About this time every year, I go through a ritual of sorting through my tool bags to organize, remove, or replace tools, parts, and odd bits left over from boat projects during the season. It is no surprise to pull out old nuts and bolts, hose clamps, used zip ties, sometimes even receipts, out of the bottom of my bags. While I do this several times during the active boating months, the end-of-year effort ensures I bring the bags back to the basic gear list that I have evolved over the years.

Bill's Boat Tool Bags For Cruising:

boat tool bags for cruising on a yacht

It amazes me how few tools I need for most of the maintenance and fiddling on my boats, at least outside of the engine room. On my Baba 30, a pretty little Bob Perry-designed cutter that was my home for several years, it seemed most everything I needed to do required two screwdrivers and one of three wrenches: 7/16th, ½-inch, and 9/16th.

The subject of tool bags and tool storage is fascinating, as it is unique to each boat owner, and what works for some is a terrible arrangement for others. I remember when we launched Growler, our Zimmerman 36 Downeast cruiser, I asked friends Jerry and Wendy Taylor about what they used to store hand tools. Experienced delivery captains, they have done the ICW over 250 times, and well acquainted with running and fixing boats they are hired to move.

Jerry told me that those ballistic nylon, multi-zipper tool packs worked well for them, backpack-style packs that have four or more layers of pouches and pockets, each layer secured with a long, heavy duty zipper. I ordered one, and while it held all my hand tools without difficulty, the pack was heavy, unwieldy, and a royal pain to deal with. I could see how it worked well for delivery captains, used to moving their tools of the trade on and off boats regularly. But for me it made no sense, as I had to lug the heavy pack to wherever on the boat I needed to work, and when the pack was laid open, it was total overkill as I only needed a couple of tools.

I’ve been on all sorts of cruising boats, power and sail, and I have seen pretty much every way one can store tools, from cabinet drawers with custom cutouts to fit each tool in its own place, to metal tool boxes permanently mounted in the engine room by a work bench, complete with vise and drill press. And there are countless owners who use tackle boxes, lidded plastic containers, or wood or metal boxes to store all the wrenches, sockets, drivers, and other hand tools. What may begin as an organized, sorted collection, however, after a bit of cruising, the jumble is all over the place. This is especially true when conditions are rough, there is no time to dawdle and be neat, and we need to get this fixed now.

I had my tool bag epiphany in Mathews, Virginia, at the Zimmerman Marine yard, where Growler was there for some spring commissioning work. Head ZMI tech, Max Parker, came aboard to do some items on the punch list, carrying two small canvas tote bags. One was for mechanic’s tools, the other was for electrical projects.

Seen below: "GROWLER", Bill's 36' Downeast at the Zimmerman yard for service, across from a huge Krogen 58.

Zimmerman downeast boat

He only carried basic tools, as well as any special tools he pulled together from the shop for the projects at hand, nothing else. Yet the two small bags were complete in every way, everything he might need to complete the work. It was clearly a solution he developed after years of going on boat after boat, back and forth to the shop, working on all sorts of repairs and installations. He knew from years of experience what he needed, and perhaps more to the point, what he did not.

Max Parker’s solution has worked for me flawlessly for all the years since then.

When I visit cruising boats recently purchased by new owners, I sometimes chuckle when I see what tools they have on their new boat and how they store them. Often, they succumb to purchasing one of those all-in-one kits with a molded plastic storage case, with a molded slot for each of the tools in the kit. You see them at every marine store, usually priced right, and they seemingly make sense.

Unfortunately, the tools are cheap junk, they lack the diversity of sizes and tool types one quickly learns are necessary, and there is not even one extra slot for an additional, perhaps smaller, Phillips screwdriver. It is an obsolete setup even before it comes aboard and quickly becomes a pariah in the tool department. Once the owner supplements it with a more realistic toolbox for all the other tools that find their way aboard, the all-in-one kit has completely lost its “handy” utility. It always remains on the boat when they sell the boat, and the tools are usually rusted and worthless. I have seen this dozens of times. The owner keeps the good tools and toolbox for the next boat, the ones he or she has learned are worth owning. When I bought Blue Angel, my current Hunt Harrier 25 day cruiser, she came with a red, all-in-one kit, full of mostly rusted tools.

