Let’s Hear it for Stowage!
Ahhhh…stowage. A sexy topic near and dear to my heart. As the chief organizer and manager-of-the-inventory on Half Moon I spend a lot of mental and physical effort on stowage.
But you ask, what in the world is stowage? Isn’t it just tidying and putting stuff away? In essence, sure, it’s finding homes for things you want to keep and putting them there. But like most things on a boat, stowage takes more time, planning, and forethought than in a house. We’ll get to why in a bit. First let’s talk about what.
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In addition to the normal household items like clothing, toiletries, linens, and personal items, you will need to stow the myriad of supplies and gear kept aboard to keep the boat going. A cruising boat needs to be self-sufficient. It must carry enough tools, spares, consumable replacements, and provisions to handle most any situation. It’s a lot of stuff. Most of it is expensive and difficult to replace if it gets ruined or lost in storage.
Why is storage important?
In a house, stowage is all about aesthetics and comfort. A good storage system in a house results in a closet thats pleasant to dress from, or a kitchen that looks inviting to use. You don’t have to be terribly practical when choosing where to store things because there are plenty of closets, cabinets, garages, basements, and attics to stash your possessions. With the climate controlled spaces we tend to live in on land, you also don’t need to worry much about packing items well. A pair of shoes left of a shelf will look great in a day or a year. An electric drill tucked on a shelf in the garage will be just fine in the future when you need it.
On a boat, not so much. The cabin can be humid, wet, salty, lack air flow, and it MOVES! All prime conditions for rust, mold, and general decay of delicate items.
Cruising boats must carry parts and tools critical for the boat. If something breaks underway or in a remote anchorage, you rely on that spare or tool to keep you going. If that tool or spare is unusable because it wasn’t stowed properly, you are up a creek. Not only are you out the money it cost to acquire the item, but there’s a good chance you’re pulling it out of a locker because it’s needed to complete a task or repair a piece of equipment. If item X comes out of it’s bin unusable while at sea or at anchor, you can’t just run to the neighborhood hardware store to get another.
I can vouch that your day will be ruined when you pull out a poorly packed $75 set of retaining ring pliers from storage and find that it no longer works because it got wet in the locker and rusted shut. Your week will be ruined when you then have to hand steer for days because that tool wasn’t available to fix the broken autopilot.
Storage = Safety at Sea?
To the uninitiated, stowage onboard is just “putting stuff away”. Ask a sailor with a few thousand nautical miles under their belt and you’ll get a two-beer tirade about safety at sea.
Picture yourself a hundred miles offshore in a near-gale. The boat is lurching about like a drunken sailor on shore leave, it’s raining buckets, the wind is blowing up heavy spray, waves are slamming the deck, and a jib sheet snaps. In a well organized boat, one crew member gets the jib furled while the other goes straight to the line locker and pulls out the spare sheet. Ten minutes later the new line is installed and the boat continues on it’s way. Easy peasy.
On the other hand, if the spare jib sheet is buried under a pile of stuff in an unknown locker and can’t be found, the crew will have to spend time heads down in lockers pulling stuff out to find it. Without the jib they will need to motor to make headway while they rummage about in the bucking cabin searching for a new sheet. The motion while motoring isn’t nearly as good as sailing. When the sheet is eventually found the boat is a mess, and both are feeling queasy, hot, and tired.
Feeling nauseous, they’re not inclined to put away everything they tossed so leave it on the floors. They pick their way over gear on the floor back to the cockpit. Sick and overheated, they still have to rig up the new jib sheet, and all the gear on the floors have created a serious tripping and falling hazard. When the next thing breaks, rinse and repeat.
Tripping hazards and unsecured objects falling off tables or shelves can result in injuries. Injuries result in crew downtime, putting more burden on the healthy crew, who get tired, and makes mistakes, and on and on. You are truly on your own once you are out on the open ocean, and being prepared makes a huge difference.
Exaggeration? No, not really. This is just one of a hundred scenarios that would play out the same way. The problem is compounding over a long passage. The more time a crew spends heads down searching for something in a locker, the crappier they are going to feel, and the less effective they will be at handling the boat. This can get truly dangerous in a big sea. You need to be ready to roll with whatever the ocean throws at you.
So what’s to be done?
Stowage isn’t rocket science. A few basic principles, some time to think out use cases, and an inventory is all it takes.
While a discussion of what to store in your boat is a whole other massive topic (spoiler, post upcoming), it’s important to know that you’re going to need a lot of stowage space, and you’re going to need to keep it organized.
As smart and good looking as you are, you won’t be able to remember where everything little thing is stowed. I don’t care how good your memory is, a year from today you will have NO IDEA where you put the spare 8mm halyard shackle when your wonderful partner pulls a butterfingers and the primary one flies overboard.
A cruising boat carries a veritable chandlery of little bits, pieces, doodads and what-nots. Since space is limited aboard and lockers tend to be weird shapes, you will have to get creative with where items get stashed. So whats a cruiser to do?
Regress, my friend, regress. Go back to your desk-bound days and make a spreadsheet. Let your creative excel juices flow on the format, but be sure all the information outlined below makes it into the document.
Every locker, nook, cranny, bilge section, and shelf gets an entry in the first column on the spreadsheet. Name each section something memorable but understandable like “port side far forward cubby” or “starboard bilge far aft”. As you put items in each place, enter them in the spreadsheet under their designated location. If you put multiple bins in any location, write a number on the bin and record all the contents under the bin number.
It’s a simple document, and will save your sanity. When we first moved aboard, we didn’t have this nugget of wisdom in pocket. I pulled out a lot of hair and wasted many hours in that first year searching for elusive bits that I had put “in a safe place”. You can thank me in a few years when your coiffure is still intact.e
Half Moon happens to be the House of Apple, so my spreadsheet was written using Numbers, the Mac version of Excel. Since there was so much to write, I did the initial typing on a laptop, then put it up on iCloud to sync to my tablet and phone. Now, when I need to find an item or update the inventory I use my phone. Any spreadsheet software will do as long as you keep it on a device that’s readily accessible.
Earlier today I was changing out the propane tank and needed to replace the teensy tiny round rubber gasket that goes on the propane tank fitting. I only need to replace the gasket once or twice a year. Between changes I am guaranteed to forget that the spare gaskets are in bin six under the port side lower nav station. Without the inventory spreadsheet we would just have to accept a day with no hot food because I would have spent hours tearing the boat apart looking for the silly little bugger. The search would inevitably start in the Starboard hull because I *think* I saw them there last time. Thank goodness for the inventory, no hangry crew here screaming for coffee and eggs.
The Tools of the Trade
Plastic Bins: Forget diamonds. Plastic bins are a girls best friend. Heavy plastic bins with positive locking lids and weather tight seals do it for me better than any shiny rock ever could. Bins keep moisture out, prevent condensation from forming directly on sensitive equipment, and keep the boat organized. I suspect anything with a seal and sturdy plastic will do, but I bought my Iris bins in 2012 and despite lots of rough handling and heavy loading we haven’t managed to break any of them yet. The size (17″x11″x8″) fits well on board. I can fit these bins in most lockers, can fit a good amount of stuff in them, and still lift them myself. Anything much bigger would require a team lift.
As a general rule of thumb, anything that doesn’t get used constantly goes in a plastic bin. I make exceptions for things like everyday clothes, the boat hook, and the spear gun. Other than that, if it fits, it goes in a bin.
Very few items on board will come in factory packaging good enough for long-term storage. I recently bought a high powered flashlight. This $50 piece of equipment came in a cardboard box with a couple of pieces of brown paper stuffed inside. Fine for sitting on a shelf in a climate controlled store, but the light won’t last six months onboard if left in it’s original packaging. Anything electronic, especially electronics with alkaline batteries need to be sealed up in a bin. Alkaline batteries are terribly susceptible to corrosion in a salty environment, but will last just as long on your boat as in a house if you store them in a clean, well sealed bin.
Silica Packets: You can create dry, corrosion minimizing environment inside a bin with the judicious use of silica packets. Silica packets absorb moisture, making the air inside the bin nice and dry. I like the ten gram size. Smaller ones come in flimsy paper that gets ripped and bigger ones take up too much space in a bin. They may not look all that impressive, but the packets work hard to suck the damaging moisture from the air in your bins. Inside a bin the silica packets will last for a year or more. If you notice them getting damp, a quick zap in a microwave will bring them back to life. We don’t have a microwave on Half Moon, but some marina’s will have one in their boaters lounge. Yay marina amenities!
