Learn the hard-won secrets of a frugal do-it-yourselfer
by Gerry McGowan
You make lists of things you want to repair or upgrade on your project boat. But when you visit your local chandlery, reality sets in: "How can I tell my spouse how much it will cost to fix up the boat?"
All is not lost. There are ways to significantly cut the cost of the things you have to do or want to do. I like to call it low-cost outfitting, rather than cheap outfitting. Cheap outfitting means substituting something cheap or shoddy for the real stuff; low-cost outfitting means finding the real stuff at a bargain. What follows are the secrets of a frugal boater who has done this on five boats over the past 16 years.
The author's wife, Marolyn McGowan, negotiates with a potential customer.
Do it yourself
The single most important secret is to do all, or at least almost all, the work yourself. Labor rates in my area hover around $60 an hour in boatyards and $25 an hour and up for independent contractors. I kept track of my labor time in a recent project (Replacing a cabin overhead, Good Old Boat , May 2005) and discovered that I saved between $3,000 and $5,000 in labor costs. Since the material costs were less than $500, the savings for the entire project were between 85 and 90 percent. Later in the year I replaced the engine in my boat, cutting an $11,000 project into one that cost $7,000. I had never done an engine replacement before, but I read up on it, listened closely to the dealer who sold me the engine, planned the job carefully, and worked slowly.
I didn't measure twice, cut once. I measured five times, mulled it over, measured again, and then cut. Consequently, I spent about 100 hours doing a job that the dealer estimated he would charge at 60 to 80 hours. But he was impressed with my clean, organized installation, freshly painted engine room, and the fact that I had mounted the engine in pre-drilled and tapped holes in the engine bed from my homemade alignment jig. It lined up with a few turns of the mount adjustments. All this was the result of careful measurement and planning, rather than a lot of skill or experience.
Learned by doing
I knew very little about working on boats when I started. I learned by doing and did the best job I could. I have a pet peeve about shoddy amateur projects and determined to make up for inexperience by thorough planning and careful work. If I didn't know how to do something, I learned.
When I wanted new upholstery and couldn't afford the $2,000 price tag, I learned to sew, and I recovered the cushions myself. Later I applied my new sewing skills to make dodgers, sails, sailcovers, sheet bags, a Bimini, and many other minor projects in addition to upholstering a gaggle of boats and motorcoaches. I purchased a sailmaker's sewing machine with my savings and have used it for 12 years now on four boats and two motorcoaches. I figure I've saved at least five times the cost of the very expensive sewing machine so far. Since tools are reusable, I would much rather buy the tools to do a job than pay for someone else's labor. Paid labor vanishes as soon as you sell the boat. Tools, on the other hand, are like the battery bunny: they just keep going and going.
The biggest obstacle to starting a large do-it-yourself project -- whether an engine installation or re-upholstering your cushions -- is fear. A project seems so overwhelming when contemplated as a whole. I find that every large project can be viewed as a series of more manageable sub-projects; I like to keep a list of these sub-projects and triumphantly cross each off as completed. You might even list the amount you saved at each step as a morale booster. This is money you just put into your boating bank account.
Used marine stores
Used marine stores, also known as consignment stores, can save you money and are fun simply for wandering about. My first experience with one of these was when I found a new traveler car for an obsolete track at a cluttered little store in St. Clair, Michigan. The dealer's price was too high, but I hung around for a while shooting the bull, and he finally agreed to my lower offer. I ended up saving about half the cost of a new one. Half-price appears to be the typical price range.
I have purchased travelers, blocks, a muffler, a propane tank, a kerosene tank, a kerosene heater, pumps, and many other little items I've lost count of. My favorite was a brand-new Harken Magic Box for $10 that I used to make the neatest outhaul adjuster in town. My least favorite was the Taylor kerosene heater, mainly because it was missing an essential part. It took too much searching to discover why the heater kept flaring up and frightening the heck out of me. Then I discovered that I could substitute replacement parts from a Force 10 heater, since it used the same burner. I eventually saved about 75 percent of the cost of a new heater and learned all about kerosene burners in the process. This is the sort of education you don't get from a book.
