Tool Buying Guide for the Cruising Sailor

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 08:36AM - Comments: (10)

Evans Starzinger
Evans Starzinger

Boat ownership requires a bevy of tools that would make Bob Vila jealous. We suggest keeping your most-used tools in their very own “fix-it” bag. While the tools you use less frequently can be stowed out of the way, this “kitchen-drawer” toolbag will allow you access to what you need for smaller tasks without having to dig through those endless bins of DIY utensils.

Father’s Day is coming up soon and if none of the suggestions in our recent Chandlery feature on gifts for sailing parents seems to fit, you can always fall back on a sure hit for Dad: tools.

We’ve carried out dozens of tests of various tools in the recent past, all of which can be found by using our search bar and typing “tools.” I’ve provided links to some of my favorite tool reports in this post. I’m also including an abridged version of a report by veteran circumnavigator and handy-man Evans Starzinger, who offers a short list of his favorite tools as well as some excellent tips on how to organize them for cruising.

Previous PS Tool Tests

If your favorite sailor is in the middle of restoring a boat from the mid-80s or earlier, he or she probably has several wiring projects to tackle. I discussed some of the more helpful tools, like wire strippers and multi-meters, in a previous blog post, and this month’s issue offers tips on running wires behind panels or through conduit. If it’s just boat cosmetics that need addressing, then you might look at Practical Sailor’s guide to buffing and polishing tools that the pros use.

Since cruising sailors often lack access to AC power, battery-operated tools are high on their list. A few years ago, we featured a list of several handy battery-operated tools that are at home at the workshop or at sea. Carpenter-turned-cruiser John Spier also shared his sailor’s list of favorite battery-powered tools for his family’s circumnavigation.

If your sailor-dad wants to have the option of running some his existing (low-amp) AC-powered tools onboard, my blog on on installing an AC inverter and the related test of AC inverter chargers, and our test of portable gas generators along with Starzinger’s review of the Honda eu1001, a 1,000-watt portable generator, offer useful guidance.

If Dad is starting from scratch, and has plans to invest in power tools check out Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo’s list of recommended tools for cutting, drilling, sanding, and grinding. And if Dad insists on powering all these tools and more while  cruising, then our five-model genset bench test, comparing 8KW diesel gensets, although it goes back a few years, is still very relevant and is well worth a read.

Building the Boat Doctor’s Toolbox

Having the right tool makes every boat maintenance or repair job that much easier. Having it handy makes an even bigger difference. With that in mind, veteran cruiser, and Practical Sailor tester Evans Starzinger decided to develop one small tool bag that would cover 85 percent of the jobs by itself. After two years of tinkering with the contents, he settled on a small tool bag that seems to fit the bill. It has four basic categories of tools: standard mechanical tools (screwdrivers and wrenches), electrical, sewing, and consumables. The tool bag was selected to be compact, easy to carry and stow, while just big enough to fit the necessary tools. He still carried an extensive collection of other tools, but the ones in his "doctor's toolbox" were the ones he found most useful for most projects.

Boat Repair Equipment

This category consists of a very conventional collection of tools. Starzinger did not want to carry a full set of both metric and standard socket wrenches, so the only real learning point was to figure out exactly which box wrenches were needed to fit the bolts on our former boat, Hawk. Our hose clamps have 7-millimeter nuts, half-inch and 13 millimeter fit the adjustment screws on our two alternators (and also the mainsail batten tension adjustment bolts), 7/16 inch fits the Harken batt cars, and 12 millimeter fits the bleed screw on the engine. The hex wrenches are the only tools that seem to rust, so he keep them in a Ziplock bag sprayed with WD-40. The following tools fall into this category:

  • Largest flat-blade screwdriver that will fit in the bag, also used as pry bar
  • Two multi-blade screwdrivers (large ratchet unit and smaller one with specialty blades)
  • Three small jewelers’ screwdrivers two flat blades (small and tiny) and one Phillips
  • Eight ratcheting box wrenches two 7/16 inch, two half-inch, and one each of 9/16 inch, 7 millimeter, 12 millimeter, and 13 millimeter
  • An adjustable crescent wrench
  • Two vice grips (needle nose and standard)
  • Two sets of hex wrenches (metric and standard)
  • Pipe wrench
  • Filter wrench (style with adjustable chain)
  • Lineman’s pliers with
  • heavy-duty wire cutters
  • Exacto knife
  • Heavy-duty scissors

