Members' Online Book: How To Buy a Cruising Boat, Chapter 34 of 39

A Sail Away Offshore Cruising Boat For Less Than US$100,000—Part 1

Could this be our project boat?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Colin’s take on alternatives to fibreglass hull materials, to go along with mine from some months ago.
  3. 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.
  4. I will take on other mechanical and electrical equipment, as well as electronics. Spoiler: simplicity will rule, or bye-bye budget.
  5. I will then look at rig and sails.
  6. 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.


Just how much can you take on? Be honest with yourself

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.

Back in the boatyard

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.

Boatyards are the place for specialist skills like welding

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.

More recent boats are often very lightly constructed

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:

Looking Around

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.

Who thought adding a lead bulb to this keel was a good idea? Not the designer, I’ll bet.

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.


[If you have thoughts or questions, please leave a comment. That said, please stay on topic. This is not a series about boat selection. We have already done a huge amount on that earlier in this Online Book.]

Coming Next

In Part 2, Colin shares examples of hull and deck problems that can turn a refit into a nightmare, and how to avoid them.

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

57 comments… add one
  • Rob Gill Jan 8, 2020, 4:06 pm

    Hi Colin, John,
    Really interesting series idea – very cool.
    In your list of potential “project” boats you don’t mention your criteria though: double handed? Live aboard?
    But in particular, are you considering the project cost up until launch only? Or say a likely five or seven year total cost of ownership which could be very different depending on the yacht?
    My main question though, is why cut off at the mid 90’s? Is this because you really need 50% of your budget for new offshore gear – $50k (not unrealistic)? Is there not a case for finding a mid 2000’s yacht with less refit needed? Particularly if you factor in your reduced time off work and reduced boatyard charges in the cost model? And then factor the lower on-going maintenance costs of a lightly used boat over the 5-7 years?
    Perhaps worth consideration anyway – so my suggestion in this vein is something like this:
    Stronger hull and appendage wise than a few of the boats on your list and would allow close to $30k for upgraded ground tackle, modern feathering prop and offshore safety gear. With the modern prop you could lose the bow thruster and sell that – won’t be needed. One or both quarter cabins could be sensibly stripped out, to provide for long term storage and spares, with space for a single pilot berth?
    By the way – if starting cruising in the Med on a budget, I have been told that the magic number for most of Europe is to be under 40 foot (which the B393 is by a whisker). The under 40 foot category has half the mooring and handling charges as the next category up!
    Br. Rob

    • John Jan 8, 2020, 7:39 pm

      Hi Rob,

      Note Colin wrote:
      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 sure, there are other ways to get the job done.

      As to live aboard, or double handed etc, I don’t think it much matters for the purposes of this series.

      Bottom line, this is not a series about boat selection, we have already done that in huge detail in other parts of the Online Book, it’s about what to do when you have decided what boat you want and how to bring it in under $100K

  • Mark Wilson Jan 8, 2020, 5:12 pm

    Dear Colin and John

    I think I may have solved your problem; or at least one of your readers’ problem. There’s a Sigma 41 for sale in Southampton that has recently been refitted for a short handed ARC dream that never materialised. Everything new and seriously upgraded just about as far as I can see. Yours for £45,000 ($58,949 US at tonight’s rates). The refit probably cost more than the asking price. Not sure I would want a boat built by Marine Projects but many don’t share my prejudices.

    Have been seriously impressed by the Sun Fizz after overcoming my disdain for French Tupperware. With that budget you could have the best one in the world.

    Would be most tempted by the S&S Tartan. All boats are cramped to some extent but the sheer joy of looking at those lines as I rowed away from her would lift my soul every time.

    Meanwhile, in other news, I am just about to make an offer in principle on my 40 foot dream boat. Sight unseen and subject to inspection both by myself and an unbiased professional of course.

    Best, Mark

    • John Jan 8, 2020, 7:27 pm

      Hi Mark,

      I looked at that Sigma when putting the list together. That said sadly there is often a big gap between the broker’s idea of fully refitted and ready to cross oceans and reality. For example, the first two questions I would ask about that boat are have the keel and rudder been off and properly inspected? That said, even if the answer is no that boat seems to be a good candidate to come in under the budget.

    • Richard Neve Jan 9, 2020, 8:03 pm

      Mark and John, I have a 1986 Sigma which is an excellent sailing vessel at a reasonable cost.Construction quality is better than most popular cruising boats. I have had no problems with construction quality.

