Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Living aboard and buying a boat (part 3)

Part 1 is here:
Part 2 is here:
Part 4 is here:

The Boat of Your Dreams:

The boat of my dreams - Limitless
You found the boat of your dreams. You are doing your homework. What does that future look like? OK, its not the boat of your dreams. Its the boat that you can afford. Me too! (See picture left) Lets talk about next steps - after all you made it to part "3."

The Survey:

I would not ever buy a boat without a professional survey. (OK, I would buy a Sunfish.) You will probably need a survey for insurance purposes. The first thing to understand is that a survey is like a life insurance physical. If you can fog a mirror you can get life insurance. If the boat floats it will pass a survey. Before hiring a surveyor have a long talk about what is covered and more importantly what is not covered. Many surveyors do not comment on the state of the auxiliary propulsion (engine, transmission, cutlass bearing, prop, etc.) Many do not survey the rig or the sails. You may have to hire four people, the surveyor, an engine mechanic, a sail maker and an expert rigger to really understand what you are about to purchase. Its worth the money.

The Sea Trial:

I once commented to a friend who works for a major sailboat designer that I saw many pretty boats at the boat shows but they did not seem very well laid out for cruising. My favorite is the pedestal bed in the forecastle. Anyone who has tried to sleep in the forecastle of a boat underway in even moderate seas knows that it is the most uncomfortable place on the boat. My friend said: "These boats are not designed for sailing. They are designed so that the wife will let the husband buy the boat at the boat show." True story.

(Scenario 1) The perfect day for a sea trial:
Sunny, about 80 degrees Fahrenheit,
Winds: 8 to 10 knots, no gusts,
Waves: 1 foot or less,
Duration: less than 1 hour.

That is the perfect day if you want to sell the boat - and the broker who will take you on the sea trial does.

(Scenario 2) The perfect day for a sea trial as a buyer:
Sunny, about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (no reason to be cold and uncomfortable.)
Winds: 15 to 20 knots, gusting to 25 knots,
Waves: 3 to 5 feet, confused seas,
Duration: As long as it takes to test everything.

In the cruising world, particularly the open ocean cruising world you will rarely see the first set of conditions. You will frequently see the second set of conditions. You don't want to purchase based on scenario 1 when in truth you are going to be sailing in scenario 2.

You cast off from the dock and get underway. Don't raise the sails! Your first step is to stop enjoying the scenery and visualizing yourself as owners. Go down inside the boat. Can you walk around? Are there sufficient handholds? Can you use the head, the stove, sleep in the bunk? Think about sleeping in the bunk in these waves. Can you do it? Because you will have to be able to. By now you have probably realized that fixing just about anything underway is going to be a chore. Don't blame it on this boat. Its a chore on any boat.

Back topside. Check the engine controls. Is the engine running at an appropriate temperature. Is there oil pressure? Is the alternator charging the batteries? Are all the instruments working? Drop down to idle. Run up to full power. Drop back to economy cruise. This is the engine setting that gives you good headway without burning up lots of fuel. On most boats it will be around 2200 rpm but you will have to play a little bit.

Time for the underway under power evolution. Box the compass and motor on each point as you name them. Look at the GPS speed over ground. How much headway do you lose fighting the wind and the waves? How much do you roll in a beam sea? Are these acceptable parameters? This is the reason you chose to go out in heavier weather and higher seas. In flat seas and light winds the boat is going to handle pretty much the same on every course. As the seas and wind get worse the performance on each compass point will alter quite a bit.

OK, the moment you have been waiting for! Raise the sails. Don't let the broker raise the sails. You need to understand how hard it is to raise them. For most boats in the wind I have suggested you are going to need a reef. That is great, you will see how hard it is to put in a reef.

There are two courses that require you to return to the interior and revisit all the questions above. The first is close hauled. The second is with the waves (not the wind) on the beam. These are the two most uncomfortable points of sail to be inside a boat.

Back to the helm. Can you balance the rig? This means getting the sails set so that you don't have to steer. This takes almost all of the load off the rudder (and the electric autopilot.) In open seas you will not be able to maintain a perfect course without some input from the helm. The waves are going to bang the bow around. But you should be able to steer with one finger. With the sails balanced head upwind. How high can you point? In a 15 knot wind you are going to be able to point about as high as you will ever be able to point (at low wind speeds pointing high is very difficult.) One major drawback of catamarans (and I love them at the dock) is their inability to go up wind well. Are you happy with the pointing ability?

Head downwind. Everything should calm down. You may want to do this step underway or wait until you get back to the dock. It is, simply, turn on every piece of electronics on the boat and see if it works. And I do mean everything.

Back at the dock:

Let us assume that you are still interested in the boat because the next part is ugly. These are things that can cost a lot of money but most people don't really pay attention to:
  • Go over every sail both on the rig and in bags. Are they blown out? (in other words, if you put your mouth on the sail and try to blow air through the sail can you do it. If you can the sail is dead.) Is there broken stitching? Are the luff cords taken up tight? (this means the sail is stretched and the luff cords have been used to try to retain some shape.)
  • Look at all of the lines: sheets, halyards, dock lines. Are they frayed? Are they stiff? A new halyard on a bigger boat can cost $200 to $300. Dock lines are #40 each.
  • How old is the upholstery? Does it show signs of wear? Replacing it, even if you do most of the work is a several thousand dollar evolution.
  • Look at the dodger and the bimini. Is the cloth old? Are the windows brittle? Again, big bucks if they fail.
  • Look in the bilge. Is the water clear? Is there oil in the bilge?
  • Check the engine oil. Is it reasonably clean? Does it look as if it has been changed in the last century?
  • Look at the tail shaft. Is it leaking more than a drip every once in  a while?
  • Finally, open every single compartment on the boat. Are they wet? Do they smell? Is there any sign of critter (bugs or mammal) infestation? Getting rid of bugs on a boat with EPA approved chemicals is an exercise in frustration. If they are wet after your sail they will always be wet. Not a useful place to store things.
  • If possible take a pressure washer and spray all the windows and where the mast penetrates the deck. Do things leak?


Nothing that you find is necessary a game breaker (other than water in the engine oil or oil in the bilge - both are very big buck problems.) You are not doing this to lower the price (although the buyer will believe you are.) You are doing it so that you know exactly how much work and money is being delivered with your new boat.

Fair winds and following seas :)

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