Buying a Fibreglass Boat—Hiring a Surveyor and Managing the Survey

Whenever the subject of buying a boat comes up, the horror stories about surveys that failed to find serious, or even catastrophic, structural problems are sure to follow (I have one of my own). This applies to any material, but let's focus on fibreglass.

Given that, I would argue that the two most important questions those of us considering buying a fibreglass boat need to answer are:

  1. Is it even possible to assure that the boat we plan to buy is sound in hull and deck?
  2. And, if the answer is yes, how can we actually do that?

And here's the thing, if we take those questions to a bunch of different people, we get a bunch of conflicting answers...and a bunch more horror stories...no help at all.

So, like so many things in life, the key to arriving at a good answer is not to try and parse all the conflicting opinions and anecdotes (especially not the anecdotes), but rather to learn enough about the subject to find the few, the very few, who actually know what the hell they are talking about, and then ask them the right questions.

(By the way, if you want to learn more about this decision-making process, which can help make all aspects of our lives better, I strongly recommend reading Principles by Ray Dalio.)

To get those vital questions answered, I spent a fascinating, focused and deeply informative hour and ten minutes on the phone with Steve D'Antonio.

About Steve

Many of you will be familiar with Steve's fantastically informative web site and monthly ezine. He has also repeatedly and generously shared his expertise in the comments here at AAC.

You can read more about Steve here, but the key things to know are that:

  1. He ran one of the best boat yards in the business for many years.
  2. He has been on the sharp end of fixing a lot of bad shit, much of it missed by poor surveys.
  3. He is considered by the boat building industry as one of the foremost experts on fibreglass construction (and much else).
  4. He now makes his living inspecting boats and supervising new builds, most of that work for those with deep pockets who can afford to hire the best.

Start From The Top

I started by asking Steve the big questions above:

  • Q: Is it even possible to be reasonably (there is no certainty in life) sure that a fibreglass boat is structurally sound before buying her?
    • A: Yes
  • Q: How?
    • A: Read on:

  1. The Right Way to Buy a Boat…And The Wrong Way
  2. Is It a Need or a Want?
  3. Buying a Boat—A Different Way To Think About Price
  4. Buying a Cruising Boat—Five Tips for The Half-Assed Option
  5. Are Refits Worth It?
  6. Buying a Boat—Never Say Never
  7. Five Ways That Bad Boats Happen
  8. The Two Biggest Lies Yacht Brokers Tell
  9. Learn From The Designers
  10. You May Need a Bigger Boat Than You Think
  11. Sail Area: Overlap, Multihulls, And Racing Rules
  12. 8 Tips For a Great Cruising Boat Interior Arrangement
  13. Of Cockpits, Wheelhouses And Engine Rooms
  14. Cockpits—Part 1, Safe and Seamanlike
  15. Cockpits—Part 2, Visibility and Ergonomics
  16. Offshore Sailboat Winches, Selection and Positioning
  17. Choosing a Cruising Boat—Shelter
  18. Choosing A Cruising Boat—Shade and Ventilation
  19. Pitfalls to Avoid When Buying a New Voyaging Boat
  20. Cyclical Loading: Why Offshore Sailing Is So Hard On A Boat
  21. Cycle Loading—8 Tips for Boat and Gear Purchases
  22. Characteristics of Boat Building Materials
  23. Impact Resistance—How Hull Materials Respond to Impacts
  24. Impact Resistance—Two Collision Scenarios
  25. Hull Materials, Which Is Best?
  26. The Five Things We Need to Check When Buying a Boat
  27. Six Warnings About Buying Fibreglass Boats
  28. Buying a Fibreglass Boat—Hiring a Surveyor and Managing the Survey
  29. What We Need to Know About Moisture Meters and Wet Fibreglass Laminate
  30. Offshore Sailboat Keel Types
  31. US$30,000 Starter Cruiser—Part 1, How We Shopped For Our First Cruising Sailboat
  32. US$30,000 Starter Cruiser—Part 2, The Boat We Bought
  33. US$30,000 Starter Cruiser—How It’s Working Out
  34. Q&A, What’s the Maximum Sailboat Size For a Couple?
  35. At What Age should You Stop Sailing And Buy a Motorboat?
  36. A Motorsailer For Offshore Voyaging?
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Stein Varjord

Hi John,
I’ve built several boats and sailed for decades, so I can find the necessary problems without a surveyor. I’m also not (yet) 🙂 wealthy enough (too busy with enjoying life) to buy boats in a price range where a good surveyor is smart. I still agree with all you say. I’m especially interested in one topic you briefly mention: Point 2 in the survey requirements. We should start with the assumption that we’re NOT going to buy the boat and that the surveyor should convince us to buy.