      • Colin Speedie Jan 10, 2020, 7:02 am

        Hi Mark, John and Richard
        I was around at the time that Marine Projects were building the Sigma range and think they were well put together and have lasted well as a result. Remember that cruiser/racers of that era were built to be cruised in summer and thrashed around the cans most weekends – if they were poorly built, we’d know about it by now.
        Moody’s built from the same yard were capable and solid, too.

  • Philip Wilkie Jan 8, 2020, 5:53 pm

    Wonderful plan. Looking forward to this a lot … although a tad frustrating as I’m right in the middle of exactly this project and it’s coming about 2 months too late to be really useful to me. But that’s not your fault; I’m going to have to make the best of it.

    So far I can absolutely confirm the validity of the points made. First up a hull with a configuration and condition that’s going to work for the kind of sailing you want to do, and isn’t going to derail the budget, money and time-wise. (Unless of course doing up old boats is your thing … in that respect the utterly OCD Danish dude Mads … SailLife on YT… will be an inspiration. This guy has literally rebuilt everything on his Valiant 40 to the extent that no surface or component remains untouched. But his methodical, intelligent approach to every task proves it can be done.)

    I pulled out of the ocean this: A steel round bilge Adams 40, a classic Australian cruiser, 3/4 cutaway shoal keel, skeg protected rudder, cutter rigged and well built. The hull and mast are in good condition, I’m keeping the ancient Yanmar 3QM30 and replacing virtually every other bolted on system, electrics, wiring, comms … the lot. Plus a lot of paint. Fortunately there is only a very modest amount of rust, nothing that cannot be easily fixed.

    The challenge was finding the right place to do it, and in this I’ve been incredibly fortunate. We’re working and living at a major club/yard in Brisbane with all the facilities and assistance we need. As you say, having company that understands what you’re going through and is supportive makes a huge difference. Plus some really good tradesmen. I find it you treat them with respect and pay them on time, they can be your best ally with both advice and access to tools and workspace. I make time to get out on the Wednesday club sail and socialise at the clubhouse Fridays; we’ve met many great people and each one of them teaches us something along the way.

    In a big marina like this it wasn’t too hard to find another spacious boat to rent. It means we’re living separate to the mess and this is enormously helpful. A good shower … absolutely vital.

    As for the skillset, well I’m one of those boomer generation types your describe … pretty much everything is doable, but I’ve yet to learn TIG welding. That’s my next challenge.

    All I really want now is all of your planned installments in this series … tomorrow 🙂

    • Erik Rudels Jan 9, 2020, 5:20 am

      Hi Philip,
      Similar situation for me also in steel 42 feet
      Re-power and engine bay this summer as well as interior to a live aboard level this summer. Good luck with your project!
      , Erik

      • Philip Wilkie Jan 9, 2020, 11:28 pm

        Nice boat. The cockpit looks very comfortable, the electrics are immaculate and that keel is very nice.

        I’d post current pics of mine but it would be embarrassing.

        • Colin Speedie Jan 10, 2020, 7:06 am

          Hi All
          I’d second all of your comments.
          Philip – looks to me like you’re going about this the right way and treating the yard boys as they should be and paying on time – good advice for us all!
          Hopefully the further instalments will prove helpful.

        • Erik Rudels Jan 11, 2020, 8:38 pm

          Same here, no pictures in a while. But hopefully she’ll look better and more ours in a few years.

    • Charles Steadman Feb 1, 2020, 6:45 pm

      Mads on Sail Life has a Warrior 38. You might be confusing him with Brick House, another YT channel on a Valiant 40. Both of these channels show how if you pick that sort of old boat you need to be ready for your budget split to be $1 for the boat and $99,999 for the refit.

  • Terence Thatcher Jan 8, 2020, 8:52 pm

    I look forward to the series, since I have already selected and upgraded an older tupperware boat (Morgan 382) for voyaging (although not for high latitude, Roaring 40s kind of voyaging). More accurately she was selected for inland cruising and the voyaging came later, so she is not perfect. The limit on high latitude cruising seems to be applicable to your examples, too. At least I would not take a Beneteau or even a S&S Tartan 37 around Cape Horn. Maybe a well found Valiant or Fast Passage 39 (they have done it), but the old ones are getting pretty long in the tooth. I would suggest that fuel and water tank capacity as well as general stowage room are important for most cruisers. So, I assume you will address adding tankage. I added fuel capacity and a water maker to my vessel along with various improvements in stowage options. Most production boats have too many bunks. You have to choose which to sacrifice to get reasonable stowage. No reply needed.

