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Also known as a “handy billy," The three part system can be beyond useful. This combo let's one person hoist a heavy load. 

Many people chuckle when they see the hand-cranked pencil sharpener mounted above the stubby little table where we often do chart work. But this is just one of the things that help to make our life easier, more convenient, or safer aboard our boat. Here are a few others, plus a few that caught our attention when we were aboard other boats.


As much as we may be tempted to think so, the three-part block and tackle have not gone the way of the square riggers. In fact, they can still be advantageous on contemporary boats, finding employment where inexpensive, low-tech, and flexible means are desired to do such things as pulling the boat into the dock against a wind or current, tensioning broken rigging, getting the dinghy overboard or back on deck again, as well as helping to deploy or retrieve a storm anchor or the dinghy’s outboard motor. They can also help recover a man overboard.

A single block and a single block with becket, each with a short rope tail along with an adequate amount of rope rove through the two blocks, are all that is required to make a handy billy. (Beckets are the metal projections to which a shackel and line attach.)

Of course, for many handy billy uses, it helps to have a boom long enough to extend a couple of feet past one side of the boat, and it should be of robust construction.


Useful and reusable, the perfect combination. (

Useful and reusable, the perfect combination. (

Talk about something having a thousand and one uses, the ubiquitous utility tarp, might just fall into this category. It can prove useful in keeping nicks, dings, and spills from marring the boat’s surface. If constructed heftily enough, it can do double duty as a collision mat.

Although a utility mat can be made from any one of a variety of materials, our favorite is cotton duck (10 to 12 ounces), as it has some qualities that the other materials may not have. It is fairly soft and pliant, absorbent, and easy to work with. It also resists chafe exceedingly well and is relatively inexpensive. Its fibers shrink when they absorb moisture, and thus tighten up, making the material waterproof, or, at least, water resistant. Webbing or rope loops sewn on, or grommets pressed in allow lines to be attached.


On a boat, several small plywood pads (or other material) seem to be more useful than one bigger sheet of plywood, as they are more flexible in their use and it is easier to find storage space for them.

They can be used to keep heavy items like anchors, outboards, and dinghies from marring the boat, or, when placed under a metal container, to keep rust stains off the deck. Although any thickness of wood can work, we find thin wood is more practical, and a hole drilled in a corner allows a lanyard to be attached, should one be needed. We make ours in squares of 8 by 8 inches.


6-inch needle-nose pliers with the outside of the tips ground into a flat, wedge shape are quite helpful to insert or pull pins when sewing, inserting, or removing circular cotter rings that are often used in rigging, or to remove staples, which are often used to hold things together when sewing canvas.

Need another use for those pliers? Try this and save your toes!

Need another use for those pliers? Try this and save your toes! (Click to enlarge.)


Having a bucket you can lower into the sea and fill with water is a handy item to have onboard, but getting the bucket to cooperate is another matter entirely. To cope, we installed double lanyards on our wood bucket. The main lanyard is attached to the bucket’s bail and is long enough to reach, from the deck to the sea. The other lanyard, attached to the bottom portion of the bucket, is long enough to reach the upper portion of the main lanyard and is spliced (or tied) to it. By manipulating the second lanyard, we can tilt the bucket to either fill or empty it.

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Wax is an excellent lubricant on a boat. It is dry, does not collect moisture or dirt, and does not stain. It is inexpensive, readily available, easy to store, and has no shelf life. Just about anything that slides or rubs might benefit from an application of wax, including those sliding hatches.


Those who use oil lamps may find that this idea falls under the category of “Why didn’t I think of that?” To blow out an oil lamp, one must come very close to the lamp’s burner. We use a piece tubing that was 3/8 inch wide by 2 feet long, though these dimensions can be changed to suit the circumstances. By now you’ve probably figured it out; we place one end of the tube in our mouth, extend the other end of the tube to the base of the burner, and blow.


Batteries, at least in our flashlights, last longer if we apply a thin film of dielectric grease on the battery ends and the flashlight’s contacts, including the switch. Without the grease, an invisible layer of corrosion develops, stopping the batteries from working well before their power has been exhausted. Vaseline and synthetic grease can also be used.


A great DIY project for weekend warriors.

A great DIY project for weekend warriors.

Wire coat hangers rust and usually are not hefty enough for heavy items, like wet suits; plastic coat hangers often break under a load and, in the sun, eventually disintegrate. Our solution is plywood hangers. After penciling in an outline of a metal coat hanger on a piece of plywood, cut out a suitable hole at the apex, with the edges eased, and the end-grain sealed, even varnished. A short line run through the hole is used to hang it.


We covered a thin, notepad-size piece of plywood, front and back, with light-colored Formica and drilled a small hole in one corner. This hole is for the attachment of a lanyard. We varnished the plywood’s end-grain to seal it, but it could be painted or epoxied. This produces a notepad that is erasable, reusable, and water resistant. Any pencil marks that can’t easily erase are dissolved by any one of the solvents often found on a boat.


For those who need a vise, but have no place to mount one, our friend Jim Spence, who cruises on a 48-foot sundeck motoryacht, showed us his idea. He bolted his vise to a flat, thick piece of lead (maybe 1 inch or 1-1/2 inches thick), with the corners rounded and the edges eased. It is portable, yet heavy enough to keep the vise from moving around when we are sawing, hammering, or bending.

You don’t necessarily need to be a skilled craftsman to implement any of these ideas; as a well-known boat designer once asked, “How bad does it have to be not to work?” If you see an idea that might work for you, give it a try, work out any bugs, and, if you have any ideas of your own, don’t be shy about sharing them with others.