The Ultimate Guide to the Mariner’s Essentials

A mariner needs to be prepared. When working offshore, what you brought with you is what you have. There are no shops where you can stock up on essentials. Therefore, all mariners have certain items they make sure to have with them before the mooring lines are cast off.

We asked a large group of mariners: “What is the item or items you simply can't live without?” From the replies, it is clear that out in the dark waters it is all about light. Most mariners agree that a flashlight or headlamp is the most indispensable item to have on-board.

The second most mentioned item essential for a mariner to have is a knife and/or a multi-tool. Let’s take a look at more items mariners find absolutely necessary.

  • Common Essentials
  • Electronic Essentials
  • Health Essentials
  • Personal Comfort Essentials
  • Equipment Essentials
  • Safety Essentials
  • Reading and Writing Essentials
  • Food Essentials
  • Other Essentials

  • Common Essentials

    This section looks at essential items every mariner should have in his/her possession while underway.

    Flashlight or headlamp

    By far the most mentioned essential item for mariners, especially engineers, to have when underway. “It is always a smart idea to have a personal light source on your person in case of emergencies,” says Dustin Blahnik.

    Flashlights are frequently used by engineers and crew for many reasons – such as for when there is a loss of power, emergencies, doing rounds, bridge watch, signaling other engineers in loud spaces, etc. The ideal flashlight to have onboard is a compact, durable, waterproof, rechargeable, LED flashlight (or headlamp with a red light function). Sometimes, a large, long-range flashlight is required.

    Mariners recommend Pelican and Streamlight brands of flashlights. Pelican is a reliable and safe choice. Streamlight is long lasting, tough and rechargeable. Check out the Streamlight Stylus Pro – a pocket-sized, water resistant, rechargeable penlight that gives off 90 lumens of light.

    It helps if the flashlight has a bright as well as low lumen setting. Some roles require a very bright light, while others (like bridge watch) demand a dimmer light or red light to keep your night vision. The Nitecore Tube is a tiny, lightweight, rechargeable, high-performance light with an adjustable lumen output.

    It is preferable to choose a USB rechargeable flashlight as it can be a hassle to find more batteries at sea. However, according to John Banister, Fenix brand of flashlights are “the best value for durable lights that use rechargeable 18650 lithium batteries.”

    “The headband flashlight is essential at night – especially with a minimum crew,” says Charles Coleman. “The person on watch may be the only crewmember who is awake and he needs both hands free to handle lines, winches, etc. while illuminating the work area with the flashlight. There are several economical types on the market.” Energizer has a range of powerful, lightweight LED headlights.

    Jordan Cuddy also recommends trying iProtec’s magnet-based flashlights. “[It has] a swivel function that allows for the beam to be at 90° or 180° in relation to the handle. This has been very convenient for work that requires two hands and light,” he says.

    The Solight Solarpuff Portable Compact LED Solar Lantern is also recommended.

    Rigging knife

    A small folding knife is must have for cutting lines. Ideally, the knife should have a built-in marlinspike, for untying knots, as well as a shackle key. It should also be sharp and have the capacity to cut through strong fiber lines.

    Mariners prefer West Marine’s Performance Rigging KnifeSpyderco’s Tusk Knife or Myerchin’s Captain Knife.


    Leatherman has very little competition when it comes to multi-tools. Most mariners will not leave shore without a skeleton multi-tool, like Leatherman’s 830850 Skeletool CX MultitoolGerber’s multi-tools are also recommended.

    Work boots

    Steel-toed boots are a safety requirement for mariners working on vessels. The nature of the work involves long hours on your feet and, therefore, choosing boots that are durable and comfortable is essential.

    Red WingKeenWolverine and Timberland are the popular brands chosen by mariners. “I had a few pairs of Red Wing brand boots – very durable and comfortable once broken in,” says Dustin Blahnik. “But, lately, I have been wearing Keen boots – comfortable right away and very durable. Especially in the toe, which is essential for watertight integrity. Keeping your feet dry is a must.”

