Buying a Used Sailboat: The Real Costs

The old adage is that the best two days of a boat owner’s life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it. Having gone through only the former (thus far), I can say that the day one buys a boat IS a fantastic experience, filled with wonderful emotion and joy and happiness and excitement.

But as with every high, there is the inevitable comedown afterwards. In the case of buying a boat, that typically comes in the form of boat assuming its well-known role as a money pit. Caveat emptor, indeed.

I had read over the years that the buyer of a used sailboat should plan on spending about 50 percent of the purchase price AFTER buying the boat. The money is typically spent on repairs of old equipment, upgrades and adding personal touches. And in the case of Further, I’m finding out that what I read is true. I’ve also found out that there’s one other source of money-sucking in the case of Further: false advertising.

I started dealing with yacht brokers in late 2011, after my return from a summer of crewing aboard Polar Bear in the far north Atlantic, when I started looking for a sailboat of my own. And in those seven years, I’ve dealt with three brokers. I can honestly say that only one of them I would trust as far as I could throw a horse. The other two were little more than glorified used-car salesmen. The most recent example, the one who represented the seller of the boat that became Further, was so full of shit, and his listing for the boat even more choked with feces, that if I ever see him again I cannot be held responsible for my actions.

Buying a boat is not unlike buying a house: you make an offer, go back and forth with the seller, and when you come to an agreement the boat/house is inspected by a professional. Then you haggle a bit more based on what you learned.

Further passed all the tests. I took a couple of grand off my offer after the surveyor said there was an electrical smell in the engine. There were a few other, mostly minor, things but nothing you wouldn’t expect from a 32-year-old boat.

A more in-depth exploration of the engine failed to turn up any electrical issues. In fact, the engine got a pretty good bill of health. But so many other things have come to light in the six months I’ve owned Further that it’s starting to get downright disheartening.

The electrical system was a complete disaster. I should have known something was up when I asked the previous owner, an electrical engineer who owned his own company, about a mysterious dial in the cabin ceiling. He said he’d tried to trace it but didn’t know what it was. Though that dial remains a mystery, the electrical panel had to be completely redone, and you don’t want to know how much that cost.

If only the dinghy I bought held air like it did in this listing photo…

Similarly, the dinghy that came with the boat turned out to be beyond repair. I should have explored the dinghy more thoroughly and taken another couple of thousand dollars off the price but it’s too late now. The outboard for the dinghy needed work but it has been saved.

The canvas on board — a dodger at the front of the cockpit to keep things protected in stormy weather and a sail cover — also turned out to be so old that it turns to dust if you look at it too harshly (let alone put your hand on it when you stumble; in that case, your hand goes right through).

And the electronics suite — radar, chart plotter, VHF — are all so outdated that when the first two gave up the ghost, there’s nothing to do but buy all new equipment. And in the case of the VHF, it’s such an old model that it can’t be reprogrammed to transmit my information in the case of an emergency but rather still transmits the old owner’s data. Result: need to buy a new VHF.

There were other decrepit items on board as well (the water heater was rusted to the point of uselessness, the refrigerator is a complete P.O.S, the hatches leak a bit, etc.), all of which have to be dealt with in one form or another. But you can be sure the form typically involves an expenditure of money.

Now, canvas and electronics are not necessary for safe and happy cruising. Neither is a fridge or a water heater. But they are ingredients that I enjoy and wanted and, I thought, had paid for. Nope. Instead, the expenses have built up beyond what I expected. Not to the point of abandoning the dream but at least to the point of discouragement. When I’m ashore or even just tied up to the dock, the gremlins get into my head and whisper all sorts of disheartening things, sometimes sending me into a funk. Thankfully, that funk dissipates when I head out onto the water aboard Further, proof that, as Isak Dinesen wrote, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

Shakedown Cruise, Part II

(Part I of Further‘s Memorial Day (mis)adventures is right here.)

Sunday Kinda Love and Further rafted up together in Sue Creek. Further’s portholes (more on them later) are visible in the white line running along her hull.

It was sunny when I woke Sunday morning so after a nice, big breakfast I set about doing a variety of chores on the boat: securing the solar panel that had been jarred loose when the powerboat bumped it, laying out the asymmetrical spinnaker to run its lines, reflaking and covering the mainsail on the boom.

