Skip to main content

Sea Savvy – These are a few of my favorite things

From flashlights to knives, there are a host of tools and other items that make your time on board safer and easier

From flashlights to knives, there are a host of tools and other items that make your time on board safer and easier

When I think of the things on my boat I can’t do without, the list never stops. There are the obvious things like life jackets, PLBs, EPIRBs, fire extinguishers, charts … as I said, the lists goes on forever. But it also includes many things that aren’t so obvious. Let’s take a look at a few of these.


Having the right light for the job - this is the collection of lights aboard Chez Nous - is critical to safe boating.

Hand-held lights

Very high on my list are flashlights and hand-held spotlights. I consider them to be so important that I have more than two dozen aboard Chez Nous. There are many things to consider about buying and maintaining them that aren’t widely known.

One of the first and more obvious is that buying a cheap flashlight for a boat is usually false economy. Lights that are poorly designed and constructed are likely to fail, particularly in the marine environment. On a boat, this can turn a small problem into a very large one. That doesn’t mean I’ll blow several hundred dollars for a flashlight that’s designed for astronauts to use on space walks, but it does mean I look for certain features.

Secure circuits: When the current flow is impaired, the light goes out, dims or flickers. A frequent cause of this is shifting batteries. Many poorly designed tubular flashlights (these typically have C or D cells) may have an unprotected copper strip running inside the cylinder from the spring at the negative end of the batteries, up to the switch near the middle of the cylinder, and then to the holder for the bulb. (Techies call bulbs “lamps.”) When the batteries shift they impact the strip, moving it and eventually impairing conductivity at the switch and/or bulb base.

There are simple ways of correcting this; they just cost a little more. One is to protect the strip from the batteries with ribs on both sides of the strip. Another is to use ribs or another structure to firmly anchor the batteries away from the strip. Some lights contain the batteries in a special compartment. Another method, as used by Maglite ( ), is to have the negative side of the circuit completed by the aluminum casing itself.

Switches: Switches are often a point of failure. First, they’re a moving part, and as a rule all moving parts are doomed to fail eventually. But many switches are so simple it’s hard to imagine they’d break. One of these is what I refer to as the “sliding switch” commonly found on inexpensive flashlights. This is the sliding knob on the outside of the tube attached to a metal conductor that slides back and forth between the conductive strips, making and breaking the circuit.

As noted above, if the batteries move the conducting strips, contact isn’t made. But there’s another problem that’s the nemesis of many switches. Their function is to make and break conduction of electric current. This causes arcing, which can result in carbon buildup that interferes with conductivity. In theory, the simple sliding switch, as well as others, cleans that carbon as it moves. But it’s often not enough.

Flashlight switches don’t need to be complex to be reliable. Among the more reliable I’ve found are those in my Pelican StealthLites ( This switch is just a plastic lever that pushes a copper spring until it makes contact with the bulb base, completing the circuit. It’s in a module separate from the battery compartment. Another simple and reliable switch is found in my Pelican SabreLite. You simply screw down the head, closing contact between the bulb base and the batteries. It requires frequent lubrication of the sealing O-rings and usually takes two hands to turn the light on and off, but it’s very reliable.

The Maglite’s self-cleaning push-button rotary switch is a more complex, but relatively reliable example. The switch is in a separate compartment between the battery section and the bulb assembly.

Switches on lights used underwater are particularly troublesome because their seal, often an O-ring, will eventually fail as the switch moves, particularly if not regularly lubricated. My Pelican Nemo has a magnetic switch. When you move the switch on the exterior of the case, you’re moving a magnet that causes the real switch — safely sealed inside the case — to move.

You’re gonna drop it: It’s critical that a flashlight used on a boat be resistant to impact and jolts. Batteries puncture easily or otherwise fail and leak. Cushions at both ends of the batteries are needed to help hold them stationary, even when jolted, and to ensure the conductive connection at each end.

One of the best arrangements I’ve seen was in a Pelican BriteLite, which I purchased some years ago (apparently no longer available) to use for an underwater spotlight. It not only had heavy springs to cushion the batteries at each end, but it also had foam to cushion impact should the springs compress too deeply if you dropped it. My current underwater light, the Nemo, holds its eight C batteries in a special removable container that is in turn held firmly within the casing. Foam cushions six of the batteries.

Bulbs also need protection from jolting. The tiny filaments inside are very fragile. If the bulb is supported only by a thin metal base plate in a flimsy case, there’s a substantial likelihood of failure. This is more likely if the bulb is cheap. In my StealthLight and Super SabreLite, the bulb is an integral part of a bulb assembly that’s cushioned with a spring. The assembly is more expensive to replace than just a bulb, but in many years of constantly using these lights, I’ve never had to do so. The Xenon bulb in the BriteLite had two sets of filaments and a dual switch. If one filament burned out while you were diving, you’d simply turn the switch to the other side to energize the second filament.

