Is a fixer-upper the boat for you?
It might take some handy work on your part, but an older boat can get you cruising for less money
I’ve had several new boats, but the best cruising boat I’ve had is the one I’m on now. She was built in 1975 and was 23 years old when I bought her. Most of my boats have been used — not just used, but well used. I couldn’t have spent my time and miles on the water if I hadn’t been willing and able to revive old boats.
People buy old boats to save money, but there are many other reasons for getting an old boat. I’ll never forget walking the docks of a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., some years ago. I stopped to admire a beautiful new yacht. She was around 60 feet long and cost probably several million. The flare of her hull had hit a piling, which had punched through the gelcoat. Beneath the gelcoat, glass fibers splayed in many directions. There was almost no resin binding them.
Looking at this gleaming new boat, you’d never think it had the problem this accident revealed. But the problem went to the essence of the hull’s integrity. If the boat had been old, a buyer would probably have been more likely to know of the issue.
In addition to inherent construction defects that become known during an older boat’s lifetime, the running characteristics of old hulls are usually well known. I’ve been surprised by the number of hulls I’ve seen that
didn’t perform in the water as well as they should have. But this flaw might not be as well known on a boat just off the boards.
Another benefit is that older boats often were built with thicker hulls. The thickness of my motorsailer’s hull has amazed me. It’s often true that these older hulls weren’t as well protected from osmosis as many newer hulls, but good protection can be applied retroactively. Many experts say, and probably correctly so, that the material used in the hulls of some new boats (such as Kevlar) is much tougher than the thicker layers of fiberglass in older boats. But I like thick heavy hulls.
Fix it or walk away?
There is often a fine line between “worth fixing” and “walking way.” It will vary with your budget, patience, skills and time. The true cost isn’t only what you pay for the boat; it also includes the cost of restoring it to good condition. Get a handle on this true cost before you buy. A good surveyor is invaluable, but you can save money if you eliminate bad boat candidates yourself and then pay the survey costs for more serious contenders. Throughout the process, remember that there can be no compromise when it comes to safety.
I’m assuming a fiberglass boat. Old wooden boats may be attractive because they’re wood and are probably very cheap, but the likelihood of debilitating rot and the special skills and costs of reviving and maintaining wooden boats place them beyond the scope of this article. And many things said here aren’t applicable to old steel and aluminum boats — not because they may not present great opportunities and be great boats, but because they present special issues. The following are some indicators to alert you to potential problems with older boats.
Indications of previous sinking: While it’s OK to redo a boat that has sunk, and while it’s often done, it’s an issue to be aware of before you buy. Look for signs of mud or sand in areas that may have been missed in a previous cleanup — for example, the tight spaces underneath where decks join the hull and hard-to-access areas between bulkheads. Look for corroded wires. Hastily applied paint in bilge areas may be a clue. Check the history of the boat.
Signs of fire: Damage from a fire could have been repaired, but might not have been. The fire could have weakened the fiberglass layup, and this may not be noticeable without destructive testing.
Bad wiring: You should expect to redo some or perhaps all of the wiring on an old boat, but this can take a lot of time and money. If you can safely do so, try to look at terminals in the panel and wire ends. Corroded wires and/or terminals indicate possible deeper problems. Don’t take chances. Electricity kills.
Engine: An engine survey should be arranged before you buy. But while you’re shopping around, check how well the engine has been cared for. Is there an unusual amount of rust? Remove the oil fill cap and look down onto the rocker arms. Does it look dirty or rusty in there? Are there deposits of old oil sludge in the crevices? Take an inspection mirror on a long wand and look under the engine for rust, oil leaks and other problems. It’s relatively easy for a mechanic to check the pressure in the cylinders and for you to send out oil for tests. Some like to get this done early in the decision-making process because they can be very critical indicators. Check carefully if the engine was recently repainted.
Significant stress cracking in critical areas of the hull: Fiberglass, by its very nature, will flex, and a certain amount of gelcoat cracking or crazing isn’t necessarily serious on older boats. But cracking around critical stress points — such as where the bulkheads meet the hull, where the hull and transom join, beneath engine stringers, at the bow, around the rudder post or shaft strut — may be cause for extra concern.
Excessive mold or mildew: This indicates prolonged lack of care and may present health issues to some people. Some years ago when I was looking for a boat, I saw one that had green mold under the valve cover on the main engine. I didn’t walk, but ran, from that boat.
Balsa coring below the waterline: This construction method is accepted by many boatbuilders, all of whom I assume would vigorously disagree with me. But I would never buy such a used boat, no matter how well the coring had been done. (And there are methods that are much better than others.)
