Preparing To Do Your Own Maintenance

Preparing To Do Your Own Maintenance

Doing your own maintenance on board has a host of advantages, not the least being - its a LOT cheaper.  Finding a truly competent person to undertake work for you can be daunting and if you have no idea what the job should look like then you are very likely to get a poor result.

Being able to turn your hand to most things on board does not mean you have to be an expert at everything but it does require a fair bit of organisation to give you a good chance of completing a repair - even if it’s only a “running repair” until you can get the yacht to a safe harbour for a more in depth look see.

Home Maintenance consists of 4 basic things:

  1. Having the correct tools on board

  2. Having a range of spares from which you can construct a fix

  3. Having access to knowledge and information about the item in question.

  4. Most Importantly - having the confidence to have a go

Having the Correct Tools

This is a no brainer but how do you achieve it?  Well it doesn’t happen overnight but you can go a long way towards it by sitting down on a rainy afternoon aboard the yacht and going through all aspects of gear looking for:

  • Nut types and threads in use - then locate spanners for each type you find.  My yacht is mostly metric but I have a Perkins engine, marinised in the US, so that needs AF spanner sizes as well.  I aim for 1 open ended spanner, 1 ring spanner and 2 sockets for every nut size on board.  There will be some nuts you can only get to with an open-ender others need a socket and some will require a long reach socket.  Check everywhere and assemble what you need.

  • I also carry a set of high quality adjustable spanners as a backup.  The largest of these will fit all of my plumbing fittings up to a 50mm ball valve.

  • You should have a separate insulated set of tools for anything that is done in the battery compartment.  I keep a dedicated set there in a tupperware box.

  • Screws, machine screws and coach bolts all require some form of screwdriver.  Make sure you have the correct type and size.  You might be thinking  “well duh” but a simple job in a marina berth can be horrendous when the boat is bouncing around in a seaway while you try to unscrew something near to  a hot exhaust.

  • You will also need wood saws, hack saws, files, drill bits, hole saws, hammer, mallet etc.

  • Then look for all the special tools you may need.  Whether it’s a strap wrench to remove the oil filter or a bearing puller to replace the water pump seals, if you haven’t got one the job is 10 times more difficult.

  • A set of electrical tools is also a must these days.  Battery technology is now good enough to cope with most needs.  I have some Ryobi tools which all share the same battery fitting which simplifies life a lot.  I also keep a good AC drill and grinder on board as well as a Dremel kit for finer jobs.

  • A good multi-meter is needed for most electrical jobs as is a soldering kit and a wire crimping kit.

  • I have a set of Metric & AF Taps and Dies so I can re-thread anything that becomes damaged.

  • You will need an area to work and ideally a vice to hold the job still and secure.  I am lucky that my aft deck table doubles up as a workshop with vice but you can build it as a bolt-on anywhere convenient on the yacht.


Aft deck workshop area

Aft deck workshop area

Spares - what do you need?

The ideal of course would be to have a spare one of everything but that is impractical, unless you want a storage barge following you everywhere, so follow these steps.

  • For specialised kit that may be difficult to acquire along the way, keep a spare on board.   For me that relates to all the “imperial sizes” on board that have just about disappeared in Europe.  i.e.The Inch and a quarter PSS prop shaft seal.  Oh I can buy a 32mm easily enough but it doesn’t quite do it.

  • Try, wherever possible, to use generic kit that is all the same size so you only need one spare item to cover all.  I.e. turning blocks on the rigging, seacocks etc.

  • Where you don’t want to keep an actual spare on board the next best option is to research where you can buy one and speak to the distributor or manufacturer to understand how to order it and what other parts are needed along with it - like seals, grommets etc.  Make a list of these suppliers in your maintenance log, address, email, telephone number etc.   If you are lucky you may never need this information but if you do its an invaluable resource.  I use extensively as they can source a huge array of kit on your behalf and will ship it out to just about anywhere in a few days.

  • Assemble a box of generic parts like stainless screws, bolts, nuts, washers, spacers, split pins, shackles, blocks, short lengths of steel bracket, hose pipe etc

  • My electrical box has spare lengths of various cable sizes, antenna coax, crimp & solder terminals, sleeving, tape, spare switches of various types, waterproof connectors, shrink wrapping in various sizes, LED strip etc.

