Top Ten Game Changers

While we were anchored in Port Ludlow nursing our wounds after the headsail fail we met a fella that owns a new-to-him big old boat and is dreaming of his own cruising future. He was interested in our story, we were interested in his, and we ended up visiting for a long time and getting a tour of his extremely cool circa 1970’s Monk 50 foot sailboat. It’s going to be just stunning when he’s finished with all the projects. We sure remember those days of unlimited projects, since they’ve actually never ended.

Mike looking at the damage to our headsail in Port Ludlow.  Another project.

One of the things we talked about was what things made cruising/living on a boat better for us, especially since he wants his wife to be happy cruising and she’s not the experienced sailor he is. In other words, what things have we added or bought that have really turned out to be totally worth the effort or cost in terms of making living aboard and cruising more comfortable and satisfying. I’ve been giving this some thought and here’s my current list of the top ten things we love. I’m not going to include safety items on this list; only things that improve the liveabilty of a boat, reduce tension in otherwise anxiety-provoking situations,  or make things easier on us as human beings in the autumn of our lives. After all, living on a boat is not always an easy thing. All things take more effort and small comforts make a huge difference to both of us.

  1. Sena bluetooth headsets. We have the SPH10 model.  In terms of game changers, these are high on the list. We use them all the time and even with my hearing disability we can communicate clearly with each other from anywhere on the boat, or even when one of us is on the boat and the other on shore. Recently we avoided a grounding when pulling up to the crane to have our mizzen mast installed because I was on the dock and could relay information from shore to Mike at the helm. That day they might have paid for themselves. We bought ours used from other cruisers, but if we’d known how much we would love them we would have bought them years ago new. We wear them 100% of the time when anchoring or docking and it has made a huge difference. Sure, we can use hand signals, but sometimes it is hard to see the other person and these units make having a calm conversation a reality even in tense situations. Frankly, I just cannot say enough good things about them.

    Although they fit fairly securely, I’ve put lanyards on them to avoid losing them should they blow off in high wind.

  2. Our aft cabin mattresses. Long time readers will remember that we perseverated over those mattresses for months. It was such a hard decision. In the end, we have hands down the most comfortable bed we’ve ever had. The biggest payoff was that 3″ latex top layer. Our berth is three layers starting with dense foam, then medium foam, then the latex. The mattress is 8″ high, which is high by boat standards. We chose natural latex from Sleep On Latex for the top layer. They have an excellent product at a very reasonable price. We will never go back to memory foam.

    That top layer is luxurious natural latex.

  3. The Food Saver heat sealer. We bought ours at Costco as they have the best price and frequently put them on sale. We use it not only to vacuum pack meat and fruit for the freezer, but also to store entire cases of things like toilet paper and paper towels in a fraction of the space usually required. Mike bought a case of oil absorbent pads that took up almost two square feet of space. The heat sealer stored packs of ten of these almost flat, meaning they can be stored under the sole and out of the way. In addition, I can use this with our small inverter at anchor. The sealing bags are re-useable, cutting down on trash.

    This is an entire case of toilet paper, two to each package, stored way in the back of the cabinet under the sink.

  4. The latex seat cushions in the cockpit. Damn I hope these hold up to the heat in the tropics. I made these from the scraps of latex left over from the aft cabin mattresses. We have Bottom Sider type cushions in the cockpit, but I actually hate them. They are hard, hot, and do not add much to the comfort of the cockpit when we are at anchor or on an easy sail or motor trip. The latex cushions add a layer of luxury and keep my hind end from hurting at the end of the day. Of course, they must be stored below when we are sailing hard on the wind, but it’s a small price to pay for the comfort they provide the 90% of the time we can use them. Should they fail me in the tropics, because they are pieces of latex glued together, then I will be ordering a twin size topper and making new ones.

    Cheerful and comfortable for sitting and sleeping.

  5. The cockpit mat I made from an outdoor rug from World Market. One edge of this hasn’t held up that well over time, but if you have a walking foot machine you would be able to do a better job than I did. We still love it and it’s still making that cockpit cheerful and easy on the feet. We’ll take it up for ocean passages, but for coastal cruising, it’s great.

    Stays in place even when on a heel.

  6. The fold down countertop extension in the galley. This small project has paid huge dividends. We use this many times in a day. People who live on boats understand that to find what you’re looking for in the fridge, the rule is that you have to unload the entire thing because what you want will be on the bottom. This project offers us a place to unload the fridge without putting things on the stove or across the galley. Love at first use.

    In the ‘deployed’ position.

    In the locked down position. And it doesn’t budge under sail.

