The mortgage, your kid’s college tuition, car payments, and your family’s weekly food allowance all share one thing in common: they sap off your number-one financial priority, the boating budget. Yes, yes, I know—you do your best to suppress those annoying expenses, and funnel as much cash as possible to Mom‘s Mink. But it never seems to be enough, does it? So, how will you go about dressing up your best girl this spring? What will you do to make her look and feel special, without taking on more debt than the federal government?


Cutting those aforementioned land-lubberly expenses is, of course, the preferred method. But even if you’ve already cut to the bone and don’t have a dime to spare, you can still make some significant boat enhancements. Well, okay, you might need a dime or two. In fact, you might need as much as four or five bucks to do some of these things, which is why we said “free and cheap,” instead of just “free”. And if you really can’t afford to spend five bucks right now, then you’re simply living beyond your means—and it’s not fair to penalize your boat, by sending your kids to college. So, let’s get busy.

Freebie: The Penniless Performance Boost

You can make your boat go faster by one to three MPH, without spending one red cent. What you will need to provide, however, is some elbow grease. First, get rid of all excess weight aboard your boat. Unless you’re going on an extended cruise pump the freshwater tank out until it’s just a quarter full, get rid of all the gear you thought you may need one day but never seem to break out, and pump the holding tank dry. You’ll be shocked at how much faster the same boat goes when the load is lighter.

This is, of course, a pretty cheap tip—what did you expect, in an article about freebies? But it gets better: if your boat has a painted bottom, there’s more you can do to get a speed boost. Bottom paint isn't very smooth, and rough surfaces cause speed-sapping turbulence as they move through the water. Make ‘em super-slick, and you’ll gain another one to two MPH.

Wet-sanding will do the trick. You’ll need both 220 and 400 grit sandpaper; start with the 220-grit paper, and work your way from stem to stern, lightly sanding the bottom of your boat—but forget about that circular sanding motion. That’s for removing the paint, and we just want to smooth it out a bit, with all the micro-grooves that sandpaper creates oriented fore and aft. So you’ll need to make each and every stroke parallel to the centerline. After you’re done, start over again and repeat the process with 400-grit paper. Be sure to smooth out any noticeable bumps or imperfections as you go, and when the job is complete, your boat will be a bit faster.

Cheapie: Towels of Thrift

The next time you’re in the boating store (or on Amazon) pick up a tube of towels. Yes, I said a tube. These uber-condensed “magic” towels are the size of a quarter, but they un-fold and expand to the size of a regular dishrag. Different sizes and numbers can be had for different deals, but I did the math and determined that on average these things cost about 10 to 15 cents each, or $15 for a tube of 100.

Of course, we already keep rags on our boats. They are, after all, the staple tool when it comes to shining up a helm or cleaning off a windscreen. But ask yourself: how many times have you delayed cleaning a spill or wiping down a window because there wasn’t a rag close at hand, at the moment? It happens all the time, especially when the boat is in rough seas. Meanwhile, your boat’s appearance grows shabby and in the long run, may be stained or marred. These little dot towels are the solution.

Break open the tube, and put a couple of dots in the glove box. Then hide a few in different galley drawers, place two or three in a drawer in the head, and scatter a couple through the salon. You get the idea. The dot towels are small enough to easily hide, and once they’re hidden throughout your boat, you’ll always have a rag—a cheap rag—close at hand.

Freebie: Cost-Free Electronics Upgrade

Although you almost certainly have both a GPS and a VHF radio on your boat, they probably aren’t interfaced—denying you DSC capabilities. In fact, according to the USCG, close to 9 out of 10 boats which have these units onboard either aren't properly interfaced and/or registered to take advantage of DSC. Why should you care? Because if you ever have to call the USCG in an emergency, having active DSC means they will know exactly where and who you are, as soon as you hit the panic button and transmit. That’s a hefty boost to your safety margin, and a significant electronic upgrade for your boat.

dsc vhf radio

Unless your VHF has an integrated GPS, chances are you're not taking advantage of DSC. That's a shame, because doing so would be FREE!

Interfacing a modern GPS and VHF is usually as easy as attaching the NMEA output wire of one to the NMEA input of the other. There’s a chance your units won’t play nice, but if they were made within a few years of each other they probably will via either NMEA 0183 or NMEA 2000 protocol. It’s easy enough to find out if your GPS and VHF will speak the same language; just Google it. Remember, however, that if they’re made by different manufacturers the plug ends almost certainly won’t match, and you’ll have to splice a few color-coded wires together. Again, Google and an online owner’s manual will make this a piece of cake. In some cases, you also have to enter the menu on the GPS and tell the unit to send out the data stream.

You’ve got those wires spliced? Good job. Now, you have to go to BoatUS and get an MMSI (maritime mobile service identity) number, to program into your VHF unit. Don’t worry—getting an MMSI is as free as breathing.

