Rod Heikell's very informal site on sailing around bits of the world and an eclectic collection of things nautical or nearly so.

Practical Boat Stuff 3: Basic maintenance & boat 'jobs'


These pages have a motley collection of practical stuff for boats. It all comes from hands-on stuff on our boats that gets tested in the real cruising world and on those wet salty passages where you find out what works and what doesn't.

KISS   keep it simple stupid


If you wander around the boatshow as I did this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that somewhere between the good old days and the glittering arrays on the stands at the boat show that we seem to be missing the point about going sailing and cruising. The basics have got mixed up with the toys that have a by-line like ‘essential for every cruising boat’ or ‘don’t leave port without one’. Its all for your convenience and you would be a fool not to have one on board.

There is a grand complication between the salesman’s patter about the integrated, PC or Mac compatible, talking to the instruments, gee-gaw that you must have and that simple old fashioned concept of capturing the wind in those white things and gliding over the sea to a destination.

In fact most of the equipment we need is low-tech and it needs to be reliable. We run all sorts of complicated gizmos in Skylax: a couple of chart-plotters, integrated instruments and autopilot, radar, lap-top navigation and routing software, all sorts of stuff. The nub of it all is whether you need to continually be repairing all this stuff or whether you keep cruising and repair or replace a piece of equipment when you can. I see all sorts of boats stuck in a harbours around the world waiting for a spare part or replacement gear. In fact most of what we need to keep these sailing dinosaurs going is simple basic stuff and a lot of what enhances cruising is low-tech or at best intermediate technology.

KISS. Below are some simple things that make your cruising more enjoyable and also some caveats on things we use.

Credit Crunch Blues

Basic diesel maintenance

Getting cooking gas around the world


Credit Crunch Blues


 So now its official, we are in recession going into depression and we’ve all got the credit cruch blues. A few years ago, quite a few years ago, Lu gave me a cheer-up card when seven tenths had been damaged in Hurricane Ivan and things looked blue. The card was a whole spectrum of blue hues and said there are different shades of blue, different hues, there is no ‘blue’ blue, and looking at blue demanded something different, something I gueseed to be along the lines of ‘Zen and the Art of Sailboat Maintenance’. So that’s what we are doing, tightening the belt, cutting out the non-essentials, and structuring our cruising to our budget – which is less. For cruisers from the UK sterling has declined against all the major currencies and most of the minor ones, by 30%-40% in some cases. Maybe sterling should enter the currency circles as the North Atlantic peso.

When this happens you need some Bhuddhist calm. Stewie with Corinthian and the keel after Hurricane Ivan in Grenada 2004.

So what to do for this sailing zen. Well quite a lot really. We are cutting back on items that we deemed essential for the New Zealand to Mediterranean trip and which once you make the cut, don’t seem that essential at all. We have always done most of our maintenance, all the winterising, most of the repairs within our ken, and all the day-today-day chores. Below I have listed what we do anyway and which most cruisers, with a little gumption and an oily rag can do themselves. A lot of you do your own maintanance already, though it surprises me how many don’t take engine, sails, running gear, electrics and plumbing and boat cosmetics seriously in as much as it will save money, prevent breakdowns in places where things can’t get fixed (well most of the time), and keep the boat running smoothly through ocean swells and calm lagoons.


Basic diesel maintenance

From my Mediterranean Cruising Handbook

Diesel Engines

Engine checks

Before starting check:

1.            Battery switch is on engine battery or reserve (non-
domestic battery).

2.        Oil level.

3.     Fresh water coolant level.

4.     Raw water cooling inlet is open.

Immediately after starting check:

1.            Oil pressure gauge or oil pressure warning light.

2.     Raw water is coming out of exhaust (unless a dry
exhaust system).

Every week check:

1.            Pulley belt tension. Normally belt should depress
14mm (0-5”) at slackest but check with manual.

2.     Raw water inlet strainer.

3.     Gear-box oil.

4.     Inspect fuel filter. If there is water/contamination in
the  bowl  then  run  off until  clean  fuel  comes

Rough guide to engine troubleshooting

Engine won’t turn over

Batteries low or flat

          check battery switch is on.

          check battery switch is  on  engine  battery or
reserve battery.

          check voltmeter or battery condition meter or
check specific gravity of electrolyte with hygrometer.

          Turn a light(s) on and when you try to start
the engine if the light(s) dims excessively  the battery is low.

