I'm a boater! Email me yachts and information.

July 17th 2018. By Rupert Holmes.

How to improve and update your sailing boat

Boats of all descriptions tend to be long-lasting items that need periodic upgrades to gear and equipment during their life.

This reflects both the potential for some items to wear out and the benefits of updating to more contemporary sail handling, navigation and domestic systems. In this respect it’s akin to living in an old house – many people in the UK live in buildings that are a century and a half old, but they don’t have a Victorian lifestyle – their homes have been progressively modernised, renovated and adapted to meet the needs of life today.

Battery charging

This area is often one that’s best to upgrade first. Although LED lights are far more frugal than their forebears, modern systems are more comprehensive and use far more power than was typically the case 20 years ago.
Battery monitoring is an important first step. Apart from reliability and safety issues associated with running service batteries flat, this also significantly reduces their lifespan. Ideally batteries should not be discharged beyond 50% of their total capacity, which is equivalent to a resting voltage is approximate 12.2V.

Many boats have space for a decent sized solar panel on the coach roof.

A digital voltmeter will provide a quick and very economic rough guide to battery state and is a basic minimum that all boats should be equipped with. More sophisticated battery monitors provide a lot more information and are therefore favoured by many boat owners. However they must be properly calibrated on installation, and recalibrated as the batteries age.
Assuming batteries are in good condition, and of an adequate capacity, the next stage is to boost charging inputs. There are three main ways this can be achieved. For boats that live in a marina and therefore have access to shorepower, a decent 240V battery charger will ensure batteries are well looked after when the boat is in its home berth and when visiting other marinas.
Obviously a mains power is battery charger is of little use for yachts that live on a mooring without shore power, especially if they rarely stay in marinas when cruising. The best solution to this problem is now solar power, the costs of which have reduced enormously over past few years.

Expensive (and heavy) stern gantries tend to be favoured by liveaboard cruisers, so that they can maximise the area available for panels and keep them as free from shade as possible. However, for many people a 100W panel mounted on the coach roof under the boom will provide a significant boost to charging inputs – enough for instance to run a well insulated fridge in the UK.
Most sailing boats of under around 50ft are still set up with the engine providing the primary sources of generating electricity. However the default is usually to fit an automotive style alternator, which only provides a high rate of charge for the first 20 to 30 minutes of en hello alright okay yeah your what you using yes they want to yes you yes yeah the sow and online ancientgine running, after which it rapidly declines to a relatively small fraction of the alternator’s rated output.
The solution is a smart alternator regulator that will continue at a higher rate of charge until the batteries reach 80% of capacity. After that point it becomes progressively harder to pump further charge into the system, but a smart regulator will still significantly speeds the process up.

Plug and play wiring for a NMEA2000 electronics data network – it’s enormously easier than the multiple wires required for earlier protocols, which makes upgrading legacy systems worthwhile.

If you still need further charging inputs, having installed these three essentials – a mains charger, coach roof mounted solar panel and smart alternator regulator – then the options tend to be more expensive and will vary depending on the type of use you intend to give the boat.
For long-distance passage making a hydro generator of some type makes a lot of sense and will provide more than enough power to run all systems. These vary from relatively low cost old school towed generators to transom mounted devices of the type used in round the world races. Fuel cells are extremely neat devices that quietly monitor battery state and pump out up to eight amps day and night when required. However they are relatively expensive, the very cool methanol needed is not cheap and they have a limited service life of around 5,000 hours.

These factors tend to preclude their use among cruisers, but fuel cells are a favourite of the long-distance racing fraternity.
In the past wind generators were a favourite among cruisers, but these have disadvantages in that the sheltered harbours and anchorages we like to stay in generally don’t have strong winds. In addition, when on passage most people try to choose downwind or reaching conditions, where again the apparent wind is not particularly high. As a result many people can fit a wind generator find it does not produce as much power as anticipated. This is the reason that many cruisers, especially in the Mediterranean where light airs abound for long periods, end up fitting an arch on which to mount more solar.

Sail handling

There is often a lot that can be done to improve the ease of sail handing, even on relatively recent yachts. A problem often stems from manufacturers seeking to reduce costs by fitting slightly undersized or low-grade equipment, always simply omitting controls that make it easier to adjust sail shape.

At first sight this may not appear to be a concern for cruising yachts, however, the ability to easily create a flat sail shape reduces heel angle and weather helm as the wind rises. In doing so it therefore makes the boat more comfortable and easier to steer.
Even more important is to be able to reef easily and efficiently – one person should be able to put a reef in a 40 to 50 foot yacht in well under two minutes. For the mainsail there are two main ways of achieving this – single line systems, or separate luff and leech reefing pennants led back to clutches in the cockpit. An alternative, often preferred on more traditional boats, is to handle both the halyard and reefing lines at the mast, which has the benefit of minimising friction.


