Basic Mechanical Skills You Need As A Cruiser | Become A Cruiser
Boat Yoga. Some Places on a boat are not easy to reach to work on. There is a certain amount of basic mechanical skills you should learn before going cruising

Basic Mechanical Skills You Should Learn Before Going Cruising

I don’t like anyone else touching my boat to work on it. Especially dealer mechanics. Well maybe, except for riggers and welders, I know my limits!

Every issue we have ever had on the boat that became a major fix-up job was after a trained dealer mechanic touched the saildrives, engine, or electrical system. Here are a few basic mechanical skills you need as a cruiser.

Fear not! Doing your own maintenance is actually quite an easy skill to learn. Just take your time. Before cruising I wore a white shirt to work. Proudly deposited my car at the dealership for an oil change. Called the handyman to the house for the smallest fix.

My excuse was always I’m too busy. That was mostly the truth. With everything else going on with land life it was not something I wanted to do. Out cruising, dare I say at times I enjoy it. More so I get satisfaction from getting something running that had a problem.

You Really Do Need To Learn Basic Boat Maintenance

We have all read blogs and watched videos where people have got themselves into trouble by not knowing some basic boat maintenance.

Shocking stories of needing to be rescued or towed into port all because the new cruisers had no idea how to change an impeller or bleed a fuel system! On investigation, it became clear that most mechanical issues people deal with can be solved on board with just a few skills.

I resolved that before we went cruising I would do all of my own maintenance, I vowed to learn the basic mechanical skills you should learn before cruising. Decided that I would become an expert in every single system installed onboard.

The boatowner of today with limited funds needs a good working knowledge of all systems aboard, the ability to keep up with maintenance, and the means to troubleshoot and repair a broad range of breakdowns.

Part of Your Five-Year Plan Should Include Learning Basic Mechanical Skills You Will Need as a Cruiser

One Christmas about three years before or planned cast-off date. My Mom and Dad gave me a copy of Nigel Calders, Boat Owners, and Mechanical and Electrical Handbook. I studied this fantastic guide cover to cover.

Studied as in, made it a project, underlining, making notes, and researching everything online that I couldn’t figure out. I did this over about two years, little by little. And by the time I stepped on board our boat I was confident I could figure most basic things out.

The First Time I had To Call in Some Help!

It was with strong resistance that I had to call a marine electrical guy only a month after taking ownership of the boat. The port engine wouldn’t start and was well beyond my scope of ability. Mostly because I had learned all this great knowledge and was intimidated to jump right in. I figured out it was an electrical issue so I was proud of myself for that.

The electrical guy came, poked, and prodded for about fifteen minutes then spent the next hour and a half hour drinking coffee and rearranging his tool kit twice before he finally rewired a relay terminal. I paid the four hundred bucks and made the decision that this wasn’t going to happen again. I would try until I failed.

Not two weeks later we smelt smoke and quickly came to find the terminal that the electrical guy had repaired melting. He had not made a proper crimp and the positive wire had fallen out causing a dead short! It melted the entire engine electrical wiring loom!

Luckily we were on the boat and at anchor so a full-blown fire did not start. $350 and a week later with shipping to Martinique, we had a new wiring loom! $800 wasted on what should have been a $2 repair. New cruiser school fees!

Basic Mechanical Skills You Should Learn Before Going Cruising:

Bonus Points If You Also Learn How To:

  • Recharge a refrigeration or air conditioning gas system
  • Work with fiberglass and Gelcoat
  • Splice lines
  • Use a multimeter
  • Make an electrical crimp

What Are The Most Common Breakdowns You Will Deal With?

Before going cruising with no mechanical skills. I scared myself with the thoughts of having to stitch ripped sails mid-ocean, fix overheating engines in big seas, or diagnose various unfathomable electrical gremlins which left us with a dark boat in the middle of a storm.

The simple truth is you learn to cruise much the same way as one would tackle eating an elephant. One bite at a time!

You will most likely start cruising locally or in the Caribbean, Sea of Cortez, or even the Mediterranean. Your passages will be short and you will choose excellent weather windows. In the beginning, you will seldom be more than 20 miles or so from a port. That means, for the most part, there will be no need to do mid passage maintenance provided you are on top of your preventative maintenance.

By far the biggest issues we have encountered have all been electrical. And of those failures corrosion has been the culprit most of the time. I think this holds true for most cruisers provided routine maintenance is kept up.

Take a look at my post covering some of the sticky mechanical situations we have had and how we have solved them in remote locations.

The Key to Preventing Ninety-Nine Percent of All Mid-Passage Maintenance is by Doing Excellent Preventative Maintenance

When you get the boat, irrespective of what the last owner promised you they had done. Service the engines, this is a great start to learning the basic mechanical skills you need as a cruiser.

