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From project to perfection: finding the right used boat

One of the nice things about our watery world is there is a project boat for every budget, every taste, every dream. Large or small, classic or contemporary, in wood, glass or metal, the old and the not so old, there are an endless number of ways to get out on the water.

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Whether thou be an experienced shade-tree mechanic or a young do-it-yourselfer with nary a farthing in your pocket, rest assured there is a boat somewhere out there that is right for you. It may be resting in a driveway or a field, in the far reaches of a boatyard or backyard or, if you’re lucky, snug and dry in a barn. The object of your obsession may surface like a white whale in the classified section of the magazine you are holding in your hands. Or on the Web.

A slew of boats came on the market in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which damaged about 65,000 some odd boats last fall. You can find them through salvage yards and auction houses. Cooper Capital Specialty Salvage in Old Saybrook, Conn., for instance, lists hundreds of casualties of storms and other whoops-a-daisies on its website (

But selecting the right used boat to put your time and money into can be tricky business.

Caveat emptor is a good mantra to keep top of head when prowling the boneyards for a new prize. You don’t want to get too deep into a rehab project and discover you’ve made a mistake — that the boat needs either more moolah or expertise or both than you’re willing or able to provide. And you really need to approach refits with your eyes wide open and your emotions in check. If it sounds too good to be true, chances are it is.

Boat projects typically cost more and take longer than you initially estimate. That simply goes with the territory. Set deadlines and establish a budget but be ready to reset them as circumstances warrant. Remember, you’re better off taking your time and doing it right the first time than rushing hellbent for leather and having to go back and redo a setup or system or installation. Worse is trying to live with something you know isn’t right.

Having said all that, it’s also one of those truisms that most if not all boats are compromises, new and used. And when it comes to project boats in particular, I invoke a well-worn line from Voltaire: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In other words, don’t become hamstrung or disheartened trying to turn that 30-year-old cruiser you bought back into a yearling. Be realistic about what’s possible and practical.

Simple, seaworthy and reliable are good, attainable goals. And that’s a sure formula for keeping the sun on your back and the wind in your face. For good advice on this subject, I urge you to read Tom Neale’s Sea Savvy column on Page 68.

My current boat is a 45-year-old Boston Whaler Nauset that I dragged out the back lot of a dealership on the Eastern Shore of Maryland more than a decade ago. The boat needed work, to be sure, but her bones were solid. The foam-filled hull was dry, as was the wood and glass transom, two critical areas on Whalers of this vintage.

Talented restorer Frank Kehr and his journeyman helper (yours truly) performed what Frank likes to call a “functional restoration” on the Boston Whaler, transforming her from a fading relic into a fun, inshore family boat. We removed and replaced every fastener and piece of visible wood, redid all systems, stuck a new outboard on her and basically brought her forward in time three decades.

Since the Whaler was redone and relaunched, the family has grown to include grandchildren, sons-in-law, an 80-pound black Lab and two sprouting teens still at home, one of whom is already wearing larger shoes than his father. In short, we needed a bigger boat. And that means a new project boat.

Enter a 21-year-old Sisu 22, the venerable, tried-and-true Down Easter with pretty lines and a sure, seakindly motion. I am fortunate to have a talented boatwright for a brother-in-law, and Charlie Koller is in the midst of converting this former workboat into something a bit more domesticated. You’ll meet Charlie shortly in a new blog called “The Swamp Yankee Chronicles,” which will follow this project from its beginning as a rough, mildewed, leaf-filled hull to her launch this summer as a newly refit seabird.

“His paintless skiff lay upturned above high water under a blanket of salt hay held in place by boards. His eyes fell on it, and he said, ‘Got to give you a coat of paint this year.’ He had been saying this for many years.”

 — Win Brooks

June 2013 issue