    • Colin Speedie Jan 10, 2020, 7:10 am

      Hi Terence
      fuel and water tankage are important and are one of the difficulties with older cruiser/racers, most of them are short on the sort of capacity generally required for longer distance cruising. Ditto cabins and bunks – how many do you need? Tankage can generally be added in flexible tanks at reasonable cost and cabins can be altered to stowage – where there’s a will, there’s a way!

    • Matthew Clark Jan 12, 2020, 4:04 pm

      Hi, very timely series as we are right now shopping in this exact category with the goal of under 60k now for coastal voyaging / learning, and then making the remainder of the upgrades as we go over the next couple years of preparing for longer voyages. The Morgan 382/383 keeps making it’s way up our list after initially finding it on John Neal’s Mahina Expeditions list of off shore cruising boats to consider. Terence, or anyone else with direct experience here, would you still select the Morgan? Why or why not? Any thing to watch out for that’s not covered in the Practical Sailor and other reviews? Any issues with the odd keel holding tank or anything else in particular? Thanks, Matt

      • Terence Thatcher Jan 12, 2020, 4:33 pm

        Matt, you can learn a great deal at Lots of posts on pros/cons and upgrades. My experience, however, is that most owners are a little too connected to their boats to be objective about their deficiencies.

        • Matthew Clark Jan 12, 2020, 4:36 pm

          Thanks, I’ll spend some time there researching.

        • Richard Elder Jan 12, 2020, 5:25 pm

          Hi Terence,
          So how is your hull to deck joint doing? The only Morgan 382 I’ve been around leaked all the way from the bow to the chainplate area while sitting at the dock in a hard rain. We were contracted to build a custom interior in it, but the owner ended up spending his entire budget repairing the hull joint and she still leaked. I’d trial her a few times in the worst conditions I could find before setting off into the sunset.

          • Terence Thatcher Jan 12, 2020, 8:43 pm

            Richard: Fair question and reasonable concern. Here is what I have learned in decades around boats, including fiberglass craft. Low to mid-price production boats of the same type (i.e., sister ships) vary widely in their construction quality. (And I have even heard some disturbing tales about certain Hinkleys.) Maybe it is which workers were assigned the hull, maybe it is variable supervision, maybe it is whether the boat was finished on a Friday or a Monday. For instance, I have great bulkhead bonds to the hull; nothing has ever moved or separated-and we have been in rough stuff for days at a time. Others have seen those bonds separate and have had to do repairs. My Morgan 382 hull-deck joint does not leak, but others do, evidently. Mine is bedded in butyl and screwed down the whole length of the boat. Not perfect. But it is also through bolted from the shroud chainplates to the aft end of the cockpit, along where the outboard genoa track sits on the bulwark and cap rail. The hull and deck are also through-bolted on both sides of the bow in the way of the headstay chainplate, dual anchor rollers and the forward cleats and chocks and in the stern in way of cleats, drogue chainplates, and pushpit stanchions. What does this long-winded reply mean? Other than proving my verbosity and my familiarity with my vessel, it means only what John and Colin have said elsewhere on AAC and what I expect they will discuss further in this thread: never buy a used boat without investigating its history and without a THOROUGH survey by someone who is willing to take things apart and contort him or herself into tiny spaces. Had I $100K, rather than $60K, 22 years ago when I bought my Morgan, I would probably have bought something else. But we all make and live with our compromises. Finally, Colin and John did not intend this to be a discussion of WHICH good old boat to buy, but how to think about acquiring and upgrading voyaging vessels on a budget. So I myself have broken John’s rules on relevance. I apologize. But even those who are clear-eyed about the limitations of our vessels can reveal a unreasonable tendency to take umbrage when someone questions our choices or suggests deficiencies in our own vessel. I don’t love my Morgan 382 the way I loved the traditional wooden ketch I grew up on, but she is still my baby.

          • John Jan 13, 2020, 12:22 pm

            Hi Terence,

            Great comment with a lot of good points. As you say, even a very expensive boat like a Hinkley can have big time issues, In fact I know of a Southwester Competition 42 that required $100K to fix hull core problems.

            Also a good point, in this comment and your last, about the biases that we all have about our own boats that, in many cases, make interviewing owners or reading their forums an unreliable way to determine quality—both are still useful but must be filtered with a healthy dose of scepticism.

            Bottom line, as you say, only an exhaustive survey will do.

