On most cruising sailboats today, we have all sorts of instruments, equipment, and gadgets to make our lives as comfortable and safe as possible. There are, however, some things we love more than others, and I have listed 12 sailboat essentials you probably want onboard.
AIS stands for Automatic Identification System. Most boat owners have at least a receiver on board, as they are often built into the VHF.
Having a combined transmitter/receiver is one of the most important pieces of technology to have onboard, and here is the reason why:
A boat with a combined transmitter/receiver will broadcast its location, course over ground, speed, and in most cases, information about the type of boat and size. It will also receive this information from other boats transmitting within the antenna range.
If the system is well set up, the unit will overlay the AIS targets on your chart plotter and calculate the Closest Point of Approach (CPA) and Time to the Closest Point of Approach. You can also set an AIS alarm and program it to go off if another boat comes within a specific range of you. This is helpful if you are sailing in conditions with reduced visibility or single-handed at night when you want to take a nap.
The most important use of the AIS is to spot other boats early and see if their course will interact with yours, but also to know that other boats around you can see the same information about your boat.
Tablet or iPad & Navionics
Using a tablet for navigation and route planning is very handy.
Paired with an app like Navionics, you get precise sonar charts and access to Active Captain, a user community for information about anchorages, channels, passages, hazards, and more.
I mostly use the Navionics Boating app for navigation, but I always have my old plotter turned on as a hardwired backup. With the addition of a Wi-Fi plotter or interface, you can also make Navionics use the boat’s own GPS antenna for increased accuracy, and it can show AIS targets and info directly on the chart in the app.
I previously used a Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 and now a Samsung Galaxy Tab S7, and they have both been great. You want to ensure you get a device with a bright screen usable in sunlight, but even the cheaper tablets will run Navionics without any problem.
Let’s take one scenario: You’re sailing into an unknown anchorage at night, it is raining, and the visibility is poor. Your plotter may have a split-screen containing the radar and depth sounding. You’ll see unlit objects or boats as you sail in, and the sounder tells the depth and shows if the seabed is flat or full of seaweed or rocks.
Then, you can have the tablet with Navionics’ sonar charts on top of those. It is a very nice setup. Before you sail in, you can check out the user information about obstacles in the anchorage, if the marker buoys are reliable, or if there are any navigational hazards. There is also information about where to check in, find the closest laundry or grocery store, and, of course, the closest bar… You can read my review of Navionics here, by the way.
Get a tablet unless you haven’t already got one.
Here are 3 good tablets in different price ranges on Amazon:
IridiumGO! & Predict Wind
The Iridium GO! is primarily useful when doing longer trips and passages when you are out of a signal for an extended time. Coupled with a Predict Wind subscription, you get the perfect communication device to download updated weather forecasts anywhere and stay in touch with the rest of the world.
Before crossing the Atlantic, I bought the Iridium GO! marine package, which has been great. The crew and I could stay in touch with family and friends in the middle of the ocean. We celebrated Christmas between Gibraltar and Las Palmas and could call our families just as easily as we would if we were ashore.
We downloaded updated weather forecasts two times a day. Also, we uploaded our GPS position to an interactive chart so that everyone could follow our exact location and the forecast in our area and also read the daily status updates we made.
In many cases, the Satellite unit will be your only way to communicate with the outside world when you are offshore. If you have an accident on board and need medical advice or tell your mum that all is OK, the Iridium GO! gives you this possibility.
If you plan on getting the Iridium GO!, buy the Marine Package from PredictWind with an external antenna and cable. You also need a SIM card and a subscription, which PredictWind will provide you. The unit works seamlessly with the PredictWind weather app, which is full of valuable and simple tools. You connect your phones and tablets to the Iridium GO!’s wifi and control everything from your device. Sending an SMS is as simple as sending a message on WhatsApp, as the unit works similarly to your regular Wi-Fi router.
