Much of what you need to have onboard as a full time cruising boat is obvious. You need a life raft. You need charts. You need sails. You need spares. You need tools.
Some of what you need on board is very dependent on the personality of those that occupy the boat. We’ve seen boats that look like a tropical rainforest with all the greenery in pots all over the place. On DOUBLESTAR I have a strict “no plants” policy, which chef routinely ignores in small ways. Who has ever heard of an air plant anyway?
But there are some non-obvious items that you may not know you need, but which can really come in handy. This list includes the top 11 items we have on board that may not be the first choice for many, but that we could simply not live without.
This turned into quite a lengthy article, so here are links to each item for ease of reference:
Things You DO Need
- Range Finder
- Ice Maker
- Soda Stream
- Folding Bikes
- Phone Clamp
- Anchor Alarm
- Weather Router
- Depth Sounder
- Wet Vac
Things You DON’T Need
We’ve been living aboard DOUBLESTAR – our Oceanis Yacht 62 – for almost 2 years now. In that time we’ve travelled almost 9,000 nautical miles. We’ve taken her as far north as New York City and as far south as Sint Maarten, visiting 145 destinations in 8 countries along the way.
Moving aboard we had the benefit of some previous experience, seasonally sailing since 2005. Additionally, when we started talking to Beneteau and the commissioning team at Annapolis Yacht Sales about building DOUBLESTAR, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted (and did not want) onboard our “forever” boat”.
We had a million decisions to make, from big ticket items like the KVH high-speed broadband satellite communication system, to smaller and equally important items like what to place in our ditch bag.
The wealth of information available online was an absolute blessing, and we are ever grateful to folks that take the time to share their experience in detail, allowing others (like us) to benefit. Here we must single out — among many others — circumnavigators Amy and David on https://outchasingstars.com/ whose blog and willingness to answer questions on a host of topics were invaluable.
Things You DO Need
1. Range finder
Fore! No, we’re not going to play golf. But we do want a range finder. This little device is incredibly handy in several different situations. Whenever we drop the hook, we use it to determine the range to several fixed points. Boats around us, the shore, a mooring ball. This allows us to keep an eye on whether we (or they!) are dragging anchor.
It also allows us to know when to ask others to leave, and when not to. Often when at anchor, another boat would come in and drop their hook precariously close to us, especially in small and/or really busy anchorages. This device allows us to determine whether it’s worth kicking up a fuss or not. If we have 100 feet of chain out, and they are closer than 250 feet, we are likely to politely ask them to move further away. That’s because – at worst in a blow – we might swing one way, they might swing another, and the combination of our rode + boat length combined with their rode + boat length could cause a close encounter of the worst kind.
It can be surprisingly difficult to judge distances between objects across the water, because there are usually no reference points. This device takes all the guesswork out of those situations.
2. Ice Maker
Many modern boats (including ours) have a built in ice-maker. If yours doesn’t, then this is likely going to make your list of “things you knew you needed” anyway. But we did not have one for the first year of sailing, because we have one on board, right? True, but we have a second, countertop version ice maker now (even though it lives in the cockpit under the table).
The main reason for this is that our built-in icemaker is in our freezer. This means constantly opening and closing the freezer, which wastes electricity AND causes the freezer to frost over much, much quicker. That, combined with the water that is constantly being fed into the frosty freezer environment meant we would have to defrost our freezer every 2-3 weeks.
A royal PITA!
Now that we have the countertop version, we hardly ever open the freezer, and we’ve turned off the water supply for the built-in ice maker. We now defrost every 2 months or so which is a huge improvement. This countertop version also makes ice a lot faster than our built in-unit does.
In talking with an old salt at a marine supply store in St Maarten, I asked whether they had communications equipment in stock. At first he had no idea what I meant, but when I explained it to him he seemed insulted by the notion that we would actually want the ability to communicate with each other in various situations, like when anchoring or docking.
“Hand signals are all ye need Rrrrrrr!” he said. OK without the pirate accent but that’s what I heard in my head.
True, you can get along just fine with hand signals, and we often do. But it’s also nice to have the ability to communicate, especially in certain situations such as anchoring in 30 knots of wind, or coming into a very tight marina where you have no idea where you are supposed to be going — most marinas, for some reason, will refuse to give you specific information on your slip assignment until you are right there.
Then it’s a race to get lines and fenders set up on the appropriate side of the boat, usually while trying to maneuver in close quarters, finding the right slip and dodging other boat traffic.
