10 Tools You Never Knew You Needed

SAIL 10 Tools

SAIL Magazine, December 2009, Uncommon Tools

This article was originally published in SAIL Magazine, December 2009 under the title “Uncommon Tools” in the “On Deck” section.


Every cruising boat carries a healthy quantity of tools, one for every known situation.   But what about those overlooked situations, the ones where you think to yourself … if I only had an “XYZ”.   As anyone who owns a boat knows, things are not always as easy on a boat as they should be!  Here are a few tools you may not realize you need, but that will come in handy someday!

Dental Tools … a set of dental tools is invaluable for accessing tight places … cleaning corrosion off a battery post, pushing a reset button on a hard to reach piece of electronics,  replacing the rubber in the spear tip of a speargun,   retrieving a dropped washer from just outside arm range, springing metal in a dive flashlight to reinstate contact, cleaning threads on bolts, clearing out tiny crevasses in the watermaker intake strainer …  the uses are endless.     The small circular mirror allows viewing places that even an auto mechanics mirror won’t fit, such as the critical view behind allowing you to  get a wrench on that stubborn bolt that won’t tighten.  Best way to get dental tools?  Ask your family dentist.  Often they have old sets just lying around that they may sell or simply give  away to good patients.     Ours are used so much they rate moving from the tool locker to the silverware drawer … the ONLY tools allowed in the silverware drawer!

Dental Tools Are Useful in a Variety of Ways

Dental Tools Are Useful in a Variety of Ways


Auto Mechanics Mirror … a small rectangular mirror on a 8-10” long bar with a swivel attachment.     The auto mechanics mirror allows you to minimize contortionist time accessing crazy places that prior owners thought important equipment should be installed.  You can check the connections on the back of your refrigerator compressor,  view the back of the SSB radio to re-attach wires,  see into batteries with extremely limited clearance to determine if they need water,  and even see your upside down battery charger to push the “equalize” button.  Get one at any auto store.


Turkey Baster …  You may want more than one of these useful devices, maybe three if you actually intend to use one for cooking!   Useful to top off lead acid batteries with distilled water … or suck the last bit of crud out of the bottom reachs of the bilge, rusty water out of a water tank that desperately needs cleaning or dirty diesel out of the bottom of a fuel tank.  Nothing else does the job quite as easily or effectively as a turkey baster. Available in any kitchen gadgets section of WalMart, Target or dimestore.

L Shaped Screwdriver Reaches Places Nothing Else Will

L Shaped Reaches Places Nothing Else Wi

L Shaped Offset Screwdriver … two 90 degree bends allow use in situations a straight normal length screwdriver cannot.    The L screwdriver has a Phillips head on one end and a regular straight screwdriver head on the other.   We use it  constantly to access hard to reach screws in ridiculously tight places while in an exotic foreign anchorage with crystal blue water… the definition of a cruising sailboat!   When we should be enjoying paradise, we’re playing with a funny shaped screwdriver!

Small Brass Wire Brush … when our electric windlass refuses to work, often the problem is the connections – unfortunately, the anchor locker where these connections reside is exposed to salt water from the anchor chain.  A quick brush to clear corrosion and some  di-electric grease to help insulate from salt exposure, generally gets the windlass working again.   Whenever our normally strong SSB or VHF signal deteriorates, the culprit is often a connection that simply needs cleaned with the wire brush and reconnected.  The wire brush is also used for cleaning corrosion on battery posts  or any other electrical connections.  If you’re like us, get several.   We seem to go through one about every three months cruising the Western Caribbean.

Headlamp.   Even if you already have multiple flashlights and think you don’t need a headlamp, consider the best benefit … upside down under the back lazarette checking the SSB tuner connections, you are handsfree and the headlamp moves with you!  It is also useful for spotlighting whatever is being worked on in the engine compartment, reading the measurement of the specific gravity in batteries on the hydrometer, seeing into the deep recesses of the refrigerator,  spotting the reef in the dinghy when returning to the boat at night or simply reading in the cockpit underway.      Get two … or three … they tend to fail from exposure to the harsh saltwater environment.

