The right stuff
An artist must first gather the materials for the job, and it is the same on board when contemplating the start of a jury-rig masterpiece. Unfortunately, there appears to be a wrinkle in the space-time continuum that causes expensive things to break when you don’t have the specific part or tool and the correlation with the distance to the nearest marine store.
Because of this natural law, jury-rig artists must carry all sorts of universal repair supplies that can perform many different functions — often ones they weren’t marketed for. Over the course of more than 35 years of cruising I have collected a large quantity of these essentials that can be lumped together under the technical term “stuff.”
Water belongs on the outside
We were headed offshore from the San Blas Islands off the north coast of Panama. The weather was boisterous with six-foot seas and a stiff easterly. All seemed fine as night settled in except for the red bilge pump light clicking on more than normal. Considering the rough seas, with water and spray flying, at first I thought it must be extra water creeping in through spots like the unsealed chain pipe up forward. I decided to start pumping by hand to get a feel for the amount of water coming in.
Through the night and the next day as we bounced along I was pumping 20 or 30 gallons an hour! That wasn’t good, but where was it coming from? Finally, while anchored in Roatan, Honduras, after some more offshore work filled with nights of pumping, I found the culprit. The water in the Roatan anchorage was particularly calm and clear and at the forward edge of the keel where it faired into the hull there was a tiny crack not big enough to put a putty knife in. However, apparently when moving with greater water pressure and some flexing, that crack was big enough to let in lots of water.
Muffler repair while on a voyage.
I dug down into one of many lockers full of stuff and brought out some old rusty cans of Pettit two-part underwater epoxy. The current version is called Splash Zone. Underwater epoxy is a must-have. You mix the two parts 50:50, and then you have about 20 minutes or so to slather the sticky goop onto something, even underwater, and it sticks amazingly well. Of course, it also sticks to your hands, hair, and anything else it comes in contact with — wear old clothes and gloves!
I first discovered the wonders of underwater epoxy when I helped save a trawler in the Bahamas that was sinking after ramming a submerged object in Marsh Harbour. A diver was eventually able to slap some wooden patches on underwater using the special epoxy, and when I saw the boat hauled out, the patches could only be removed with a hatchet — amazing stuff.
A product designed to caulk underwater seams on wooden boats called Slick Seam, sold by Davis Instruments, is another miracle product for underwater plugs that require less physical strength than epoxy. I usually stuff my boat’s shaft tube with a bit of Slick Seam before launching as it stops the inevitable rush of water in through a maladjusted stern gland. The material eventually washes away with use. I’ve also used it when I had a poorly sealed through-hull leaking a bit — I could snorkel down with a blob in my hand and apply it from the outside. It sticks underwater well enough to last months and is not as messy or difficult to remove as epoxy products.
Slick Seal and Splash Zone, two useful sealant products.
Pay less, get more
The Pettit and Davis stuff mentioned earlier are examples of excellent marine-specific product that offer superior performance for all sorts of repairs, and I recommend products like that when they can’t be matched. However, landlubber discount stores like Wal-Mart, Sears, Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Lowes etc. are great sources of many fix-it supplies.
You don’t always need marine-grade and marine-priced stuff, especially when making a temporary repair that will soon be removed in order to properly fix whatever is broken. And, there are many quality products widely available in discount stores that aren’t easily found in most marine stores.
You can purchase stuff at landlubber stores that is just as good or even better for long-term use than what is found in the typical marine store. For example, every stuff artist needs an array of J-B Weld products on his or her palette. Many of these products are found in auto parts and discount stores. The original “cold-weld formula” epoxy is a staple of on-engine and other metal repairs. Blobs of this stuff can seal cracked engine components, and it can withstand temperatures of 550° F. Some people report being able to drill and tap J-B Weld in order to provide anchorage for a bolt. J-B also makes a two-part WaterWeld epoxy that can be used to make underwater repairs. One big advantage of purchasing these J-B epoxy products in small tubes is that they will last for years and years unopened, whereas I have found that large quantities of epoxy go bad after awhile. I have had a large container of liquid epoxy burst inside a locker. The mess was epic!
Another product category found in many different shore-side stores are sealants. I have found that high-quality landlubber silicone sealant appears to be just as durable and just as long-lasting as any marine silicone I have used. I have found the GE brand Silicone II products to be excellent, and I keep a variety on board in clear, white, and black. It is better to have lots of smaller tubes around than a few big cartridges, unless you are tackling a huge project.
I frequently use silicone to lube hose barbs before putting the hose on, making it easy to slip on the hose and providing a superior seal. Silicone is ideal for sealing electrical components from moisture that may be otherwise hard to cover. I have occasionally spliced two wires together by twisting them and then slathering with silicone sealant and wrapping with silicone tape. No, it is not the recommended method, but it works well for a temporary fix. Obviously, you wouldn’t use these products for mission-critical work like installing a new through-hull, but these caulks are fantastic for the many small leaks every boat gets.