During times like this we find it invaluable to be able to calmly communicate, and provide and receive information from the person we trust the most. “It doesn’t look great here but there seems to be a sandy patch about 50 feet to port, at 11 o’clock.” Try getting that across using hand signals.
You get the gist of it.
So we like having a communications system (comms). So far we have used the Eartec model. Are we impressed? Well, yes and no.
- Great sound quality
- The ability to mute the conversation by lifting the mic boom
- Fits both of us fairly comfortably (my head is huge, Chef T’s is small)
- Seems to have a decent range
- Usable even in very windy conditions (you still get wind noise, but it’s usable)
- The boom mike is supposed to be adjustable, but the one unit’s boom just started flopping down to the lowest position after a few weeks. So that did not last very well. It’s still usable but annoying that it’s no longer adjustable.
- The system has a master and a slave. The master has an easy-to-use on/off toggle switch. You are either on or off, and there is no doubt about it. The slave is the complete opposite. There is no toggle switch: you have to depress the connection button for 4-6 seconds to switch if off. There is no indicator LED that shows you whether the unit has in fact powered down, and — according to much of what we have read online — the manufacturer actually requires you to remove the batteries from the unit when not in use to avoid them from running down. Clunky!
- Price: they are extremely expensive, and I am not sure why.
Additionally, we have now had to order new batteries, since the existing ones (now around 18 months old) do not hold their charge for more than a few minutes, which is crazy.
We are hoping the units just started failing as a result of all the discharging we have put them through until we started removing batteries from the units when not in use. All-in-all this product has some major flaws but we have not found anything that seems better, so we will stick with them for now.
4. Soda Stream
Game changer! If you drink a lot of fizzy soda like I do (Sprite Zero, yeah I actually like it), the Soda Stream type product is a must for your boat. I am using Soda Stream as a generic term for anything that carbonates water, since we do not have an actual Soda Stream, but that’s just what we call it. This may be a South African thing so if you are totally confused, just skip to the next paragraph.
Constantly buying sodas (whether to drink on its own or as a mix in your favorite cocktail) is a real PITA. It takes up space, your favorite (like Sprite Zero) can often be hard to find in out of the way islands, and the single-use plastic is not our favorite thing in the world.
We have the Fizzpod Soda Maker onboard. It accepts any standard 60L CO2 gas cylinder. We chose it mostly because of the form factor. It’s compact, slim and fits nicely in an out-of-the-way spot on board. The device provides a decent amount of carbonation but we find that it does not hold the gas for very long. It’s best to make enough of whatever it is you want to drink and then drink it on the same day. By the next day, your fizz will be amiss.
Oh, and as folks that cannot function without a Red Bull in the morning, this was a real money saver for us. Using the Soda Stream brand zero-calorie energy syrup, we make our own version of Sugar Free Red Bull every morning, and we actually prefer the taste to regular Sugar Free Red Bull.
This has saved us around $6 a day which amounts to over $2,000 every year. On top of that we have no added trash to worry about. The only problem is finding a place to refill your cartridges. We’ve yet to run out, but time will tell if we manage to get the 6 cylinders we carry on board filled when we get to Grenada.
5. Folding bikes
The first year we lived aboard full time, we had no means of transport once off the water. We walked, Ubered (can you use Uber as a past tense verb?), took a taxi or rented a car. We did not think it would be worth investing in folding bikes.
Not only were we wrong in this assumption, we were SUPER DUPER wrong.
We spent November and December in one of our favorite locations: Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. One of the features of this part of the Low Country is the amazing bike trial system they have constructed over the years. We bought our folding bikes just before we arrived, and we simply LOVED the ability to get around on our own two wheels!
Since then we have used them whenever we can. We got the Launch version of the Dahon folding bike. We are impressed with the bike’s performance, especially since I am officially (ahem) over the rated weight limit for these bikes. Fingers crossed, I have not broken it yet!
While the frames seem to be holding up really well, some parts like the chain and sprockets do tend to start rusting, so some maintenance is required. We also made sure (and would highly recommend) that the bikes were properly set up by a professional bike shop at the start. We will also have them serviced once a year.
These have 6 gears which are an absolute must if you want to be able to get up inclines. The smaller wheels make them easy to stow and — while we were concerned that they would be difficult to ride given the smaller wheels — they turned out to be a breeze.
Even though we have not ridden a bike for a long time, we just simply got on and went. No problem!
It’s just like … riding a bike. (Sorry)
We struggled to find our Dahon bikes on Amazon, and we ended up purchasing them (with some trepidation) from Thor USA. The website is outdated and seemed a little dodgy, but we took the risk and had an excellent experience with prompt delivery and no problems whatsoever.
