Name any mistake that could be made when working on a boat, and if I haven’t made it myself, I’ll know someone who has. Between my extensive (and often expensive) hands-on research and the number of “if-only-I’d-done-it-the-other-way” stories I’ve listened to, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about the things that make refitting or upgrading a boat either a dream project or a nightmare scenario. So, I suspect, have some of the people who will buy this magazine. If your first old boat still lies ahead of you, then welcome to the club.
There is no doubt that the best way to own a boat you can’t afford is to buy one that needs work. Look at the ads in the brokerage pages and on the Internet. Whether you’re after a $100,000 bluewater boat or a $10,000 coastal cruiser, you’ll find a huge disparity in asking prices for what seem like identical boats. The differences are almost always related to condition, and often the work that’s needed is only a matter of cosmetics. This means that there are some incredible bargains waiting for you out there. There are also some dreadful money pits. Hopefully you’ll find enough advice within these pages to help you tell the one from the other.
With this magazine we also want to help you delve a bit deeper into the fabric of your boat and build the confidence to carry out work that you might otherwise leave to professionals. There are many small projects on a boat that can safely and easily be carried out by the handy amateur. All it takes is the willpower and the time. With boatyard labor rates running up to $80 and more per hour, doing the bulk of your own work makes a lot of sense. And then there’s the satisfaction that springs from it. One piece of advice that I wish someone had given me before I gutted my first boat and then spent three years putting it back together was this—prioritize. By this I mean work out what the most important aspects of the boat are, and tackle them first. Number one is obviously the hull and appendages. Number two, steering. Number three, propulsion—engine and rig, not necessarily in that order. If you attend to these three priorities, you can put the boat in the water and enjoy some sailing in between all those other jobs like painting, varnishing, upgrading deck gear, and adding electronics. It’s important to keep the motivation up by sampling the end product once in a while.
Refitting or improving a boat can be enormous fun. It’s work, sure, but it’s the kind of work that doesn’t really seem like work, so you don’t begrudge doing it. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s because you haven’t started such a project yet. Unlike the work we have to do in order to make it through life, work on boats is done in order to enjoy life.
Over the last couple of years, several boatbuilders have told me about a new type of customer whose outlook on boats is, well, a little bit different from the one I’ve grown up with. This new breed is a kind of delayed-action baby boomer—let’s call them New Urban Boaters, or NUBs. The powerboating world has always been full of them, but only recently have they begun to infiltrate sailing.
Typically, NUBs have discovered sailing late in life. Most sailors I know have grown into boat ownership after crewing on parents’ or friends’ boats, and they’ve usually started with smaller, older boats. Often they’ve progressed via a series of boats, each a little bigger or better than the last, until they find one they want to keep. The NUB hasn’t got the time for any of that. He wants a big shiny brand-new boat, crammed with every conceivable extra, and he wants it right now.
I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with this. After all, instant gratification has almost become a birthright. The thing is, the NUB tends to expect the same things from his expensive boat that he expects from his Mercedes or his Lexus. He puts gas in his cars but never expects to need to look under the hood. He drives them through the car wash and considers that to be serious maintenance. The trim on his luxury car is superb, and nothing ever falls off or comes loose. If anything does go wrong, he gets on the phone and has the dealer come over to pick up the car.
I think you can see where the NUBs are mistaken in applying that same mindset to something like a sailing boat. Cars are built by robots. Boats are built by people. Robots build complicated things to identical dimensions, day in, day out. People do not. The fact that people have been involved at every stage of its evolution and construction is what makes a boat, even a mass-produced boat, much more than just another commodity. You can like a car, but you’ll never have the same emotional tie to it that you can have to a boat. And as with anything or anyone you have an emotional tie to, you have to learn to live with some imperfections.
Anyway, what happens is that the boat starts behaving like a boat after the first year or so of ownership—the varnish looks a bit scruffy, the cabin sole gets scuffed up, the stanchion bases weep a little rust. Maybe there’s a little crazing in the gelcoat here and there, or a weeping fuel-line joint. This is when the NUB tends to get a little upset about the state of his investment and starts complaining to the builder. After all, the Mercedes still looks like new at a year old. Shouldn’t his sailboat be the same?
I suggest that these NUBs need a sense of perspective, such as can be acquired only through a thorough refit of an elderly boat. Maybe builders should think about making each newbie customer sail for a week in a neglected 30-year-old example of one of their boats, complete with peeling varnish, star-crazed gelcoat, drooping sails, wheezing engine, salt-soaked upholstery, mildewed curtains, rusty anchor, pungent bilge, and leaky hatches. Kind of an accelerated learning curve, which would have the effect of either making them grateful for what they have been spared or aware of what they have to look forward to if they don’t learn how to maintain their boats.
Ten lies owners of old boats tell their spouses—and themselves
1. It’s only cosmetic.
2. I’ll have her in the water next year.
3. It’ll cost hardly anything if I do the work myself.
4. I can sail it without an engine.
5. It’ll be out of the driveway by May.
6. Once that’s done it shouldn’t cost a penny.
7. Of course it doesn’t need new sails.
8. I’ll start work on the kitchen next weekend.
9. I had to buy that radar; it was half-price.
10. Don’t worry, the keelbolts will be fine.