  7. Hot water at anchor. Need I say more? Having a hot shower at the end of a long day of travel, on your own boat, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
  8. The Engle freezer. We have ice at anchor. Do you? Because if you don’t, you don’t know what you are missing. It’s quiet, efficient, and I can pack a ton of frozen food in that thing by repackaging with my Food Saver food sealer. But really, the ice is the main thing.
  9. Our Magna Cart. We use this thing all the time. It made getting that heavy sail down to the dinghy from the sail loft dead easy. It makes grocery shopping a breeze.

    The Magna Cart on duty carrying a full propane tank.

  10. Our Nikon Prostaff 550 Range Finder. If I want to know, and I most assuredly DO want to know, how far our boat is from the next boat or from those crunchy rocks, I want an actual data point, not something like ‘far enough’. This little unit tells me exactly how many yards we are from the nearest boat eating object. We both love this. Our unit is no longer available, but there are others in the same lineIf you live on a boat and travel, what things have you added that improve your comfort and ease of living? There’s a guy in Port Ludlow with a 50 foot Monk sailboat who wants to know!


29 thoughts on “Top Ten Game Changers

  1. I have a friend who uses a food saver for her toilet paper and paper towels as well. They’re on a relatively small boat (30′) and she loves how much space it saves. We sadly live without a freezer. To be honest, it isn’t that big of a deal to me, probably because just getting a fridge with our current boat (our last one didn’t have one) was such a huge step up that a freezer would seem almost decadent to me. 🙂 Plus, where would we put it? We do need a cart. That would make life much easier. I’ll check out the one you use.

    • Our boat didn’t have a fridge in place when we bought it. Once we had the fridge up and running it never worked right as a fridge/freezer. So we got the Engle. I know lots of folks cruise without either one and are perfectly happy. But honestly, we do love the freezer. I haven’t put ice cream in there yet, because that would be like chocolate chip cookies are to you. But i hear that ice cream will stay frozen in these. That’s a bad road to go down.

  2. Another option for a useful range finder that people often overlook: Your radar. While it is God-sent in fog and another helpful tool for use during night navigation, it’s hard to beat coming into an anchorage to determine distances from shore and other boats.

    I share the same outlook as Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor. We, too, live without a freezer. Being on a rather modest boat (’82 Cal39 MRK III) finding space for one of those wonderful Engle freezers was the limiting factor. We live without ice and still survive, albeit not without a certain level of envy for those who are fortunate enough to have freezers.

    • True, we could use our radar as a range finder. We don’t usually turn it on when coastal cruising unless it’s foggy or (gasp!) dark (highly unusual). We have a really old unit and because it still fires up we haven’t replaced it yet. There’s something about just ‘point and shoot’ that I like about the range finders. I do hear what you’re saying about finding room for a freezer. We gave over a very useful cabinet to get the space. We sailed and summer cruised for years without one in our Cal34.

  3. Hmm… let’s see
    An inverter and enough batteries to make it useful
    A Bluetooth stereo
    DVD player
    Gps/chart plotter, hooked up to…
    Cockpit canvas
    Stack pack sail covers

    And I love our anchor windlass – it has a counter that tells how much chain we have out!

    s/v Eolian

    • Yes! A bluetooth stereo! We have a small bluetooth speaker but I wish we had invested in a better setup. There is nothing like cockpit music when under sail. And it’s dead romantic! We’ll be doing a future post about boat systems that we love. Our windlass is definitely on that list. But, alas, we have no chain counter. I would love that! Our chain is marked but I don’t know how long that’s going to last.

  4. Our headsets weren’t bluetooth but they were the latest-greatest at the time. What marriage savers they turned out to be. Made anchoring a completely calm affair instead of stress-o-rama.

    • We have the old fashioned ones that were marketed as ‘marriage savers’. We liked those and that’s what led us to take a risk on the bluetooth ones. Actually, the fact we got such a good deal had a lot to do with that. But once we tried them, we were hooked. Good to ‘see’ you around on the blog again!

  5. Have to agree with all of these (especially the bed). To add, Sailrite sewing machine, iPod, a great stereo and speakers, a good hat, polarized sunglasses, a basic Netflix subscription for when you have good Wi-Fi, a great mug for morning tea/coffee, an electric kettle, dominoes (learn to play Mexican Train – the game of cruisers), a printer/fax/copier all in one, a couple of portable 2TB hard drives to get movies from others, Amazon Prime

    All of these make our lives better

    Hope you two are having fun

    Mark and Cindy
    sv Cream Puff

    ps – make sure your kitchen knives are stowed when off shore – We had a couple of our fly our of the rack. I know – right! It was a little gnarly that day.