    Also, check out Timberland’s PRO series work boots.

    Work gloves

    Gloves are essential for engineers, to prevent greasy hands, as well as for the crew working the lines. “Gloves are universal. Depending on the voyage one might need more than one type (work, insulated, etc.),” says Gary Carlson.

    It is good to have both durable leather/rubber gloves as well as some extra throw-away, nitrile gloves. Many mariners prefer Mechanix Wear high-performance work gloves.


    “Why? Forewarned is forearmed. If you can see a situation developing ahead, and have more time to think and prepare for it, you have a better chance to deal with it properly, safely,” says Captain Gary Spivack.


    The U.S Coast Guard requires that mariners carry their merchant marine documents, which includes a Merchant Mariner Credential and license, a TWIC card, a recent physical and drug screening, etc. A passport, with the necessary visas, is also essential to remember.

    Electronic Essentials

    Electronic equipment is essential for communication, navigation and entertainment on board a vessel. Technological advancements have changed the way in which seafarers navigate the vast waters. With the use of electronics, the vessel is connected and can communicate with the rest of the world.

    As most electronic equipment works with a battery, it is important to also remember the charger. A universal charging strip, with US, European and Japanese/Korean outputs, is recommended for compatibility with all ships.


    The main use of a cellphone on a vessel is not to make and receive calls. There is no network coverage on the ocean. But a smartphone, such as an iPhone, is a very important essential as it can carry navigational apps with preloaded maps that work without a signal.

    It is recommended to choose a global network plan for your cellphone to make and receive calls in foreign countries or when there is cell coverage.


    The main purpose of apps for a smartphone or tablet at sea is for navigation. There are numerous apps available for navigation, AIS, radar, weather, tides, compass, etc. Mariners use Transas iSailorNavionicsGPS KitNavigator GPSNavigation RulesTides PlannerStarPilot and others.

    “I also bought and maintain Transas iSailor app on my android. It's a decent app, but I like to have updated charts and an app on my phone for backup. I've used it once or twice in 6 years,” says Drew Kerlee.

    Marine VHF handheld radio

    Where there is no cell coverage, mariners communicate via a very high frequency (VHF) radio – like the Standard Horizon HX870 Floating 6W Handheld VHF with Internal GPS. In the case of a serious emergency, the VHF radio can save the lives of the crew and maybe the boat too. It is a mariner’s connection to the outside world and an essential lifeline. A handheld GPS is also essential.

    Laptop computer

    This is mostly essential for entertainment purposes. A personal laptop can store music and movies – either internally or on an external hard drive or flash drive. But it can also do so much more. A world compatible laptop USB TV tuner can be connected to the laptop and television can be received via a world compatible antenna. The entertainment experience can further be enhanced by connecting a slim projector and a speaker.

    Alarm clock and wristwatch

    The boat’s crew operate the vessel 24 hours a day during the voyage. Therefore, an alarm clock is absolutely essential to adhere to the watch schedule. You can use the alarm clock on your cellphone. Or you can opt for a projection alarm clock which projects the time on the bulkhead. Either way, make sure to remember a charger for the clock or your cellphone.

    A wristwatch is also essential for keeping track of time. “[My] favorite is a Casio with the plastic band because it will break if it gets caught in rotating machinery before your hand gets sucked in,” says Christopher Shannon.

    Captain Maggie Hallahan recommends the Apple Watch Series (with GPS and cellular) with a sport loop band.

