And then it bore fruit. Instead of just chuckling at Gann's misadventures and looking more closely at the rust streaks in the pictures in Moitessier's books, I followed their lead and abandoned all reason long enough to sign the check and commit my soul to a steel siren of questionable value. I blame Lesa, my usually levelheaded wife, for allowing this transaction to take place—she could have stopped the check. In the end, and, oh I hate to admit this, I know it was really my own fault because I didn't listen to the sun-wrinkled sage in Belize.
"You'll never believe what you can buy her for," insisted my good friend Joe, a local yacht broker. With his thick East End London accent and mischievous smile, it was hard to tell if he was serious. Lesa and I were milling around his office, soaking up the air-conditioning and waiting to be paid for a recently completed delivery. "But Joe, I don't want a steel boat." He knew I was lying and handed me the keys. "Just go take a look at her and when you get back I'll tell you the price." It never hurts to look, right?
We spent hours pouring over the boat. I didn't realize it at the time, but the single best feature of the boat was access; you could locate the hull everywhere; nothing was hidden behind fancy, or even less than fancy, joinery work. In many ways, the old rust bucket was everything we wanted. A Roberts 44 design, she was a ketch rig with a comfortable center-cockpit design. Standing back, it was clear to see that in spite of her hard chines, she had a handsome sheer and nice overall lines. According to the drawings and specs on Joe's listing sheet, she had a seakindly underbody with a modified fin keel and skeg-hung rudder. And of course, she was steel. This was a boat made to roam the blue planet; this was a cruising boat. Of course, it needed a little work, but it was nothing serious .
I was back in Belize, where I had spent much of the previous year as skipper of a 46-foot sloop doing research on the Maya, while we were anchored near Placencia. A lovely old Orca sloop slipped into the anchorage and dropped the hook nearby. I instantly recognized and admired the boat. The next day I spied a wizened old man in a floppy hat working on deck. I hopped in the dinghy and zoomed over for a visit. I tried to start up a conversation.
"Nice boat. She's steel, isn't she?"
"She's in nice shape. Have you had her a long time?"
The old man was concentrating on chipping a patch of rust near the chainplates and didn't make eye contact.
"Is she Corten or just mild steel?"
"Are steel boats really as much work as they say?"
"I don't mean to bother you sir, but I am really interested in steel boats and…."
The old man finally looked at me. He didn't smile.
"Son, can't you see I'm working? If I stop or even pause to talk to you the damned rust will get ahead of me. Rust never sleeps."
I blotted out the vision and we hurried back to Joe's office. He explained that the owner lived out of state and needed cash immediately; he was willing to let the boat go cheap, real cheap. Lesa and I looked at each other. Cheap, real cheap, equaled our combined savings at that very second. All we had to do was make out a check and transfer the funds. She reached for her checkbook and just like that we became the new owners of 32,000 pounds of mildly rusting iron.
I actually had another chance to back out of the deal the next day. I had reserved the right to survey the boat myself. Miraculously, I coaxed the old Leland diesel to life and navigated to a nearby boatyard. As we hauled the boat in the slings, friends at the yard thought that I had lost any rumor of sense that I might have once had. Ironically, seeing the boat out of the water erased any doubts I had about her. She had a lovely underwater profile, better in fact than the drawings Joe had provided. I sounded around the hull with my trusty five-pound sledge, and while there were bits of surface rust at the waterline, there was of course, nothing serious.
The boat went back into the water and any two-bit psychotherapist could spot the beginnings of a classic love-hate relationship. That was seven and a half years ago. The boat has helped us realize some of our dreams, as we have sailed to Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Yet, that great, cheap, real cheap deal has slowly evolved into a relentless attempt to keep ahead of the old boat. I confess, at times the relentless labor wears me down, and not long ago we considered selling the boat. But our two young daughters are just about the right age for a long-anticipated world cruise, maybe another year or two, and we definitely hope to sail well off the beaten path—steel boats have certain advantages. I couldn't sell the boat—she is still the main character in dreams to come. I just have to be content with the knowledge that as I sit here writing, Fortuna is quietly rusting—after all, rust never sleeps.
Tips on Secondhand Steel Boats
On a more serious tone, I really do like steel boats and respect their many advantages. Obviously hull strength is the primary factor, and several years ago I learned just how strong our hull really is. We were exploring the Lighthouse Reef in Belize. A nasty gale blew in and we dragged onto the reef. For eight hours we pounded up and down grinding into rock and coral. Nobody was around to help us. Finally, I managed to kedge the boat off, though it was a horrifying experience. Yet, aside for a few more dents and scratches (a little more character), the boat was unscathed. Yes, steel boats have advantages. You just need to find a good one to save yourself a lot of knuckle busting work. Here are a few tips: