Q&A: What Should I Look For When Buying An Older Aluminum Boat?

Question: What advice and cautions would you have regarding buying older aluminum boats? I have been told to pay particular attention to the area under the heads and engine and around the through-hulls. Is there anything else you might be wary about in an older aluminum boat?

Answer: All the areas you mention are important. The good thing is that with aluminum any structural problem is usually fairly obvious, unlike fiberglass, and can be easily fixed to be as strong as new, again unlike fiberglass. I would add one other area to check carefully: the shaft tube. Many aluminum boats have experienced corrosion problems in this area due to the dead water that sits in the tube together with the stainless steel shaft. Properly inspecting this area is non-trivial since the propeller shaft must be removed, which often requires removing the rudder—no bad idea in itself.

There is no fundamental reason why a 15 to 25 year old aluminum boat should not be sound, but a good survey is essential. Also the surveyor should have a lot of experience with aluminum. I would suggest Tony Knowles of Newport Marine Surveyors.

I think buying a boat 30 to 40 years old might be pushing your luck, particularly since the heyday of aluminum yacht construction did not start until the late seventies. Look for a boat from a reputable boat yard with plenty of aluminum boats under their belts before they built yours.

A more fundamental question is whether such a boat is a good buy. (Morgan’s Cloud was only six years old when we bought her.) The key is whether the boat has been consistently upgraded to modern standards (like Morgan’s Cloud); if so, you may get a great deal. If not, you could be looking at a refit that will cost more than a new boat if you pay someone else to do it, or that will take several years if you do it yourself and still cost a lot of money.

I understand your reluctance to blow too much of the cruising kitty on a boat, but I would still look carefully at either a new production aluminum boat (probably from France or Holland) or a bare aluminum hull and finish it out yourself. Either option could, in the end, be less costly than an older boat. If you go the latter route, allow at least two years of full time work to finish out a 40’ hull; much more if you are trying to hold down a job at the same time. Another benefit of new construction is that you stand a better chance of getting the deck salon/wheelhouse you’re interested in, which was an unusual feature until comparatively recently. (Incidentally, I would not even think about home-building a hull; way too much work for the rewards.)

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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