Internet speed will not allow you to surf or read the news. That’s where Starlink comes in. But you won’t be able to bring the Starlink with you if you have to enter the liferaft in an emergency. The Iridium Go! has a built-in battery and may, in an extremely unlucky event, save your life.
A popular alternative to the Iridium Go! is the more expensive Iridium Go! exec or the slightly cheaper Garmin InReach Mini 2.
Having the InReach Mini is also a good idea if you intend on crewing on someone else boat. If something happens outside of VHF and cell range, you can contact the outside world for help or advice, and it also packs a ton of other useful functions.
There are stories about people finding themselves in difficult situations on board, and having your own personal device would greatly benefit your own security. I will not go too deep into that specific topic, but many of you reading this will understand what I am talking about.
Amazon Link: Garmin InReach Mini 2
Starlink brings high-speed internet to your boat in a way that has been impossible on a regular budget – until now.
Gone are the days of searching high and low for a new data-sim card in every country or island you visit. With Starlink, you can stay connected anywhere in the world.
Starlink has been discussed widely in social media and newspapers lately, and more and more sailors install the system on their sailboats these days with good reason. After all the chatter and recommendations, I installed one on Ellidah, and I must say that it is a game-changer worth every dollar.
Not only can you stay connected at anchor, but you can activate Ocean Data and keep the connection while underway in the middle of the ocean. Imagine watching Netflix while crossing the Atlantic! This wasn’t possible a few years ago, but it is a reality at a very reasonable price right now.
If you’re not convinced, join this group on Facebook to see others’ installations and get inspiration and tips.
Starlink Roam is the one to get, and you can check prices in your local area at this link.
Seriously, if you are going to sail in warm climates like the tropics, you want some fans onboard. Unless you have air-conditioning, of course, but those take a lot of valuable power, and it is another unit to maintain. Even if you have one, some additional fans will certainly make your life onboard more comfortable.
You could go ahead and install permanent fans in the cabins, the salon, and the toilet (trust me, a fan in the toilet is a life upgrade), or you could go the easy and cheap route like me and get portable rechargeable fans!
The great thing about these babies is that they last a long time per charge, are easy to put everywhere and move around, don’t make a lot of noise, and are CHEAP. I started with two but eventually bought a third one as we are often 3 people on board.
A while back, when I was sailing in Malta, there was a heat wave lasting for about a week with day temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius and not dropping lower than 35 at night. I had two fans hanging over my head everywhere I went on the boat, even outside in the cockpit. They also help keep the mosquitos away!
This is probably the cheapest and best addition you can give your boat, and I actually have one cooling me down as I write this article here in Carriacou.
Amazon Link: Portable Fans
Solar Panels & Lithium Batteries
Solar panels and lithium batteries are a hot topic among cruisers these days. When I bought Ellidah, I had 200 Ah of old lead-acid batteries. They could barely keep my fridge running through the night, and I had to be extremely careful with my power usage
Adding 570W of solar panels and 380Ah of lithium batteries made a huge difference to life onboard. With lithium batteries, the resting voltage is higher than on AGM and lead-acid batteries. Mine usually rest at 13.3V when not charging, whereas my old ones usually went down to just above 12V pretty quickly.
The benefit of the higher resting voltage is that all your appliances onboard will be more energy-efficient and use fewer amps. Another benefit is that they charge extremely efficiently, which is a huge advantage when relying on solar power.
Having a good amount of power certainly makes life onboard a lot more comfortable. Raymond, the autopilot, is also a huge fan of these batteries as he can steer the boat 24/7 just from the free solar energy, and I rarely have to use the engine to charge the batteries.
I only ran the engine for a total of 6 hours during our 16-day Atlantic crossing to charge the batteries after a few cloudy days. Who doesn’t love to be self-sufficient with power?
I wrote an article about how to get electricity on a sailboat and compared 5 great energy sources to charge the batteries that you may like to read.
Modern Style Anchor & Plenty of Chain
A modern style anchor is far superior to some traditional types as they are easy to set in different seabed conditions, hold very well, and will, in most cases, easily re-set themselves quickly if broken loose.
