Reader Questions

By Bernadette Bernon
June 16, 2000
Newport, RI

Q: What are some of the things you wouldn't go to sea without?


Photo of the contents of Ithaka Bag of Tricks The Ithaka Bag of Tricks: a most generous gift from a friend with experience.

Juan, it's a little too early to tell yet what those things would be for us. But I will share with you a list of things that a friend of mine thinks are invaluable for living aboard. Betsy Gooding worked as managing editor of Cruising World, then took off and completed an impressive five-year circumnavigation in a 38-footer, then came back to CW as the magazine's executive editor. (She also wrote the excellent — and hair-raising — adventure book Sitting Ducks about her experiences in the Caribbean.) Betsy gave Douglas and me a most generous gift the night of our Cruising World going-away party: an Ithaka Bag of Tricks. Here's a list of some of the invaluable items Betsy and her husband VG put in this canvas bag, as well as Betsy's explanations for how to use some of them. Now that we're aboard, we've already realized the wisdom and experience behind these items, as many have come in handy. Take a look at this list from a real pro:

  • Loc-Tite "A must for certain engine bolts and critical rigging nuts high aloft where there's vibration"
  • An offshore trolling rig, including wine cork, needle-nose pliers, nail clippers, extra squid lure, two bronze crimps, instructions on killing fish, filleting knife, and a bottle of vodka ("A splash in the gills knocks out the fish. Then clean it immediately")
  • Pastry cloth, rolling pin, and Betsy's recipe for flour tortillas
  • Oxalic Acid "Dilute as directed. It takes away yellow waterline, and removes stubborn rust from gel coat and paint"
  • Whink "Gets rust stains out of fabric"
  • Never Dull
  • Bay leaves "Put a few in all your dry goods — rice, pasta, flour, grains — to keep out weevils and moths"
  • Cuban cockroach and rat trap (a six-inch-long rat trap!) and a jar of peanut butter "they can't resist"
  • Bronze wire brush with slim-taper file "For repairing buggered threads on bolts"
  • Nicholson round bastard file
  • Liquid Wrench
  • Clorox "Removes heavy fouling (grass and barnacles) from dinghy bottoms. Also purify water with 1-1/3 teaspoons to every 10 gallons. Don't add to water already chlorinated."
  • X-14 mildew stain remover
  • Screw extractor and drill set
  • Extension mirror "For accessing things you can't see"
  • Calipers, metric and English
  • Ronsonal Lighter Fluid "Removes gummy stuff, sticker glue, masking tape glue. Also a good spot cleaner for fabrics, but not safe for plastics."
  • Freezer bags of all sizes
  • Scotchbright never-rust steel wool pads
  • Marvel Mystery Oil
  • Joy "The best soap for dishes. Even sudses in salt water. Disperses oil/gasoline slick in the bilge, dinghy or on the surface of the sea."
  • Plastic one-way shut-off for hose
  • Clear Contac Paper "Great for waterproofing book jackets and charts. Good for making temporary or emergency plaques in engine room, first-aid locker, cockpit..."
  • Mini Rayvac flashlight with clip
  • Cable ties "Cinches up coils of hose, electrical cords. Use instead of seizing wire to temporarily secure shackle pin."
  • Mace
  • Stanley mini hacksaw "For cutting those hard-to-get-at things"
  • Heavy Weather Survival Kit (earplugs!) " When the wind is shrieking and you can't relax enough to sleep off watch, pour yourself a vodka cocktail from the fish kit and plug in a pair of these. ZZZZZZ..."

(Thanks, Betsy!) Unbelievable, isn't it? Of course Betsy never intended this as any kind of complete published list. She'd be the first to tell you that it's idiosyncratic. It was just her thoughtful way of remembering many of those neat little tricks of the trade that she learned from hard-won experience while out there cruising herself. I'm thrilled and so grateful that she shared this extraordinary gift with Douglas and me. Now if we could only figure out a way to pack Betsy herself aboard to answer all our questions as we go along!

Q: You said in one of your articles that you took a diesel course. Can you tell us about it? Would you recommend it?


Photo of Larry Berlin teaching boat engines maintenance Larry Berlin doing what he does best, teaching the uninitiated about the care and feeding of the demanding beast that rumbles inside each of their engine rooms.

Ted, we took "Diesel Engine Maintenance," a three-day hands-on course taught by engine guru Larry Berlin, head of training at Engine City Tech (the professional mechanics school) in New Jersey. We took the class at Mack Boring in Marlboro, Massachusetts. Here's the way it works: Larry is hired by Yanmar to teach their two- and three-day Owners' School at various Yanmar distributors around the country. He's also hired by the National Women's Sailing Association to teach diesel-engine maintenance at their different seminars throughout the year (at selected boat shows, and at their excellent weekend cruising courses). Larry is a brilliant teacher, clear, thorough, and no BS about what works and what doesn't. We highly recommend that you take this course. (We actually took it twice. Once before we got our boat and knew what kind of engine we were going to have, and once recently now that we have a 1992 Yanmar 3HM35.) First, Larry takes you through some classroom time as he explains the theory of how engines work, then its out into the shop to work on an engine identical to the one you have in your boat. This two days inside your engine is a critical element of the success of the course. You learn from Larry how to bleed the engine, how to troubleshoot AND FIX all kinds of typical problems that occur, and how to maintain it in top working order, which is a formidable task, to be honest with you, so it's important to learn how to do it right and how to set up a maintenance schedule that is appropriate for your engine's requirements. Larry does all this with you. Take the course, and sign up early (all his classes are getting sold out, now that the word is spreading about how good this guy is). It'll be the best money and time you'll ever spend. Fixing one engine problem yourself, instead of calling the Yanmar repair man, instantly will save you the price of the course. Find out about dates by calling the National Women's Sailing Association at 800-566-6972. Their email address is You can reach Engine City Tech at 800-305-3487 (ask for Lorraine).

In addition to the engine course, we also took an excellent five-day course called "Heavy Weather Avoidance" taught by Michael Carr and Lea Chesneau at the Marine Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (Lithinicum, Maryland, 5 minutes from BWI) — a no-nonsense, intense course on weather prediction and how to read the 500-millibar (upper-atmosphere) charts. We highly recommend that you take this course if you're planning to go offshore. Contact MITAGS for dates and course descriptions: 410-859-5700. Also, Douglas took a super two-day course on electrical systems taught by Chuck Husick and sponsored by Ocean Navigator (, which he also highly recommends. We'll do some research over the next couple of months on other courses taken by our fellow cruisers, and we'll report back on which ones were voted best. Stay tuned.