Top 10 Pieces Of Gear For Runabouts

Story & Photos By Tux Turkel

Ten essential pieces of equipment that should be aboard every boat 20 feet or smaller.

There's a lot to be said for owning small runabouts, center consoles, and bow riders. They have their limits, though, if you want to venture into coastal waters and big lakes. But these journeys can still be done, with the right 10 pieces of equipment. Here's what should be aboard every boat 20 feet or smaller. My Top-10 list has been refined from years of small-boat piloting along Maine's coastal islands, where granite outcroppings, sudden fog, and 10-foot tides can turn any cruise into a mini adventure. My list is meant to save your butt, not just meet Coast Guard requirements.


Here's why you want two serious paddles on a small boat: If your engine quits, paddles are your propulsion. And if you've got a buddy or a spouse aboard, you can make way. Keeping the outboard or sterndrive down for a rudder, two people can move a small boat great distances, with the right paddles.

My pick is a T-handle paddle, the kind used for whitewater canoeing. The T-handle gives you a great grip. The anodized aluminum shaft is light and strong, as is the high-impact plastic blade. Those materials don't mind sitting out in the weather, either. Make sure they're at least five feet long. You'll kill your back bending over the gunwale if the paddle's too short. A long paddle also comes in handy for fending off, and for poling in the shallows when you're fishing or exploring an island.

Dry Box

Small boats typically lack dry storage. That's why I'm a big fan of the plastic marine dry box. These boxes have handles and come in various sizes. Most lids have O-rings to seal out moisture. My box is an extra-deep model. The radio, smartphone, flashlight, and GPS are safe there. There's room for binoculars, cameras, and first aid. In an emergency, your dry box protects essential gear that may not operate well in water. With this, everything is right at hand, and dry.

Anchors & Line


Some small-boat manufacturers barely leave space for a lunch hook. But what happens if your engine quits, or you want to anchor overnight in a windy cove? Stowing two anchors and strategic lengths of line gives you options. Your optimum package will depend on your craft, and the depth and bottom of your cruising grounds. Your bottom conditions may warrant different anchors. Chain between line and anchor also helps. My primary anchor is a Danforth-style model with a slip ring and 50 feet of line. I also have 50 feet of line on a folding grapnel anchor. Also onboard is 100 feet of line, wrapped around a board. I often pay it out from a stern cleat to control my boat from shore, when I set a bow anchor off an island. I also have three docklines.

Wearable Life Jacket

I don't feel safe in a small boat unless I'm wearing a life jacket. Luckily, life jacket design has evolved, and I can find Type III models that are comfortable to wear all day. I have a paddle vest meant for canoeing, and a fishing vest. They're red, not blue or green; I want rescuers to see me. I notice plenty of small-boat pilots these days with inflatable jackets. They're more buoyant, but more costly and require some care. The best choice is any life jacket you'll always wear and that could be the top gear pick on my list. Most small-boat fatalities involve people who weren't wearing a life jacket. Just sayin'.

Redundant Electronics: Part I


When your cell phone runs out of juice during a nautical emergency, that's a crisis. Same goes for your flashlight, handheld GPS unit, and VHF radio. Get devices that run on the same power source. My GPS, flashlight, and VHF handheld all use AA batteries. I install fresh, long-life alkalines, but also stow a sealed 12-pack of batteries just in case.

Manual Bailer

Small, closed-deck boats rely on a single, submersible pump to keep the bilge dry. But if that pump fails, or seawater comes over the gunwales, or there's heavy rain, small boats can swamp. Keeping a hand-operated bilge pump aboard is cheap insurance. Marine stores sell them in sizes ranging from around six to 13 gallons a minute.

Air Horn

The Coast Guard says small boats must have a "sound-producing device" for distress signaling, capable of a four-second blast that's audible one quarter-mile away. Many small boaters have a plastic whistle or own boats with installed, electric horns. Both can fall short. Whistles rely on a steady breath and installed boat horns can deteriorate. The horn on my boat sounds like someone is strangling a goose. A better option is a handheld, gas-powered air horn. Coast Guard-approved air horns that can be heard up to one mile away are easy to find for $10. Keep one at the helm.

Spare Prop, Plus Change-It/Fix-It Tools

Tool box

A floating log or submerged ledge can whop your prop and cripple your boat. Having a spare prop and the right wrench is common advice, but changing a mangled wheel while afloat is easier said than done. With aluminum props, I've found that it's often possible to bend blades back into serviceable shape, which allows me to continue the trip, or at least get home. Beefy, vice-grip-style locking pliers and slip-joint pliers are essential for this repair.

Redundant Electronics: Part II


Cell phones don't run on AA batteries. That's why you need a 12-volt receptacle. Get one that's marine rated, with a weatherproof cap. Mount it away from spray and rain. Now you can plug in your phone, as well as your VHF radio and GPS. Don't forget the charging cords, which you can label for easy ID.

Paper Chart In Plastic Cover


Prudent mariners don't rely solely on electronics. It's old school, but the small-boat experience is enhanced when you learn to use a compass and paper charts. But even a waterproof chart is hard to manage underway in an open boat. Put it in a clear, plastic holder, and wind and water won't matter. Marine stores sell these chart covers or you can make one with clear plastic from the hardware store and duct tape. Size it big enough to fold over. 

— Published: Fall 2013


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