It seems like I’m all into the psychology of boating lately, because that’s my issue this time too: Buying a boat is very much an emotional decision. The problem is that we find a boat that we like, and as the process moves on, we fall gradually more in love with the idea of owning this specific boat. It triggers our dreams and makes us happy. This makes us willing to overlook the most obvious problems. Not unlike other circumstances where the word “love” is relevant. 🙂

Since we’re actually in love with an imaginary IDEA, not the real boat that we don’t really know, our job is to bring those together. Try to make certain that the boat fits the dream image reasonable well. We must avoid that the love of the buying idea pushes us into a frenzy that reshapes the dream into something fitting the boat properties we find. We are able to convince ourselves about the most ridiculous ideas to keep our elated “love” state going on.

I think it’s really hard to truly satisfy the mentioned point 2 in the survey requirements, but I do think it’s an essential point to TRY to satisfy. I think most people already know that, but how many of us put sufficient effort into making it reality? The main thing that saves me is the ability to quite early see what is a good boat, so I don’t easily fall in love with a bad one. Otherwise, I think I’ve failed satisfying point 2, most of the times I bought boats.

Steve D

John:

Your final sentence in this response is critical. In about 10% of the inspections I carry out, I encounter buyers/owners (I do inspections for both vessel buyers and owners) who are reluctant listeners, i.e. they either don’t want to hear what I have to say or they argue with me about my observations. I suspect it’s a personality type, they either don’t want their purchase plan to be upset, or, if they own the boat, they don’t want to be told about the problems it has, or things their surveyor or builder missed. After a few tries I simply stop telling them what I’m seeing and save it all for the report, which is their loss, because being able to discuss and review problems while aboard is invaluable. I occasionally encounter a similar mentality in yard and project managers, they are afraid to tell boat owners about problems they find while working on the boat because they say the boat owner will be angry. Putting aside the illogical nature of that argument, the last thing you want, as a boat owner or buyer, is to be perceived as un-receptive to valuable information simply because it’s perceived as bad news. I tell those managers, “Regardless of how those owners respond, you have a duty to share that information, and you could be held to account if you fail to share important observations in the event of a failure later on”, and I would say the same of surveyors.

Therefore, if you are a buyer and you want to get the most from the process, make certain the surveyor knows you welcome him or her sharing any and all observations and critiques, especially “bad” news, tell them not to hold back.

(Lecturing at the International Boat Builders’ Exhibition, Tampa, FL)

Richard Elder

Hi Steve
“Ten Million Dollar Expedition Yacht sinks at launch”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6TYQZd0HPs
For your viewing entertainment!

Before this happened, one of the engineers who was warning them that it was too top heavy was fired, another guy was brought on who approved it. That’s what happens when nobody has the courage to tell a billionaire owner that they can’t have an extra floor level on top of their new yacht!

I personally witnessed the same scenario when a tour boat newly USCG certified to carry passengers in the rough Hawaiian waters capsized in her slip due to free surface effect of water on an observation deck with plugged drains.

Stein Varjord

Not really relevant for the topic, but perhaps interesting for some:
Telling someone powerful that they “can’t have an extra floor level” is not a new problem. The Swedish King Gustav Wasa was leading a nation that had been dominant for many centuries, both financially and through military power, but this was dwindling.

Amsterdams wealth and influence had been rising extremely fast from the late 16th century by means of the “Dutch” East India Company, the biggest company that will ever exist, inventing capitalism and modern society, building far bigger ships than anyone before. The King wanted to show he was still powerful.

He had an Amsterdam ship architect come to Stockholm to build him as big a ship. During the building process, the King ordered that one more cannon deck was to be added, and lots more decorations. He wanted the ship to be the most impressive war ship ever built. The architect warned that it would be dangerous to the stability, but to no avail.

The ship sailed its first 1,3 kilometres 10th of august 1628. A not too strong gust made it lean over a lot. Water flowed in through the open lower cannon ports and it sunk. The king only proved that power doesn’t help against incompetence. The architect drowned.