    Tool Essentials

    If you are working as an engineer onboard a vessel, you require tools. Here are some of the tools and products engineering mariners find essential:

    • Wrench – small, medium and large Spud Wrench; or the Bahco fishtail adjustable wrench; or the Channellock 424 4.5" straight jaw tongue & groove plier.
    • Zip Ties – can fix many things.
    • Electrical Tape – has many uses (such as quick repairs, prevent a cut line from fraying, mark things and as a quick band-aid). “3M works the best for flexibility and adhesion although [it is] more expensive than some other brands,” says Geraldine Lampert.
    • Duct Tape – another great fixer of things.
    • Lubrication Products – Anti-Seize, Tef-Gel, Aqua-Lube.
    • Allen Keys
    • Screwdriver – a small, cordless screwdriver with a built-in light is ideal.
    • Grabber/Pick Up Tool – a long (at least 36”), flexible, claw-type grabber to pick up anything you may have dropped.
    • Thermometer – to check the engine temperature.
    • Multimeter – or a digital volt meter (DMV).
    • Rags – such as the blue and red rolls.

    Health Essentials

    One of the worst places to have a medical emergency is in the middle of the ocean. There’s probably no doctor onboard and definitely no floating pharmacy. It is essential that mariners take care of themselves while weathering the elements. Medical emergencies and general discomfort are best avoided by having some health essential items with you.

    Fresh water

    “Hydration is everything when working aboard a ship in extreme cold or heat or high seas,” says Meagan Klein. “Water and good rest (6-8 hours) is everything.”

    Mariners are best advised to take fresh drinking water. The more of it the better. Klein also takes a 36 oz. insulated water bottle with a lid. Water is the most important survival must-have.


    Out on deck, a mariner needs protection from the sun to avoid sunburn or even sunstroke. Continuous exposure to the sun is not good for the skin. A high-SPF sunscreen, such as Banana Boat Sunscreen SPF 50, is recommended.


    Any possible medical ailments should be prepared for by taking over-the-counter as well as enough prescription medication onboard. Mario Vittone recommends taking enough prescription medication for twice the expected voyage duration so that a minor breakdown does not turn into a medical emergency.

    Also, take a medicine kit with a variety of OTC medicines for everyday aches and pains. Include Pepto-Bismol, Ibuprofen, sea sickness tablets and antifungal creams or powder.

    Personal Comfort Essentials

    Shifts onboard vessels can be long and comfort is certainly key. Mariners listed many personal comfort items as essentials to have while underway.

    • Dry bag – for keeping extra clothes and other items dry. Like the Dry Bag Waterproof Floating Dry Gear Bags for Boating, Kayaking, Fishing, Rafting, Swimming, Camping and Snowboarding in 5-, 10-, 20- or 30-liter capacity.
    • Sunglasses – “I couldn't go out on my boat during the day without polarized sunglasses and a hat. Here, in the extremely bright south Florida sunshine, reflection off the water can be practically debilitating. Polarized sunglasses provide both sun and wind protection and improve visibility into the water,” says Captain Mikel Kline.
    • Prescription glasses – must be durable. “Reading glasses with hard to break titanium memory metal frames…and impact resistant polycarbonate lenses are a good combo when I can't go to the store for a replacement,” says John Banister.
    • Hat – essential sun protection. “I also keep a couple of Baseball style hats as the shield my face from both the sun and if wearing rain gear from the rain,” says David Mendenhall.
    • Knee Pads – “I am a QMED Oiler. So I learned to bring knee pads with me. Sure, a lot of stupid jokes but at the end of the day I am in less pain,” says Matthew. “I agree,” says David Mendenhall, “Troxell knee pads are on my boat always.”
    • Toiletries – a shaving kit, toothbrushes and -pastes, mouth fresheners, deodorant, toilet paper, bug spray (with DEET) and hand cleaner (engineers) are essentials.
    • Pillow – nothing like good rest. A Serta pillow is recommended.
    • Fan – to cool you down while you are sleeping. A box fan is bulky but will drown out noise. Alternatively, a small, rechargeable, portable fan.
    • Hot water bottle
    • Extras – of everything; especially socks, sunglasses, prescription glasses, a change of clothes, an extra belt and a spare flashlight.

    The temperature can change during a voyage from a hot summer to a freezing winter. It is important to be prepared to be comfortable in all potential climates and weather. It is essential to be warm and comfortable.

    Some clothing items mariners named essential are:

    • Socks – socks and more socks. They should be comfortable, durable and preferably steel-toed…and you should bring extra. “When you’re on your feet all day in steel-toed or safety shoes on steel decks, it’s important to take care of your feet,” says Meagan Klein. The Smartwool Mountaineering Socks are recommended during cold months.
    • Hoodie – for bridge watches.
    • Slip-on shoes
    • Work pants – “511 Tactical pants are super comfortable when working on deck and pretty cold resistant if you’re up in the north,” says Dylan Marohn.
    • Thermal underwear
    • Rain jacket – “One of the most important items I bring to the boat with me every watch is my rain jacket. For the 10+ years I've been sailing, I never forget my rain jacket because you never know when you'll get hit by the random rain shower,” says Lindsay Price – who chose the Women's Arcadia Rain Jacket by Columbia.

    Equipment Essentials

    Essentials for operating and maintaining the vessel includes:

    • Compass – a range/bearing hand compass.
    • Rope ascenders – for mast work.
    • Line – different lengths, diameters and materials.
    • Bungee cords
    • Ratchet Straps
    • Vacuum cleaner – Craftsman’s Wet-Dry Vacuums are recommended.
    • Swim goggles – “With all the debris in the water these days, getting a fouled anchor, screw or clogged sea chest is becoming a problem,” says Rob Katz.
    • Spare parts – just in case.
    • Fuel

    Safety Essentials

    Worst case is a man overboard situation or an abandon ship scenario. It goes without saying that all vessels need to carry certain safety essentials to safeguard the lives of the crew in the eventuality of a serious emergency.

    Important safety essentials – that should be onboard every vessel – include personal floatation devices (PDFs – a.k.a. life jackets), an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and a survival raft. Students and sailing instructors are required to wear their PFD on training missions.

    Mariners recommend choosing a PFD with an integrated harness – such as the Mustang Survival Corp Inflatable PFD with HIT (Auto Hydrostatic) and Harness, or the West Marine Offshore Automatic Inflatable Life Jacket with Harness. “When we sail at night, we require all crew on deck to tether to a jack line. The integrated harness makes that easier,” says Bill Royall. Also check out Mustang Survival’s Anti-Exposure Flame Resistant Flotation Suit, which provides protection against hyperthermia.

    Stacy DeLoach carries a 24-gallon garbage bag inside a small Ziplock bag in case of a man overboard emergency. The garbage bag can be filled with air; or can be wrapped around the legs (while wearing a life jacket) to slow hyperthermia; or can be used to wrap an injury to slow the amount of blood into the water.

    Charles Coleman finds a GPS tracking device essential in case of an emergency. “The SPOT locator uses both GPS and communications satellites to send position reports to the SPOT mainframe computer. The reports are then sent via email to pre-programmed email addresses. I always program the email address of the boat owner, family members of the crew, etc. and we send a position report at the beginning of every 4-hour watch,” says Coleman.

    Some safety essentials can prevent water from coming into the boat and help keep the ship afloat. Plastic sheets (15”x15” and 15"x30”) is useful in the event of a breach, according to Captain Maggie Hallahan. A manual bilge pump is also recommended as battery power is not always guaranteed. But, if all else fails, paddles is the essential item to have.

    Safety essentials for technicians may include safety gear – like fire retardant bulwark coveralls, earmuffs (like 3M’s range of earmuffs), helmets and/or safety shoes. Also, a face hood can protect the face and nose from paint and chips flying in the wind.

    Reading and Writing Essentials

    “In my opinion, a mariner should always have any kind of a book – like a novel or historical book. Whichever he/she likes. A 40-day voyage can easily pass because of these books. Books are also necessary for people to forget about bad events,” says Yaşar Durukan Yurddaş.

    Most mariners agree that books are an essential item to pass the time with, and some prefer reading books to watching movies. It can be physical books, audiobooks or eBooks on a personal electronic device (PED). The Kindle Paperwhite E-reader is popular with mariners.