      • Richard Elder Jan 12, 2020, 5:37 pm

        Hi Mathew:
        John Neal has had an amazing career introducing people to ocean voyaging, but I don’t think he has ever owned any boat except a Halberg Rassy. I’d temper his advice with that from somebody like Steve D’Antonio who has seen the underside of every nasty problem!

  • Andrew Craig-Bennett Jan 9, 2020, 3:53 am

    I would like to suggest that you might include a couple of smaller boats – I suggest:

    Vancouver 27/28
    Vertue II
    Rustler 31
    Pearson Triton maybe?

    • John Jan 9, 2020, 11:24 am

      Hi Andrew,

      For the purposes of this series it won’t matter what size the boat is, at least within reason.

    • Richard Elder Jan 12, 2020, 5:41 pm

      Hi Andrew
      It takes a very special couple to remain coupled after crossing an ocean in a Vertue or any boat that small!

      • Andrew Craig-Bennett Jan 17, 2020, 3:39 am

        True, Richard, but running out of money often has a similar effect…

    • Philippe Candelier Jan 17, 2020, 11:43 pm

      I purchased a Dufour 39 Frers (1995 edition, one of the last produced) 6 years ago, and partially refited the boat over the last 5 years. This is interesting because all in all, I am now a bit above 110k$ total and still need a few more item to be checked on the todo list for an ocean crossing, but the boat is doing great and we can enjoy coastal cruising and a few multi-days offshore passages in confidence. This year we are spending the winter cruising the Bahamas after sailing down the East cost from upstate New York. I can share more information and numbers should you want those.

      • John Jan 18, 2020, 11:28 am

        Hi Philippe,

        Thanks for sharing that. And yes, I would be very interested in your numbers.

  • Henrik Johnsen Jan 9, 2020, 12:30 pm

    What do you think about an old, (1970-80) fiber glass boat?
    Will the fiber glass be avlive for ever?

    • Douwe Gorter Jan 9, 2020, 7:10 pm

      I am currently refitting a 1968 van de Stadt, Gallant 53. We replaced all through hulls and were able to inspect the grp carefully. To answer your question; this boat proves that, if well build, grp will last a very long time. We did not find any defects below the waterline, above the waterline defects were due to damage caused by impact with other boats or whatever hit her… Bear in mind this is the yacht Naomi James used to sail round the world in 1978, also Express Crusader did a round S America voyage including Antartica and 18 Atlantic’s crossings as far as we are aware. Grp probably doesn’t live forever but if the construction / design and used materials are of good quality, and if properly maintained these boats will outlive us.

      • Colin Speedie Jan 10, 2020, 7:14 am

        Douwe is right – many older, early GRP boats were way over built, as in those days people really didn’t know what the parameters with GRP really were, so they built them thick. It does pay to inspect such really carefully, though, because it’s also true that some build practices to support rigs etc, especially on cheaper boats were not the best. And at that age, you might well expect to find plenty of work to keep you occupied.

    • John Jan 10, 2020, 11:47 am

      Hi Henrik,

      I think the longevity of fibreglass is a very complex subject that probably defies any general rules. My guess is that a lot of how long a given boat lasts will depend more on cycles than years. Matt and I have written on that at length earlier in the online book:

      • Matt Jan 11, 2020, 6:08 pm

        The longevity of fibreglass is governed mainly by the quality of the materials and workmanship in the original build. If done properly, with good resin, the stuff is probably as close to immortal as you can get in a marine environment.

        The main causes of failure that I tend to see in fibreglass structures are:

        Bad core. By a long shot, bad core takes the top spot. Core where it’s not appropriate, core that’s drilled for through-hulls without being replaced with solid fibreglass in that area, core that’s penetrated by screws and bolts, core that’s crushed by high local compressive loads, core that’s sheared or shredded by repeated bending, core that’s gone soft in the hot tropical sun under dark paint, core that never bonded to the skins in the first place because of sloppy technique, and core that’s made from cheap mystery materials which disintegrate in your hands.

        Poor quality resin is probably next, with the infamous “boat pox” (osmotic blistering) being the most obvious variation on this theme. That particular flaw is at least repairable, at considerable cost.

        Incomplete wet-out is #3. This comes mainly from sloppy manufacturing and poor QA; there’s never been a good excuse for it.

        Finally, composite structures that are too weak by design, due either to cost-cutting (certain bottom-feeding production builders who shall remain nameless here) or in the name of performance (cutting-edge racers that are going to be written off after 2-3 competitive seasons anyway).

        Avoid those pitfalls, and you end up with a hull and structure that may well outlive western industrialized civilization itself.

