Top Ten Items to Have Onboard


Not necessarily the “big ticket” items but items that have over the years the author has come to rely on  (published September 2017)

I’ve delivered countless cruising boats within and across virtually every ocean. Some of the vessels had the things I liked. Others may have missed a few things. These things aren’t necessarily the most expensive pieces of equipment, nor are they necessarily the things I use most often. But when I want them, they seldom have alternative replacements. They may fit a unique niche, providing multiple solutions to frequent problems. The result is that I often bring my own if they’re not too bulky and seldom found on most cruising boats. Of course there are numerous other things that are necessary to have aboard, but this is a list of some of those things that can be invaluable but are often forgotten.

When compiling job lists, I often break things down by category, individual responsibilities, tasks, purchases, or other criteria. Putting things in some kind of bite-sized chunks helps me to focus on those areas and what presents a unique kind of utility. I’m sure there are a lot of items that could be part of this list, but here are a few that keep rearing their heads on my own list of helpful pieces of equipment.

Navigation: Hand bearing compass. Certainly there are a wide variety of items that could be extremely useful in the nav station if the worst case scenario started to develop. But that lowly hand bearing compass will actually help you avoid some of those scenarios. Is that ship on a collision course with us? Taking bearings on the approaching ship will give you answers that other pieces of equipment either won’t or won’t do as good a job. What’s our exact position as we close with the coast? Taking bearings on known points will give you several Lines of Position (LOPs) to plot on your chart—even when the batteries run down on your handheld GPS.

Communications: Iridium phone with hard wired exterior antenna and interfaced with a laptop computer, set up to enable email. Of course the SSB radio has many valuable uses to offer sailors, even today. In some cases there just aren’t substitutes for the radio’s efficiency to reach a wide audience over a great distance. The fact is that it’s pretty unlikely that you know the phone number of the ship coming to rescue you, but you can send out a radio signal. The SSB is vastly underrated these days, in my opinion. However, having said that, if you’re climbing into a life raft, your Iridium phone can be a welcome piece of kit to bring along. In more normal communications situation, the ability to cost-effectively send emails has a wide appeal and a number of advantages over voice. Digital copy of a weather forecast will enable you to review the upcoming conditions without cumbersome and often incomplete notes. The cost per word in email versus voice is surely enough reason to enable the email capabilities available with satellite communications, and Iridium, unlike other forms of satellite communications is truly global in nature: pole to pole, around the world.

Electronics: InReach tracking and messaging device. I now carry my own with me on all offshore passages. It’s worth it to me to let others know where I am, and if the ship’s GPS fails, it helps me, as well. Additionally, the messaging capabilities allow me to send an unlimited number of 160 character messages for $65 per month. If that isn’t enough characters, write another message to complete your thoughts. Last week, I confirmed our arrival time, met a pilot to guide us through the Hatteras Inlet, got flight reservations for crew, arranged taxis, and I did it all with my InReach messaging device, interfaced with my Android smart phone while offshore. Today, now that I’m ashore, I’ll put a hold on my account and charges stop until I’m ready to head offshore again and I reactivate my account. It may be the best deal available in sailing, costing less than a replacement winch handle.

Mechanical: Despite the fact that we’re talking about sailboats, let’s face it, engines play an important role whether on cruising boats or on other types of sailboats being delivered to a destination. The mechanical side of things also presents challenges from time to time, so for this category I’ve included two pieces of equipment to be among the “Top Ten”. First, I’d like to see dual Racor filters, hard mounted to a bulkhead with petcocks at the bottom of the bowl and ample room to insert a bucket beneath the bowl. Water in the fuel or sediment that has grown throughout the winter can provide problems for diesel engines, and those problems often accumulate in the Racor or other type of fuel filter. If the problem reaches epic proportions during a docking maneuver, or other inconvenient times, having a dual filter enables a quick solution to keep you moving. Having petcocks at the bottom of the bowl enables a cleaner, easier way to solve the problem with the initial, fouled filter.

Second, a 12v reversible pump with hoses long enough to reach any point on the boat will help you get fuel from fuel drums, stored jerry cans, or other tanks when other methods fail. There have been times when refueling in remote places required pumping fuel from drums on a small barge into our tanks. Of course, electric pumps don’t only work on fuel. They may also be a godsend if you suddenly find the floorboards floating, a situation which occurred last year. If 12v sockets are available throughout the boat, enabling the pump with electric cabling long enough to get to any plug will also add to your flexibility.

