I’m sure every yachtsman who ever worked on his boat has more than once spent more time looking for tools and spares, than it took to do the actual job. It drove me to distraction on my first boat, and it drove me crazy on Britannia. You would think there would be enough room in a 45’ foot hull with a 14’ foot beam for all the tools and spares under the sun, and there pretty-much is on Britannia, but that creates its own problems: It can accommodate a workshop full of tools and spare parts, but that doesn't mean I can always find them. I would frequently, and quite literally, spend more time trying to find something; be it the right sized screw, a special tool or part, than it took to fit the darn thing! I would sometimes give up completely and sleep on it, knowing there was a chance it might come to me in the morning
It would often cause arguments between my wife and I, “I don't know where you put the damn thing! You never put them back in the same place anyway, so how can you expect anybody to remember where you put so many things?” Kati was right, so we decided to do something about it, for the sake of our sanity.
On a boat Britannia’s size it is often possible to stow spare parts relating to a particular “trade” like plumbing, woodwork, electrical, deck fittings, etc., all together in one location, which makes it easier to at least go to the right place. But on a smaller craft that's not always practical, so you find yourself rummaging through things that are not even relevant to the thing you want, and it's very frustrating when you eventually find it somewhere else.
HERE IS MY REMEDY:
The answer is to accurately catalog items wherever they are. I doesn't matter whether it's a special shackle or a spare alternator, so long as you have a method of finding it. It's no good doing a spread-sheet in Excel either, or any other computer program. We tried that first, and you can bet your life the laptop battery will be flat when you want to open it, and if someone else is searching for something, they might not be able to open it anyway. The remedy is to make a hard-copy book, and keep it in a place where you will always find it, maybe the chart table, because if you can’t find even that, you really are in trouble.
First, you need to buy a loose-leaf spring binder with an alphabetical index and plenty of blank pages, along with a pencil with an eraser on the end. This becomes, “The Book.”
Second: make a rough drawing of every cabin on your boat where things are stowed, which of course means everywhere! Starting with the fo'c'sle for example, we have two spacious storage compartments under the V-births, a hanging locker to st’b’d along with a block of four drawers with a cupboard above. There is a locker to port with four shelves and a second hanging locker. The bank of drawers and the locker with shelves also needs a frontal sketch, labeling them on the sketch A, B.C, etc., or 1, 2, 3, if you like.
One fateful weekend we began the tedious and time-consuming operation of cataloging every single item on Britannia. We never dreamed it would take four weekends and run into many hundreds of items, but I assure you my dear reader, if the above description is also you, then it will be worth it, with many more hours saved in labor on your boat in the future.
It is really a two-person job, one calling out the item and location, the other writing.
This is where it becomes tedious. Every single part which is stored in every single drawer, shelf or locker must be cataloged in the appropriate alphabetical page of the book. Many things have more than one name, so it also pays to call a nautical item by a simple generic term as well, so that landlubbers might also be able to find it. For example, my bags of various sizes of wood plugs go under page W for wood plugs, and also under P for plugs/wood and indicating where they are kept. Thus, you can find the wood plugs under wood or plugs, depending on what you call them, in fo'c'sle cupboard C. It is then a matter of looking at the sketch of your fo'c'sle and seeing where cupboard C is. Bingo! it's that simple for everyone on the boat. Yes, a major advantage of the book is that everyone else in the crew can also find things quickly.
Every cabin or compartment where things or stored needs to be itemized in this way, including outside lockers, deck boxes or lazarettes. How deep you delve into this process is up to you. I have a compartmented box of different sizes of electrical wire crimp fittings, which are all cataloged under the general name electrical crimps, but I also have a compartmented box of many different small items, which are all in the book individually. During this long process, you may even find things you never knew you had, or a different place to where they should be. Whatever you do, just catalog it in your book, under as many separate headings as it takes to make them easier to identify.
Actually, I have a secondary problem, being an Englishman living in America. Things are called different names, (not to mention spellings), so if you happen to have one of our American cousins on board helping you, then there is a further dimension to the book. Some of the nautical differences are explained in another article.
You will eventually finish up with your book full of items on each alphabetical page, but they will not be in alphabetical order because you wrote them down as you cataloged them--or erased them. Some pages will be full of items, others not, like X which in my book has only one item, Xylene, which is also under S for solvents Xylene, along with a long list of other solvents.
Having finished the actual cataloging, this is the point where you open your computer and re-type each item on a page in alphabetical order. Thus, on page W we have 25 items, starting with walkie-talkies and the last being Woodruff keys. I expect there is a program somewhere which re-calibrates lists into alphabetical order with one click, but I don’tt have it. This job is also tedious, but it just saves having to scour through a long list on the same page. At least it's all a sitting-down job.
Having compiled a neat alphabetical page, print it to replace the penciled original. Now trace over your drawing with a ballpoint pen, or do a new drawing in Photoshop as I did. If you leave your original pencil work, it will slowly fade and you won't know which compartment is which. Incidentally, all this effort will someday impress a potential buyer immensely.
It almost goes without saying; it is very important to put things back where they came from, otherwise the system breaks down. This might sound common sense, but it is easy to slip a bunch of tools back in the wrong place after use. In other words, become methodical, and your efforts will pay dividends in time saved looking for things, not to mention the frustration of emptying a locker, only to find the item somewhere totally different.
Being able to find things quickly can also be an actual lifesaver in emergencies. Once, a friend who was stronger than he looked, snapped the end off a sea-cock while trying to close it with a wrench. He plugged the inrush of water with this hand while my wife looked in the book and found wooden sea-cock bungs in saloon st’b’d side seating and in a jiffy the sea-cock was plugged. By the way, the remainder of the bungs are now attached to their respective sea-cocks, where they should have been in the first place, and that particular item erased from the book.
Recently I looked high-and-low for a specially spliced length of line, that acted as the fore-staysail topping lift. I couldn't find it anywhere in the boat, and eventually I gave up and made a new one, using 30’ feet of line. Later, when I was rummaging through one of our aft deck boxes I found the line in the bottom of the box. It had been thrown in and not entered in the book. Me, methodical, not always!
So what do you do with those more common tools, which you use both on your boat and also at home or your work, like a big lump hammer or three feet long pry bar? One reason I bought a Kia SUV was that it has a very large carpeted storage space under the rear floor. Other vehicles have this space, but it is commonly used to store the spare wheel, but the Kia spare is beneath this storage area. I therefore keep these multiple-use tools, like my circular saw, Dremel kit, belt sander, electric planer, clamps, etc., and a multitude of other items in this space, under “Kia” in the book. If your vehicle doesn't have a space like this you need to store these common tools in a box in the vehicle, or buy duplicates. Otherwise, when you need something on the boat, for sure it will be in your garage, and visa-versa.
Finally, never forget to add anything you have recently bought, or delete any consumable you have used up and not yet replaced. In other words, keep the book current, because someone else might need to reference it in a hurry, when you are not around.
The total number of items we have cataloged to date is 360. No wonder it was impossible to remember what we have on Britannia, and where things are stowed. Now I don't have to, and my mind has more room for important things like; “Now where did I put the beer??”