Tips and tricks if you want to buy a boat
If you are looking to buy a boat you’ve got plenty of questions. I've been there. You hear plenty of stories like "the two best days of owning a boat" etc. etc. (if you are one of three people reading this who hasn't heard that, the punchline goes "the day you buy it and the day you sell it").
There are plenty of reasons against owning a boat. And yet there are some good reasons to own one too. This post is an in-depth review on buying a boat, starting from why you shouldn’t. It goes right through from that initial decision to what sort of boat, and so on up to the equipment you should put on your boat.
A key part of this post is how you should bid for your boat. That's the part where the tips here should save you an easy $10K minimum. Not that the advice is groundbreaking in any way. But that's the point really. It is just simple, sensible tips. I hope you get something out of this.
Should I Buy A Boat?
Let's start at the beginning. That moment in time when you say "I think I might like to buy a boat". It might have been five minutes ago or five years ago. The point is, everyone looking to buy a boat has started at this point.
Let's talk about when you should NOT buy a boat:
- If you are using it for less than two months a year, non-stop (I would even say three or four but let's stay with the conservative nature of this piece and agree on two).
- If you think you should holiday more and believe buying a boat will provide you the incentive to do so (it won't).
- Your friends/family don’t like being on a boat (buying one won’t make them like it).
- If you just received a bonus, hate your job/life and see buying a boat as the best way out (it won't. Buy shares with that bonus. Or send it to me. I'll spend it wiser, promise).
I might have just saved you much more than $10K. The decision to NOT buy a boat, quiet though it may be, is one of the best decisions you can make. Buying a boat is buying into a world where shit breaks. All the time. Combine UV rays with water, add some salt to the mix, and you have something that is constantly wearing out, breaking, leaking, getting clogged, you name it.
Not just that but the cost of fixing boats is high. Either you do it yourself (all the time asking “why did I buy this again?!) or pay someone more than a land-based technician to do work where parts cost three times as much as they do on land and break twice as often. Not even kidding.
No matter how optimistic you may be as a person, know this: YOUR BOAT WILL BREAK. Not once, or twice. It will break more often than it won't. There is a saying in boat-land, "the boat is in one of two conditions, either broken or about to break". The other saying says boat stands for Bring On Another Thousand. Both are correct.
So with that bright advice, if you are on the fence as to whether to buy or charter a boat, charter.
When you should buy a boat
Now let's get to the part where we tell you why you should buy a boat.
- You want to sail across an ocean or some great distance;
- You plan to spend more than three months on your boat each year;
- You love racing and spend every other weekend sailing;
- You’re loaded and boats are your weakness (at least you’re honest).
That's about it. If you can't tick one of the four reasons above, charter. Your own financial situation really has little to do with it. Even Warren Buffett, when asked why he didn't own a boat, responded along the lines of "why would I want to buy a boat? They always need work. If I want to take a boat out I have plenty of friends who own boats".
Substitutes to owning a boat
If you're still thinking "I get what he says but I just like the sound of owning a boat", let's talk through some scenarios that are perfectly charming and still do not involve owning a boat:
Chartering a boat
When you charter a boat, you are basically renting a boat for a week or more. It is very seasonally driven in terms of pricing. That is, if you stay out of the peak weeks of Christmas or, in Europe, July/August, then you can typically see 50% reduction in charter rates. Furthermore, you are free to travel.
Want a sailing holiday in Thailand? Or maybe one in Greece? When you charter, the world is your oyster. You're not forced to go to a place that was lovely the first three times but, frankly, has been done now. And you get to walk straight onto a clean boat in great condition. If anything breaks, you get to give the boat back. You don’t have an asset to worry about. The dreeeam.
Joining a sailing club satisfies the "but I want to sail in my own city" itch. Many people think sailing clubs are just for the rich folk. This is not necessarily true. There are also clubs where you can rent boats to sail.
There are some great deals to be had here. A nominal monthly fee to some clubs gets you a substantial discount every time you wish to hire a boat for the afternoon. Most major coastal US cities will offer some sort of program like this.
Image thanks: Yachtshots BVI
The Third Way
The question of boat ownership is not purely binary. There is a third way, where you invest in a boat but have one of the charter companies manage it, including paying you a return. Typically you have a period each year where you get to sail on the boat.
You receive a financial return on the boat then after five years, the boat is yours. If you are happy to tie your funds up in such a way, there are worse investments you could make.
We simply suggest that you take a cold, hard, investors' look at such a decision. Don't be emotionally invested in blue skies and endless margaritas. Look at the investment amount, make your own call on the risk, look at the return and over how long, then make your decision.
