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How old is too old?

Age (sometimes) has its advantages

When I was a young boy I went through a series of wooden boats. My very first was brand new, built especially for me, commissioned by my loving father. I was proud of the boat, and I loved her. I cared for her in every way known to man … or boy. But within just a few years she was a rotten hulk. She’d been built of pine, and even with my fanatical care, she was too old very soon.

The missionary ship Logos, which carried Bibles when it wrecked in 1988 in the Beagle Channel, is too old to save. On the other hand, its parent company still employs a ship built in 1914.

When I got my fourth new boat, which was my second Chez Nous, I was in my mid-30s. She was launched in 1979. It was incredible to have that magnificent boat. Within a week or so after we got her, a very knowledgeable guy in the industry said, “Better enjoy it. Fiberglass never stops getting hard, you know. After a while, it’s not just hard, it’s brittle. And then comes the day that you gently bump a dock and you hear a tinkling noise and it just disintegrates around you.” I was stunned, until I realized he was kidding.

The boat lived and served us well until we sold her in 1999. She made her new owners happy until 2004, when Hurricane Frances hit Fort Pierce, Florida, where she was docked. This great storm tore down the marina and destroyed most of the boats there, except for our somewhat aging Gulfstar Sailmaster 47. She survived the onslaught of winds and seas and the pileup of pilings, docks and other boats — many much newer — that the storm crashed down upon her. By the standards of many, she was an “old” boat by that time, but she stood strong.

Then came Hurricane Jeanne, a short time later. It also took bearings on central Florida’s east coast. Our old boat was waiting at anchor to be pulled from the water when a crane, buffeted by the winds, dropped one boat and the workers fled, leaving the Gulfstar 47 at the mercy of the storm. A huge barge rolled over on her, finishing her off. She’d age no more, but I’m confident that if she’d been pulled from the water sooner, she’d still be making her owners happy.

For several years thereafter, when we traveled the ICW in that area, we’d see her ravished hulk, along with that of many others, piled on the shore where the remnants had been dredged up. Most of these wrecks were clearly unusable, except perhaps in the eyes of a few ill-informed masochists who thought they could raise the dead, make repairs with their own hands and sail away to tropical Nirvana.

Seeing that salvage area brought home a question — the same question that has been bantered around on boats, in bars and on the docks for years: Where do all the old boats go? Fiberglass doesn’t gracefully rot away in a marsh, ultimately blending into the earth from which it came, like the old wooden skiffs of my boyhood. And that begs the other question: How old is too old for a boat? This is very important to folks like you and me because we love boats, but few of us can afford new ones.

Wood and steel

The author's former Chez Nous (bottom right), still afloat and with minor, repairable damage following Hurricane Frances.

Wooden boats are labeled as “too old” a lot sooner, or so it might seem. But with the right skills, maintenance and enough money, you can make them live for a very long time. Maintaining and repairing wooden boats is more than a skill; it’s a priceless art. And there are plenty of wooden boats around that belie the belief that they age too fast. The USS Constitution — Old Ironsides — the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, was launched in 1797. You can still visit her today in Boston. Of course, great sums of money and amazing skills have been poured into her survival. But most of us, including me, don’t have those skills, so let’s talk for a moment about steel boats.

For years, as we followed the ICW through Norfolk, Virginia, we stood in mute, awed silence as we came up upon and passed the SS United States, helplessly tied to the dock, rusting away. She was built in 1952 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. Her keel was laid in 1950, and for years she carried passengers across the Atlantic. She was state of the art when built — capable of 35 knots — and was luxurious, but she was also built with the quiet idea of being used for troop transport, if needed. When we saw her, rust streamed down her white painted superstructure and massive stacks. Since then, she’s been towed from Norfolk in a gallant attempt to preserve her and put her to new use. The SS United States Conservancy has made great efforts, but the ship lies, as I write this, rusting away in Philadelphia, her future very uncertain and likely to conclude in a wrecking yard.

I’ve walked the decks of some of the great retired battleships in Norfolk and in Wilmington, North Carolina, including the battleship Wisconsin, which lies at the Nauticus maritime museuam in Norfolk. As I travel the ICW there, I stare up at her in reverence and awe. These ships were massive in every way and carried weapons that could hurtle shells weighing more than 2,000 pounds great distances. The thickness of their steel hulls could withstand bombing and torpedoes. I’ve also walked the decks of old famous aircraft carriers. These ships and their commanders and crews, as World War II exploded into the world’s consciousness, rewrote the rules on how to win wars, especially naval battles. And they saved our country and freedoms.

The author's first Chez Nous, a Tartan 27 that's now about 50 years old, is reportedly still going strong.

