Thoughts of life on a cruising sailboat often elicit images of Mai Tai cocktails and brilliant sunsets. But cruising can also be described as ‘fixing your boat in exotic places.’ That’s why it’s so important to get the most boat you can afford and then outfit it with essentials that will make life not only easier, but also safer, more comfortable, and generally less like camping. These 10 upgrades will make it happen.
1. Ground Tackle
Good ground tackle is like good insurance—not to mention a guarantee that you’ll sleep soundly at night. First, make sure you have three different types of anchors because it’s likely you’ll be anchoring on different kinds of bottoms whether sand, mud, rock, kelp or grass. There is no perfect anchor, just one perfect for whatever conditions you find.
We like two anchors on the bow—a large primary on an all chain rode, and a secondary on a rope/chain combination. Not only can you deploy two in case of inclement weather, you have a spare in case one doesn’t make it back aboard. Choose a primary anchor that’s one size up for what’s specified for your vessel if you want peace-of-mind. A secondary anchor can be a bit smaller and we’ve found a claw or Bruce anchor fits neatly next to a large primary in the bow roller. Add a third anchor that’s somewhat portable and lightweight, so you can launch it out of the dinghy or by hand off the stern.
If there’s one thing that will make your old boat sail like a new one, it’s a good suit of sails. But sails are expensive—so should you upgrade the old ones or start fresh? Obviously, that depends on the age of the cloth, the condition of the stitching and the versatility of the sailplan in different wind conditions. Definitely take your sails to a loft and at least invest in re-stitching and basic cleaning. If your old sails are blown out, consider having new ones made, possibly mail-order via Asian sailmakers. U.S. lofts subcontract a lot of this work out to China already, so it’s not as odd as it sounds.
You will most likely spend 80-percent of your waking hours in the cockpit, so make the most of it. Adding a full all-weather enclosure will keep you warm in a breeze or cool in the sun, dry and protected. Consider mesh privacy screens so you can see out, but the anchorage can’t see in. More importantly, gauge the safety of your cockpit. Can you brace your feet when the boat is heeling? Are the surfaces slippery? Are there enough handholds to move the width and length of the cockpit when the seas get rough? Add rails and painted non-skid, as necessary.
Chartplotters and radar displays belong at the helm and not as tradition has it, buried below by the nav station. If your displays are not within reach of the helm, consider adding new equipment by the wheel.
Beyond the basics (communications gear, electronic charting, radar, depth, wind and speed instruments) you may consider adding an Automatic Identification System that can help with collision avoidance. For communications, consider a satellite phone. They work virtually everywhere and both the hardware and software have become much more affordable. In fact, packages for voice and data can be pre-purchased to cap spending and you can do basic email (no attachments) as well. Inmarsat, Globalstar and Iridium all have solutions that are within the budget of the average cruiser. If satellite is not in your future, choose the old stand by SSB radio that you can pair with SailMail to do basic email. It’s a great way to join the cruising community as there are set nets that broadcast information on a daily schedule. To learn about some other options for staying in touch, read Internet on Boats: Stay Connected While Getting Away.
5. Electric Systems
Power-hungry accessories mean you’ll need to have ample electricity starting with good battery banks, so upgrade from wet cells to sealed, maintenance- free batteries like AGM or gels. The amount of power you will need depends on your habits and the equipment aboard. Five hundred amp hours is a starting point for today’s cruisers and 1,000 amp hours will be better. Radios, lights, fans, microwave ovens, TVs, and electronics all need good battery capacity and strong voltage to function. Don’t skimp, or you’ll be camping.
Consider your charging system and upgrading the genset, inverter and/or charger. When choosing an inverter, spend more for a pure sine wave version to charge sensitive electronics like laptops. If you plan on charging with the main engine, keep in mind that it will add quite a few hours to your main power source so add a larger alternator if your engine can handle it. Also consider adding passive charging systems like a wind generator or solar panels. Both have improved dramatically in recent years.
6. Water Systems
Clean water is something we take for granted ashore, but not so easy to come by on a boat. Deep-clean your water tanks and consider if they will be sufficient for long passages or weeks at anchor. You may want to add a watermaker. Today, this equipment is modular so it can be installed in different places on the boat like in the head, engine room or under a settee.
Have spares and rebuild kits for the heads, and carry extra fresh and saltwater pumps. Check the condition of the through-hulls, especially if you are hauling out. If they’re at all sketchy, replace them—a failed through-hull is a big hole in the boat.
Sailboats are meant to sail, but they do an awful lot of motoring as well. Adding a dual fuel-filter system will be good insurance against problems from bad fuel you may pick up in foreign ports. Filterboss has a nice pre-rigged dual Racor solution or you can build your own if you’re handy. If the motor is finicky, consider a repower but realize that it’s not just the engine that you’ll be replacing. Add in the cost of the transmission, running gear, removal of the old engine and the labor for installation of the new one. It adds up fast.
Your tender is like your car, and you can’t get to or from without it. So upgrade to the biggest one you can handle. Rigid bottom inflatables (RIBs) are popular with cruisers due to their stability and relatively low weight, and will prove a valuable leg up over that old inflatable you have now. A new outboard will be a good improvement too; you may even opt for a propane-based outboard like a Lehr or an electric version like a Torqueedo, if you’d rather not carry gasoline aboard.
9. Safety Equipment
Safety items are insurance, and many people are loathe to spend money on something they hope they will not need. The point, however, is to have it in the worst case scenario. And in that case you’ll be relieved if you’ve added an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) to your boat.
10. "Crap on the back"
Last is a category of things that renowned naval architect Robert Perry calls “crap on the back.” These are the add-ons that make life aboard endlessly easier. They begin with a stainless-steel arch, which can hold:
- Stereo speakers
- Bar-B-Qs with propane tanks
- Outdoor shower heads
- Wind generators and solar panels
- Engine/dinghy hoists
Consider these 10 upgrades, and you won’t regret it—each and every one will help you enjoy more of those Mai Tai sunsets, and less of that ‘fixing in exotic places’.