The Right Way to Buy a Boat…And The Wrong Way

Chapter 1 of 22 in the Online Book How To Buy an Offshore Voyaging Boat
This boat has a lot of features!*

This boat has a lot of features!*

You are going to think I have completely gone off topic, or maybe off my head, but bear with me and all will become clear.

I used to own a computer systems integration company. We specialized in providing accounting systems to small businesses. This was in the early days of small computers, and business owners faced with unfamiliar technology were understandably intimated by the process of selecting a company to help them automate, so many turned to consultants to help them make a decision. One of those consultants was a man named…well, let’s call him Marco**.

It Seemed So Logical

Marco’s first action when hired by a new client was to spend many hours interviewing every staff member in the organization that had anything do with accounting and asking them what they wanted the new automated accounting system to do and then meticulously writing down their answers.

The Request for Proposal

He would then write a request for proposal (RFP), which was in essence a list of the features gathered in the first step. These documents usually ran to many pages and were often as much as an inch thick. Marco, being a helpful kind of guy, even added little boxes next to each feature.

After receiving the RFP, we vendors would spend hours striving to figure out ways to bend and massage our systems so that we could tick as many of Marco’s little boxes as possible, without stretching the truth…too much. Marco would then add up all the ticks on each RFP and the one that had the most ticks got the contract.

The Result

So, how did this work out for the customers that hired Marco? What was Marco’s success rate? Well, in that strange English game of cricket we would have said, “Marco was bowled for a duck”.  (Translation for you Americans: Marco’s batting average was a big fat zero.) Every single one of those projects ended in disaster.

Disaster Explained

What had Marco done wrong? Why were his results so terrible? Three reasons:

  • He accorded the same importance to every feature.
  • He never defined the things that the company’s systems absolutely had to be able to do well to be successful.
  • He never thought about the potential downsides of each feature or looked for potential conflicts between features.

OK, if you are still with me, I’m sure you’re getting my point and how it applies to the process of buying a boat: If you simply list every feature you might want in a boat and then go shopping for the boat that ticks the maximum number of features, I can near guarantee you that the boat you end up with will be a poor fit for your needs…and very likely a just plain poor boat, for the same reasons listed above.

But the sad thing is, that’s exactly what I see many (most?) boat buyers doing.

In later years, when I did some computer selection consulting (poachers make the best game keepers), when explaining to clients how to go about selecting the best automation vendor for their needs, I used to call the systems that Marco’s type of selection process spawned “Swiss Army Knife Systems”–a device that has tools and features to do just about everything imaginable, but which doesn’t do anything well. We have all seen Swiss Army Knife Boats. Boats festooned with gear that really don’t sail and/or motor well, are awkward to handle, and a nightmare to maintain.

A Better Way

So, if listing all your desired features is not the path to a good boat, what is?

They key to success, as we found in the computer business, is to think about vital capabilities, not features. And to make that work you have to impose limits on the number of items you put on the vital capabilities list, otherwise it just becomes a features list with another name above it. We found that the absolute safe maximum is ten, and the fewer the better. Here are the vital capabilities Phyllis and I would require if looking for a new offshore sailboat:

  1. Seaworthy, able to survive a multi-day storm far offshore.
  2. Comfortable motion at sea.
  3. Reasonably fast.
  4. Good access to all mechanical gear.
  5. Good performance and range under power. (We sail in the high northern latitudes where there is often either too much wind or not enough.)
  6. Hull and rig strong enough to take punishment and forgive our mistakes.
  7. Interior layout that is safe and functional at sea.
  8. Deck layout that is safe and functional at sea.
  9. A boat we can love. (Life is too short to own an ugly boat.)
  10. Cost no more than our budget, ready to sail away.

Stay Away From Details

Notice that I have not been too specific in this list. That is no accident. Focusing in too closely at this point in the process can lead to big mistakes in boat selection. For example, I could have specified a metal hull, but instead I just said that the boat must be strong. The point being that there are weak boats built of metal and strong boats built of wood and fibreglass and you don’t want to limit your choices and miss a potentially great boat that fits your vital capabilities list by adding unnecessary criteria.

In our case, with Morgan’s Cloud, the opposite occurred. All I knew about at the time I bought her was fibreglass. Frankly, aluminum scared me. But if I had put “built of fibreglass” on my list, I would have missed by far the best boat available at the time for our needs and budget.