The rule to heed when you go into one of these stores is that not everything is a bargain. Much of the merchandise is overpriced and/or worn out. The fun part is finding that which is truly worth the price. There seems to be little consistency in pricing in some cases, with expensive junk sitting next to a real bargain. Shop carefully!
The Good Old Boat website has a list of marine consignment stores at <http://www.goodoldboat.com/consignments.html>. It's frequently updated and pretty extensive. I have checked it out and find it very useful.
My favorite way to spend a Saturday morning is at marine swapmeets. These can be a source of unbelievable savings. One time I purchased a $175 Danforth 18H anchor for $20 and a $1,000-plus (if new) Enkes 26 self-tailing winch for $75. With a coat of paint, the anchor lies safely under the V-berth as a spare. The winch -- after disassembly, cleaning, and lubrication -- adorns the starboard side of my cockpit. The port side has a used Harken 44 self-tailer purchased over the Internet at a marine consignment shop and refurbished with a Harken spring and a washer costing $7. I figure I added the pair of large self-tailers to my boat for $390 after subtracting the amount recouped from the sale of the old winches at another marine consignment store. This compares with $1,700 to $2,300 for the same winches if purchased new.
Swapmeets are also a great way to clean out the garage or boathouse. At the meet where I purchased the winch, I sold a brass galley pump for $40. I had purchased it for $4 at an earlier swapmeet and polished it only to learn that it didn't fit in my galley. The buyer was ecstatic as the same pump sells for $120 at marine stores. I was ecstatic with the 900 percent profit for an hour's worth of polishing. My wife was ecstatic since I bought less than I sold and reduced a pile of obsolete boat equipment to cash, rather than paying the trash company to haul it away.
Beware at swapmeets; it's easy to buy something that doesn't fit or has problems. My latest purchase -- a complete, brand-new, Autohelm 5000 underdeck autopilot for $100 -- came close to falling into this category. I discovered several days later that Autohelm no longer supports this unit and could not even supply me with a schematic or pin-out info. No one else could help either, so I was left to muddle through on my own.
The problem was that the Autohelm was for hydraulic steering and I have mechanical steering. Using a multimeter and jumper cables to the car battery, I figured I could connect the Autohelm hydraulic control amplifier directly to the existing Benmar drive-unit motor, bypassing the Benmar circuit board. It worked perfectly; a sea trial of the hybrid system went well. The Autohelm now resides in a little teak box on the steering pedestal and is far more convenient to use than our old Benmar unit, which required going below each time we wanted to change the course.
If I had been unsuccessful in getting the Autohelm to work, I would have boxed it up and taken it to a marine consignment store. Some purchaser with hydraulic steering would have gotten a good deal, and I would have made a modest, or perhaps substantial, profit.
You can find almost anything on the Internet, including lots of information on old boats, owners' associations, and some interesting companies selling sailing stuff. My favorite Internet company has got to be Garhauer, maker of the best bargain sailboat hardware anywhere. The quality of the stuff is equal
The crowd at Swantown marine swapmeet in
to the best Harken or Schaefer has to offer, and the prices are much lower. For example, I outfitted my current boat with stainless, big-bearing single blocks for the princely sum of $18 each. The hardware is standard equipment on Catalina and other boats and is highly rated by Practical Sailor. You can only buy it directly from Garhauer and, after using their equipment for about 15 years, I can highly recommend it.
Used-sail brokers are a special category of Internet stores. Many carry an extensive listing of thousands of used sails that can be searched online. Some of the listed prices seem excessively high, but some are tempting. My only personal experience with one of these companies was negative; the sail was not that good, and I sent it back. I may try it again, however, if I can find a really good sail that doesn't need much work. If you can find just what you want, you might save a bundle. Just take into account the cost of any necessary modifications or repairs. Converting a used hanked-on sail to roller furling, for example, may cost 40 percent of the cost of a new sail purchased in the off-season. Unless the sail is in really good condition, it may not be worth purchasing and converting.