Starter motor problem

          ignition circuit faulty. Bridge the battery and
switch terminals on the starter motor - if the
engine cranks there is a problem in the ignition
circuit. Check for loose wires or connections.

          solenoid sticking (doesn’t click). Tap solenoid
gently with a small screwdriver head. Don’t hit it
hard as modern solenoids have delicate electronic

          starter motor sticking (solenoid makes a solid
click but starter motor doesn’t turn). Try tapping
starter motor case gently with a small wrench.
Note engine may be seized so be gentle.

·         starter motor defective or ring gear worn.
Engine seized

·         try to turn a small motor by hand either with
engine starting handle or by pulley belts. If it
doesn’t turn over it is seized. For large engines try
lifting decompression levers and turning over. In
any case of a seized engine seek help. Engine may
be heat-seized, may have a major mechanical
failure, or may have water in the cylinders.

Engine turns but doesn’t start

Engine turns slowly

·         batteries low. Turn a light (s) on and if it dims
when you try to start the engine the batteries are
low. Check battery switch is on the engine battery
or reserve battery. Recharge batteries.

·         engine cold (unlikely in the Mediterranean Tropics and in the
summer). Follow glow plug procedure if fitted.

Fuel starvation

          check throttle lever is half or more engaged,
check fuel level in tank. Check fuel tap is open. Some engines like the throttle to be wide open on starting, but throttle right down once started.

          visually check fuel lines and connections for a

          check for ‘diesel bug’ in the tank and fuel filter
(system must be totally purged of fuel if ‘diesel
bug’ is evident in any quantity).

          loosen injector connection nut and turn engine. If
no fuel spurts out check fuel line, filter(s), and
tank for obstructions. Bleed engine.

Air starvation

          check air supply is unobstructed. Often there are
ducts in a cockpit locker or elsewhere that may
have been accidentally covered.

          check air filter. Clean if necessary.


Engine runs but is underpowered

Check fuel

          check fuel lines visually. Check for ‘diesel bug’ or
water in the fuel filter. Clean fuel supply and

          if there is white smoke there may be water in the


·         check air supply is unobstructed and air filter is

Propeller fouled

·         check propeller is unobstructed. Plastic or rope
may be fouling the propeller. A bread knife or
other knife with a serrated edge is good for cut­
ting away rope or plastic. Engine must be turned
off;  ensure  no-one   goes   anywhere  near  the
ignition key.

Mechanical defect

          if there is excessive white smoke the head gasket
may be blown.

          if there is excessive blue smoke the piston rings
may be worn or stuck or the valves and guides
may be worn or stuck. Major mechanical repairs
will be necessary to remedy the fault.

          if there is excessive black smoke under normal
loads the injectors, high pressure fuel pump, or
timing may need attention. Try bleeding in case
one injector is out. Otherwise consult for more
specialised attention. Injectors and high pressure
pumps are finely tuned pieces of equipment.

Old engines

·         turn off auxiliary equipment: refrigerator/radar/
lights/radio to take any alternator or mechanical
compressor loads off the engine.

Engine runs but overheats

If water is not coming out of exhaust

          check water inlet. Is the sea-cock open? Is the
hose to the water pump intact? Is the inlet water
strainer clear of obstructions?

          is the water inlet blocked on the outside? Plastic
or weed can easily be sucked onto the inlet and
block it.

          water pump.  Check impeller.  Check pulley if
applicable. Check for other mechanical defect.

Fresh water coolant

          check coolant level.

          check fresh water system plumbing for defects.

Bleeding a diesel

Some engines are self-bleeding and after turning over the engine for a bit the fuel system will bleed itself. Some are not. Check manufacturer’s handbook for advice.

          quick bleed (never recommended but we all do it,
though it doesn’t always work). Ensure throttle lever
is engaged. Back off injector nut (on fuel supply
line) while turning the engine over by hand or on the
starter motor until only fuel comes out (no  air
bubbles).  Tighten nut while still turning engine
over. On a four cylinder you may get away with
doing only two injectors. Do a full bleed later.

          A lot of modern engines will self-bleed. Yanmars are particuarly good at this. Just turn the engine over a few times and it will probably chug into life. New engines with software controlling the fuel supply can have problems in the hardware or software. On some you can bypass the hardware controlling fuel. We did this for a Volvo in the Cape Verdes where there was no chance of getting the hardware/software problem sorted. It went all the way across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back up to Maine with the hardware hot-wired.

          full bleed.  In order bleed the low pressure fuel
pump, high pressure fuel pump, and each injector in
turn until only fuel comes out. Try not to spill diesel
everywhere by putting rag waste under connections
and in the engine bilge.