    Other reading and writing materials mariners named essential are:

    • USCG Rules of Navigation – required by the USCG.
    • Logbook – essential for the captain of the ship to have.
    • Personal notebook – containing addresses, passwords and/or a personal log.
    • Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book – for the current year.
    • Paper charts – local and destination.
    • Instructional manuals – essential for owners/operators of smaller vessels which do not have a technician onboard. For example, Boatowner's Mechanical and Electrical Manual: How to Maintain, Repair, and Improve Your Boat's Essential Systems.
    • Shop manuals – for everything with moving parts.
    • Hand-written telephone numbers of emergency contacts/family members – “Cell phones have these programmed. What if you lose or damage your phone? Have this stuff written on, preferably, a waterproof notepad or laminated paper,” says Nicholas Douglas.
    • Black permanent marker – Sharpie is recommended.
    • Cheap, ballpoint pens – “They always disappear. If I bring a box of a dozen with me then I don't have to worry about going to anyone else for replacements,” says John Banister.

    Food Essentials

    Naturally, every mariner will have an essential food item he/she cannot be without. Here are the items they mentioned:

    • Coffee – most essential food item - next to fresh water. Your own coffee mug, a pot/whistling kettle and a camp stove are also essentials to make coffee.
    • Pressure cooker – saves time and propane.
    • Energy drinks – such as Monster for a watch shift.
    • Chewing gum
    • A case of soda – like Coke.
    • Nutiva Organic Shortening – is not only good for cooking without oil products, but can also be used as a skin moisturizer.

    Other Essentials

    Some more things mariners listed as essential items are:

    • Common sense – “From my point of view, if you have a device or equipment it doesn’t matter in emergencies. The most important thing a mariner requires is common sense and mental stability to look into the situation,” says Pavanvasa.
    • A good first mate – “I would like to have a first mate who is quiet, listens to me, asks good questions and knows where every tool is,” says Brian Quin.
    • A dog
    • A rosary
    • Anchor rode – that it is properly stowed and ready to go.
    • A gym – “Getting underway and getting out of shape is a morale killer,” says Ed Gamboa.
    • Free internet
    • Musical instruments – such as a guitar or harmonica.
    • Waterproof/underwater camera – with WiFi so that it can be viewed via an app.


    Essential items are different for every mariner – depending on his/her personal needs and his/her role on the vessel. When asked, mariners are hard-pressed at naming just a few essential items. That is because everything onboard is essential. If it isn’t, it probably doesn’t belong onboard.

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    Captain Ed Huntley - January 8, 2018 Reply

    Your list was excellent. And you could actually carry most of those items on a medium size vessel. 10 years as a merchant seaman and three years as a tow boat captain have tought me the importance of being prepared.

    Capt B. - January 9, 2018 Reply

    Small correction on the lights, 18650 Lithium batteries are not AA sized. The sizing works as the first two digits being the diameter in mm, then the remainder in length, 18mm diameter, 650mm long.

    18650’s are one of the best bang for the buck rechargable batteries for size & performance. They typically are used in lights that would otherwise use two CR123 lithium batteries off the shelf. (not a rule though, CR123’s are closer to 16 or 17mm so fit issues come into play)

    The AA size lithium battery would be a 14500. Although it’ll be 3.6V and not a standard AA 1.5V so you should be certain whatever light you’re putting it in can handle the higher volatage (which many LED lights can).

    Great advice on the Nitecore Tube & Fenix recommendations!

    Capt. Gary - January 9, 2018 Reply

    I congratulate whoever came up with the idea to poll a bunch of mariners for their most important gear recommendation. And I admire the people who sorted through all the email responses and organized the article-excellent work. I believe there is a great amount of knowledge gained from all those who participated-so a big “thank you” to the participants. It’s collective intelligence like this that makes us all wiser and safer.

    Steven Sheerin - January 10, 2018 Reply

    great article, always something learn

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