Another trap to avoid is using specific numbers. For example, I was on a custom motor boat some time ago that had an engine room that is horribly cramped with terrible access, to the point that it makes the boat useless and unworkable. How did this happen? As I understand it, the owner specified a huge fuel range number and just would not budge on that, with the result that the tankage impinged on the engine room.

If, on the other hand, said owner had simply specified “ocean crossing range” he could have worked with the designer to come up with a compromise (all boats are compromises) that would allow both an ocean crossing (perhaps with a stop or modified route) and a decent engine room.

Also note that I have not specified a size. Again, that is no accident. If you specify a minimum size you risk passing by boats that fit your needs and budget but are a bit smaller than you thought you wanted–better a great smaller boat than a large junker.

Finding a Rare Diamond

There’s another huge advantage to keeping the list short and not too focused. You see, the thing is, contrary to what many will tell you and what the massive used boat listings would seem to indicate, there are actually very, very few good offshore voyaging boats out there to buy. Staying focussed on what really matters will make it a lot more likely that you will find one of the real gems in among all the real crap.

Check For Conflicts

The next step after making the list is to sit down and think really carefully and critically about whether any of your criteria are in conflict. For example, if you have listed:

  • a huge aft cabin with a queen sized bunk,
  • a seaworthy hull,
  • a reasonable turn of speed,
  • a maximum price of US$150,000, (ready to sail away),

you have a problem. Such a boat doesn’t exsist. At least one of these criteria must go.

Using The list

OK, got your list of vital capabilities done? You are now ready to go and look at boats. The rules are:

  1. You will not consider any boat that does not meet all the capabilities.
  2. You will give every boat that meets all the capabilities serious consideration regardless of features you don’t like.

Don’t fudge here, you will regret it. Be particularly careful about rule number two. As my yoga instructor is want to say, “brain tricky”***. Your tricky brain will try to convince you that some feature you don’t like violates one of the criteria. When that happens, use our needs or wants test to see if that is in fact true. If you don’t, you will almost certainly miss a really good boat over a triviality (often in the form of “must-have wisdom” picked up from a forum).

And go ahead and give the list to your broker(s) and tell them that showing you too many boats that don’t conform is a sure route to dismissal. A good broker presented with this list will respect you and save you a lot of wasted time by weeding out the chaff.

Comments

I would love to see what list you come up with. Please leave a comment.

*By including this photograph at the top of the post, it is not my intention to imply that Island Packets are bad boats, only that this one might be a tad over-featured.
**Marco never existed, he is a composite of several consultants of the time who used the method described.
***I believe she picked the phrase up from B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of the type of yoga we practise.
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{ 26 comments… add one }

  • Tim August 5, 2014, 12:56 pm

    1. Seaworthy, able to survive a multi-day storm far offshore
    2. A big pilot house or deck saloon. You can’t put a price on having sun in the main living area. On top of that 360 visibility from within I feel is a nice plus.
    3. Sustainable – plenty of power generation and ability to be off the grid for a long time. Large tanks, Watermaker, Solar etc.
    4. Lifting keel
    5. Aluminium
    6. A boat we can love and admire
    7. Space for guests (sharing adventures with others is important)
    8. Retain a reasonable value if we do sell

    ————–

    Out of that we sacrificed two massive tickets items no. 4 and 5 so that we could get 2, 7, 6 & 8. Will we regret it? Maybe. Time will tell.

    Boat got: SeaStream 43
    Boat close second: Koopmans 45

    Reply
    • John August 6, 2014, 9:39 am

      Hi Tim,

      Interesting. One point though, number three on your list is a features list, not vital capabilities. I think it’s really important not to let features creep in at this point.

      Reply
      • Eric Klem August 6, 2014, 1:36 pm

        You make a very good point John. In engineering, we have a system not that dissimilar to what you recommend consisting of user requirements and system specifications. The user requirement states what the product must do and the system specification starts to get into how it will be done. For example, a user requirement might be that the boat be capable of motoring and limited sailing in water as shallow as 4′. In the system specification, you would choose between whether it was a lifting keel, centerboard, etc. Because shopping for a boat is not the same as designing one, a system specification should not be done. As you point out, if we go past the point of a user requirement/list of vital capabilities, we quickly eliminate many boats that would actually be suitable.