Waterproof: Having waterproof lights for certain uses on a boat is important. Look for lights specified to be submersible to specific depths. The greater the depth the better, because water pressure increases as you go down. Lights designed not to leak at deeper depths must be designed and built with better sealing features than lights designed for only a few feet. If I see a light that’s advertised only as “water resistant,” I usually leave it on the shelf. Read the fine print and look at the methods used to achieve the watertight seal. For example, my BriteLite and Nemo have two O-rings sealing the lens cover.

Explosions: Ignition-proof and/or vapor-proof lights are also more expensive but worth it. Many events such as a collision or sudden leak may send you rushing below to check things out with a flashlight. These very events may also damage a house or starting battery, causing it to emit explosive gas or cause a gasoline or propane leak. Simply overcharging batteries, as when a voltage regulator goes awry, can cause explosive gases. There are varying methods to prevent this and varying terminology may be used, but the concept is important.

Another explosion risk comes from the batteries within the light. Causes include exposure to salt water, internal or external failure, and defective batteries (very common). These could result in explosive gases inside the flashlight. Pelican lights are airtight and typically have small catalyst pellets to help absorb hydrogen gas that could be discharged from batteries because of flooding and/or battery failure.

Rechargeable batteries: With a few notable exceptions, I avoid rechargeable lights. Most will degenerate from nearly full brightness to low light very quickly. Recharging takes time. In many cases at sea, you might not be able to recharge them at all. I’d much rather use standard high-quality batteries that I can buy off the shelf. Lights with these batteries begin to dim before going out, giving some warning. Then I only need to put in more batteries. However, some rechargeable lights, such as the Profiler II by Golight (see below), have exceptional batteries and charging systems, as well as meters to indicate amount of charge left.

How much light: It’s surprisingly difficult to evaluate which flashlights and spotlights put out the best light. Different manufacturers use different terminology, and one gets the impression that some simply try to come up with the highest numbers. As a rule, I usually ignore cheap lights with extravagant candlepower claims on the boxes.

Some reliable manufacturers describe the performance of their products by lux, others lumens and some by candela. All of these can be verified if the manufacturer so chooses and has the equipment. Higher-end manufacturers usually do. To further complicate matters, different ratings can be achieved using the same bulb because of the type and shape of the reflector behind and around it.

Maglite, a highly respected manufacturer of quality lights, has referred to this as the “balance of power.” Close attention to the relationship of the reflector, its shape and size, and the actual bulb (lamp) can result in a better beam with less power consumption. All of this makes it difficult for the consumer to make smart decisions, particularly when some manufacturers throw out claims of millions and millions of candlepower.

To me, as a user on a boat, it’s important to know the degree of illumination of a defined surface area at certain distances. It’s also important to know the degree of penetration of the beam (when considering spotlights) if mist or light fog is present.

Colt Hosick, marketing manager and new product manager of Golight ( ), a leading spotlight manufacturer, says a new lighting standards committee has been formed to publish formal guidelines on how to uniformly measure and report the light output and intensity of flashlights, spotlights and headlamps. “The committee expects to have the guidelines adopted and available to use in 2009,” he says. “Consumers should look for certified markings and icons on retail packaging that reference lumens for light output and candela for beam intensity.” I personally look forward to this.

So when you go to the store today, do you take a scientist with you when you buy? Not me. I wouldn’t understand what he told me anyway. If I want a light that I’ll use primarily as a spotlight, I look for the distance the light will throw a beam, how well the beam illuminates a surface at a given distance, distortion of the beam (does it have a dim or unlit spot in the middle?), and the focus and width of the beam at that distance.

But we also need lights that illuminate a close-up work area. For this I look for a light that has an adjustable beam, such as the Maglite, or that’s intended specifically for this type of illumination, like some of the LED lights. Of course, some vendors frown upon letting you turn on all their lights. Occasionally I’ve done it anyway, taking out several lights in which I’m interested and shining them on the ceiling or some spot far down the aisle. The degree of variation is impressive, and I haven’t been arrested — yet.

LEDs: LED lights are great because there are no filaments in their bulbs to break, the bulbs typically last far longer than conventional bulbs, and they don’t produce the heat of incandescent bulbs and, thus, consume far less energy. Therefore, the batteries last much longer. The soft, radiant glow that many emit is more useful for some close-up jobs than a spotlight-type beam produced by many other hand-helds. However, I’ve noticed two negatives. Some of these produce a bluish tint that interferes in making color judgments, as when you are working with wiring. Also, they don’t throw a strong, bright spotlight beam like a comparable incandescent.