To be clear this post is not discouraging such an investment - as boat ownership goes this has a lot of benefits. Just weigh it up coldly against other investment options. Could you invest your money elsewhere and get a better return? Do you actually *want* to be owning a boat after five years?
Now we have exhausted the "do you really want to buy a boat?" question.
This part is the "what's the best way for me to buy a boat?" part. We will optimise your decision-making here.
What boat to look for
There is a fork in the road here. Namely, catamaran or monohull. It's one of those classic divides, like snowboard or ski, or indeed powerboat or sailboat (if you're considering a powerboat, amplify the “why you shouldn’t own a boat” piece above). Catamarans have increased in popularity over the past 20 years, and for good reason.
They are faster, their saloon is square and above water level, and they tend to be easier to maneuver. Safety-wise it could be said that a monohull, once capsized, will stand a chance at righting itself. But for major boats nowadays the focus on safety in their design and construction means this is a minor difference.
So why would anyone want to sail monohulls? ...I hear you ask. Monohulls respond to wind in a way that catamarans don't. The heeling (tilting of the boat) of a monohull is virtually non-existent in a catamaran. While some people may say "excellent" to that, others love the visceral feeling of a monohull cutting through the waves, heeling over as the apparent wind increases.
I own a monohull. But I love cats as well. Many of us fall in this "it's all good" camp.
The diagram below is probably too small to see. Sorry. It links to a larger file. So click on it and it should bring you to a page that shows the larger version. Or email me and we'll send you one.
Image Copyright Sailing Virgins. If you want to use it make sure you liberally plug Sailing Virgins and we'll be happy. Thanks to The Moorings for the original images.
In summary, there is no right or wrong with cat versus mono. Yet for families and groups where you have sailors with non-sailors, cats are increasingly popular.
What size to get
If you don't already know the linear versus volumetric thing about boats, pay attention. Boats are measured according to their length. That's one dimension. Yet boats are three-dimensional, volumetric objects.
What does that mean? It means a 10% increase in length is actually a 30% increase in the boat (at least). So while a 40' boat may sound not much smaller than a 50', the difference is really about half.
Now we have ascertained the linear-versus-volumetric issue, let's look at the size boat you should look to get. One rule of thumb for production boats is to look at the maximum it can sleep and divide by two to arrive at a "comfortable size". This may be a bit extravagant but it is one way to consider size.
Here's another way. If you are young, easy-going and looking for a chilled week with your besties, go with the capacity number. If you are older or living on the boat for longer, go for half the maximum stated capacity. If you are somewhere in between, go somewhere in between.
What brand to get
The Europeans are proportionally the largest cruising sailors and generally make the most boats in this regard. Boats made by large European brands appreciate beauty and performance. With one or two notable exceptions, boats made in other places tend to be engineered, floating caravans.
The list below shares brand-names of production boats. Like a lot of things in boating, this is controversial. Many blue-water (ie. ocean) sailors dismiss "plastic fantastics" but the simple fact is the volume in the boating market is in production boats. So for simplicity's sake, these larger brands are listed below.
Some brands will have been omitted - please be nice in the comments if this is the case. There are some excellent sites such as noonsite.com where you can get much deeper knowledge on different types of boats, including the lesser-known or smaller production (but in several cases, very high quality) brands.
Beneteau, Jeanneau, Hanse, Dufour, Bavaria, Oyster, Halberg Rassy, Nautor Swan (what a babe)
Lagoon, Fountaine Pajot, Leopard, Catana, Outremer, Sunreef, Gunboat
Catana 59 in the Virgin Islands. Image © James Kell 2014
How old your boat should be
Age-wise, boats tend to clump into one of three camps: less than five years old, less than ten years old and greater than ten years old. Less than five years old is the age of boats used by Tier-1 charter companies such as The Moorings. Between five and ten years old they are phased out of the Tier-1 and enter into a Tier-2 service or across some of the better sailing schools. Older than ten years is not necessarily a bad thing; well maintained boats can last decades.
Where to look (geographically)
There is no real rule you can draw here. Generally where you find charter boats, you will find boats for sale. As a rough guide boats tend to be cheapest in Europe, more expensive in the US and most expensive in Australia. If you have sailed across oceans before and the boat is in a distant port, this might be another opportunity for an adventure. If you are looking for some help on a long-distance voyage contact us, we know plenty of good skippers who can help here. By being "geographically agnostic" (sorry) you open yourself up to better deals. In my case I was originally going to purchase my First 40 in Turkey, then France, and finally purchased it in the UK. She is now in the British Virgin Islands.