Commercial marine stores
Marine stores serving commercial fishermen and other professional boaters can be a real money saver compared to local marine chandleries specializing in pleasure boaters. When I can, I use the same products as sold by the local West Marine, but I purchase them from my local commercial marine store.
"My wife was ecstatic since I bought
less than I sold and reduced a pile
of obsolete boat equipment to cash."
I've spent so much time there over the years that they greet me by name when I enter the store and have granted me the commercial discount, about 40 percent off the shelf prices. Of course, I entered their store several times a day for several months and was a good customer by any standards.
I first discovered commercial marine stores many years ago when I found that I could buy a box of 100 stainless-steel screws by mail order from Jamestown Distributors for the price of 10 purchased at the local hardware store. I started purchasing boxes of screws and saving the leftover ones in fishing lure storage boxes from the local discount store. I still have them and replenish the supply as necessary.
Regional boating magazines
A regional boating magazine can be a source of larger used equipment and a good way to unload some of your bigger castoffs. I sold the old diesel engine I had removed from my boat for $1,200 using a single $20 ad in 48° North, a Seattle-based sailing magazine. I could have sold a dozen engines. The calls kept coming for many months.
Home Depot and others
Although I don't find a lot of good marine stuff in the large lumberyards, I regularly use them for several items. Last year I bought several sheets of a Russian version of Baltic birch ½-inch plywood for $20 for a 5-foot-square sheet at Home Depot. This works great for interior boxes, covers, shelves, and so on, as the void-free all-birch edges can be attractively varnished. It did not pass the boil test (microwave a small piece in a cup of water). It quickly turned into a bunch of potato chip-like plies, so it is only usable inside. I varnished it well and put Formica on several surfaces, and it looks like new after a damp year in my boat.
I also generally buy Formica at the Home Depot; the selection is wonderful on special orders, and the price is about 40 percent lower than at my local lumberyard. I'd prefer to use a Formica surplus store, but one can be hard to find in many areas; Home Depots (or similar stores) are not.
I have found several items used in my boats in surplus stores at great prices. The first was Formica at a store that sold only laminate. I am not sure where it came from -- I suspect overstocks and surplus -- but the store had hundreds of colors and sizes, and the price was about 50 percent of normal lumberyard prices. I put a Formica headliner on my Ericson 46 and used about 400 square feet, saving at least $300 in the process.
The most common surplus item I have purchased is fabric. I have found end-of-rolls and seconds in fabric stores all over the country. It saves a lot to pay $6 to $10/yard, rather than the $25 to $40/yard commonly charged at upholstery stores. Always make sure that the store has enough for the project, and inspect the fabric as it is unrolled for cutting. You have little chance of locating more if you don't buy enough, and major flaws may make you re-think that fabric choice. I have never found more than a few flaws, which I simply avoid when laying out the pieces to be cut. I always buy a few yards more than necessary, just in case. Since the average job requires about 30 yards, the savings by buying surplus fabric can run $600 to $1,000.
You don't always have to use the best. I made a cockpit grating of iroko, rather than teak, as it was $5 a board foot instead of $13. I figured that I am just going to walk on it, and Philippine mahogany had served well for the original grating for 20 years. Iroko's resistance to water and weathering are almost as good as teak's, and it is often considered the "poor man's teak."
Teak is also wasted on boat interiors since other woods costing less than half as much work very well. I like Honduran mahogany, jabota (Brazilian cherry), iroko, and American walnut for dark woods. I also see many other very attractive dark exotic woods at my local wood supplier for less than half the cost of teak. If you want light woods, then oak and ash work very well, as do birch and maple. (For other suggestions, see the article on teak mystique in Good Old Boat, January 2005.) Protected by varnish and kept dry, all of these will last forever down below.
