What Skills Do You Need To Go Sail Cruising? Start Here

Sunset from a sailboat

Most dictionaries define sailors as people who go sailing. Sounds reasonable. But sailors aren’t just sailors. When the engine needs fixing, they’re mechanics. When a pipe leaks, they’re plumbers. When a fuse blows, they’re electricians. Self-sufficiency at sea depends on having a vast repertoire of skills and abilities.

The majority of sailors don’t set out with all of these skills though, they learn them as they go along. Just owning and refitting our boat has taught us so many skills, like sealing leaky windows and installing solar panels.

Here are the main skills you’ll need to develop before you set off cruising:

  • Sailing
  • Navigation
  • Anchoring
  • Engine maintenance
  • Fiberglass repairs and maintenance
  • Rigging replacement
  • Basic plumbing
  • Basic electrical repairs
  • Fishing (not essential)

It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Don’t get scared. Armed with YouTube tutorials, a couple of books, online forums, and the local old salts near your mooring, anyone can maintain a boat.

Learning these skills is important, as it will not only save you money, but it will also make you more confident when doing repairs alone in remote places. Your crew’s safety could depend on this.

Here’s some of the resources we’ve found most invaluable along the way. None of them are comprehensive though – most jobs will require you to look at multiple sources of information.


General Information – Get Real, Get Gone: How to Become a Modern Sea Gypsy and Sail Away Forever

Get real get gone

This book was one of the first resources we got when we were discussing the idea of sail cruising. There is a huge amount of information in there, that is absolutely essential for cruising on a budget – from what features to look for in a boat to how to keep everything simple and easy to maintain.

is an excellent starting point for the aspiring sea gypsy. It will also give you a good idea of what self-sufficiency really means and whether this lifestyle really is for you.


Sail Trim – Sail and Rig Tuning (Illustrated Nautical Manuals)

Whether you’ve been sailing since you were a kid, or you have just started out learning, this book is excellent. We’d recommend it wholeheartedly both as a quick reference when you’re on passage and want to get the best performance out of your sails, and for a more fundamental understanding of the physics sailing and the best way to trim sails on different points of sail.


Navigation – OpenCPN

Paper charts are essential, but this free navigation software is excellent both for planning a route and for navigation. We bought a cheap GPS dongle for our laptops and a copy of the CM93 charts and we’re good to go. We find the convenience of digital navigation to be great.


Navigation – www.jimbsail.info

This site is excellent as an online cruising guide. From destinations and regulations in an area, to how good an individual anchorage is – the amount of information that is available here (for free!) is outstanding.



Navigation – Reeds Nautical Almanac 2017 (Reed’s Almanac)

The Almanac is a Bible – it contains everything from tide tables to how to enter different ports. It’s essential when sailing in tidal areas. Even the old salts rely on them for information, so don’t set off without one!


Anchoring – Vyv Cox

Vyv is an engineer who has a great site with detailed information about lots of different sailing and boat-related topics, but the part we’ve found most informative is the stuff about anchoring. In particular, how to connect your chain to your anchor can be a bit of a minefield, and Vyv shows a really detailed test on his site.

He’s also done a comparison of different anchors which was published in Yachting Monthly and is available on their site.


Engine Maintenance – YouTube

There are tutorials on YouTube for pretty much every outboard (and inboard) engine out there. Luckily, ours are fairly simple. Here’s the tutorial for our Yamaha 2.5 outboard.

Look for a video for your own model or brand – you should be able to perform basic maintenance tasks and repairs once you watch it a few times. And don’t forget to keep your engine manual and give it a read too.


Fibreglass – West System Fibreglass Boat Repair & Maintenance

This guide is great. It features  instructions on how to do pretty much any boat repair you’ll need to carry out, such as repairing a keel, rudder, or crack. If you have an old fibreglass boat, you’ll need to do some sort of repairs at some point.

If you want to see some of the fibreglass work being done, then the Boatworks Today YouTube channel is great. It offers really clear and informative guidance on fibreglassing.

Boatworks Today


Rigging – Project Atticus – How to install Sta Lok fittings

Every 10-15 years, a boat will need its standing rigging replacing. Ours was already at the 15-year-mark when we bought it, so we replaced it before we set off. When we were researching how to replace the rigging on our boat, we trawled through a lot of information.

We found the guide by the guys at Project Atticus spot on; we learnt alot from it. There isn’t much information out there about the overall process of re-rigging your boat, so we might draft up a blog post about how we went about it.


Electrical Repairs – Essential Boat Electrics by Pat Manley

This book is great for those who only ever changed a light bulb before stepping on a sailboat. It features easy instructions and clear illustrations to help you get your head around complex electrical jobs. Once you’ve read it you’ll be able to troubleshoot any electrical faults and wire in new projects.


Plumbing – Online Forums

Plumbing is easier than most other skills, so we learnt on the job, as we went along. It is rather intuitive. If you’re looking for some general advice, this article and this other article are a great place to start. Don’t forget there are also lots of online forums where people discuss common sailboat plumbing issues.

Learning all the skills you need to be independent at sea takes time and patience, but it is easily achievable if you do your research. And once you get your head around how to do things, you will feel invincible – nothing will stop you from exploring the world by sail.


Fishing – Sailboat Cruising

fishing tools

Ah, the fun stuff! Countless hours of fishing from your boat is part of the joy of cruising for many sailors, and the best way to catch fish is to troll a handline from the back – simple, cheap and effective. The Sailboat Cruising site explains all the basics.

Dick McClary’s site is also excellent, with great information of all aspects of sail cruising, and fishing in particular.


Have you used any additional resources to learn the ropes? We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below and we’ll check them out and add them to the list.

Leave a Reply