For some time, John and I have been discussing whether it’s possible (or even sane) to buy and refit an older boat to a seaworthy, ocean-going standard, on a maximum budget of US$100K.
As we both tried similar capers in our younger years, this at first glance seemed straightforward enough, just as I remember it did first time around. But years later the awful memories have come flooding back, starkly revealing the reality of that crack-brained endeavour—what was I thinking of?
But human nature being what it is, I know that there are at least some of you out there with minimal budgets desperate to throw off the lines and head for the horizon. And the very best of luck to you—if I was twenty-odd years old again I’d be right there with you.
So, for you ‘dreamers by day’ who are determined to give this a go, here are some thoughts on how to buy and re-fit an old, basically sound, boat and head for far horizons on a budget of $US100,000.
John here. As many of you know, I have long worried about how unaffordable seaworthy, ready-to-go, offshore cruising boats are. Our first attempt at fixing that was the Adventure 40 project to build a brand new, simple and robust boat for US$200,000. I still think that’s the best solution for most of us, but sadly it came to naught.
So I’m very excited about this series that will form part of our How To Buy A Cruising Boat Online Book. Colin and I have been discussing this for quite a while and have come up with the following plan:
- Three parts from Colin on the structure of the boat to buy, and a realistic analysis of the pitfalls and how to avoid them so they don’t derail the project before it even gets started. Starting out with a sound hull deck and appendages is a good 75% of the battle won.
- Colin’s take on alternatives to fibreglass hull materials, to go along with mine from some months ago.
- Two parts on engines: one from me on re-powers and the second from Colin on saving the old engine with a partial or even complete rebuild—both of us will focus on DIY since hiring professionals, except for small specialized jobs, will bust the budget.
- I will take on other mechanical and electrical equipment, as well as electronics. Spoiler: simplicity will rule, or bye-bye budget.
- I will then look at rig and sails.
- And, finally, I will wrap up with a sample refit budget of what each area is likely to cost us, depending on the state of the boat, so that we can realistically figure out how much we can pay to buy the boat and still come out at our target sail-away figure of US$100,000 or less.
Back to Colin:
It’s not just about the boat….
In my view, no-one should take on a major refit without an honest appraisal of:
- their own skill set,
- the time they have available for the project,
- and the logistics of where the work will take place.
This is a reality check that must be faced before you even move to the point of looking for a suitable boat.
Those of us of older vintage were used to working with our hands: making and mending bicycles, motorcycles, cars and boats in a far-less affluent or throwaway era.
As a result, we developed the confidence to tackle a wide range of tasks and the skills—mechanical, electrical, wood and glassfibre work—that came from trial and, sometimes ghastly, error as we cheerfully butchered old iron in a bid to be mobile on land and sea.
More recent generations, who have been blessed with greater prosperity and more reliable and generally newer kit, have not been faced with the same daily tasks and so (with honourable exceptions) may have some catching up to do. Which is not to suggest that they can’t gain those skills and become far handier than us. Just that they will have to roll up their sleeves and learn.
Much of the work involved in renovating an old GRP boat does not require extraordinary levels of skill (though there are some jobs that will demand much higher levels of skill, as we shall see). For example, glassfibre repair itself is generally filthy and time-consuming work, but it is by no means beyond the ability of a willing and capable amateur. Doing this type of labour-intensive work yourself will save substantial money that can be spent on new gear, etc.
Essentially, the more skills you have (or can muster from amongst your friends), the better your chances of staying within budget and an acceptable time frame. And if you have many of the required skills, the chances are you will also have some of the tools of the trade, too, which is all to the good.
But if you have few practical skills to bring to the project and are not naturally good with your hands, then you’re going to have to pay someone else to do all the work, in which case you’ll be very unlikely to meet our $100,000 budget.
So if that’s the case, it may be better to be honest with yourself and wait until you can afford a boat that doesn’t need much fixing.
And, if you earn a good rate per hour, it will likely make more sense to just work hard and save until you can pay someone on a lesser hourly rate to work on your boat, rather than risk your dream turning into a lash-up and a nightmare.
Time and Space
Imagining that we have purchased a 40-foot boat in reasonable condition for our project, an optimistic guess might be that one person, working half of their time, would need to spend around 12 months to have the boat ready for sea. Double that if you can only work weekends. How will you support yourself? Where will you live? All questions that need to be taken into account.
It is generally better to have the boat out of the water while the work is carried out as many tasks can only be done ‘dry’. Also, given that you must always have one eye on the budget, being on the hard is generally cheaper than in the water in a marina; access for electricity and workshop services will be better and the noise and mess that’s an inevitable corollary of a project of this nature will arouse less fury amongst your neighbours.
