Confessions of a bottom feeder
How to fix bargain boats and make a modest fortune
"I know about guys like you," the old yard worker said as we strolled the back fence. "You're a bottom feeder. You look for old hulks that nobody wants anymore, make a few insulting offers, and if nobody bites, you move on to the next yard 'cuz eventually somebody will."
I tried to laugh him off. "Got anything with deck rot?" I gibed. The truth is, he was right. I am the poster child of bottom feeders. It started in college. I bought three small boats from a YMCA camp for $50 and made two sailable vessels from the three hulls. I sold one for $275 and the other for $500 and almost dropped out of school. Fortunately, my next boat -- a soggy wooden Lightning that I ended up scrapping -- convinced me to finish college.
Once I started teaching, I realized the only way I was ever going to afford cruising on such a salary was to bottom feed. I've made some money, but mostly I've stayed in boats and thus made the most of my profession's three great perks: June, July, and August.
I had a couple of advantages going into bottom feeding. I grew up in my dad's body shop and had access to some tools and equipment that most would not. However, the best thing I obtained from my father's shop was a bit of experience and confidence in doing work requiring epoxies, sanding, priming, and painting. I found boats much easier to work on than cars.
The greatest advantage I had was a mentor, an older brother-in-law who became a big brother/second father and got me into sailing as a teenager. If I became the poster child of bottom feeders, it is only because I trained under a Zen Master.
My first boat big enough to weekend on was a 1970s-era Hunter 25 that had sagged on a wooden cradle for years. When we went aboard with the owner, she held more than a foot of water. My mentor assured me that a boat full of water on a cradle will likely float.
I stepped to the settee, as the ladder was missing, but as I shifted my weight my foot crashed through the soft wood to the hull. We bought this boat in the fall for $400, were sailing her by the next spring, and sold her three seasons later for $4,000.
My current boat, a 30-foot Catalina, was purchased at an auction for $6,000. In between, I bought and sold more than a dozen boats in the 22- to 27-foot range. During the same time, I watched my mentor buy 35- to 40-foot boats that were under water with only masts sticking up to show what was there, find divorce specials with prices teetering on the verge of piracy and, in general, make my bottom-feeding accomplishments seem pretty modest by comparison.
I don't think just anyone can become a Master like my old mentor, but I do think anybody with modest skills like mine can keep themselves in cruising boats with minimal financial investment. All that's really needed are some basic repair skills, determination, courage, and sound advice.
Do your homework – When the boat is an oddity at an estate auction, it will draw a lot of attention. You see the questions in their eyes. What does it cost to move a boat like that? What would it take to get it in the water? Is it all there? What is a boat like that worth? If you know the answer to those questions before the bidding starts, you are halfway there. More than 50 people toured the Catalina 30 I bought at an auction where everything from law books to kitchen appliances and even the property was for sale. I was the only one to put up a bid on the sailboat and got it at reserve (the lowest acceptable amount set by the buyer). I knew it was all there, I had a boat mover bid in my pocket, I was pretty sure I could have her sailing by the next season, and I knew I could get between $12,000 and $17,000 once she was clean and running sweetly. Do your homework; let the others watch with wonder in their eyes.
Be patient – Plan that only one or two deals out of 10 are actually worth taking. Remember that there are always more deals out there, and don't let your hunger for a boat cloud your judgment. It is always better to pass on a deal than to get burned by one.
Have a money plan ready – When the ridiculous deal finally comes along, there's seldom time to apply for a loan. The first money usually gets the boat. Savings, a home equity line, an empty credit card . . . you need some way to lay down the cash in a hurry.
Have a boatwork schedule – Lack of time to spend on the boat waylays most potential bottom feeders. The boat will take some work. If you don't have some off-season Saturdays scheduled into your calendar and a place to work on the boat, you shouldn't try bottom feeding. Working on a boat is what keeps me sane through the winter. The off-season Saturday is always "boat day," whether updating the current boat, prepping the next, or putting together a nice little trailersailer to sell.