With regard to the second, it’s interesting to note Pelican’s impressive Recoil LED Technology. It directs the LED lamps backward to the reflector, which then throws the light back out in a collimated beam.

Maintenance: There are four recurring problems that impair performance in most flashlights. Fortunately, it’s easy to take care of them.

1. With a file or pencil eraser or even a rough piece of cloth, clean the contact points regularly. These include battery ends and switch and bulb contacts. An almost imperceptible film of carbon or corrosion on contacts can dim the light.

2. Check the batteries frequently for signs of corrosion and replace them at the slightest hint of a problem. In my opinion, major-brand flashlight batteries (such as AA, AAA, C and D cells) are poorly made and unstable. I see regular failures. Don’t store lights with batteries inside.

3. If your underwater light has an O-ring-type seal (and most have at least one), lubricate it occasionally with silicone or another recommended product.

4. Protect the lens. Many lights have a lens of plastic or similar material. These scratch and abrade easily and, unless protected during use and storage, soon become impaired. A more expensive light may have a more durable lens.

Special-use lights

We have special lights on board for special purposes. Here are some examples:

Night navigation lights: The LightWedge from Weems & Plath ( ) is a very handy tool that measures 9-1/4 by 6-3/4 inches, with an optical-grade clear-acrylic wedge-shaped lens that reflects red LED light onto a page. It has two brightness settings and allows you to read resource material and charts without interfering with the night vision of those around you and with minimal impact on yours. You also can read in bed at night without waking your partner.

The same company offers the LED LIGHTDivider. The divider has a tiny red LED on each leg, which illuminates the relevant portion of the chart. This resolves that old problem of seeing without ruining your night vision while using dividers. Geared adjustment of point separation makes it easy to get precise angles. If you’re thinking you don’t need these because you no longer use paper charts, you’re in store for some serious problems down the road. Even with the best chart plotter, you should also plot your course on paper so you know where you are if there’s a failure in the plotter or your electrical supply.

Spotlights: A good hand-held spotlight is extremely important. I use the Profiler II by Golight. It performs better than many permanently mounted spotlights I’ve seen. It’s rated at 440 maximum lux, and the beam is amazingly effective. Golight achieves this with its NxT Bluefusion technology and a pressure-cast, aircraft-grade aluminum parabolic reflector. It has a second, much smaller “Convenience Mode” light that can be used as an exceptionally effective hand-held flashlight. The company says the lithium-polymer battery gives run time of 60 minutes in searchlight mode and 50-plus hours in convenience mode, with a recharge time of two hours.

Little hole lights: One of the more important and difficult places to light are those very small cracks, crevices and holes, particularly in the engine room. For this, I use a Stylus Reach by Streamlight ( ). It has a very bright 100,000-hour LED available in white, blue, green or red. I have white for maximum brightness.

Head lights: A light on your head is a powerful tool that leaves your hands free to work. In the past, many of these have been heavy and bulky, didn’t stay in place on the head, had inadequate headbands, and produced inadequate light. If you’ve given up on head lights for reasons such as this, go back and look again. Features such as battery backs on the strap at the back of the head, better straps (including a strap over the top of the head as well as around), and LEDs have vastly improved this tool. My favorite head light, the NightRay by Black Diamond (, has five LEDs with three brightness settings. Batteries are in a pack behind the head. You can turn it on and forget about it for hours. It also has a strobe setting.

My other favorite things

Enough on flashlights. I’ve spent a lot of time on them because, although they’re so important, they’re often thought of as “where I can get away cheap.” And they’re often left in a bin, neglected until desperately needed. But now it’s time to move on to a few other favorite things.

Multitools: When I was a super-cool sailor back in my super-cool days, I frowned on utility knives. I thought they were for sissies who never used them except to strut around and show them off. Now I use my favorite at least several times a day, often as much as a dozen times in an hour. It’s like a part of my right hand. OK, so now I’m a sissy. But I’m also doing real jobs of all sorts maintaining a 53-foot motorsailer. And many of these jobs are done while under way. Also, many are of an emergency nature.

A good multitool must have quick and easy access to its tools; be rounded so it won’t hurt your hand; have a secure, failsafe and easy lock/unlock mechanism; be built to take the stress of heavy use and torque; be of high-quality construction throughout; and have the “right” tools. The right tools will vary with the user. Mine include a serrated blade knife, Phillips head and straight screwdrivers (two of the latter), file (fine and course), punch, scissors, wire cutter, and needle-nose pliers with rounded gripping section. It’s easy to conclude that the knife with the most tools is the best, but I disagree. Too many tools can be too much of a problem when you’re in a hurry, as is usually the case with most jobs. For example, I really don’t need a toothpick on a multitool.