With a modern style anchor of proper dimension, you can ensure a good sleep at night without worrying about dragging the anchor. An upgrade that can significantly make life onboard safer and more comfortable.
There are several good options, and I’ve listed some below for your convenience.
If you are curious about anchoring, I wrote a detailed article on how to anchor a sailboat.
This doesn’t really need much explanation, who doesn’t love a good BBQ? You can get them in many variations and the propane version from Kuuma is hard to beat for its price.
You probably also want a zip cover and a rail mount to fit it on your boat. It does come with a regulator to fit the small gas bottles, but they usually only last for 2-3 rounds of cooking, in my experience.
I recommend getting a regulator and hose kit that you can plug into your main propane tank or, if you can fit one, a separate tank.
These units are also handy as they have foldable legs, so you can unclip the BBQ from your rail mount and bring it to the beach. Sweet!
Amazon Link: Kuuma Stow N’ Go 160 Gas Grill
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, is among the most important safety equipment to have on board if you intend to go offshore. It is activated manually or if it gets in contact with water.
Once activated, it will transmit a distress signal through the Cospas-Sarsat network to initiate a search and rescue operation. This network is operational worldwide and might just save your life in an emergency.
Several EPIRB units are available on the market, and the Ocean Signal rescueME EPIRB1 is a popular choice due to its decent price. It also has a 10-year battery life and a 5-year warranty and will transmit for 48+ hours once activated.
Remember that these units must be registered with your name and boat details, and they usually come with instructions on how to do this.
Amazon Link: Ocean Signal rescueME EPIRB1
Comfortable Life Jacket
You need one life jacket per person onboard and one that is comfortable to wear. Especially when cruising in less than favorable conditions. There are many to choose from, and I did a lot of research before I ended up buying the Spinlock Deckwest 5D 170N.
This one has a pylon light that reacts with water, a whistle, sprayhood, and a loop to clip your safety line on. It also has pockets to wear your handheld VHF and/or a Personal Locator Beacon or PLB.
There are other good alternatives, but from my experience, I highly recommend Spinlock. They now have a VITO and 6D model available with a smart HRS (Harness Release System), which one of my crew bought for the Atlantic crossing, and it is reasonably priced and a good choice.
Handheld Vacum Cleaner
It is incredible how much dust, hair, breadcrumbs, and salt that ends up all over your boat after being onboard for a while.
A hand-held vacuum cleaner takes care of this problem and is brilliant to have on your boat! I use mine every day. If you are a cruiser, you probably have an inverter onboard, and charging these things doesn’t use that much power.
There are many variants and brands to pick from that are reasonably priced.
The Dysons are popular among cruisers, but a cheaper vacuum will do the work just fine. This one from Amazon is almost identical to mine and is a must-have if you like to keep your boat clean and tidy.
Amazon Link: Cordless Vacuum Cleaner
A rechargeable water-resistant headlamp will be your best friend at night, especially on night watches. It is all nice and well with a foredeck light, but stick one on of these your head and you have work light to trim your sails, put on that kettle of coffee, and switch to red light for reading your favorite book.
There are too many uses of a headlamp to even list everything. Actually, having a few on board is helpful, even one for each person. Get one with a red light and a function to adjust between the spotlight and the wide beam.
Spotlight is great for checking the tell-tales on your sails, and the wide beam is good when you are doing maintenance in a dark place or looking for something in the deepest of the unknown in your lockers.
There are many different ones to choose from, so pick your choice. I use a Ledlenser MH8, which has been great.
Amazon Link: Ledlenser MH8
These are my top 12 recommendations for excellent things you may want on your sailboat.
This list will be updated when I find new cool stuff that is awesome to have onboard, and I have a few items in my shopping list that I have carefully considered as good upgrades for a comfortable life on the boat.
I would love to know your favorites on your boat, so feel free to leave a comment below!