The definition of cruising as repairing your boat in exotic places entered the realm of clichés long ago, but that doesn’t make it any less true. There’s no end of irony in the fact that while you can pay $20,000 for a new car and be shocked and upset if it breaks down a few days later, no one is really surprised that a boat that costs as much as a house, in some cases a mansion, can have technicians swarming over it for weeks after it’s launched.
The aptly named punch list—so called because an owner feels like he’s been punched several times in the wallet after reading it—can be dauntingly long, especially in today’s systems-heavy boats. These are complex creations, groaning under the weight of equipment from different manufacturers that must all be connected, commissioned, tweaked, tuned and sweet-talked into functioning in perfect harmony. If just one element refuses to play with the others it is cause for despair.
It is at such times that even the most gadget-crazy sailor yearns, if only momentarily, for the simplicity most famously embraced by sailors like Lin and Larry Pardey. No engine, minimal electronics—nothing much to go wrong. I can see the appeal. I have myself (usually upon emerging, reeking of diesel, from the bowels of the boat) pondered the virtues of such an uncomplicated sailing life. But then I’ve fished an icy beer out of the electric fridge, washed the grime off with pressurized hot water out of a faucet, got the Grateful Dead blasting out of the cockpit speakers, fired up the newly bled engine, taken a quick glance at the plotter and chugged off regardless. You can’t have it both ways…
You can also count on the fact that the more things there are to go wrong, the more things will eventually go wrong. The wise sailor trains him or herself always to be on the alert for the next point of failure; checking turnbuckles for missing split pins, guardwires for rust, lines for chafe, steering cables for broken wire strands, electrical runs for poor connections or pinched wires, batteries for low water levels, shackles for loose pins, fuel lines for weeps or damage, alternator belts for tension, sails for worn stitching, engine mounts for integrity, hose clamps for corrosion. It is the knowledge of what to look for, and what to do about it, that separates the sailor from the dilettante.
Even if you’ve never opened your car’s hood in anger and have to call for help to change a tire, you still need to know your boat and be able to look after it. I know some people call a towing service at any excuse, but most issues with boats are down to poor or deferred maintenance. If you just don’t have the time to do serious work on your boat, you still owe it to yourself to know how things work. It’s not hard; if you want to learn, buy copies of Charlie Wing’s How Boat Things Work and Don Casey’s Sailboat Maintenance Manual. If you own a complicated boat with lots of systems, you can’t do without Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual.
These will give you the basic knowledge you’ll need to look after your boat. Read them before you head off to anywhere more exotic than your slip, and hopefully you won’t be the one needing a tow.