input the same waypoints that are in the large plotter at the helm. On a recent trip when our plotter overheated and actually locked up (it’s since been properly vented) I simply picked up the Garmin and we kept on cruising. While on a transatlantic on, ahem, a sailboat, we lost all the electronics due to battery and wiring issues. That Garmin and a pilot chart got me from Gibraltar to Antigua with no issues. I keep a stack of AAs in my bag and I’m good to go. After 13 years, it’s worked without a hitch.

Plus, as Capt. Richard Thiel mentions here, this exercise allows me to work the through-hull fittings (above). I keep a spanner wrench tethered close to the raw-water strainers. Remember, there is a gasket at the top of these, so you only need to tighten by hand. I also suggest keeping Starbrite PTEF Trailer Hitch Lubricant onboard and giveing a finger swipe around the threads and gasket to keep the top working free and easy.

Speaking of bilges, I’m a fan of a practice I learned while on large yachts. I laminate and mount two drawings of the boat showing where all through-hull fittings are located. One is below in a common area and the other is at the helm(s). Sure, chances are I know where everything is, but what if you’re cruising with someone who doesn’t know your boat as well? If you have a leak, you can divide and conquer by going to the right compartment. It’s also handy to have if you occasionally have a paid captain move your boat, and it’s helpful for your service yard. 

Take Your Time to Navigate

Friends and family who know me well will likely snicker when reading this next suggestion. I live my life at a fairly frantic pace. Yet, when it comes to boating, I’ve embraced reality, and recognized that Murphy’s Law, given the chance, will seize ahold of my coattails. No more untying the lines and heading out an inlet before reviewing the charts. This practice has resulted with me holding station in the fog while nervously plugging in waypoints. It’s not smart and ends up being kind of stressful.  

If I’m creating a new route to input into the plotter, I write the names of the waypoints, along with the lat and long of each on a legal pad. (And yes, I’m grabbing all this off a paper chart.) I gain more situational awareness of a new cruising area by laying out paper charts on the saloon table to really see where I’m going. It’s much easier than trying to plan from a 12- to 15-inch screen. Plus you can brief your crew while standing over the chart versus huddling around the plotter at the helm. Even after I input the route, I keep that legal pad tucked beside the helm as another check and balance. It also makes it easier to follow along if I have chart books close by. 

If I’m on a long cruise, I ensure I have a plan B destination in mind in case I don’t make my intended port due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances. Actually, I’ve discovered a few wonderful new anchorages and marinas when I have had to implement my plan B. On that same legal pad I write down the numbers of any marinas I may need to call, even though the information is on the nav software. 

Keep Out the Clutter

Many years ago I lived on a wooden Pacemaker 32. I loaded up that darling of a boat with more junk than my grandmother’s garage contained. I think the exercise made me feel like I was self-sufficient for whatever scenario I encountered. Sure, I lived in one of the most densely populated regions of North America, but my arc welder stood ready to construct new struts just in case I had to install a pair overnight on a holiday weekend while still at the dock. 

I’m also kind of a neat freak, so this overabundance of gear was stashed behind locker doors, but that made matters worse. Trying to find an item as simple as a locking nut was completely exhausting. 

Today, that boat is a distant memory, but my time aboard her helped me develop a few rules about gear. First of all, I never bring anything onboard for a “future project.” Storing a piece of equipment in a box that attracts dust and moisture is going to accelerate corrosion around this equipment, create another conduit for dampness onboard, and is one more piece of clutter that will prohibit easy access.

I’m also adamant that everything that comes onboard has a distinct purpose. This is especially true with tools. Do I need an alligator wrench and a spud wrench? I sure as hell hope not. I suggest having only the tools onboard necessary to service your hardware and components. Unless you’re headed over the horizon, ignore the urge to transplant your home workshop into your engine room. Also, for coastal cruises I’ve gotten away from carrying duplicate tools. One socket set is fine.

By reducing clutter, you reduce weight and improve efficiency—and it’s so much more enjoyable to service your boat when you’re not tripping over a cardboard box holding a brand-new hatch that’s been tucked in the lazarette for three years. 

The Heart of the Matter

I’m amazed at how much money we lavish on items such as entertainment systems, yet a potentially life-saving first-aid kit is often an afterthought. Buy the best kit you can afford, then ensure you and your mate take a first-aid course. Even if you’re within sight of land, knowing how to dress a wound to stop bleeding, or brace somebody until help arrives, will make a difference. 

Also, you should consider buying an AED and learning how to use it to address cardiac arrest—for about $1,500, you can equip your boat with a device that may save somebody’s life. Also, make sure you sign up for a CPR course. 

   It’s true these few points may not be as sexy as a Victory at Sea reenactment. However, if you build them into your onboard routine and prepare ahead of time, I assure you, you’ll be glad you did. And nothing is better than a little peace of mind gained from being prepared. After all, remember? The whole point is to have fun out there.

Next — Ask an Expert ▶

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