    • Another vote for a good music system! Really, I think we can do better on that note. Do you use your electric kettle on an inverter? We gave ours up when we left the marina for good. I sure miss it and it would save on propane to have one. Good point about those knives. We’ll make sure they are secure, and yeah, we’re having fun in spite of all the delays.

      • I’m really opposed to electric kettles and coffee makers on my boat. They use a figurative ton of hard-earned electric power. I’d much rather heat water with propane. A 20lb tank will literally boil over 6 tons of water.

        • That’s why we got rid of ours. We use a tea kettle on the stove. But I do miss the electric one. It takes a long time for our water to boil, but it’s a very small thing in the overall scheme.

          • In the interest of eliminating single-purpose items on the boat, we boil our water in a covered saucepan. It also makes it easy to fill with exactly the right amount of water for our coffee press (or whatever). That way you never have any leftover water you didn’t need to boil, which saves both time and fuel.

      • We have found the electric kettle to be more efficient than propane (not wanting to open a can or worms). It also doesn’t heat the boat – we are in the tropics. Our kettle runs off the inverter and uses 60 amps for about 3 minutes. This is not much. Sometimes propane can be a bit of a challenge to get on the remote islands so we prefer to use electric where we can.

        With that said, we have a large solar set up and a 400 amp hour house battery set.

        Another piece of equipment every boat should have that nobody has mentioned yet, a fly swatter. The ones with a metal shaft will rust. Try to go for the all plastic models.

        On the stereo stuff. Don’t waste your money on marine stereos. A car stereo works just fine if it is mounted inside the boat. We have an Alpine unit that has Bluetooth, a USB port on the front, and a auxiliary port on the front. It is model CDE-164BT. It has a remote (sold separately) so when we listen to music in the cockpit we change stuff. We love it! We can plug the computer to it or the iPod. The remote will control both.

        We did a lot of research on speakers. The best for the money are made by Fusion. They are waterproof and do not have large magnets that may interfere with your boat compass. They put out a great sound.

        All the best,


        ps – would you be so kind as to add us to your blog roll – many thanks!

        • Now I’m sorry I got rid of my electric kettle, although it probably wasn’t as efficient as yours. We have a large array of solar panels, too, and I’m able to use several of the smaller appliances on the inverter. We’re good on fly swatters! I stocked up when someone had them for 1$ each. We find them handy in the Gulf Islands for the pesky flies. And yes, I’ll add you to the blogroll, a part of the page I completely forget about! Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Re: bluetooth stereo, many car/boat stereo head units have auxiliary inputs that can be used with aftermarket bluetooth receivers. I’ve had good luck this one:
    You can find them (a lot) cheaper but this is definitely a get what you pay for situation.

    Also on my list is an insulated coffee press. I like this one:
    It holds enough for two large mugs and then some, is easy to clean, won’t shatter like a glass press, and keeps it hot.

    We had an outdoor rug in the cockpit and loved it but it had a heavy rubber backing that would trap water against the fiberglass and lead to some really funky smells. I imagine the ones that breath are fine.

    I’ll second Bob’s vote for stackpacks and autopilots, they really help when shorthanded or lazy (I’m often both!). I’ll also put in a plug for a powered halyard winch on larger boats. They really help when smaller members of the crew want to pitch in but aren’t strong enough (our main weighs over 100lbs) and it makes going up the mast a breeze. Coming down is still just as fraught, though!

    • Great suggestions and we will check out those links. I hope our new boat owner is reading these! We will be doing a separate post on boat systems we love and things that really work for us like stackpacks and autopilots and the like.

  7. Hands down, SOLAR PANELS… we don’t even use our Honda generator (haven’t since 2014) nor run our engine just to charge. And yes, our little Nova Kool fridge/freezer gives us ice at anchorage (see above, solar panels…).

    For distance to other boats, shore etc when anchoring/at anchor, we regularly use our Furuno radar which tells us in yards how far away things are. (But, if accurate, the rangefinder seems a simple and faster solution.)

    And we use our SSB/HAM radio daily (and in Mexico, the attached pactor modem).

    For simplicity, the solar shower bag (large size) gets used when we are anchored more than 1 night (ie not using engine to heat water…) . If not Summer, we use our Dickinson Antarctic diesel heater for warmth and hot water (we have Espar hydronic heat and hot water but don’t use it as much as Dickinson, which is much faster, quieter, no power required, etc).