One person, working alone, should be able to reef the mainsail without leaving the cockpit.

In recent years new boats have tended to eschew large overlapping genoas in favour of a more mainsail dominated rig with smaller non-overlapping jibs. This makes them much easier to tack, but also has the benefit that when sailing upwind in heavier conditions the headsail only requires a minimal number of rolls and therefore still sets reasonably efficiently.
However, a deep reefed genoa will often set like a sack. This is hugely inefficient in terms of making ground to windward, and creates bucket loads of unnecessary heel and whether helm. The solution is a removable inner forestay that can be used in conjunction with a hanked on smaller heavy weather jib.

One downside of smaller non-overlapping blade jibs is that they quickly lose efficiency as the boat bears away from the wind. This helps to explain is the rising popularity of easily handled sails for reaching and downwind courses. There is of course nothing to prevent older boats with overlapping genoas also enjoying the benefits of developments in in this area.

Code Zeros are very effective close reaching sail in light airs, when they are capable of producing enough drive to push many boats faster than the true wind speed and have the benefit of being set on a furler. As the breeze increases, they can be used as more of a reaching sail, with a 90 degree true wind angle in 10 knots or more, and with the true wind angle as far aft as 130 degrees in significantly stronger breezes. Racing rules mean Code Zeros for raceboats have to meet arbitrary requirements that enabled to be classified as a spinnaker, which makes them larger than optimal, particularly in the roach. Ironically this means cruising Code Zeros tend to be more efficient sails that are easier to set and have a greater longevity.

Today’s asymmetric spinnakers have a very different shape to old school cruising chutes. The latter were flat cut sails with very little area that could project to windward of the forestay, with the result that they would collapse behind the mainsail on a broad reach. However, a good asymmetric have potential to be used at true wind angles as deep as 150-160 degrees, even when steering with a pilot.
Gybing is the cause of many spinnaker handling problems. However, if the sail is set on a furler or has a snuffer, it can be rolled or snuffed away before the maneovure and then reset once the boat has settled onto its new course after gybing the mainsail.


Once they are deep reefed furling genoas maintain an efficient shape.

Navigation systems

There are few things that date and otherwise respectable boat faster than ageing electronics. Today’s instrument displays, MFD/chartplotters, and systems such as AIS are in general a huge improvement on earlier models, in terms of reliability, clarity and ease-of-use.
Fortunately the pace of change has slowed, which makes it’s possible to take a long-term view on upgrading equipment. Certainly I have no regrets after having removed the entire 1990s era equipment on my own boat five years ago and replacing it with an all new system. Although many of the specific products I installed are no longer on sale, the later models only offer marginal benefits and it’s easy to see that the system will not be hopelessly outdated even in another five years time.
The ease of installation, maintenance and troubleshooting of a NMEA2000 system, or a manufacturer’s compatible proprietary version, adds to the appeal of replacing older systems in their entirety, instead of a piecemeal approach to replacing individual elements when they fail.

Safety equipment

This is another area in which much has changed during the last decade. This means that, if you’ve not reviewed the safety equipment your boat carries in the last five years, now is the time to do so.
Much of the credit for the improvements in the gear available shoud go to marine industry companies that have relentlessly pursued product development to give us more comfortable and more effective lifejackets, lower-priced EPIRBs and personal locator beacons (PLBs), along with a host of other developments.
These include personal AIS units that are fitted inside lifejackets, with some models designed to activate automatically when the jacket inflates. They then transmit a signal with a GPS position, which is displayed as a specific MOB icon on any MFD/Chartplotter (aside from a few older models) interfaced with an AIS receiver. All boats within rage are alerted to the incident and will be able to see exactly where the casualty is on screen, even as it drifts away from its initial position.


Fridges often benefit from additional insulation.

Domestic systems

In some senses there’s not a great deal that has changed in the last couple of decades in terms of domestic equipment – fridges, water pumps and heating systems, for instance, all operate in the same way and on the same principles. As a result, if the equipment you already have works well there is little point in upgrading.

The most obvious exception to this is in lighting, where are the advent of affordable warm LED bulbs that consume less than 10% of the power of older types can transform evenings spent on board, without running the batteries down. Another common improvement is to improve the insulation of fridges – in the past boat builders have often skimped in this regard, resulting in units that consume an unnecessary amount of power. Ideally they should be around four inches of installation surrounding the unit and the compressor should be located somewhere with a good airflow to help with cooling.

Fitting extra water tanks can make a huge difference to the amount of time it is possible to be self-sufficient while cruising. They are readily available from specialist suppliers in custom sizes and shapes and made from a virtually indestructible tough plastic.

Finally, it’s only relatively recently the boats sold for use in UK waters have been equipped with holding tanks for toilet waste. It is therefore a good move to retrofit one – again they are readily available and can be shaped to fit your boat – especially if you plan to stay in anchorages where you or others may swim around the vessel.

Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.