Smoke signals

White smoke may mean

1.            Water in the fuel.

2.            Blown head gasket.

3.            Air in fuel.

Black smoke may mean

1.            Improper injection, timing, or high pressure fuel
pump settings.

2.            Overload. It is common for a bit of black smoke on
start-up but once warm the engine should be backed
off from excessive revs which produce black smoke.

3.            Air starvation or filter/turbocharger problems.

Blue smoke may mean

1.            Mechanical defect, commonly worn or stuck piston
rings and/or valves and guides.

2.            Too much oil in crankcase. Check oil level.


Suggested minimum engine tool kit

Complete socket set, metric or imperial depending on

your engine.

Set of open-ended or ring spanners, metric or imperial.

Large adjustable spanner (big enough for the propeller

nut and sea-cocks).

Medium and small adjustable spanners.

Medium and large mole-grips.

Medium pipe wrench.

Set of Allen keys.

Set of normal and Phillips screwdrivers.

Pliers - normal and needlenose.

Ball-peen hammer.

Set of feeler gauges, metric or imperial.

Brass bristle wire brush.

Suggested minimum engine supplies

Engine oil.

Gearbox oil.

Appropriate greases.

WD40 or equivalent.

Insulation tape and self-amalgamating rubber tape.

PTFE tape.

Selection of stainless steel jubilee clips.

Silicone sealant. Petroleum jelly. Gasket goo (for emergency gasket repairs).

Suggested minimum engine spares

Oil filter.

Fuel filters.

Top-end gasket set (or at least a head gasket).

Several impellers for raw water cooling pump.

Pulley belts as required for engine.

Injector sealing washers.

O-ring kit (as required).

Spare engine key.

More extensive engine spares kit - add:

Spare injector or nozzle.

Injector liner and washers.

Water pump spares kit.

Lift pump diaphragm.



Winter lay-up engine check-list

1.                Run the engine to operating temperature. Drain or
pump out the engine oil. Refill with fresh oil. I’ve
 tried various oil pumps from the straight pump-out ones (hard work), electric oil pumps (good, but prone to giving up), and vacuum pumps like the one opposite (the best solution I’ve found).

2.       Drain the raw water cooling system. Flush through
with freshwater.  The easiest way to do this is
usually to stick a hose in the water inlet or remove
the inlet pipe and stick it in a bucket which is
refilled by the hose. Run in 50-50 water-antifreeze
mixture  at  the  end  to   coat  waterways.   Drain
system including low spots. Plug the water inlet
with oily rag.

3.       Drain freshwater cooling system and replace with
water-antifreeze mixture as per handbook.

4.       Drain water-trap box in exhaust. Clean up anti-siphon valve and make sure the siphon hole is not blocked up with crusty salt bits. Plug exhaust with oily rag.

5.                Remove  and  grease  waterpump  impeller with
petroleum jelly. Leave it out to replace on launching (don’t forget).

6.                Check any anticorrosive zincs and replace if nec­

7.       Clean fuel filters and drain water out if necessary.

8.       Grease any appropriate points, not forgetting the
Morse controls.

9.       Spray WD40 or oil into inlet manifold and turn
engine slowly (without starting) to coat cylinder

10.    Turn engine to compression stroke.

11.    Fill fuel tank to avoid condensation.

12.           Wipe engine with an oily rag or a mixture of
petroleum jelly dissolved in petrol or spray with
WD40, to avoid external corrosion.

13.    Clean engine compartment. Be careful not to leave
oil and diesel in the engine bilge.

14.    A custom-made winter cover for the deck or the
whole boat will repay the investment by keeping
the sun and dust off the boat while it is laid up. In
many yards there can be a fair bit of dust blowing
around and when it settles and then it rains, the
result is later baked by the sun to a red-clay finish.
The cover will also prevent UV damage to fittings
and brightwork.


