DIY Sailboat Maintenance: Why You Need to Learn to DIY and How to Get Started

DIY Sailboat MaintenanceA few weeks ago, I received an email from Tim, a subscriber who has a common fear:

Another big fear of mine is mechanics. The internal combustion engine and I have never been friends…and there are so many other mechanical systems on sailboats. I am freaked out that I won’t be able to handle that.

Well Tim, I felt exactly the same way.  Like Tim, I was planning to do big trips with my family and knew that I’d be far away from a good mechanic.  And like Tim, I had few mechanical skills.

That was five years ago.  I’m far from an expert mechanic today, but I can do most of my own maintenance, and I mostly make sense when I’m talking to a professional or a forum about a trouble-shooting problem.

If I Can Do It So Can You

Just to break the ice, let me tell you my most embarrassing DIY story.  As you’ll see, I’m not some sort of mechanical genius!  This happened two years ago.  I had a few years of DIY experience at this point and had done a diesel course. I knew what I was doing on an intellectual level, but still lacked the experience to pull off a simple job without, well, a bit of drama.

In reviewing my diesel engine’s manual, I realized that the injectors were long, long overdue for servicing.  Pulling the injectors is a pretty easy job, and it’s cheap to have a shop service them.  The problem came when I went to reinstall them.

Each injector is held down by a saddle with two bolts.  I looked up the proper torque, set my torque wrench for half that, and started working back and forth to cinch up the bolts evenly.

BANG! One of the bolts snapped off in the block.

I was gobsmacked.  How could that happen? I decided I must have not heard the click of the torque wrench, so I backed the wrench all the way off to only a few ft-lbs of torque and tested it on the other bolt.

BANG!  Are you freaking kidding me?  Did I just do that? There was a long, dumbfounded pause and then I pulled myself into the cockpit and stared, dejected, at the floor for a while.  I might have mumbled and twitched a bit.

Lesson: When something unexpected and bad happens, don’t do the same thing again.  Figure out why it happened.

A trip to a big bolt on the dock revealed the problem.  The torque wrench was jammed.  I had been putting way, way too much torque on the bolt.

Lesson: Torque wrenches can jam.  Test it at a low torque first and do some mental math on how hard you should be pulling.

At least I’d had the foresight to buy a bolt extractor kit. The first bolt came out in about 10 minutes.   I was on a bit of a high as I tackled the second one.

The problem was that there was a lifting lug right next to the second bolt.  You run the drill in reverse to use the extractor kit and the chuck would run on the lug and undo itself.  I managed to finally get a hole drilled for the extractor, but it was off center and crooked.  Oh and I managed to break off a drill bit (not a good situation since drill bits are so hard).

As I leaned back and surveyed my screwed up attempt, I realized that the lifting lug was held on by a single bolt.  Why the heck hadn’t I just removed it?  In fact, I’d removed it a month ago to adjust the valve clearances!  (Insert face-palm here.)

Lesson:  If things aren’t going well, use your brain power before applying more muscle power!

Now it just so happens that this particular lifting lug had the glow plug relay screwed to it.  So I tucked the lug down out of the way and started to work on extracting the bolt again.  This was now very difficult since the hole had been drilled crooked and off-center and now had a broken drill bit in it to boot.

And then the lights went out…

Turns out the glow plug relay had a bare contact.  The lug and relay had slipped behind the heat exchanger and there were now hundreds of Amps flowing through the brass vessel.  Oh, and it was jammed there.

Now hundreds of Amps at 12V DC is actually pretty safe other than the heating effect on the wires and batteries.  There was so much current flowing that one of the oversize hose clamps holding the heat exchanger started to glow red and actually melted clean through within seconds.

With the heat exchanger now adrift, I was able to snatch out the relay and take a breath.

Lesson: Pay attention to things with wires coming out of them.  Maybe think about where you put them.

At this point I decided that maybe it would be $50 well spent to get somebody with more skills than I have to extract the last bolt before I screwed up the threads.

OK, this is supposed to be an article about why you can and should learn to do your own maintenance, so why did I tell an embarrassing and maybe somewhat scary story like that?

First of all, after owning a diesel engine for only a couple years I was doing pretty much all of the maintenance on it myself.  This was the last of a dozen maintenance items that cost me hundreds instead of thousands (new raw water pump, new alternator, cleaned and tested heat exchanger, adjusted valves, serviced injectors, changed filters, adjusted idle, calibrated tachometer).

Second, I had four important lessons I’ll never forget.  And even after all that it only cost me an extra $50 to learn them.

Third, if I can do that many stupid things in a row and walk away with a bruised ego and a $50 bill, what do you have to lose by trying it yourself?

Here’s why you should do your own maintenance and where to start:

The DIY Imperative: Why You Should Do Your Own Maintenance

I strongly believe that every skipper must learn to maintain and repair their boat’s systems.

