Tool Bag Essentials: What Should You Have Inside?

May 8th, 2024 by team

by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor)

And more importantly, do you know how to use it?

Even the simplest boat with no electrical system has things which can break and ruin your weekend. And a complex boat with refrigeration, air conditioning, and an engine? There are a fair number of things which can go wrong.

Preparing for breakdowns and repairs is a serious business for blue water cruisers, because sometimes you have things go wrong in remote and exotic places. Not only is help hard to find, but so are parts and even basic tools. Losing your generator on a remote atoll in the South Pacific means you also may lose a month’s worth of food, and have to sail hundreds of miles for parts and service.

But for the weekend and vacation sailor, priorities are a little different. Most times, breakdowns are annoying, they can spoil your fun, and they can get expensive to deal with away from home. And there’s nothing worse than a simple problem that ruins your trip that you could easily fix if you just had the right tool.

So…what do you need?

What you need on board for tools and spares is really set by two things. First, are the systems you have on your boat and how their failure impacts you. And second, your ability and need to make repairs on the spot. If you’re not mechanically inclined and don’t have the confidence to try to save the weekend, all the tools in the world won’t help you.

What would ruin your weekend?

Over years of coastal cruising, we’ve had many little things break which could spoil our time on the boat. Everything from broken propane solenoids to failed pumps. It’s important to understand what breakages effectively end your trip, versus those that simply are annoying to deal with.

For example, if the feed pump on your refrigeration fails, you’re going to lose refrigeration. Is this a trip breaker? You might lose everything in your freezer and fridge. But you have options – you can eat out, you can buy ice on shore and keep the food chilled, or you can try to fix it. Whether you’re out for a weekend or a week or two also affects your choices. So what seems like a disaster at first really can be more of an inconvenience.

But other failures can make your boat unsafe and unusable, so it’s tough to stay on board or get home. And for those, it’d be nice to have the options that a well thought out bag of tools gives you.

And do you have the basic skills to fix it?

Not enough people give themselves credit for this. Because there are some great resources to help you learn, and even troubleshoot problems when you’re having them. That failed refrigerator pump we talked about? That pump could actually be just fine, and there might be something easier, like a loose or corroded electrical connection that gets you right back up and running.

The first and most powerful tool I recommend having on board is Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual, or an equivalent library of how-to books that include basic troubleshooting flow-charts and diagrams. With the troubleshooting guides in this book, as long as you can figure out which end of a screwdriver or wrench to use, you have a shot at making a fix.

If you have mechanical and electrical skills, you’ve got a huge leg up. No one wants to spend Saturday morning on a boat weekend with their head in the engine room. But if you can fix something, it beats the heck out of heading home early.

Trip ending/ruining failures

Drawing the line between critical failure and inconvenience is very subjective, and also relative to how you’re boating. If your only marine head seizes up and if you’re staying at a dock, as long as you don’t mind the schlep to the marina heads in the middle of the night, you don’t have a serious problem. But if you’re anchored a mile from a dinghy dock and public bathroom, you do. So what you prepare for relates very much to what you can put up with.

Engine Problems

Engine failures keep you from getting home safely or moving to the next destination, and can be critical. Some engine problems are disastrous and you won’t be able to fix, and others you can limp along with. Common fixable issues include:

  • Impeller failures. The most common failure. The engine overheats because one or more blades broke off the impeller. Tools: screwdriver or appropriately sized wrench to open the water pump cover, pliers to pull out the old impeller, and a spare impeller.
  • Fuel problems. Stalling, irregular running. Tools: Spare filters, wrenches and engine rags if you have to bleed it.
  • Leaks and drips. Most of these aren’t critical if they’re on hoses. Tools: screwdriver or nut driver for tightening hose clamps.
  • Broken belts. Usually, your batteries stop charging. But some engines lose other functions if they have a serpentine belt. Spare belt, wrenches, lever bar for tensioning (can be a screwdriver, hammer handle, etc.)
  • Cracked/split hoses. Temporary fixes often involve self-annealing tape. You need a spare hose for a permanent fix.