Picture of customer picking up a genuine Volvo Penta part. Being able to fit the impeller shown is part of the mechanical skills you need as a cruiser.
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There are certain items which are not worth saving a buck on. Impellers are one of them. It just pays to use the OEM specified part. Hint: When it comes to things like impellers, fuel filters, belts or anything you may need to change on the fly, make sure you pick up at least one extra to have on hand should a failure occur at sea or in a remote anchorage.

Start with the easy to do things. Change the oil. Empty the coolant system. Open up the heat exchanger. Pull all the little bits of impeller out of there from previous failures which were most likely due to not properly following the engine maintenance schedule.

Reassemble with new O-rings. Replace the heat exchanger anode if your engine has one. Change the impeller. Important: Do not lubricate with a petroleum-based lube such as Petroleum Jelly or KY, you will destroy the blades. Use the glycerine lube that comes with the impeller or dish soap.

Flush the system and refill with coolant. Tip: Unless you will spend a winter in a cool climate do not refill with antifreeze. Fill with a tropical formula as once you get to the tropics antifreeze will be unavailable and you should not mix fluid types without flushing first.

Take off the belt and inspect it. Better yet put on a new belt. Before you replace the belt take a look at all the rubber hoses for the cooling system. If any look old and likely to fail replace them. Pay careful attention to the clamps, if they look suspect, change them. While you’re at it, it’s probably a good idea to change the air filter.

A Key to Doing Any Mechanical Project on Your Boat is to Take Your Time

When reassembling everything do it slowly and meticulously. Take photos before and during the disassembly to help you put everything back together.

Use your owner’s service manual, generally, the steps are well laid out. Consult Nigel Calders Boat Owners Mechanical and Electrical Handbook if you come across any unexpected issues. Research each task on YouTube before tackling it. You will be amazed at what info is out there. Search terms such as “Volvo d1-30 Heat Exchanger removal”.

All of the Basic Mechanical Skills you need as a cruiser can easily be learned by watching YouTube videos. Don’t cheat, you still need to read the books.

Next, take a good look around the engine. Give it a good clean, note things like belt dust, leaks and puddles around the engine. Unless the engine is brand new there will be some, clean them up and start taking a mental note of how long these puddles fill or dust takes to build up between cleans. Over time these puddles will be an excellent way for you to spot a trend way in advance of an actual failure.

Once this is done run the engine for ten minutes while watching it. Look for leaks, wobbling parts or anything lose that you should have tightened. Make sure you don’t get near enough to the running engine to get you or your clothing or body parts caught in any belts or moving parts.

Shut down immediately if you hear any alarms. After ten minutes shut it down and climb back in now take an even better look around. Correct any issues and repeat until perfect. Don’t worry, if you are slow and meticulous doing this the first time around there won’t be any issues.

Awesome Plan, But This Sounds Expensive and Will be a Massive Undertaking

This may seem to be a costly exercise if you need to replace all hoses, belts impellers, and all these good things prematurely. Most likely you will be in for about $200-700 per engine and a full day or even weekends work if you find a few issues. Not small change.

To make yourself feel better and to justify the initial outlay consider what the added costs and complexity would be of having to ship each of these hoses and other sundry components to you in some out of the way location.

Not only will you be saving yourself a ton of money. You will learn an enormous amount about your engine all in the safety of your home marina with the security of knowing there is an easy to get supply of parts close at hand should you mess anything up.

Make a logbook entry detailing the date and engine hours for each item you have serviced. Consult your engine owners’ handbook and write down when next you should complete each task (engine hours and date).

Follow this schedule. Except maybe for impellers, I’m not a fan of surprises and detest mid-ocean engine maintenance. So I pull mine 25% earlier than the manufacturer recommends at 150 hours. This is after seeing missing blades at the 200 hours recommended interval. I moved to 175 hours and still found very cracked blades. To be safe I went to 150 hours and at 150 hours they are just showing wear when I pull them so I’m happy with my balance of expense and reliability.

Knowing that your engine has been well maintained. And that you have the knowledge of the basic mechanical skills you need as a cruiser will bring you enormous peace of mind.

Boat Yoga. Some Places on a boat are not easy to reach to work on. There is a certain amount of basic mechanical skills you should learn before going cruising
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Hi, I’m Nic! Our Family of four have been out cruising since 2016. We have sailed about 15,000nm, almost halfway around the world. We sold everything, took the leap of faith, and bought a 10-year-old Lagoon 380 ex-charter catamaran. We’ve fixed every system on the boat, often more than once. Cruising has been such a wonderful, positive experience for our family that I want to share my tips to help you Become a Cruiser.

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