        • Colin Speedie Jan 12, 2020, 3:53 am

          Hi Matt
          thanks for that sober comment – your analysis has been exactly what I’ve found over the years and should be required reading for anyone looking at a GRP boat.
          Best wishes

        • John Jan 12, 2020, 11:39 am

          Hi Matt,

          That makes sense. That said, based on observation, I think very few boats fibreglass boats are built to a level where they will stand up to cycle loading offshore without softening up. Therefore, if trying the $100K option I would try to find a boat that had been sailed lightly and definitely stay away from boats that had been raced hard.

          • RDE Elder Jan 13, 2020, 12:48 pm

            Hi John & Matt
            I recall that back in the wood/epoxy boat building era Gougeon Bros. performed an extensive cycle loading comparison between the engineering qualities of wood and fiberglass. I no longer have the numbers in my memory bank, but the bottom line is that wood showed only minimal degradation during the million cycle test while fiberglass ended up with only a fraction of it’s initial strength.

            Makes sense that the original cellular structural material should withstand cyclical loading so well. After all it was engineered by Nature to bend in the wind over a lifetime that could be as long as a thousand years.

            I recall a delivery on a lightweight performance cruiser built from unidirectional fiberglass and epoxy over a foam core. It rang like a bell while reaching in a moderate seaway. On the other hand a fiberglass boat built like the old Westsail 43 will probably never be effected by cyclical loading—.

          • John Jan 14, 2020, 11:41 am

            Hi Richard,

            My guess is that the light weight boat may actually soften up less than the Westsail, but may is the operative word here since it will depend on how well engineered the race boat was. But if it was engineered well enough to flex very little under extreme stress then I think I’m right in saying that it will stay stiff. In my experience stiff boats stay stiff and bendy boats get bendier.

            For example, I spent a very interesting hour poking through the remains of a wrecked Volvo 60 (the one I wrote about). She had been cut up into manageable pieces to be trucked away so I could see how lightly she was built, but with lots of supporting structure in high load areas. My friend and neighbour Chris, who has sailed some 300,000 miles on boats like this, tells me that they stay stiff indefinitely, even when abused horribly in races like the Volvo.

            We also had the same experience in the 505 class: stiff highly engineered boats stay stiff, bendy low tech boats get bendier.

            Anyway, none of that is definitive, but just supports that good engineering rules and I think that a lot of very heavily built boats are in fact poorly engineered.

          • RDE Elder Jan 14, 2020, 2:49 pm

            Hi John
            We are in agreement that structurally well designed boats have a better chance of having a long life than poorly designed ones. The boat I referenced was drawn by a famous designer and laid up by a builder who had at least 50 custom builds on his resume. Yet the unsupported hull panels were at least 4′ x 4′ and rang like a bell ever time a cross wave hit it.

            The point I was making by mentioning the Westsail 43 was not that it is a well designed boat (the termites common in the deck and cabin top attest to that).
            But a round bilge full keel hull that is 1″ thick is so overbuilt that it rarely flexes and has a huge margin before any long term degradation effects it. Kind of analogous to some of the early aluminum racing boats that were lightly plated over the framing and oil canned extensively vs something like a Boreal or my friend’s Passoa with its 12mm bottom plating.

  • Will Kirkness Jan 9, 2020, 3:33 pm

    Hi Colin and John,
    To back up your article, 2 years ago we purchased an ’84 First 42. I laboured and sweat over the decision to buy a Beneteau for offshore. But inspection showed that this boat was very well cared for, upgraded structurally in all the right places and was very well outfit for offshore – apart from the small fuel tank. Plenty of research showed that this era and line of Beneteau was well built and well designed. The designed also suited my performance oriented wife. Fast is fun! We bought her for 105 CAD which translates into about 80 to 85K USD.
    The previous owner had re-built the venerable Perkins, replaced the standing rigging and outfit her with offshore sails (and cared for them) – among many, many other crucial upgrades. There are tasks, of course. I will be re-building or replacing the rudder before departure and will take the mast down for another thorough look at all chainplates, tie-bars etc. We will be staying in a live-aboard boatyard for this work. The known blister issues are looked after and the few that are present do not present a significant worry – in other words, we can address them over time. Can we keep this under 100K? Well that depends on what we find, but the general condition of the boat tells me yes.
    Finding this boat at this price has allowed us to enjoy worry-free coastal sailing to learn the boat, perform ongoing upgrades and practice sailing around the Canadian West coast, a notable lee-shore.
    I must admit, reading many of John’s articles has made me break out in a cold sweat over deciding on this boat, leading me to re-think, research and re-evaluate this boat and its condition. Seeing her on this list has given me a huge relief – regardless of my analytical approach. Thank you confirmation bias!