Where to look (websites)
A google search will reveal the major sites here. The grand-daddy of sites to find a boat is Yachtworld (http://www.yachtworld.com/). You can set up an alert for some sites to tell you when there are yachts that suit you, filtered for age, brand, location and other factors. This is very handy. You will receive regular updates and get a good feel for what boats should cost, where.
When is a good time to buy a boat
One way to answer that is "when the seller is desperate to sell". That is, the answer is different for every seller. However there are certain times such as end-of-season in the Med when people are about to winter their boats and would prefer to sell. Generally end of season - no matter where you are - is a good time. But keep an eye out for the desperate sale.
How to arrange your finances
This is the big one for getting a great deal. We recommend having the cash available for the full purchase. This maximises your ability to bid strong.
What to look for (when looking online)
Have a look at the following key items (aside from age of boat):
- Engine hours,
- Age of rigging,
- Age of electronics,
- How many owners,
- Has the boat been used on bareboat charter.
Cornelia, Lena, Melissa and Hinke heading to Sandy Cay BVI. Image © Sailing Virgins 2017
Buying The Boat
How to make a bid for a boat (part 1)
Selling a boat follows a fairly standard narrative for many (though not all) sellers. It starts with the "seller’s hoped-for market price" (whatever that is), then the realisation that it won't sell at that price, then the realisation the costs of keeping it are not worth it, then the dropping of the price to the "discounted price" (aka market price).
This process can happen very quickly or over a matter of months (depending on the level of experience/delusion of the seller).
Image © Sailing Virgins 2017
With this in mind, and your finances ready to go, you make a low-ball bid on a yacht that can "settle immediately, subject to survey". That's the key. “I have the money, I can transfer it immediately, I just need the survey to check out.”
If the seller has reached the "discounted price" stage of enlightenment, he will talk to you. If he is still at the delusional stage, depending on how low you bid, he might laugh at you. Expect this. Just politely leave your details and say if the seller wishes to talk at some point, to contact you.
What to ask from the yacht surveyor
When the survey is carried out the seller will need to take the boat out of the water. Find a well-respected surveyor working locally (or, if needs be, fly one in. The main thing is that you are working with a well respected surveyor. This is important.).
The surveyor will have a standard price for a pre-purchase survey. Go with this and ask for one additional item in your report: an itemised list of "need to fix" items with budget estimates next to them that you can give to the seller. Don't hold the surveyor to these estimates (or else he won't do it). Rather ask him to use his best judgment as to what they might cost.
How to make a bid for a boat (part 2)
Now with your bid accepted and the survey done, send the surveyor's "need to fix" list to the seller. Anything that is new information (ie. that the seller did not disclose to you prior to agreeing on a price) must come off the sales price or be fixed. This comes right down to seemingly small items such as servicing of the life-raft. It all adds up.
Chances are you won't be able to get everything on your surveyor's list done, but you should be able to get a lot of it done. This part is all about negotiation.
Where to have your boat registered
You will need to “flag” your boat. Delaware is about the cheapest and simplest solution if you are not sentimental about your flag. It costs around $150 per year plus an administration fee for such registration.
You need hull insurance at the very least. There are several companies that offer this. Pantaenius, Nagico, Geico are three large companies. Rates may be reduced if you have appropriate training (think a Captain's Course in the BVI with Sailing Virgins, just saying...). Be specific about your boat and the areas you plan to sail.
Find out about named storms and what the insurer offers here: most insurers simply don't insure boats in a given area (like most of the Caribbean) during the storm season. Some insurers allow monthly payments while others require six-monthly or annual fees paid.
What to modify in your boat
Now you have your boat, what needs to be done to it?
One rule of thumb on battery storage is to allow yourself sufficient power for around two days of full use without charge. The biggest consistent draw on power for production yachts (up to around 50') tends to be the fridge which draws around 5 amps (per fridge). Therefore 24 hours of single fridge use and you have around 140 amps used each day.
Other items such as a DC watermaker (which can draw around 20 amps while it is making water) and the navigation system itself while underway (especially if the autohelm is engaged) and you can easily use around 3-400 amps per day.
With all this in mind with a single fridge, a battery capacity of 800 amp hours is a conservative amount of storage. Some might say too much but it really depends what you are wanting it for, how often you can recharge your batteries and how much you wish to "power down" at times to stretch out your energy storage.