The reasons are obvious if you plan to cross oceans, but it’s still important if you plan to stay much closer to home.  Here’s why:

  • Marine professionals go through busy periods.  It can take days or weeks to book somebody to come and have a look at your problem.  And problems tend to crop up the day before you leave on your annual week-long sailing trip.
  • Marine professionals are expensive.  Like really expensive.  Really, really expensive.  You’ll save thousands per year on a mid-size boat by doing your own work.
  • Marine professionals aren’t always very professional.  Frankly, there are some dodgy folks out there.  If you know what you’re doing you can make sure the job is done right or at least know quality work when you see it if you do need to hire someone.
  • Even coastal sailors get into remote spots.  When you’re a day from the nearest dock and the head breaks, the stove won’t turn on, or the engine is losing rpms, you need to be able to bodge together a fix on your own.
  • It’s fun!  This one surprised me.  The intellectual challenge of troubleshooting and the feeling of pride when you fix a system makes the skinned knuckles and fear of breaking it even more worth it!

How to Get Started

The obvious first choice is to check your local community college, sailing club or Power Squadron for what classes are available.  You can often find something on marine diesel engines or outboards, but the rest you’re probably going to need to figure out on your own.

Next, you’re going to want to figure out what you should actually be doing for maintenance.  This shouldn’t be too hard since every boat has about 5-10 things broken on it at any given time.  Every boat owner has “The List” of required repairs and upgrades.

Find the manuals for all of your major systems, especially the engine, and have a look at what required maintenance there is.  Keep the manuals handy since they will be a gold mine when you are trouble-shooting.

If you have a diesel, do nothing else on the boat until you know how to change the impeller, change all of the fuel filters, and bleed the fuel system.  It doesn’t matter if these tasks don’t need doing right now, learn how by doing it anyways!  Here’s a cautionary tale from a friend of mine who didn’t learn to bleed his diesel and nearly ended up on the rocks because of it.

Now that you know what to work on, buy some basic tools.  You’ll add to your toolkit as you need tools, but at least get:

I would also highly recommend:

You’ll also want to slowly build up a library of resource books besides your manuals.  Youtube and Forums are great, but often skip the basic stuff and aren’t available if you end up in trouble and outside of internet coverage.

I carry:

Now just get stuck into it and start trying things out.  Leave a lot more time than you think for each task and do your best to bring along a more knowledgeable friend for mentorship and moral support.  Heck, even a complete maintenance newbie who will help you think things through and calm you down when things go sideways will help!

Another great tactic for attracting mentors is to do your maintenance on a weekend.  If you do it out in the open or at least pace the docks every once in a while smeared in grease and muttering to yourself, you’ll attract plenty of helpful souls who would rather give you advice and lend you tools than do their own maintenance work!

Remember that you’re going to make mistakes.  Start with easy tasks and work your way up.  And remember that you’re investing your time and skinned knuckles to be a safer skipper, save thousands, and eventually be one of those helpful folks at the marina who will pass on your new-found wisdom and experience to the next newbie.

Tell us about your most embarrassing or triumphant maintenance moment in the comments below!

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6 thoughts on “DIY Sailboat Maintenance: Why You Need to Learn to DIY and How to Get Started

  1. Hello
    Good article but as a certified Mercury MerCruiser mechanic, I’d like to say that you should buy a very expensive and quality bolth extractors. Cheap ones break very easy even if you are very careful. Then you will have a broken bolt and broken extractor in it, you will be totally out of option. Well, you will have to do welding job to extract both broken bolts and extractors.
    Have good repairs.

  2. With some guidance from an experienced sailor, I took one of my winches apart to clean it. The gears and bearings were extremely dirty and I could not get all of the old grit and grease off before I needed to call it a day and go home. So, I put the parts in a plastic cup filled with mineral spirits. I left them in the galley sink to soak overnight. When I came back the next morning I found a mound of parts coated with plastic goo. Now, I had to clean off the goo as well as the old grease and grit. In addition, I lost one of the palls. Fortunately the nearby marine parts store had the parts, they came as a package of 6 for $45. In the end after spending a lot of time scraping off the plastic goo, I successfully cleaned and reassembled the winch. Ond down and three more to go.

    1. Ouch! I can imagine the sinking feeling when you saw the mound in the sink!

      I haven’t tried cleaning and greasing a winch yet. It’s one of the few systems I haven’t gotten into yet. I’ll be sure to learn from your mistake! Thanks for sharing.

  3. I have to ask – what are the dental picks for? I’m having trouble imagining what I’d need a sharp pointy tool for that wouldn’t be done equally well with more common tools that every boat owner already has – exacto knife, small screwdriver, old toothbrush.

    1. Great question. I’ve used them half a dozen times for accessing little fiddly bits in hard to reach corners (there are a lot of those on a boat). They’re also good for getting O-rings off. I like them better than a small screw-driver because of the “hook” factor when I’m trying to grab something and drag it out of a corner where I’ve dropped it, for example.

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