6. Phone Clamp
This might seem like a silly piece of kit to include in a list like this, but it is often the simple things that provide a simple solution that come in handy on a boat. We have a twin helm setup on DOUBLESTAR. Like most boats, there are some grabrails around the helm area for safety.
This phone clamp is versatile because it allows me to clamp my phone pretty much anywhere around the helm area, giving me a secondary display. I like using more than one chart for reference, especially when coming into an unknown area. Typically I would have C-Map on the B&G mutli-function display, with Navionics on my phone. Or I may run Navionics on both, but have the one zoomed in really close to check depth contours, and the other zoomed out to provide better perspective.
I find the Navionics SonarChart on the phone app to be extremely useful. I will typically have the phone zoomed in to keep a close eye on changes in depth contours, with the B&G MFD zoomed out to show AIS targets and overall reference points.
Then, when we get a chance to take those awesome folding bikes out, I use the same clamp to have my phone clamped to the handlebar of my bikes. In conjunction with the UnderArmor MapMyRide app, it allows us to plan our bike rides, navigate the planned route and keep track of our stats.
Once our ride is over you can even add a photo to help you create a list of rides in memorable places. It’s a really fun way of logging the bike rides we’ve done so far.
We find our drone to be an essential bit of kit – not only to get those cool shots to share with others and for our own collection, but as a safety and exploration device. For example, in 2019 we were anchored off an island in Eleuthera in the Bahamas. We had heard that there was a cool beach nearby, potentially with some pigs (not THE pig beach, but there are several pig beaches in the Bahamas now as other places are trying to replicate the tourism success of Staniel Cay, the O.G. Pig Beach).
We were not quite sure where exactly to go, so rather than launch the dinghy, we just sent the drone up.
We scouted the location, figured out exactly where we needed to go and — once we had the drone back on board — we launched the dinghy and went straight to the spot we wanted to.
From a safety point of view, it is always easier to judge the situation when coming into an anchorage when you have an aerial view. Sunlight reflects off the water. Even with polarized sunglasses it can be difficult to see what lurks beneath the surface, especially when the sun is ahead of the bow.
The drone allows you to negate this challenge. You can scout the approach, determine exactly where the channel is, find missing markets, identify hidden reefs and more. Drones are so good these days that you have excellent visibility and long flying time, especially if you do not record while flying. If you sail with a partner, one of you can operate the drone and direct the other who could be at the helm, thereby obtaining real-time feedback from the eye in the sky.
The one piece of advice I can give you is this: Disable the “go home” function on your drone if you are moving the boat while flying. I learned this the hard way. If the drone starts running out of battery with the “go home” function enabled, it will automatically head back to the spot it was launched from, using its built-in GPS.
That’s a great feature if you launched the drone from land, but not so much if you launched it from the boat. Especially if that boat is now half a mile away from the original launch spot!
We had a great Mavic Air Mini which died a tragic death in this manner. We replaced that unit with a Mavic Air 2 Pro, and it’s a superb bit of kit.
8. Anchor alarm app
At the end of January 2021 we arrived back in the Bahamas, this time at West End on the island of Grand Bahama. We had read that the anchorage outside the the Old Bahama Bay marina can be treacherous. We arrived after dark and, rather than navigating into a tricky, unknown marina at night, we opted to anchor.
It took us 4 attempts to securely set the hook. As always, I had our anchor alarm going just in case. We were happy to enter the marina the following morning, since a blow with 40 knot gusts was forecast for the ensuing 4 days.
Two days later, after we’d successfully settled into the marina and in the midst of the promised blow, we noticed a sad situation unfold in front of us. A sailboat had got caught out by the strong wind and was being blown into the shallows of Church Bank, just north of the marina.
We assisted the marina and the Coast Guard, along with a local salvage operator, in coordinating a rescue of the two people on board. The boat ended up spending 2 nights on the bank before salvage efforts succeeded.
Days later, we had a visit from one of the two people on board that vessel. She had come out specifically to thank us for the assistance we had rendered. When we asked her how it came about that they ended up on the bank, she told us they had arrived the night before the incident, after spending a tiring 3 night passage from the US East Coast. By the time they managed to drop the hook (in the same anchorage where we had difficulty finding a good spot) they were both exhausted, and just crashed.
When they next woke up, it was to the sound of their hull scraping and bouncing along the bank as the wind pushed their boat further and further into shallow waters. Their anchor had dragged in the strong winds that picked up overnight, and by the time they realized what was going on, it was too late.