Electrical: Not unlike the mechanical category, we all seem to have plenty of uses as well as problems with electricity on boats. Hence, I have a couple of suggestions for the “Top Ten” for the electrical department. These are small cost items that can make your life simpler. First, I like to have spare, battery operated running lights onboard for long passages. Having backup for safety items seems to be relatively obvious, but few seem to actually carry some of them. It’s true enough that in the past I’ve had to paint a spare bulb with fingernail polish to “fix” a burned out port light, but there can be multiple sources of problems for either port or starboard running lights, and having a set of spares seems to be prudent, especially as one makes a night approach to a crowded harbor or across busy shipping lanes.

Second, having a 12v inverter that can be shifted to any room, each of which is equipped with a 12v “cigarette lighter” outlet, can help people charge phones, computers or other gadgets we seem to find increasingly important.

Safety: Climbing harness that fits the person who will go aloft as well as others onboard. I find that avoiding problems is far better than fixing them, and choosing the best time to go aloft is often prior to leaving the harbor. In those cases, a good bosun’s chair is worth having. However, when offshore, it may become necessary to go aloft to inspect or repair something. Doing it safely not only encourages the repair, it also is the prudent thing to do. In my opinion, the safest way to go aloft, dockside or offshore, is in a properly fitted and worn climbing harness. Frequently, cruising boats don’t have those types of harnesses, so I often bring my own. Safety, of course is paramount on any list; avoiding problems—or safely correcting them —is probably a close contender. Good climbing harnesses are worth having aboard. They can help to resolve the problem aloft, and in the process they may avoid a severe accident.

Rigging: Heavy duty block and tackle with extra long line. Certainly, there are means of cutting a rig away already on the boat. Hammer and punch, electric grinder with carbide cutting blade, bolt cutters, hacksaw: they’ll all do the job, some better or easier than others. All boats should have the means of getting rid of the rig, and most do. But when it comes to “above and beyond” the required equipment, I like to have a heavy duty block and tackle with extra long line. In some cases, I even bring my own. It’s heavy. It works. When there are jobs that require inordinate amounts of strength, the block and tackle certainly eases the job. Getting someone onboard the boat and the halyard isn’t long enough to get to the surface of the water? Jury rigging a mast with a broken shroud? Moving heavy sails or other equipment? The block and tackle has been a flexible and invaluable tool at times. The line on my own version is Spectra and was originally used as a reef line. It can now carry loads that other things just can’t match —with ease.

Sails: proper storm sails, both storm trysail and storm jib. I’ve seen boats that didn’t have them, and I’ve seen storm sails that were too large for lightweight catamarans. In my opinion, any cruising boat that is heading offshore for more than 3 days on a favorable forecast should be equipped with properly sized and fitted storm sails. The crew should test them at least once by putting them up to make sure they actually fit and can be sheeted properly. I’ve often seen storm sails put up the first time on a boat, and the slider cars didn’t fit, or the gate didn’t open easily, or the sheet from the storm trysail didn’t run clear of the dodger. Often. They need to be hoisted to make sure everything works and the job of putting them up can be done by one person under storm conditions. Gates that require multiple screws, gates that are at the bottom of the track and require someone to hold the sail up while it’s being loaded onto the track, and other inconveniences make the task of getting the sail set more difficult. If you understand the task, it will be easier to accomplish, and in a storm, you will be grateful for the advance understanding and ability to shorten sail.

Eleventh item on the Top Ten list: a complete sail repair kit. When you need to repair your sails on a long passage, a good repair kit can’t be replaced. In some cases, the sails may be irreplaceable, as well. A complete kit includes the following:
Needles of various sizes to go through different types of cloth
Waxed thread
Palm (ideally both right and left handed for different users)
Sticky-backed sailcloth for spinnakers
Sticky-backed high tensile cloth, preferably Spectra
Long sail ties (to be used solely for sail repair and separated from others)
Shears (preferably shears rather than mere scissors)
Hot knife
Hair dryer
Rubbing alcohol for drying/cleaning sails prior to applying sticky-backed cloth
Various sizes of webbing

Having the various things on this list won’t guarantee a life free from problems, but they will help you avoid some and perhaps safely correct others while offshore. Being familiar with their use will be an additional worthwhile use of your time and help you to enjoy the ride.

Bill Biewenga is a navigator, delivery skipper and weather router. His websites are He can be contacted at

Author: Bill Biewenga


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