    • We had a solar shower on our previous boat, but I never found the water got hot enough for me. We used the garden sprayer method on Moonrise. It worked. Our solar panels are also great. I limited this post to small livability things and left out the boat systems except for the engine heated water. We plan an additional post about the systems we like on the boat, including electronics and things like solar. Glad to hear you never needed the generator. We don’t have one and so far, so good!

  8. Great stuff and I totally agree with all your faves. We don’t have headsets, but we do have those little walkie talkie type things and those have saved our bacon many times – especially when navigating coral reefs! Turn to port, 3 more degrees to port…..STARBOARDSTARBOARDSTARBOARD!!! Hahahaha

    After 5 years of cruising – here’s what I would add….
    1. We upgraded our autopilot to a VERY oversized, hydraulic unit. BEST DECISION EVER! In countless heavy seas, when other boats had to hand steer, our autopilot has been super dependable and steers WAY better than we do.
    2. A rocna anchor. It’s only dragged on us once (last year in a trash filled bay in Indonesia) in over 7 years. Rock solid – even in serious hobby-horsing situations. I’m talking like 8′ up and down hobby-horsing. That’s some serious hold!
    3. Washing machine. We (unfortunately) don’t actually have one and boy am I tired of either doing it by hand or dragging it somewhere to be done. REALLY wishing we had put one in before we left…when we still had access to machines that worked with 110V. Now we’re in the land of 220V, so much more challenging to install…
    4. Quality snorkeling gear. Once you escape the beautiful northwest, you’ll actually be able to get into the water! And good snorkeling (or diving) gear is worth the money.
    5. A really good setup for snubbing your anchor. When you’re on the hook 99% of the time, this is really important for saving wear and tear on your windlass.
    6. A good relationship with someone involved in sales at your local chandlery of choice (we love Larry at Fisheries Supply). Something will ALWAYS break when you are in the middle of no where and having a dependable person state-side to help you get that critical part you need, that understands the difficulties of shipping abroad is worth it’s weight in gold.
    7. A good range of sizes of well built totes (we have small, medium and very large). We use them for dragging the aforementioned laundry to land, for hauling appetizers and drinks for sundowners at other boats, and more jobs than you can imagine – make sure they have very strong handles.
    8. iPads and an unlocked iPhone. Doesn’t have to be apple – can be whatever you like as long as you have an unlocked phone. This makes buying a SIM card and getting up and running with internet a breeze every time we hit a new country. The iPads are critical for navigating in areas with little to no charts. We use a program called Ovital Map to download Google Earth images for use offline (while we have internet) and refer to them in poorly charted areas. If we hadn’t had this in Fiji, we would have been screwed.

    That’s all I can think of right off the top of my head. Good luck in your endeavors and get out there! It’s every bit as wonderful as you suspect it will be…. 🙂

    • Great list! We have everything except number 6, which is an excellent suggestion. We’ve had Fisheries ship to us c/o general delivery, but it would be great to have an actual point of contact there. I tried to limit this post to the small things that make life on a boat more comfortable for someone who isn’t sure it’s the life for her. But I think we need another post on the boat systems that we use the most.

      • Great list, and I really appreciate all the good comments/suggestions. This might come under the systems heading, but since you mentioned your frig/freezer I’ll add that I installed a Frig Optimizer (by Stainless Lobster) this spring. After a summer of extended cruising I can say that both captain and mate really love it. Saves power, better control over temp, and eliminates defrosting.

        • Thanks for giving a shout out to the Stainless Lobster. I have looked at the unit some time ago and was a little put off by the price. When I installed the cool blue system we have, I bought an inexpensive digital controller which was quite a bit nicer than the usual mechanical t-stats that these units come with.

          But since we are cruising full time and I maintain a zealous lookout for excessive power consumption, and the Stainless Lobster piques my interest.

          When I first installed the Cool Blue system, I went with a spill over system. That means that the cold plate was set up with the eutectic solution for freezing. Now that we have the Engels as a dedicated freezer, I wonder if there would be a big advantage in removing the cold plate and setting it up with the ratio for refrigeration. The refrigeration system is our largest consumer of power and any energy savings I can achieve would be a real advantage.

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  10. I first met Michael, through my wife, Paméla, which met Michael on the train from Seattle, well, actually from Tukwila to Tacoma.
    I first looked at your post, just a few days before Michael retired from work… I did not put a lot of energy into reading your post. Only because I am not too much of a fan of reading, not because of boredom. But now I am a follower.
    Thank you.

    • I am glad you are following our blog Keith. I always enjoyed walking with Paméla when we were on the train together. But I we enjoy the weather in Mexico much more.

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