Planning a Refit—It’s a Lot About You

It's amazing how often I sit down to write an article with a clear idea of what it's going to be about and then come out at the end with something completely different.

This just happened big time as I was working on the first article of a series on budgeting a refit.

As you would expect, I started off defining the boat but, as I was doing that, I kept veering off into thinking about the owners taking on a refit and how to use my own experience to increase the chances of good outcomes for them.

And the more I wrote, the more I realized that really understanding ourselves is the first, and most important, step to a successful project. 

But first, let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Is There A Better Way?

Is there any way at all that you can structure your life to come up with US$250,000 to $350,000 to spend on a newer, good quality, offshore cruising boat, even if it takes a few years of waiting, working, and saving? If you can, the whole thing will be much easier and probably a lot more fun.

Seriously, think about this right now, before you go any further down this road. If you have a good job it may be smarter to wait a bit and save, while you sail with others, have a good time, and hone your skills.

Back To The Original Plan

That said, how many people, particularly younger people, have a quarter of a million bucks and more to spend on a boat? Not many. I totally get that.

And if you live on the boat for a few years prior to going cruising while still working at a good job, and thereby save rent or mortgage payments while still earning, refitting an older boat can be downright affordable.

So let's get back to looking at the kind of person who has a good chance of successfully completing a refit, within a sensible budget, in a reasonable period of time.

This could be you if:

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Ernest E Vogelsinger

Hey John, thanks for constantly reminding me that my pursue will not be of that shiny glory but one of blood, sweat and tears – well at least _they_ made some decent music.

Actually there are a lot of examples that prove your points and show that it is doable, some of them readily available to read about: one for example is Matt (Life on Gudgeon, http://www.gudgeonblog.ca/), a guy who bought a cheap old boat, went to living on her and continued working in his job while slowly refitting – and being successful. Then the Canadian-Swiss couple, him being a young and capable boat builder, who bought a wreck that fell of the crane and was completely destroyed, they are now happily sailing the Med after a lot of work (Sailing Magic Carpet, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCF4xKWRRSuOo4pkOgn91Tdg). Or the example of these sweet young Brazilian couple who bought an old and neglected steel boat and are still refitting – their goal at the moment not being cruising but getting their boat ready while living on it (Odd Life Crafting, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNASZ7lA8AS_yKT89TAVP9w).

My own plan as you know is for retirement which lurking around the corner end of next year. Baseline is finding a boat that is ready to sail and to live on, not necessarily in shape for offshore, but it should at least be theoretically possible to bring her to this. And while going coastal, doing island hopping while I age (which might be a realistic option) it will show how far I will be able get, and where to stop.

Basically the way is the goal… and in the meantime I’m sailing quite some miles with others, also offshore – this June for example Iceland-Faeroers. Had been nice to continue further to Scandinavia, but I still have a job 😉

(and hey, I really made it to have the first post *hehe*)

Ernest E Vogelsinger

John, being an IT guy for the last 40+ years, and “Internet pro” for at least 22, I hope toknow what to take with a grain of salt. I’m always amazed by the amount of time and energy a lot of young people put into their projects, but most of them omit the costs, and how they handle the financing. Looking at their Patreon accounts, income from this channel is hardly more than a couple of coffees a month. So there must be a different source, but as I said most of them don’t mention it.
I’m using the YT channels mainly to collect different ideas on tackling specific problems. And of course, to inhale nice pictures of nice sunsets 😉

Matt

As far as YouTube goes, yes, it’s a great medium for inspiration and for escaping from winter for half an hour at a time….. but videographers on that platform often present a somewhat idealized perspective of booze & bikinis in a tropical paradise, leaving out the details and the downsides. It is entertainment, after all. Two million people want to watch the fun eye-candy stuff; maybe 2% of those want to see the engine room in pieces as someone counts the shredded bits of raw-water impeller being fished out of the heat exchanger.

s/v Delos is among the better ones for this – they did a few episodes, for example, on “here’s us doing 800 hours of manual labour with scrapers & sandblasters, wearing tyvek suits in a Grenada boatyard.”

There are certainly a lot of Patreon “buy us a beer” and monetized/ad-ridden YouTube channels that appear to be making ten or a hundred dollars a month. The ones who are good enough, and popular enough, to make a living at it seem to be very few & far between.