Publications are where many people start sniffing for boats. Therefore, they are pretty well sniffed over. Also, people who have bothered to write and pay for an ad usually have some idea of what their boat is worth. A bottom feeder can't buy a boat for what it's worth. He has to sell at that price.
Since publications are an easy place to look, many people look there. When a ridiculous price appears in print, you have to move fast. Call as soon as you see it. Don't think about it for a day before checking it out. Most of the time it really is too good to be true. But when the true deal does show up, it won't last long, and the person who gets it simply got there first.
Auctions are better hunting grounds than publications. There are two types to consider: the boat-place auction and the general auction that happens to have a boat.
The problem with boat auctions is all the bottom feeders will be there, lurking around with notepads, inching across decks, turning shafts, picking at chainplates, licking their lips. I've often done well, but never great, at these auctions. Homework is the key here. The more you know about your target boat the better. Don't trust what the auctioneers tell you or put much stock in listing specs or outdated surveys. Your best tactic is to find errors in these documents in your favor.
My mentor once bought a 32-foot Ericson that had a survey in-dicating a bent shaft. We tested the shaft on land with calipers and couldn't find the problem. In the water, the shaft thumped horribly. But in reverse the folding prop unstuck, and the boat purred along nicely ever after. That boat was bought for $8,000 and sold within two months for $16,000.
The general auction that happens to have a boat is what makes my heart thump like that stuck prop. These are hard to find. You want to get on the mailing lists for auctioneers in sailing areas, and not just your home port. It helps to have friends and relatives who know your bottom-feeding lust and will pass along tips when they find them. Even then, you may go a year without coming across one that's worthwhile. And there is always the chance of not being the only bottom feeder there. But if you are, have done your homework, have a plan, and have some cash, then you may well find yourself in bottom-feeding nirvana.
The Internet auction is the new playing field for bottom feeders, and I've had to enter this realm without my mentor's guidance, as his ashes now bless the Caribbean. The Internet is a new venue, but the old rules still apply. Do your homework, have a plan, and be patient. Do not bid on a boat you haven't inspected.
Sounds obvious, but the last boat I sold on eBay went to a "blind bidder." Also, my experience suggests that most lower-end boats don't make reserve, but still get sold to the best offer or some negotiated price in-between. Don't give up if you don't make reserve, or even if you're not the top bidder. The owner may well end up talking to the top two or three bidders. And, of course, by the time the owner seeks the third bidder, the price should have taken three steps down.
"Walkabout, talkabout" is a proactive approach. The old yard worker calling me out as a bottom feeder was a memorable moment, but the truth is I've not had the success in this area that others have. The idea is to find the boat before it's for sale. Learn about the boats in the back of the yard that haven't seen the sea in years. Who owns them? Why aren't they being used? What's wrong with the boat? What's going on with the owner? Are there delinquent yard fees? Is the owner ill or destitute?
Sniff the garbage
You may have to sniff through a lot of garbage, but sometimes you can find truly remarkable deals. Try to get the owner to the boat before you make an offer. Chances are they remember the neglected hulk far more favorably than its actual state. Make sure you explain that you will fix the old girl up and get her back in the water, as she should be. And before you make your insulting offer, try to soften the impact by going over how much time and effort you will have to spend to get her sailing again, how the market for used boats isn't so hot, and so on.
Take the price you might get if the boat was clean and sailing, subtract any obvious major expenses you see, like a bad motor or trashed sails. Then cut that number in half . . . more if you dare. Most owners will be annoyed, some will show it, but the old yard worker was right, eventually someone will bite.
Pitching the low price is never enjoyable to me, I don't like seeing the disappointment in an owner's eyes or hearing the hint of injury in their voice. Making the kill, the thrill of getting much for little, may warm the bottom feeder's pirate blood. But for every person getting a super deal, there's usually another getting shafted. Playing pirate isn't always playing nice.
If there is one redeeming element to the bottom-feeder's game it is restoration. For me, this is the most rewarding part, and always the most challenging. Taking what was once neglected and befouled and getting her into the water with wind in her sails, adding another mast to the harbor view, produces a great feeling of satisfaction.