Electrical Tools

Investing in high-quality electrical tools is well worth it, if you like trouble-free connection making. Through our own experiences and discussions with electrical component experts, we have been convinced that a good crimp connection is the way to go rather than soldering. The key is that it must be a GOOD crimp, which is almost impossible to make with the inexpensive "auto crimper kits." It requires a high-quality ratchet crimper that will make a perfect, watertight crimp every time. They run about $60 each, but are worth it for perfectly trouble-free connections. I keep the multimeter in a Ziplock bag to prevent the display from being scratched by the other tools. Our electrical toolkit includes:

  • Digital multimeter
  • Ratchet crimper
  • Wire stripper
  • Wire cutters

Sewing Tools Toolkit

The thread needs to be strong and UV resistant. The Goretex thread (available from Sailrite, meets that bill, as does waxed dental floss, which also holds a knot better. Practical Sailor recently tested waxed whipping twines. The small needle-nose pliers and vice grips are used to put a needle through thick cloth. We carry the following for sewing needs:

  • Heavy sailmaker needles
  • Normal household sewing needles
  • Goretex sewing thread
  • Waxed dental floss
  • Heavy, polyester waxed whipping twine
  • Small scissors
  • Needle-nosed pliers
  • Small vice grips
  • Lighter
  • Sailing knife
  • Fid set


We use wire ties on most of our shackles to prevent the pins from vibrating loose. But on two of the shackles (mainsail tack and anchor), we found that the wire ties kept breaking, so we now use stainless wire to seize the pins on those. (Some Practical Sailor editors prefer monel seizing wire over stainless wire and plastic cable ties, which are affected by UV rays.) WD-40 is not much of a lubricant, but it is a terrific cleaning fluid.

While we have many special-purpose lubricants and adhesives, we use LanoCote as our general purpose stainless-fastener lubricant, blue Loctite ( as the standard thread lock, and super glue and a two-part epoxy putty as the normal adhesives. In our consumables toolkit you’ll find:

  • A small assortment of crimps, terminals, and heat-shrink tubing
  • Wire ties
  • Stainless-steel (or monel) seizing wire (to tie shackles closed)
  • A small jar of LanoCote
  • WD-40
  • Electrical tape
  • Rigging tape
  • Blue Loctite
  • Silicone caulk
  • Super glue
  • Epoxy


This single, small tool kit, along with a DeWalt ( or Makita ( cordless drill and carbide bits, allowed Starzinger to do most common jobs without unpacking any of his big tool boxes.

Comments (10)

Great list and advice, and a good update to previous articles (eg, Tool Tips, Mar 2007). I've found these additional tools to be very handy for a wide variety of underway repairs and maintenance (size and quantity depend on the boat):

- Hacksaw (and/or electric scroll saw)
- Mallet and sets to drive out reluctant clevis pins
- Sewing awl with lots of waxed thread
- Brace (and/or electric drill motor) with a range of bits and drivers
- Banding clamp with plenty of SS tape for spar repair
- Clamptite hose clamp tool, with SS wire
- scraps of ~3/8 marine ply, large enough to cover a cabin port
- scraps of lumber, ~1X2 clear doug fir strips
- fasteners, including tech screws for fast patches
- goo box stocked for fiberglass and epoxy work
- parachute cord, long enough to be a halyard messenger

Posted by: shodges | October 7, 2018 10:25 AM    Report this comment

I have found it useful to have several toolkits, one each for various common areas of work.

For example, besides the general-purpose, commonly-used-tools kit described in the article, I have an electrical-tasks toolkit with the various electrical-task tools listed above plus a couple of screwdrivers (the sizes need for most electrical contact screws), wrenches to fit battery terminals, etc. and needle-nose pliers. I keep this kit in the Pilothouse (our boat is trawler), where many electrical tasks first make themselves known.

I also have a waste-system-repair kit that includes the screwdrivers, nut drivers and wrenches (including a ratchet & sockets) that fit the various screws, bolts and nuts (including hose clamps) used in the holding tank plumbing, along with spare parts for the discharge-pump (in our case, a diaphragm pump, where most common repair is replacing duckbill valves); I store this kit in a zip-loc-type bag in the bilge near the holding-tank-discharge pump. (Our bilges are dry.)

This multi-kit strategy means that I have more than one of some common tools (e.g., various screwdrivers, pliers, vise grips), but the extra cost of duplicate tools is small (to me) compared to the aggravation of having to go back (repeatedly) to the Lazarette repeatedly for the part or tool I forgot. Of course, if your brain is more organized than mine, you always marshal everything you need for a job when first you set out to do the job. In that case, one kit does it. Me, I usually get it right on about the fourth trip back to the Lazarette.

