Every October, hordes descend on Annapolis to look at boats. I may join the crowd for a day or two at the U.S. Sailboat and Powerboat Shows this year, but I won’t really be with them, for the simple reason that the vessels these pilgrims pore over are new, and I have never had an interest in new boats. Used boats are where my heart lies.
I’ve owned over two dozen serious boats in my life—serious meaning ones in which you could cross the Bay or go out in the ocean. If you add in dinghies, kayaks, canoes, sailboards, inflatables, rowboats and paddleboards, that number skyrockets embarrassingly, so we won’t even go there.
But never a new one, even with the little stuff. Why would you? New boats are great when you take them home, shiny and perfect. But they cost a fortune, and then you have to baby them for years to make sure they don’t get dings and scratches and end up looking like all the other old boats. Give me something inexpensive, pre-scratched and dinged—a boat that can be bought for cash and put to use tomorrow for crabbing, fishing, cruising, racing or just banging around.
Used boats have character. Of course, they also have issues that you’ll wake up late at night puzzling over, and eventually devising a solution for, and you’ll be a better boater for it. You will learn to be a painter, fiberglass-patcher, mechanic, electrician, rigger, sail repairer, carpenter, leak-tracer and on-the-water problem-solver. You’ll have no choice: If you don’t have the money to buy a new boat, you certainly don’t have enough to pay professionals to fix your old one.
Over a satisfying lifetime of buying, fixing, sailing and eventually selling old boats, I’ve learned a few things. So for the multitudes who come to the boat shows this fall to drift and dream, then go home to the grim reality of family finances, I offer my personal thrifty boater’s guide to crafty shopping.
Rule 1: Partners rock
Close to half the boats I’ve owned have been with co-owners. When you find a well-kept boat on the market and ask why the owner is selling, they’ll often say they don’t use it enough because they can’t find anyone to go out with. That’s not a complaint, it’s a cry for help!
Co-owners like that bring much to the table. They may have their own dock or a sweetheart deal at a neighbor’s. They already know the boat and its foibles, and you can easily see whether they’ve kept it up. If you think they don’t really want to sell, it’s worth offering a half-price buy-in, and everybody benefits.
You can get burned on a partnership, too, so it’s not something to jump into without careful thought. But I haven’t had a serious regret, and I’ve made some friends along the way. Obviously, you can afford twice the boat when you partner up, and when the bills come in or work days approach, or you’re itching for a sail but the spouse and kids are uninterested, there’s nothing like a partner to share the burdens and the joys.
Rule 2: Curb your enthusiasm
Deer hunters call it buck fever: the euphoria that washes over them when they set out in the woods with hearts thumping. I’ve felt it in a deer stand, envisioning a buck crashing through the brush and restraining myself just long enough to avoid shooting some fellow nimrod marching to his own deer stand.
And I’ve felt it on the way to look at a boat. You see what you want to see, not what’s actually there. For example, years ago I dearly wanted a 17-foot Boston Whaler. I monitored the ads until one cropped up at a suitable price. When I got there, the boat looked good—well maintained, no obvious flaws and the outboard fired right up. I didn’t waste a minute bartering, just made a good offer, hooked it up and towed it home. My 14-year-old son was waiting when I pulled in.
“Geez, dad, that’s not a 17,” he said. “That’s a 15.” He fetched the tape measure and proved it. The listing was inaccurate and I was fool enough to see what I wanted to see, not what was right there in plain view. No worries. I kept the boat and it was a good one, but lesson learned.
Rule 3: Beware the bubbles
Almost every used boat you’ll look at under 50 feet long is going to be fiberglass. It’s wonderful boat-building material, lasts a long time and is easily repaired if it cracks or is damaged in an accident.
But underneath the glass skin lies a myriad of potential problems. The trouble sign to look for is delamination, which occurs when whatever core material that is underneath the fiberglass skin gets waterlogged or rotten. The glass then detaches from the wet core or frame and you get soft spots. If the deck under your feet springs up and down like an oil can, it’ll require repairs.
Likewise, check underwater portions of the hull for blisters, which are small areas of delamination that occur when seawater gets past the outer gelcoat layer and reacts to chemicals in the fiberglass by turning acidic and bubbling up. Neither soft spots nor blisters are deal-breakers; they’re not hard to repair, and small spots can often be ignored. But big areas of deck delimitation or large fields of blisters that are bigger than a dime suggest big problems underneath that you probably won’t want to tackle.
Rule 4: Brands matter
The best builders got their reputations for a reason. When you do your homework and network with other boaters, you’ll soon come up with a list of manufacturers whose boats hold their value over time. If you’re buying an older boat, get one from a good builder.
Rule 5: Never be the last person to own a boat
This is the most important rule of all. If someone is giving a boat away, or selling it for next to nothing, there’s bound to be a good reason. You do not want to be the one dragging it off to the dump. Don’t just walk away. Run!
Boating is meant to be fun, and I’m sure folks who blast away from the dealership in their sparkling new acquisitions, with warranties and guarantees galore, wear big smiles. With a used boat, it takes time to get to the same place, as you work out why the last owner sold it and what needs to be done to make it right. There’s almost always something they didn’t bother to mention.
So you’ll start off wary. But once you get past that hump and learn to trust the beast you bought to get you there and back safely, satisfaction sets in and just keeps growing.
Take it from a fellow who was on a crew that won its class in the Annapolis-Bermuda Race, then won first overall in the Down the Bay Race to Hampton a few years ago, all on a $10,000, 40-foot sailboat rescued from the ash-heap of history. There’s nothing like old boats to make you feel young and clever again. Old boats rule!