Household Systems

Most household system failures fall under the “uncomfortable and annoying” rather than truly trip ending. It all depends on your tolerance and ability to work around the problem.

  • Electrical problems cover many systems, as well as basic things like running lights and interior lights. Corrosion on a boat is your biggest enemy, and poorly made connections which fail cause most electrical problems. These need to be cleaned up or cut out and replaced. Electrical tools: wire stripper, crimper, heat shrink crimp fittings, bronze wool, electrical tape. Optional but highly recommended: multimeter.
  • Fresh water pump. Pumps do just die, and to fix those, you need a spare pump. But electrical problems make them act dead, and can often be fixed by tightening connections with a screwdriver or fixing with electrical tools.
  • Toilet failure. Most common cause is blockage by flushing inappropriate objects. Time is often your best tool if it’s too much paper; if you leave it for a while, it may break down. Otherwise you may have to tackle the nasty job of disassembling the toilet pump to clear it. Tools: Screwdriver, rubber gloves, towels, disinfectant, wire probe/snake (can be a clothes hanger!).
  • Refrigeration failure. Except for electrical problems and clogged intake filters, most refrigeration troubles will not be solved on a weekend trip.
  • Stove and oven issues. Propane plumbing isn’t something to mess with if you don’t know what you’re doing. LPG solenoid failure is the most common problem, and they’re difficult to bypass for a reason.

Boat Systems

  • A broken windlass can be a disaster if you anchor out and don’t have reservations for slips or moorings. Most problems you can solve easily are electrical, but with some wrenches you can disassemble and clean and lubricate.
  • Davit failures can keep you from launching a dinghy. Mechanical failures need wrenches and/or screwdrivers.
  • Winches that bind up or seize need servicing. This requires a winch service kit, grease, brushes, diesel or another solvent, and a bucket. Service your winches regularly and they won’t bind.


Small standing rigging failures, like pins which fall out or break, are fairly easily fixed. Usually just a spare pin or shackle and some pliers and seizing wire is all you need to replace broken shackles and pins. Various lubricants and solvents can free up seized fittings and keep them moving.

Running rigging failures are solved with spare lines if you have them. There’s not much you can solve with tools.

Basic weekender tool list

Before you run out and buy a set of tools, check whether your boat needs metric, SAE (or “English” – inches and fractions), or both. Also look for screw head types. We cruised on a Swedish-built boat that had been in the U.S. for years. That meant we had metric and SAE bolts all over the boat and needed both. The first time we had some work done outside the U.S., they replaced a few Phillips head screws with Robinson head screws. Guess what I had to add to my tool bag?

  • Wrenches
  • A range of wrench sizes. You can have fewer wrenches if you buy a set that has different sized wrenches on either end.
  • A basic socket set is helpful and quicker that spanner style wrenches, but don’t work everywhere because of space. A nut driver handle to go with it is very handy for hose clamps.
  • Screwdrivers, Phillips and slotted. You can get by with a multi-screwdriver tool to get both, and can often get one with Torx and Robinson head fittings, if you have those.
  • Pliers
  • Needle nose
  • Cutting
  • Slip-joint or lineman’s (“normal” pliers)
  • Channel lock
  • Locking (Vice Grip), preferably in two sizes.
  • Electrical tools
  • Wire cutter and stripper
  • Crimp tool
  • Assortment of crimp connectors
  • Electrical tape
  • Multimeter (not required, but really help for finding the failures)
  • Other tools / supplies
  • Rubber mallet or dead-blow hammer. You don’t want to encourage tight fittings with a metal hammer.
  • Gloves – nitrile for sanitation, and gripping/friction to protect your hands when loosening tight things.
  • Small pry bar
  • Shop towels
  • Self-annealing tape (Rescue Tape)
  • Wire ties
  • Lubricants and solvents, e.g. WD40, McLube Sailkote, T-9 Boshield, and CorrosionX.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *