Ocean Testing the Best Sailing Gear
“Marine-grade” gear doesn’t always live up to expectations.
My partner, Beth, and I have sailed more than 85,000 nautical miles, including a three-year tropical circumnavigation via Cape Hope and an eight-year, high-latitude circumnavigation from Iceland to Cape Horn (which included all five great Southern Capes), and a 9,000-mile, nonstop Southern Ocean passage. The first trip was on a Shannon 37 ketch, a respected, well-built offshore boat. The second trip has been on a custom aluminum 47-foot sloop, which we fit out ourselves. On both boats we installed only top-rated "offshore-quality" equipment. However, we have had quite a mixed experience with the reliability of this equipment. We have graded the equipment from A to F, depending on reliability, longevity, and customer service. While our experience is necessarily anecdotal, the reasons behind our ratings may help you to make your own equipment decisions. It is important to keep in mind that some of this gear, particularly electronics, has been discontinued or improved since we bought and used it. A+: Perfect The gear in this category we would unambiguously recommend to other people. It worked perfectly with little or no maintenance and zero repairs. Ancor ratcheting crimper:
My partner, Beth, and I have sailed more than 85,000 nautical miles, including a three-year tropical circumnavigation via Cape Hope and an eight-year, high-latitude circumnavigation from Iceland to Cape Horn (which included all five great Southern Capes), and a 9,000-mile, nonstop Southern Ocean passage. The first trip was on a Shannon 37 ketch, a respected, well-built offshore boat. The second trip has been on a custom aluminum 47-foot sloop, which we fit out ourselves. On both boats we installed only top-rated "offshore-quality" equipment. However, we have had quite a mixed experience with the reliability of this equipment. We have graded the equipment from A to F, depending on reliability, longevity, and customer service. While our experience is necessarily anecdotal, the reasons behind our ratings may help you to make your own equipment decisions.
It is important to keep in mind that some of this gear, particularly electronics, has been discontinued or improved since we bought and used it.
The gear in this category we would unambiguously recommend to other people. It worked perfectly with little or no maintenance and zero repairs.
Ancor ratcheting crimper:This tool makes excellent connections, infinitely better than an automotive crimper.
Antal line driver: We use this with a 3:1 tackle to control our traveler. It has proven a perfect solution, though we also use stretchy climbing line to make sure to reduce the shock loading during jibes.
Auto rally-type navigator’s chair: These are very comfortable, provide excellent lumbar support, are much more durable (for inside applications) than any marine/fishing chairs, and about a quarter of the price of the marine products. These chairs should be on more boats because they are comfortable, designed to hold you firmly in rough conditions, long lasting, and inexpensive. We got the idea after seeing one aboard a Vendee Globe boat.
Balmar 100-amp alternator and MaxCharge regulator: These worked perfectly, delivering rated amps on two boats. We’ve heard reports of less favorable experiences with bigger Balmar alternators, but our’s has been great.
110-pound Bruce anchor: This anchor knock on wood never, ever drags. The Bruce doesn’t always score well on anchor tests, but we have had flawless performance with both our 44-pound and 110-pound models.
Corian countertops with integral sinks and fiddles: Silk had Corian countertops, and we loved them, but the joint between the countertop and the sinks gathered dirt and the sealant eventually gave way. For Hawk’s galley, we went to a home kitchen place that fabricated countertops with integral sinks and fiddles for us. These have worked perfectly over eight years.
Facnor Code Zero furler: This continuous-loop furler is expensive, but it works much better than the drum "gennaker furlers."
Harken snatchblocks: These well-designed blocks hold up well.
Leatherman Wave: This nicely designed multi-tool is surprisingly useful, though it’s not as robust at the hinges as it should be.
Norseman terminals: These wire-rope end-fittings disassemble and reassemble easily, and are totally reliable. They’ve held for years even though some were improperly installed originally.
ProMariner Protech-4 50-amp battery charger: This charger works perfectly on 110-volt, 220-volt, 50Hz, and 60Hz, but it has no equalization function and produces lots of radio frequency noise on start-up. We’ve found the Protech to be a good choice for the world cruiser who has to deal with all sorts of shore power voltages and frequencies.
Racor series 500 diesel filters: These have worked perfectly on two boats.
Siemens (now Shell) 75-watt solar panel:It’s a bit bulky, but it delivers its rated performance flawlessly.