The purpose of this sad tale (which had a happy ending as their boat ended up back in the USA and was repaired) is to highlight the importance of an anchor alarm. Several options exist, but the one we like to use is called … Anchor Alarm.
Great name for an anchor alarm app.
It works though, and some of the features we like are:
- Being able to set the alarm after you have anchored (late set)
- Being able to pause and resume (great for when you take your phone along on a dinghy ride)
- Being able to change the depth and alarm radius
- “Low Volume warning” which tells you when your volume on the phone is turned down (in which case the alarm will not be audible)
The interface is basic. There are few other bells and whistles but for us it’s a great way to ensure we have an active monitoring system whenever we set the hook.
Of course this still means one has to practice sound anchoring techniques, including backing down on the hook once set, having sufficient scope out, diving the anchor when possible and accounting for tide, currents, other boats, wind shifts and more.
It’s just good to have a watchful eye monitoring the situation 24/7 while we are doing other things.
9. Weather router
It is often the case that the sailing dream is more a one-sided deal. Usually (not always mind you) it’s the husband that pushes the idea, with the wife reluctantly being dragged along. There are even books on the subject of “how to get your spouse on board”.
Our best advice for ensuring matrimonial bliss (and crew morale in general) on board your boat, is to get a weather router. Actually, let’s be more specific. Get a decent weather router.
When we first started, I was our weather router. Which meant looking at various sources of weather information (such as PredictWind and Windy) and trying find the best weather window for us to have a safe, comfortable passage.
I failed. Miserably. Twice.
The first time was when we rounded Cape Hatteras for the first time. Known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”, this feared cape is not to be taken lightly, and should never be attempted in any wind conditions containing the letter N. In other words, there should be no northern element to the wind. This was also our very first overnight passage on DOUBLESTAR, making the experience even more intense (and worse).
The forecast called for 10-14 knots out of the east. The reality saw 36 knot gusts out of the northwest, and a maelstrom of an ocean that seemed to come from every direction with the sole intent of pounding us to smithereens.
Welcome to sailing full time!
The second time we had drama with my weather routing was when we left the Bahamas to sail south to the Dominican Republic for the first time. This sees your keel crossing the Puerto Rico trench which is the deepest part of the Atlantic and Caribbean seas.
With an entire ocean flowing all the way from Africa and converging in this narrow, deep geographic phenomena between Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos, it can be a very challenging sail.
Since we first did it, we have spoken to plenty of sailors who have experienced horrendous conditions on this passage, including friends of ours who set off from the Turks and Caicos with the intent of sailing to Puerto Rico, only to experience two near-knockdowns in quick succession. They promptly turned their boat west, set their sails to the wind, and ended up in Panama a week later!
Our crossing was again within a supposed “good window”. We ended up getting tossed about all night, again with winds in the high 30s, steep, short waves from every direction and conditions so challenging that we ended up hand steering for hours on end because we were afraid the autopilot might break.
Following that second bad passage, Chef T told me in no uncertain terms that my weather routing abilities were not my best attribute, and that we either obtain professional help, or she would find a more suitable environment (such as being back on land).
I picked up on these subtle hints, and – having heard good things about Chris Parker’s weather routing service – have used him ever since.
My current strategy is to pick a window that I think will be good and works with our schedule. I then use Chris as a sounding board to tweak the departure date and time, and to confirm that I do not have it wrong (again). So far, it has worked out absolutely perfectly, and we’ve not had any bad passages since then.
Chris’s service is excellent value for money, especially if you buy the bundle option, and I cannot recommend him highly enough. It’s been a real blessing for us. Thanks Chris!
10. Portable Depth Sounder
There are only two types of boaters. Those that have run aground, and those that will. The more you travel around by boat, the greater the chances you will fall into the former category!
With a draft of almost 8′, DOUBLESTAR can be a challenging vessel to explore some places with. After 2 seasons in the Bahamas, and a visit to the Turks and Caicos involving several crossings of the infamous Caicos Bank, we are thrilled to say we are still in the latter category. For now.
One of the reasons for this is that we are super careful, and do not take any unnecessary chances. The other reason is our trusted hand-held depth sounder.
If we want to move to a specific anchorage, or explore a certain area that involves navigating a particularly difficult cut, we will — where possible — launch the dinghy and scout the route first.
A great example would be the fuel dock at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. We really needed to get some diesel. Being anchored off Big Major’s, we had to move across a really shallow area to get to the fuel dock. We checked the tides, and scouted the route with our dinghy, using our hand-held depth sounder constantly to make sure the depths were suitable. We charted the course on our GPS and the next day — at high tide — we cautiously took the big boat in without incident.
