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The smart buyer: Lessons Learned: 25 Year of Boats and Marriage

My husband, Darrell, and I are passionate boaters — and boat buyers — so people who know us sometimes wonder how we’ve made it through 25 years together. We’re diligent researchers and patient shoppers, so I thought I would pass along some of our experiences buying and selling boats over the years.

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Making a decision to buy or sell a boat can be amazingly stressful. People take sides. People get attached.I’ve seen two people look at the same boat on the same day and hear one say, “My life will end if we don’t buy this boat!” and the other say, “Your life will end if we do.”

Darrell and I have been through a dozen boats together, and each one has had a particular set of characteristics that determined why we bought it and why we sold it. Despite the differences in the boats we’ve owned, I have seen some strong patterns. And along the way we’ve compiled a sizable list of lessons learned, in particular during the 11 years we owned and sailed Tosca, a 32-foot, 12-ton, gaff-rigged, double-ended 1933 Atkins ketch.

We didn’t know a lot when we started out, but we knew we needed a boat that could make up for our lack of experience. Darrell scoured the boatyards of South Florida for six months before discovering Tosca in Boat Trader magazine. He recruited Paul Anstey, one of South Florida’s most highly regarded marine surveyors and a member of the National Association of Marine Surveyors, to help him assess his choices. Despite Darrell’s months of forays into yards and marinas, Anstey was only asked to do a preliminary survey on two boats. He rejected both. Tosca was the third boat and the only one that Anstey suggested merited a full survey.

At the time, Darrell and I were in our early 20s. We had no intention of getting a bank loan or insuring the boat — we had no chance of obtaining the first and no money for the second — but we did want a professional opinion on the structural integrity of the boat. Today, most insurance companies require a survey before offering a policy, and most banks require an insurance policy on a boat before offering a loan. If you have a boat that needs a survey, start by looking at the accredited surveyors from a respected association, such as NAMSGlobal ( or the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors ( NAMS divides its marine surveyors into three general disciplines: hull and machinery, yachts and small craft, and cargo. Yacht and small-craft surveyors deal with the condition, value, construction and damage of yachts up to approximately 300 feet.

Some surveyors may also be listed by their specialties, including wooden boats, marine engines and damage.

A haulout confirmed Tosca was a solid boat in decent condition, and Anstey recommended we offer the yard half of the asking price. The yard itself was for sale, and the current owner would soon be paying slip fees on Tosca — a boat he owned through repossession — to a new yard owner. “There was no market for a 60-year-old, gaff-rigged wood ketch in South Florida, and [Anstey] knew that,” Darrell says. “He knew the yard was desperate to get rid of her.” Two days and $6,000 later, Tosca was ours.

Lessons learned: Having someone on board with the kind of knowledge and experience that Anstey had was incredibly helpful. Paying for a qualified professional will likely save you money and heartache down the road. Anstey’s background as a builder and a sailor made him invaluable. He was the perfect surveyor for us; in addition, he was a local and knew about the impending sale of the yard, a great stroke of luck. Remember, though, that six months of research and hard work led us to a marina that was ready to sell us a 10-year adventure for $6,000. Is that luck or smart boat buying?

Why did we sell Tosca? After 10 years of sailing, we found ourselves perched on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean and couldn’t find the traction to head north to the Red Sea or south to sail around Africa. I had concerns about our old Volvo MD2B taking on the headwinds of the Red Sea; the Cape of Good Hope offered its own set of challenges. We looked at shipping Tosca home; we looked at hiring a delivery skipper; we looked at returning to the States by sailing back to Hawaii and on to Alaska. We looked at storing Tosca in Malaysia. New opportunities and new adventures kept calling us in a different direction, and with heavy hearts we decided to sell. Neither of us could look back the day we left her and walked down the dock.

Lessons learned: Sometimes when it’s time to let go, it’s time to let go. We sold her for a song. The value in some boats is the adventure, not the sale price.

Theresa Nicholson and her husband spent 11 years cruising the Caribbean, South America, the South Pacific and Asia, from 1989 to 2000.

January 2015 issue