VCI Paper: In addition to liberally scattering silica packets in a bin, I also employ VCI paper on anything metal. VCI paper is an industrial tool used by factories to keep expensive metal-based equipment like motorcycles from corroding during delivery. It’s a special paper is soaked in preservative chemicals that slowly off-gas into the air. You can wrap a bulky item (motorcycle) in the paper for a brief transit time, or lay a few pieces in the bottom of a bin to trap that (non toxic) gas in a sealed bin.
In a bin, VCI paper works it’s own special magic delightfully well. In the sealed environment the gases create an invisible protective coating on anything sharing the air. It’s great for fishing lures, tools with metal springs, aerosol cans with rust proclivities (all of them), batteries, small electronics, hardware, etc. Pretty much anything with a metal component will benefit from this non-toxic gas.
Anti corrosion spray: For anything metal, especially tools and those item’s that just won’t fit in a bin, anti corrosion spray is a godsend. The spray comes in an aerosol can and deploys a oily film on anything you shoot it with. Sprayed lightly, it’s has a consistency just thick enough to stay in place without getting gunky. We use a lot of this stuff on Half Moon.
For the sake of convenience, I keep a few small bags of frequently used hand tools in heavy canvas bags with handles for lugging them around. Those tools would die a sad and rapid death outside of a bin without liberal use of this spray. It makes a thin oily coating that keeps moisture out and rust at bay. It also lubricates moving parts and keeps your pliers plying. In the US my favorite is the PB Blaster Corrosion Block. Sadly, it’s not available in Mexico, but Wurth HHS2000 is. It’s a little thinner, but similar enough to get my vote.
Think of this spray like hot sauce. Put it on everything. Bin or not, if it’s metal, give it a squirt. Pad locks in particular benefit from this spray. Pad locks are a cruisers nemesis. You need them to lock your dinghy to the boat, but even the really good quality ones are just not up to life onboard without some extra love. It’s a real PITA to have to cut off a frozen three month old lock in order to use the dinghy.
Before initial use, and a few times a year, give your padlock a good rinse in freshwater, let it dry, then direct a liberal spray into all the holes and on the number pad. The Sesamee padlocks on Half Moon have enjoyed this treatment. They are approaching five years old and still work great.
The spray also great for other hardware in use on deck. Anything that has springs, hinges, corners, or moving parts, anti-corrosion spray will extend its life.
Tube socks: Will save your sanity. If an object has a cylindrical shape, or has the possibility of moving inside a bin, a tube sock will keep you from going mad when the boat gets a rockin’. On our first big ocean passage there was a can of spray paint laid on its side at the bottom of a bin. The can was laid in line with the hull, and alllllllll night looooooong it went shirck, shirck, shirck, back and forth inside the bin. When we arrived at the next port I raided Brian’s sock drawer and put everything with the potential to move, including the offending can, in a sock. No more shirck. Bliss.
Tube socks are also great for protecting your (at least my) most valuable possession, bottles of wine. Since I enjoy a glass of wine or three with dinner, Half Moon is well stocked with wine bottles. A while back, I raided the mens section of Walmart. For about twenty smackers I bought enough tube socks to cocoon each precious little gem in it’s own sock nest and stacked them with care in a tall narrow locker. Nary a valued darling has been lost since. Tube socks also work well for bottles of beer and olive oil. Generally anything that comes in a glass container can benefit from a sock house.
Small bins: Bins within bins? Oh yea, we’re going there. There are a lot of tiny things you’ll need to store (see above for propane gaskets). A supply of small bins will make your storage system more modular and easier to keep in hand. Ziplock baggies are OK for light duty, but I’ve had enough of them tear or develop pin holes in storage to use them with caution.
A solid small bin will use a little more space than a baggie inside a big bin, but will protect your stuff better. Plus, ten small bins containing a few items each, inside big one are much easier to wrap your head around than a big bin with fifty loose baggies. Sorting through that many baggies will be as hard as reading the previous sentence.
When deciding what’s worth sacrificing a little space for in the little bin vs baggie in the big bin debate, think of what the item costs, how delicate it is, and how hard it would be to replace. Stowage space is completely wasted if your methods put quantity over quality at the expense of protecting your stuff.
I use the same Snapware brand of containers for my bin-in-a-bin as I do for storing food. The Snapware bins have a watertight lid with positive locking action that will keep moisture and salt out like nothing else. They cost a little more than other brands, but with good reason. I bought my first set (the collection has grown enormously since) in 2012. The containers have seen constant use since first purchase and not one has failed. Other brands have come and gone (along with their ruined contents), but Snapware is the only brand that has never let me down.
