Being able to quickly find the owner's manual you need: priceless! Except that my budget wasn't unlimited.

Taming the Paper Aboard

Our new-to-us boat came with a foot high stack of manuals in one locker, a notebook of engine info in another, a folder of documents on a shelf . . . and the seller handed me another stack that he’d brought from his house. Then we had the our Coast Guard documentation, Florida registration, and owner’s manuals from gear we brought aboard.

YIKES! We were drowning in paper!

Being able to quickly find the owner's manual you need: priceless! Except that my budget wasn't unlimited. An affordable way to organize them.On our previous boat, former owners had created a series of notebooks with binder pockets to organize all the material. The only problem was that the binder pockets were paper and tore fairly easily with the weight of the heavier manuals.

My first thought was to see if I could get similar folders but non-tearing plastic to use in notebooks and while I could (see picture at right), I also started figuring that between the cost of the notebooks and the not-exactly-cheap folders, this was going to get expensive quickly. I had a LOT to organize.

Instead, I found heavy-duty plastic 13-pocket accordion folders at the local Dollar General for under $4 each. These were also better since they had label tabs on them and could expand far further than the binder pockets.  I bought three. [Note: I later found similar folders at an office supply store for $13 each, so it does pay to shop around. If you can’t find them at a decent price otherwise, Amazon carries them for a little more than I paid – and you can get them in all one color.]

Then I started sorting the manuals into general piles – engine, galley, plumbing and toilet, etc. Then we delved deeper into each one, sorting by individual pieces of equipment and throwing away duplicate manuals (7 identical fans on the boat, 7 manuals – we really only needed one). In some cases, we found manuals for gear that was no longer on the boat (the original engine when she’d been repowered four years ago). Again, we got rid of it – no need to confuse ourselves when looking something up.

Then we put things into the accordion folders, labeled the tabs and I labeled the outside of the folders with what was inside. I tried to group like items together – here, galley gear, water systems (filters, hot water heater, watermaker, etc.) and the head. Being able to quickly find the owner's manual you need: priceless! Except that my budget wasn't unlimited. An affordable way to organize them.

We ended up with six folders, including one that has the boat documentation, state registration (boat and dinghy) and insurance. They fit nicely into a storage cubby at the foot of our bed – and with all the duplicates and no-longer-on-the-boat information removed, the stack is less than a foot high.

I also put a label with the general category on what would be the exposed side so that it was easier to just pull out the correct folder from the stack. Maybe someday I’ll do prettier labels but blue tape and a Sharpie worked well for now!

Being able to quickly find the owner's manual you need: priceless! Except that my budget wasn't unlimited. An affordable way to organize them.

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  • Pete Smalley
    Posted at 17 October 2014 Reply

    I have also started collecting electronic (PDF) versions of the documents I want to keep.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 17 October 2014 Reply

      We have some on PDF too, and find that we end up printing a page or two. So instead of throwing them out, we put those in the paper file, too.

  • Anne Ellingsen
    Posted at 17 October 2014 Reply

    We did this with our boat too. Works great

  • Trish Colton Vitaz
    Posted at 17 October 2014 Reply

    After sorting and organizing, I put everything in sheet protectors and into a couple of 3″ three-ring binder by subject. For small manuals that would slip easily out of the sheet protectors, I fashioned a “pouch” out of a zip lock bag with my food sealer and a three-holed punch. But, I DO like these folders better!! I’ll check them out at the Dollar Store.

  • Diane Dashevsky
    Posted at 17 October 2014 Reply

    Ahhhh yes…we get to start that tomorrow! LOL!

  • Anne West
    Posted at 17 October 2014 Reply

    For smaller manuals I have found that greeting card organizers are just the trick.

  • Mike O'Quin
    Posted at 17 October 2014 Reply

    I have used the web and my scanner to put all the manuals into PDF format (I still have paper for the important documents and engine). I even have the hand coffee grinder manual in PDF. I use DropBox to sync the manuals between my computer and iPads. All devices have a copy stored locally. If I need a page or pages from a book I just print it.

  • Monika Ludewig Bradley
    Posted at 17 October 2014 Reply

    Exactly how I organized the mess we inherited from our boat’s previous owner last year!

  • JB Writes
    Posted at 18 October 2014 Reply

    Some times I think a dedicated, retired iPad with a scanning app would be the way to go with that sort of project. I have about 500 books on my iPad and it’s not even 20% full, so I know they could hold the data.

  • Charles
    Posted at 22 October 2014 Reply

    When I worked aboard a tall ship, last year, that’s pretty much how all the manuals were kept. Electronics in one folder, plumbing/head stuff in another. The galley, being much more extensive than a yacht, had two folders. Each genset had a binder with service manual, shop manual and technical manual, with a maintenance schedule slipped into the sleeve on the cover. The main engine and transmission had two binders; one operator’s and maintenance manual, one technical manual (over 800 pages!!!) (Scania DI-12 650hp ME) Etc. etc. It took me almost two weeks to weed out all the manuals for items not present on the boat when I took over as Engineer. Uninstalled spares and back-ups had their manuals stored in their retail boxes to reduce confusion. Some of those spares are different brands or model numbers. Before I included reference books and catalogs from the likes of McMaster-Carr and Grainger, the collection of manuals required two milk-crates for storage; another milk-crate for the engineering logs for the previous 12 years, plus the catalogs, total document storage amounted to about 10 cubic feet. It makes me wonder if a following engineer ever managed to implement that documents shelf I thought up just beneath the overhead in the two-level engine room on the port side…

  • SV SeaGlub
    Posted at 11 May 2016 Reply

    We have this same growing problem aboard. I’m scared to get rid of paper owners manuals but the last couple of years we’ve been downloading pdf copies and low and behold when I need to check something I’m finding myself using the computer version. Even better is upgraded pdf files that let you highlight and type in notes. Not that I’ll get rid of them all but it’s certainly helping slow down the growth of the paper aboard.

  • Debie Petersen
    Posted at 12 September 2017 Reply

    I keep mine on my kindle.

    • SV Kuleana
      Posted at 12 September 2017 Reply

      I email the PDFs to my kindle too.

  • Mike Mershon
    Posted at 13 September 2017 Reply

    Appreciate the posts even while you are waiting to get back to you home. Thinking of all you on the east coast as things start to settle down. I see you were able to spot her on a satellite photo.

  • Kenneth Tobin
    Posted at 15 September 2017 Reply

    I download all the electronic versions of manuals and those not available I scan the manuals I have. I also keep a copy on a cloud service just in case something happens to my local storage. As long as I’m within cellphone or wifi range I can access all my documentation online. After a few water leaks and mold and mildew damage from stagnant air that destroyed both papers and books I only keep digital copies now. Baggies let in water unless taped shut. If you use foodsaver vacuum bags you end up destroying them when opening.

  • Sue Clancy
    Posted at 29 December 2017 Reply

    The previous owners of our boat set up a similar set of categories but put the manuals in standard hanging folders in a box like this. It stands up under one of the lazarette compartments. So nice to be organized.

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