  • Richard Elder Jan 9, 2020, 5:51 pm

    Hi Will
    Congratulations upon owning one of the one of the prettiest racer-cruisers on the planet in that size range. Frers was certainly the master when it came to line.

    If she were mine I’d look very carefully at the keel, bolts, and structure. Liner grid construction may be the cheapest but it certainly not the toughest way to put a boat together. You have the advantage that the age of the boat should have disclosed any flaws in the way your particular boat has fared.

    1- Does the exterior keel to hull interface show any signs of a smile or crack? No? Great!
    2- Is yours one of the rare 8′ draft versions with a lead keel? Should be a beast going to weather, but look out for the bommies!
    3- If it is an iron keel, the keel bolts should be steel (not Stainless) . Clean off all the covering gell coat and remove and re-torque the nuts one at a time. If there is visible rust on the bolts or under the washers or backing plates it’s time to drop the keel and replace the bolts. Not an easy job on this boat, but will provide more peace of mind than just re-torquing.
    4- Good on ya for replacing the rudder. Are you good with the bearing support design, or is reinforcing in order?
    5- These boats aren’t known for storage capacity! Time to sacrifice a berth or two in favor or a workshop or water tankage?
    6- You’ll either install a dodger that is too high to look over for proper watch keeping or you will crawl on hands and knees to the companionway ladder. Precisely why I didn’t buy one of these a couple of years ago! But I think I have too many deal-breakers on my wish list!
    7- Since you live in the PNW you have the perfect opportunity to experience Cape Horn conditions if you so choose! Just hang out in Sooke or Forks for a couple of months in November or December. The incidence of full gales at the mouth of the Straights of Juan de Fuca combined with the North Pacific swell is as reportedly as impressive as any place in the world!
    8- Since your wife is the go-fast member of the team she’ll thank you for moving the chain locker back into one of the closets opposite the Pulman berth. You might end up having the fastest First 42 in Banderas Bay!

    • Will Kirkness Jan 9, 2020, 6:51 pm

      Hello Richard,
      You have just described each of my fore-mentioned cold sweats. Allow me to reply to each of your points as they may apply – and be helpful – to others.
      1/2/3 – The most agonizing topic I wrestled. The previous owner had described, and had records of one of the regions professionals who had removed the iron keel to make the interior supporting grid stronger. The keel bolts were replaced with new stainless bolts and larger, thicker square washers. During the survey I had more than one professional look at the joint. While the hull is more than sound, the sealant had failed at the leading edge of the joint and gave the impression of a smile. We lifted and lowered the boat onto its keel many times and found no movement. We kicked and rocked the keel from every angle. I wanted so bad to find movement so I could walk away. She was solid. I stuck all kinds of metal probes into the joint to find that it was very shallow and was nowhere near the keel bolts. Conclusion: The lack of keel stub meant that a proper mating surface was never created and the builder filled the void at the leading edge with gobs of 5200. This was repeated by the contractor who removed and replaced the keel. This product will only last about 10 years under water which is consistent with the timeline of the repair. This summer I removed all of the failed 5200, cleaned like hell and replaced with G-Flex epoxy. I have removed each keel bolt for inspection and re-torqued. I feel very good about this joint.
      4 – The upper rudder support was reinforced and the upper rudder bearing replaced with an oversize unit
      5 – This boat came with all of the racer sea-berths. Their lee-boards are holding in our library! They also make a great place to store duffel bags. Compromises. A Katadyne watermaker was also installed to help with the water tankage. Alas, the fuel tank is still required to keep this feature running.
      6 – I can see over our dodger perfectly. My wife however, is looking straight at the top of it while at the helm. Discussions are ongoing 🙂
      7 – We prepared for, and cruised to Sooke this summer. After all the buildup and preparation for heavy headwinds, including rebuilding a solent stay and #4, we experienced the same calms the kept Jeanne Socrates from arriving back in Victoria on time. We were even heading westward under spinnaker! Nice to see you again, Mr. Murphy.
      8 – A very interesting idea! When, oh when, will builders make chain lockers in the center of the boat more common.

