In Search of the Maintenance-free Boat | Sailing Blog - Technical Hints and Tips - Sailing Television

In Search of the Maintenance-free Boat

The last few weeks we have been cruising the Chesapeake Bay and run into a bunch of cruising sailors. Many of them are on their way south for the first time. Besides a bit of nervousness and excitement about the voyage ahead (most are heading for the Bahamas this winter) a common theme is boat maintenance. Living and traveling full-time means things tend to break more often and delays often result. We met one “great-looper” who had spent 2 unplanned years in the Chesapeake Bay while his generator and main ships engine were replaced!!

Here are a few strategies we have picked up or developed over 20 years of cruising to keep maintenance-related delays to a minimum.

  1. Plan to be handy - All boats will need maintenance. Old or new power or sail. Upgrade your skills in areas you are weak in. If you don’t understand electrical systems, take a course or study one of the many excellent books. Buy some good tools. If you normally depend on a friendly local mechanic to service your boat you might find it is not so easy to find reliable help as you travel.
  2. Keep ahead of scheduled maintenance. At least when you’re getting to know a new boat it makes sense to do maintenance on a recommended schedule. For example, buy a rebuild kit for the head (toilet) and install it. You will feel more comfortable knowing you have done it and you may learn if there are any additional spares to keep in stock. With our Jabsco head I also keep sets of the joker valves in addition to a complete rebuild kit.
  3. Build up a spares kit. This is the heart of the deal for reducing maintenance delays. If you have the parts you need before you need them, and know how to put them in, you could be looking at a 10 minute delay instead of a 4 day delay while you wait for parts. We have a whole locker full of parts on Distant Shores and a separate bin just with engine parts.
  4. Keep adding to the spares kit. Experienced owners can be a good source of info. Those who have had the same equipment as you have on your boat will know what spares they have needed.
  5. Keep adding to your tool kit. A good basic tool kit can do most things, but there is often no substitute for the right tool. The job can be oh so quick and satisfying if you have the right tool in your toolkit when you need it. An example is the propellor puller I built some years ago. I also built a cutlass bearing puller so if we were in the boatyard I could easily pull the prop, shaft and cutlass bearing out in less than an hour. Now we have the new boat I am again adding to the toolkit for her new systems. An example is the nice little impeller puller I recently bought. The raw water impeller on the Yanmar now comes off so nice and easily. (the old Volvo impeller came off easily anyway so I didn’t need a puller).
  6. Get familiar with your boat’s systems. Over the years I have serviced the Barient winches on Two-Step many times. I knew just how they worked and just where the pawls tended to stick after time. Now with Distant Shores we have Lewmar winches. So before they were really meant to be serviced I got out the manual and opened one up to see how it worked and how it differed from the Barients. When it was time to service them I knew what I would find.
  7. All boats benefit from preventative maintenance. This could mean fixing things before they break, and even servicing things before the manufacturer’s recommended service interval. Not to make too fine a point but marine toilets can be a good place to do early preventative maintenance. Better to service it when you choose than when there is a problem :-(
  8. Older boats can need much more maintenance as systems age. But new boats will need regular preventative maintenance as well. Read over the owners manuals of the various systems and see what is recommended. Even if a winch is working fine - why not take it apart and see how it looks inside. Order a set of spares for it before you need it. We often carry spare pumps as well as rebuild kits for the pump. It is often quicker to replace the pump and then rebuild the one you have taken out.
  9. Do not buy an old “Fixer-upper” if you aren’t a proficient handy-person. We have met a number of new cruisers who buy a 20-30 year old boat and are then surprised the maintenance is so much effort. Although a 30 year old fiberglass hull can be in great shape, its systems could all need replacing. A 30 year old engine may be hard to get parts for, the electrical system could need complete replacement and so could the rig and sails. If the owner has just fixed things as they actually break, you could be inheriting a much bigger project than you planned. Even in this economy there is nothing for free...
  10. Make maintenance fun! Sounds silly but if you can learn to enjoy boatwork then you are more likely to get to it early. It is a very rewarding feeling to see YOU have maintained / improved / serviced the systems on your boat. The boat will work better, there will be less delays in your cruise and you will have that sense of pride that you did it yourself!

Well there you are... 10 basic hints to enjoy a trouble-free cruise.

See you out on the water!


(Here’s the perfect time to change the zinc on the bowthruster ;-)
Perfect time to change bow thruster zinc
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