        Eric

        Reply
        • John August 7, 2014, 10:18 am

          Hi Eric,

          Thanks for the confirmation from another view. Also, you point about not even having a system specification really clarifies things too, thanks.

          Reply
  • Laurent August 5, 2014, 3:22 pm

    The big issue with computer applications integration & development is that customer companies need systems appropriate for the correct/improved way of doing their business, while customers’ employees describe, at best the current/perfectible way they are currently working, or, at worst, the way they would like to work for watever reason. So, application systems often end up as grossly inapropriate from the start, or, as an excellent way to freese in concrete a way a working that will be grossly inappropriate within 2 years, without any reasonable way to evolve at that date.
    I sincerely believe that a decent part of current economics havocs can be attributed to computer application consultants of the last 15 years or so.
    In theory, some technics like formal value analysis and/or easily maintenable applications and code could be very helpfull in dealing with that kind of problems. Points are that customers just don’t like that kind of messages, and computer salesmen just hate what their customers don’t like….
    Speaking about sailing boats, I think that you get rid of the customers’ boss vs. employee problems you have to deal with in applications integration & development (the only guy you discuss with is the “boss” and is not suspect of distorting reality/perceived needs for whatever reasons…), but you are adressing a very complex market, where marketing and status-symbol considerations are very presents, and where average customers’ professionalism is supposed to be lower than professional applications’ buyers professionalism (I said “supposed”….). So, it is not a big surprise to notice “some” differences between best possible target and real target as it is.

    Reply
  • Tybalt August 6, 2014, 9:29 am

    The 58′ Alden “Trashman” was certainly an offshore capable boat, until the large saloon windows blew out when falling off a wave. True, they could have and should have put the shutters on prior to departure, but as they were not expecting bad weather… well, the rest is history.

    Reply
  • Niels August 6, 2014, 9:50 am

    1) Aluminum.. Good abrasion resistance
    2) Centerboard.. I.e. Shallow draft.
    3) Good access to mechanicals.. Too old to hang upside down with spinners in mouth to change an impeller.
    4) Good sailing performance.. Can’t imagine why ;)
    5) plenty of fuel & water storage… The limiting factors of Range and endurance.
    6) Simple and easy to handle sail plan = cutter
    7) Under 50 ft LOA

    We really wanted an aluminum centerboarder. (Allures or Alubat) Could not find a decent one at the time we were looking.

    We ended up with a Valiant 50.. 3/5 ain’t bad, I guess.

    Second choices were :
    Amel Super Maramu -we thought it too big and complicated (we were wrong!)
    Hallberg Rassy 46 – teak decks killed that one, but otherwise an excellent boat

    We do miss the shallow draft, it’s value is not to be under estimated.

    We also miss not worrying about getting cosmetic dings in pristine gel coat. Stress levels in ensuring the gel coat remains pristine sometimes reach 11/10.

    Reply
    • John August 6, 2014, 12:35 pm

      Hi Neils,

      I think you certainly ended up with a good boat. And you certainly looked at good boats. Seems to me that your list worked for you.

      Reply
  • Greg August 6, 2014, 9:58 am

    We bought our first sail boat two years ago and had just learned to sail. It is a 35 foot cruiser and overall I think it is serving us well. But I agree with your post. If I were to buy a boat today I would be looking for something a bit different. In our case our mail sail and jib are easy to work from the cockpit. However, we are limited to only two winches on the cabin top. It didn’t appear an issue to us at the time, having no experience. But today I would want some winches easily reachable from the helm. I also want a cockpit that is easy to move around in. Our current cockpit has a table in the middle that one is always trying to jump around.

    Reply
  • Yaron August 6, 2014, 11:30 am

    Hi
    Suppose I am looking for ovni, Or any other model considered suitable, can I assume that the boat meets the requirements of 1 -6?
    And all that’s left now is to examine the boat, Make sure it is in good shape and its internal arrangement Suitable for a couple?

    Reply
    • John August 6, 2014, 12:36 pm

      Hi Yaron,

      Yes, I would agree with that conclusion.

      Reply
  • RDE August 6, 2014, 10:32 pm

    Hi John,
    So about that #9—-. I just looked at a boat that ticks off all your boxes. Think Hallberg Rassy quality, no silly teak decks or cap rails, better interior arrangement, new Spade anchor and Ideal windlass, 30 hrs on the engine— and a price 25% of a similar HR. And I can’t do it because I’d have to pretend that it was somebody else’s boat every time I approached her in the anchorage.

