Why Restore a Small Boat? Economics, Practical Considerations, and Having It Your Way
Once upon a time—a long, long time ago—I owned and lived aboard a Catalina 27. For roughly four years, I lived aboard my boat. Then I decided it was time to go back to school. I sold the boat, moved inland, and used the money to get married and earn my master's degree.
I had always heard it said that the two greatest days in a sailor's life are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells it. Pardon me for saying so, but that's a boatload of manure. I was grateful to sell my boat, but it took all of two weeks before I started feeling like I had made a mistake. Almost immediately I started thinking about another boat to buy.
Eight years and one baby later, I still had no boat. The money for a sailboat always seemed to be urgently needed for one bill or another, so my wife and I had very little to work with. I decided to sit down and define the parameters for a boat that would fit my family's lifestyle.
Part of the problem was me: Having lived aboard a boat, I had definite ideas about what I wanted: a large, high-quality yacht. But my dream boat was totally unrealistic, at least at this stage of my life—newly married, fresh from grad school, unable to find work that capitalized on my degree, with a baby thrown into the mix. We didn't go too crazy buying stuff for our son, but we did want one of us to stay home with our son, and the lost income became significant. As our son Kyle got older, my wife was able to land a good job, I found a part-time editing contract (with flexible hours so I could homeschool Kyle), and we moved into a new house (with the accompanying mortgage and expenses). There was a little money left over after we paid the bills, but not much. I soon understood that there would never be enough to go out and buy that Island Packet 32.
That's when I finally settled on the idea of a trailerable sailboat—something that I could use to dash away for quick day sails, the occasional overnight or weekend cruise, and maybe a little longer trip once or twice a year. So I sat down and tried to turn my rather amorphous daydreams into concrete plans. Our sailboat would have to be:
1. Affordable. Although this can mean widely different things to different people, with us it meant really, really affordable—as in, not a lot of money at all. Like many young families, we had numerous priorities (our young son, for example) that ate up what little cash we had left over at the end of the month.
2. Small. A smaller boat would be a great deal cheaper and would suit the lake sailing that we'd be doing. Oh, sure, I'll cruise the Caribbean someday, but in the meantime, I could sail this boat. Then, when the tropical breezes start to blow my way, I can use the equity in the small boat to move up to something larger. I did want a boat that was large enough to sleep on in relative comfort, meaning some form of cabin (a Catalina 22, for example).
3. Trailerable. A boat on wheels can be vastly more flexible to use than one that's stuck in the water. Trailerability also reduces maintenance expenses and improves affordability, as I describe in more detail in the next section.
4. Quick. The boat had to be quick to fix, quick to rig, quick to launch, and quick to sail. It seems that time is a rare commodity these days, and we needed a boat that didn't take up all our spare minutes.
The only thing that seemed to fill all these requirements was an older, small sailboat (18—23 feet), with a trailer, in need of some repairs and maintenance. I eventually found one that came close, though it ended up needing a lot more repairs than I planned on. More about my particular choice later.
Reducing the Costs of Sailing
Our boat would have to be cheap—both to buy and to maintain. I figured I could come up with about $1,500 to buy the boat, which is not a lot of money. Realistically, the only boats in this range are trailerable.
A trailerable boat gives you options for storing it in the off season that larger boats don't have. You can keep it in your backyard and work on it over the winter if you like, or store it on the trailer in a rental yard or marina. Stick it in a slip during the summer months, and you'll be sailing at the drop of a hat. Some marinas will rent a parking space near their boat ramp where the boat can be kept fully rigged. As long as there aren't any overhead power lines, you can load up the car, drive to the marina, hook up the trailer, and slide it into the water. This can be a lot easier than trailering from house to the water every time you want to sail (although you still have that option), and it can be a lot cheaper than keeping the boat in a slip.
A trailerable boat kept at home is accessible for work without the haulout, yard fees, and trucking expenses that larger boats require. This reduces the cost of maintenance. Parking the boat in the backyard over the winter enables you to dash out and do a quick job whenever you have a free moment, instead of having to pack up the tools, drive to the yard or storage facility, discover you've forgotten something, and spend the rest of the day cursing your absentmindedness.
Generally speaking, sailboats are very poor investments. We've all heard the "hole-in-the-water-into-which-you-pour-money" bit. However, I've never heard this phrase from someone who actually owns and uses a boat. Oversimplifications like this are usually pronounced gleefully by landlubbers.
But there is a grain of truth there. Sailboats in top condition can bring a price that's vastly different from the price of a boat that's been neglected. What some people fail to realize is that the difference is often less than the restoration cost, especially if you do all the work yourself.
That said, a sailboat is not like a car, where the value drops every year until it effectively reaches zero and you haul the thing to the dump. As long as the hull is basically sound, nearly any fiberglass boat can be restored. The restored boat, in good condition, can be sold for a reasonable amount of money—its value is preserved, up to a point. A boat doesn't appreciate in value the way real estate does, but its worth doesn't evaporate like a car either. I like to think of a boat like a bank account that doesn't earn any interest—the money is always there and can be recovered to some degree when it's time to sell. But a boat is a whole lot more fun than a bank account.
Buying a sailboat isn't like buying a toaster. You can't really weigh features against price, then pick the best value; there are too many variables involved. One of those variables involves your feelings. Don't ignore them. Sailing is mainly an aesthetic activity; it's not essential for our survival. So the aesthetics of the boat, and your feelings about sailing, need considering, too.
I like the idea of fixing up a boat. It preserves the resources that went into creating it, and in all cases those resources are considerable. Thousands of pounds of fiberglass and resin have been kept out of a landfill because of my efforts. Some boats (not mine) have teak in them, and with the replacement price of teak reaching $15 per board foot, you'd be crazy to throw it away. With my boat, I took an ugly, useless eyesore and made it into something functional and, to my mind at least, fairly good-looking. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from that. You can, too.
You've probably heard this old adage from the world of real estate: "What are the three most important thing(Continues…)
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