Sony ESP Sport water resistant CD boom box: It’s bulletproof and, we think, better suited to the conditions than the Sony automotive CD player, which we had on Silk.
Sony ICF-SW77all-band radio: Two different radios have served perfectly on two boats over the course of 10 years. Their duties include receiving weather faxes.
Spinlock XX0812 clutches: Though their inability to "bleed" line put Spinlock’s XTS-series clutches lower than Lewmar in PS’s recent clutch test, we have found (as the PS testers did with the XTS series) that the XX series Spinlocks grip better than the Lewmars.
Spinlock ZS jammers: Flawless and well made, these jammers are gentle on lines, but it is a bit of a pain to have to winch in line before releasing them.
Tides Marine UHMW rudder bearings: Our rudder struck rocks in Iceland, and though this bent the rudder shaft, there was zero damage/distortion to the bearings.
Tides Marine dripless shaft seal:We’ve never even needed to change the lip seal.
Vetus Metroliner barograph: A useful weather watcher that doesn’t need paper or ink. It does produce a little RF noise.
Weather Fax 2000 software: We like the interface on this software, which has since been updated.
West Marine vinyl boat lettering: These durable letters look nice and are easy to install. Only now, after seven years on bare aluminum, the edges are starting to lift just slightly.
West Marine Nonskid dinnerware (solid blue):Well designed and useful when dining on a heel.
A: Almost perfect
These products would be considered first rate in the marine market. They have worked perfectly with regular maintenance or small repairs, had excellent product support, and we would recommend them. In a market with higher quality standards (aviation for example), we believe they would be due for product improvement/modifications.
Alpenglow florescent lights: These are excellent, low-amp units. They could be a little brighter. We have three of these lights, and one fried a capacitor after eight years. The low intensity no longer works, but the regular-intensity setting does.
ATN spinnaker sock: This sock works very well and has nothing to break. The fabric is bulky, though, and the scoop is large, making the whole assembly harder to stow. The control lines sometimes twist.
Gusher 30 bilge pump:It works fine, but lots of water drains back down the hose after pumping.
Lavac Head: This head is simple to maintain, but it drips a little from the seat top and breather (anti-siphon) valve. The newest model that we have seen on other boats does not have this problem. Easy to repair and with few moving parts, the Lavac seems better designed than some more heavily marketed and distributed brands.
4hp, two-stroke, Mercury outboard engine: The carburetor needs to be drained every once in a while, but otherwise, it works great.
Pelican cases for computers and cameras: These sealed plastic boxes, which rated best in Practical Sailor’s 2003 test are a bit difficult to stow, but offer good protection for expensive gear. The "computer" cases are not truly watertight.
Refleks drip diesel heater:This produces lots of heat, no smoke, is very simple, and rugged. It requires occasional adjustment of the float valve for optimal heat output. The Refleks heater is used universally by the boats that charter in Chile and Antarctica.
Rule 3,700 gph bilge pump: This pump works fine, but it leaves a lot of water when it starts sucking air.
Whale foot pumps:We use three of them quite hard (galley and head), and one has needed a new diaphragm.
B: Ok products,
With these products, we have had a product failure, but the company was very responsive in fixing the problem. I would suggest people put these products on their short list, but see whether they can find another brand with more unquestioned reliability.
Fujinon Polaris with compass binoculars: These binos have superb optics, a very usable compass, and are very rugged. Our compass needle is now sticky (after 12 years) and needs to be replaced; plastic lens covers grew brittle and cracked and were replaced recently for a few dollars.
Harken winches: Three different small plastic pieces broke, but were replaced with no hassle. Without a freshwater rinse when cruising, it seems the bearings clog up with salt and build up friction after about five days at sea.
Harken MKIII jib furler: Ours have worked great on two boats, but there is always more friction in the system than expected, even with good installation and clean bearings. The Loctite "glue" let go in one of the foil joints, but the backup set screws still held it together.
Galerider drogue: The wire rim broke once when deployed, and the drogue pulls out of wave faces occasionally, but it does control the boat well, recovers easily, and stows in a small package. We also have a Delta drogue, which we will try in series with the Galerider in our next storm.
Lewmar HLD2000L autopilot drive: We’ve had to replace the seals every 10,000 miles, but this unit has been perfectly reliable otherwise.
Lewmar V4 windlass (formerly Ocean 3) windlass: Our Ocean 3 lasted for eight years, before the gear box needed rebuilding and its paint peeled off. Our new V4 seems to be an improved design.
Monitor windvane: The Monitor steered Silk all around the world with only minor cracking in welds. Newer vanes have better reinforcement to prevent this.
Northstar 951DX GPS: This GPS worked flawlessly, but the charts are expensive, and it produces a lot of RF noise. We’ve had problems with corrosion in the external antenna, signal loss in the coaxial cable (we needed to get the upgraded antenna with higher amplification), and mediocre coax connectors.
Trojan 8D wet batteries: Ours have held up perfectly for five years, but then lost capacity (most of their life was spent in near-freezing water temps). We replaced them with Trojan 6-volt cells, which we also replaced after five years. This is acceptable, but about half the number of 50-percent discharge cycles that Trojan’s marketing suggests.
Whitlock King Cobra (now offered through Lewmar):This gear provides responsive, tiller-like steering because there are no cables to stretch. But it is relatively complex and might be difficult to fix at sea if something major went wrong. We had significant difficultly getting a replacement main bearing after the original one became loose. Three bolts, tapped into an aluminum casting sheared off and had to be drilled out.
Yanmar 4JH2-THE: This 75 hp turbo-diesel is reliable and easy to service. Pinholes developed in the exhaust elbow after 2,500 hours, but they were quick and easy to replace.
C: Useful Products with average support
With these products, we have had a product failure, and had trouble getting the manufacturer to resolve the issue. The products were useful when they worked, but in our opinion, buyers should search hard for another brand or model.
Bomar ports and hatches: These are strong and watertight, but the paint is peeling off all of them, one handle broke, and three hatches have broken seals between the acrylic and the hatch rim.
Link 10 battery monitor: This monitor provides useful information, but we’ve had three units fail in exactly the same way: The plastic cracked under the "Sel" button after about 2 years of use.
Pelican Sabrelight flashlights: These provide a very bright beam, but we have had three units fail in the past two years (five years old). They started running through batteries too fast and went dim (a short somewhere is likely).
Perko exterior dome light: We use them for interior lights. They are just the right brightness and are holding up fine, but construction is a bit flimsy. Several switches have failed, but replacements were easy to obtain and install.
Speedtech Handheld depth sounder: This is a useful gizmo for exploring potential anchorages, but three units have stopped working (mean time to failure about two years).
Statpower 1,500-watt inverter: It works, but it also generates a lot of RF noise. The cooling fan failed after five years.
Trimble Galaxy Sat C:The quality construction and the free weather reports make it useful in the higher latitudes, but the e-mail is simply too expensive for practical use. The antenna failed after seven years, and we had no luck getting a replacement or repair (at a reasonable price).
West Marine/Zodiac HP-floor, 10-foot dinghy (PVC version):It’s light, relatively dry, and surprisingly rugged. It can be rolled up and stowed below decks. The only problem is that it is so light, the wind can flip it when towing or at anchor. It suffered a massive puncture after five years, and the UV had weakened the fabric to the point that a patch was not worth the effort. Our replacement Mercury (see below) did not even last that long.
West Marine vacuum travel mugs:These mugs are well designed and useful, but the vacuum failed on two of them.
D: Marginal Performance and/or Reliability
We would not recommend these products. They are either not that useful or the reliability record is too poor.
Aqua Signal halogen mini-spot reading light: We’ve had one broken switch and one burned out bulb in three years. The construction is flimsy, in our opinion.
Aqua Signal running and navigation lights: We have water inside the bow lights. The Aqua Signal tricolor light has been reliable, but our next tricolor will be LED.
B&G Hydra instruments and autopilot: This unit is fine when it’s working. However, we’ve had to replace the main "wind" circuit board, masthead circuit board, and autopilot ram all within three years. At eight years, we had to replace the main processor and three of the displays. This system has gone through various upgrades since we bought our unit.
Forespar marelon seacocks (1˝ inch):We’ve had one broken handle and one leaking valve.
Furuno 841 Mk-2 LCD radar (no longer available): The resolution is not very good, and the manual tuning isn’t easy to master. We had to replace the magnetron after six years. The newer 1834C scored best in Practial Sailor’s 2006 test.
Harken Airblocks: These blocks are great when cleaned with fresh water, but generate high friction when they are dried with salt spray. Lewmar Ocean blocks seem less sensitive to this. The bearings on our original Airblocks were apparently not UV stable. When two blocks broke, Harken sent replacement bearings for all blocks and helped install them at no cost.
Harken type B hi-load battcars:These slide great when they’re freshly rinsed, but after a week at sea, salt and dirt in the track will cause them to stick and jam. One car vibrated apart at sea an inspection afterward showed that the Loctite on the screws had failed on three other cars. The design is fussy and difficult to get on and off the track. Harken has attempted to address this with new captive ball-bearing cars.
Icom IC-M95 VHF: The display backlight burned out after three years and cost $160 to replace. We sent it back to Icom, only to have it fail again a few years later. We have since replaced it with another unit from ICOM, whose radios usually do well in Practical Sailor tests.
MaxProp: Our 16-inch prop worked great on Silk, but on Hawk, we experienced poor performance on all pitch settings with a 20-inch model. We switched to an Autoprop, which motorsails better, but has needed to be rebuilt (under warranty, but by a dealer in Australia, who we found to be difficult), and it rumbles and catches kelp more than the Maxprop.
Mercury Quicksilver 3.1 PVC inflatable floor dinghy: As reported by other readers of this magazine, the fabric got sticky and started to break down after only three years. The oars broke after three years.
Musto Ocean HPX drysuit:It’s a great suit, but very difficult to get off (needs a front zipper to allow wearer to pee).
Selden Rodkicker rigid vang:The eye for the wire pennant broke, requiring us to drill out some rivets to fix it. The lower end of the unit deformed, and we had to install a sleeve to reinforce it.
Statpower 600- and 300-watt inverters: One 300-watt unit died at the two-year mark, and all have too much RF noise.
West Marine Acrylic Stemware:These "glasses" scratch too easily.
Windpilot Pacific Plus windvane: We used this vane on Hawk, but found that the sleeve bearings gum up too quickly. The auxiliary rudder has broken twice.
These products have been major disappointments, and we wished we hadn’t bought them.
AirMarine wind turbine: As PS found in its last test, wind generators, in general provide marginal output in real-world conditions. This one was noisy. (This unit has since been replaced by a newer model, which the manufacturer says is quieter. Practical Sailor will be testing the new unit.)
Davis mini amp mega-light: We’ve broken two, each within a month of purchase.
Glacier Bay vacuum panels: Three panels have lost their vacuum, and we have not had good luck with customer service. Glacier Bay, whom others have praised in these pages, contends poor installation voided the warranty. Glacier Bay offered to replace all the panels with me paying shipping cost. We declined because we were told the panels would not meet our requirements, and shipping to Australia was too expensive.
Groco C-60 deck wash kit: We’ve had two pressure switches and one pump break. We replaced it with a Shurflo Pro Blaster, which really does not produce enough water pressure, but has been reliable. Groco improved the pressure switch in 2000.
Lewmar Superlock rope clutches: These clutches have since been replaced with newer, heavy-duty models. We had one old-style body break and found that the clutches often don’t lock onto the line unless you lift and close the handle.
Nissan 3.5-hp outboard: We found this two-stroke motor was too sensitive to weather (cold and wet) and to spark plug fouling.
Seaward Princess three-burner with stove with oven: This oven has since been improved, but the new version is also more expensive. On our older stove, the door rusted, the paint blistered, and the thermostat broke twice. The manufacturer has been trying to address these issues, but it has made the product much more expensive. PS has the new stove and will soon be reporting on its performance.
Standard Horizon HX255S handheld VHF: The battery compartment broke.
Todd 5-Star chair: The foam on this popular, upholstered marine chair compressed and became uncomfortable after two years
Trident 2-stage LPG regulator: We’ve had two units leak at the solenoid shut-off switch. The mounting bracket corrodes far too easily.
Overall, we have had the worst experience with equipment sold for recreational marine or "yacht" usage. These products tend to be under-engineered and over-priced. We have had better experience with commercial marine equipment and equipment made for entirely different markets, such as the automotive market. In the recreational marine market, reputation, price, or market share do not correlate with quality, in our experience. But many little "one-man" shops that have been around for a long time (Alpenglow is an example) tend to have quite reliable stuff.