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There are plenty of ways to boat on the cheap

I think it was the water rat in “The Wind in the Willows” who said (and I paraphrase) there is nothing quite as worthwhile as messing around in boats. I couldn’t agree more. In today’s economy, though, can boating be affordable? I think it can, and it’s worth the effort as long as it doesn’t wipe you out.The theme of this month’s installment initially seemed like an oxymoron, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to be a worthwhile subject. The other day, as I perused a competing publication, I read a description of a lovely daysailer. It’s just under 23 feet, with a plumb stem, a beam of about 6 feet and an overhanging reverse transom. It has a wishbone rig, a fin keel with a bulb and a spade rudder. It appeared to be a lovely boat, simple to handle and stable because of its 55 percent ballast-to-displacement ratio, but with a snappy recovery when heeling. Of course, it was a daysailer, not a long-distance cruiser. The price: $84,000.

Mike Saylor

This is a simple design. After I read the article, there was little I could see that could be removed from the boat. And other than a few instruments and ground tackle, I could see nothing that needed to be added. To me, what defines simplicity and efficiency in a boat is the point at which nothing more can be taken out without compromising its integrity.
That daysailer is expensive, but there is much more to consider than the cost of the boat. There are berthing costs, which probably will increase sharply when owners replace a smaller boat with a larger one. Maintenance costs definitely will increase, probably exponentially. There’s also the cost of insurance and the cost of fitting out. Anchors increase in size and cost with a bigger boat, as does the size and cost of the rode needed. I know you’re saying to yourself, I don’t anchor. I go to marinas and rent a slip when cruising.
Despite your planning and the weather reports, there will come a time when Murphy applies his law to your boat while it’s away from the dock. I know you’ll call Sea Tow or some other organization to haul your butt out of trouble. And what if Murphy and Mother Nature combine their efforts and you’re near rocks or some other hazard? Anchors and rode are expensive, but they may be the cheapest insurance you can have on the water.
Then there’s the cost of winches, windlasses and sails. As a powerboater, you have the same kinds of problems (except for sails and winches). Even your dock lines increase in size when you switch to a bigger boat, and for everyone there is the cost of safety equipment.
OK, enough discouragement. I believe that the essence of affordable boating is simplicity. The mantra is KISS (Keep it simple, stupid). If you want affordable boating, keep that mantra in mind.
There are many options in boating other than floating castles. Just about everyone can get around the expense of berthing in a marina or club, and that goes a long way toward making boating affordable. There is kayaking, a healthy, simple and inexpensive alternative way to spend time on the water. It does require some physical effort, but it’s not strenuous. It is a good idea, however, to know how to swim, but that’s true of any form of boating, regardless of the size of the boat.
Another option is trailer boating, power or sail. It requires the purchase (and registering) of a trailer, a trailer hitch and, depending on the size and weight of the boat, a braking system for the trailer. By the way, you’ll also need a vehicle capable of safely hauling the trailer and boat — I learned that the hard way. You’ll also have to back the boat down to the ramp for launching and recovery, and you’ll probably get wet in the process.
One great advantage to trailer boating and kayaking is portability. You can take your vessel to virtually any body of water and experience new places and have new adventures.
If noise and the cost of fuel don’t bother you, there are personal watercraft. They can be fun. I think of them as waterborne motorcycles. I’ve been on both, and I’ve jumped from planes. I prefer jumping. New tricked-out PWC approach the cost of a boat, but there is always the used route.
Bouncing around in inflatables or RIBs can be a less expensive alternative to a runabout or other traditional small boat. If you’re considering this option, I say go with the RIB rather than a true inflatable, even one with an inflatable keel and floorboards. Most of these are trailerable and they’re often not as heavy as a fiberglass boat of the same size. That means less fuel and a smaller outboard.
For fishing, there are punts and other flat-bottomed boats that can be powered forever on spoonfuls of 2-cycle fuel. One of my favorite options is a rowing boat — not a flat-bottomed clunker that you rent at the lake but a well-designed boat that may offer an optional sailing kit. A good rowing dinghy can easily move two or more boat lengths on a single stroke.
Admittedly, rowing is becoming a forgotten and lost art, but it is well worth resurrecting. Of course, you could mount an outboard engine, but that sort of defeats the KISS principle.
There is also the used-boat market. Just look at the used-boat section in the back of this magazine. You can usually negotiate price, and the goal is to avoid going too big. On some waters, sailboats and powerboats over 30 feet are like aircraft carriers in a bathtub. Unless you consider the boat a floating alternative to waterfront property, keep it small and simple and affordable.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.