Posted by: Zach Shipley | October 4, 2018 3:03 PM    Report this comment

Without starting a brand war, I recently updated my "mish-mash" of battery powered tools to Ridgid Gen5X brushless partially due to the prevalence and convenience of Home Depot stores in the U.S. Besides new lithium brushless tools having fantastic torque & excellent battery life, buying the batteries packaged with the drill, etc permits them to be registered and warrantied for life (yes, battery too). With all the hazards, salt air and humidity around our boats ... this makes an already fair priced battery power tool a pretty good deal.

Posted by: RichC | October 4, 2018 2:41 PM    Report this comment

Um, pretty sure you meant vise grips.

Otherwise, the list and the comments are very helpful. Thanks.

Posted by: ForGrinsToo | October 4, 2018 1:49 PM    Report this comment

Add DeoxIT D5 contact cleaner to the consumables list. It dissolves corrosion and evaporates cleanly. Nothing better to clean any multi pin connectors: electronics, VHF mic plug, engine harness, etc. Also great for switch interior contacts, fuse blocks, and spade connectors. If you have any electronics that you remove and stow below, you need this stuff.

Posted by: DanoMielke | October 4, 2018 10:05 AM    Report this comment

This is a nice list for a small day daysailer, but a cruising boat needs a LOT more tools. I have one locker that has the most often needed tools (screwdrivers, pliers, hammer, adjustable wrench) immediately at hand when you open the door. Inside are several tool boxes with socket sets, battery testers, multimeter, wrenches, and other unusual ools that may be needed regularly, but not immediately. Then there are the tools that are in deep storage, because I don't have to make large wire crimps or pull seals and bearings or cut window seals very often.

And the supplies are similarly organized, with the duct tape and regular lubricants in the locker with the screwdrivers, while the plumbing fittings are up forward under a berth. There is a "future projects" locker with all the stuff needed for future projects that have not yet been attended to (it is never empty), while nuts and bolts and electrical connectors are in fishing tackle boxes in several different places. Wire has its own plastic tub in a locker in the cockpit. Engine/generator spares/supplies have their own plastic box. Just recently I replaced the water pump with a spare that I have been carrying for 10 years.

My wife asked whether I really needed all this stuff on board after the trans-atlantic crossing was over, but she has gradually gotten used to it, as I am able to fix just about anything that breaks.. I have my spaces, which are filled with stuff to keep her comfortable, safe, and happy, and she has hers.

Posted by: rxc | October 4, 2018 10:01 AM    Report this comment

A ceramic knife to slice dyneema like butter. Fingers too. Be careful out there.

Posted by: jlb | July 21, 2016 6:37 PM    Report this comment

1) With the burgeoning use of high-tech fibers, such as Dyneema, you need heavy duty (Felco) wire cutters to cut even 3/16" line. Electrical wire cutters will not do the trick and are not a substitute.
2) The small scissors are not a substitute for the heavy scissors, for the same reason. With small scissors, the blades bend apart when you try to cut Dyneema.
3) Substitute a foldable locking utility knife with replacement blades for the Exacto knife. The Exacto's have too small and too fragile a blade for meaningful use on a boat, except for doing electrical wiring.
4) A chunk of 1/2" thick ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene in your bag, gives you a mobile cutting board.
5) A small self-contained brazing torch is much more capable than a measly lighter if you have to melt the ends of line. And you can solder wire too.
6) An electrician's snake (fish tape) works well for fishing wires and for fishing halyards!
Been there, etc.

I have *exactly* the same tool bag and it's great. But all the external tools are put *into* the bag when I go sailing on my Etchells. Too easy for the tools fall out of the pockets.

Posted by: Dyspeptic Curmudgeon | July 21, 2016 1:10 PM    Report this comment

Duct Tape is okay, but GORRILA TAPE doesn't leave the slimy glue residue, and has much more holding power.

Posted by: Andy L | June 14, 2016 5:58 PM    Report this comment

Exactly my basic kit! I would add only a few more consumables: Parachute cord or Dyneema cord, duct tape, athletic tape, an assortment of conventional and soft shackles, and an assortment of stainless bolts, nuts, screws, and washers.

Posted by: Drew Frye | June 9, 2016 9:04 AM    Report this comment

New to Practical Sailor?
Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In