Buying a Boat—Never Say Never

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Two keels I would not want to own: one encapsulated, the other bolt on.

We have all heard the following phrases on forums and any place sailors gather to talk boats:

I will never buy a boat with:

  1. Core in the hull.
  2. Core below the waterline.
  3. A spade rudder.
  4. A fin keel.
  5. ...yada, yada, yada.

Let me translate: Add it all together and be dogmatic about even a few of these "nevers" and we often get:

I'm going to buy a boat that does not meet my actual needs very well, if at all.

So, rather than just saying "never", we need to think about the risks associated with boat design characteristics, while keeping firmly in mind that nothing in boats (or life) is risk free, and then weigh said risks against the benefits. And, yes, all of the above have benefits.

But just thinking about risk and benefits is not enough. The next step is to weigh those risks and benefits against the vital capabilities that we identified before we ever started looking for a boat...we did do that, right? If not, see Further Reading for how.

  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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Mark Sinn

Thanks John, following you through your research into buying your next boat will be as interesting as your foray into designing a new boat from scratch.

Richard Elder

On the never say never theme—:
If you have a chance to poke through one of the Petersen Serendipity 43’s built by Tommy Drefus at New Orleans Marine in the early 80’s you will find not a ounce of core in the hulls. Yet they were the terror of Grand Prix racing of that era. So light and fast is possible without using a core if you are willing to spend the time to replace it with labor and engineering.

I recently came across a photo of a Boeing Dreamliner bare interior fuselage. Hundreds of small ribs about 3″ apart. I’d be surprised if there is a cored skin outside them—-. Might have to do with the radical changes of temperature and pressure that an aircraft fuselage is subjected to.

Quality vs quality in cored hulls: As I’ve mentioned before, the most durable method for building a fully cored (underwater) hull is to use resin infused balsa and clear “gelcoat” to allow intensive visual examination of the laminate before painting. End grain Balsa’s open voids produce a near monolithic structure when filled with resin and epoxy resin is highly impervious to moisture. Of course the only way to get this level of construction is with a custom build, almost never with a production boat from “a highly respected manufacturer.” “Cost is no object” and staying in business as a production boat builder are mutually incompatible.

Richard Elder

Hi John
I’d be the last to suggest that a 40 year old IOR boat like the Serendipity 43 would sail boat for boat with a modern go-fast design like the J120. Those Peterson boats were build from all types of materials, from aluminum to cored fiberglass as well as the single skin multi-rib & frame construction used by New Orleans Marine. As it happens the two New Orleans boats I’ve poked through were in amazing structural condition in spite of being rode hard and put away wet and then ignored during their 40 years of life.

In the spirit of limiting ourselves to actual examples, I suggest anyone considering buying a J 120 should investigate the history of the J 130 that recently sold in SoCal for $15,000. The photos showed it floating on it’s lines and equipped with a suit of carbon race sails that likely cost twice as much as its eventual sale price. My second hand information indicated that the hull had an extensive area of delamination in the forward hull bottom. We don’t have as many rocks poking up from the sea bottom in Cal as you do in the NorthEast— perhaps it had an unfortunate meeting with a grey whale? In any case, it seems to have gone from being one of those hulls that would have passed any survey with flying colors to being worthless in a very short time. At least it didn’t sink on the spot like a sister ship did after hitting a whale a few years back.

Richard Elder

Hi John
I can certainly understand the appeal of a J 120 for someone like yourself who wants to tweak the sails for fun after having spent a lifetime of voyaging in the northern latitudes. But why go for the half-assed solution? A J 120 is to an Open 40 as a Ferrari Berlineta is to a F1 race car. Outdated Open 40’s are on the market for a fraction of the price of a new J 120. And at least you wouldn’t have to worry about bringing your better half along unless she develops an new love for camping!

Buy Anasazi Girl from James & you not only will have the coolest paint job on the planet, but help his family of 6 move to larger accommodations! (As usual there is a back story!) James Burwick is a mountain climber who brought the adventure mission philosophy to ocean sailing. His wife Somira is a survivor of the Pol Pot massacres and a superb photographer. They were dis masted while rounding Cape Horn with the full family aboard. We happen to have a mutual acquaintance in the mountain guiding community in Jackson Hole, and as a result we exchanged a few emails that resulted in an introduction to mast builder Buzz Ballinger. When enough funds came together the family rigged a new Ballinger mast and completed their mission by sailing Anasazi Girl up from Patagonia to the Caribbean where she is for sale.