If you find a low cost, old-fashioned boatyard that will let you live aboard (at least some of the time) and work on your own boat, you will save money and gain lots of extra hours of viable work time as a result.
Some boatyards are quite happy to have liveaboards doing re-fits, as it aids security out of hours. Plan the work accordingly to ensure that the boat remains a liveaboard option for as long as possible—ripping out the interior without making alternative living arrangements isn’t always the best idea! Hopefully, the boatyard has a good shower block, in any case…you’ll need it.
Sometimes You Need a Friend
Having spent many months of my life living in boatyards, few of which resembled the Ritz, I can confirm that, whilst they are often noisy and dirty homesteads, they can also be a great place to meet like-minded people, always good for the spirit and a great source of sound advice and practical knowledge.
Do not underestimate what a lonely task a long-term refit like this can be—friendly human contact is as good as money in the bank in this regard and will help keep morale and motivation up. Yet another reason why I’d always look for a welcoming, well-equipped boatyard every time over a farmyard up some remote lane, however cheap the latter might be.
Tools and Facilities
Boatyards generally have stocks of the sort of supplies, or can order them in, that you’ll need on a daily basis, saving more time. The best will also have good workshops and the trained staff and specialist tools (e.g. lathes, welding) that you might not possess or that simply aren’t worth attaining for a one-off job. It might cost a little more upfront, but it will save time and will be cheaper in the long term.
So, before you buy the boat, start doing your homework and identify a good boatyard that will accommodate you and the project boat for as long as it will take to complete the work. Then find your boat!
Picking a Boat
Every sailor has their preferences, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to keep the focus relatively narrow, to encompass a modest range of potentially suitable boats, otherwise there are simply too many variables.
So I’m focusing here on boats from the 1980s to the mid-90s, a period of significant growth in the number of boats built. This was an era when oil crises and penny-pinching in builders’ yards hadn’t yet resulted in wafer-thin laminates and reduced scantlings, allowing for a range of fairly durable cruiser/racers that sailed reasonably well, were of simple construction and can now be had at very affordable prices.
Having owned one of these boats for 17 years and sailed some of the others, I have a fair idea of their capabilities and weaknesses and, if I was on the lookout tomorrow for a suitable project boat, might well start here.
John here. After Colin finished this article we had a chat about example boats and here’s the resulting list:
- Sigma 41
- Wauquiez (Hood) 38 and most Wauquiez models of the time, if you can find them at the right price
- Jeanneau Sun Fizz
- Beneteau First 38 and 42
- Dufour 39 (Colin’s old boat)
- Sabre 38 (upper end of the price range)
- Valiant 40 (tend to be too expensive)
- Tayana 37 (slow compared to the others)
- Tartan 38 and 41 (the latter built in the 70s and getting old now, small and dark below, but lovely S&S design—only made the cut because I, John, have a soft spot for the boat)
Note: this is a list of examples, not recommendations, nor is it meant to be exhaustive, since there are probably scores of other boats that would fit the bill.
Also, there are caveats with all boats, and these are no exception. For example, Colin tells me that Beneteau was sold a bad batch of resin and built a bunch of boats out of it for at least a couple of years before the problem was discovered and fixed.
Some of the Sigmas were fractional rigged with swept-back spreaders, and some of the boats above had teak decks, all less attractive for our project. And, of course, the early Valiant 40s had huge problems with blistering due to fire retardant resin.
Back to Colin:
There are a couple of simple rules that are reliable and unchanging when looking for your project boat:
Don’t Start With a Wreck
The first of these is to prioritise boats that have been regularly updated by caring owners.
Take two similar boats, one of which is in reasonable condition, but has had very few substantial upgrades, against one which has been looked after and had valuable reinvestment in key areas. If the former is for sale at $30,000, the latter at $40,000, all other things being equal, I’d lean towards the second boat every time.
The money invested by the caring owner will almost certainly not be reflected in the asking price (you never get your money back), but that boat will be more current and a lot cheaper to maintain and refit, nine times out of ten.
But Beware Of The DIY Owner
Surprisingly common, too, are modifications or repairs that have been effected by well-meaning but inept owners. I have lost count of the lousy deck equipment installations I have seen where no account at all has been taken of the loads involved.
I’ve even seen structural modifications to keels that certainly would not be sanctioned by any sane designer. Again, there are plenty of boats out there that must be more suitable. Unless you’re an absolute masochist, find something that has not been butchered.
In Part 2, Colin shares examples of hull and deck problems that can turn a refit into a nightmare, and how to avoid them.