It's a gas: Getting gas around the world

From the Skylax blog 19-02-09

Its a gas gas gas

Getting cooking gas around the world

We’re talking cooking gas here. One of the problems that doesn’t usually get a lot of thought when arriving in a new country is how easy, or not, it is to get gas bottles filled. In a significant number of countries you effectively need to get a new gas bottle that conforms to the regulations in that country so you can have gas on board. The reason for that is that to get an old bottle certified can be next to impossible and even if you manage it, the cost of certification will often be more than the cost of a new bottle.

Most cookers will run happily on propane or butane. Propane cookers running on butane will give out slightly less heat than when on propane, but for the most part you won’t notice the difference. Butane is stored at a lower pressure than propane so you should never fill a butane bottle (such as Camping Gaz bottles) with propane. In lots of places, Tonga and NZ are examples, the gas is actually a mix of propane and butane.

Once you have a new bottle then there is the matter of connecting it. The fittings for bottles in different countries vary and the chances are that you will not have a fitting for the local bottle. We have just bought the kit that Hayward ( ) makes for cruising boats which has a permanently mounted marinised regulator that can cope with propane and butane and a fittings kit with all the connectors you are likely to come across around the world. We will check it out but the quality of the kit looks good and though it’s not cheap, it’s going to be cheaper than trying to buy fittings and a regulator in another country.

Skylax is in NZ at the moment and we have bought a new bottle there ($NZ50) because they won’t fill any bottles we already have. The regulator to fit on the top of the bottle would cost $NZ40 so we have saved that much already, or should I say it’s gone towards the Hayward kit. When we get to Australia it’s the same story all over again and we will likely need to get a new bottle. The thing you do is sell any old bottles en route, once you have got the other bottles you have on board filled somewhere. Since we are going to Fiji its likely we will take the NZ bottle there because they will be familiar with them. Once we get to Vanuatu and New Caledonia we can get the Camping Gaz bottles filled, but will probably hang onto the NZ bottle to see if we can get it filled in Aus. Complicated huh! But where would you be without that old cooker.

All the components of the kit are sold separately so the thing to do is get in touch with Will Hayward at the email above and tell him where you are going. We have the ‘world’ kit and the marinised regulator which comes out at:

Universal gas system.


The adapters in the  kit 4018 @ £85.99 connect to one end of a 22" or 33" high pressure hose 4017 @ £10.99 the other end of the hose connects to our 4006 bulkhead mounted regulator @ £20.99 which has a 1/2" BSP low pressure outlet.

There are six adapters in the kit.

20mm clip on

Primus swivel valve

Camping gaz swivel valve

BSP male Propane pol.

NPT male pol  

G4-8 left hand EU

2 X Stainless steel spanners.



I wrote this in response to a letter in one of the yachting magazines which stated that a watermaker was an essential bit of equipment for ocean passages. At the time we were waiting for spares to arrive for our watermaker. The magazine obviously decided to file it away, presumably in the file called rubbish, as it didn't appear. Perhaps the contents didn't fit in with the ethos of flashy yachts equipped to the gunwhales with complicated equipment.

While a watermaker is a useful bit of kit on board, it is not essential and large numbers of yachts make long passages without one. There are drawbacks to watermakers.

  • While watermaker reliability has greatly improved, they are temperamental to say the least. I have helped lots of boats take out their new or nearly new watermaker for it to be collected yet again by an agent so it can be returned to the manufacturer for repairs or replacement. It has to figure as one piece of equipment that suffers from a low reliability record and you certainly need to choose a manufacturer who will give good after sales service.
  • Watermakers like to be worked so if you are leaving the boat for more than a week then you need to go through the complicated procedure of cleaning out the pipes and membranes and then washing them through with the chemical wash and preservative provided by the manufacturer. Before starting them up again you need to wash them through again.
  • Watermakers do not like dirty water with silt and other gunk in it. They really need to be run in clean anchorages or at sea.
  • Depending on the size of the watermaker you will need to run a generator or for smaller models have a good source of amps for a 12 or 24 volt system.
  • If you need spares then getting them to where you are can be an expensive business. Our basic spares for a small watermaker (filters and chemical gunk) cost $250US in Grenada.
  • If you leave the boat for more than a week at times then you may, like us, decide that it is not worth the bother and time, let alone expense, of keeping your watermaker going. The watermaker is still on board as are the spares, though we haven't bothered to get it up and running even after a couple of ocean passages.