Getting from the great sale to the great sail is a battle of skill, wits, and luck. While there might be a Zen to the art of bottom buying, Nietzsche provided a philosophy more appropriate to sailboat restoration: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
Tips for fixing old boats could fill an article, a book, even a magazine's entire scope. So instead of going into repair details, here are some general guidelines.
Get dirty – Put down your books and magazines, except this one, and go get your hands dirty. You can get good ideas and motivation from written sources, but you'll learn more by doing. Not ready to rip out your decks and re-glass them? Then be the first on your block with a fiberglass mailbox and work your way up. It's OK to screw things up the first time and even the second. As long as you don't give up, you'll get better.
Don't over-restore – The very term "restoration" highlights the problem, as it conjures up visions of museum-quality reconstructions and trophies at an auto show. Bottom feeding is a game scored in dollars and cents and common sense. When you're done, you'll have a nice older boat that is still worth considerably less than a nice newer boat. Keep a realistic price for what the end product is worth, but don't keep too close an eye on the hours spent. Kid yourself that lying on your back in the void around a rudder post to apply epoxy and cloth over your head is fun and all part of the joy of your hobby.
Be a pack rat – Never, never, ever throw away anything sailboat-related. Ever. This may not be a good formula for marital bliss, but having my own private chandlery of spare parts, old hardware, new parts, and lots of etcetera has saved my bottom-feeding bottom many times. Bottom boats are almost always gorged with miscellaneous gear, spare parts, and odds-and-ends. Sell the boats with a couple of fenders and lines, and you'll start building stock.
I've made my best boat-parts hauls at yard and boat-store liquidation auctions where shelves of new hardware were being auctioned as lots. But in sailing ports you may often find yard sales with boating gear. It's also worth peeking at online offerings. I keep my gear at home displayed on shelves like a little store; sometimes in the winter I like to just walk the aisles with a cup of coffee and dust things off and move them around. It's much cheaper than therapy.
Be resourceful and creative – Creativity and resourcefulness counts with every dollar spent. Even though paints, primers, and epoxies are things you just can't avoid paying for, there are always things you can do to save. Mat and roving, for instance, are cheap in bulk. The little bag of it at the boat store is about a 1,000-percent markup from what it costs by the roll. For an even better deal, find people who have recently completed a major rebuild or a build-from-the-kit boat; they're sure to have leftovers. Don't be afraid to search aggressively.
My mentor once found a factory making pallets for the military to drop equipment out of airplanes. They used a lot of balsa, and he bought their scrap for a song. When body shops in sailing ports go out of business, their liquidation auctions are a must. RV supply sources should also be checked; a stainless-steel sink in a RV catalogue can be up to 50 percent less than the same sink in the boat-supply catalogue. Many freshwater plumbing components are also interchangeable and much cheaper through an RV supply.
Consider your comfort zone – When you buy, remember your repair capabilities, but don't be afraid to push the envelope a little. All boats at the bottom of the market have problems. Look for the types of problems you can repair efficiently. Your list of comfort-zone problems will differ from mine. I'm not sure I could rebuild a diesel . . . even with Nigel Calder's help. I have "sewing issues" as well. Someone who could machine a diesel block or make settee cushions may look for such problems, even though I might look away.
Here's what I look for:
Soft decks – Soft decks are not fun to fix, but they're not expensive. Major glass work is my zone. The bottom feeder's dance is toe-to-toe, creep a few inches at a time, eyes straight down, jostle the weight a bit, and look for movement. Check very carefully around deck fittings and stanchion plates, as the plate may lend false strength to the area. Dance carefully so you find all of it. Then add 20 percent to any area you discover, as it always goes a bit farther than you think. Make sure the owner sees every spot you find. The ghastly look on his or her face is hundreds of dollars coming off the price.
