Engineer’s Angle: Proper tool kits not common on board

Jan 2, 2019 by JD Anson

Engineer’s Angle: by JD Anson

Constantly fighting to keep the lights on without the right tools can create a wandering eye. That saying “the grass is greener” applies to yachts, too.

I’ve actually watched engineers pack all their kit in plastic bags and toss them over the rail to the boat next door, then wave adieu as they sail out of port on their new charge, leaving the old crew high and dry. Frequently, I hear that there was no support and never budget to get the right spares and tools, thus hamstringing their chances of success.

After decades of being an engineer,  then years as shoreside support, I am still frequently shocked when I open a tool box on a multimillion-dollar boat to grab a wrench. Screwdrivers with missing tips, wrenches rusted tight. Piles of wrenches with no organization.

Mostly these are inherited from the previous crews – and the older the boat, the worse the condition. I recently revisited my last boat and, upon opening the drawers, found the same worn-out tools that I was getting ready to replace six years ago.

Usually a visit with the captain to explain the predicament can suddenly free up some cash for replacing ruined tools. A courteous explanation of how lack of proper tools in good condition can lead to ruined trips for the boss gets the attention needed.

No one needs an entire catalog’s worth of Snap-On tools on board, but key items are crucial to doing the job right. A basic selection of screwdrivers (don’t forget Torx) will start the box right. Adjustable and combination wrenches in both standard and metric sizes up to 1 1/4 inches, or 30mm, are essential. Larger sizes should be purchased after checking through the equipment on board.

Also essential are pliers: slip joint, angled, needle nose and locking types in various sizes. Pipe wrenches in lightweight, rust-proof aluminum up to 16 inches will help loosen those couplings that always stick at the wrong time.
A few hammers,  from small brad nailers to 3-pound deadblows, will help persuade things along. A socket set,  both metric and standard, in normal and deepwell types, coupled with 1/4 inch, 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch drive ratchets and extensions will save hours of hand turning.

With the basics covered, specialized items now can be added. A small tool kit with precision screwdrivers and pliers will save much time and aggravation, even when repairing large items. Hex screws are becoming more common in machinery, so a set of those wrenches will do nicely.

Electrical tools can be put in a small bag along with connectors to keep it all together. A quality multimeter will help keep things safe, and a fox and hound can save hours trying to track down a particular wire. Add in some wire strippers and crimpers also.

One item rarely on board, but worth its weight in gold when needed, is circlip pliers. Those little retainers are extremely frustrating to remove without the proper tool, but quick work when the snap-ring pliers are applied. Common on pumps, they love to fly across the workroom and disappear when treated poorly, and one can bet there is no spare on board to replace them. Just be sure to buy extra tips as they wear out easily.

A tape measure, a set of feeler gauges and a basic Vernier caliper will ensure everything lines up properly. An electronic caliper is nearly foolproof. Unless aircraft tolerances are needed, the inexpensive ones will do just fine.

Once all these great tools are on board, they need to be stored in a clean  tool chest big enough to allow easy access. Latching drawers are mandatory to keep things where they should be. Dedicate drawers to particular types of tools to make it easy to find them. Keep them clean. Grabbing a greasy wrench when in epaulets is a sure way to get on the bad side of the laundry staff.

While still in the holiday gifting mood, get a small box with basic tools for the deck crew and interior staff. This is less charitable than it seems: It will keep them from raiding the engine departments’ tools and losing them overboard.

Spending a few grand to prepare the engine department (and deck) for nearly any emergency or repair may sound like a princely sum on a small boat, but the ability to save the guests’ vacation in literally the middle of nowhere will pay for itself many times over.

JD Anson has more than 20 years of experience as a chief engineer on megayachts. He is currently project manager at Fine Line Marine Electric ( in Fort Lauderdale. Comments are welcome below.