Boat Shopping with a Critical Eye
It is easy to fall in love with a boat based on looks or a commodious interior, but if you are so dazzled that you miss the signs of quality and condition, you can be setting yourself up for a disappointing and expensive pairing. Boat shopping requires single-minded discipline. Like an Olympic weight lifter, you need to slap yourself a few times—figuratively speaking—before you step aboard.
That is not to say you should disregard how a boat looks. To the contrary, if her lines don’t hold your eye, move on. There is an aesthetic component to sailboat ownership that you ignore at your own peril. Translation: you won’t be happy with an ugly boat. But you don’t need my help in deciding whether a boat is pretty or not.
If the boat you are looking at is out of the water, keep your feet on the ground for your initial inspection. Sight along both sides, moving sideways to make the “horizon” of the hull retreat. You are looking for humps, dips, or flat spots. Wetting the hull can make it more revealing. A molded hull, even an old one, should be nearly perfectly fair. Ridges show hard spots where the hull is flexing over the edge of interior bulkheads. Humps or flat spots usually reveal a poorly executed repair, although the latter may also signal delamination. Dishing most often happens at chainplate attachment points, indicating inadequate hull strength or stiffness. Modest flaws may not be serious, but steer clear of hulls that seem too flimsy to maintain shape and any that appear to have been extensively repaired. (This advice excludes high-quality repairs, which your inspection will not reveal.) Look for bumps in the bottom paint. One hull in four eventually develops blisters. A few are essentially a cosmetic problem, but hundreds or thousands implies a systemic problem that will require extensive and expensive repair.
Using the end of the plastic handle of a screwdriver, rap sharply on the hull around all through-hull fittings (including transducers) and in the area of any flat spots you found. These are the likely places for delamination, which will reveal itself with a dull thud rather than the sharp report of healthy laminate. Be especially attentive if the hull is cored.
If this boat has an external keel, examine the joint between it and the hull. Ideally it should be invisible, but because the keel is bedded on flexible sealant you are more likely to find the bottom paint cracked at the joint. Anything more than a fine crack calls the seal into question, meaning that the keel bolts may be corroding in stagnant seawater. Pronounced separation suggests a stretched or broken keel bolt or a cracked support grid. Suspect a hard grounding if the crack is wider at the front of the keel. Finally, check the rudder for play. There should be very little side to side and none around the axis. You need the wheel or tiller solidly locked to check the latter.
Assuming the hull passes this cursory exam, or if the boat you are looking at is in the water, the next thing to check is the deck. More boats die from water penetrating the deck core than from any other single cause, so it is especially important to stay focused.
Except in very small boats, the deck should be stiff. In all boats it should be silent. Don’t tiptoe! Bounce up and down. If you can induce flex, imagine what will happen when a breaking wave drops a ton or two of water onto the deck. Springiness or a crackling sound underfoot are indicators that the fiberglass skin has separated from the wood or foam core, probably due to water intrusion.
Look for visible sealant. Contrary to what you might expect, the more sealant you observe on deck, the less likely water has been sealed out. Properly bedded hardware shows only the slightest edge of the sealant. A wide bead of sealant reveals an effort to stem a water leak by caulking rather than bedding, and you can safely assume a past leak. Use the handle of your screwdriver to rap on the deck around cleats, chain pipes, and other deck fittings. A dull report suggests a saturated core.
|"More boats die from water penetrating the deck core than from any other single cause..."|
Scan the deck for cracks in the gelcoat. Compared to the glass-reinforced laminate it conceals, gelcoat is relatively brittle, and many if not most boats eventually exhibit some gelcoat cracking. Widespread gelcoat cracking in a cracked-eggshell pattern (called crazing) is essentially a cosmetic flaw, but localized crazing nearly always indicates inadequate stiffness in that portion of the deck. If you observe a series of parallel cracks, the deck is “hinging” at that location. Look for this indicator of inadequate stiffness at the intersection of horizontal and vertical deck surfaces. Also look for cracks radiating out from under stanchion bases or other deck hardware. This almost always stems from the absence of backing plates below deck, an indicator that the original construction was not to high standards.
Spray or spill water on the deck and test the traction. Some molded textures are excellent when they are new, others less so, but all lose effectiveness with wear. If you can induce your shoe to slip on the deck, the surface can no longer be considered nonskid. Dubious footing is every bit as dangerous as corroded keel bolts or a faulty propane installation.
Where the nonskid surface is teak, look for loose or missing bungs. Years of scrubbing wears the planks down until they are too thin to hold bungs. The usual consequence is water penetration through the fastener holes into the fiberglass deck below the teak.
The color of the rigging can give you a quick indication of age and/or condition. Bright is a good sign. Heavy rust staining suggests that the wire and/or the terminals are either old or of inferior quality. Look more closely at the tops of brown terminals. A visible crack in a single terminal puts the integrity of all of the standing rigging in doubt.
You can form an impression of the condition of Dacron sails by their feel. As a general rule, the stiffer the cloth, the less use it has seen. If you reach under a cover or into a sailbag and the sail feels like a comfortable flannel shirt, its best days are well in the past.
Belowdecks we can find a few more reliable indicators of condition. The most obvious is signs of leakage—water stains or runnels (water tracks outlined with dust, rust, or salt), corrosion, or damp or mildewed upholstery. At the least these suggest indifferent maintenance, but more often they flag saturated deck core, delaminated bulkheads or a rotten sole.
Check a few electrical connections to make sure they have been made with proper terminals, not twisted together or wrapped around a terminal screw. Look at wire sizes; most should be #12 AWG or larger. Lamp cord and house wiring are red flags.
Sniff the head compartment. An odor free installation says the head was plumbed properly. Other plumbing in the boat is likely to have had the same level of care.
Every below-the-waterline through-hull should have a bolted-down seacock. Gate valves or, worse, no valves is another indicator that this is not a top-tier boat.
Examine the fit of passageway doors. If one doesn’t fit the opening squarely, the shape of the opening has changed. This could be due to overly light construction that allows the hull to distort when the rigging is tightened.
If you can get even a peek at the top or side of the tanks in the boat—both water and fuel—you can at least rule in or out the possibility of corrosion. Feeling the tank with your fingers also can be revealing. Detectable corrosion casts doubt on the tank’s long-term integrity.
Look in the engine compartment. A sparkling engine and a clean compartment tell you nearly as much about the boat’s owner as about the boat.
Most of these indicators are in plain view if you are just focused. Checking them all should take no longer than about 20 minutes. This does not in any way eliminate the necessity of getting a professional survey on the boat you decide on, but it can avoid the cost of a survey on a boat that exhibits obvious disqualifying defects. Whether you still want to consider a boat showing signs of a particular problem is up to you. Just keep in mind that the real cost of a boat is the purchase price plus whatever it costs to correct deficiencies. Identifying deficiencies lets you calculate the boat’s cost before you buy it rather than after.
For a far more complete treatment of this subject, I shamelessly recommend that you read Inspecting the Aging Sailboat by Don Casey.
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