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 5: boat gear


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.

LED Nav lights

Getting cooking gas around the world

Holding tanks

Watermakers: do you need one?

LED nav lights

Like lots of people living on a boat I'm always trying to cut down on electricity usage on board. In fact I'm known as the amp miser. So this year we are trying out LED's in the tri-colour and anchor light. I went to an Australian supplier mostly because his price (incl. postage) was good, but also because his website offered a bit more information on LED's than many others. According to the specs the Bay15D he supplies with staggered pins will fit our Aquasignal tricolour and anchor light and is USCG 5 mile approved - nothing about EU regs here but I notice the same Bay 15D is being offered for sale in the UK.

The website has a few tips for neophyte LED'ers like me including something about looking for the yellow dot in the LED. This means it is a 3 chip LED as opposed to clear LED's which are single chip. Apparently 3 chip good/1 chip bad for marine applications.

Anyway this LED uses just 3W so 0.25 amps. Sounds better than the 2 amps the filament bulb currently uses, though I'll keep the old one as a backup.


LED nav light update

29 June 2007, 07:00:00

When I arrived back at the boat with my new LED bulbs to go in the tri-colour and the anchor light several people in the yard gravely nodded their heads and said: they don't work. Apparently I'm not the first to try this but anyway we replaced the bulbs, flicked the breaker on, and the pessimists were right, they didn't work.

I thought about it for a bit and then - bingo - most LED's are polarity sensitive. Changing the wires around at the masthead was going to be a fiddle so Lu swapped the circuits around where the wires emerge from the base of the mast. The only problem here was that the combined tri-colour and anchor light had only the single earth wire and two positives running to the breakers. No problem. We got an on-off-on rocker switch and now the lights are controlled by a single breaker and the rocker switch sited on the side of one of the saloon seats.

OK so its a bit of a palaver, but given that the lights appear brighter than the old filament bulbs and draw just a tenth of the amps (0.2 as opposed to 2 amps), then I'm quite happy to pop down into the saloon if we need to swap from tri to anchor light.

One other thing. There are apparently some LED's which are not polarity sensitive and which continuously switch poles. The reported problem with these is that they can interfere with radion aerials, most commonly VHF aerials, mounted next to them om the masthead. In one case the user changed these non-polarity sensitive LED's for polarity sensitive LED's and viola, the problem was sorted.


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.



Holding tanks

Holding tanks

 One of the questions I’m often asked, or often one of the things people tell me, is that you are required to have a holding tank in most Mediterranean countries. Well not yet. At least private cruising boats don’t legally need a holding tank in the Mediterranean, though most of the countries require charter boats to have a holding tank.

Although legally you don’t have to have a holding tank fitted in Mediterranean countries, a number of countries, in particular Spain, Greece and Turkey, can and do impose heavy fines for pumping out black water in a harbour or anchorage. The laws also covers pumping out dirty bilge water, especially if it contains oil. In any case who wants to swim in water, or even look at it, that has been polluted by some unthinking person pumping the toilet or the bilge. Not me. In olde charter days long gone by we used to call it ‘close encounters of the turd kind’.

Although there is no legal requirement at the moment, I suspect some countries will introduce a law in the near future.

My favoured design and one I have fitted in most my yachts keeps it simple without long pipe runs or a macerator pump to pump the holding tank out. This design is a well-tried one that many charter yachts use and can be connected to a deck-fitting for pump-out as well. I have just had one fitted in Skylax using a ready-made polypropylene Vetus tank of around 60 litres. The toilet continuously pumps through the tank and when you want to use it as a holding tank you simply turn the outlet sea-cock off. To empty it out at sea (MARPOL requirements are 3 miles off the coast) you simply open the outlet sea-cock and pump a bit more water through the toilet to flush it out.

To clean the loo I use some dilute vinegar (white preferably as red seems to leave a stain) which both cleans and gets rid of smells. I also put a dribble of olive oil down the loo every now and again to lubricate the valves.


Diagram from my RYA book of Mediterranean Cruising (Adlard Coles) with the waterline mod.




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


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