Cruising Life

Plan ahead to make lemonade from lemons

Anchored in your favorite anchorage watching the sun slide over the horizon, you are savoring the first night of that annual vacation cruise that you’ve been looking forward to for eleven months.

Suddenly you notice the _____________ (fill in the blank … refrigerator, watermaker, etc) isn’t working.   Aw crap. What do you do now?

  1. Immediately head to your home marina, curse “that damned boat,” tie it up and head home;
  2. See if you can find a repairman at the nearest marina, hoping he can fix it in time to salvage part of your vacation; OR
  3. Have you planned ahead, with alternatives or parts for most onboard systems, so you can continue to enjoy the well-deserved vacation you’ve been waiting for?

The saying goes, “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.  But this assumes that you have water and sugar, necessary ingredients for lemonade.

Similarly, aboard a boat, if you think through alternative systems or potential extra parts ahead of time, when something breaks, you already know what you’re going to do.  Once aboard, we don’t want to give up a single day of our precious cruising time.

Over the years, my husband David and I have spent time thinking through critical systems to have back up plans so that we don’t have to run for civilization after just anchoring in paradise.

Here are a few examples:

Refrigeration is perhaps the most common system causing cruisers to cut short time aboard.

What a shame if you only have a month’s vacation and the refrigeration goes out after the first week. You could be the hit of the anchorage and host a beach bbq so the unfreezing meat doesn’t spoil.

Or you may be able to use your well-insulated refrigerator as an ice box for the rest of your vacation if ice is available.

Plus we always carry at least two weeks of canned provisions just in case. Our upcoming book, The Boat Galley Cookbook, Summer 2012, International Marine Publishing, devotes an entire chapter to making edible meals with canned food.

Generators cause cruisers to spend a lot of time waiting for parts at marinas rather than cruising in paradise.

Like a diesel engine, if there are parts that are prone to failure, you may want to carry spares.

Other than spare parts, if a generator fails, have a backup plan for all of the functions it serves … how can we charge the batteries (diesel, solar or wind?), loss of ac current?, and so on.  With the right pre-planning, it is possible to continue your cruise without a generator.


… once upon a time cruisers cruised without watermakers, now over and over I hear boats heading back because the watermaker quit working.

Most boats carry enough water to get by for a few days – especially by conserving water more than normal.  You can always do it the old fashioned way and fill up with water at a nearby marina.

If you have a watermaker, you should be familiar with what could go wrong … with spares on hand so that you can fix it yourself.

Out of Propane?

Most cruisers have a spare propane bottle aboard.  Of course, it’s only useful if it’s full.

Or you can use your grill if it has a separate camping propane canister – the exact reason our boat is rigged with the grill separate from the stove’s propane system. Aboard Winterlude, a tiny microwave functions primarily as a bread box, but in an emergency, we could fire up the inverter, and have dinner.

Also consider what happens if something fails in the propane system  – like the solenoid.  Luckily when our propane solenoid failed, we were finishing our six month cruise and back at the marina.  Now we carry a spare, just in case.

Diesel Sputters or Dies?

Check the filters and strainer first.  Be sure to carry a complete selection of replacement filters, the more the better, never take just one.

Beyond clogged filters, know your diesel. Carry spare parts for the most common failings – we’ve replaced a salt water pump, two alternators, a SmartRegulator and many other “marinized” parts with the assistance of other cruisers and Nigel Calder.

Since our diesel is a 1985 Nanni Kubota 4 cyl 30 hp, not a common engine, we asked our diesel mechanic to recommend a spare parts inventory which has come in handy.

Navigation Equipment/Electronics/Communications

… carry backups or spares for all critical navigation equipment – GPS, laptops, chartplotter etc.  We have paper charts and know how to use them. With 4 GPS’s, one should work at any given time. We also have a sextant, but have never had to use it except for fun.

SSB and VHF provide our primary communications, morning nets, boat to boat contact as well as weather charts, NOAA text forecasts and Chris Parker weather. We  carry an Iridium satellite phone as  backup for weather or e-mail, but have never had to use it except for calls home in an emergency. With two handheld VHF’s and one built in, we’ve always been able to talk to other boats.

Someone gets sick?

Bummer!  But if you’ve planned ahead, it might not mean abandoning the cruise.

My husband, David, has an annual bout with bronchitis.  His doctor was happy to provide an “insurance” prescription so we carry antibiotics aboard.  A couple of times we’ve had to use it – once literally the next day after we finally left the Rio Dulce, Guatemala.  But we didn’t have to return to civilization for meds.  If you are susceptible to any routine illnesses, you may be able to save a cruise by talking to your doctor ahead of time.

Of course, there are some systems that the strategy simply won’t work for  – breaking a mast might be an example.  But for everything else, think it through, improvise and enjoy your cruise!

About Jan Irons

Jan Irons and her husband David spent 6 years cruising the Western Caribbean from Isla Mujeres, Mexico to Cartagena, Columbia aboard their Passport 37, Winterlude.  Most recently, they completed a mini-refit of the boat in Southwest Florida and explored the Exumas, returning to the US in May 2012.

Jan and David are commuter cruisers for six months a year – they quickly figured out that returning to their home base in Florida would never allow them to reach the San Blas Islands or the coastal Columbian islands in their allotted time frame.  Sailing over 11,000 miles, six months at a time, they gained experience with leaving the boat in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, Bocas Del Toro, Panama and Shelter Bay, Panama.

Jan’s website, focuses on useful tips and free downloadable checklists for everything from leaving the country to leaving the dock.  With over 300 posts, the site also contains useful information for women, such as “My Greatest Cruising Fear” and “7 Things We Wished We Had Known Before Leaving the US to Go Cruising.” You may have seen Jan’s articles in Cruising World, SAIL Magazine, Blue Water Sailing and Latitudes & Attitudes.

The Boat Galley CookbookHer book, The Boat Galley Cookbook: 800 Everyday Recipes and Essential Tips for Cooking Aboard(written with Carolyn Shearlock) will be published in October 2012 and is available for pre-order now on

Read also on this website

What suggestions do you have for being prepared?

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