Six DIY Skills Every Skipper Should Know

If you’re a regular reader of this website, the odds are good that you’re also a do-it-yourselfer. And if you’re a DIYer, the odds are good that you have an above average mechanical aptitude. You have an instinctive curiosity for how things are made, how they work, and how to fix them when they don’t work. Those are very useful qualities because they give you the confidence to accept new challenges and to press through them to the end. You get a lot of satisfaction from learning new skills and finishing projects that you can be proud of. Saving money in the process is the icing on the cake.

Repairing, restoring, and refitting a sailboat requires a diverse set of skills. Some of them are not very common in our modern age and not many of us are masters in them all. We all have strong skills that we can depend on and other skills where we can improve. If you’re relatively new to sailboat ownership, you might be intimidated by so much that you don’t yet know. But there’s no shame in that—we all started out at the beginning. I want to challenge you to look at your skill set as an opportunity to become a better sailor, craftsman, and DIYer.

Following are six essential skills that every sailboat skipper should become proficient at, in my opinion. They equip you to outfit, repair, and maintain your sailboat from stem to stern, which in turn makes you a stronger and safer sailor. If you’ve already mastered each of these skills, congratulations! You’ve done well, now teach what you know to others. If you’re not confident in some of these skills, take every opportunity you can get to practice them and improve. And if any of these skills are completely foreign to you, there’s no time like the present to dive in and add new skills to your repertoire. Coincidentally, there are projects on this site that demonstrate each of these skills. Use them to help you make that all important first step of getting started.

Electrical systems

Own a sailboat for very long and you’re going to have electrical issues. It’s a given. The marine environment is hostile to electrical systems. If you own an older sailboat, it’s been on the defense for a long time already and might not have much fight left.

Does your wiring look like this?

Your ability to troubleshoot, repair, extend, and possibly even replace your electrical system pays off in greater sailing safety, convenience, and enjoyment. If you’re already comfortable around 12 volt automotive systems, you have a good foundation to take to the next level, marine electrical systems. That next level focuses on making systems impervious to moisture, vibration, and failure.

If you have strong mechanical skills but your electrical knowledge is lagging, don’t be discouraged. One of the best books that I’ve found for getting up the learning curve quickly is Sailboat Electrics Simplified by Don Casey. For some project ideas to improve your sailboat, check out my Electrical project category.

Outboard maintenance

What can ruin a fantastic day out on the water faster than a outboard that won’t start or run right? Nothing, and it only takes a split second. How can you avoid being the victim of a stubborn outboard? By mastering your motor’s maintenance.

Prevent problems from happening in the first place

Outboard motor maintenance really is a case of an ounce of prevention being better than a pound of cure. The key to excellent maintenance is just to stay on top of it—don’t put it off. Be disciplined and organized, and your outboard will thank you with many years of trouble-free motoring.

For maintenance tips and upgrade ideas, see my Outboard motor project category.

Splicing rope

Knots are great. It’s amazing how many there are and what some knots can do. They’re indispensable on a sailboat. Most of us know how to tie the different knots that are commonly used on sailboats: the bowline, overhand, figure 8, stopper, and various hitches. But most skippers draw the line at splicing, which is really just another type of knot.

Look ma, no knots!

Think of splicing as a permanent knot. Then look around your sailboat at how many knots you don’t intend to untie unless you’re going to replace the line. That’s most of them!

Most splices are either eye splices or end-to-end. An eye splice is a good replacement for a bowline on halyards and anywhere a rope ends at a pad eye or becket. End-to-end splices are the best way to join two lengths of rope so that they act as one. You can use them to repair a damaged line or to join two different sizes of line like small diameter, low-stretch dyneema to larger diameter polyester that’s easier to handle.

Besides being incredibly strong and less trouble, splices give your rigging a much more finished look and display your craftsmanship and attention to detail. Whether you think that splicing is too complicated or too time consuming, it’s well worth your time to learn how to splice rope. To see some examples of useful knots and splices, see my Rigging project category.

Refinishing wood

Nothing brings an older sailboat back to life quite like fresh wood finishes. A clear, smooth, waterproof finish not only shows off the beauty of the maker’s design, it preserves the wood and retains a yacht’s value.