This is an invaluable piece of kit, and at the price point, it’s excellent value.
We use the Vexilar Hand Held Sonar and love it. It can be a little quirky when you moving along at speed and trying to take continuous soundings, but we think that is because the beam bounces back to where the unit emitted from, and by then we may have moved too far, so it’s likely user error more than anything else.
11. Wet Vac
Water. We need it. We love it. We live on it. But it can be the biggest pain in the butt when living on a boat when it starts accumulating in your bilge!
And it will happen.
Whether from condensation, a fresh water leak, and air-conditioning pump that stops working or something inexplicable, you will need the ability to suck water out of your bilge.
Additionally, if you have any kind of strainer (whether for air-conditioning, engine or generator use) you will likely need to suck up water at some point in order to clean and service the strainer and pipes.
Finally, any kind of spill — likely to happen on an object floating on the water and able to move in all different directions — will need a wet-and-dry vacuum solution.
We could not live without our Milwaukee M18 cordless wet-and-dry shop vac. In fact, we have a wide range of Milwaukee tools that run off the M18 system, but there are other solutions available from brands like Dewalt, Bosch and Evereze. If you have a “system” like the Milwaukee M18 where a number of tools can be combined with the same battery, it makes sense to stick with it, since all of these seem to do the job quite well.
Things you DON’T need.
There are many non-obvious things you might need on a boat. We’ve highlighted our personal favorite 11 non-obvious things above, but — sometimes more importantly — there are a few things you most certainly do NOT need when living on a boat full time.
Virtually every tale of a boat that got into trouble due to weather or pilot error is a result of the dreaded word “deadline”. If you ever HAVE to leave to get to a port against your will because you are on a deadline, think twice … and then think again. It is a sailor’s worst enemy. The cruising lifestyle is not conducive to rigidity and schedules. Like it or not, not matter how big your boat or how good your skills or how salty your crew, you are at the mercy of the wind and weather.
Plan as much as you like, and then adapt according to what the weather gives you.
Never commit to a deadline for picking up packages or passengers in a port that might put you in a situation where you will take on a trip you do not feel comfortable with. Either plan to have folks and/or things fly to where you are, or get to your intended pick-up point and then book flights. That way you will remove the pressure of a deadline, and make decisions based on the safety and comfort of your boat and your crew.
Similar to the point mentioned above, but kind of different. Just like it’s not worth taking on a passage that could be dangerous in order to meet a deadline, it is advisable not to miss a weather window just to hang around to wait for people.
If you are in a situation where a weather window is fairly common and predictable, by all means hang around – you can always catch the next one. But sometimes these windows are rare, and when they pop up, you need to take them at the expense of other plans or you end up exactly where you don’t want to be – on a deadline and needing to leave in less than ideal circumstances.
It’s much easier to change a flight (especially in advance) or to catch up with fellow cruisers on the next go-round. Your boat, crew and personal safety and comfort should be your priority as captain, and this means letting the weather dictate your schedule.
We see it in virtually every destination we’ve visited. The full-time liveaboard cruiser that never cruises anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with that mind you. Some folks find a destination they simply fall in love with, and they don’t WANT to leave.
We’ve even been tempted by a few of these ourselves. Hilton Head Island in South Carolina is a prime example. After spending 2 months there over Christmas and New Year 2020, we could have happily just stayed on. It’s a gorgeous place.
But the wanderlust always seems to win out with us. We’ve travelled the world extensively, and have dreamt of doing so from the comfort of our own home for years.
For that reason we will continue to move on, no matter how much we love a place. Fortunately we have no schedule and no time limit, so if we like a certain place we can stay on for as long as we can resist the need to discover what’s over the horizon.
But many of the folks we’ve encountered don’t WANT to stay, they feel like they NEED to stay because their boat is not quite ready. The thing is, no boat – no matter how big or small, no matter how new or old, no matter how fancy or basic – is ever perfect.
In our experience, it takes at least a year of full time cruising – actual cruising, not just sitting on anchor or in a marina – to iron out 90% of the wrinkles on board. And that’s on a brand new boat (which comes with more than its fair share of wrinkles).
Some things you just won’t learn until you are out there doing it.
So there is no point sitting on the dock trying to get the boat perfect, because even if you do, within the first 50 nautical miles it will not be perfect any more anyway.
Provided your boat is seaworthy, cast off those lines, get out on the water, start living the life you have dreamed of for so long and get going! You can resolve issues along the way, and have a great time doing it.
If you have any questions or comments on any of the above, feel free to reach out to us or comment below. We love to hear from folks and we are happy to help or advise where we can.
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