Skip to main content

Internet research vs. hands-on trial

Each has its merits, so take advantage of both, and limit your search to companies with solid reputations

I’m always curious when I see things other people have added to their boats. What does it do? Is it an addition? Does it replace an item that has failed or worn out? Does it work better than the one it replaces? Who is the manufacturer?

A trip to the local marine retail store - or to a boat show - can turn any boater into the proverbial kid in a candy store.

When making important purchases — tools, safety gear or most anything you’ll need to rely on — invest in products from a company that has experience in that field. If the company has a great line of galley products, I’m not sure their new inflatable PFD would be a great choice. Companies often attempt to branch out to achieve product variety, sometimes at the expense of quality.

The Internet is a helpful resource for sorting through gear and suppliers. For example, I noticed a magazine ad for the Nantucket Bagg tool bag a few years back. After researching the manufacturer online, I was comfortable that company founder Charlie Cirigliano’s background as a theatrical carpenter would qualify him to design a practical, flexible and durable product. I’m still using it and I highly recommend it.

As good a resource as the Internet is, however, I don’t buy parts or accessories from manufacturers or secondary suppliers online unless I’m completely familiar with the product, its application and its manufacturer. Sometimes you just need to go to the store and put it in your hand. That telescoping boat hook may not lock very well in the extended position. Try it out in the store and compare.

Package labeling is important when shopping for accessories — in other words, be sure you get what the package says you’re supposed to get. You should be able to see what you’re buying and be able to confirm its proper application before purchasing. When I started boating, I went through three different sets of anchor chocks until I found a set that would properly work with my anchor, though all of the packaging indicated “Universal Danforth Style.” Only after opening the packages could I read the “EXCEPT” clause in small print. If you’re unsure, ask a sales clerk.

Click here for our holiday gear guide

Many products require installation or assembly instructions, even replacement parts. Don’t hesitate to ask the retailer to open the package and let you see them. They should be clearly written and, if necessary, illustrated. That’s also a good time to check the contents list for missing hardware.

Any hardware that pivots, turns or otherwise moves after installation will begin to wear. If the fit doesn’t feel right off the shelf, it probably isn’t the right fit and likely won’t last long in service. Rough or unfinished edges will bite you later. Beware of companies that produce knockoff products, use authentic-appearing labels and packaging, and sell them as authentic, first-quality parts. Look for trademarks, country of origin, copyrights, toll-free telephone numbers, Web sites, flimsy packaging and misspellings. Also, look for proper certifying agency logos on the packaging — for example, UL or CE. These offer validity.

Safety equipment should be certified or approved by the Coast Guard and/or SOLAS. Equipment with these approvals is rigorously tested and certified to assure it performs to the agencies’ minimum standards. And remember that although a product may meet applicable standards, it may not work for you. PFDs can meet “type” requirements yet not be comfortable or safe for your particular build. You don’t want to discover that a PFD fits poorly after you’ve gone over the side.

Before making an important purchase, consult the manufacturer to find out if the product has been discontinued or replaced by something better. There may be safety or reliability issues with discontinued products, and the manufacturer can direct you to authorized dealers. Keep in mind that, in some cases, items not purchased through authorized dealers may not qualify for warranty. In addition, always check the retailer’s return policy.

Many engine, mechanical and electrical components have automotive counterparts, but stay out of that trap. For example, alternators and starters used for automotive applications may look very similar to marinized versions, but installing the automotive part on your gasoline-powered boat could have explosive consequences.

Image placeholder title

Always place a higher priority on function and reliability than glitz. And don’t pay for products that have capabilities beyond what you understand or have a need for.

Flashlights should be ergonomically designed, and the switch should be convenient to use. Stay away from those with switches that might be accidentally activated if it’s tossed in an abandon-ship bag or into the dinghy. Respected manufacturers such as Pelican and Underwater Kinetics have that under control.

Consider hand tools as emergency gear, and purchase them accordingly. They had better work well when you need them. Tools don’t necessarily have to be made of stainless steel, but they should feel good when you grasp them and be large enough to work with in tough conditions, such as in the bilge with oily hands. Pliers should operate smoothly with one hand; screwdrivers need a grip that fits your hand and allows you to apply adequate torque to loosen frozen fasteners.

There are companies that consistently offer value and consistency in their products, giving me the confidence to buy without hesitation. Electrical products from Blue Seas and Ancor Marine, safety gear from ACR Electronics and Mustang, portable lighting and watertight storage containers from Pelican, plumbing hardware from Groco, almost anything offered by 3M, Edson and Jabsco — these all have my support and can be found aboard any of my boats.

I’ve been using and abusing many varieties of hand-held waterproof lights from Pelican products. I’ve set up every raw water inlet aboard my boats with Groco ARG bronze seawater strainers. Ships papers, manuals and almost every piece of safety and MOB gear is stored in Pelican watertight cases of one configuration or another. Drop in a moisture absorber, and you’re set for years.

Bottom line: Buy from reputable, longstanding manufacturers that provide good warranty coverage and have convenient distribution points.

See related articles:

- Shopping smart

- Choosing the right gear, by Bill Sisson, editor

- Is it durable? Practical? Fairly priced? by Chris Landry

- Value is measured in product longevity, by Tom Neale, technical editor

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.