Stein Varjord

Hi John,
I think this article might be the most important one on this topic, but perhaps we can’t see that before we have fallen deep into the mistakes ourselves. I certainly have. I mostly don’t regret my mistakes, as they have made me me, but I would have been more productive if I was quicker at accepting it when I discover a mistake, so I could adjust my choices and move on. “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” (Douglas Adams)

Those who are dreaming of sailing to distant shores should definitely not let the dream go. “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” (Mae West). However, the route to realising the dream can be incredibly much easier by properly contemplating the issues mentioned here. “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” (Albert Einstein)

For me, the biggest problem has mostly been getting real progress. To do that, I’ve needed to develop methods to make myself more productive. That’s a huge topic, but another quote I love: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” (Antoine Saint-Exupery)

So, if we have been able to choose the right goal, and figured out how to make it come true, the next job is to get it done, which is the actual work and lasts a long time. I’ve often been way too good at finding reasons to waste time. “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” (Unknown)

As has been mentioned many times on this site, perfection is also a potential enemy of getting to the goal. “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.” (George S. Patton.)

Sorry for pretending to have “the wisdom of life” and pushing quotes, but it just felt right. Just one more quote to illustrate this, and for the heck of it: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes.” (Billy Conolly)

Alex Borodin

Thanks for the reminder to plan in detail. I just went ahead and put a guesstimated number beside every line in my to-do list. Sobering, but useful.

> (At least I got it right the third time.)
This got me thinking: what’s the probability that if someone got it right the first time, he’s also going to be more rational in choosing a boat? (I’m just trying to reassure myself, really.)

Alex Borodin

Hi John,

No, I didn’t (yet). I figure, because I’m definitely going for the half-assed option (refit while coastal cruising) and won’t be holding a job for a while (kids, job, refit – pick two), then time is not of such essence.
I don’t see of what use would time estimations be, except to get better at estimating. I don’t have a specific timeframe allotted to refit.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Alex,
I believe yours to be an excellent idea: especially if there is some discipline in recording work hours in each project as it goes along: not impossible or even hard, but takes discipline. Great reality testing.
I am reminded of my mother: a lifelong recreational and professional needle-pointer. Each of her larger projects had everyone in the family estimate completion date and write it in the border with their initials. As a child, I could not conceive projects that were to last years.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Andrew Craig-Bennett

I cautiously suggest that if you can keep sailing the boat, at least for a couple of weeks each year, whilst you work on her, you will decide better on what you really need.

Ernest E Vogelsinger

This is quite similar to my take on this subject – if you buy a used boat, at least one that has been sailing for some time recently without rotting on the hard for years, the basic thought should be “it has been working for someone else so lets check it out”. Sometimes it might be easier and a lot cheaper to adapt own habits to a new surrounding than to put a lot of effort and money into changing it.
On the other hand, while sailing the new boat, familiarizing yourself with what it has to offer beforehand, will help to nail down the crucial to-do list, which might very well omit that fancy new touchscreen chart plotter…

Marc Dacey

I actually “failed to sell” our first boat, an IOR racer-cruiser from the ’70s, when we bought our present boat now emerging from a lengthy refit in 2006. We had two boats for 10 years, but even when the present boat was cradled in a dusty parking lot for four years, we were able to sail and maintain some pretence of skills. I also split the costs of the older boat with others, so it wasn’t stupidly expensive.

But I don’t really recommend it. Dreams thrive on work, not sentiment.

Reed Erskine

Too many factors to consider here. If you are a late comer with little experience, aspiring to the cruising life (I started in my fifties), it might be a good idea to start with a charter or some sail training, graduating to the purchase of a small weekend cruiser in the +/- 30 ft. category.

My wife and I started with a Cape Dory 31, which took us from Maine to the Bahamas, and taught some of the innumerable lessons and skills needed for the eventual upgrade, fifteen years ago, to a fast 42 ft. race/cruiser, which took us to the Med eight years ago, and keeps us there to this day. The learning curve for late starters from non-maritime backgrounds is so steep, I don’t see how anyone can tackle the $100K cruising commitment without undertaking an “apprenticeship” of some kind in preparation. Time is not on our side. Getting bogged down in a lengthy re-fit has cooled the ardor, energy, and financial liquidity of many an aspiring/perspiring cruiser.

