Interview with Nigel Calder and Jan Athenstadt of BoatHowTo.com

By: American Sailing, online course, Safety

American Sailing sat down with Nigel Calder, author of the best-selling ‘Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual’ and co-founder of BoatHowTo.com before the two-part online class series, Trouble Free & Optimized Electric Systems and Diesel Engine Fundamentals.

American Sailing

American Sailing:
If you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice about boat maintenance, what would it be?

Nigel Calder:
Be anal about fuel cleanliness. Dirty fuel is the #1 cause of engine problems, and the engine is our ace in the hole to get us out of trouble both geographic (we are about to be driven onto a reef) and electrical (the batteries are dead and need to be recharged).

Jan Athenstadt:
I’m still pretty young, but if I would start my liveaboard life again, I would recommend myself to make sure the boat is safe and the technical systems in good working order and then go, without putting too much effort into making an old boat look beautiful. That nice varnish in the cockpit will look shabby anyway after a few months in the sun, so you might as well just let the teak go grey. But reliable systems are your life insurance, so focus on these!


American Sailing

American Sailing:
Is there one horror story that you recall when it comes to obvious neglect when it comes to maintaining a boat?

Nigel Calder:
Not exactly a horror story. We wiped out the bearings in our windlass (failed seal) and had to devise a mechanism to haul up our 66lb Rocna anchor and all chain rode using winches for the rest of the summer. This severely stressed our declining physical capabilities (we are both in our seventies and I have two ruptured discs in my back) and made retrieving the anchor a tricky proposition at times. It significantly impacted our cruising until I could obtain repair parts (for the following year).

Jan Athenstadt:
In Portugal, I met a guy who had encountered every imaginable problem in his first two months of sailing: fire on board, engine damage, fouled fuel tank, electrical problems, ripped sails, structural bulkhead damage, and he almost ended up on the rocks if the coast guard would not have saved him. At first, I thought he had particularly bad luck, but later I realized that he had an almost pathological optimism and was always assuming that things would magically work out for him, instead of taking necessary precautions. Of course, you can only prepare so much and at some point, you have to cast off the lines. But I think that it is good seamanship to anticipate problems before they arise.


American Sailing

American Sailing:
What is the most common preventative maintenance measure a boat owner can take that is usually ignored?

Nigel Calder:
Wash out the siphon break valve if the boat has a vented loop on the diesel engine (almost all sailboat owners). A failure to periodically wash this valve has led to many saltwater floodings of engines, resulting in the wrecking of many of these engines.

Jan Athenstadt:
I agree with Nigel’s answer about this. And maybe check your thru-hulls for signs of corrosion, especially if you have a European-built boat.


American Sailing

American Sailing:
What is your number one must-have spare part that every sailor should have on their boat?

Nigel Calder:
It has changed over the years. It is now three! A spare starter motor to guarantee I can crank the engine, a spare alternator to guarantee I can generate electricity, and a spare windlass motor, to guarantee I can retrieve the anchor without doing in my back!

Jan Athenstadt:
For me personally, it would probably be a spare laptop, so I can keep working on the BoatHowTo videos in case my current one takes a bath on a dingy ride… 😉


American Sailing

American Sailing:
Can any boatowner realistically be their own mechanic or electrician while afloat?

Nigel Calder:
Yes, but it is getting harder because we all continue to add more and more equipment in order to have a lifestyle on board with all the comforts of home. Most of the equipment can be handled with the same mechanical and electrical skills we needed 40 years ago, other than electronics, which is a highly specialized field beyond the capabilities of most of us. We need to ensure we have workarounds for critical electronic equipment (such as paper charts in case the chartplotter fails).

Jan Athenstadt:
I think there is no other option than to be as self-reliant as possible, especially when venturing to places where professional boat technicians are rare or non-existent. Of course it is impossible to be able to fix every single problem on the boat by yourself, but having basic knowledge of troubleshooting and a backup plan in mind for whenever something goes wrong is part of good seamanship. And can be very empowering.


American Sailing

American Sailing:
In your experience, what are the most common mistakes boat owners make with their engines and electrical systems?

Nigel Calder:
Engines: a lack of attention to fuel cleanliness and, in many cases, neglect of basic maintenance. If properly installed and maintained, diesel engines are extremely reliable and long-lived. Our forthcoming diesel engine course is designed to ensure engines live up to their full potential.

Electrical systems: a failure to understand overcurrent protection, which results in many potentially unsafe installations. Unfortunately, There are common installation mistakes made by boatbuilders and installers of which the boatowner is unaware and which need to be rectified. One of our core purposes with BoatHowTo is to provide the necessary knowledge to fix these things.

