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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gerard deroy

I bought a 1974 Brise de mer 31 in 1989. 24000$ usd. The boat was surveyed and considered sound , no electrolisis and overbuilt with AG4. Boat builded in France by Leguen-Hemedy from a plan by Jean-Marie Finot. 800 + of this boat has been constructed and used by Sailing School -The Glenan. Boat has traveled from France , Africa. Bresil, around Carribean at least twice, 8 time up and down east coast us and Bahamas. Still no electrolisis. I have a bronze propeller on a stainless shaft. zinc anode on the shaft is sufficient.
Any stainless is insulated from aluminum with teflon washer or plate. Trilux 33 or II have always been used as anti-fouling. Interlux brightside paint is used for the blue hull and white on the deck. I think that a well builded aluminum boat is forever.
My brise de mer is now valued around 40000$ in France.

All your comments are perfectly correct.
Gerard De Roy

Coen

Hi John,

What are the dangers of electrolytic action between an aluminium hull and lead ballast? I read that Tom Colvin had problems with Kung Fu Tse when steel ballast in the keel reacted with the aluninium hull, but is lead a problem? I guess it would be prudent to have it well encapsulated in any case.

Colin Speedie

Hi Coen
In the past there were occasional reports of boats where there had been corrosion problems between the hull and lead ballast, and I’ve seen one example first hand. Developments in more recent times towards encapsulating the ballast in polyester or epoxy resin (and then welding plate over) seem to have cured those problems.

Best practice would be lead ballast over iron/steel in any case as it concentrates the weight lower far more effectively, and takes up far less space (let alone any corrosion issues)

Best wishes
Colin

Coen

Thanks, guys! Now, another one: Roughly what would the weight difference be between similar steel and aluminium hulls? Welding steel is going to be cheaper, but as you point out there are disadvantages.

Brandon Reese

Hello, long time lurker, first time poster here. I love the site, lots of great information and inspiration! To the point of my post: my wife and I just got back from looking at a 1980 Paul Luke built, German Frers designed, aluminum pilot house 48′ cutter. She absolutely needs a paint job, but otherwise appears to be in pretty decent condition to my non expert eye (the bilge is a bit dusty with some aluminum dust, but doesn’t appear to be too bad). The last comprehensive refit was in 2004, and the current owner has been working on a refit this year (bottom paint, dripless prop seal, bottom paint, etc), but she will still need the aforementioned hull paint, general sprucing up, and a few pieces of hardware replaced. Getting to the point: what is the consensus around that era of Paul Luke built aluminum boats? Any particular areas of concern? The most recent survey was in 2013, and included ultrasound which showed that the hull appeared to be in good condition. We will obviously have her surveyed prior to a purchase, but I wanted to see if there were any consensus in whether or not it is worth it, or if I should run away.

Thanks!

Brandon

Brandon Reese

John-

Thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate it. I had done a bit of research on Paul Luke, and that is the impression that I got, but it is good to hear it confirmed. Out of curiosity, do you happen to have pictures of Morgan’s Cloud being prepped for paint prior to the last time you had her painted? I’m really curious as to what a boat that wasn’t designed to NOT be painted looks like bare..

All good things to think about, thanks again for your insights, and hopefully someday we’ll meet up in some far flung destination.

Thanks,

Brandon

Jim Bruer

Hi John
I’m considering purchase of a 1983 Ovni 35 in need of a complete refit. I’m rather handy and enjoy a project. What caution would you offer, assuming a competent surveyor of aluminum yachts is retained and the boat meets minimum tolerances for plate thickness, etc. Could you hazard a guess what the remaining useful life of the hull would be, given good maintenance and year round use for coastal cruising.

Marc Dacey

I concur on this. Prior to buying our steel sailboat, I commissioned a purchase survey from a guy who surveyed mostly metal boats, because it was a big chunk of change and I had insufficient experience to even know what to look for. That’s changed (well, I hope!) over the last 12 years, but we’ve had no issues related to the boat’s basic construction and material prep, which we’ve maintained rather than remediated. I still read that original survey on occasion as it contains much useful information that has guided me. In that respect, the money spent has been returned several times over. Were I to consider a FULL rebuild over just the repower, upgrade and rewiring we’ve actually done, the value of such a through “preview” would have been even greater.