Since moving aboard our sailboat, my nightly bedtime reading has often alternated between two of the best boat maintenance manuals around—Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual and Don Casey’s Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual, along with some Moby Dick and Walden in there as well. Incidentally, Brion Toss’ The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice was also in this reading mix, but we’ll dedicate a future post about the incredible gifts that exist between its covers.
For us, books are also one of the most valuable means of researching repair topics. Having a book in front of you gives you time to digest the information that is being presented to you. If you do not understand a concept, you can reread the paragraph or chapter. I have also found it to be helpful to read about a topic in a manual and then climb around our sailboat, Hope, to see how it all works, referencing back to the book during the exploration as necessary to understand how the systems are put together.
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MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT BOAT COST AND REPAIRS
Two common sayings about boats that never sat well with me are “Boat: Break out another thousand,” and “The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat and the day they sell it.” Honestly, I think these sayings are trite and tired. I say this with the implicit understanding of the irony of having just returned from the store with a $100 fresh water pump and understanding that some boat parts are, indeed, expensive.
So why do I feel that way about those sayings?
First, if you are adequately prepared, curious, and not afraid of a little hard work, every day can be the happiest day you own a boat! Or, at the very least, you can balance out the struggles and hard work with some serious exploration and play.
Second, boat parts are expensive because they should be. What I mean is that a watery environment (especially salt water) puts a considerable strain on the vessel and its parts. Every little thing needs to be designed to resist corrosion, or engineered to resist a considerable physical load.
Anything requiring this type of engineering will be overbuilt and durable enough to take the strain of its intended purpose (read: potentially expensive) or cheap enough to be sacrificed, with very little middle ground. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Another point to consider—the boating market isn’t really that big in comparison to other markets, like home improvement and building materials or automotive supplies. So when we do buy parts, we are not buying them at a rate in which the manufacturers can knock down the cost like producers in those other markets can.
Thankfully, most of the systems of a boat are simple enough to learn how to debug and fix yourself. Honestly, one of your most complicated systems is likely to be your diesel engine (unless you are taking part in the nuclear arms race to add wifi- enabled everything to your boat), and they are simple to work on once you learn their language. As the British science and travel writer, Nigel Calder, once wrote, “a diesel must have clean air, clean fuel, clean oil and be kept clean.” Full stop. Who is Nigel Calder? Well, we will come back to him in just a bit.
THE BENEFITS OF BOAT MANUALS TO LEARN ABOUT YOUR BOAT
Learning how to fix and maintain your boat will keep many thousands of dollars in your pocket, even if you have to fork out a few hundred here and there. Besides the economic advantages of being able to take care of the systems on your boat, you can also experience a major confidence boost, allowing you to travel further afield than you may have otherwise.
As a new boat owner, learning how to maintain and repair your boat can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, we have found that the cruising community is full of people who are willing to share their knowledge, even during challenging times. If you need a hand or have questions, ask your neighbor at the dock or check in with fellow users on your boat manufacturer’s online forums. I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the responses you will get. We have found that most people want us to be successful, and are extremely willing to share the fruits of their experience. Remember to also be a good neighbor by offering to lend a hand when you can.
Captain Liz Clark, author of the memoir, Swell: Sailing the Pacific in Search of Surf and Self, was interviewed for the podcast, Wild Ideas Worth Living. During the episode, Clark speaks about how she apprenticed with professionals as she outfitted Swell, a 1966 Cal 40, for her journey. What better way to learn about your boat than to shadow a professional who has seen countless ways that parts work and sometimes fail? And, who better to learn from about how to diagnose and fix these failures? I highly recommend giving this episode a listen as it’s incredibly inspirational about pursuing dreams that are way out of our comfort zones!
WHY CALDER AND CASEY ARE MUST-READS FOR EVERY BOAT OWNER
For folks who aren’t familiar yet, Nigel Calder, referred to as the “guru of sailing systems,” is considered a renowned boat expert and marine author of respected books, such as How to Read a Nautical Chart and Shakedown Cruise: Lessons and Adventures from a Cruising Veteran as He Learns the Ropes.
