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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Meet the Author

John

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.

11 comments… add one
  • gerard deroy Jan 5, 2013, 3:57 pm

    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

    • John Jan 5, 2013, 6:24 pm

      Hi Gerard,

      Great first hand information, the very best kind and of great help too our readers. Thank you!

      This post might interest you.

  • Coen Jun 27, 2013, 9:00 am

    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.

    • John Jun 28, 2013, 7:03 am

      Hi Coen,

      Following on from Colin’s comments below. Lead ballast in aluminium boats does not seem to be a problem. Our own boat has the lead poured into the keel cavity and we have not experienced any problems in the 26 years since she was launched. And her sister ship, built the same way is, as far as I know, fine after nearly 40 years.

      The key issue here is that lead is not that far from the aluminium alloys used in boat construction on the galvanic scale.

      I do understand that if the lead is in the form of an external keel, then it should be isolated from the hull with non-conductive spacers.

  • Colin Speedie Jun 27, 2013, 7:22 pm

    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 Jun 28, 2013, 12:11 pm

      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.

      • John Jun 28, 2013, 12:30 pm

        Hi Coen,

        No easy answer on that one since it depends on the size of the boat. As a general rule, the smaller the boat, the larger the weight benefit of building in aluminium as against steel.

        The key issue on cost is whether you plan to paint the boat or not. If you are willing to keep the boat unpainted (decks and all) the aluminium boat will be substantially cheaper than steel on a 10 year cost of ownership basis and maybe cheaper to build too, since the cost of a good paint job on a steel boat can exceed the additional costs of building in aluminium.

        For more on what it takes to do a good steel boat, see Colin’s eBook.

  • Brandon Reese Jul 14, 2014, 3:33 pm

    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

    • John Jul 15, 2014, 9:20 am

      Hi Brandon,

      Paul Luke built good boats, including a sister ship to our own Morgan’s Cloud, “Paquet, which is still going strong after being built in the middle seventies.

      As to whether or not it is worth taking the boat on, that depends on how much needs doing and the price you get her for. For example, don’t discount the cost of painting. Doing a good job of the deck and topsides of the boat, could easily cost you $40,000, or even more, depending on the state of surface. Also, how much was done in the refit? For example, if she was not rewired, she almost certainly should be, and that could run you a bunch too.

      All the points in the post above apply to this boat. Also, be very careful if she has a lot of wood on deck, as many boats of the time did. Teak decks and toe rails are a particular problem since in most cases they were put down with stainless steel fastenings. If so, these will have burnt holes through the deck and a full fix, while doable, can run to big money.

      None of this should disqualify the boat, but you need to go into the project with open eyes. The bottom line is that any 30 year old boat has the potential to be a money pit that, in the end, costs you a lot more than buying a newer boat.

      Another issue is whether or not she was originally built as a cruising boat. Many boats of the time were built to race. A few of these can make reasonable cruising boats, but many not.

      • Brandon Reese Jul 15, 2014, 10:46 am

        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

        • John Jul 16, 2014, 9:03 am

          Hi Brandon,

          Sorry, I don’t have any photos, but they probably would not have told you anything of use.

          The key thing to be aware of is that aluminium boats of that time were generally faired with putty prior to painting. The reason being that it was before computerized cutting of plate and therefore even on well built boats there were a lot of bumps and hollows in the hull.

          The big issue from your point of view as a buyer is whether or not all that putty is still well stuck to the hull. If it is, like on our own “Morgan’s Cloud” think $30,000-$40,000 to repaint hull and topsides. However, if the putty has failed (often the case) then it will all have to come off and the boat will need to be re-primed and re-faired. In this case the sky is the limit. I have heard of such jobs on boats of that size going over $100,000 because of the huge amount of labour required.

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