Your most valuable cruising equipment

Borneo squalls

Important pieces of cruising gear aren’t always obvious. A reader who hopes to go cruising emailed recently to ask:  “When you look back at your years of sailing, what are some pieces of equipment that you brought with you that you never realized how important they would become (e.g. handheld VHF, specific spares, etc.)? “

It’s a good question, because it’s easy to hemorrhage cash in the run up to taking off for cruising, trying to anticipate the things you might need and eyeing shiny toys in the chandlery. It’s impossible to know what’s essential because you haven’t gone cruising and don’t have a style yet. Gearhead? Ascetic? Most of us are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between those points, and your essential is someone else’s throwaway. As much as you can, avoid discretionary purchases some until you have a better sense of what you real needs are.

  • Outboard and dinghy you can depend on. Unless you’re a marina maven, you’re going to rely on it almost every day that you’re not passage making- e.g., more than 90% of the time! Don’t shortchange yourself. We wouldn’t have a dinghy we couldn’t plane while loaded, but that’s us.
  • A spare, small outboard (not important for US/Mexico, because repairs are easy to come by). I thought this was dumb until our Mercury 15 died in Bora Bora. We borrowed a friends small outboard for the rest of the Pacific crossing, because they were way too expensive to buy mid-Pacific. Now we have a Tohatsu 18 and 3.5 (which we just used as the 18 needed a new impeller).
  • Excellent ground tackle. There was a servicable primary anchor on Totem, but we replaced it with a beefy Rocna and use 410’ of 3/8″ chain. This has served us really well, as have the 50’ of ½” 3 strand nylon snubber ties- use a rolling hitch, and lead fair. We do love this anchor, but any of the scoop type anchors (Mantus, Rocna, Manson, etc) tend to be more reliable over broader bottoms compositions.
the teacher
  • Good cabin fans. If you’re spending time in the tropics (and overwhelmingly, cruisers are spending time in the tropics), cabin fans can be a lifesaver for comfort below. After trying a bunch of different brands, we’ve found the Caframo Ultimate 747s do the best to move more air and are far easier to keep clean (and wow, do fans get dirty when run all day/night!)
  • An ereader. Being on a passage without a good book is my nightmare scenario. ereaders hadn’t hit the scene when we left to go cruising, so we added many many linear feet of bookshelves to Totem to make sure we never ran out of quality reading. Now, we’re happily reclaiming that space and everyone on board has their own: don’t think for a minute that you can share one! Tablets are fine, but we like the eink readers best by far: they need much less power, and are far easier to read in daylight.
  • VHF. A setup onboard should be obvious, but good handhelds might not be as obvious. They take a lot of use and abuse: we use them to stay in touch on shore as much as ship-to-shore.
  • Scanner/printer. We’ve used this innumerable times to make copies of important documents, from passports to vessel documentation, for clearance in foreign ports. 
Reading on the bow
  • Fuel filtering gear. Our Baja filter has been invaluable, and it’s priceless to have sufficient fuel filters as well. We always filter diesel and gas putting them in the tank. Despite double filtering, we still we had some dirty fuel issues after a few months in a country where most sources were questionable; having spare filters is a good thing.
  • Radar. It’s not just fog and ship traffic, it’s about invaluable use for piloting in squalls and evaluating chart error by comparing distances. 
  • LED lights. If your boat isn’t LED-centric already, make it so, from running lights to deck an cabin lighting. Power saved is too significant to ingore.
  • Good basic tools. Don’t pay for high end, because most of them rust just as quickly as the middle range. We’ve gotten a lot of use from a multimeter an, surprisingly, a VSWR meter. 
Capturing the eclipse

Off label bino use: observing a solar eclipse!

  • Good binoculars. We went a few months without functional binos in an area where eyeball nav is critical, and it was very unpleasant!
  • Large storage bags that have a port for sucking out air with vacuum cleaner. It’s not just about sealing, but the fact that they are great for reducing the space needed by bulk storage items.
  • Spare line. 6mm single braid Dyneema (Amsteel and the like) with a 6mm (1/4”) fid for splicing – very easy to splice and endless uses.

Shopping lists are convenient. Here’s the plain truth: YOU are the most valuable equipment of all. Cruising is ALL about attitude! Whether you are newer to sailing or cruising, or have a moderate level experience, we all have to tackle the mental side- regardless of your learning curve.

Through hull replacement

Go in with an open mind. Learn how to use, and re-use, and get away from the disposable economy of single-use items. Don’t try to know everything; ask those around you to help, since cruisers near you may have great experience and are often very generous with their time. On the flip side, cruisers are also full of opinions, so take it all in and then decide for yourself.

Ready yet? The last thing to remember is not to feel like you need to buy everything to reach a perfect state of readiness, because really, there is no such thing. As much as possible, hold off on discretionary purchases until you have a sense of what your real needs are- it’s a mental game, not a game of Boat Stuff.