    Reply
    • John August 7, 2014, 9:48 am

      Hi Richard,

      Others might not, but I still think you made the right call. To me #9 is non-negociable.

      Reply
  • Brett August 7, 2014, 8:30 am

    We are the other end of the scale…we bought a sundeer 60 sight unseen…very good broker … we didn’t see the boat until she arrived on a ship in Australia and we are still happy…we did have two circumnavigations under our belt and very definite ideas of what we wanted …. quality counts….. buy engineering excellence and the rest flows.

    Reply
    • Niels August 7, 2014, 9:42 am

      One can almost reduce the list to a single item and be guaranteed of getting a proper cruising boat…..

      1) Any boat designed by someone who has circumnavigated and cruised extensively in a boat of their own design.

      Now for some controversy…A lot of big name designers are dilettantes , designing boats are a matter of drawing a pretty sheer and a nice interior. With no regard to practical access for maintenance done by the owner.

      Dashew and Amel (Henri) boats tick all the boxes. I don’t know of any others which do it as well.
      Comments? (As I duck for cover)

      Reply
      • John August 7, 2014, 9:51 am

        Hi Niels,

        No need to duck from shots fired by me, I agree completely with your “dilettante” designer point.

        Reply
    • John August 7, 2014, 10:15 am

      Hi Brett,

      Seems to me that you practiced “vital capabilities” perfectly.

      Reply
  • Paul August 10, 2014, 12:31 pm

    RDE, tell us about the boat, not everyone can be beautiful!

    Reply
  • Bill August 21, 2014, 10:24 am

    Here is mine:
    1) Must be good looking. No equipment hanging off the ends, solar panels tacked on, jerry cans on deck etc.
    2) Sails well in all conditions. (Especially light winds)
    3) Cost less than a good used car or no more than 10% of my budget.

    One Example:
    Webb Chiles is circumnavigating for the 6th time in a Moore 24. I believe he considers it the best boat he has owned.
    I need a little more room so ~27 feet is better for me.

    Reply
    • John August 24, 2014, 9:53 am

      Hi Bill,

      I have always admired those of you that are happy on minimalist boats. Sounds like you are clearly focused on a boat that will meet your needs.

      Reply
    • Andy_G September 15, 2014, 11:52 pm

      Nor’Sea 27? Really cool that it can cruise at 60+ (on its trailer).

      Reply
      • Bill September 16, 2014, 9:01 pm

        That is a good joke Andy. If you are serious I will ask the moderator to step in like he did with “RobertB”. I made a promise sometime ago to not be rude on the internet.
        Bill

        Reply
        • Andy_G September 16, 2014, 9:14 pm

          Bill,
          I don’t have any particular opinion one way or another about the Nor’Sea, never been on one, I just think it’s funny that every time you see a review of one they like to bring up how fast it can go on a trailer.
          Andy

          Reply
          • Bill September 16, 2014, 10:37 pm

            Good joke Andy.
            Item #3 on my list is worth discussing… My budget was 80k, plus 20-ish for issues (sold my airplane). Eventually it came down to about 8 boats, I bought the smallest. Paid 13k and traveled 600 miles to get it. 2+ years later and no buyer’s remorse. Invested the remaining funds and now the budget is much larger. Not sure I need anything bigger solo.
            John has written about buying used and the pitfalls, fixer uppers are never a good deal. Follow his advise. If you are not ready to go right now, explore other options and start sailing.

  • RobertB August 22, 2014, 1:22 pm

    John – The opening of this post is a picture of a new Island Packet 370 and your first thought when you saw this boat was that it is over featured. Would you mind discussing a little about what you saw on this particular boat that made you think this?

    Reply
    • John August 24, 2014, 9:37 am

      Hi Robert,

      The boat is just festooned with stuff, much of it, like in-mast roller furling, is totally unnecessary (unless the crew is handicapped) on a boat this size. I could go on and on: cockpit enclosure, jib-boom, roller furling on the staysail, halyards lead back to the cockpit… Any of these features are fine, if that’s what you want and they contribute to your vital capabilities, but just about all of them are there to satisfy wants, and are not really needed.

      Also, the decks are so cluttered that moving around in any sort of a seaway would be very difficult and probably dangerous.

      Reply

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