Some of these have gangplanks that are open to the public and for a fee, which should be paid gratefully, can be seen in various states of purpose. The Yorktown (CV 10) — the 10th aircraft carrier to serve the Navy — lies in Charleston, South Carolina, at Patriot’s Point across the Cooper River. You can visit her and see how her 360 officers and 3,000 enlisted crew lived, worked and won battles. She also has a very moving memorial to Medal of Honor warriors on her hangar deck. She’s a very old boat, and she’s still serving, but in a way far different and more limited than her builders and plank owners imagined. Of course, she was built of steel that, with time and lack of care, rusts.

So are these steel ships too old? You’d think not if you walked their decks and passageways. But many have gone to the cutting torches because their age makes them expensive to run and maintain.


So let’s bring this home, to our very own boats. Most of them are fiberglass. Sometimes it seems that they do live forever, at least in boat terms. The point is illustrated by our first Chez Nous. She was a Tartan 27 built in the mid ’60s, and we bought her a few years later. She was an incredibly well-built boat that never failed us. We traded her when we got our Gulfstar 41 in 1973. But we saw her years later, still going strong and still loved by her owners, and we understand that she has continued in that happy vein. I’m guessing, and my math is never reliable, that this boat is probably close to 50 years old. Now that’s an old boat! But is she too old? If she has received reasonable care, I don’t think so.

Is your boat too old? Should you start thinking about buying a new one and figuring out how you’re going to pay for it? Obviously the answer depends on your preferences and on your boat, as well as how it was built and how well it’s been maintained. Maybe you want to be the coolest captain in the yacht club and want a newish boat to impress others, as well as yourself. Or maybe you don’t mind your boat’s “classic” look and like the fact that you know how to diagnose and fix most of her components.

I fall into that category. I’m told that I wouldn’t have to be fixing things so much if I bought a new boat, but I don’t readily buy into that thinking. I’ve seen too many problems on too many new boats that needed fixing, and sometimes knowledge of how to fix “improved” components is scarce. And this leads us to how it was built and how well it’s been maintained. An older boat may have been built much better than some recent launches, and if it has been maintained well, keeping it may be a smart and far less expensive option. I’m planning on selling my current Chez Nous because it’s time for us to get a smaller planing trawler. I’ll be looking at old boats, and here’s why.

Built to last

This Chez Nous was launched in 1975. She’s fiberglass. Some would say she’s old. And they have a point — she’s taken her lumps. Any boat that old will have taken some lumps. But a lot of them wouldn’t have survived, and this 53-foot Gulfstar motorsailer is tugging at her lines and ready to get underway as I write this.

I had wanted her from her beginning. I had a 41-foot Gulfstar when the company began building the 53, but I couldn’t begin to afford her. So unfortunately, several owners used mine before she came to me. Some may not have shared my love of boats. Perhaps some weren’t very skilled at working on them. It’s possible that if I had owned her from the beginning she’d be in even better shape than she is now. But you can’t have everything. I look at her teak and see some of it worn thin by years of cleaning and varnishing and weathering in the tropical sun. I look at the gelcoat on her decks and see some surface cracks where someone dropped an anchor or banged an engine into the side of the hatch or dropped a hammer. These blemishes don’t bother me. I could fix them all if I wanted to, but why bother? They’re just cosmetic. And I know what’s underneath.

Some years back I cut a nice big hole in the side of my boat, up near the gunwale. It was to accommodate a porthole so my wife, Mel, and I could look out at the water while lying in bed. I knew this would give us a lot of pleasure, and I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal since this part of a fiberglass hull is usually relatively thin. I’d seen plenty of boats in the process of being built, plenty on the reef and plenty in the wrecking yards. And I’d sawed holes in many others. It’s simple. You make your template, run a nice-size drill bit through the hull at a corner and take off with your Skilsaw or other weapon of choice. Boy, was I wrong.

I began to realize just how wrong I was as soon I started drilling. I drilled and drilled and drilled. I had to change bits three times. Sure, fiberglass destroys bits and blades. But I’ve drilled lots of fiberglass boats, and I know you can usually count on voids in the laminate and areas of zero to little resin impregnation. Although these don’t give you a lot of confidence in your hull, they sure make a cutting job easier. But I didn’t find any of these little bonuses when I sunk the hole. And I didn’t find a single one anywhere through the cut, which took a very long day instead of the hour that I had anticipated. The hull was not only thick — it was also unbelievably solid. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d visited the Gulfstar yard in St. Petersburg, Florida, back in the day. I saw that they were building tough boats, as if they weren’t completely sure they could trust fiberglass. They were making some mistakes, but so was everyone back then.

It didn't take much to hole this thin hull.

I’ve visited more than one “boat factory” where they build modern new boats. I’ve seen hulls so thin that I could take my finger and flex an entire section. I’ve seen hulls so thin that in areas where there was no gelcoat or paint, daylight shone through as if it were a dirty window. I did some work in a cabinet in one of these boats and didn’t need to light up my work area as long as the sun was shining. Of course, it’s important to note that many of these thin hulls include material such as Kevlar, which is much stronger in many respects than good ol’ fiberglass. But there’s still a lot to be said for tough, thick old hulls.