Impeller Puller ….  Most diesel mechanics recommend replacing the impeller in your diesel engine at least once a year whether you use it or not.   When the rubber flattens out on the impeller blades when not in use it doesn’t allow sufficient water to cool the diesel resulting in the engine running hot or even overheating.    It’s not absolutely necessary to have an impeller puller, but on our boat it reduced the time spent in the hot, airless engine compartment from hours to minutes AND virtually eliminated all the new words I was learning from my captain … definitely two positive arguments in favor of adding one to the tool box!  Ours is a Jabsco, make sure to get the right size for your impeller.

Oil Filter Wrench … this goes hand in hand with the Impeller Puller, not absolutely necessary, but handy, eliminating a stream of swearing and cursing from the engine compartment during oil changes.  Be sure to get one that has a swivel handle for accessing tight places!   While you’re at it, make sure you have a good way to change the engine oil.  We tried to avoid anything requiring electricity, but after too many messes with oil leaking into the bilge, we bought a small electric pump to remove the oil. (again, make sure to get the right size!)

Rubber Mallet ….  We have a recalcitrant electric windlass … inevitably whenever we need to anchor in deeper water, where it would be nice to have the anchor and chain go down quickly, it refuses to release.  But a quick tap with the rubber mallet fixes the problem instantly!   The rubber mallet can be used to free anything that needs a quick tap, preferably NOT with a real hammer!   Not recommended for use on your laptop!

Special Tools … go over your boat with a fine tooth comb noting anything that requires a special tool to open … our NavPod is a perfect example.  When we needed to open it to replace some electronics, we discovered that it takes a special allen wrench that the previous owner had neglected to leave.  Luckily a quick call to NavPod had one in the US Mail the next day.   Even more luckily, we discovered the missing allen wrench BEFORE we were off cruising the Western Caribbean where it is challenging, if not downright impossible, to receive mail!

In addition, there are a few other tools that deserve an Honorable Mention:

BIG Nuts and Bolts on a Cruising Sailboat

BIG Nuts and Bolts on a Cruising Sailboat

Channel Locks …. Bigger is Better.   Used whenever you need to grip anything tightly … undoing a stubborn bolt, channel locks allow you to have needed leverage on the wrench … invaluable removing a stripped bolt from our outboard stern mount bracket and even more critical, for removing the rusted speartip from David’s speargun!

BIG Crescent Wrench & BIG Socket Wrench …  Inevitably when you need one, you’ll need a bigger one than you have, so go for the biggest.   Cruising sailboats have BIG bolts and nuts in the rigging and elsewhere.  Our normal socket set does not have sockets as large as required on the boat.

Electrical Cut, Strip, Crimp Tool …Speaking of corrosion, a good electrical cut, strip and crimp tool is invaluable.   Since corrosion seems to be a part of a cruisers life, insuring good connections stay good can reduce the risk of having a connection go bad just when you need it most!  When simply using the wire brush does not take care of the problem, the cut, strip and crimp tool can help you redo the connection.

C Clamps … For years our C Clamps sat lonely and unused in the tools compartment until the stern mount bracket screw failed on our otherwise trusty outboard engine.    We used a C Clamp to insure the outboard stayed aboard and did not go snorkeling.   Other uses are sure to arise, use your imagination!

Add these tools to your tool locker and the next time a situation arises, you’ll be glad you did.    As we all know, any job is easier if you have the right tools!


  1. Donna Kirkpatrick s/v Anemone says:

    The turkey baster idea just saved me $50-100. We have a refrigerator but not a freezer so we put a bag of ice in it, and as we use it, some melts and it drips and collects down in the low point of the fridge. this low point is just out of reach without doing the standing on head bit so it was difficult to “sponge”out. We were considering getting a little dc powered pump to suck the water out but then I read about the turkey baster and bought one of those instead for $2. Yippy! Work like a charm. Then about an hour later, had another opportunity to use it on a little leak problem during an anchor locker/windlass installation project. Great tool!

  2. spring loaded center punches — can be used with one hand, ideal up the rig and just fine everywhere else. lee valley has them.

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