Mark Wilson

“Time is not on our side”. As someone whose state pension kicks in May this is doubly significant.

But I do think we have to be a bit careful with advice to the first timer. We should try and avoid being too holier than thou. A bit less of Corporal Jones’s “don’t panic, don’t panic” – while panicking – and even less of Private Frasier’s “we’re all doomed”.

Let’s not forget that sailing is actually pretty simple. You load the boat with food and water, pull up the sails and go. Anything goes wrong you deal with it. You learn as you go on. And you never stop learning. I’m not advocating a Donald Crowhurst attitude to ocean sailing; even an infant knows you don’t walk until you have learnt how to crawl.

But it’s not skill which gets you out there. Its will. We all buy the wrong boat. The perfect boat does not exist. Its a figment of our imagination. And if the wrong boat is very wrong the chances are that we will still make it work for us. We have all run across boats in far away places, looked at them and thought to ourselves: “how did they get this far ? You wouldn’t catch me on that pile of junk”. But that is purely a a subjective opinion.

The one thing that scuttles most sailing dreams is not the state of the boat it is the state of it’s owners confidence. Sure its better not to buy a pile of shit but if the rig stays up, the keel doesn’t fall off and the water more or less stays out you’ll make it to the next port. All boats are money pits – even the almost perfect ones. If you run out of cash you will just have to go and get some more. They haven’t stopped printing it and aren’t likely to anytime soon.

Sorry John. I know that I might be thought to be criticising your eminent common sensical advice, all of which I acknowledge to be right and true. But I find myself in a slightly awkward place. Thirty years ago I was a pretty experienced and seasoned ocean voyager but I have hardly stepped on a boat since. Those were simpler times. There were things electronic and electrical appearing in the world but we usually only enjoyed them for a short time before they mysteriously stopped working. Now I find myself starting all over again and feel not a little anxious about whether I still have what it takes. But what I seem to remember is that what it took was not skill but will. Its usually the owner that’s not ready to go, not the boat.

So I avidly read the books on AAC and try and absorb the lessons in them and endeavour to avoid as many mistakes as I possibly can. There was certainly nothing like this available in 1979, certainly not all in one place. I rejoice in your site but I warn against blinding the newcomer with science. Sailing is neither art nor science. Its just something that some people can do and the rewards it brings are just about unquantifiable.

I realise I could have saved myself and everyone else some time by referring to your previous piece in September on the half assed option. But just maybe the message bears repetition.

Love and Peace

Mark

Philip Wilkie

I agree, without the internet as a resource I’d not dream of attempting my refit project. It is of course a very double edged sword, there is plenty of information you have to discard, but I treat AAC as my ‘most conservative, reliable baseline’ for any decisions I make.

In this respect some of the hard won experience of John, Colin and others who’ve gone through the refit pain decades ago, needs to be qualified nowadays. I won’t say it’s any easier, the amount of time spent researching topics online is enormous, but with one or two exceptions I’m reasonably happy with all the choices I’ve made so far.

And having local club members at ‘the table of knowledge’ in the club bar to sanity check my decisions is helpful too.

Stein Varjord

Hi John,
I think I read a slightly different attitude in Marks comment than you do. I can’t say who’s right of course, but what resonates with me in his comment is that a reminder is needed for all seasoned sailors that sailing is actually very easy and certainly not inherently dangerous, compared to most other activities. As I understand it, this reminder isn’t aimed at you or AAC, but rather to us, it’s readers and perhaps even more to other less hands on sailors.

As someone who grew up on the beach and has lived for sailing my whole life, my perspective isn’t balanced. What I see as a “bare minimum” condition of a boat, is actually far more advanced than the actual minimum that people can have great joy from. I know you’re totally aware of that problem. This book is about refit at a certain price target, which is a useful target too, so discussing the minimum is off topic, and has been discussed other places. Still, in this article going into the personal and emotional side of things, the little peek at the absolute minimum perspective does seem to fit in…?