Cheapie: Go Through With It

How many times have you gone around the boat with a screw-driver, and tightened up one screw after another? Chances are this is a regular event—either that, or pieces-parts of your boat regularly fall off, when the screws vibrate loose and back out.

Any boater who’s owned his or her boat for more than a few seasons has been down this road more than once, but there’s an easy way to end the agony of endless screw-spinning. Simply buy a handful of bolts and aircraft-style nylock locking nuts. Then spend an hour or two replacing all of those screws with through-bolts that won’t ever back out. When you can’t get behind the fastener to attach a bolt, at least give the screw a dab of Loctite.

Freebie: Great Lines, Gratis

Your anchor rode and dock lines are old and stiff? They look pretty raggedy, too, but buying a completely new set would eat up a pile of dough. No problem. Follow these instructions, and you can make those old lines look and feel like new.

First, find an old five-gallon bucket and fill it half-way with warm water. Then, add a cup of fabric softener. Coil your line(s) into the bucket, and let them soak for two or three hours. Finally, find a cool, well-ventilated, and fully-shaded area where you can lay out the lines to dry. You’ll find that after this treatment they’re soft, pliable, and better-looking then they've been in years.

Wait a sec—don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. You still need to check the ends of all the lines for fraying. Cut off any stragglers, then whip the ends or use the burn-and-tape method, to keep those braids together.

Cheapie: Shush When You Shut

Isn’t it annoying when you drop a fiberglass hatch, and it makes a loud CRACK as it slams shut? But there is an easy—and cheap—fix to this problem. Buy a roll of sticky-back gasket material (any well-stocked boating supply store should carry it, and it only costs a few bucks). Put strips on the fiberglass where the hatches slam shut, and the next time you let one fall shut, it’ll be shushed.

Freebie: Scentillating Solution

Does your head stink? Yeah, we thought so. Most do. Without good venting, anaerobic bacteria goes hog-wild. And it’s the anaerobic bacteria that make your head stink. Quite often, venting the holding tank is a mere afterthought to the boat-builder. The solution to your stinky situation is in improving that ventilation.

Increasing the diameter of the hoses and vents is one fix, and it may come to that. But this move would cost money. Before you pry open your wallet you may be able to solve the problem. Simply check all of the vent lines, looking for sags, bends, and arches. All of these reduce the vent’s ability to breathe, and surprisingly often, are significant enough to make a big difference. Trimming length and straightening the runs is often good enough to end those offensive odors.

Freebie: Complementary Chartography

The money we pay for the latest and most accurate chartography is, without question, well worth the cost. Today, you can even create your own digital chartography with your fishfinder and GPS. (We show you how, in the article Chart Transplant). But if you’re just kicking about in a skiff or you never go far from your dock, you probably didn't lay out the money to get that detailed data. And there’s no reason you should, because NOAA makes their standard-issue electronic charts available for free. Check out NOAA nautical charts, where the government gives away digital chartography for U.S. waters. You can look at these charts right on your computer screen or print them out, and although they won’t come close to today’s high-end chartography, in many situations they’ll get the job done—for free.

noaa chartography

NOAA chartography, anyone? You can look at these without spending a penny.

Cheapie: Getting Tired Yet?

Believe it or not, one of the best ways to make your boat stand out in a crowd is to stop in the auto-parts store and spend five bucks on a bottle of tire cleaner. You may even have one already, if you bother cleaning your land vehicle now and again. And if you do clean that automobile, stop it—what a waste of perfectly good boat-cleaning time. (Tow vehicles excepted). That tire cleaner gives any rubberized surface a coal-black sheen which looks great. Dab some on a rag and rub it across rub rails, window gaskets, rubber tension latches, and everything else of a rubbery nature.

Freebie: Appsolutely Free

Okay, we admit your cell phone isn’t exactly a part of your boat. But chances are you have it with you every time you cast off the lines. So, why not utilize it, and become a better boater? All you need to do is download one of several free yet extremely helpful weather apps, which will give you access to the latest weather predictions, Doppler radar, and wind and wave states. There are a slew to choose from, but read Marine Weather Apps for your Smartphone, and you’ll make a good pick.

And don’t forget, you could turn that little pocket communicator into a full-blown navigational wonder, if you were willing to spend a few bucks. Skim over 10 Navigation and Smartphone Hits for Power Boaters, to learn more.

Well, there you have it, folks—10 ways to better boating without spending big bucks. But there’s one more way we think you can make boating better, without breaking the bank: stay right here, on the editorial pages of Check out our Boat Maintenance and DIY articles. Have a look through our How-To videos and features. Spend some time perusing the boat reviews and tests. Our editorial team consists of recognized experts in the marine field, and represents decade upon decade of professional experience. As if you care—what really counts is, it’s FREE!