The letter

Water on a long trip is liquid gold and you need to hoard it. On a three week trip from the Red Sea to Cochin two of us still had water left from fifty gallons total. On Atlantic crossings of around three weeks, three of us have had lots of water left from 100 gallons total. Forty gallons on board a yacht with two crew should be augmented by at least four five gallon jerry cans and you might want to think about installing another tank somewhere. Two of the jerry cans should be strapped to the guard rails in case of the awful prospect of abandoning ship in which case you can sling them into the liferaft or the water (and they should float in the denser salt water). We also carry around a dozen five litre bottles of drinking water and remember a lot of tinned goods have water in them as well.

You can justly ask how smelly were we at the end of the trips? Well not that bad. Watching the water consumption you do get to shower now and again, but there is no way you are going to shower every day without very large tanks or a watermaker. Most people don’t and the saving grace smell-wise is baby wipes. We always have large economy packs on board and a wipe over with several of these does a pretty good job. Moreover they can be used when the boat is too uncomfortable to shower which is more often than you think, especially crossing to the Caribbean when you roll about all over the place and showering becomes a slippery exercise in holding on.

While a lot of yachts carry watermakers, it is not necessary for a long trip – after all yachts were crossing oceans long before watermakers were around. And they are not always reliable as per my comments above. In most places in the world you can find water and you can also collect rain to augment your supplies. Either let the main down a bit so it has a bag at the bottom and after it has been washed off for a bit to get salt and silt out of it, lower the boom a little (or tighten the kicker) and use a large funnel with a piece of hose to collect it in a jerrycan or directly into the tanks. One idea I saw in a NZ magazine is to fill a pastic bag with water and use it as a dam to direct water directly into the tanks off the side decks - once they have been washed clean. And anyway in an age where water poverty is going to become THE issue, perhaps we need to learn how to be frugal with our water - on land as well as at sea.

Atlantic squall - with rain!

RJH 2006

The great bottled water myth


Sitting around Levkas reading proofs, well actually when I take a break for a cappuccino in the internet café on the waterfront, I see all the mini-buses bringing in new people to the charter boats lined up on the quay. Along with bags, food, beer and wine and other things, the new charterers unload pack upon pack of bottled water and struggle on board to load the boat down to the gunwales with it. Even if W C Fields said, ‘I never drink water because fish shit in it’ or something like that, I bet he had ice in his drink.

It is a curse of these seas that they are peppered with empty plastic water bottles bobbing around, washed up on beaches and casually disposed of ashore. Even if they are taken ashore to be disposed of they invariably end up being burnt on a rubbish dump somewhere releasing all sorts of toxic compounds into the environment. Plastic bottles are mostly made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but also contain traces of plasticizers, phthalates, anti oxidants, heavy metals, fillers, and anti-static agents. PET can be recycled, but not by burning it in an open air rubbish dump. And for what?

Here are the reasons why it is pointless to carry all that bottled water on board – APART from the very obvious matter of pollution in the sea and on the land.

  • Most bottled water is not required to comply with the sort of standards and rigorous testing that is applied to municipal water supplies. You get a list of the ‘ingredients’ in terms of x% or PPM sodium, potassium, calcium nitrates, sulphates, nitrites, etc., but these do not have to conform to the levels set by the government for drinking water from the tap. I well remember Mr MD of Perrier being put on the spot in a TV interview and asked if he would give his small child Perrier or tap water to drink. He replied tap water, though rather sheepishly.
  • Drinking bottled water is not going to keep you away from any perceived nasties in the local tap water. What do you clean your teeth with? Do you eat ashore? If you do then what do you think the ice in your drink is made of? What do you think the glass is washed up in? And the plates you eat off and the utensils you use? What do you think the salad ingredients are washed in?
  • You cannot insulate yourself from the local water unless you never eat or drink ashore, never clean your teeth except with bottled water, never touch the stuff.

Water in another country will have some benign bacteria of a slightly different strain to that your gut is used to at home and maybe it will cause a slight tummy upset or a mild dose of the runs for a day or so. Your gut will then adapt to the ‘foreign’ bacteria and you won’t experience any more problems in the normal course of events. And you get to eat ashore.

So don’t buy all those bottles of water. It is an affectation you can do without. And you will be doing yourself and the environment a favour as well.


While local water is often perfectly OK to drink, in some places it is heavily chlorinated. We use a Brita water filter jug to filter water for tea and coffee and fill water bottles to go in the fridge for drinking water. It gets rid of any taste in the local water, especially chlorine, and costs very little compared to bottled water.







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