The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Planning a Refit—Boat Parameters

In his series on buying and refitting an offshore cruising boat Colin has taken us through some of the common structural problems that older boats are prone to, so for this series and planning and budgeting I’m going to assume that we heeded his advice, and will keep looking until we find a boat without any bad problems—a great starting point.

But so doing is just that, a starting point. Now we need to figure out how we are going to take our prospective boat from fundamentally sound to offshore cruising ready in a reasonable time and for a reasonable amount of money.

In the last article I wrote about you. Now let’s look at the type of boat I have in mind while building this plan and budget, and what to do if that’s not the boat you want.

For Any Refit

You will also note that the title of this article does not include Colin’s US$100,000 goal. That’s because, as I wrote in the last chapter, working toward a specific number was screwing up my objectivity, and also because I want this to be useful for anyone planning a refit, regardless of the final cost target.

Basic Boat

That said, I’m still assuming that the end goal is a boat that is:

  • Capable of crossing oceans safely and in reasonable comfort in the mid and low latitudes, in the right seasons—not a high latitude expedition boat.
  • About 40-feet long and around 18,000 to 22,000 pounds displacement.
  • Set up for a couple to live and cruise on in reasonable comfort, but without luxuries. We will be concentrating on needs not wants.
  • Has a final cost, when all refitted and ready to go, that people with middle-of-the-road incomes can aspire to and save for.

The Boat We Start With

To hit those goals we will almost certainly be starting our project with a boat that’s:

  • 20 to 40 years old, and most likely on the old end of that range.
  • Fundamentally sound in hull and deck—this is about refits, not rebuilds.
  • Has been well maintained by caring owners.
  • Built of fibreglass. Too many variables if we add other materials and for most of us fibreglass is the best material to get this done in.
  • Was relatively well built in the first place. Better an older good boat than a newer piece of junk—buy junk, you got junk, and no amount of refitting, or even rebuilding, changes that.

What’s Covered

Now we know what the boat looks like, and who she is for, what do we need to cover to come up with a good budget and plan?

The list is long:

  • Initial costs
  • Things that will need to be done to most any older hull (as covered by Colin in earlier chapters)
  • Engine (Colin is working on an in-depth chapter with costs)
  • Other mechanical systems
  • Electrical
  • Electronics
  • Deck gear
  • Ground tackle
  • Rig
  • Sails
  • Canvas work
  • Cosmetics
  • Safety gear

Now, of course, some of this stuff may already have been covered off by previous owners, so the spreadsheet I’m building will allow you to tick off items to subtract them from the total. But, in the related chapters, I will ask hard questions that need to be answered before cutting a given cost and time out of the budget—helping you to see through the fog of boat-love.

Other Profiles

So what if the above is not the boat you want? That’s fine, this will still be useful as long as you modify our plan and budget to suit your case. Here are some suggestions on that:

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Frans Botman

Looking forward to your next articles John. Keep up the terrific work. Having crossed the ocean in the days of just a log and sextant in the early 90’s a lot has changed. Now in the process of buying a 40′ boat to go long distance sailing in 2 to 3 years as skipper and not as mate I find your articles and the comments from experienced sailors of incredible value.
Much to consider and think about. Already several “almost” buys were skipped from my list after reading AAC. I am under the impression that prices are more elevated in the USA/CA compared to Europe but might be mistaken. In the mean time I enhance my experience with my smaller but efficient Dehler 28.
Best regards,

Richard Elder

Hi John & Colin
Events have completely over run the reasoned budget analysis you are planning to present. The globe is already in the grip of a worldwide pandemic that will radically alter the global economy and patterns of travel and leisure. If someone was saving up for a $100,000 cruising boat by “investing” in leading companies like Apple, Microsoft, or Tesla they have already seen their savings fall by 30% in only a week. The last time stock market pricing collapsed this rapidly was at the onset of the Great Depression.

Leaders in China and the US are universally viewed as congenital lairs who try to control perception rather than engage in the hard tasks of providing for the health of their citizens. In the US there are only three states with test kits to identify the virus, and none with sufficient hospital staff or beds to care for a China or South Korean level outbreak. Regardless of whether the Corona19 virus is a product of natural mutation (already scientifically refuted) or a bio engineered weapon combining the worst characteristics of the flu and HIV on steroids, it has passed the point where containment is possible without closing all borders and ceasing all international travel and commerce.