The benefit of the kings stupidity was that the ship was preserved under water and is now the core of a fascinating museum in Stockholm. I fear many modern day millionaires show they have just as poor ability to absorb wisdom and will still leave far less value for the future. “Super yachts” mostly make me not impressed or envious but just disgusted.

Steve D

I actually did a day-long review of that vessel about 2 weeks before the now infamous launch. I was reviewing the builder’s technical capabilities for a client who was interested in having the same builder build him a boat. I can’t disclose the contents of my report, however, I did “comment” on the vessel’s top-heavy appearance.

Richard Elder

Hi Steve,
As you know, the hull form for that vessel evolved from limit seiner fish boats. The first examples were built by Delta Marine across the river from the yard where I was PM on a large aluminum yacht build. As I recall the Delta expedition boats had tons of lead ballast to compensate for the lack of fish holds and ice. As that design type morphed into Northern Marine under different management , I wonder if they left out the lead ballast in favor of more accommodations and longer range tankage?

The tour boat capsize I mentioned was perhaps an even more dangerous example of incompetence– this on the part of the USCG regulatory structure. I and others spent years trying to work around regulations designed for steel mono-hull motor boats as applied to fiberglass cored sailing catamarans. In this case a friend had built the fiberglass seats for the upper deck and the insurers lawyers were trying to argue that he was the cause of the capsize. We were able to identify the actual cause, but that does not mean that it would not have been repeated as fifty passengers all rushed to one side to view a whale.

Richard Elder

Just to clarify, the capsized tour boat was a moderate beam monohull, not a catamaran!

Steve D

No need to wonder, you can read the whole story in the NTSB report here https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/MAB1514.pdf

(Lecturing at the International Boat Builders’ Exhibition)

Ernest E Vogelsinger

There’s something on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6TYQZd0HPs

Richard Elder

Hi Stein
On the other hand what is the point of owning a sailboat unless you are in love with it? Since so many marriages end in divorce perhaps there is an opportunity for a new profession— the prospective spouse surveyor? ?

Stein Varjord

I assume it would be possible to recruit personnel for the spouse surveyor business, as a core part of the task would have to be testing operational qualities.

As an indication of probability:
Some decades ago, the authorities of Amsterdam were receiving numerous complaints that in the “red light district” there were only girls behind the windows. This was not acceptable in a society looking for gender equality.

The authorities agreed and decided to try do something about it. They put ads in the newspapers asking for men interested in working behind a window selling sex. Most young men spend much of their awake hours pondering how they can get sex, at all. Here, they could get plenty of it, AND get paid! The number of applicants was 80 000….! This number might prove a thing or two about men in general….?

A small number of young men were chosen and started their job. The media interest was massive. (Before the internet). Most having this job don’t want their face on the front page, as they haven’t informed their grand mother and other relatives about their job details. This led to both the mentioned men and the women working in the area to react strongly and the experiment was ended.

Even though this specific story is mostly comic, sex as a business is mostly sad, or worse, no matter which angle it’s seen from. I also have a feeling that spouse surveyors might step into a more complicated mine field than the one described…. 😀

Erica Conway

Still, combining your boat buying advice and a prospective spouse surveyor in my dating approach might work better than anything I’ve tried up till now! Also, I’ve been to that museum in Stockholm!

Rob Gill

Hi Stein, John,
Great point about heart vs head. It occurs to me there is a wonderful resource out there in every major sailing centre around the world that might bridge the gap between looking and survey – Cat 1 safety inspectors. In New Zealand, every NZ registered non-commercial vessel leaving NZ must be certified Cat 1 and this includes motor vessels, so we are blessed with a good number of the experienced and often professionally qualified inspectors, from sailmakers to boat builders, navigators to engineers.
Overseas, every race boat in a World Sailing sanctioned offshore event must be certified Cat 1 and every cruising vessel can request Cat 1 certification I believe, (I have been told this is common practice in Australia, but not compulsory).
My experience of Cat 1 inspectors is they are selected for their love of the sea and sailing first (read; love talking boats), then their extensive offshore experience, often both racing and cruising. Our wonderful safety inspector has twice circumnavigated in his own ally-yacht, been sailing around the SW Pacific almost every NZ winter since and is an incredibly clever engineer. He and his wife have weathered boat breaking storms and were both washed overboard on their tethers on one passage from the cockpit and self-rescued. In other words, been there, done that.
A year before we went offshore I asked Graeme for a pre-inspection meeting on board Bonnie Lass. I prepared carefully using the NZ Yachting Cat 1 manual as a guide (https://www.yachtingnz.org.nz/sites/default/files/2018-10/YNZ%20Safety%20Regs%20Pt%201%202017-2020.pdf) with lots of requirements and pages highlighted with tabs for questioning, from design and stability to safety interpretations. We spent 2 hours pouring over Bonnie Lass and I learned so much and was completely confident and ready come safety survey time. Cost me 60 NZD an hour!
It seems to me that someone could approach their local Safety Inspector saying they were looking to buy a yacht to go offshore and want them to certify it for Cat 1 – and ask if they would help with a pre-safety inspection review with you to make a go / no go (to survey) gate decision? And if GO, help create a list of specific survey questions with noted issues for the surveyor to review and respond to?
This step could limit the number of haul-outs and hotel stay iterations and help love remain an important criteria as Richard points out, but not a hinderance, and might cost someone $200 plus travel.
Even if they don’t use a safety inspector – I think the NZ Safety Regs manual makes a great basis for an offshore survey check-list.
Br. Rob