The ride: Sea trials usually aren’t conducted until nearly the end of the buying process. Obviously, the seller can’t be giving free boat rides to every dreamer who comes along. Also, sea trials take time, and buyers can’t spend that much time on many boats. But sea trials should be conducted much more thoroughly than is often the case. Even with all of the excellent design firms, the tank-testing, and the computer programs to guarantee well-formed hulls, there are boats out there that don’t ride well, including new boats fresh off the line.
With a well-established older boat, you may be able to learn from other owners how well they do. It helps to watch boats that you may be interested in as they move under way. If you’re looking at a boat that’s a one-off or one of only a few built, be extra cautious about how seakindly she is, and try to find out before you waste a lot of time and money on other issues. A poorly designed hull can seldom be fixed.
Evaluating the problems
By the time you buy the boat, you should have a good idea of what needs to be done. Unfortunately, many do this in reverse. They buy the boat and then begin to suffer a series of disastrous and expensive surprises. When this happens, people typically end up abandoning the project, with little left of the dream but bitterness.
Some problems you can deal with; others you can’t. It depends on the problem and your abilities. Evaluate what you find relative to what you can do, and what problems may not require fixing — at least in the near future. Here are a few examples:
Blisters: People go nuts worrying about blisters. It’s my personal opinion — I’m sure that many would disagree with me — that a few yards and surveyors go out of their way to scare people about blisters because of all the money they can bring in, as well as the fact they’d rather err on the side of safety. If I were looking for a used boat, I might even look for one with blisters, because the panicked owner may be extremely anxious to sell. Many blistered boats can be repaired by an owner. It’s hard and time-consuming, requires study, and may mean the owner will have to be content with a less-than-perfectly faired hull, but it’s doable if you’re up to it and have the time. My wife, Mel, and I completely redid the hull on a previous boat, from grinding to repairing. We covered the job with Interlux Interprotect 2000 (Interlux has other blister products now) and never had further problems. Some boats have severe blisters and delamination, and the cost of necessary repairs could torpedo the project. Severe blisters and delamination can also cause safety issues.
Wet hulls: The moisture meter can be another source of overreaction. A surveyor may pronounce that the moisture content of the fiberglass hull is too high. In fact, it’s very difficult to find an old fiberglass boat that’s been primarily stored in the water that doesn’t have considerable moisture in its hull. Many experts will strongly disagree with me, but I believe this isn’t always proof of serious impairment. It’s a boat — as in B-O-A-T.
A yard or surveyor may want you to have a perfect boat, and this is fine. But you’ve got to live in the real world, which includes the fact that you can’t sign blank checks. I’ve seen “wet” boats drying out for years to get a good meter reading, until the owner either went broke or died before he could go cruising. As mentioned earlier, this doesn’t mean that you should compromise on safety or structural integrity. It’s also true that the moisture meter used realistically can be a valuable tool that can indicate blister repairs will soon be needed or that repairs will be difficult to do without drying. But you should perhaps seek opinions from more than one expert if the boat otherwise fits the bill except for blisters and hull moisture.
Fuel tanks: Some older boats have black iron fuel tanks. With proper care, they can last a very long time, but there is a reasonable likelihood that, in an older boat, they may soon fail. Owners often can’t check the tops of tanks that are up against the bottom of the deck and, therefore, are susceptible to rusting from leaks. Nor can they check the outer wall of the tank next to the hull or the interior bottom of the tank, where water may have sat underneath the diesel fuel for years. Look very carefully for any signs of seepage. Thoroughly use an inspection mirror. Run your hand, with a white rag, along every corner and across as much of the bottom as you can reach. Any sign of diesel fuel or oily rust is cause for concern. Some tanks can be replaced easily; some require major demolition.
Tanks of other materials can also have problems. Aluminum may corrode by contact with salt water or electrolysis. Welds on stainless tanks often corrode over the years, in part because of the dissimilarity between the metals of the weld and the tank plates. Well-built fiberglass tanks have generally fared the best over the years, but still should be checked, especially because of the problems with ethanol. (The issue of ethanol gasoline and fiberglass tanks is beyond the scope of this article. Hopefully, the wise bureaucrats who believe that it’s OK to sink boats to help the environment won’t be adding ethanol to diesel.)
Topside leaks: If a port hole, hatch or door has been leaking, the water may have migrated to some hidden places far from the leak, causing substantial rot. It may be in structural timber supporting such components as decks or fuel tanks. It may be hard to repair because it’s difficult to access. You can usually see signs of leaks, such as discolored paneling or flooring. If you do, try to determine the extent of the spread of water.