Roll up your sleeves and roll back the years

Great looking brightwork isn’t a quick fix, it’s a sweat equity investment in your sailboat. You have to make occasional deposits into the bank to prevent depreciation. The good news is that it not as difficult as it looks and the out-of-pocket cost is relatively low.

Unless conditions change dramatically, there will come a day when fine, old-growth teak will only be found on the most expensive yachts in the world. The limited worldwide supply dwindles every year like other species of exotic hardwoods that are used in the best furniture, musical instruments, and art.

Plantation-grown teak, more common wood species, and even man-made materials are good substitutes but if your sailboat has any vintage teak, don’t replace it, refinish it! To learn how, see my refinishing projects.

Sewing canvas

What is the second most plentiful material on your sailboat, more than wood, aluminum, stainless steel,  and wire? Canvas. Stack up all of the cushion covers, sails (sailcloth is just fancy canvas), covers, and bags and it makes a big pile. It’s good sense to know how to make and repair the canvas parts of your sailboat. And many of those parts help to protect and preserve the other parts.

You too can get results like this

Sewing canvas isn’t really all that hard. I’ve made lots of canvas projects for Summer Dance and I started out knowing almost nothing about sewing. If you already have a sewing machine at home, the cost to get started is minimal. You don’t need an expensive, commercial sewing machine to do most projects except sails. A side benefit to DIY canvaswork is that the possibilities for custom projects are endless. Pretty much any shape or color that you can imagine in canvas, you can make at home.

Making canvas projects can be fun too. The results and gratification come quicker than with other materials like wood and metal. There’s no grinding, sanding, or painting needed. Just lay out, cut, sew, and you’re done! Canvas projects are particularly well suited to working on together with a partner like your spouse, child, or grandchild. Sharing the skills, work, and pride in the final product strengthens your relationship.

For ideas on canvas projects that you can do together, see my canvas projects or purchase my ebook, Do-It-Yourself Small Sailboat Canvaswork.

Fiberglass repair

It’s easy to guess what is the most plentiful material on a sailboat, fiberglass. The condition of a boat’s topsides and bottom sides tells a lot about its overall maintenance and its owner. Even an older sailboat with stained and spider-cracked gelcoat can look really nice with a good buff and wax job. But if it’s chalky, gouged, and dirty, no amount of sparkling stainless steel or glowing brightwork will hide it.

Rudder repaired with epoxy

Fiberglass is one of the most versatile materials to work with—it can be made into almost any shape. It’s easy to repair too, without special tools. Because it is so strong, thickness isn’t as critical as other materials. Like any material, just be sure to take adequate safety precautions. Resin fumes and glass fibers can be dangerous to your health without personal protection.

Fiberglass (aka glass-reinforced plastic) is made from glass fibers encased in cured plastic resin. The glass fibers are arranged in difference forms: microspheres, chopped strands, stranded mat, and woven cloth. Each form is useful for different applications.

The plastic resin is made from different formulas for various applications. It can be used unthinned in liquid form or thickened with additional materials to form a paste or any thickness in between. Thankfully, fiberglass supply manufacturers provide lots of information to help you select and use the right supplies.

For an example of a typical fiberglass repair job, see How to Repair and Restore a Rudder.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. krzysztof durkowski says:

    Thank you for the great advice, I have many projects ahead of me, so it’s great to have some lectures and materials to refer back to and explore unknown.

    Krzysztof from North Vancouver

  2. Edward says:

    This is great advice. I’ve been building and repairing cars, motorcycles, and sailboats for over 35 years. In fact, I’ve NEVER (except recalls) taken a car, motorcycle, or sailboat to a “professional” mechanic and as many ham-fisted, 85 IQ mechanics as I’ve come across, I never will. Your list is great and I’m happy to say I’m good for 5 of 6; never learned splicing but I know knots so I’ve been good 🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Ed!

  3. Geri Lawhon says:

    I feel okay with most of the stuff because of the abilities of my fiancé and I, but fiberglass and outboard maintenance would be tough. I guess maybe a course in our future could close the gaps.

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