By way of comparison, charter boats tend to only offer around 200 amp hours. They know their batteries will be trashed by the end of the season anyway and replacing one is cheaper than replacing four. But this is your own boat now so things are different. Battery quality is important (Rolls from Canada have a particularly good reputation).
And remember that batteries are considered hazardous cargo so buying them on an island normally incurs a higher cost due to the special categorisation of their shipping. If you can, buy them on a continent. And buy a battery monitor to keep a good eye on your batteries.
This is a topic close to the heart of your writer. What I am about to say is controversial. It is this: Don't get wind generation. Concentrate on solar power. I bought a brilliantly engineered wind generator - the best on the market. It was quiet and promised a high energy output. It cost $2,400. I live in the British Virgin Islands, famous for the dependable trade winds.
In two years I can only remember one night, at Saba Rock in January, when the wind generator actually gave the boat a surplus of energy. I can remember several times when fishing lines were owned by the wind generator. A wind generator will give the boat around 2-3 amps on average. When it's very windy this will go to 7-8 amps.
Contrast this with solar. One 150W panel through a decent MPPT controller will give you 8-10 amps on your average sunny day. A friend, Manfred has a 40' Oceanis in Grenada. He built his own 50mm stainless steel arch and put four 150W panels on it. The total cost for his arch and panels was around $1,800 (this is a low figure mainly because Manfred is exceptionally practical and built the arch himself).
His panels provide shade and never catch fishing lines. Oh, and they return him 20-30 amps while the sun is shining. He owns a microwave and a watermaker. His girlfriend even uses a hairdryer (...I know). He never runs his engine for power and has never seen his batteries fall below 90% capacity.
A watermaker is a game changer. It is expensive. But if you have the funds available, it is worth it. You won't get much change out of $10K for a watermaker. But it hits at the very heart of why you purchased your boat in the first place: freedom.
With a watermaker - especially a DC one powered by your solar cells described above - you can literally live for months, comfortably, without depending on anything but yourself and your boat.
Practically this means not having to strictly ration water. It means not having to worry about water quality when filling up in a foreign harbour.
Many sailors I know, myself included, say it is actually the single best investment on the boat (apart from my foldable bike with rubber chain of course).
They are fairly complicated pieces of kit. However, they come ready for assembly, like a Lego set. The advice here is to take two full days and install it yourself. If you want a technician, install it with them.
You need to know this piece of equipment very well. Manfred, the solar guru, installed his watermaker under the forepeak bunk. When I looked at it it was like a piece of art, such was the perfection he sought when installing the pipes, membrane and motors.
Where to get the work done
Naturally one of the yachting capitals is more likely to have the volume of equipment, the chandleries and the technicians that make it worthwhile as a place to fix your boat than a small backwater. The Solent (UK) was always known to be fairly expensive but with very good tradespeople (it's probably a lot cheaper right now too).
Parts of Spain and Portugal are known to be of great value. French ports are particularly good for those owning French production boats. Likewise, if you're in the Caribbean, the French islands of St Martin, Guadeloupe and [in particular] Martinique are very good to have work done.
Trinidad used to be good but has lost its appeal (and has actually become expensive now). The BVI are fairly expensive but there are a good number of technicians there. New Zealand has some renowned boat technicians. There are plenty of places I have omitted - let's wait for the comments section to shed light here.
If you're in two minds about buying a boat, don't buy one. If you decide you will buy one, get your cash ready and make a cash offer at a low price, "ready to settle this month subject to survey". When you get the survey, in the outputs ask the surveyor to include a list of "things to fix" that you can put back into your offer.
When you take the boat, get good quality batteries with a decent capacity and load up on solar. If you can afford it, get a watermaker. Everyone's situation is different so take all this advice with a grain of salt. There are exceptions all over the place. I hope this helps. Enjoy your sailing!
About Sailing Virgins
Sailing Virgins runs skipper courses out of its base in the British Virgin Islands. If you'd like to bring your sailing up a notch, we run intermediate and advanced skipper courses. One such course runs along the eastern islands of the Caribbean, from the British Virgin Islands to Martinique.
If you are thinking about doing some serious sailing there is no better on-ramp than to spend a couple of weeks sailing this route with us. Email us for more information or peruse our website at sailingvirgins.com. Celine made a fabulous video showing what a week with us looks like - you can see that here.
Thanks to the following people for assisting with this article. Please note this doesn’t mean these people endorse everything in the article - that’s the author’s responsibility so be kind to them. :)
Joe Bottomley, Brett Umberg, Jamie Oliver Cox, Leon Dalton, Robert Kell