Jan Athenstadt:
I had always thought that boat fires from the electrical system were mostly caused by boatowners tinkering with the wires. However, when we worked with a major insurance company to discuss their claims, I was surprised and shocked to realize that the majority of these fires were caused by simple mistakes made by the boatbuilders. Most of these fires could have been prevented with just a bit more care in planning and no extra costs. This is one of the reasons we are now including boatbuilders and boatyards as target audiences for our courses.


American Sailing

American Sailing:
Beyond this course, what resources would you recommend for people who want to learn more about boat maintenance and repair?

Nigel Calder:
Keep a copy of my ‘Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual’ on board! Though I say so myself, it is an essential reference manual. I have one and use it quite often. I have screwed up jobs on my own boat and then read in my own book not to do what I have just done!!

Jan Athenstadt:
I had Nigel’s book on my boat before I met him. It’s actually complementing our courses really well. You can use the courses to learn the basics and set up your system and then have the book on board as a reference whenever you need to look up something and don’t have internet access.


American Sailing

American Sailing:
What surprised you most about the learning process when developing this online course?

Nigel Calder:
From a content perspective, I have not learned much – this has been a more-or-less 40-year knowledge dump on my part. What has been amazing is how easy and beneficial it has been working with Jan! I am something of a Luddite when it comes to computers. Jan is brilliant at this side of things. We have marvelously complimentary skillsets and knowledge. We did not know each other when Jan first contacted me (BoatHowTo was his idea, although I have wanted to do something like this for years but could not find the right partner). We worked together for a couple of years solely through Zoom and email before we met for the first time (in Sardinia, where Jan had his boat on the hard). It has been a totally positive relationship with zero frustration and tension.

Jan Athenstadt:
I am incredibly grateful to be able to work with Nigel on this project. Without his decades of knowledge and experience, this would not have been impossible. In addition, I am amazed at how well-aligned we are with our goals and values. Both on a professional and on a personal level. We both want to create something meaningful and lasting that gives the best possible experience for our students at a fair price. We are not in this for a quick buck. The downside to this approach is of course, that it often takes way longer than anticipated to create the video lessons. But we want to make sure to have content that is 100% correct and presented in the best possible way. And so far it looks like has been well worth the effort!


American Sailing

American Sailing:
What are some unique features of the course that you’re particularly excited about?

Nigel Calder:
It’s the fusion of the written word with Jan’s online and graphical skills. Being online, we can directly interact with our audience through the Q&A process. We can also easily update the written side of our content (the video, not so much) which is very unlike the print world. In the future, when we do major revisions, we will take the questions and use them as a mechanism to tell us where we need to add new content. Initially, our target audience was cruising sailors. Still, it is very gratifying to find many professionals are also using the courses, including surveyors, boatyard technicians, and trade schools teaching this material to the next generation of technicians.

Jan Athenstadt:
Our Boat Electrics 101 course is the only resource I know of that will not only teach you the basics of boat electrical systems, but then also guide you through the complete process of planning a new system or a major rewiring job. With the course comes an Energy Systems Planning tool and a detailed explanation on how to use web-based software to draw wiring diagrams. We even developed our own library of symbols for this software that our students get access to. All of this is demonstrated on three example boats of increasing complexity so our course should cover pretty much any boater’s needs.


American Sailing

American Sailing:
Beyond the course itself, do you offer any opportunities for students to interact with you directly, ask questions, or access additional support resources to help them put their learnings into practice, either after completing this course or in future classes?

Nigel Calder:
Yes, we answer all the questions we get from subscribers, although we may have to put some limit on this in the future!

Jan Athenstadt:
So far the comment section below our lessons works well as a place for exchange with us and between the students. Of course, we cannot provide a 1-on-1 consultation for specific projects of our students, but we do our best to answer any question related to the lesson’s content. This has worked pretty well so far.


American Sailing

American Sailing:
What is one compelling reason why boat owners should educate themselves on Electrical Systems and Diesel Engine Fundamentals?

Nigel Calder:
Reliable systems are fundamental to the enjoyment of our boats. The necessary knowledge is within the capabilities of most boat owners. There is also considerable satisfaction in achieving trouble-free (from a systems perspective) boating from one season to another. On the other hand, unreliable systems are one of the key reasons people give up boating.

Jan Athenstadt:
I can only second Nigel on that.  I think that it is incredibly empowering to know how your boat’s systems work and to have the confidence and capability to fix things if they don’t.

Want to Set Sail with Confidence?

Don’t miss the exclusive opportunity to learn from the best in the business, Nigel Calder and Jan Athenstadt, in their upcoming online classes on boat electrical systems and diesel engine fundamentals.

MAR 12 & 14 • 4:30PM PT
Electrical Systems – 2-Part Series

In this 2-part online class series, dive into solving boat electrical issues and maximizing solar power benefits for onboard life.

APR 9 & 23 • 4:30PM PT
Diesel Engine Fundamentals – 2-Part Series

In this 2-part online class series, tackle core engine maintenance while uncovering advanced troubleshooting techniques.

Garmin