Decisions Decisions: Factors in Sailboat Upgrades and Improvements

 I’ve long been a fan of Bob’s writing, having enjoyed almost 7 years of daily (practically) posts from the Caribbean. He switched off of “BoatBits” for a while now, but started up a blog known as “Volkscruiser”, the implied meaning being a cruiser for the masses.

 I didn’t know it at the time, but I was joining the Volk when I purchased SeaWitch in 2002. An aged Cal28, she was one of the thousands of reasonably priced fiberglass production boats of the 70’s available in the U.S. These “classic plastics” are an ideal choice for the young, or beginning, liveaboard. If one sticks with a firm understanding of ROI.

Return on Investment

As a financial phrase, ROI means the ratio of profit to the amount invested. In life, ROI is a flexible term with a subjective meaning. Investment could mean time, money, attention, or effort. But harder to measure is “return”.

 In 2004, while on patrol with my first submarine, USS Rhode Island, I made the choice of bringing out the latest Defender catalog. Based in New England, Defender is a well-known source of all things marine. I spent several evenings flipping through the pages with a notebook next to me, jotting down ideas for upgrades to SeaWitch’s systems. Sometimes the pictures would remind of a part I knew needed replacing. Sometimes it was an improved product that promised additional utility or efficiency. Sometimes it was a whole new concept that I “knew” I needed to incorporate, i.e. solar charging for my batteries.

 I don’t regret spending the time day dreaming, but such behavior can become destructive with an older boat.


 When doing an initial survey or taking stock of what you’ve got, there are a few important things to keep in mind.

 1) No boat will ever be perfect: Even if you had unlimited resources, there’s always “something” else that could be improved. And use will always cause systems to fail, given enough time. The state of a sailboat is constantly changing. In that way, it’s really a living thing.

 2) You must understand the minimum effective state for your vessel: Call it whatever you want, but there’s a minimal amount of equipment or capability that a sailboat must have to sail properly and safely, and to carry you (and others) from point A to B. Any future purchase should be married to one of these things.

 3) Define what success looks like ahead of time: Measuring return is tough unless you know what it is you’re looking for. If I spent $1000 on a solar charging system, but always stayed at marinas, what was my return? I charge on shore power at every opportunity, maybe my engine charges, and I have a large capacity battery bank. Those solar panels aren’t doing anything other than making me look like a “real cruiser”. Vanity may be an appropriate measure, but just understand what it is ahead of time. Do you want to look like a cruising boat, or be a boat that cruises?

 Your Money or Your Life

 Most upgrades will not provide a financial benefit to the resale value of your sailboat. That’s just facts. It’s not much different than doing home makeover and improvements; most won’t pay for themselves, but some are more valuable than others. You should try to ensure that any effort made at improving your sailboat adds real value, in the form of convenience, safety, performance, or comfort, and if it does those things, then it will likely add to the “real” value of the vessel as well. If those $1000 solar panels leave my batteries topped off at all times, no need for shore power, and I spend a significant amount of time away from other sources, then I won’t mind if the resale value of my boat doesn’t go up by the total cost of installation. But, all things equal, a sailboat with good working systems will outsell one without, especially if marketed correctly.

As Bob mentions, a good filter to test purchases is the traditional advice: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

What systems do you look at first when deciding to upgrade or replace gear? Are traditional areas of concern still valid?