Portable generator benefits, and how to care for one aboard

14 Jan

sunset underway

We strive to be a green boat, and supply our power through sun and wind as much as possible. But the wants of five people can outstrip what our solar panels and wind turbine provide- especially during a time of grey skies or equatorial calms. Unfortunately, we had periods of cloudy skies and not much wind while we were in Southeast Asia, so our green power struggled to keep up.

sailboat sunset generatorBatteries like to be kept above a minimum charge (amount depends on battery voltage and type) and to get a full recharge now and again instead of routine partial charges. Our first battery bank (12 volt AGM) started failing after a solid service life, and we found ourselves running Totem’s engine more often to charge up. That’s not kind to the Yanmar, or fuel efficient charging – and it heats up the cabin! Before our decision to add a generator, charging batteries accounted for more diesel engine hours than propulsion in SE Asia’s fickle winds. Ultimately, the portable generator has cut our diesel engine run time by about 50%. We did add gasoline costs, but the net fuel saving is significant and meaningful wear and tear reduction on our Yanmar more so.

Even though we had much better conditions for solar/wind power with last year’s tradewind sailing, I’m still very glad we picked up a Honda 2000 back in Malaysia. We’re often able to go weeks at a time without running it at all, but can then face weeks where we run it every few days to keep battery voltage up. It might be the conditions, it might be our increased power use . We’ve also done other modifications to reduce our power consumption, such as: new refrigeration box (saving roughly 75 amp hours/ day), and more LED lights. Net-net, the generator is a welcome addition when green energy comes up short.

Sometimes, it’s handy to have generator power. AC devices often require huge DC power, then inverted to AC in order to run. So if running for any length of time we switch on the generator. This is the case with some of Jamie’s power tools and our underwater breather “hooka” rig.

red Honda 2000 generator powering tools

Inboard vs portable

Everything on a boat is a tradeoff. Inboard gensets are typically quieter, more efficient, cleaner burning, and are safely stowed below. On the other hand, inboards are more mechanically complex, and thus more difficult to service or repair when it is inevitably necessary. They’re more expensive and take up more space. And, of course, you can’t take them to the beach!

It turns out that portability can come in extremely handy. When we assisted with the rescue of Pipistrelle in Chagos last year, Totem’s little Honda 2000 generator powered the grinder and sanders on the remote beach. This allowed Jamie and Evan to rebuild the extensively damaged rudder of the Wauquiez 48, so it could sail 1000+ miles for more complete repairs- you can see the red generator in the background of the photo above.

Most of the time, it sits on our aft deck. If away from Totem for a longer stretch (watching lions in Africa!) and concerned about security, we (Jamie) stow it in the main cabin with the run dry. For the most part, a drab cover and chain/lock help keep it from being a red beacon to petty thieves.

Basic setup

We really don’t like having “stuff” on deck, but this is a very small footprint and out of the way. Jamie made a simple cover from Sunbrella scraps to protect it from the elements. At the exhaust, he made a pooched opening, so that if it starts to rain while the generator is running it’s possible to turn-off and cover it immediately without having fabric over the hot metal.

generator hiding

where’s waldo? there’s a generator hiding in this picture


Jamie took a few steps to help make the generator a little more marine-friendly.

First, he removed the exhaust “pipe” (he promises it’s easy) and painted with several coast of high-heat, rust-resistant paint. This was based on other cruisers with reporting that the exhaust will rust out every couple years. Our generator is about two years old now and with not notable rust on exhaust.

Not so easy is putting Tefgel or lanocote on the threads of all fasteners holding the housing…but you’ll be glad you made the effort later. We didn’t and had to remove the housing and found some of the fasteners frozen in place.

He recommends using BoeShield or CRC Soft Seal (great stuff!) to provide a protective layer on surface metal. That’s every housing screw-head, the little metal bits underneath the rubber feet, and even metal in the control face.  You could probably use it on just about every metal bit on the generator except for the muffler, which gets too hot.


Adding gas from a typical jerry can is cumbersome, so use a smaller can to decant. A handy trick is to get one that’s the same size as the tank capacity, to take the guesswork out of the fuel level. It’s not easy to tell, and easy to spill from overfilling.

After too many experiences with bad fuel, we always pour fuel through a Teflon filter to remove impurities. It might seem like a pain but it’s really a simple step, and if your filter is a funnel to facilitate filling, there’s really no extra effort.