New and improved?

I’ve looked at some new hulls and thought they were substantial, with sections that seemed quite strong and solid. But then I’ve also seen some of these newer boats on the reefs, on rock jetties lining inlets and under serious repair in boatyards. Their hulls failed when they shouldn’t have, in my opinion. Some of these are built of very thin laminates and rely not on the strength of the hull for overall toughness, but on internal grids of fiberglass or a network of bulkheading and horizontal furniture, flooring, etc., to stiffen the hull.

Admittedly, many fiberglass hulls that are turned out these days use much tougher materials than the old ones. But the strengthening structures are generally bonded to the hulls by various methods using fiberglass tape, cloth, resins and so on. This works fine until you get into some really rough weather and the hull starts working (as they all will) and grid sections start popping loose from the hull. It also works fine until you hit something that pierces the thin layup in one of those sections between the grids. And it works best of all if you need to drill or cut a hole in the side.

Older fiberglass boats are often repairable and clean up well after some TLC (and Awlgrip).

At this point, if there are any boatbuilders and dealers reading this, they might be feeling a bit hostile. So I re-emphasize that there are some incredibly well-built new boats these days, and that techniques change with time as we learn more — and often this is for the better.

Due diligence

Nevertheless, old boats can be very good boats, and that’s important if you own one or if you want another boat but can’t afford a new one. You must examine old boats closely and also consider whether the problems you find are relevant to how you want to use the boat. Here are some things to look for in old boats.

Are there hull sections that have been repaired? Can you see them? Are there visible indications in those sections or are they turned up by thumping on voids or poor layup? Sometimes boats were built with inadequate wetting out of resin or poor curing. As long as the gelcoat is covering the problem, it looks good. But an old boat such as this may be too old if bad sections are pervasive.

Is there room on the boat to add things that may not have been required when it was built? An issue that comes to mind is space for a holding tank and/or a marine sanitation treatment system. I’ve seen many people suffer for years because they didn’t think of this when they bought their boat, assuming that they’d find a way. If that way just plain stinks, the boat is too old.

Some worry about soft deck coring in old boats. This is caused by water seeping into the coring over the years through screw holes and the like. Many an old boat has been rejected by a disappointed buyer because of that infamous sound of the thump as the surveyor taps around, almost sure that he’ll find some soft coring simply because the boat is old. But that worry is not an automatic reason to rule out a boat. My boat coring is sandwiched between two layers of fiberglass deck, and each of those layers is far thicker and heavier than the hulls of most boats built today. The fiberglass layers are also joined all around as a whole. So it’s possible to have an old boat with no water in the coring. Don’t assume there’s an issue — find out.

This 1926 Chesapeake buyboat was refurbished as a pleasure boat - she's definitely not too old.

Look for weaknesses in components that are likely to have occurred because of age. How expensive will it be to fix this, and how important is it? Crevice corrosion in stainless steel is an example. It occurs when water puddles around stainless, and thus there’s little of the oxygen present that inhibits rust. If you’re looking at an old sailboat, assume there’s some crevice corrosion in the rigging and factor in a survey for this and replacement parts, if necessary. But that cost may be insignificant, compared to the cost of a new boat.

What are the tanks, particularly fuel, made of and how easily can they be accessed? Many wonderful old boats were built with black iron tanks. If you’re considering one, also realize that there will probably be leaks — if not now, then in the near future. These tanks can sometimes be repaired if there’s access, but sometimes they must be replaced, and this may involve cutting a hole in the hull. A boat with this sort of problem may be too old for even the most nostalgic of us.

Old boats will probably have old wood, and wood rots. But fiberglass doesn’t. If you find soft wood, don’t let it kill your dream unless it’s structurally important. Many old boats were built with very thick, heavy fiberglass that could do fine without minimal wood support. If it is structural, consider what it would take to replace it. If you want a show boat, probably a lot. If you’re less fussy, perhaps you could do it yourself.

What kind of engine does she have? Much has been said, including by me, of the old slow-turning diesels that seem to chug along forever. But they do fail, and sometimes it’s extremely expensive to get parts for a very old engine. An old boat with a new engine can be the best of both worlds.

Does that old boat you’re thinking about have a known pedigree, such as a Mako or Boston Whaler or one of many other classics that people widely know and love? If so and it turns out that you don’t like owning it, you’ll probably find it easier to sell.

Boats can live for a very long time. If you want another boat or are thinking you’ve got to get one because yours is old, consider history, which is full of long-lived old boats. Sometimes oldies are, indeed, goodies.

December 2014 issue