Interior work – Plumbing, wiring, and bad settee wood are all bottom-feeder pluses in my book. When my foot dropped through the settee wood on that Hunter 25, I could feel the price dropping as well. However, the surface-wood panels were made of better material and were solid, though they had a cheap fake-wood finish that discolored a bit underwater. Replacing the bad wood under the settees was easy. A couple spray cans of automotive vinyl/leather paint made all the fake wood look better. Bottom feeders are seldom called upon to repair the fine joinery of a Cabo Rico, but the higher end the boat, the more you need to attend to the quality of the interior. I wouldn't dress up the insides of an Alberg with vinyl paint, nor would I build hardwood cabinetry for an old Hunter or Buccaneer.
Rigging, stanchions, hardware – If I didn't have my own little one-customer chandlery I would look at hardware issues with much more skepticism. Buying new turnbuckles, winches, blocks, and travelers will eat up a refit budget. But when the boatyard goes to auction, I am there. Almost every boat I've bought and sold had some extra hardware lying around in it that went into my chandlery. I expect to replace some rigging on any boat I buy, but 80 percent of my rigging and hardware problems are solved by my private boat store.
What I don't want to fix (again):
My hope was the epoxy would seal small spaces around the keel bolt seat and prevent more moisture from coming in. The pilot holes closed in the lead after 15 sweaty minutes of swinging the sledge with full force. I glassed it all over anyway. Taking the rusty keel nuts off after the repair was stressful. Would the bolt move? It took both legs pushing a 3-foot pipe on my 1-inch breaker bar, but they all came free without moving the keel bolts in their seats. Five years later, the boat showed no signs of re-bulge. I lucked out that time and learned my lesson. I now inspect any northern boat's keel much more carefully.
Shaft-strut leakage – Clean off the bottom paint, if they'll let you, and look for faint lines around where the strut is glassed into the hull. Then look for indications of leakage from the inside. Strange-colored epoxies stuck here and there like gum under a school desk show that something was not right. Look carefully around the place where the strut comes through the hull or at the edge of a glass panel. If you can't see every-where, look for signs of things like the gas, water, or waste tanks having been removed and replaced. Do this especially if the tank looks original, as that most likely means it was removed just to get underneath it.
Severe cradle sag – Ask yourself, "How bad is it and how cheap is the boat?" The Hunter 25 had it, but for a $400 pocket cruiser I took the gamble. With propping that took the cradle pressure off the sag, we used strips of marine plywood at the interior zenith of the problem area and pushed out slowly with a 4-ton Porta Power. By "slowly," I mean a couple pumps each day for a week. Once it was back to its correct position, we glassed in the strips of plywood we had pushed against and added glass-tube rib support to the entire area, letting the repair cure for two days before releasing the Porta Power.
Freeing the hydraulic pressure on the jack was the moment of truth, but the hull held its contour. I always joked that if I ever hit a reef or got rammed, I hoped it would be in that repair quarter as it was the strongest part of the hull by far. Our technique was successful, and the material cost of the repair was minimal. But that boat was only about 4,500 pounds. If I had pushed a jack foot through the hull I could probably still have gotten enough salvage out of the boat to cover my investment. I would prefer not to try it again on a larger, more valuable, boat. But if the boat were cheap enough, I'd try most anything.
Launch day is the re-birth of what was once neglected and condemned. But let's face it, birth is not an aesthetically attractive event. Launching the project boat for the first time takes thick skin and broad shoulders. Remember that giving the rest of the marina something to watch and talk about over cocktails in their cockpits is a noble gesture. It's all part of boating.
Personally, I find the tension thrilling and enthralling. You've tested the seacocks with pressurized water, but will they leak in the bay? What about the keel bolts? Will the engine run under load as well as it did on the cradle? Are the chainplates as good as they look? Will a halyard break or a top mast pulley give? You bring everything you can imagine you might need to fix anything you can imagine might go wrong. But don't let your imagination overwhelm you. You're doing what few would dare, saving a hull from some yard's death row, and having fun too.
I may never have the perfect gelcoat, the completely dry cabin, a spotless engine room, or a fantastic console of matching instruments. But I can improve my teak this year and fix that bigger gelcoat gouge above the rubrail. I can re-oil the cabin wood, re-seat that leaky head window, fix that anchor locker latch, and probably use something from the chandlery to make a better cover for the rode locker . . . all without serious expense.