And in an effort to increase the air flow through Further’s cabin, I opened a porthole in both the forward cabin (mine) and the aft cabin (where Meghan slept). The portholes are stiff, solid windows in the hull of the boat that are held in place when closed by screw-down plastic handles. They’re made that secure because by being built into the hull (as opposed to the cabintop) they are frequently awash when Further is heeled over while sailing. If a porthole were to open while at sea, it would be a bad thing. The previous owner had some screens that were sized for the portholes and held in place by Velcro. The Velcro on the portholes was long gone but I could still wedge the screens into the windows to keep the bugs out. And the resulting breeze blowing through the cabin was delightful.

Kathy returned to our raft-up in her own dinghy and after hanging out for a while asked me to run her into the Baltimore Yacht Club for a meeting. Doing so would enable me to bring the dinghy back and have it handy if we wanted to go anywhere — which I planned to do later on when I went ashore to use the yacht club’s showers.

Not long thereafter, however, the western horizon started to darken. Like: a lot. And when it started to rain, it rained HARD. Like: Florida hard. The rain drops were big and pelted the boats with a ferocity that made me a little nervous, to be honest, so much so the yacht club buildings were just silhouettes seen through a curtain. Lightning crackled all around Sue Creek and thunder rumbled in a steady cadence.

The five of us piled onto Sunday Kinda Love, whose cockpit Renee had outfitted with a full canvas-and-isinglass enclosure that kept us dry and comfortable while we talked and enjoyed the weather show outside.

(We were fortunate. Not far away, in Ellicott City, Maryland, severe flooding was decimating people’s lives.)

At one point, I went back aboard Further to check on her starboard cabintop window, which I had rebedded and recaulked on Friday in an effort to stop some leaks. It was the third time I’d tried to fix the damned window and I was cautiously optimistic that Friday’s hot temperatures had enabled the two-sided rubber tape between the plexiglass window and the cabin to really stick. Likewise, I was also hopeful that the caulking had filled the gaps and formed a waterproof barrier around the window.

Nope. In fact, the leaks were worse than before. Sigh. So I quickly set about placing towels beneath the drips and I covered the outside of the window with a tarp. I’ve had problems with the windows (and also the two forward hatches) leaking during normal rainstorms in the past, and under this tropical-caliber rainstorm the dripping was constant and fairly strong.

But the leaks weren’t the biggest problem. When I first went aboard to check the windows I realized that I’d left the portholes open.

The forward cabin was fine: the angle of the hull created an overhang so there was no rain coming in the window. But the aft cabin had a lifeline stanchion right above it that acted as a dam and forced the rain running down the deck to cascade overboard — straight into the aft-cabin porthole.

Thankfully, most of Meghan’s stuff was stashed away from the waterfall coming into the cabin, and after shutting and securing the porthole I piled her stuff in the galley. Her sheets were wet; they got hung over some doors. And the mattress below the port was soaked; I pulled it out and set it in the main cabin to dry. And then I spent most of the afternoon and evening cleaning up the mess.

So for the second day in a row, what could have been just a semi-normal event — running aground Saturday, dealing with the window leaks Sunday — turned into a stress-inducing semi-emergency. Unlike Saturday’s line in the prop, the porthole situation wasn’t a threat. But it sure felt like yet another event was going against me in my quest to be a successful and happy boat owner.

Fortunately, Renee and her crew were kind enough to share the dinner they’d made so I didn’t have to deal with that. Which was a good thing since Further’s cabin and galley had wet stuff strewn all around drying. And that paid off: by the time we all called it a night, the mattress had dried sufficiently that Meghan could use the aft cabin. In fact, she was still asleep when I woke up Monday morning and started moving about the cabin.

Motoring back to Annapolis on a gray Memorial Day.

Monday morning was gray and damp, with mist and fog filtering down from a low overcast. After breakfast, and after securing everything in the cabin, we disengaged from Sunday Kinda Love and let the light breeze push Further off. We motored out of Sue Creek, rounded the point in front of the yacht club (keeping to the correct gap so there was plenty of water) and started down the Middle River toward the open Chesapeake.