If your life goal is to own a world choosing boat there is a point in the near future where the market for one will trend toward zero as owners abandon them in favor of cash— any amount of cash. Far better to keep your gold bars under the bed until that time instead of buying now when all the black swans are landing.

Stein Varjord

Hi Richard,
I don’t know if you say this as irony, but I assume not.
Stock markets are much influenced by emotions. Buyers and sellers are just as poorly informed about the realities of society as anybody else. Many political leaders are useless, but that’s not a new phenomenon. The Corona virus is a problem, but will not be disruptive. Estimated mortality rate is 2%. SARS from a few years back was at 10%, but slightly less contagious. How many died from SARS? I don’t have the total number, but it was way less than the annual influenzas.

These things make headlines because media loves drama. There’s no doubt that the world economy will see more crashes, like the “financial crisis”, and that might happen anytime, for all I know. Probably sooner than we expect. But if the stock market is down by 30% due to the Corona virus, I’d say buy all you can! Within a few weeks it’ll be back up and you made a 30% gain in no time.

Richard Elder

Hi Stein
This is not the proper forum to discuss this issue at length, but statements that the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic is not disruptive and merely another flu are faith based opinions that parrot politicians’ attempts to control the narrative and keep the factories running, and have no basis in science or fact.

Marc Dacey

Not specifically, no, but as a person who has just collected his immunization record prepatory to long-term AAC-like activities, it would be interesting to see an update on the topic of the ship’s medical chest in light of a changing world. My wife, who has a biology degree and is leaving 25 years as a wildlife rehabilitator, is de facto “ship’s doctor”, and has stocked us with a few interesting items we can’t expect to find near distant shores. More to the point, while I agree with you that a watermaker is expensive and a complexity for most doing, say, a trans-Atlantic cruise from North America to Europe, it becomes part of the health plan in many locales where the cleanliness of the water is currently in doubt, and perhaps in the near future, even more in doubt.

That said, if we prepped for every eventuality, we would never leave, which would defeat the purpose. Finding that balance of preparedness complements it.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Marc and all,
There has been some talk about the complexities, expense, maintenance etc. of water-makers which, from casual observation, is accurate for many water-makers.
I would want to suggest an alternative, especially pertinent for smaller boats whose water needs are on the more modest side, but one I would also suggest for larger boats.
That is one of the Katadyne models, the PowerSurvivor 40E (also able to be used by hand/manually). I have used one of their bigger models for years, but would probably opt for this model if doing it again for its smaller size and ease of installation. Were money no object, I would get two, one for each water tank, providing redundancy, and use alternate days. I have found the company good to deal with. Certain cruising areas we have visited would have been far more difficult without our water-maker.
Katadyne’s amp use-per-gallon probably does not approach the more sophisticated water-makers, but neither does complexity, installation headaches, real estate usage, maintenance etc. And for modest needs, it is not hard to keep up with water usage when the water-maker is used when powering in and out of the anchorage or even with solar when not moving about. And, again with modest use, I find the amp per gal criteria not so compelling.
Just as a note: my 2-crew usage of fresh water, when in waters where we swim (and bath) in salt water, we spritzed off with fresh water after swimming and we were comfortable (careful but in no way in conservation mode) with 3 gal per day boat use. So, with our bigger water-maker we ran it every 2 days for an hour making ~~6 gallons. More often, when we found ourselves motoring for a while, we would fill the tanks and not need to use the water-maker for awhile.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

That is exactly how we intend to use ours, but I concur that small is beautiful as your suggestion confirms. We anticipate two hours’ runtime while motoring every four or five days to make 50 or so gallons for three adults, which is enough to also do a bucket of fresh down the head and “laundry day”. The Katadyne product line does hit that sweet spot for low-volume use (we haven’t even discussed collecting rainwater in volume) which many cruising couples match.

Murray Fitzgerald

G’day to all.
I completely agree with Dick’s comments on the Katadyne 40E water maker. We run ours on the wind generator & have not had any maintenance issues but we are very careful with sea water quality. i.e never in harbour.
Best wishes,
Murray, SV Enya 111

Taras Kalapun

Hi John,
looking forward hearing more.
I have a 39ft 35 year old boat that I did a lot of important refit on, so I have a good numbers in my mind.
Now I am in process of deciding when do I “need” to replace 18-year old sails.
The Dacron is still good, but the stitching is failing, so I am repairing them every season.

Lee Corwin

What I see is failure of people judging total expense and accurate projected annual budget. If your articles serve to avoid this then it’s a great service.
For once in my life after inheriting other people’s problems I had a boat built for me. New construction doesn’t mean you won’t spend big money getting things right or avoid mistakes requiring much time and labor but if it’s not your first boat you’re much less likely to be bitten hard in your butt.
Still some non obvious issues exist. Once cruising slip fees are fairly irrelevant. Costs the same to anchor any size boat. At 40’ you’ll need mechanical assistance. At 46’ or 54’ your passage times are shorter, expense less and you’re safer. You can now buy in bulk or when you find a good deal. Cost of spares, tools, provisions, clothes and so many things goes down.
Wood trim is gorgeous but unlike aluminum toe rails is a never ending cost and point of labor. Same for any exterior wood.
The list is endless. But would suggest the prospective cruising couple get the largest boat they can afford to buy/maintain and handle in the absence of powered aid. That they be belt and suspenders about key systems and want those systems as bulletproof as possible.
Yes, the reality of the expense of going cruising instead of camping is greater. But long term cruising does require a base level of comfort. Remember that bigger better boat is still cheaper than a divorce. You want to go cruising long term not camping for a brief while then be forced to sell at an avoidable loss.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
There is another element in planning and budgeting:
This article would all be a lot easier for John to execute and for the boat owning public if the marine industry was generally easier to deal with, more reliable and responsible to their customers, and provided estimates and evaluations that they would honor. They are the true experts: or should be and “should” be important and trusted consultants in any project.
The above comments certainly do not apply to all, but not only are there enough horror stories, but there are far too few boatyard, repair, refit, and construction projects where the owner ends up feeling like it was a good experience. Often the work gets done, and even done well, but the experience is fraught with un-necessary anxiety and uncertainty.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

I fully support this observation, which is why about the only thing I don’t do is certain types of cabinetry and metal welding/fabrication…my own skills are too low to execute neatly in those areas. And both those jobs, I do the design work and consult with the contractor to ensure my ideas are practical from a materials and engineering standpoint.

My observations would be that finding the right people to make my visions reality, as well as making the money to pay them for their skills and labour, have been greatly exceeded by the time spent finding them in the first place. Sourcing skilled labour for something as ephemeral as small-boat construction is the road to, as Dick points out, anxiety and even heartbreak, potentially, whereas the DIY approach, hard as it has been in terms of doing things exactly backward more than once, has been much quicker and more helpful in building confidence in myself and my crew that we can actually sail in safety and reasonable comfort.

Ralph Rogers

Every time I read an article here on this subject I go fix or upgrade something on the boat. Sometimes it’s just a small annoyance. Other times it’s a construction project. Of course there is also the dreaming that consumes me for the day.
Don’t know if I should love you or the opposite. 😉

Bill Attwood

Hi John. I think this series of articles is a fantastic project, one that I wish had been available when I bought my second yacht with the objective of sailing off. However, I must admit to a secret smile at the size and scope of what you and Colin have taken on. Could it be analogous to “poor stupid Bob’s” refit? Might there also be a “proper” book (print and/or digital) in there somewhere? It might help you both receive some financial benefit from what is turning out to be an Augean stables task. There are a number of books on refitting on the market, but none of them come close to the scope of what you are doing.
Just a thought. ?

Alex Borodin

I’m very much looking forward to this series, John. It’s nothing short of timely for me, as I’m planning to start the refit in August. Keep up the good work!

Steve Cox

I would like to add my encouragement and gratitude for this series. I’ve come late in life to the sailing party and can’t get enough of everything sailing. I’ve taken the advice of starting as rail meat on Wednesday night beer can races last summer and was hook line and sinkered enough to buy a 10′ Mirror dingy for $100. I’ve refibreglassed the hole in the bottom and learned how not providing my wife with proper counter balancing instruction can dump her over the side. I’m signed up for a Compentent Crew course this spring with dreams of doing just what you’re writing about – buying an affordable sailboat and cruising off to the sunset – at some point in the future. At this point it’s still a warm fuzzy dream, but with some of your shared wisdom, I hope to avoid similar previously mentioned rookie mistakes so that she stays onboard (literally and figuratively). Take your time in writing them, I will savoy every nugget..


Stein Varjord

Hi Steve,
Your description of getting the sailing virus makes me enthusiastic, because I know how much joy it’ll bring. You’re going at it the exactly right way. I especially like that you fixed a Mirror dinghy, that you bring your wife on it, and that you’re apparently both fine with being dumped into the drink now and then. 🙂 I strongly recommend continuing to explore sailing as a thing you do together, and try to stay on the same competence level. This brings the “warm fuzzy dream” much closer to reality.

