I really never thought much about buying a cruising sailboat. Growing up near the New Jersey shore, I spent most of my water time either surfing or waterskiing, with a good deal of charter boat fishing with my Dad thrown in for balance. Until I was 40, married with three kids, my total sailing experience was limited to a few ill-conceived afternoon sails on a 12-foot Sunfish in Barnegat Bay, and two nights as crew on a 45-foot ketch motoring north on the ICW near Miami.
When I turned 40, I purchased a used 16-foot Banchee for $300. I could stick this on top of the old Volvo station wagon, and daysail the Connecticut River in Northern Vermont where I live. I really knew nothing about sailing, but with enough mistakes, and a light boom that did no apparent damage when it repeatedly struck my head, I started to pick it up the essentials. The hardest thing to do was to keep the mast away from low-slung high-voltage power lines.
A good friend kept inviting me to come aboard his 28-foot Pacific Seacraft sloop, which was moored on Lake Champlain, the beautiful body of water that straddles the New York-Vermont border. Once a year, he would head down the lake into the Hudson River, circle the Statue of Liberty, and head back. I never found the time to go with him, mostly because he used his boat as an escape from his wife, who does not like sailing, and as a pick-up device to be used in the bars up and down the lake.
When I turned 46, I took my wife to Nantucket for Mother's Day. Staying at the Youth Hostel and exploring the island by bicycle, we wound up spending an afternoon on the sunny bay side of the island. Out on the bay were maybe a dozen sailboats meandering about. I had a pair of birding binoculars and I could see that despite the rough chop, most of these sailors were having a good time—and they were booking!
Something got a hold of me, sitting on the beach looking at these boats. Maybe it was the onset of middle age. Maybe it was the New Jersey shore, the Connecticut River, and the dozens of smaller ponds I've sailed on joining together to say "Get a boat!" Whatever it was, I knew right then that I wanted a bigger boat!
Following this visionary moment, we left the beach at once and headed to one of Nantucket's bookstores where I bought The Sailor's Handbook, edited by Halsey C. Herreshoff. This was the only how-to book available that didn't insult me by calling me a dummy or an idiot. I read the whole thing in one night, which is sort of like reading a gardening encyclopedia—there's a lot of information but little retention.
|"After that weekend, I called my friend and told him I wanted to buy a sailboat."|
When I returned home after the weekend, I called my friend with the Pacific Seacraft. I told him I wanted to buy a sailboat. He told me to go get a copy of Soundings
, and promptly spoke of his affection for the Westsail 32. He talked so lovingly about this boat, that I decided that this was the one I would buy. Remember, none of this story is rational.
I soon found a Westsail 32 located in Florida, phoned the broker, and before the day was out, I had a down payment on it. Less than a week had elapsed since Nantucket. Then, I started doing the numbers: the survey, the shipping, the plane flight—everything. I couldn't afford it all. I took a deep breath and started looking for boats for sale in the Lake Champlain area. Keep in mind that I barely knew how to sail a Sunfish. But, I knew my budget ($25,000) and I knew what I did not like. I knew I wanted a diesel rather than gas engine, a wheel rather than a tiller, a minimum of six feet of head room, a propane stove, and I knew that unless my wife picked out the boat, I would wind up sailing solo.
We combed up and down the boatyards of New York and Vermont for three weekends, looking at maybe 100 boats; so many boats, so little knowledge. I beat the heck out of salespeople, trying to sponge up as much information as possible. I had never heard of blisters, Lorans, skeg rudders, furlers—it was all new to me.
By then, June was heading into July and I wanted to be out sailing. One Friday afternoon, my wife and and I looked at each other and said that come hell or high water, we were going to buy a boat that weekend. We traveled to the yard that had the most boats for sale and started seriously looking at a Morgan 35, a Pearson 30, and a Catalina 27. All were well within the budget. All had some problems that even I could see.
As we were leaving one yard to head to the other, a 75-year-old sailor popped his head up from the bowels of his 1977 Pearson 323 and said: "Are you looking to buy a boat?" We said we were. He said: "Well, after you look at everything, you come back, look at this one, and I am sure you will buy it." We figured we might as well look at it right then while we were in the yard. The boat was on its cradle, so we climbed up the ladder into the cockpit.
The boat was a junkyard of Harry's life. He had issues of every cruising magazine and sailing catalogs dating back to 1980. The sole of the cabin was a moldy shag carpet. The boat was filthy. It was also, to my eyes, enormous. How could anyone sail this thing with no experience I wondered?
Harry started talking to Ronnie while I nosed around. Either he sensed that I knew nothing about boats, or that in cases of couples buying, the wife makes the final decision. We made a little more small talk, established what he wanted for a price, and climbed back down the ladder.
As we closed the door and started the car, Ronnie turned to me and said "This is the boat—I want it." At that point, I didn't care what we bought. I would have purchased a bathtub if it would float and get me in the water within a week. Keeping the car running, I jumped out, climbed back up the ladder, and made Harry an offer $2,500 less than his asking price. He retorted that his price was firm and that he was not going to negotiate. Period. Hanging on the ladder, leaning on the side of his boat, I said, "Look Harry, I have looked at 100 boats in the last three weeks. This is the one my wife wants. I feel condemned to look at boats for the next five years unless we can close this deal. Give me something to go back to my wife with—anything. How about $500 less than the price?"
Harry looked at me and said "Yeah, I know what that's like," referring to the wife. "I've been there. OK, it's a deal."
We shook hands and in a week, we had completed the survey, the sea trial, and the handing over of the keys. As soon as Harry drove off with my money, I dinghied out to my new used boat, already secured on the mooring, and threw both anchors out for added security. Now all I had to do was learn how to sail.