      • Richard Elder Jan 9, 2020, 10:03 pm

        Hi Will
        Looks like you have a First 42 that I’d be glad to go to Tahiti on!
        The proper treatment for “yacht technicians” who install a keel with gobs of 5200 to fill all the voids is to be coated from head to toe with the stuff, and then be covered with feathers. At least that was the treatment applied to sheepherders who tried to bring woollies into cow country in my state.

        ps I think if you’d leave tomorrow morning to sail from Sooke to Forks you’d find a different test venue!

        • Colin Speedie Jan 10, 2020, 7:21 am

          Hi Will
          these are fine boats and it sounds like you’ve got a good, well-cared for one. Richard’s comments are all on the money and I hope the next instalments will all help, too.
          Frers boats are lovely and generally sail as well as they look fine. Look at the Frers Dufour 39 in the title pic – basically abandoned in Antigua. I had one for 18 years and many, many miles and loved her – a great designer.

          • Richard Elder Jan 10, 2020, 10:39 am

            I can’t say that I agree with “a list of brands” as a starting point for a affordable boat search. I think that a better starting point is a mission statement and a list of characteristics that best fit it.

            I’ve noticed that the best values are to be found in estate sales. There are a surprising number of boats from the 80’s that have been loved by owners who have passed on leaving their boats to offspring who do not want to carry on.

            I would first look for boats that are purpose built for the mission, rather than production boats like Will’s First 42 that , for all it’s attractive characteristics, required an extensive re-manufacture in order to correct its construction deficiencies. I’ve a quite extensive list of boats that are priced at 50k or less— leaving a lot of budget for needs like a new sail inventory or even wishes like a watermaker.

            For example, two 36′ French aluminum centerboarders that on the face of it look as nice as your Alubat. If that was the type of boat somebody is looking for they might merit a trip to the Caribbean.

            Or to take a specific example: The Miller 44. Thirty examples were built in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I did an integral transom extension and complete interior on one, and sailed it enough to remain impressed. I’d rank the boat on the same level as the Outbound that sells in the 3-400k range. Two have sold in the past two years, one in the mid 50’s and one in essentially new condition for 75k. Here is an example of what 55k and the ability to think outside the box will get you.

          • John Jan 10, 2020, 11:53 am

            Hi Richard,

            We agree that a mission statement comes first, but that’s not what this series is about. Keep in mind that it’s just part of an Online Book of over 30 chapters with many on boat selection including several on creating a mission statement. The list of boats was my idea to give those new to offshore sailing an idea of boats that might fit the bill and the time that Colin had decided to use as an example. Frankly I’m starting to regret that addition to Colin’s fine article since many people seem to have missed what I wrote under it:

            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.

            In fact, I’m seriously thinking of deleting the entire block.

          • Will Kirkness Jan 11, 2020, 3:02 pm

            But John, my validation! I agree, boat selection is like anchor selection, but I was happy to provide my own example of a boat on this list, which is a great design and well enough built, that had potential weaknesses addressed. And all for under 100k.
            Hi Colin, ah it’s a Dufor! That coachroof and sheer looked very Frers indeed.

    • Will Kirkness Jan 9, 2020, 7:09 pm

      Also, I couldn’t agree more with the sheer from the pen of German Frers. I often catch myself standing at the dock, staring at her lovingly before leaving the marina. My wife looks at me funny, but I think she does it too. Thank you, Richard, for your shared admiration for these boats.

  • Richard Neve Jan 9, 2020, 7:57 pm

    I have aSigma 41 which is on your initial list and I can highly recommend it as a “project” boat worth the investment of time, materials, and labor. Built in the 1980s, the have IOR/Swan lines with excellent sailing results. With Lewmar hatches and winches, Perkins diesel, etc, these are quality built boats.
    Sigma 41s are available from $60 K up to $80 K depending on condition.
    Well worth considering a Sigma 41!

    • Colin Speedie Jan 10, 2020, 7:24 am

      Hi Richard
      good boats, indeed. What astonished many of us at the time the boat was launched was the low initial price – they were good value for money then, especially when you checked out the equipment.

  • Dick Stevenson Jan 10, 2020, 12:01 pm

    Hi Richard,
    The video was fun. It looks like a big sister to a Freya: both being what I refer to as “smart” boats. Dick

    • Richard Elder Jan 10, 2020, 1:54 pm

      Hi Dick
      Well, not exactly like the full keel Freya— The Miller has a bulletproof fin keel fabricated from steel plate, filled with lead with tankage on top. Rather than conventional keel bolts it is built with outward flanges inset into the hull that carry bolts out to a very wide base. At 8′ deep she’s a go to weather machine. (but with a better chance to crush bommies than a deep draft race profile keel) And they didn’t skimp on rudder area either. In Valiant performance and interior volume terms she is closest to a 47. Most were center cockpit versions, but the one I did was an aft cockpit deck salon 47′ variation.
      ps I do regret not buying the 75k one last year but the timing was wrong. It was literally like a new boat and equipped exactly as I would choose including an new large Spade.