I have had many amazing experiences paddling in a kayak or sailing in various dinghies with minimal camping gear for weeks in the Norwegian southern archipelagos, also in properly foul weather. That’s not the type of adventure sailing we discuss here, but it does give a pointer to how much is the minimum that works really well. I’ve often found that the joy and the amount of learning seems to be inversely proportional to the level of comfort and ease.

As an alternative to a 100 000 dollar budget boat, it’s possible to buy an old boat for nothing, strip it out completely, make sure all the structural stuff is good. Paint the interior white. Hang hammocks and go sailing. It would be uncomfortable and put limits on the type of sailing one would actually go for, but dangerous? No. Not at all, unless the people onboard make poor choices. On the other hand, I do like comfort, we live onboard our 40 foot cat and I don’t recommend going offshore in unreliable boats, so I don’t follow my own preachings (yet, but I’m considering building a fun little thing I’ve been designing.)

I really think there’s a bit of change coming in how younger people want to sail. I’m not one of them of course, but it seems like some go for luxury, while surprisingly many (at least in Europe) say they want to go back to the basic essence of sailing. Modern, but raw, bare minimals, like a modern extreme racing boat just slightly adapted to cruisníng. They want to experience, not just sail. They want to have both the will and the skill tested.

The YouTube channel “How to sail oceans” has a very traditional boat, but he’s still a representative of that craving. Very small boat, no motor, just sails and one sculling oar. Cool guy. He’s competent but shows how little is really needed to have a great time. As you understand, I think it’s valuable to keep the door open for the absolute minimalist version of ocean cruising. Not as in a worn out unchecked wreck, but as in extremely simple boat that does only the absolutely essential things a boat MUST do well. Since I had many quotes in the earlier comment, I’ll chuck one in here, from very early in the history of Land Rover, when they where 4 wheels and an engine, no more: “Heater? No, Land Rovers only do important things!” 🙂 This was actually in an ad, from the company itself, boasting about having absolutely nothing extra. It worked!

Dick Stevenson

Hi Stein,
I would like to kick off your comment:
“a reminder is needed for all seasoned sailors that sailing is actually very easy and certainly not inherently dangerous, compared to most other activities”
I think that this statement is accurate in many ways. I also think sailing has unique features.
One of these features is that a casual outing (or an offshore passage) can go pear shaped very quickly and provide the very real possibility for injury and death, not to mention vessel damage. Even coastal sailors, maybe especially coastal sailors, must deal with whatever comes up: squalls, engine failure, bad luck etc. in ways that are far more potentially dangerous than other recreational activities where you can just walk off the field or pull your automobile over to the side of the road.
A close-ish comparison might suggest sailing is more like free climbing. There are, for good reason, very few activities where you are so “on your own” as quickly as sailing.
Since we are into quotes (very loosely paraphrased from the nursey rhyme): “When it is good it is very very good, but when it is bad it is horrid.”
For many of us who sail, I believe, this “tension arc”, if you will, of being prepared for unusual and unique possibilities while enjoying one’s sailing, is one of the major appeals. Another way of saying this is the pleasure in finding a way to be a good and graceful dance partner to whatever Mother Nature (and fate) brings your way.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Mark Wilson

Hi John

No offence taken. I went off piste.

Best

Mark

Ben Logsdon

A thought provoking article as usual…but I don’t get that headline picture.

Petter Mather Simonsen

Great article John. What makes this a great forum; not only superb boating advice, but also some frank great insight into sound relationship management, as well upbringing of children. Not to mention thought provoking quotes (Stein).
Not an expected turn, but a good one though. Keep it coming.
…… and I like the headline picture – so much – or rather all? – of what we do and decide really have root in our heads and minds.

Chuck Batson

I have learned things always require more time/money/work/etc. than I thought. When you’re new, you don’t know what you don’t know, and therefore don’t know what to ask. A couple books I read prior to buying suggested refit costs at 50% of purchase price. Mine is quickly approaching and could well exceed 100%, for a boat in relatively decent condition. I’m not even in the perfectionist category. Factor in a buffer for the unknown unknowns – then double it. And still be prepared to go over.