I have painted a portion of a deck using automotive paint systems. They matched the desired color, I was able to brush/roll the products, and they wore like iron. Almost any town has an automotive paint supplier, which will match colors as desired. While not cheap, the paints were still half the cost of similar marine paints.
You can also take plugs or cutouts into a regular paint store and buy color-matched touchup paints for a very reasonable price. I purchased a quart of urethane-modified gloss enamel from the local Sherwin-Williams store for $10. Staff matched it to a plug cut out of my cabintop in about 2 minutes.
Your local marine specialist
I have had good luck stopping in at my local rigger or similar business and asking if it will meet the Internet price on some large item, such as a roller-furling system. Quite often the store will, and a long-term and profitable relationship can be formed for both parties. The staff knows that, while they may not make a big profit on that item, they will profit on all the things I will buy in the future. I have a first-name relationship with a local rigging company, which will get all my business in the future based on great service and competitive prices.
The Internet is a great thing for saving money, as it encourages a local supplier to be competitive with everyone else in the country. When planning a major purchase, I shop all around the country for the best price. For many items (webpage printout or catalog in hand), I then go to my local West Marine and ask it to match the price. I have only been hassled once and have saved hundreds of dollars on the remaining items. The hassle was when I talked to a new clerk. The rest of the time, dealing with the same people again and again, they unflinchingly met the price. For most items, the sales tax just about matches the shipping costs I would have to pay. So I get the item locally with the advantage of good customer service and at the best Internet price. Since I spent several thousand dollars at West Marine during the past couple of years, the company is a little more profitable, and I have saved at least 10 percent of my cost, which makes me happy and the "hole in the water" not quite as deep.
The bottom line
Owning a boat is not cheap. Unless you are rich, it probably represents a major investment and a major ongoing expense in your life. Reducing the costs involved in maintenance and upgrading can cut the out-of-pocket cash flow significantly. Doing so has allowed me to sail considerably beyond my means. It turns out to be a lot of fun as well (although my attitude shifts somewhat when I'm up to my elbows in contact cement or fiberglass- sanding dust).
Trying to find bargains and adapting or fitting them to my boat are almost as much fun as sailing. As the quote from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows goes, "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats . . . In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it."
| | The author examines a potential purchase at a swapmeet.
Gerry McGowan started sailing when a skiing accident ended that passion and caused him to hobble to a neighbor's 10-foot sailing dinghy. A series of 11 sailboats from 9 to 46 feet brought him and his wife, Marolyn, to their present 1978 Nor'West 33.
Regional boating magazines
Look for these in chandleries and marinas. This is a representative (but not complete) list:
48° North: http://www.48north.com
Latitude 38: http://www.latitude38.com
Northwest Yachting: http://www.nwyachting.com
Northern Breezes: http://www.sailingbreezes.com
Points East: http://www.pointseast.com
shop.sailnet.com http://shop.sailnet.com great prices and selection
Online used-sail brokers
Listing of online used-sail catalogs: http://www.sailingtexas.com/csails.html
Sail Exchange: http://www.sailexchange.com
Atlantic Sail Traders: http://www.usedsails.com
Minney's Yacht Surplus: http://www.minneysyachtsurplus.com
The Sail Warehouse: http://www.thesailwarehouse.com
National Sail Supply: http://www.nationalsail.com
Popeye's Marine Exchange: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kelly Marine: email@example.com
Pablos Crews: firstname.lastname@example.org
Marine used-goods stores
These are ones I have dealt with:
Port Townsend Marine Exchange
2706 Washington St.
Port Townsend, WA 98368
Minney's Yacht Surplus (used sails and hardware in Costa Mesa, Calif.)
Pacific Marine Exchange
700 W. Holly St.
Bellingham, WA 98225