Diamond-in-the-rough, perhaps, but how rough?
By Bill Sandifer
Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 1, Number 2, August/September 1998.
What to look for when buying your Dream Boat
In the nautical lexicon, it seems these three words – good old boats – always go together. Some of the most aesthetically pleasing designs from the boards of
America’s greatest naval architects – Alden, Alberg, Gillmer, Herreshoff, Rhodes, Sparkman & Stephens and many others are now well along in age and, like old debutantes, in need of a face and structural lift.
When, in our wanderings, we find an older boat, a fiberglass boat which appeals
to our hearts, our spirits soar, and a smile lights our faces and then fades.
It fades when we consider the work and cost associated with the required plastic
surgery. But need it fade?
Let’s assess our new love and evaluate the potential under the layers of grime.
The earliest fiberglass sailboats were built from designs originally intended
for wood construction. The beam was narrow and the overhang long the waterline
short and the interior small but the beauty is there.
A Herreshoff H-28 is still a Herreshoff, in wood or glass. A Hinckley Pilot
is still a Stephens’ design, Seawind a Gillmer, Cape Dory an Alberg, Bounty
a Rhodes, and a Pearson Countess an Alden.
Start with the basics
To evaluate our find, let’s start with the basics.
The earliest fiberglass hulls were thick and sturdy, approaching the originally
designed wood thickness. The resins, until 1972, were of a formulation that
resisted blistering. So the hull, barring physical damage, should be sound.
This is not necessarily so with the decks and cabinhouse. Take off your shoes
and walk on every horizontal surface; dig your toes in as you walk. If there
is a soft spot or delamination, you’ll feel or hear it. A crackling sound or
a soft feeling will tell you of a problem. Don’t panic. Make a note of the location
and keep looking.
If the boat is out of the water, next check the underwater gear. The older hulls
– Triton, Ariel, Reliant – all had wood rudders with bronze shafts and strapping.
Age, electrolysis, and marine life may have eaten holes in the wood or bronze.
It can be fixed. Keep going.
Check mast, rigging, sails
The mast and rigging are next. The spars were usually wood or heavy-walled aluminum.
Unless rotted, the wood can be reglued and the aluminum painted. The problem
with the rig will be the standing rigging.
Most standing rigging will be stranded stainless steel wire with swaged fittings.
There is no reliable way to evaluate the condition of rigging wire until it
starts to break. To check for breaks, put on leather gloves and wipe all wire
rigging with a paper towel. The paper will catch on the broken strands (called
“fish hooks” for a good reason) and flag the break. This sure beats using your
ungloved hand and marking the break in blood.
If you can’t be sure the wire is in good condition and has been replaced within
the last 10 years, plan on replacing all standing rigging. Check each swage
fitting by cleaning with metal polish and using a magnifying glass. Check for
cracks or corrosion.
Just one fitting failure can bring your rig down. The cheapest way to replace
standing rigging is with new wire and swages. The more expensive alternative
is to use new wire and reusable fittings. Consult your budget and make notes.
Running rigging, sails, and all canvaswork can be evaluated visually. Raise
all sails and check their shape. Are they baggy or stretched, do they set poorly
under wind pressure? Try the poke test. Ask the owner for permission to hold
a small section of the sailcloth in one hand and see if you can push your finger
through it. If it gives, or if you make a hole, the cloth is deteriorated. This
is probably due to ultra-violet rays from long exposure in use or just from
being uncovered on the boom.
Sails will last a long time if properly cared for. They can be re-cut for better
shape a whole lot cheaper than they can be replaced. Used sails can be bought
from any number of sail brokers or lofts. Sometimes new sails are available
at 50 percent of the original cost, if they were ordered and not picked up.
Check your budget and your intended use. I’m not a racing sailor, so my old
sails are fine for cruising use. The added speed from new sails is not worth
the cost for me.
What about woodwork?
With one exception, the ondeck woodwork can be replaced or sanded down and refinished.
The 37-year-old teak on my Ariel is still serviceable. The former owners never
cleaned it, so they did not wear away the soft wood between the grain as happens
when harsh chemicals and hard scrubbing are used to clean the wood.
The exception on deck wood is teak decks. The usual method of fastening teak
to a fiberglass deck is to screw the teak directly to the fiberglass below.
The teak is 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick and more of a veneer for looks than for a
structural deck. The soft wood between the grain is worn away by the elements,
people’s feet, washing, gear dropping on the deck, and other impacts. Over time,
the deck gets so thin that the bungs covering the fasteners fall out, and the
fasteners begin to work loose.
If the decks are very worn, and the bungs covering the screws are popping off,
you will most likely find delamination underneath and a very large job ahead.
Think about whether you’re willing to tear it all up and fill all those holes
or just take a chance. Either way, it will be expensive in the long run.
Let’s go below
Open up all the hatches, cupboards, and drawers. Use a flashlight and a fine
ice pick. Poke any discolored areas for rot. Check the area where bulkheads
are bonded to the hull. Has the fiberglass tape pulled away from the wood? Has
the mast step sunk into the keel? How about the keelbolts? Most, but not all
of the earlier fiberglass boats, had encapsulated ballast. Some had lead or
iron exterior keels. Check the bolts for corrosion. They will all look rusty,
but determine if they have lost material. Are the nuts octagonal or rounded
off? Hit the nuts gently with a small metal hammer. If you get a clear “ring,”
they are salvageable. A dull sound means deterioration. Check the “floors” or
supporting beam around the keelbolts. Are they discolored or soft? That fix
Operate all the seacocks. They should open and close and be a nice bronze color.