When you feel you can handle the Mirror in quite a bit of wind, and perhaps feel it could be faster, I’d suggest that you get a more potent dinghy. A one person dinghy like the Laser is everywhere, very simple and perfect for the job. A two person dinghy would be better because you can sail it together, but they are often very technical and vulnerable. You may spend more time fixing than sailing. A good simple two person alternative is a Hobiecat 16. That’s a catamaran, but it’s still a dinghy and will teach you the lessons clearly while having loads of fun. They’re as prevalent as the Laser. Both started in the sixties and can be found very cheap. If you do get a two person dinghy, insist that you alternate roles onboard.

Sailing such boats gives you by far the best understanding you can get about sailing. When you feel comfortable handling a fast dinghy in strong wind, you’ll be relaxed and competent on any sailing boat in strong wind. There’s no way to get that competence without sailing fast dinghies. In a real storm, all boats behave quite a bit like dinghies. Then it’s smart to know how that works.

Most beginners are intimidated by complexity of bigger boats. That’s really not the big thing. All the details are just that, loads of details. They’ll all make sense in due time. They’re all logical and easy to get. Knowing the behavioural anatomy and “psyche” of the sailing boat “animal” isn’t, and won’t come without the fast dinghy experiences.

Bill Attwood

Hi Steve
I echo 100% the benefits of dinghy sailing. It was how I learned to sail. The single biggest benefit is that you can quickly advance from crew to skipper. You get used to taking decisions and living with the consequences while they are rarely worse than a dunking. The only danger is that you get hooked on the adrenaline of highd sailing and never make the step up (step down?) to cruising. ?

Cory Hall

Looking forward to this, we have an ’87 Bayfield 36, which meets many of you criteria but not all. Regardless we will be in the same boat….as we plan to upgrade her to basically the same requirements as you have mentioned.

Robert Cornah

Hi there – I am very interested in this discussion. Have recently bought a 40 foot alloy mummery (new Zealand) designed cutter. She has done a few miles and then sat for 2 years and in need of a good tidy up. I would be very interested in everyones views of evaluating older equipment. It is very easy to just replace things (eg furlers, engines, electronics) but the budget blows out very quickly. A lot of older gear can be rebuilt, repaired etc. How do you determine which is safely repairable and which need replacement? My plans broadly are coastal southern NZ in the next year and then pacific islands. My goal is a long term reliable and efficient refit; rather than minimum cost now I want minimum cost of ownership over 10 years……

Marc Dacey

An admirable goal, but you live in frequently challenging waters that we intend to visit in two to three years. This would discourage my usual bias toward economy, unless I had a strong suggestion that the old equipment still had sufficient life in it to handle the often rough conditions in both southern NZ waters and in any kind of transit to, say, Fiji. We have thought for some time mulling over pilot charts that that passage could be livelier than others, such as Panama to Marquesas.