Cruisers in touch with their valuable equipment know we love it when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

15 Responses

  1. Great list. With one exception; I don’t agree about the dinghy and outboard(s). I sailed ca. 18 months along the east coast of New Zealand (I bought and sold an old double-planked Kauri longkeeled sloop) and I had an old, battered and slightly leaking alloy dinghy, which came with the boat. I loved to row long stretches across the bays and harbors. It kept me perfectly fit and strong, and the dinghy never needed maintenance of any kind. Rowing a dinghy is fun! It may be different with a family and heavy loads, though.

    1. We’ll have to agree to disagree. It’s a nice romantic view to make a leaky rowing dink work, but completely unrealistic as workhorse transportation for a family. Carrying groceries: consumption x5. Ferrying jerry cans: consumption x5, or probably more, because in our low latitude cruising we’ve had very little wind; not an issue for you in coastal NZ. Outside the basic shuttling of people and goods, we also have very different cruising experiences. We love to snorkel and freedive. The good spots are always a distance from where you can anchor. You wouldn’t row a few miles each way so you could get out to the good reef, right? In other places, the current wouldn’t allow it anyway. It’s unconscionable to anchor on top of a reef anyway! So… well, I can see scenarios where it’s great for entertainment and fitness to have a rowing dink, and for short term mid latitude cruising, I can see how it served you well. Honestly, I’d LOVE to have one we could put a sailing rig in and tool around! But as baseline equipment, for the way we live and cruise, a planing dinghy is ESSENTIAL equipment for our family.

  2. Hi! I found your blog about a week ago and I just finished reading all the way from the beginning. I am now convinced that someday I will go cruising with my future family. I am graduating college this June and going to medical school but now I am looking for ways to learn how to sail. I will be getting in touch with the librarian at my school who is an avid sailor. Do you have any suggestions about other ways I can get my feet wet into this world? Thank you for the entertainment and inspiration.

    1. Hi Arianne, I’m so glad you found inspiration in our journey! I think the best thing you can do now is get out on boats. Put a notice on boards at local sailing clubs and marinas offering to crew. People may be posting there as well. Pick up a copy of the local boating magazine- many areas have a regional one- they often do a roundup of the local sailing schools, sailing clubs, or other sailing opportunities. The nearest chandlery is another good place to check for a bulletin board. Message me anytime and all the best pursuing your dream!

  3. Hey Totem Family
    We were wondering about the position of your forward hatch, noticing (in the above photo) that it was facing aft. Our original forward hatch was facing forward. We Just replaced all our hatches and we contemplated reversing the forward hatch but did not. We wanted to get your thoughts on this we have not closed up the interior head liner yet and could possibly (with much persuasion) be talked in to reversing it.

    The Howells

    1. Hello Howells! If you face the hatch so it opens forward, it will typically do a better job of catching the breeze to provide ventilation below- since at anchor the boat will usually orient into the wind (unless you’ve got current throwing things off). However, a forward-opening hatch could introduce a problem with water down below- since water over the bow would work against any cracks in the hatch. We’ve not noticed problems with ventilation in the forward cabin, so are happy to be more conservative regarding keeping the water *outside* by having it open aft instead of forward. Hope that helps! Feel free to email directly if you want to chat about it more.

  4. Hi. I have been following your blog for a while now and really enjoying it. Thank you for your posts. My husband and I are a few years out- but would love to follow your path. A few questions popped into my head on this blog. 1) what kind of printer scanner do you have and is finding ink and issue? and 2) How do you suck the air out of the vacuum bag as I assume you do not have a vacuum cleaner on board!

    1. Hi Sarah! We have an older (as in, we bought it well before we left- maybe 2007?) HP inkjet printer/scanner. I haven’t had trouble finding replacement ink cartriges for it, although we usually try to keep one spare on hand so we don’t find ourselves completely out. For the vacuum bags, we actually *do* have a small vacuum on board that sucks the air out! However, we also use “vacuum” bags that don’t require a vacuum- you just squeeze out all the air (as much as you can) and seal them up. Glad you enjoy the blog and good luck with your plans!

  5. I am full time cruiser and besides an electric fan which I use for when it’s really hot in the tropics with no wind, I wouldn’t want any of the items on the list.

    Not to say you are right or wrong, but want to point out there are people with different styles. My list includes:

    spare sails
    sculling oar
    sailing kayaks
    wood stove
    squid lures

    1. Sean- really good point- this is definitely *our* POV on what’s best, and not intended as a statement of the definitive “most valuable.” You and I clearly have very different cruising styles so it’s not too surprising that our lists won’t line up. But hey, we’re both out there and hopefully you love it as much as I do- fair winds!

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