Many articles have been written over the years about the proper tool inventory, and what experts recommend having on one’s cruising boat. In my experience, no matter how many tools are originally put together for keeping the boat shipshape, we keep adding tools over time as they are always needed. Fixing the captain’s sunglasses requires a special eyeglass kit or jeweler’s set of screwdrivers, so that comes aboard and then lives in the chart table. They also come in handy when your laptop motherboard quits, and you need to remove the hard drive before recycling the electronics.

It goes without saying that box wrenches, socket sets, screwdrivers, files, pliers, channel locks, and other common tools are necessary to have on any cruising boat, in several sizes and shapes. These days it is also a given that one needs both SAE and metric tools, for wrenches and sockets. One can sneak by using one set alone, I suppose, but that is not ideal. Everyone agrees that metric tools are best for metric fasteners and SAE for SAE fasteners. And keeping them separated is one of life’s simple goals, made especially hard when tool companies stamp the sizes to be almost unreadable, especially in a poorly lit workspace, bent over in the lazarette.

In recent months boating journalists have been writing about their favorite tools, ones that may not be familiar to new boat owners. I find these articles generally informative and helpful, so let me join in the fun. I will identify some tools I have collected over the years that are lifesavers when you need them and nothing else quite works. I made a quick list of 20 of these tools in my inventory that you may or may not have on your boat but might find useful. We’ll end this article with a couple of them.

Which, by the way, reminds me of a funny story that occurred one year at a Trawler Fest. Steve D’Antonio and I were on a new trawler, just off the ship from China, checking it out after the guys finished getting her lines set on the floating dock for the show that would start the next morning.

As we toured the boat and its features, we closed the pocket door separating the forward stateroom from the saloon, commenting what a good use of space that was, rather than the traditional hinged door. Unfortunately, as the door closed, we both heard a distinct click as the door locked shut. We were locked in the stateroom at the end of the day, everyone else long gone into one of the hospitality tents to begin the inevitable pre-event partying.

With only a pocket multi-tool between us, we struggled to unlock this door, and it took forever to get the pocket door open. I think we had to remove trim pieces to get to the mechanical lock mechanism. But the point of not having the right tool hit home for sure.

(To be fair, I called my managing editor to tell her of our predicament, and we could have exited out the overhead hatch. But the two of us were too headstrong to let this lock defeat us. We did get a round of applause when we joined the party after cheating death 45 minutes later. Ahh, the book I could write about everything that no one knows about…)

Anyway, here is my mechanic’s tool bag, well-worn now after being my standard bag for three different cruising boats and a dozen years. I have the rest of my tools in boxes securely stowed in the engine room.

Boat mechanics tool bag

The contents of the basic kit are shown above. I supplement these tools with whatever special tools I need for a project, including sockets, wrenches, and whatever seems likely. It works for me.

Now, here are a few special tools I find helpful. We’ll share the rest once I get them all together.

The SpeedOut kit and Irwin left-handed drill bits make it possible to remove stripped or damaged screws and other fasteners. Nothing else works, in my experience.

Speed out kit for boats

The blue-handled extendable mirror (with tiny LED light) makes it possible to see around blind areas, such as what is behind a frame or piece of equipment. How many times has it shown that I removed all the fasteners…only to find that I missed one!

The expandable magnet on the right is super helpful in retrieving metal parts that fall off or slip out of slippery fingers. Tools, nuts, and bolts in the bilge are often hard to pick up otherwise, such as the controllable pitch propeller hub bolts that worked themselves off the drive shaft on our way to Bermuda. Only two bolts held the assembly together and one was loose, but thankfully we retrieved the rest and got them back where they belonged. Getting the 83-foot sailboat into St. George’s Harbour under sail alone, without an engine, would have been fun for sure.

Stay tuned for more about tools, their value, and the special ones that make all the difference for enjoying your days on the water.

For Part 2 of our Boat Tools Series, please visit: https://www.seattleyachts.com/news/boat-tools-part-2 

For Part 3 of our Boat Tools Series, please visit: https://www.seattleyachts.com/news/boat-tools-part-3