Where to put it all?
On ninety nine percent of cruising boats, storage is going to be stacked. By that, I mean a good chunk of your storage space will be under a couch or bed cushions, under floors, or in deep lockers where multiple items will have to reside on top of each other.
It’s usually only on larger monohulls (55′ or more) that you’ll see a lot of pantry style cupboards or shelved closets like you see in a house. Most likely your boat will have only a couple small convenient spots like this, and you’ll naturally use them for items you access daily. The majority of your storage will be a little harder to get to. Boats are tight on space, so designers are amazingly creative in eeking storage from every available void, no matter how deep, where it is, or how hard it is to get to.
Smaller bins shine in this type of storage space. Tossing a couple dozen items into a locker under a settee is going to result in a jumbled mess. Splitting this space up with a few bins makes it modular and easier to get what you need out.
Making the most of the space onboard requires three tiers of thought.
1- Put the stuff you use the least on the bottom. Mostly self evident, but if you have a specialty tool that gets used only every a couple years, you will want to put that in a bin below the infrared thermometer gun you use to measure the engine temperature on every passage. The fourth or fifth time you have to pull all the bins from a locker to get something will be a prompt to shift stuff around and update the inventory.
If you want to sound really cool amongst cruisers, try to work the term “deep storage” into cocktail hour chatter. You’ll get knowing nods and prompt a few stories of hurt backs and piles of stuff all over the cabin during boat projects.
2- Put the heavy stuff on the bottom. A bit more of a challenge, but still important. Monohulls depend on the ballast in their keels to stay upright and sail well. Putting heavy stuff low and centered (especially keep weight out of the bow) will improve sailing performance. Catamaran performance suffers badly if there is too much weight high and/or in the bow or stern (the pointy parts). Do your best to keep weight low and in the middle of the boat.
On Half Moon I use the waterline as a guide. The boat will literally tip forward while at rest if there is too much weight at the bows. It’s very obvious when the bottom paint sinks below the surface. Other boaters will notice and you can expect good natured ribbing if you sink any part of your waterline. As a rule of thumb, put the spare linens and toilet paper up in the bows, cans of food and engine spares in the middle and low.
3- Put the stinky salty stuff in outside lockers. Not everyone will have this luxury, but if you have room; keep your dock lines, fenders, spare anchor, lines, kayak paddles, and fishing gear in an outdoor locker. When you’re at anchor you won’t always have enough fresh water to keep these items clean and they can become smelly in stowage. Salt water has a lot of life in it, which will quickly die and rot when pulled from the ocean. If you must bring anything that comes in contact with the water inside, save yourself some stank; clean and thoroughly dry your gear before you bring it inside. The aroma of rotting seaweed and decomposing fish blood will never improve the ambiance of a cabin.
Beyond those guiding principles, where you put stuff really doesn’t matter. Your inventory will guide you instantly to wherever “the item” is. It’s always nice to store like with like, but it can be very difficult to use space efficiently if you add like-with-like to all the other constrictions you face. With a good, up to date inventory, you can stow stuff wherever it makes the most sense.
Clothes. You could just sail naked.
But sometimes it gets cold. So we take care to store our clothes to make them last. The most important garment a sailor owns (besides a good bathing suit) is a foul weather jacket and matching pants. This outfit can be insanely expensive, and last a lifetime. Here in southern Mexico, we don’t use our foulies much, so they get carefully packed away between uses.
To prevent damage in storage first make sure foulies are totally rinsed of salt and as clean as possible. Let them hang dry in the shade until there is no hint of moisture left in the lining or creases. Fold carefully and stuff silica packets in each pocket, several inside each sleeve or leg, and toss a couple more in the torso area for good measure. Silica packets are cheap. Good foulies are not.
Slip the outfit in a thick clear plastic bag, press out the air, and carefully seal with water resistant tape. Put the package in the sun for an hour. If it’s still dry inside, go ahead and stow the package. If condensation appears, take the foulies back out of the bag and hang up that beautiful ensemble in the shade for another day. Repeat until no moisture appears in the bag.
If this sounds like a major PITA, well, yes it is. But a good set of foul weather gear can cost well over a thousand bucks. The gear can take massive abuse while on your body, and protect you from extreme conditions during a storm. The last thing you want is to reach for your jacket as a cold front rolls in and find the inside moldy or the waterproof skin permeable because of salt rot.