Deck and superstructure coring: Rotten coring generally occurs because water enters the fiberglass sandwich through screw or bolt holes or flaws. This can be more serious on more recently built boats that have very thin fiberglass on each side of the bad coring. I’ve seen many older boats with bad coring that wasn’t a serious problem, because the layers of glass over and under the coring were so thick — thicker than the actual hulls on many new boats built today.
In order to buy an affordable used boat and fix it up to go cruising — all in the same lifetime — it’s often necessary to prioritize which projects you’ll want to undertake and when. There are projects that don’t have to be done immediately. A common mistake is to make her pretty first. Peeling varnish, old paint and water marks on interior bulkheads all cry for immediate attention to a proud new owner. It’s the curse of the reverse of “out of sight out of mind.” Projects such as this should be lower on the list than projects like engines and other machinery, wiring, plumbing and safety issues. Always give safety issues the highest priority.
Jobs owners can often do
The first lesson about doing it yourself is to plan to not do it all yourself. Very few people have the skill, training, energy, strength and time to do everything. That’s another reason why you need to know the boat’s problems and have a plan before you buy. Your budget should include the cost of projects that you can’t do yourself — for example, engine overhauls and complex wiring issues.
Many, including me, believe that doing it yourself is important not only because you save money, but also because it’ll make you better able to fix things under way. But if you’re not up to the task, doing it yourself may cause, rather than solve, problems. If you watch the professional while he’s working, you can learn anyway. Each boat and owner is unique, but the following are some things you may be able to do yourself:
Fix leaks in the deck and cabins: If you can’t find the source, methodically hose your boat down from the lowest points, moving up while someone else is looking below. Repairing these leaks may prevent rot and damage to wiring, tanks or equipment.
Check through-hull valves: It’s not unusual to see signs of corrosion. Clean them, open and close them, and check for structural issues. Do what it takes to make through-hulls operate well. This normally must be done while hauled out.
Check for things that need lubrication: Door hinges, engine parts, control cables, sliding hatches, windlasses — the list can go forever. Use the right products for the job. For example, you normally wouldn’t use a petroleum-based lubricant on O-rings and sliding hatches. Companies such as Star brite have an amazing assortment of proven products for different lubrication needs.
Clean the bilge: Also, if practical, paint it, because a clean bilge will help you detect oil leaks and other problems.
Make repairs or improvements to the anchoring system: Boats often aren’t adequately equipped for serious anchoring. Replacing the windlass, switch and solenoid may be something you can do yourself. If the chain locker isn’t divided for two rodes, you can probably fashion a fiberglass partition, if there is room, and make other necessary changes. You also may be able to beef up backing for the windlass and cleats, if needed. The chain may be rusted and need replacement. You can do this.
Carefully inspect the steering system: Repairs may be over your head, but perhaps not. If it’s cable, check for wear, proper tension, fraying, fastening and alignment of pulleys, and tightness of cable clamps. If it’s hydraulic, check for leaks, rust on the ram and chafe on lines.
Wiring issues: Some owners can redo or repair wiring if needed. The job can be very dangerous, as are the consequences of a poor job. There are special wiring requirements for boats, such as those described in the standards of the American Boat and Yacht Council, and these are quite different from what is acceptable for houses.
Replace hoses: Hoses — head, water intake, exhaust, bilge pump, drain hoses — often need to be replaced. This job can probably be done by the owner. It can be very labor intensive because it’s so difficult to get old hoses off barbs or fittings and to pull them through tight apertures in bulkheads. Have one person push on one side of the bulkhead and the other pull. It helps to lubricate the surface of the hose where it goes through a tight hole in a bulkhead. You can buy wiring lubrication, but dishwashing liquid also works well.
Removing stiff hoses from barbs is easier if you carefully and safely use a heat gun or hair dryer to warm the hose around the barb. Don’t overheat the hose or anything else. Just the right amount of heat makes the hose suppler for a brief time. Too much will damage it. Remember that these tools can electrocute you and cause fires if not used properly.
If you replace hoses, be sure to get hose that’s certified for the use. Special requirements include hose for exhaust, fuel, sewage and hot water, as well as suction intakes, hoses that bend, and pressure hoses. A bad hose can sink a boat.
Galley equipment: Older boats often have issues with their galley stoves. Whether gas or electric, they should be in good condition. Depending on what the boat has, this may be something that you can replace. If, for example, the stove is a standard-size electric model and the wiring is good, a replacement may be within your abilities. If the stove is propane, it’s advisable to have a qualified professional do the job (and check the entire propane system).
A standard house-type refrigerator may be easy to replace. Modern refrigeration systems, such as those by Frigoboat, are relatively easy for an owner to install.
