Buying a sailboat -- how to minimize maintenance?
Low-maintenance sailboat seems like an oxymoron right?
When I talk with boat owners and ex-boat-owners the one thing everyone seems to complain about is maintenance. I love sailing but I don't want to spend a weekend per month fixing my boat, nor do I want to spend 10% to 20% of the boat's value every year keeping it in good shape.
Strangely though, I rarely see boat marketing or reviews discussing low maintenance features or design optimized for maintenance cost. Sure it isn't sexy, but as far as what boat owners actually care about and complain about post-sale, it's way up there.
So here's my question... If a low maintenance boat is a high priority, what should I look for, in design, materials, systems, features? Conversely, what should be a red flag for trouble down the line? What sort of things do you spend a lot of time fixing?
I'm looking for the nautical equivalent of a Honda Accord, where it seems like so many boats are more like Triumphs or Alfa Romeos or Pontiacs or Lamborghinis. I'm willing to pay a premium for anything that will keep working hassle free.
Just to get things started here's some of my conclusions so far -- right or wrong (I have never owned a boat which is why I am asking):
1) Watermakers are high maintenance items
2) Saildrive versus shaft drive is equivocal, but easy engine access is a big plus
3) Epoxy is more durable than vinylester which is more durable than polyester.
4) Solid fiberglass below waterline is lower maintenance particularly on older boats than cored fiberglass
5) Teak decks -- or any exterior wood -- is a huge maintenance item
6) Wood cabin soles are high maintenance
What about steering? Wheel versus tiller? Synthetic versus stainless rudder post? It's astonishing to me how often sailboats have catastrophic steering failures. Can't someone engineer this properly?
Rigs - carbon vs. aluminum? Rod vs. cable standing rigging? Furlers? Autopilots? Multihulls? Cat-rigged monohulls?
In case it helps, I'm looking for a performance cruiser in 32' to 38' range for daysailing, coastal cruising, and fun racing. I will consider any make, any vintage, any price range from $50k to $250k. I am eager to sacrifice cosmetics for functionality, not so willing to sacrifice performance for comfort.
Thank you for your feedback!
If you want low maintenance, buy a new boat. If you want a low purchase price, buy an old cheap boat.
IMHO, to own a boat and keep it in good condition, you need either a decent amount of time or a decent amount of money. It isn't so much repairing things (normal routine maintenance should prevent things from breaking) as regular upkeep.
For example, my boat was recently hauled for the winter. I spent a day getting the boat ready to be hauled - remove sails and running rigging, remove boom, prep mast to be hauled. When the boat arrived in the yard I spent another day bringing gear home, winterized the engine and water systems, covering the boat, etc. In the spring the process needs to be reversed. Plus the bottom needs to be attended to - sand the old paint, apply new paint. Add topsides and deck maintenance too. So before I sail for a single minute there are 7 or so work days each year.
You also need to consider that gear wears out and must be replaced on a regular basis - sails last up to 10 years, electronics become obsolete, standing rigging must be replaced, lifelines, chainplates, etc, all must be maintained.
In short, a sailboat requires a serious commitment to operate. If you don't have or want to put the time in, you better have the checkbook to write some serious checks. Buying a new boat will make it a lot easier for the first 10 years or so, but then the real work begins.
Some of the new boats tout features that make maintenance easier. Better access to electrical panels, reduced teak etc.
Your Honda accord does not have:
If you get a 20' boat and eliminate many of the above systems it is easier to maintain.
I get to hang out socially with some of the marina workers. Some of the boats they work on get regular attention and maintenance is easy. Some get attention only when something breaks. It's often hard to fix and expensive.
I have been doing as many non-professional surveys as possible the last few months and I think I have learned something. No boat, that I have seen, is maintained 100% properly. There is always something that the owner considers too hard, not worth doing or dangerous or it just never occurred to him.
A boat can look perfect but if you look hard enough you will find the one thing neglected.
For example: Every few years the rig should be completely disassembled. If tangs are screwed or bolted on they should be removed and inspected for crevice corrosion and reassembled with Tef-Gel. How many rigs have you seen where the tangs have not been touched in 20 years. If they were serviced every few years they would last for ever. If left alone they will corrode and things break.
There are hundreds of these little things. I have never found anyone who does them all although I suspect it is not a 28,000 boat.
And don't even talk about bad repair jobs. Sailors are for the most part do-it-yourselfers. Many of them have non-mechanical jobs. I helped a guy move a boat today. He had just re-bedded a chain plate. He was proud of his repair because the deck was gone and he hooked out some rotten wood and forced some polyester crack filler in the gap. This was all done today with the temperature around 30 to 40 degrees. This is not the exception, it is the norm on the sub 30g boats I've been looking at.
Has anyone spend a lot of time looking at 50 to 100k boats. If so does the lack of maintenance and bad repair job deal go away?