Eric Klem

Hi Richard,

Reading what people write about coring, one of the things that strikes me is that people seem to take coring as always being stronger and stiffer which of course isn’t true.  It is absolutely true if the load is in the correct direction and the panel is in bending but if the panel is a tension or compression (if buckling is not a concern) member only, then there is no benefit of having a core.  The function of the core is to move the skin pieces away from each other so that when a bending moment is applied, one skin is in compression and the other in tension while providing enough shear strength that they can’t move relative to each other, the same general principle as an I-beam except executed differently.

Of course on a production fiberglass boat the hull skin has quite large expanses with not a lot of curvature and not a lot of supporting structure so it benefits a lot from having core.  However, if you push the equation to a lot more internal supporting structure with much smaller distances between, the benefit goes down which is part of the reason you see this in aluminum boats where you don’t find coring.  I don’t know the loads on the fuselage of a plane but I also don’t find it too surprising that the dreamliner is constructed as you say given the shape and what I would expect for loading.

I don’t think that this comment changes either your or John’s views on whether core is good or bad but speaks to how people can misinterpret the benefit or drawback of something.

Dan Tisoskey

John, this is a timely article as I was re-reading some of Hal Roth’s books and why he selected the Wauquiez Pretorien for his last boat. He used three main reasons for his criteria 1) He liked 35 feet for ease of handling 2) he wanted a bolt on keel for the exact reason you listed – takes a grounding better than encapsulated keel 3) Quality construction. He was very happy with his choice.

Also, good to see you in Annapolis during the “How We Think About Sailing” My family and I really enjoyed the thoughtful, well organized panel discussion.

Lee Corwin

Have an Outbound 46. It has an encapsulated bulb/fin for a keel. Ballast is lead. Encapsulation and hull is solid grp. There’s an extensive system of stringers and ribs so keel is not only supported by the encapsulating skin but also this structure. Forces are dissipated should grounding occur. I see boat after boat where after even modest groundings the aft edge of the keel (or keel stub) has been pushed into the canoe body. Damage to internal structure is hard for even the best surveyor to asses. So deem boats with this damage no longer suitable for ocean cruising. Believe this is the Achilles heel of fin keel boats. Believe the structural design of Outbounds and like boats still allows the performance of a bulbed fin and at least tries to minimize this risk.

Lee Corwin

Should mention there are ~70 Outbounds actively cruising. To my knowledge none have suffered the crippling damage from grounding refer to above.

Angus Macaulay

First – it was great to meet in Annapolis, we spoke briefly after the panel discussion about preferred designers.

Your point is well taken in this story. I think it is also very relevant when someone says I’ll never buy a _______ boat. You’ve made the point about knowing when a particular boat was built, who the owner of the company was, etc. Beneteau (given your image above) is an interesting example where ownership has been the same the company but the product they produced has evolved, and they actually have a broad model mix. I’ve read many positive things about the Beneteau’s from the 80s – i.e. First 38, 42, 405, 435 – well designed and solidly built (no core I believe) and keels with longer cord length and stronger attachment. And then you read about Cheeki Rafiki or, frankly, you look at the boats they had on display in the show and definitely say “never”. But they are also the long time builder for smaller shorthanded offshore racing in Europe. They are currently building the Figaro 3, which is not only designed for aggressive short handed offshore racing, but now has incorporated foils. So in the case of Beneteau (or any builder) it may be a case of factoring in not only when the boat was built, but which model, vs. a blanket statement about a brand. Some smaller builders, like Outbound, build all of their models for offshore use. And some builders, like Hunter, are clearly only going for coastal cruising. But Beneteau (and sister company Jeanneau) have models that seem to demonstrate a strategy to hit multiple markets, and the engineering know-how to produce both offshore boats and inshore models. Where it gets confusing, though, is when they build a boat like the 40.7 and the photo you included – so now I’ve talked myself in a circle!

On a separate but related note, given your openness to cored boats, and stated interest in the J/120 in another article, and your interest in the Pogo during the panel, I thought of a few additional ideas of boats that might check your boxes, get strong reviews, have great designers behind them: The Carl Schumacher designed Express 37, and the Rodger Martin designed Quest 30/33 Aerodyne 38. There are actually examples of all three on Yachtworld now.
Angus Macaulay

David McGinnis

So I’m wondering if I fell in love with the wrong boat. My wife and I are planning extensive cruising. I’m looking at a couple of Alden 44’s and can’t get any clear information, but my sense is that they are balsa cored throughout. Aldens produced at TP seem to have a superior build reputation, so what’s the answer? Go with a boat that has a proven pedigree or stay away because it’s cored below the waterline? Other than that issue (granted it’s significant) the boats are a good fit. I’m a traditionalist at heart (sailed large gaff rigged schooners professionally for 34 years, so the layout and aesthetics are a good fit, they appear to be in good condition at this point of research, and the price point is right.

David McGinnis

Hi John,

Thanks for the feedback. I’m a big fan but of Cambrias, but they’re really hard to find and almost always have teak decks. The one on Walters’ site has been listed for years, and I’ve read some threads that indicate she’s pretty rough.
The SW 42 is worth keeping in mind.

I’m also considering the Little Harbor 44. They’re foam cores, but built like tanks.

Charles Ethridge

I too think I may have fallen in love with (or got suckered by the surveyor into buying) the wrong boat, a Vagabond 42, with a “iron pigs” in an encapsulated keel, glassed-in chainplates, waterlogged decks with no caulking done on the original deck hardware installation (much less rot-proof bases where the hardware holes were drilled), i.e. all the stuff you have been mentioning lately. Did I?

If so, what are some GOOD offshore cruising boats you would recommend in the 30-42 foot range, i.e. ones that meet all of your requirements? or do they even exist?

After 15 years of owning and studying and maintaining sailboats, I am so disappointed in the whole marine sailboat industry, I’m starting to give up hope of finding a good boat, before I get too old to even sail it.

Charles Ethridge

Thanks, yes, that really helps, especially this article from John Neal, linked in the “half-assed-option” article you mention above…which is also a great article, by the way.

Mark Wilson

Sometimes Say Never

I think this chimes with your theory of wants and needs. In my case loves and hates.

What I love about sailing, in five bullet points are:

Contemplating it
Being alone at sea
High latitudes (with the occasional hot spell in between)
Swift and engineless progress
Aesthetics – both of my boat and my surroundings

What I hate are:

Getting cold and wet (and old and weak)

Some of these points contradict each other but they also combine to point to boats I, personally, should try to avoid buying. (And I get that both refitting and maintenance are necessary evils but let’s minimise them if we don’t enjoy them).

Five of each and the hates inform the loves. I have spent the recent months travelling to view boats around the south and east coasts of England. This has been no hardship, who doesn’t like loitering in harbours and yards ? But I have wasted my time on some of them, been seduced if you like, by not applying the lessons from my two lists.

Two days ago I went to look at a Swan 411. Who hasn’t lusted after, or failed to catch up with, a Swan over their sailing years ? Andy , of this parish, now has not one but two of them. But the high and long bridge deck frightened the life out of me. The boat was on the hard and it was raining. The old teak deck was slick and greasy looking. If I had fallen overboard I’d have broken quite a few somethings. At sea all my troubles would truly have been over.
And no dodger to shelter under or navigate from in the cockpit. So 2 of my 5 loves satisfied – speed and beauty. But 4 out of my 5 hates ignored and I’m not even to sure about the 5th – parking.

I’m mourning that Swan. The lady owner had poured a fortune into her in the last 2 years before finally noticing how small the interior was. That boat is pretty much ready to go again. The owner has bought a new 50 footer and just wants rid.

That said remind me who said “never say never” ?

Mark Wilson

Hi John

I love the Swan 47. I had some friends with one and sailed in company with her for a while south of Madeira. Until they let go of the handbrake. A bit on the large side for me, both in size and money.

I met War Baby and Warren in Port Stanley, in ’87 I think. Memorable chap. He later invited me to sail on War Baby. Sadly I never took him up on the offer. Recently I came across a log of War Baby’s trip south that John Gore Grimes had sent me.

Marc Dacey

Just came across this where a fellow compiled boats available on Yachtworld for the month of December 2020. Quite interesting when tabulated in these ways.

Michael Van Eeden

Ja I here you John, it come down to what you want to do with the boat, where you want to go.

Deep or shallow waters,

But for me, lets face it, monos are not fast. sorry, they are slow…doesn’t matter what you do to them….

If you want to go fast why waste time? Just get a Cat or nice 31 or 40 f tri Ferriman or somthing.

They cruse no problem 11 to 13 and up to 21ns I had a 27 Fboat and would eat monos for breakfast. 40 to 60 footers race monos no prob.

And Millions spend to get 1 more nott??

For me IMO, If I want to go around the world speed is not as important as comfort and Getting There, hand down.

Bolt On keels and core decks and hulls for round the world Soft Boats ?? Some of the boats people are sail off shore these days are nutts.

Naaa, not for me anyway. I feel better out there that my keel is molded in, and lead filled thanks.

Sleep better and worry less and thats worth the slower boat
That’s why I cruse with a mono and race with a multy.

Cats and tri’s are just too dam fast for cruising, you spend all your time trying to slow them down and keeping them square down the face..

But thats just my take on it …

Michael Van Eeden

Yes John, good point on the wait part, That’s why I was saying race multis and crus mono..

But your right, good points to think on, as always..I can tell your OPs are coming from tons of experience offshore, for sure.. I Love your boat, its amazing. The old one you lived on for 30+ …