Beyond the critical foul weather gear storage, clothes are easy. Anything going into seasonal storage gets the foul weather gear treatment. If you haven’t yet purged all your fancy clothes requiring hanging, drape each garment you want to hang in it’s own dry cleaner bag. A trash bag with a hole popped in the bottom works well too.
This keeps the garments in your closet from rubbing against each other and pilling as the boat rocks. Silica packets are going to be important here since you’re trapping in moisture with the plastic. Stuff them generously in pockets, cuffs, and liners to keep the humidity down in your hanging tent. Storage in the bag longer than a month at a time will result in mold, so this is only for clothes that get worn regularly. For longer term storage, see above.
The bulk of your wardrobe is easy peasy. Fold and pop your everyday garb in a drawer or a locker. Whenever you do laundry (or a least every couple of months) take it all out and give less-used items a shake to get out any moisture and any mold spores thinking of sprouting.
Whenever possible, go naked. It saves laundry and wear on your wardrobe.
The crew of half moon is on the older end of the millennial generation, but we have fully embraced electronic gizmos in our lifestyle. We both get anxious if separated from our phones for more than five minutes, and our laptops are our most prized possessions (after wine, of course, lets be civilized here). Like most people our age we have phones, laptops, wireless speakers, kindles, bluetooth headsets, & portable battery packs to keep these whirly gigs going while away from a power source. Not a single one of these gizmos are designed to live in a salty world. To keep our little electronic friends humming, we stow them away anytime they’re not being used.
On Half Moon we use, wait for it, I bet you won’t be able to get this one…..BINS! And silica packets, and VIC paper. All chargers, little gadgets, and everything listed above live in air tight bins with a generous amount of silica and VIC when not in use.
Our laptops get used every single day, so for the sake of convenience they live in a padded backpack stowed in a above waterline locker with a secure lid. Above waterline is key because you will get condensation on the walls of a below waterline storage area. We honestly tried bins for the laptops, but it just didn’t stick because they get used so so much. While bins would be better, we’re human too, and stowing them in a zipped, padded backpack inside a tight locker works well enough.
I collect tools the way many women collect shoes. So yeah, there are a lot on board. Like the laptops, since tools get used so often, I do not use bins. Since I usually need to haul around tools en masse, they live in heavy duty canvas bags with canvas handles and plastic zippers.* To keep the tools stowed this way from rusting shut, make sure they are salt-free and dry before putting them away, and give each one a liberal coating with anti-corrosion spray or a wipe down with an oily rag with each use. If a bag goes more than a month or so without use, open it up to inspect, shuffle tools around, and give the contents a shot of anti-corrosion spray so the tools remember how much you love them.
Rust prevention is key with tools. Once rust sets in on snips, ratchets, or a knife, the tool will never be as good. It’s a real hassle to have to use two hands to pull a pair of pliers open when the internal spring is rusted into a solid coil. While it’s always ideal to have the best tools you can afford, the cheaper ones will perform surprisingly well if kept clean, dry, and well oiled inside their bags.
This could literally be a post on its own. The most important thing with food: DO NOT FEED THE BUGS. Think like the movie Field of Dreams. “If you feed them, they will come.” Grocery store packaging is woefully under designed for a pantry that moves. Bags of rice and flour will split open, packages of dried fruit will seep juice, and boxes of cookies are no match for the chompers on many coastal dwelling bugs. Save yourself the nightmare of bugs on board, and transfer anything that doesn’t come in a can to a Snapware container. Mike drop.
So there you have it. Yes, stowage on a boat is more work than storage in a house, but that’s just boat life. Everything is harder, but the rewards of a watery lifestyle waaaaayy more than make up for the brain and muscle power it takes to live comfortably.
The time you take to prep your supplies before stuffing things in lockers will pay dividends down the road. Make an inventory and keep it up to date so you can find things when you want them, especially in an emergency. Ditch factory packaging in favor of bins, silica packets, VIC paper, anti-corrosion spray, and tube socks.
Stow first in a logical manner with frequently used items on top, then consider the weight distribution onboard. Make sure your clothes, tools, and electronics are clean and dry before putting them away with care.
Most importantly, don’t feed the bugs. Happy stowing!
*Whenever possible, avoid buying metal zippers. The heads will corrode within a few months. If metal zippers are your only option, coat them with wax or a wipe of anti-corrosion spray to delay their demise.