Unlock Trouble-Free Sailing: Expert Insights from Jan Athenstadt and Nigel Calder on Boat Maintenance Essentials

By: American Sailing, online course, Safety

As a seasoned sailor, I have had my share of “issues” on a boat. Most of my major events have occurred on charter vessels where I was at the mercy of a charter company. On my own personal boat, the known issues that are always being addressed drive some anxiety but are mitigated with attention and maintenance. American Sailing has reached out to experts in the field of engine maintenance and electrical systems to provide our members with advice, tips, and instructions on how to best identify and fix some common issues that sailors face.

In the ever-evolving world of sailing and boat maintenance, American Sailing is set to launch a new online class focused on Trouble Free & Optimized Electrical Systems and Diesel Engine Fundamentals. At the helm of this two-part series are two seasoned experts, Jan Athenstadt and Nigel Calder, whose combined wealth of knowledge promises a valuable learning experience for boaters of all levels.

American Sailing interviewed Jan and Nigel in advance of their online class and their answers are both informative and entertaining.

Jan Athenstadt

Jan comes across as pragmatic with a deep-rooted passion for sailing, particularly regarding the maintenance and operation of boats. As a young enthusiast turned seasoned sailor, Jan’s journey is a testament to the importance of prioritizing functionality over aesthetics and the empowerment that comes from self-reliance at sea.

Nigel Calder

Nigel is a revered figure in the maritime world and is known for his extensive expertise in boat maintenance, troubleshooting, and self-sufficiency at sea. With a career spanning over four decades, Calder’s insights are not just theoretical but are deeply rooted in firsthand experiences and the practical realities of sailing.

When asked about the advice they would give their younger selves regarding boat maintenance, Nigel Calder emphasized the critical importance of fuel cleanliness, stating, “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).” On the other hand, Jan Athenstadt reflected on prioritizing functionality and safety over aesthetics, advising, “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!” 

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!

Nigel Calder

Both pieces of advice, though coming from different perspectives, converge on the importance of prioritizing the fundamental aspects of boat maintenance that ensure safety and reliability, underscoring the essence of practical and preventative care in the realm of seafaring.

Neglecting Your Vessel

Recalling their experiences with the consequences of neglect in boat maintenance, both Jan and Nigel shared compelling stories. Jan recounted meeting an individual in Portugal whose initial sailing adventures were fraught with many issues, including a fire onboard, engine damage, and structural failures, nearly leading to disaster had it not been for a Coast Guard intervention. He observed that the sailor’s optimistic assumption that things would “magically work out” underscored a lack of necessary precaution and preparation. Nigel, on the other hand, shared a personal challenge when the bearings in his windlass were destroyed due to a failed seal, forcing him and his partner to haul their heavy anchor manually for an extended period. This not only posed a physical challenge, given their age and health conditions but also significantly affected their cruising plans. 

The Spare Essentials

Regarding maintenance, Jan aligns with experts like Nigel, emphasizing the importance of routine checks, such as inspecting thru-hulls for corrosion. When asked about indispensable spare parts, Jan humorously notes a spare laptop for his work on BoatHowTo videos, highlighting his commitment to education even in the face of potential mishaps. When asked about his number one spare part to have on board, he could not narrow it down to just one: A spare starter motor, A spare alternator, and a spare windlass.

Can Every Sailor Be A Boat Mechanic?

When discussing the essential skills every boat owner must possess, Nigel and Jan both emphasize the importance of self-reliance and adaptability. Nigel acknowledges the increasing complexity of modern boats, stating, “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.” He suggests that while most equipment requires the same basic mechanical and electrical skills as in the past, the specialized nature of modern electronics often necessitates workarounds, like keeping paper charts as backups for electronic failures. Jan reinforces the necessity of self-reliance, especially in remote areas, asserting, “I think there is no other option than to be as self-reliant as possible.” He advocates for a proactive approach to troubleshooting and the importance of having a backup plan, considering it not only a part of good seamanship but also an empowering aspect of sailing. Together, their insights underline the critical need for boat owners to cultivate a broad skill set that combines traditional mechanical and electrical knowledge with innovative solutions to navigate the challenges of modern boating.

“I think there is no other option than to be as self-reliant as possible.”

Jan Athenstadt

Educational Contributions

Calder’s “Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual” is a testament to his commitment to educating sailors, serving as an essential onboard reference. His involvement in developing online courses, in collaboration with Jan Athenstadt, is a significant extension of this commitment, leveraging his vast knowledge and Jan’s technological expertise.

Their upcoming courses are not just about imparting technical knowledge; it’s about fostering a community of informed sailors. Athenstadt and Calder are excited about the interactive elements of their Boat Electrics 101 course through BoatHowTo.com including the unique Energy Systems Planning tool and the opportunity for direct engagement with students. Their shared vision is to empower boat owners with the confidence and skills to maintain and troubleshoot their vessels, ensuring safer and more enjoyable sailing experiences.

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.

These classes represent a significant opportunity for boat owners to delve deep into the intricacies of engine maintenance and electrical systems, guided by two of the most knowledgeable and passionate professionals in the field. Whether you’re a seasoned sailor or just starting out, these classes will offer invaluable insights, practical advice, and the chance to learn from the best in the business.


To delve deeper into the wealth of knowledge and experience shared by Nigel and Jan, don’t miss our exclusive interview where we explore their insights on an assortment of topics. From lessons learned through years of sailing to indispensable advice on preventative boat maintenance and common pitfalls that boat owners should avoid. Read along as we pick their brains and uncover more about their adventures, expertise, and tips for successful and safe sailing.

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