Brent Cameron

Rob, I think the resource you meant to include was actually at: https://www.yachtingnz.org.nz/sites/default/files/2018-10/YNZ%20Safety%20Regulations%20of%20Sailing%2017-20%20%28Final%29%20%28small%29.pdf. The one you referenced was for Unballasted Centreboard & Open Yachts, Sailboards and ballasted yachts not complying with Parts II – VI of the yachting New Zealand Safety Regulations. I do think this is a particularly great idea however. The Kiwi’s have built these regulations due to the many instances of boats getting in trouble in their very challenging waters and reflect current best practices in most cases.

Rob Gill

Not sure how I managed that – must have clicked on a wrong link. Cheers. Rob

Rob Gill

Ahhh, sorry for the last paragraph repeat – John it is much easier proof-reading on the larger page than the small comment box – any chance you could give us more than 3-5 minutes to edit after posting a comment please? Say 7 minutes?
Rob

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Rob, you can easily enlarge the edit box by grabbing and pulling on the lower right corner.

And you have actually 5 minutes re-editing time already. This paragraph is written in this grace period, and it stands now at 04:02.
(Yeah, I’m that slow in typing. A shame.)

Rob Gill

Thanks Ernest.
Rob

Lee Corwin

Just did a valuation survey in Grenada to satisfy the hull value I had with my prior vendor. That vendor raised premium to an obscene level so went shopping. New vendor did not agree with my assessment of value – hence the survey. He missed major things like the presence of a jsd and Winslow life raft. However he did pick up slight play in the maxprop and abraded awlgrip just below the first spreaders.
Previously have owned multiple “new to me” boats including a one off. Have yet to find a surveyor who has done such a comprehensive survey that I been totally satisfied. They pick up things I’ve missed but I pick up things they’ve missed. This includes surveys done in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Florida, Grenada and BVIs. It includes evidence of prior collision, lightening strike and bad core. Not just trivial things.
If I need another survey will talk to yard managers and boat broker friends for names. But I believe the more you know yourself the safer you are. You can’t totally depend upon the surveyor. Being there is key. Doing your own survey before you hire a surveyor is key to eliminate the boats not worthy of that expense. Knowing something about everything is key. “Why aren’t you taking oil for analysis?” “Why didn’t you exercise that through hull?”. You’re not only judging the boat during a survey. You’re also judging the adequacy of the survey. If you don’t know something about boats and even if you do take a knowledgeable friend along.

Alissa Winter

We had a good survey experience when we bought Aquabat (now sold).

I was as green as the hills, but had done some racing, sail training and a lot of reading.

Aquabat is a metal boat (not fibreglass, as per this topic), so I sought a surveyor who surveyed metal ships (commercial, naval, etc). He was engaged in work in the broader region (i.e. not just Australia), and was also the president of the surveyor’s society.

I spent two days on-board before the survey and had a specific list of questions (in addition to the normal survey). He found lots of things, provided a very comprehensive report, and responded to each of my specific questions. He was also responsive to follow-up questions that I had. The survey report was comprehensive enough that it was useful during negotiations.

When we had a problem soon after purchase (we dropped the rudder during a broader refit and found that it had a corroded shaft), he went above and beyond to make it right at no extra charge for his time. He came and inspected the rudder whilst dropped, as well as after the problem had been fixed, and again after re-installation. He organised quotes with his contacts of metal-working gurus and organised the repair. The local boatyard fabrication shop had quoted 3x as much for the repair and admitted afterwards when he had a look at the finished product that “we couldn’t have done nearly so good a job”!