Yellow is brass. Pink/purple is bronze from which electrolysis has leached the
zinc. In either case – yellow or pink – replace them.
Shine a light at as much of the hull-to-deck joint as you can to check the seam.
See if there are any signs of leaks. Did water get in around the bolted fittings?
Look for water stains. Investigate all deck hardware from underneath. Is it
adequately bolted with a backing plate? A wood or fiberglass plate is nice,
an aluminum plate is better, and a large stainless steel plate is tops. Carbon
steel is OK, but it must be coated to resist rust. Carbon steel was seldom used
in fiberglass yachts.
Check ports and hatches for operation and leaks. The aluminum port light on
my Ariel fell apart in my hand when I tried to fix a leak.
Evaluate the systems
Finally, check the electrical, mechanical, and piping systems. The electrical
system may need breakers to replace old fuses or new wire and/or fixtures. Are
the running lights legal? The rules have changed over time.
The engine is a whole subject unto itself. If it runs, it is a plus. If it does
not, a replacement may cost more than the boat is worth. Price replacement engines
before making a decision.
Check the shaft and Cutless bearing for wear. If it moves up and down, replace
the bearing. This is a big job, but not an expensive one, with the boat out
An old Atomic 4 can be rebuilt and serve for years. These engines are simple
and can be made reliable with upgrading. You are safe if care was taken to keep
the fuel system in tight shape and you use your nose to check the bilge before
each start. Blowers are required, but the nose is infallible. Diesel engines
are really nice, but they’re expensive as a new or replacement system.
Check all tanks. Fuel tanks can leak and be almost unremovable. Water tanks,
if fiberglass, can encourage the growth of various things and cause the water
to taste terrible. Tanks can be cleaned out and repaired, but it is a labor-intensive
job. As an example, you may have to remove the engine to replace the fuel tank
or remove the cabin sole or V-berth to replace the water tank. Unless you are
independently wealthy, you really don’t want to ask a boatyard to do the work.
Take a final look all around. I hope you’ve been taking lots of notes. Find
a quiet place to review your findings and decide if the boat of your dreams can become your Dream Boat.
Common-sense boat buying
by Bill Sandifer
As a young adult with a wife and one child, I wanted a sailboat in
the worst way. As with everyone at that stage of life, money was a
problem. But I took my last $1,500 and made an offer on a used wood
catboat “subject to survey.”
I’d owned boats all my life and had actually built several.
Still, I was not trusting in my own abilities and felt I was doing
“the prudent thing” in engaging a professional marine surveyor to
protect my investment.
The surveyor inspected the boat, noted nothing wrong except,
“the cockpit flooring will probably leak, ought to cover it with
plywood,” and picked up his fee. Blinded by the “professional
report,” I bought the boat.
It was only on a hard beat in the middle of Long Beach Sound
that the knots began to fall out of the “knotty pine” wood planking.
Using the anchor rope to plug up the holes, I was able to reach shore
with my wife and young daughter.
I never could find the surveyor to ask him about the problem.
It was probably just as well, as I had visions of sending him to sea
in the very same vessel he had pronounced “seaworthy.”
The moral of the story? I ignored my own capabilities and
common-sense judgments in favor of a “professional opinion.” If I
would have taken the trouble to carefully inspect the hull myself, I
would have seen the knotty planking, rejected the boat and been saved
from a potentially life-threatening situation.
Any person who wants to buy a boat must like the water, have
seen other boats, and have a good idea what type of boat is best for
him. If a person takes his abilities to think, talk, observe, and
reason and couples those abilities with common sense, that person can
assess a boat’s condition on his own.
Basic common-sense questions should be considered: Is the
boat clean? Does it look good? Does it do what it should do? For
example, does the engine start easily and run well? Do the sails look
good without wear? Do they raise and lower smoothly? Finally, is the
owner/broker being honest? We all can sense when we are being conned
or “sold a bill of goods.”
Three old cliches come to mind. “Handsome is as handsome
does.” “If it looks right, it probably is right.” And, finally,
“Buyer beware.” All three can be applied to any boat and will go a
long way to assure the prospective buyer a successful purchase.
Having said all of the above, does this mean that a person
should not hire a marine surveyor? Certainly not! Once a prospective
buyer has applied his own common sense to inspect the vessel in
question and decided in favor of the boat, then a surveyor should be
called in to apply his detailed knowledge of marine design and
construction to assess specific details about the boat.
As a person employs an accountant to do his taxes, a doctor
to tend to his ills, and a mechanic to repair his car; a surveyor
should be hired to assess and value the potential purchase. But only
after the buyer’s common sense tells him or her, “It’s just what I
want and in the condition I want it.”
A surveyor provides verification of the judgment already
arrived at by the purchaser and simply points out the more technical
points that need attention and are beyond the purchaser’s own
In selecting a surveyor, use common sense, ask for
references, ask to see reports on previous surveys, and, finally,
don’t abdicate your responsibility in favor of the surveyor. Use