Changing the oil is a hassle! It’s simply a bad design. We put a wide funnel in a waste oil can, lift the unit (awkward!) and pour it in… splat mat required. It might be possible to change the oil with an extraction pump; we haven’t tried (the pump we use for engine oil changes is about 10x the necessary capacity). If anyone has better ideas on how to deal with this… please share your thoughts!


The pull cord doesn’t have a fair lead internally… another poor design. Over time, it chafes through (our original cord lasted about one year). Keep spare line to use for pull cord so you don’t get caught by surprise. The best option we had on hand at the time was some spare leech line, which only lasted a couple of months: 2 – 3 mil Dyneema is the best because of its natural slipperiness.


The Honda 2000 on one boat we know was behaving erratically: sometimes it started, sometimes it didn’t. After a fair bit of mucking about (and spending money with a mechanic) they determined it was a known defect in the oil sensors. It’s triggered by events like tilting, something that happens now and then on most cruising boats! Personal and broad second hand knowledge suggests that these machines take much abuse and still run – if you find starting to be troublesome, it may be the oil sensor. There is a simple work around by snipping the sensor wire (sort of like defusing a bomb!)

It’s a winner

I grudgingly admit it. As much as I’d love to be an all-green-power boat, our carbon footprint is very small, and the generator is a great addition to Totem. Still, Jamie has more ideas on being greener that will be fun to experiment when well stocked chandlaries/ hardware stores are in close proximity.

This post is syndicated on Sailfeed.

chagos pipistrelle honda generator


  1. Erwin McQueen

    I just ordered a Westinghouse IGen 2500 very highly rated and the most powerful portable inverter generator in its class. The IGen 2500 has 2500 watts starting and 2200 watts running and is the same weight and size as the Honda 2000 at only 47 lbs. The Westinghouse is also about $400 cheaper than the Honda or Yamaha.
    I wanted a generator that has enough power for my 12000 btu air conditioning.

  2. Elsa Anderson

    I had no idea that there are so many benefits to portable generator benefits, so I am glad that I found this article! You make a great point that inboard gensets are typically quieter but are usually more mechanically complex and more expensive. Also, the fact that you can take the portable generator somewhere else if you need to use it for other things is a large benefit. This makes me think it would be worth it for me to get a genset because it could save time and money.

  3. James Brinker

    I am so glad I came across this article! Starting to research which generator to get was confusing, but you’ve laid it all out in such a simplistic manner. Very informative! Thanks!!

  4. Precious Leyva

    Very useful advice; I’ve never thought to look into generators for a boat until recently. Great to know that they are a good option and useful in backup situations. Hopefully I can find something that would fit my needs at a decent price!

  5. Brad

    Changing the oil on the generator..

    Can you create some sort of funnel (maybe out of a cut milk carton) and somehow attach and secure it to the oil outflow (duct tape comes to mind).. then funnel it into a receptacal??

  6. Harv Hauschildt

    We use a Yamaha 2000 while cruising the Northwest on a C&C 34+36. Honda and Yamaha are the two top rated generator/inverters sold. I thought the Yamaha was just a tad better when I purchased it as it had a fuel gage that the Honda didn’t and was just a bit quieter. Both units can be combined with a like unit to give you a 4000 starting or 3600 running output. We store our unit under the helm seat and keep it protected with a factory cover. When we go a shore, we lock it bellow decks so its out of sight. These units are expensive costing close to $1,000 dollars but nothing comes close to either unit for quality and reliability.

  7. Ed LePera

    Honda generators have great engines, I use to do general serving of them. I like the fact your run it dry from time to time. Most people buy generators run them a bit and leave them sitting for months with gas in them. Then they wonder while they won’t start.

  8. Pingback: Portable generator benefits, and how to care for one aboard | Sailing Totem

  9. Marci Fisher

    Honda generators have a great reputation but they sure are pricey. We took a chance and bought Northern Tool’s 2000 W Powerhorse generator for about half the price of a Honda. Started on first pull out of the box and no more than two pulls since. If any of your readers are in the market for a generator, I strongly recommend considering this one.

    S/V FNR

  10. Tigidal

    Curious how you connect the Honda to the boat for charging the batteries? A 30 AMP cord on both the boat and generator? Thanks.

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