  • The bosun’s box has fiddles, hooks, needles, whipping twine, thread, toggles, patches, velcro, line clamps,  

My underlying thought is that you can’t know what you may need, where or when you may need it nor just how urgent a repair may be so the more bits you have available the more choice you will have to make a repair at sea.


Knowledge & Information.

The internet is a great resource and most manufacturers are putting details of their kit on their web sites.

  • So the first job is a list of all your gear including model, type, serial number, manufacturer, distributor, when & where purchased, warranty details, how it is powered etc.  Keep this list up to date as you fit new gear.

  • You should try to acquire “exploded diagrams” of all your winches, the windlass, engine, gearbox, cooker and anything else you have on board.

  • I keep a digital file of these including where I found the information.

  • For some of my gear I couldn’t find any details online so I carefully took them apart taking loads of photos as I went along.  Now I don’t worry about them as I know what is inside and how to repair it if necessary.

  • Pay special attention to your engine and gearbox.  Along with the model, serial number and year of build you may also need a “NAP” number.  This is a build number that relates specifically to your engine and allows you to identify exactly what is in your engine and not just the generic list of parts.  If you are very lucky, as I was, there will be an detailed list of parts and an engineering manual in the ship’s papers.   I didn’t understand the importance of this document at first but as my engine has got older and parts more difficult to acquire, having the exact references has been invaluable.

  • The final piece of the puzzle is a wiring and plumbing map of your boat.   It is unlikely to exist until you create it.   The more details you add, the easier it will be to find a fault in the future.  Colour coding or number identifying each wire sounds an enormous task but if you build it up as you go along you will gradually cover everything over time.  Look for tight points where chaffing might occur, replace or re-route as necessary.

When I first bought Rockhopper (age 13yrs and 3 previous owners) I had a problem starting the engine one night on the Thames.  All I was getting was the famous “click” when I pressed the starter rather than it roaring into life.  Realising I had an electrical fault I started looking closely at the wiring with a multi-meter.  In just one piece of wire running about 2 metres under the engine I found 6 crimp repairs and lots of green verdigre everywhere.  The wire was too thin for the load, running too near to the engine vibration and not properly secured.  I replaced the length on a better route with new terminals and all was well.   Eventually I replaced the entire engine loom so I knew it was all in good order and 16 years on I have never had another problem. (touch wood)


Confidence in your own ability.

Confidence comes with some training and lots of practice.

Training might be formal such as the many excellent courses offered by the RYA and many engine manufacturers.

But you can also acquire training informally by watching what an expert does and asking questions along the way.  If you are paying for someone to do work aboard your yacht pay close interest in what is done.   Most people are willing to talk about their skills and proud to show a newbie how it’s done.  From your perspective it helps you to understand how to do it next time and also helps prevent the “repair man” shorting the work when you are not looking.

If you can strike up a good rapport, ask if you can do the work under their supervision.  I picked up some excellent carpentry skills that way when refitting in 2003.

Another useful source of information will be your fellow cruisers.  Someone, somewhere will have already solved your current problem and might have pictures or information to assist you. Never be afraid to ask for help, we’ve all been there.   I find the Cruising Association (CA) excellent in this regard and as your own knowledge grows you will soon be contributing too.

Whenever I tackle a new job I always take lots of pictures so I have a record of the internals.  I also take pictures of the wiring in case anything becomes detached so I can see where it was connected to.

Some things will always be too technical for you and require an expert or it will need a special tool that is just too expensive to justify or carry later.  For those jobs you just have to grin and bear it.

The key thing is that when it all goes wrong, on a rainy night in an open bouncy seaway, you can cope with it sensibly.  Even if all you can achieve at that time is an ugly “jury rig” you will feel, justifiably, enormously smug you could get the yacht home safely.




ESSENTIAL KIT -  Anchors & Chain

ESSENTIAL KIT - Anchors & Chain

Fitting-Out Yourself and Your Crew

Fitting-Out Yourself and Your Crew