  • Mark Swanson Jan 10, 2020, 1:09 pm

    Hi Colin, John,
    My experience buying my latest boat a 1977 Valiant 40 confirms pretty much all of your points.
    # skill set,
    I was a boat builder, sailmaker, and rigger in my 20’s. I am 67 now and can still can do all the work if a bit slower than I use to.
    I am retired and for the most part enjoy working on the boat.
    Don’t buy a wreck,
    I shopped for 2 years before I found the right boat. She was owned my a live aboard couple for 19 years. They maintained and improved the boat every year. She was well equipped with many items that I could not afford either the cost or the time. She had cap horn wind vane, auto pilot, current chart plotter, radar, SSB with modem, spectra water maker, barely used aluminum bottom dinghy and outboard to name a few. A small note is that it is Better to find a boat from people who are aging out as opposed to ones that are buying another boat. My previous owners now good friends left everything on the boat. Pots, pans, complete set of tools, thousands of dollars of important spares. She was one of the many valiant 40 blister boats but had had both deck and hull significantly pealed and glassed. In the case of the deck they removed and replaced the coring. This was years ago and she is blister free.

    Where the work will take place.
    I bought the boat in Jacksonville FL and moved her to Green Cove Springs Marina. This is a DIY live aboard on the hard inexpensive anything goes marina.

    Of the 8 months I was on the boat in 2019 I spent 4 months working on the boat. In green cove springs I replaced all chain plates, cut out and rebuilt deck under windlass, re wired the shore power, and replaced the rudder. I bought the rudder from Foss Foam in Florida. They have over 400 molds and were able to build me an exact shape replacement that was better than the old one when it was new.
    After sailing offshore to Long Island, cruising Maine we brought the boat back down to the. Chesapeake. There in Haven Harbour Marina. Another DIY boat yard with super people. Not nearly as cheap as Green Cove Springs but reasonable. There I had the mast pulled by the yard. I stripped it, Repainted, re wired, all new sheaves, blocks, lights, and standing rigging.
    At this point I am just a little over the 100k threshold. I have many more projects to do but they are personal preferences.

  • Colin Speedie Jan 10, 2020, 1:43 pm

    Hi Mark
    good to hear you agree with my pitch so far – and it sounds like you’ve got the skills and found the right places to get the work done with little fuss.
    Thanks for the tip on Foss foam – as you’ll see from the next posts, rudder replacement must be considered for boats of this age, and finding someone to do the work at affordable rates is crucial – over in Europe Jefa rudder systems are another good place to look.

  • Patrick Genovese Jan 17, 2020, 1:30 pm

    One observation, none of the first 5 boats mentioned above have skeg hung rudders.

  • Dave Warnock Feb 3, 2020, 7:10 am

    We are part way through refitting a 1977 Rival 38 centre cockpit that we bought at the end of August.
    We are going to be somewhat under your budget and in the process are going fossil fuel free. Going for a first launch for local cruising this summer and then continuing refitting before retirement and world cruising in a few years.
    Lots at

    • Colin Speedie Feb 5, 2020, 5:48 am

      Hi Dave
      looking through some of the photo’s on your site took me back to our old Dufour 39 and the work we had to do to bring her up to scratch. She started out looking like the abandoned D39 in the title pic of this post, and ended up a beauty – as I’m sure your Rival will.
      Good luck with your project, which I’ll be sure to keep an eye on.

  • Mark Wilson Feb 15, 2020, 7:23 am

    Dear Colin and John

    I have just bought a Dufour 39 called Forever Changes in La Spezia. This won’t come as a surprise to Colin as I emailed him a couple weeks ago after I first viewed his former boat to let him know.

    The seller is a professional skipper of an immaculate classic 22 metre Laurent Giles ketch based nearby. Apart from the trip to Italy and a three week cruise with his missus she has gone nowhere and spent much of her time on the hard. A paint job, a new main and an overhaul of the 4108 are all that has occurred in the last 12 years. She might have been preserved in aspic. She even has her old spray hood which looks like it has a few years of active service left in it.

    I took her for a morning’s sail. She goes like a witch in light airs. The engine worked as did all the systems. We shall see. I will try and keep you posted on our trials and tribulations.