Top Ten Pieces of Cruising Gear

8 Sep

Another Top Ten list…it’s just like David Letterman. This is my list of the best optional items on a cruising sailboat. We’ll assume you’ve got good sails, rigging, a functioning rudder etc. This isn’t a list of the basic parts of a boat, but a list of where you may or may not choose to spend your money when deciding on additional gear. These are all things you could do without, or go cheap on, but I’m recommending them, or recommending you don’t go cheap on them, for the reasons below. It’s a question of long term liveaboard comfort and sustainability: If you’re just cruising for a season, you don't need any of this crap, and I recommend you keep things simple, but if you’re setting out with the intention of spending a few years out there, these items will make life better. If I didn’t start out with these items, I added them along the way:

1. Windvane:

The windvane partially fueled the great boom in cruising that started in the sixties. The solo circumnavigators Chichester, Knox-Johnston, Moitessier et al were able to do what they did because of the windvane. If you had to steer all the time, solo and shorthanded sailing would be impossible, or at least very tiring. A windvane uses no electricity, and is relatively simple, meaning it can be repaired anywhere you can find basic parts, a welder, or a machine shop. An electronic autopilot, on the other hand…well, let’s just say I met lots of people, all over the world, who were stuck in port, waiting on parts for their autopilots. Most autopilots just don’t seem to stand up to the 24/7, weeks-at-a-time-in-bad-weather kind of punishment that a windvane seems to enjoy. Maybe I’m a traditionalist, but there is something satisfying about sailing along at eight knots with the boat steering itself, using no electricity whatsoever, while you sit and meditate on the stars. The hardest working piece of gear aboard.

2. Wheelhouse/Hard Dodger:

My boat was built with a hard dodger—more of an open wheelhouse—as part of the design. It changes the whole experience, mostly for the better. Under the wheelhouse I’m not as much one with the elements, but if I want them I can just step outside. For extended cruising it keeps everyone sane by protecting them from sun, rain, spray, hail, etc. I’ve been sailing side-by-side with other cruisers, watching them cower under a small dodger wearing full foulies, while I’m wearing sweat pants and fuzzy slippers, reading a book. It’s also the perfect place to mount solar panels, and I’ve got all my electronics, and my chart table, right there in front of the helm where I need them. If your boat doesn’t have a substantial dodger of some sort, this will cost some money, but will be well worth it for all the time spent in the cockpit and out in the elements. (photo is not of my boat, but I like that wheelhouse)

3. Electronics:

You can live without the gadgets, but you’ll also be very glad you’ve got them. I was on a very tight budget and really fretted the radar decision. I ended up getting a great deal on the cheapest possible little radar, and it allowed me to go places I probably wouldn’t have gone without it. If I were to take off cruising again, I’d definitely add AIS. If you can pull off the whole suite—GPS, chartplotter, depth, radar, AIS, VHF—I’d say go for it. Most of these items can be combined in one now, or routed through an iPad or laptop. Communications (SSB vs. satphone etc.) is another ball of wax, as is how much we let ourselves rely on the gadgetry.

4. Windsurfer Board:

Or a kayak, or a stand-up paddleboard. I brought a full-size, 12-foot windsurfer with me around the world. Occasionally I rigged up the sail, but mostly the board was just a great, shallow draft exploration toy. It serves as a second dinghy, and eases the logistics if you’ve got different crewmembers wanting to be different places. And while the dinghy takes a while to launch and get together, a windsurfer board/kayak/SUP can just be pitched over the side, ready to go. Yes, it took up a lot of room on deck, and stuck out like a sore thumb, but it was worth it.

5. Dinghy:

I just blogged about the importance of the dinghy last week, but I’ll say again that you should not underestimate just how much you’ll be using it. In full-on cruising life you’ll make 5-10 trips in the dinghy every day, and probably cover several miles, on average. If your dinghy is leaky, has to be pumped up every time, or has a temperamental motor, this won’t be a now-and-then headache; this will be an every couple of hours headache. After several versions of fairly old and crappy inflatables, I finally bought a brand new one in Malaysia…wow, a whole new lease on life with much less cussing in the dark.

6. Refrigeration:

A fridge used to be a major luxury that usually took some extra battery capacity to power. This changed with small, 12-volt units in the eighties, and it’s only getting better. The latest Danfoss compressors (the hearts of all smaller units) are more efficient than ever. My fridge now only consumes about thirty amp hours per day, which is easily supplied by my solar panels. Refrigeration isn’t just about cold beer, although cold beer is one of the greatest parts of cruising. In the tropics yeast dies, so you can’t even bake bread. Just being able to keep things like yeast, butter, limes, and the fish you catch adds months to your cruising comfort, and on shorter cruises, like up to three weeks, you can be eating whatever fresh stuff you want, right up to the last day.

7. Diesel Heater:

If you sail anywhere cold, this will be your favorite thing. As with the wheelhouse, it’s the difference between getting by and being comfortable. And it’s not just about keeping warm: a diesel heater keeps things dry inside. Without one, condensation from breath, cooking, and sweating will turn the inside of your boat into a dripping, mildewed cave after a few weeks in the cold. My heater has a little window to see the flame, which lights the main cabin with flickering light and adds scads of atmosphere…scads! And it’s got enough of a flat surface on top to keep the tea kettle hot all through the day.

8. Roller-Furling Headsail:

It just makes you sail more, because it’s so easy to roll out. Even though we should all feel safe and comfortable waltzing up to our foredecks while clipped into our jacklines, there are times when we’d rather not, and most sailing accidents happen up there. I crossed the Pacific with hank-on headsails, added roller-furling in Australia, and never looked back.

9. Electric Windlass:

I met several cruisers who purposely installed manual windlasses because they wanted the exercise. With a manual windlass you’ll get your exercise alright, and you’ll also get your anchor up very slowly. Cruising is about anchoring in nice places, and the whole anchoring apparatus should be quick, easy, and safe. Being able to get the anchor up or down quickly is a safety issue: if you’re dragging toward the rocks, you don’t want to have to make 225 back-and-forth cranks on a manual windlass, or break your back pulling hand-over-hand, while the helmsman screams at you from the cockpit. I have a remote switch for my windlass, which lets me power up or down from the cockpit. This saved my bacon several times when I was solo.

10. Watermaker:

You don’t need to make 1000 gallons a day; you just need to make enough to extend your cruising range. I collected lots of rainwater, and I filled up with potable dock water whenever I had the chance, but my 40 gallon per day watermaker let me cruise to some very remote places, for months at a time, and still take (one quart) fresh water showers, brew beer, and not have to fret. Watermakers are buggy and very hands-on: you’ll frequently be changing pre-filters, replacing seals, and doing a lot of routine maintenance, so with that in mind, if you’re not about to take off cruising, don’t get one! Once you install a watermaker and use it the first time the membrane begins its long decline, so it's use-it-or-lose-it.

11. Guitar:

I play guitar fairly badly, and so does everyone else on the planet. The guitar is the most common musical instrument in the world, very compact, and can be a great way to connect with the people you meet…play it, loan it, learn their songs, they learn yours. If you don’t play, those long night watches are a good time to practice. And if you happen to have a cheap guitar, or a second guitar, it will make the best gift you could ever give to some kid/village/friend along the way.


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