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Buying A Sailboat

I’ve bought and sold a lot of things in my life. Cars, homes, furniture and well, just about anything else that can be bought and sold. I’ve bought online, in stores, at yard-sales and at markets. It’s my humble but experienced opinion that buying old stuff is pretty much the same no matter what it is you’re buying. You look it over carefully and see what you can see. Hopefully you already know about how much you should pay for the item. You ask the pertinent questions, hoping you’re not being ripped off, while presuming you just might be, at least a little.

Until last year, cars had been the most challenging used item I had ever purchased. The good news was, I’d always had good luck buying them. But last year, well… last year my true education began. I bought a used boat. Not only a used boat, but I bought a used seafaring sailboat.

For those of you who are not aquatically enlightened, let me share a tidbit of my newly acquired wisdom by asking a few questions, followed by some typical answers you can expect to hear if you’re buying a boat. Then I’ll do the most important part. I’ll translate the answers into their actual meaning.

QUESTION: “Are there any problems with her?”

A good sailboat is always referred to as “her”. Thus all sailboats are referred to as “her” in hopes that she is in fact, a good boat. There are three probable answers to the above question. You’ll get the first answer about 25% of the time and the last one about 1% of the time.

ANSWER 1: “The mainsail is a bit worn, but should be good for a while longer and there’s a problem with the bilge pump. Not sure whether it’s electrical or if the pump is going. It’ll cost a couple hundred bucks if you need a new one.” Obviously, the issues could vary, but the seller in this case is seemingly being honest that the boat has some issues. A lot of boat sellers are like this, but you may not want to presume the majority of sellers will be this honest.

ANSWER 2: “Not that I know of. Nothing really worth mentioning. Oh… the hatch needs a new seal installed.” Note the first sentence. “Not that I know of.” It’s what I call the Deniability Clause. The seller did not say, “No. Everything is good.” They simply implied everything was good, which is nothing like actually saying it. And then, just to keep you feeling like they’re not hiding anything, he/she throws in a piddly, five-dollar issue to fix. You should be aware if you’re buying a used boat, especially an older used sailboat, there are always problems. It’s just the way it is. Hearing about them up front is what we all hope for, but one way or another, if you buy a boat, you will absolutely find out what the issues are sooner or later. Probably sooner.

ANSWER 3: “There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s perfect. Great boat that doesn’t need a thing.” Now to be fair, there are sailboats like this, but they cost a lot of money. In the market I dwell in, these words are rarely said with a straight face or clean conscience.

QUESTION: “Are there any leaks on the topside?” This means, are there any leaks around the portholes, the hatches, the rigging, the mast, and anything else above the hull. If you have never owned a sailboat, especially a used one, you need to be aware that technically speaking, a leak free boat does not exist. When it rains there is always at least a spot here or there that drips a bit. On the bright side, it’s a boat and it’s floating in the water. A drip or two inside is not that big of a deal. With that said, there are still a couple of answers to this question.

ANSWER 1: “Nope. No leaks.” This either means that you are miraculously buying what is possibly the only sailboat on earth that has absolutely no leaks or you’re buying one with very little leaking. This is good. Hope for the first and presume the second.

ANSWER 2: “It leaks around the portholes a bit, but I’ve been working on sealing them. They’re doing pretty good lately.” This is the worst of all answers because it indicates that leaking is taking place, but as to how much? Well, that’s the big mystery. Leaking a bit could mean it’s actually leaking a bit. Or it could mean, you need an umbrella when you’re sitting inside the cabin if it’s raining outside (and inside). And “they’re doing good lately” could mean it just hasn’t rained lately or it could mean the seller wisely stayed away from the boat on rainy days. On a personal note, our boat is dry now, but we needed the umbrella when we first bought her. “She leaked a bit around the windows”, was what the previous owner told us when we inquired, but he had sealed them correctly and they were probably good now. They weren’t.