This is almost certainly the least rational thing I’ve ever done, sometimes I wonder about my sanity haha, but what else am I going to do with myself? 🙂

Igor Asselbergs

I keep myself reminding that a boat has only 3 requirements: it should float, it should steer and it should have propulsion. Everything else is luxury. A real world case is offered in the book ‘Shrimpy’ by Shane Acton who sailed the world in a 18 foot boat. Looking at it that way, one could very well untie the lines for way less than 100k. However, I do appreciate luxury as much as the next person, so I probably won’t sail the oceans in a tiny little boat. Then again, I’m keenly aware that luxury is a choice, not a necessity.

Calvin S Holt

Timely article, as usual John, but I did not finish it. I was worried at the, “are you good with tools” section and later stopped reading when it came to the ‘wife participation’ question. Actually that part has worked out well, as she does not like to sail, knows I am not good with tools, so has approved me buying a newer boat! Yah! So, how about before you go to Part 2, you go to 1B, which would cover our choices of newer boats?

Ernest E Vogelsinger

I’d like to take up on one sentence of the page you linked to: “The boat you choose should be […] while proving to be a good investment”.

We should really ask ourselves what a “good investment” is – if you ask me a boat can never be a “good investment” from a financial point of view, unless you are a medium- to big sized charter company, and even these struggle from time to time.

If you see your boat as an investment to fulfill your dreams it might hold true, however.

Alastair Currie

Good article! I meet your 6 bullet point requirements and completed a refit. The yacht is a Rival 41C, 41 LOA, encapsulated keel, masthead, single spreader Bermudian sloop, cutter conversion, from ’74, Peter Brett design. Typical 70’s GRP hull from that time, fairly solid, this one laid up under Lloyds Supervision, basically a tough, solid blue water yacht in her day. I work 28 days on, 28 days off, in a good job. I sailed the boat coastal, sheltered waters, for 5 years first which was great to learn all about the issues – I learned a lot and discovered what was really worn out.
The thing I found is that it was not the obvious stuff but what was discovered as things were removed that needed to be fixed. I concentrated on water tightness and integrity so all the windows were rebuilt and some hatches replaced, skin fittings, stern glands. Fresh water ingress had damaged some bulkheads so they had to be repaired. While the wiring was okay, there had been enough changes made over the years, hidden behind cupboards and lining. The changes were not always of sufficient quality, so that was a rewire. The headlining fell to bits so that needed to be replaced.
My biggest find was that to replace the fresh water damage resulted in a significant dismantling of the galley, which resulted in a new galley. I was not skilled enough to complete the finishing joinery, hence got a shipwright to do that which was my biggest cost.
All the standard stuff like standing rigging, blown sails, running rigging were replaced.
My point is, older yachts are likely to have many issues that are not foreseen. I chose to concentrate on the yachts integrity, hence I still have my old instruments, windlass, sheet winches but have a bone dry, safe yacht.
I also got sick of the whole thing by year 3 but managed to get my sailing mojo back after paying the bills for the shipwright and launching. That professional help was worth it, the joinery looks far better than I could have done it.
Cost of yacht 2008 £45k, cost of refit £60k. Conclusion, if I had saved hard, I could have bought a good yacht and sailed more. I now have a solid yacht, tidy and comfortable but there is still stuff to do e.g. overhaul cabin diesel heater, refurbish engine driven bilge pump (manual and electric pumps in place), replace instruments with modern units. I am 54, I would not do this again. The boat was valued at £50k last year for the insurance company.

Reed Erskine

Valuable commentary. The steep learning curve is expensive.

Robert Vesely

The problem with refitting an old boat is when you are done you still have an old boat. Capable but old. After 10 years the value of the refit is pert-near a wash.
Even finding say a later model passage-maker say a 2002 Tradewind 35 will cost you about US$75,000. In fact there is one in Yachtworld now. Add to that new sails, running rig, benching the diesel and transmission and upgrading the electronics will set you back another US$50,000 easily. But that should get you around the world without too much drama.

If I was a young man now I would not “go small and go now”. I would instead have a hull built! And spend 5 years or so working my day job while fitting out the yacht to completion. Of course you need to save the money. But if you are considering the old boat route then that cash is available.

A bare alu hull around 35-37 feet will cost about EURO70-80. This is a watertight hull with tanks, welded keel and lead ballasted, propeller shaft and depending on how many deck foundation you need will add a few hundred dollars more.

Now you start scrounging!! And when you are done in 5 years you still have a “new” yacht.