I used to think every boater carried tools onboard, even if he was a mechanical klutz. But when I began working as a diesel mechanic, I discovered that many carry not a single one. If you have limited stowage, choosing which tools to carry is a bit of an art. But that’s a subject for another column. This one’s more basic, dealing with five tools that no boater should be without. Over the years I’ve found this quintet indispensible. No, they won’t magically allow you to fix every problem, but they will raise the odds in your favor, take up very little space, and best of all, are cheap and available at any good hardware store or on the Internet.
Let’s begin with two basic premises: You cannot fix what you cannot see, and even the best-illuminated engine room has numerous dark nooks and crannies where things can and will hide. A good flashlight is the go-to solution, but it leaves you short one hand—unless you hold it in your mouth. A headlamp is a more palatable and practical option. I bought my first one years ago, and while it instantly became indispensable, it was a bulky thing that had a prodigious appetite for batteries and threw a beam of light that, though helpful, was bright only when the batteries were new. Today headlamps have long-life LED bulbs, and so suffer from neither of these drawbacks. My current model is more than a year old and still on its original three AAAs. I chose it because the battery pack is at the rear, making it much more balanced and comfortable. It cost me less than $30.
If you’ve attacked even the smallest task in your engine room, you know that it is absolutely inevitable that you’ll drop a crucial component at the most inopportune time, and that it will end up where you can’t reach it. If the component is ferrous, which it often is, an extendable magnetic pickup will save your bacon. Pick-ups come in numerous shapes and sizes, but if you get one with a long, movable magnet, it will let you fish around for your item even if you can’t see it. You should have no problem finding one for less than $20.
Needle-nose locking pliers
If you’re even a middling fix-it-yourselfer, you know the value of needle-nose pliers: They grip small things that normal pliers cannot. But their grip can be tenuous, and when you’re extracting that cotter pin or screw and are sure you’ve got it, you often relax your grip, and the item disappears into the nether regions. That won’t happen with locking needle-nose pliers. They grab and hold even in difficult-to-reach areas, and won’t relax their grip until you make them. An 8-inch model shouldn’t run you more than $20, but beware of cheap versions whose jaws don’t properly align and whose mechanisms wear out
Boaters often steer clear of electrical issues, finding them mystifying and daunting. And truth be told, many electrical jobs are best left to an expert. But you can usually trace—and often fix—an electrical glitch if you have a multimeter. Unlike a circuit tester, it doesn’t just indicate, it measures—volts, amps, and most important, ohms, which allows you to find an open circuit. Multimeters require just a little study to take full advantage of their abilities, but once you understand what they can do, there will be few electrical issues that are beyond your diagnostic abilities. You can spend $50 and up for a digital unit; I paid $19 for my analog, and it’s served me well for many years.
Yes, it’s true. Even on your beautiful Hinckley, something eventually gets stuck, and to unstick it you have to get physical. But physical shouldn’t mean abusive. A typical carpenter’s hammer, or even a machinist’s hammer (which you should also have onboard), will generate metal-to-metal impact that can bend, fracture, and break. A rubber mallet is a more prudent, less impactful choice that will allow you to apply a sizable force to an object without damaging it. And besides, if the force it generates isn’t enough to do the job, you can always escalate. I have an 18-ounce Stanley, for which I paid $20, that has gotten me out of a lot of scrapes—without magnifying the problem I was trying to fix.
All five of these tools should cost you no more than $110 total, which as we all know, is a pittance in the world of boats. For that small price, they will get you out of many a jam, just as they have done for me.