After rounding the buoy that marked deeper water off Hart-Miller Island’s northern point, we turned south and tried the headsail. There wasn’t enough wind so we rolled it back up and kept on motoring. The tide was going out so we got a really nice lift on the way back to Annapolis: we did nine-plus knots most of the way home and made it in four hours. I didn’t do a great job getting Further back into her slip but eventually succeeded, and after securing all her lines, Further’s first expedition was completed.

So what was the final tally? Well, I got some experiences that will help me in the future. I endured some strong inconveniences that were a pain in the ass. And I enjoyed Further’s first outing as the vehicle to take me out on the waters of the Earth in search of new places, new friends and minor adventures. Motoring down the Middle River on Monday morning summed it up for me: I was out in the middle of a gray, wet mist. The views were nothing special and there weren’t many boats around. The vast majority of people around the region were warm and dry in their homes (or stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge) but I was outside getting damp.

And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I enjoy being out in it, so to speak. I’ve always been happiest when I’ve been out there, be it in the mountains of Utah, on the rivers of Alaska or somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean. And in recent years (decades?) I’ve become complacent, settled, lazy. Yes, I faced some inconveniences on this excursion, some that could have caused profound problems, but I dealt with them. And in fact, they turned out to be experiences that contribute to me living the life I want. The journey continues.

Shakedown Cruise, Part I

Selfie while sailing up Chesapeake Bay. The Bay Bridge is visible in the background.

Memorial Day weekend: the traditional start of the American summer. And in Annapolis, people take their boats out onto Chesapeake Bay and seek adventure. And since I’m people and I’m living in Annapolis, that’s what I did.

And, oh boy, what an adventure. Sorta.

After much hemming and hawing, I opted to follow my former marina-mate, Renee, north up the bay to the Middle River. We’d been invited to anchor out near the Baltimore Yacht Club’s marina on Sue Creek by Kathy, who sailed with me aboard Further for last week’s Blue Angels show. The other option popular among the folks I know around here was a jaunt over to St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore. Some folks were taking part in a race to the Miles River (on which St. Michaels sits), while others were simply following that mobile party. With upwards of 70 boats competing, that seemed like that area was going to get pretty crowded (and apparently there’s not a lot of room on the water in St. Michaels is) so north it was for Further.

And things started out well. (Spoiler alert: they ended up well, too; it’s the middle part that was a bit sketchy.) I had Meghan Matthews, who’s sailed with me a bunch on Further, along for the ride, while Renee had Darlene and Maureen along with her aboard Sunday Kinda Love. Meghan and I slipped the lines from the dock around 10 a.m. on Saturday and motored out Back Creek and onto the bay, while Renee followed along about 45 minutes later.

Saturday’s route

We found wind out on the bay so Meghan and I raised the sails and Further took off on a nice, comfortable tack toward the northeast. We averaged six-plus knots, occasionally hitting eight, as we passed beneath the central span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and continued northeasterly.

When Renee came out of Annapolis, she continued motoring north up the bay, right up the main shipping channel toward Baltimore. Meghan and I tacked Further over and started back toward that westerly side of the bay and followed Sunday Kinda Love north. The wind was fading so rather than fall too far behind our friends, we fired up the engine and followed along in their wake.

A couple of things happened while motoring that caught my attention. For one thing, Further’s stern seemed (to me) to ride awfully low in the water. Her hailing port, which appears on the transom below her name, was frequently awash, and the engine’s exhaust port seemed (again, to me) to be really close to the water level. I worried about swamping the engine but then I realized: well, the boat’s been on the water for 33 years and that would have been kind of a big design flaw and presumably SOMEONE would have addressed it in the intervening years. A rationalization, perhaps, but then my initial concern was likely just my usual overly-nervous nature that comes out when I’m dealing with big projects.

The other event on that northerly run took place shortly after we passed where the Patapsco River splits off to head to Baltimore. Dark clouds had been building over the course of the journey — no surprise: the forecast called for afternoon showers and thunderstorms for the weekend — and as we cruised northeasterly along Hart-Miller Island those storm clouds started kicking up a nice little breeze. So we unfurled our sails again…and while I was standing at the base of the 54-foot aluminum lightning rod that is Further’s mast, a couple of loud cracks of thunder roared overhead. Gulp. A nice shower started, too, which added to my anxiety (did I mention I get overly concerned about things?) but, well, we were out there (and so were many other boats) so there’s was nothing else to do but keep on keepin’ on. Which we did, thanks to that breeze. We had a nice run to the green buoy marking the  tip of a shallow area off the north side of Hart-Miller Island where we turned west and headed up the Middle River. And actually, the rain turned out to be a nice flourish on the afternoon’s cruise.

