Tool Buying Guide for the Cruising Sailor


Fathers 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 months issue offers tips on running wires behind panels or through conduit. If its just boat cosmetics that need addressing, then you might look at Practical Sailors 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 sailors 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 installing an AC inverter and the related test of AC inverter chargers, and our test of portable gas generators along with Starzingers review of the Honda eu1001, a1,000-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 Naranjos 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 Doctors 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 vise grips (needle nose and standard)
  • Two sets of hex wrenches (metric and standard)
  • Pipe wrench
  • Filter wrench (style with adjustable chain)
  • Linemans 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 vise 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 vise 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.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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