Warning: this is a long article - because it explains a lot about why and how to get started organizing your own boating information digitally in a way that can save you lots of time and probably money. It's a story of a problem (which you may not even know yet that you have) and a perfect solution.
The Need for Information
If you own a boat, you have a need for boat information - a fact that shouldn't need explaining. How to fix this, maintain that, replace this other, buy the best one of these, etcetera etcetera. Lots of good books are available, but to answer any question that may come up, you'd need a library's worth - and carry them with you on the boat in case the engine mysteriously doesn't start or you change plans and need information about a different harbor for the night. Books are heavy and don't like the wet.
Often the most critical information is needed right now, right here on the boat - and every cruiser knows how the lack of information can bring everything to a grinding halt. For example, a few years ago I had just begun a 2-week cruise in Maine when the transmission on my classic old diesel engine started slipping badly. Bad enough that the boat could barely fight the tidal current keeping me out of a quaint little harbor. The next day it was slipping even worse, so I knew I had to act. Never having dealt with my ancient Paragon transmission, the details of which were not included in any of my manuals onboard, I was forced to start phoning mechanics, the first four of whom told me the transmission had to be rebuilt. No way to adjust it? No, they said - got your credit card?
My cruise was being canceled. I needed information - now. (The story continues....)
Since virtually all boaters now cruise with a laptop, the perfect solution is to carry all the information you may need in electronic storage. You can bring along the equivalent of thousands of books in fewer gigabytes than you'll ever miss. Just source the information you may need and have it ready and waiting when you need it - a process not nearly as complicated as it may sound.
Why not just google for information when you need it? First, wi-fi is not always available, and even G3 and G4 connectivity, as of this writing, are sporadic in many boating areas. Worse, it can simply take forever to sift through online information, as you probably already know. In my crisis, I spent 3 hours at anchor sifting search results about Paragon marine transmissions and still couldn't find what I wanted to know. (The story continues....)
Sources of Information
Here's the part that takes some advance preparation: gathering information you may need someday into an appropriate digital location easily searched long after you forgot you put it there.
Boaters my age remember when most information came on paper and you had to clip it from a magazine and file it in organized folders for later use. In the first four years of owning my present sailboat, for example, I saved everything I read that might be of use some day, such as how to bleed my fuel injectors, service my type of winches, replace wiring, unstop a clogged head, purify water in the tanks - literally the thousands of things one might need to do on a medium-size cruising boat. This soon filled a 4-drawer filing cabinet. (And yes, when I got home from the cruise described above, I found in a folder there an email about how to fix my slipping transmission that I'd clipped years ago. Two problems: it wasn't with me on the boat, and I had forgotten I even had it. Both solved with my new digital system aboard - read on....)
You don't even have to go looking for boat information. You just need to be ready to clip it when you come across something that may be of value someday - and put it where it's easily found (on the boat). You are reading this right now in digital form, for example. This article - and many hundreds on this website alone - could be in your personal database within seconds, using software like I describe below. Are you on any email lists with other sailors, such as owners of your type of boat or others with similar interests? If so, then you know that tons of information is passed on everyday among sailors - and again, it takes only a second to clip the good stuff and file it away.
Here's another hint. You don't even have to read the email lists to find tons of information, since most lists are archived online - and once you've grabbed all that digital information for your database, you have it for instant recall aboard if needed.
Once back from my failed-transmission cruise, after I set up my personal cruising database, I added into it the last 5 years of email conversations within a group of sailors with the same make of boat. Each year's correspondence amounted to over 5000 pages - a huge library of information mostly about boats like mine. (Can you guess what I found when I did a quick digital search for my Paragon transmission problem?)
Keep it Organized and Searchable
Key to making your own boat information system work is to use software for easily clipping digital data (including photos, web links, video, and text in any format) and putting it where you can later find it without having to develop an elaborate filing system or tag every item. Microsoft's OneNote program, which became part of Office in 2010, is an excellent program for PCs; Mac users have recommended the similar program Evernote.
OneNote is easy to use, expands perhaps infinitely as you add more into it, and is easily searched. You paste anything into it on a page in a folder in a notebook - but even that is too complicated-sounding for how easy it is. Keep it on your computer (it will sync across devices) and whenever you read something, anything, that might be useful someday, just clip and file. Don't hold back. Maybe in 5 years you'll find yourself in Paris remembering something you read in the NY Times about chartering a canal boat - and in under a second you have that article you read 5 years ago and the phone number of the guy to call. Or more likely, you won't even remember that you clipped the article but will just search "Paris" and be impressed by how, 5 years ago, you just knew you'd want to know about canal boat chartering right now.
The end of my story and the start of my database. Not having the vital transmission information on my boat, and unable to locate it by googling - and unwilling to hand over a couple thousand bucks to mechanics who said there was no choice but to rebuild - I took the dinghy to shore and met a guy in a bar who took me to see a friend living on his boat who just happened to be maybe the best mechanic in Maine. (Don't count on that type of thing happening very routinely - that's why you need the info!) In 5 minutes he showed me how to make the adjustment that stopped the slipping - and saved me bunches of dollars and let me continue my cruise.
So... at home a month later, I searched in my file cabinet for an hour and found the crumbling old paper that described exactly how to fix it myself. Then I start searching files on my desktop computer (where long ago I used to squirrel away digital data I happened upon in Word files) and found another email, buried among lots of docs tucked into lots of chaotic folders, that also had this key information.
All those files got dumped into OneNote, and for a couple years since I've added thousands more things - you never know what you may need to know all of a sudden. And it's all on a cheap laptop on my boat where now, at last, I can find it and anything else I may ever want to know in about 2 seconds. I think of this as my personal freedom of information act, and it's already saved me countless hours and dollars.