Many different Permatex sealants can be found in auto parts stores and in the auto section of discount stores. Permatex High-Temp RTV Silicone (in the red tube) can be used to reseal things like head gaskets on your engine. I’ve found that even if you have the proper gasket you can get a better seal adding a thin layer of this stuff. And, it is critical when trying to salvage a damaged gasket that you don’t have a spare for. Their blue sealant is excellent for sealing water fittings like where a hose on a barb is maybe a tad too loose for a perfect seal. The blue provides a good seal against water, but doesn’t glue the pieces together so tight you will have trouble separating them later. Permatex makes numerous sealants for just about everything on and around engines.
Tale of the tape
A selection of useful items found in what John Kettlewell likes to call “landlubber discount stores.” One of Kettlewell’s favorite jury repair products is epoxy from J-B Weld.
An important category of stuff is tape. It comes in many different types, colors, and prices. Search around a bit and you can find silicone tape. It is generally black, though I bought some in yellow in the boating section at Wal-Mart under the Attwood brand. I found some of the black stuff in Home Depot under the Nashua tape brand. It comes in a short roll with a clear plastic backing that keeps it from sticking to itself. The beauty of the silicone tape is three-fold: it stretches a lot so you can get a really tight wrap; it then sticks to itself tenaciously forming a very watertight seal; and it can withstand high temperatures, the sun, and weathering. It is also a good electrical insulator. I use it to wrap and seal my VHF and other wire connections leading from the mast into the boat. If you want to make a very permanent seal, smear the fitting or wire junction liberally with silicone sealant, then wrap it before it is dry with the silicone self-amalgamating tape, and then protect that with wraps of black electrical tape. Joints sealed like that have lasted six years or more on my boat, even in very exposed locations.
Electrical tape comes in many different grades and colors. Through trial and error I have found it is worth it to pay more for the name-brand stuff, like 3M Scotch Super 33+ in black. I have used this tape in places where it is exposed to the sun and the elements 24/7 and it holds up very well. For example, wraps of the 33+ held chafing gear on my mooring painter all summer long, and some in my rigging has been up there for years. For some reason the premium tape like this seems to have a much greater UV resistance, and I have found that the black version lasts longer than the white stuff.
Another tremendous sealing product found at bigger hardware stores is 3M Moisture Sealing Electrical Tape 2228. This is another self-fusing tape that comes coiled with a backing. It provides a much thicker barrier and is very water and weather resistant. It has great electrical insulating properties and can provide greater chafe resistance than standard tape. It is useful for other things too. I recently used some to wrap a leaking toilet pipe that was not easy to replace.
I always have a roll or two of Frost King Clear Weatherseal Tape on board. It is very sticky and strong, and resists weathering. It is perfect for a temporary fix on a cracked dodger window, and it can be used wherever you might consider duct tape but don’t want it to be as visible. 3M Scotch brand transparent duct tape is another option.
The boater’s best friend, duct tape, comes in many different varieties. I periodically try different brands and grades found at big-box hardware stores. Many of the name brands are far superior to the generic gray stuff found in every discount store. But one premium brand is now widely available — Gorilla Tape. It is probably overpriced, even at the discount stores, but it does have superior stickiness, weather resistance and strength. Again, the black color appears to give the product much greater UV resistance. Gorilla Glue is also a great product for interior woodwork repairs, or anywhere you need to laminate wood together. It is very easy to use and provides high strength when dry, though it tends to be runny.
A jury-rigging voyager never has too much tape on board. A variety of types from duct tape to electrical to waterproof can perform a temporary fix until a full-on repair can be effected.
One of my favorite products has a marine name attached, but is widely available in discount stores too: Sta-Bil Ethanol Fuel Treatment and Stabilizer. Go for the blue version in the small bottle with Marine in big letters. At first it appears to be more expensive than the red version, but it treats twice as much gasoline per ounce. The blue works out to be cheaper per gallon. Since I started adding this to every tank of gasoline, I have never had a clogged carburetor on my outboards, even when the gas and motor has been stored over a winter lay up. I also use it in my motorcycle, and I treat my car’s gas tank if I am planning on leaving the car parked for a long period while off cruising.
Like black tape I have found that black-colored zip ties (or cable ties) last much longer than other colors. Every boater should carry a variety of lengths, including some really long ones. You can link two or three ties together if you need an exceptionally long one. Look for ones that tout their UV resistance on the package.
One common use I have for zip ties is to help keep birds from landing on the top of my mast or in the rigging. I attached a bunch of them to the top of the mast pointing up and they provide a pincushion effect that discourages birds. I’ve done the same to bow and stern pulpits. I also use them to secure the pins on my anchor shackles. The black ones last an entire season and can be easily removed. No doubt there are better brands than others, but I have had good luck purchasing whatever brand I find when I need them.
These are just a few of the many types of stuff that can often be found at reasonable prices in ordinary stores. Just because it doesn’t always say “marine,” doesn’t mean it isn’t the perfect solution for many onboard repairs and emergencies.
John J. Kettlewell has cruised the waters between Labrador and Panama for more than 35 years, and he is now repairing and maintaining his eighth old cruising sailboat. He’s the author of the “Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk to Miami.” When ashore he works in digital marketing at Informz. When not working or sailing he can be found prowling the aisles of local big-box stores looking for “stuff.”