Devon Rutz-Coveney

Excellent Stuff John… Great Topic…
As you may recall from previous comments I have contributed, I am a big proponent of ‘fixing’ stuff…. rather than tossing things out.
Especially when one is younger and perhaps more strapped for funds, an older boat in need of some TLC can be a perfect. Not to mention we are more adaptable/energetic when we are younger.
Our Valiant 40, built in the blister/fire retardant resin year of 1976 has seen a lot of the TLC that I mention: Complete hull peel and new skin, new tanks (fuel and water), sails, rigging, electronix, windlass, genset, wind/solar/hydro renewable energy, LFP batts, re-tabbing & mechanical fastening of all bulkheads… etc, etc… The rudder is our next/upcoming project……
These are just the upgrades…. one still has to maintain everything…
I love it! 31 years of living aboard and cruising ….. No real job/employment means we do ALL the jobs ourselves….
As an aircraft Mechanic/Friend told me many years ago, ‘if someone came up with the idea and then got it built, you can figure out how to keep it going’
I think Nigel Calder writes something similar in his books about the perceived ‘complexity’ of projects.
My experience with controlling costs to manageable levels is KISS. Keep it simple…
Get the minimum necessary to make the boat able to go and then keep after it while you’re on the move…. enjoying the lifestyle and the boat whilst upgrading systems… LEARN HOW, THEN DO ALL THE WORK YOURSELF!!!
I have seen a lot of people with the dream get crushed because they become slaves to the ‘refit’. They get this idea in their heads that when they leave the dock they must have all the ‘new’ stuff, lots of it….. and a big savings account too…..
Our boat has been a work in progress over decades. We have been extremely happy with less and have upgraded only when we have been in work jags for a season…. NO DEBT…..
So… what is minimum ?… depends on what you want to do and your skill levels (sailing and ability to fix stuff)
Given the $100,000.00 budget/ fibreglass selection:
I would start with a known, sturdy design by a reputable marine architect…. easy enough to figure in the ‘information age’
Check out the construction: Solid GRP hull (no cores)….. Check for delaminations on cored decks, water ingress, rot….
Check for attachment of bulkheads to hull….. check for damage at leading edge of keel from groundings (how is the ballast secured?)… engine (oil analysis)…. prop damaged?…. sails (do not necessarily trust the sail-maker you find in the yellow-pages!) : find someplace to spread them out and crawl all over them yourself, check for ‘crispness’/rigidity of the cloth, stitching …. rigging: go aloft check tangs, chainplates, terminal fittings (rust, cracks?)… tankage: check for leaks: ALL metal tanks will one day eventually fail and leak…… rudder: skeg supported or keel supported…. on an older ‘beat-up’ boat I would avoid a spade…..
This is a good start for checking out the prospective purchase… how it works out will/should influence the price… It is a buyer’s market for used, older sailboats… in my opinion….
DO NOT TRUST (unconditionally) a marine surveyor…. there are those who will check everything off and then when you have problems down the line, blame you for ‘trusting’ them!!! Seriously! I have seen this happen!
Every last bit of what I have listed above is within the capability of a person MOTIVATED to make it work. The fewer things that are wrong, the fewer things to fix. I knew absolutely nothing about fibreglass when I bought our boat….. I quite enjoy fibreglass projects/upgrades now….. In my opinion, this skill is a must for anyone who wants to keep costs down and be self reliant on a fibreglass boat.
If everything checks out, one can get onboard and go sailing. Afterward, plumbing, electronix, systems can all be accomplished with time as one learns what they want and define their plans.
Maybe you will love it and make it a lifestyle. Maybe you will discover that you hate it …..
Better to know after some time on the water and before spending piles of money on systems…. start out simple….
Anyway… talk to 100 sailors about a boat project and you’ll get 100 different opinions! End -of-the-day, it can be a lot of fun learning new stuff, travelling, meeting new people, becoming more self-reliant …. it is all about being happy. None of us can exchange money for more time on the planet…..
Lastly… I’m not an expert! Just a lucky guy who was able to make it all work……
Hope this helps..

Devon Rutz-Coveney

One last comment…. after consulting with my wife who has enjoyed the adventure with me for the past 30+ years… whatever the case, ‘try and make the boat comfortable to live on’… otherwise it will seem like ‘camping out’ and you will get tired of it…. then one moves back onto land….
If you feel like you are making sacrifices by living aboard, it will ‘get old’ with time.
In this day and age it is not difficult to “make a cruising boat not just a vehicle of adventure, but also a home”.

Devon Rutz-Coveney

The complete hull peel and new skin: 1999….
With Epoxy Resin. 2 layers Biaxial Aramid with stitch bonded matt beneath the waterline and one layer Biaxial e glass with stitch bonded matt above. 100 liters of microballons and lots of long boarding!
Still NO blisters and with 5 coats LP above the waterline, still look like new…. beneath the waterline too! NO blisters! 20+ years and counting!

Ben Hayes

Not sure if this is the right post for the following question- but having read the various aluminum cruising boat topics, I’ll take a swing.

We are currently planning to purchase a larger boat, in the 40′ range, with plans to spend 2-3 years re-fitting and getting familiar on her, cruising between the PNW and SE Alaska, before taking off on a longer trip. I have a strong preference for an aluminum boat, but we will likely be living aboard (moorage gods willing) on Lake Union in downtown Seattle, which is notorious for causing electrical / corrosion problems in boats. If an aluminum boat is properly set up, maintained, and has good zincs is there any reason to not purchase an aluminum boat for this use, or is there some level of stray electricity that should simply be avoided with any aluminum boat? We are coming from a cold molded boat, so haven’t had too much previous experience with metal boats.

Thanks, and please point me in the right direction if I should post elsewhere. It’s been great to learn from this site!