So based on my experience, there is some value in having a local surveyor (as long as they are good!). The access to local networks and the possibility of some post-purchase support was invaluable for me, particularly as being my first boat, I didn’t have those contacts.

I’m happy to provide a reference if someone’s looking for a surveyor on the East Coast of Australia (the surveyor is based just north of Brisbane).

Dick Stevenson

Hi Steve, John and all,
Recent comments on the head-set to have when buying a boat (especially with dealings with the surveyor) and the series of articles in general remind me of the importance of head-sets.
For example: I think there is a world of difference when doing a 360 sweep of the ocean when on watch on passage if you tell yourself ahead of time that there is a ship out there and you just need to find it. And then proceed to convince yourself there is no ship out there.
The same goes for inspections: when I go aloft to check rigging, I “tell myself” there is a problem and I just need to find it.
I know this changes my behavior from what might be termed casual-but-attentive to one of increased diligence: others have confirmed that this “head-set” shift made them more focused.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Stein Varjord

Hi Dick,
As you’d expect, I totally support your observations. We can actually make ourselves “smarter”.

Many years ago I was commuting a few years 20 kilometres each way to work by bicycle to the centre of Oslo. I realised that a serious accident was just a numbers game away from happening. I decided to pretend I was paranoid.

Every day I got on my bike, “some driver got into his car with the sole purpose of hitting me”. He knew exactly where I was. It was sort of a mental game. I’d think, “if he’s coming from behind that building, I’ll do this…”, and all types of variations. It became a creative challenge in extreme avoidance. Sometimes I even tested if I was actually able to perform that planned manoeuvre. The mindset most likely saved my life on two occasions, when meeting unusually bad/aggressive driver behaviour, because my intentional “paranoia” made me detect it fast and I had a “game” plan ready to use without hesitation.

I rarely use this mindset in boating, but I’ll change that. On a boat things move much slower and in a way simpler environment, but I’m 100% sure that what Dick does will make us all surprisingly much better at both detecting and solving problems.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Stein,
I do the same on the boat and call it my “What if” game: What if the high-water alarm goes off? What if we bump into a rock coming into this cut? What if the front comes through a few hours earlier and more powerfully than expected?
And I agree with you that this habit makes for a far quicker and effective response during occasions where the “what if” is actually occurring.
And I know what you mean by your saying that you embraced an “intentional paranoia”, but I think that these behaviors are more accurately portrayed by saying that it is good judgment exercised to keep you safe (and when done on your boat: to keep yourself, loved ones and the boat safe).
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Christopher Barnes

Stein & Steve

Your comments reminded me of the version we use, the “pre-mortem”… Essentially if this day/passage/activity goes totally sideways what is the most likely reasons for the failure. Pondering those we look for modifications to minimize the severity of the consequences and the likihood of failure. As I recall a concept derivative of Klein’s decision making work (search Klein and Naturalist Decision Making). I think it is SOP in some portions of the military before missions. A nice concept that has prevented some epic screw ups on my part…

Fredrick Kim

John,
Would the same hold true if the boat one is looking to buy spent its life, say on Lake Erie, as opposed to an open water cruising boat.
Thanks for your most informative and interesting articles
Fred

Kurt Mammen

Hello John (and, perhaps Collin)

I realize this is an old post but as a new member in the process of buying an older boat to refit and cruise the topic is “current” for me. Specifically, I’m in the discussion phase with a broker on a 1985 Beneteau First 42. The Frers design has long been a favorite of mine with the only general concern being the infamous Beneteau blistering of the early 1980s Beneteaus and the “grid pan” construction. In this article you mention that Collin knows the specific years were affected and I was hoping to find out if this boat falls in that category. Also, in another article you expressed a very strong negative opinion about the “grid pan” construction suggesting it does not belong on an offshore boat. This was in an article discussing the Cheeki Rafiki incident. Do you know if the same construction technique affects the First 42?

By the way, your content is great, you are a wonderful writer, and your articles on surveying, refitting, and buying a boat are helping me keep my feet on the ground and my heart in check – with any luck until I have found a “right/good” boat to invest my life energy and dollars in – thank you for sharing you experience with me/us!

Kurt