As we moved up the Middle River, the next wave of thunderstorms was approaching from the southwest. Ahead of them, the wind picked up in a hurry, so we once again doused the sails and continued on under engine. And it was under engine that the real fun for the day started.

Sue Creek breaks off to the south from the Middle River and runs behind on a small bluff on a spit of land on which sits the Baltimore Yacht Club. The clubhouse commands a great view of the river and bay out front, and the marina and creek out back. Across the creek’s entrance float several small white buoys, there to remind boaters that there’s a no-wake zone inside. Kathy’s instructions to us were to leave the second such buoy to starboard; I mistakenly recalled the instructions saying we should PASS to starboard of the buoy (which is silly because no one over gives directions for passing a mark like that). Just after passing said buoy I felt Further shudder a bit then shudder again. And I realized we were aground.

Well, shit. To be honest, I wasn’t as embarrassed about it as I might have been since virtually every sailor I’ve talked to in this area has told stories about running aground in the Chesapeake’s thin water. And the bottom of the bay is soft mud so I wasn’t too worried about damage. I was a little concerned about the dark clouds still bearing down on us from the southwest, however, so I wanted to get out of my predicament as fast as I could.

Which wasn’t very fast. I tried the engine forward and backward but we weren’t going anywhere. I called Renee on the VHF because she had a dinghy that she’d used to push her boat back afloat when she’d run aground, and I also flagged down a passing speedboat who, thankfully, was kind enough to stop.

We tied off a line to the speedboat and though it took a couple of pulls, she proceeded to pull us back into deeper water. But while we were disengaging from each other, her boat drifted perilously close to my stern. I sprung to the rail to fend off her boat, but not before she struck my solar panel and bent it.

What was worse, however, was that I thought Further’s engine was in neutral while all this transpired. It wasn’t, and the line we’d used to get pulled off the bottom was now lying in the water unnoticed. Unnoticed, that is, until the engine alarm sounded and I quickly sprung back from the rail to turn it off. The line had gotten wrapped around the propeller. Sigh. I leapt to the bow, released the anchor so we wouldn’t just drift out into the river and thought about what to do next.

Renee and Kathy appeared in the dinghy as I was stepping down Further’s transom ladder in my surf shorts. “You want the good news or the bad news,” I asked Renee and Kathy. “The good news is: we’re not aground anymore. The bad news is: there’s a line wrapped around the prop.”

I really had no alternative but to dive beneath the boat and see if I could free the propeller. Thing is: the Chesapeake Bay is renowned for being, well, not very clean. But facing no practical alternative, into the water I went. (If I wind up catching hepatitis in the future, we’ll know the cause.)

The culprit. The chewed section is where the line got wedged into the cutlass bearing.

That’s when I found the next challenge. Even with my dive mask, I could not see even an inch when under water. So while Meghan held the end of the line in Further’s cockpit, I pulled myself along the taut line past the rudder and under the hull until I could feel the prop. On the positive side, the water was shallow enough that I could stand on the bottom and wedge my shoulder against the hull, which enabled me to stand in one spot and have both hands free to work the line. And work it I did, by Braille, unraveling the line from around the propeller shaft until I had the other end free, which I handed to Kathy in the dinghy. Frustratingly, the line still would not come completely free because it was wedged into the cutlass bearing, a tube that holds the propeller shaft steady. It seemed the damned line would not come out despite several efforts (I could go down for 30 seconds at a time or so) but then, hail Poseidon, on one trip I yanked and the line came free.

Again by Braille, I felt around the bearing, the prop and the shaft but could find no other line. I climbed into the cockpit, tried the engine…and it turned over. I engaged the gears…they worked. Woohoo! Kathy climbed on board and managed the windlass to raise the anchor and we motored in — this time on the OTHER side of that second buoy — and tied up to Renee’s already-anchored yacht.

At which point it was DEFINITELY beer-thirty.

(The rest of the shakedown cruise follows in the next post.)