Many people have their favorite multitools, and I’m not here to argue about that. Mine is a Gerber ( ). I’ve had it for years and don’t know what they called it when I got it, but the closest thing I see to it on the Web is the Multi-Plier Diesel ($55 to $65). With a flick of the wrist, you can snap out the pliers (needle-nose) and wire cutter. This enables you to open it and access the array of tools inside. (On newer multitools you can get the tools outside, which many prefer. On some older units with tools on the outside, the edges of the handle were hard on your hand. Better tools have these rounded today.) The Diesel has scissors I probably use more than any other tool except the pliers and knife.

There are many good brands available, and you can have a lot of fun researching on the Web. There’s usually a “getting used to it” curve when you get a new one, but that’ll go away if it’s a good tool and you use it a lot. A well-made case so you can handily carry it on your belt is important.

The Dremel tool: We all know Dremel tools are useful. And so far as I know, there’s not much to be said about buying them except generally the more you pay the more you get, and I like the best when it comes to tools. Also, the more accessories you get, the more these tools can do for you. We have two on Chez Nous. But many don’t know how useful they can be on a boat.

How about making conch horns? If you ever do, you’ll be grateful to have that Dremel tool aboard. In the old days I used to carefully saw off the tip in just the right place with a hacksaw, though this ruined the blade because the conch shell is very hard. Then I’d have to use a rat-tail file to shape and smooth the edges and the spiral inside so there’d be no sharp spots that would cut the tongue or lips. This sometimes took hours. With a Dremel tool, it’s a breeze.

How about saving your boat from being blown down on the reefs? We once were out on the Great Bahama Banks with wind astern blowing around 25 to 30 knots. We were motorsailing because Chez Nous is a motorsailer, and we wanted to get to a safe harbor as soon as possible because of worsening weather. Safe harbor was downwind behind some reefs and rocky islands.

Suddenly a loud screeching sound came up from the engine room, followed by horrible clunking. I raced down to find that the pulley wheel for the freshwater heater had come off its shaft, having somehow worn away the key that kept it from spinning on the shaft. We would have had no trouble sailing downwind to the vicinity of the safe harbor, but without an engine, we would have had plenty of trouble getting around the rock and reef. Anchoring upwind of that area was not a good option. And the wind was rapidly sending us toward the reef.

I removed the pulley, got some steel stock that I keep around (junk is another favorite thing on my boat), and fabricated another key with my Dremel tool. (I thought I had a spare, but a retailer had “surprised” me.) In a little more than two hours, while Mel manned the helm and sails, we were repaired, the engine was running fine, and we were able to safely get into the harbor.

The Dremel tool has helped us in many other less obvious jobs. For example, it’s great for recutting the slot in a straight-slot screw, after you’ve rounded it off. It’s great for recutting a bolt head that you’ve rounded off to give it angles that a wrench will grab. (You’ll probably have to use a smaller wrench than the one with which you began the job.)

When you have a job that seems at first blush to be impossible, consider that Dremel tool and all those little accessories, and see if you can come up with a solution.

A pen mightier than the sword

I’m not into sanding bottoms or teak, but there are many little jobs that I do almost every day that require a little sanding or abrasive cleaning. Small jobs include cleaning corrosion off flashlight contact points, as mentioned above, cleaning other electrical contact points, getting rust out of fine threads, removing a small area of blistered paint on an aluminum surface, removing a spot of rust from a stainless bow pulpit, and much more. When I need sandpaper or emery cloth for these jobs, I have to stop what I’m doing, go into a storage bin and dig it out. The 30-second job becomes much longer.

There’s a solution to this problem. It’s a small tool, about the size of a pen, called the Corrosion Buster Pen. It’s one of a number of useful products marketed by Star brite ( ). About the size of a ballpoint pen, it has more than 20,000 glass-fiber bristles that, usually with one swipe, can do wonders for jobs like those above and many others.

Its cleaning action is very precise and thorough, involves no chemicals, and can penetrate many crevices that sandpaper cannot. It has no metal parts and, therefore, is less likely to cause arcing if you’re cleaning electrical contacts. Because the bristles are fiberglass, you must heed the directions and warnings on the package (as is true of most tools). These include warnings about not letting the tiny bristles get into your eyes or on your skin as they break off.


I could go on for pages about things I can’t do without on my boat. But it’s time to stop. One of those things I can’t do without is a bottle of beer at 7 p.m.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at .