QUESTION: “Are there any issues with the hull?” The hull is the bottom of the boat that is under water. Unless you’re having a survey done and having her pulled out of the water, the answer to this question is something you are taking on faith. Scary, huh? You simply have no way of knowing if the bottom has been patched with ten rolls of waterproof duct tape or if it’s in immaculate condition.

ANSWER 1: “Not that I know of.” This could be good or bad. If the seller doesn’t actually know if there are any problems, then he/she is being honest and that’s a good thing. But if the soon to be ex-captain recently ran her aground, and damage was almost certainly done, then the “Not that I know of,” answer is once again technically not lying, but not informative either. When you’re in a boat, leaks and minor problems above the sea can be irritating. Leaks and minor problems below the waterline can mean you may soon be swimming. And if you do make it back to the marina, it means you may be spending a lot of money to make the needed (not to be confused with optional) repairs.

ANSWER 2: “It’s about time for the bottom to be painted, but there aren’t any serious issues.” If someone tells you the bottom needs to be redone, then there’s a good chance you’ll find something that needs to be fixed when you have her out of the water. That’s okay because it’s just the way it works with sailboats. On the bright side, they told you the bottom of the boat needed to be redone. A minor expense. Right? And this leads us right into the next question.

QUESTION: “What are the maintenance costs?”

ANSWER 1: “Dude! You’re buying a boat. You’re going to be poor.” The most straightforward honest answer I have heard, boat = bring on another thousand!

ANSWER 2: “She’s in pretty good shape. Maintenance costs are minimal. Just a few bucks here and there.” First of all, you must be aware, the only sailboats (over 25 foot or so) with minimal maintenance costs, are sailboats not being maintained. It’s a little house that floats in the saltwater 365 days a year. It needs maintenance and that maintenance costs money. Low maintenance costs is a fable told by those who are either desperate to sell their money pit or by those who have a twisted, sailor’s sense of humor. There are those sailors who believe in the theory, once you start sailing, your joy will outweigh the fondness for the money you once had. This theory has about a 50/50 success rate. Maybe less.

QUESTION: “Do you have a clear title to the boat?” Funny question, huh. What you’re asking is, do they own the boat their selling?

ANSWER: “Yes,” or “No.” Those are the only two possible answers. If the answer is no, then you’ll need to decide if you want to be bothered with paying possible marina liens, paying off a partnership, getting a boat loan paid off where eventually you might/might not have a clean title. One fact is indisputable. A boat is like a car. If you don’t have a clear title, you don’t own it!

Some good information to know is a lot of sailors take little to no issue with telling little lies to someone who is going to be docked a hundred yards from them. It’s simply understood that boat buyers are by nature foolish enough to buy a sailboat, thus they will probably accept they were foolish enough to buy the wrong sailboat. Plus, you need to remember a lot of sailors are wannabe pirates. When they’re not working for the local accounting firm, lawyers office or selling real estate, they are dreaming of sailing off to never-never land and pirating the seven seas along the way. It’s who they are and they can’t help themselves. So do yourself a favor. Ask the questions and get all the answers you can. Then do your homework.

Now for the big questions only you can answer.

QUESTION: “Do I want to buy an expensive toy that will absolutely cost even more money in the future? Do I want to have a hobby that requires endless hours of cleaning, polishing, fixing and patching?”

ANSWER: “No!” It’s the only sane response, right?

QUESTION: “Are you going to buy a sailboat?”

ANSWER: “Hell yes I’m buying another boat! The one I bought last year was too small. Besides, sailing is supposed to be great next weekend.” Sanity is simply overrated.

Good luck in your boat search. By the way, we’re selling our 25 foot Catalina soon. She’s leak free… more or less. Freshly painted inside. New cushions. Good engine and sails, and has a slip in the St Petersburg Municipal Marina. We’re letting her go right after we find a bigger boat that has… potential. And, we will love our new boat like an unpredictable mistress and will relish every minute of fixing her up! Hopefully we’ll get to sail her some too.

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