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Rebuilding a Damaged Boat

The old boat leaning against the pilings is a real bargain—or is it?

I like to think of a sailboat as a blue chip investment in mental health, but from a financial standpoint, buying a sailboat is an expenditure, not an investment. Still, with new cruising boats priced at a quarter-million dollars or more, isn’t a boat with similar capabilities that can be purchased for $50,000 smarter financially? Very likely. But what about a $5,000 boat—a sank-in-the-slip, sat-in-a-field, or dashed-on-the-rocks special?

Here there be dragons.

There are three kinds of potential buyers for damaged boats—professionals seeking boats that can be restored for profit, semi-professionals conducting a disciplined search for a boat for personal use, and dreamers influenced by the 90 percent discount for 10 percent damage. If you are not in the first two categories, you are in the third.

Do not be insulted by this categorization. I greatly revere dreamers. I am just saying that absent a discerning eye, you are likely to be less influenced by a boat’s deficiencies than by its promise. That can lead to severely underestimating the chasm between those two.

You are at greatest risk when you "run across" a damaged boat by accident. The low price can be breathtaking. While the self-image part of your brain is imagining the self-repaired yacht, the bean-counter part is enamored with the low financial risk. This is an unexpected and dangerous alliance.

How long can it take to get to this point?

The idea that a low purchase price makes the endeavor essentially fail-safe is an illusion. If "how much can I lose?" is a component of your enthusiasm for this purchase, you have not given it adequate thought. There is, besides the initial outlay, transport expenses, ongoing storage costs, and every dime you put into the boat up until the moment you change your mind. And the biggest loss can be the dream. When your reach exceeds your grasp, the associated agony can ruin sailing for you forever. Even if your enthusiasm survives, family members who have suffered along with you may not be as resilient.

Am I saying that buying a derelict boat is invariably a bad idea? No, but it is, at best, a long-odds gamble with your sailing dreams. Do not reach for your checkbook until you have first drawn up a detailed repair plan that estimates hours and dollars. To formulate such a plan, you need a list of the most obvious problems. Let’s evaluate an imaginary 41-footer, dismasted and holed below the waterline.

What are the "obvious" problems? We need a mast and rigging. We need to repair the hull. The engine and transmission were no doubt submerged, so they must be rebuilt. We need to wash out the mud, launder the cushion covers, and replace essential electronics.

If this is our complete list, we are still in a fog. What about sails? What about sail covers? If we expect to have roller furling, add that to the list. Have winches and other deck hardware been removed? (Probably.) What about the windlass? Is there any ground tackle at all still aboard? What is the condition of the bow and stern rails, the stanchions and lifelines, the dodger and/or bimini top.

Inside the cabin we must remove organic matter from behind the hull ceiling, from above the headliner, and from every other hidden cranny. Upholstery can be laundered, but reusing salt-saturated foam is not likely. All electrical wiring has been rendered unsafe by seawater submersion.

Probing further will reveal more, but let’s make our example evaluation on just these items. What will a new rig cost? A call to a rigger can get you an estimate, or you can work it out yourself from catalog and online prices. For our 41-footer, it is not going to be less than 10 grand. Throw in another three for the roller furler, a grand for running rigging, and, let’s say, four for a pair of sails. A pair of sheet winches will cost at least $2,000, and the sky’s the limit on deck hardware.

If this greets you when you open the companionway, you may want to think twice.

As you no doubt "get it" already, we need not price the other items on our list. However, that submerged engine does require comment. Unless it was immediately pickled when the boat was raised, it has more value for mooring than for propulsion. In any case, the cost of parts often makes a rebuild so expensive that a new engine makes more sense. Repowering a 41-footer—with you doing the work—will cost $15,000 or more.

My estimate for just the items listed is around $48,000, labor excluded. So to offer any financial incentive, our basket case has to be at least $48,000 cheaper than the same boat in sail-away condition. But time is another factor. Buy a sail-away boat today and you can go sailing today. Buy a derelict and implicit in the purchase is the decision to postpone sailing until the repairs are completed. How long will that take?

Through more boat projects than I like to admit, I have developed a sure-fire method of estimating the minimum time the entire job is likely to take. It works like this. Break the project into individual tasks—repairing that hole in the hull, for example—and use your experience from past do-it-yourself efforts to estimate how much time this task will take you. Guard against excessive optimism; you must genuinely believe that you can do this task from start to finish in the estimated time. Move on to the next task, again making your absolute best estimate of the time required. When you have estimates for all the individual repairs, add them all together. Now—and this is the important part—multiply that number by three. I am as serious here as a tax accountant. This result will be far more accurate than you think, and I assure you that the project will not be completed in less time.

Just to clarify, let’s say your best estimate of the man-hours required to effect repairs is around 350. The actual man-hours will not be less than 1,050. How long will it take you to devote 1,050 hours to this project? If you put in two eight hour days every weekend, this is a 15-month commitment. If you can only work one weekend day, or just every other weekend, the project stretches to nearly three years. If you aren’t prepared to give up sailing for that long, derelict resuscitation is not for you.

Wouldn't you really rather be sailing?

I offer one additional caution. Damaged boats are nearly always attractive because of their size. Here is a way to buy a bigger boat than you feel you can otherwise afford. Unless you also have the money to effect the required repairs, this logic is obviously flawed. But the higher cost of a bigger boat doesn’t stop with purchase and commissioning. It also costs more for insurance, slip fees, haulouts, repairs, and improvements. Owning a boat bigger than you can comfortably afford, no matter how cheaply obtained, can bleed the joy out of boat ownership.

Before you allow yourself to be seduced by an irresistible price for most of a boat, be sure you know what the rest of the boat is going to cost you. Then compare the sum to the going price for a whole boat of the same vintage. A whole boat always lets you sail sooner and more, and in my experience an old boat in good condition nearly always turns out to be a better bargain than a basket case.

Don Casey is offline  
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