Don Casey, too, is one the most trusted boating writers around and, as you can see based on the breadth of topics he’s covered for publications like Sail Magazine, he clearly knows his stuff and you’d have a difficult time finding a topic he hasn’t written about when it comes to boats.
What I really appreciate about both Calder and Casey is that they have both managed to compile a “total boat” resource. No topic is missed, whether it is an explanation of how a 12-volt battery bank works, or how to make a new canvas sunshade. Between these two books, you can sort out the best approach.
Let’s compare their approaches and you’ll see why they both complement each other and how they will help deepen your understanding of your boat.
The material in Don Casey’s Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual is highly simplified and approachable. The illustrations give a nice step-by-step feel to approaching the task at hand and the text is very direct and matter-of-fact. For instance, Don Casey notes the failure points of a 12-volt system, offering a 1/2 page breakout discussing how to properly size a battery bank, and tells you how to test the acidity of a flooded battery in a concise 10-page chapter dedicated to a boat’s electrical system. He offers a fantastic overview that allows you to quickly ascertain how your 12-volt system is designed and how it works.
On the other hand, Nigel Calder dedicates 5 chapters and nearly 200 pages about the topic of 12-volt systems alone, covering everything from chargers, inverters and solar panels, all the way through to the underlying chemistry of how a battery works and explaining in great detail why specific batteries operate best in different systems.
Not sure if you should use Absorbent Glass Mat (AGM) lead-acid batteries or Flooded Wet Cell batteries for your battery bank that will mostly be charged by solar panels at anchor? Then Nigel Calder’s 200-page chapter is incredibly valuable as he covers, with microscopic granularity, battery chemistry and technology, how they work, and therefore, the strengths and weaknesses of each type with an entire chapter on lithium-based systems.
Need to quickly trace back a faulty connection somewhere between your DC panel and battery bank? Then Don Casey’s short and succinct chapter should give you a good idea of what your system should look like and therefore where to start poking around with your voltmeter.
To further illustrate the benefits of both books and the authors’ approaches, take a look at these photographed excerpts:
Both of these excerpts cover the same topic—battery cell types. Notice how in the Calder manual, we are seeing two tightly-spaced, dense pages of text. He thoroughly explains the technology behind Wet Cells vs Gel Cells before beginning a discussion about “Making the right choice.” This opens a dialogue about battery absorption and discharge rates, which continues in the subsequent pages.
With Don Casey, the two pages of large text outline 3 cell types (Wet Cell, Gel, and AGM) with a handy selection chart that outlines the strengths of each battery type. The information is immediate, illustrative, and easy to digest while not diving quite as deeply into the technology as Nigel Calder’s text.
I had hoped that I could say that just one of these volumes would be enough for any budget-minded cruiser, however, I truly believe that everyone would benefit from having both Calder and Casey aboard their vessel. While the topics covered and presented are similar, how the material is covered is obviously different, and therefore the overlap between the two resources makes for the perfect compendium.
The hidden benefit of having both manuals aboard is seeing the repetition between what both authors believe are the most important takeaways for your safety. For instance, when Calder and Casey both agree that “swages are especially prone to cracking down the body of the swage” (Calder) if you have swage fittings, then pay heed to their recommendations to “crack test the swage every year or two” (Calder). It just makes good sense. As Brion Toss would say, “Trust, but verify,” and what better way to do so than to compare between two incredible sources.
Be sure to listen to the podcast, On the Wind, where you can hear Calder share captivating tales, including “living in a commune in the UK, years working on oil rigs in the Gulf, building pipe bombs in his parents backyard and much, much more.”
Perusing these manuals has also given me a greater appreciation of Hope’s design, helping me to parse our boat’s systems manual, as well as the service manual for our Yanmar 3jh2e 38hp diesel. Not only do I feel more confident when making necessary repairs, but I also feel more confident in making decisions for outfitting Hope for our future adventures.