Proper maintenance of steering is hard to do. You have to be skinny and flexible and not afraid of cramped spaces. Do-it-yourselfers often do not fit the physical profile and are too cheep to have it done. They put it off.
2. Sail-drive is more exposed. I get the feeling the sail-drive is easy to install and appeals to racers. It is not a 30 year solution.
3. Yes but Epoxy has to be wetted out just right and cured properly. Lots of ways to screw it up. polyester is still going strong 30 years later.
4. Maybe but what exactly do you mean by maintenance. If you crack it, fix it. If it's cored it's solid, lighter, stiffer etc. and no-one screwed with it whats wrong.
5. Well yea but it looks nice do you want a boat or a clorox bottle. You pick.
6. Again, sure but they look great and compared to the rest of everything that is the least of your worries.
I'll ask my rigger about that but I doubt if it makes much difference.
Furlers: Needs service every year. What else you going to do. Hank on?
Autopilots: The top requested upgrade of all time. Do without and suffer. Buy it and take care of it.
Mulitulls - Cat Rigged mono-hulls:
Are you really going to pick a boat based on a few hours difference in maintenance.
So you are about to plunk down $250,000.00 on a boat. The price of a house in many parts of the country. You honestly expect us to believe that you are going to buy a boat that saves, theoretically, a few hours a year in maintenance rather than the boat you like. Ya Right.
The only maintenance free boat is the one you do not own.
All the rest require work.
To take you analogy a little farther The Honda Accord is low maintenance, but when maintenance is required, you better have an obd-ii reader, new injectors when the old ones die, etc.
The VW bug requires constant maintenance, but a 12 year old can do it. (At least, thats how old I was when I started, I trust there are younger somewhere) The engine is accessible and simple. The parts are readily available, and everything that can possibly go wrong has been well documented in books, on the Internet, etc.
In many myths the ocean is known as the great womb and tomb, from which life comes and to which it shall return. It beats mountains into sand. If you want a low(er) maintenance boat, get a trailer sailor or find a place that will store it on the hard for you. Both are going to be interesting dilemmas in the size range you mentioned. Anything left in the ocean will be constantly under attack. Personally, I'm a fan of something I can easily work on.
Beyond that, many of the questions are ones of how things break.
Fiberglass tends to wear better than most things, including steel, when looked at weight-for-weight. Rigging? Stainless is less likely to corrode, but it doesn't fail in as predictable a manner, nor with as much warning as traditional rigging.
When you mention watermakers, we can broaden the scope easily. EVERY system you have will have it's own maintenance schedule, required set of spares, documentation to memorize, store somewhere safe, and then store a copy of on the boat. Your head, refrigeration, engine, generator, solar, wind, any power winches (any non-power winches) stearing, any nav gear, all the electrical, radios, phones, etc. If you want 0 maintenance, then find systems you can live without, and take them off the boat. That might sound horribly cynical, but when you start really simplifying like that, it's kinda cool how much fun sailing is when you remove everything unnecessary. Beyond that, it's a question of finding what works for you, and finding out what each system really needs to be bulletproof. How often do you want to rebuild your marine head? it's not fun, but doing it on a schedule works so much nicer than realizing a gasket failed and it won't pump right after someone used it, and rebuilding in those conditions. :(
As far as cored decks, if you want "performance" anything, then cored decks/hulls are going to be lighter and stiffer than solid decks of anywhere near the same thickness. The only time coring is an issue is if someone put something through the deck/hull without doing it right (drill, fill, drill) This can be checked for and remedied fairly simply if the deck's not already screwed. Further, modern boats are often cored with high tech materials which, unlike plywood which was the classic coring material, are much more resistant to water damage. They're still no substitute for overdrilling, filling with epoxy, and then redrilling, but they can keep things solid for longer if the previous owner did something stupid.
Regarding any system. Saildrive vs shaft, gas vs diesel, atomic 4s are horrible, atomic 4's are awesome, etc etc etc, it seems to me, and this is just my observation, as I've only owned one boat, and crew on a few, I'm not an expert, but from watching everyone talk about it, and from my limited personal experience, it seems that it's really just a question of knowing your equipment, and keeping up to date on maintenance. If you do that, everything else should take care of itself.
There will still be emergencies, that's what the oceans there for, but a well maintained boat is a thing of beauty, and if you take care of her, she'll probably take care of you through just about anything you're willing to take her through.
Hope that helps.
I'm back on water systems again.
1. Fresh water for engine
2. Raw water for engine
3. Hot fresh water
4. Cold fresh water
5. Gray water (sink drains etc)
6. black water (holding tank)
7. Black water (macerating)
8. Bilge water
9. Misc. drains (shower, ice box, air conditioner)
So I have 9 water systems. Notice I'm not counting physical devices as there are often multiple bilge pumps and multiple heads and sinks on many boats. I'm, arbitrarily, only counting conceptually different water paths as separate systems.
Did I miss any?
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