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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Not all boats are created equal. Some are built to high standards by people who care about what they’re doing. Others are not. This is as true today as it was half a century ago, when boatbuilders took their first tentative steps along the untrodden path of fiberglass construction.

Because their builders erred on the side of caution with this new and strange material, those early fiberglass hulls tended to be overbuilt, which is why so many 1960s boats are still alive and kicking. Back when all boats were built of wood, they tended to pass on quietly when their allotted lifespan was up. Some were built to last 20 years, and went on for 50; others hung in there for a century or more. But sooner or later the effort involved in keeping them afloat exceeded the pleasure to be had from sailing them (or, in the case of workboats, the money they earned).

When a wooden boat went to the great harbor in the sky, it was either broken up, burned, or left on a mudbank to decompose, its ribs and backbone gradually crumbling away. Either way, after a while there was no sign of it left.

This is not the case with a fiberglass boat. The material just doesn’t decay, which means anything made of it hangs around for a very long time. This is something of a problem. On the one hand you’ve got a seemingly inexhaustible supply of old boats, which in theory provides an inexpensive means for people like us to get out on the water.

On the other hand, you’ve got an inexhaustible supply of money-pits, for what many people don’t seem to realize is that with a glass boat—any boat—the hull is usually the least of your worries. It’s the parts inside it and on top of it that cost the real money. Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s will recall that along with flares, platform shoes and Mexican moustaches, ferro-cement boats were the height of fashion. These gray hulks were cheap and easy to build and seemed to spring out of nowhere. They promised an easy entry into the brotherhood of the seas but most didn’t make it past the slathering-cement-onto-chickenwire stage. What their owners hadn’t taken into account is that the hull is maybe 20 percent of the cost of a boat; the rest of the money goes into engine, electrics, plumbing, joinery, sails, rigging and the hundred and one other things that make up the finished sailboat. The same goes for a steel boat or a fiberglass boat.

Since long-lasting hulls were the easy part, there were (and are) lots of other opportunities for builders to skimp a little, and thereby increase what has always been a tight profit margin. This is why it’s important to do some homework when you’re looking at a project boat, or even a boat that’s only a few years old. Talk to other owners; thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier to get in touch with them. Countless owner’s associations have their own sites. Ask a surveyor about the make and model of boat you’re considering – they usually don’t hold back in their opinions. Just don’t make the mistake of believing that all boats suffer from the same problems, or that all ‘60s or ‘70s or ‘80s boats were built to the same standards.

When you’re faced with re-coring a deck because the builder didn’t bed the fittings properly; when water drips in through a hull-deck joint that was riveted, not throughbolted; when the only way of getting a dead engine out is to take a Sawzall to the cockpit sole because the builder didn’t allow for the fact that it might one day need to be replaced; that’s when you truly come to realize that some boats are less equal than others.

There are plenty of great old boats out there that are worth every penny and every hour you’ll put into them. Don’t waste your time on one that’ll always be second-rate.

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