Hot water heater: Water heaters for hot showers and hot water at the sink are often defective or near the end of their lives on older boats. Replacing the unit may be a job you can handle. Most heaters aren’t very heavy once the water is drained. Your ability to do the job will depend, in part, upon your system, the location of the water heater, and the soundness of related systems, such as wiring.
As with so many projects, especially those involving electricity, failure to follow proper safety procedures can be fatal. If your water heater has a heat exchanger to heat water from the engine coolant, there may be special things you need to do to avoid air lock. Our Raritan water heater has a zinc anode. If yours does, check it. If it’s abnormally eroded, this could indicate poor care from previous owners.
Replace bedding: Mattresses on older boats often are bad. Marine mattress companies may charge a lot of money and tell you the mattress must be specially “cut and contoured.” We recently went to a Wal-Mart and bought a foam mattress that included a thick layer of “Memory Foam.” We cut it ourselves using the old mattress as a pattern. It cost about a quarter of the quotes we had received from marine shops.
Carpeting: You can replace worn carpeting — usually inexpensively — by getting remnants from carpet stores and using the old carpets as a pattern. If portions of a wood cabin sole are no longer attractive because of wear or past leaks, consider covering them with carpet or area rugs. Take care that the rugs or carpeting won’t slip when the boat rolls. Non-skid rug padding is available that will substantially curtail this.
The head: Older boats frequently have poorly operating heads. Many newer heads are easy to rebuild, but sometimes it’s best to replace the old one. Usually a job that an owner can do, it will give the head area a much nicer look, not to mention giving the owner piece of mind. You don’t necessarily have to replace it with the same model, as long as you’re sensitive to the footprint and necessary clearances, such as those required for a pumping handle (if it’s manual) and servicing.
When we rebuilt the present Chez Nous, we removed the electric heads because we didn’t want the power consumption. We replaced them with new Raritan PH II manual heads because our past experience has proven them to be reliable and easy to rebuild. Also, they fit handily in the space available. Raritan now has recently announced a low-draw, small-footprint, easily removed and maintained “Elegance” head I’d also consider.
Frequently, a “head problem” is really a head discharge hose problem. Calcium-like deposits build up in discharge hoses over time, particularly if there has been much use. Replacing these hoses is another job many owners can do, though it won’t be much fun. Be sure to use hose made for marine sanitation use. There will be less odor seepage and less buildup.
Also, the holding tank may smell, and it will probably get worse as the tank is used again and if you head to warmer climes. Yards have various cleaning methods, but there are products, like Instant Fresh Toilet Treatment from Star brite, that will help. Raritan has its “KO” (Kills Odors).
Freshwater tank: Water from old freshwater tanks often tastes bad. You can easily add products such as Star brite Aqua Clean to freshen the system.
Fire extinguishers: Replacing the hand-held fire extinguishers is an easy job. However, an automatic fire extinguishing system in the engine room will require a qualified professional. Smoke, carbon monoxide and other alarms may also be something you can add or replace, depending upon the types and systems. These must work when needed. Don’t hesitate to get a qualified professional for this job if you have any doubts.
Electronics: It’s usually best not to update the electronics until near the time you plan to start using the boat so you’ll be able to take advantage of the latest technology. Installation is now much easier for some products than in the past. For example, an often difficult part of installing a GPS/chart plotter has been wiring and mounting the antenna. An internal antenna is part of some models, such as our Standard Horizon CP300i with C-Map Max cartography, making it very easy to install. However, interfacing new electronics (with radar, autopilot and AIS systems) may require qualified professional help.
If you have a problem with the VHF radio. Check the antenna terminals for corrosion before replacing it. Often, disconnecting the terminal from the antenna and squirting it with an appropriate spray lubricant and moisture dispersant will “fix” the problem. You may want to install a new VHF for the latest technology, but save your old as a backup.
Batteries: Replacing batteries and cleaning the battery compartment is usually something an owner can do. Good batteries are very important, but older boats often have a battery area that has suffered over the years from the effects of gaseous battery acid in neglect. We replaced our old batteries with modular Surrette 8Ds. Normally the weight would be beyond our ability, but the modular configuration allows you to carry on one cell at a time and bolt them together. These have “hydrocaps” that return most of the escaping moisture and gas to the battery, eliminating much of the corrosive problem from charging and increasing the length of time between topping off with distilled water.
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These are only a few examples of issues and solutions with older boats. Some may be applicable to you, others not. I’ve only scratched the surface, but you’d better get used to scratched surfaces. It’s a boat. And it’s a used boat. But it can still be fun.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at www.tomneale.com.
This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.