Serenity or the Millennium Falcon: Choosing My First Sailboat

What did Malcolm Reynolds of the hit TV series Firefly and Han Solo have in common? Well, I’d venture to say they both loved their ships. And that is a very important part of owning your floating home; if you don’t love her, she’ll be worth less than that dollar menu hamburger.  After all, love keeps her afloat…or in the air.

That said, there are several factors which influence the decision of which sailboat to buy. The most important thing to remember is this: there is no perfect boat. I repeat, there is no perfect boat. Every boat is a compromise between these factors. The key is to know where you’ll compromise, how much you’ll let those factors change, and your will power to let that be OK.

  • Money: Let’s get this out of the way. A sailboat will cost you money. The question is, how much up front, and how much to keep her? We’ll continue to delve into the holistic finances of sailboat living over the lifetime of this site, but looking from 10,000 feet, you need to think through:
  • How much will my purchase cost be, including any taxes, registration fees, and broker/dealer commission? You need to know the immediate cost if you agree to buy.
  • What are the average operating costs going to be? It’s usually best to think of these in terms of per-foot costs. Slips are typically priced on a per-foot basis, as are hauling out fees to get her on land for repairs, some insurance products, and others. This is also the place to think through the totality of your live aboard experience. If you don’t know where you’ll keep a boat, you’ll have a harder time making a rational decision, especially on size.
  • What are the estimate costs to complete necessary and desired improvements? There’s going to be something, it should be prioritized, and you’ll most likely be 50% off. But these are real costs too.

This post was previously setup as a high-level synopsis of all of our sailboat purchases, but I’m re-purposing it into a detailed look at my 2002 decision to buy my first live aboard, a Cal 28 flat-top named SeaWitch.

My new bride and I while I was moving off.

My new bride and I while I was moving off.

A Bored College Student

Well, maybe not bored, but unsatisfied. March of 2002 I took off with my girlfriend for spring break in London. A topic of conversation was my plans after graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. Like my classmates, I would soon graduate and gain a commission as a naval officer, specifically a submarine officer. My next duty station would be Charleston, SC, to attend nuclear power training. Many of my friends were looking into various living situations: apartment complexes, buying a starter home, the decision of living alone versus roommates. Decisions every college grad will face. In my head, these seemed like perfectly fine things, but I really wanted to do something different.

A project mentor planted the seed in my head about living aboard a sailboat. His girlfriend and he were doing the same thing. He had many good things to say about it. Thus, after returning from England, I got to work doing my research. A guy in my unit grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and had a small 19 footer. I could take a look and maybe even spend a weekend aboard just to trial run things. I began checking out sailing books from the library, and spent hours searching through the limited online offerings from fledgling websites of cruising. My roommate was on the sailing team and had some thoughts as well, and my previous summers sailing for professional training helped frame some of my thoughts.

Fundamentally, I worried about the following things:

1) How big or small of a sailboat did I really need?

2)  How much boat could I afford (both initially and on-going)?

3) What hurdles existed between sitting in my dorm room and being a “successful” live aboard?

The Challenges

At the time, several significant challenges existed which have largely been mitigated over time. Things such as:

  • How do you find sailboats for sale? The local classified ads in newspapers and the beginnings of some online brokerage sites were all that I had available. In the end, it was foot work and driving which led me to the Maryland Marina in Essex, MD, where I did my first surveys and eventually bought Seawitch.
  • How to purchase a sailboat? Thankfully my person bank had several options for boat loans, and my personal savings helped to supplement.
  •  How do I figure out all of the unknowns? I made a few “blind” purchases of recommended cruising books, hoping to gain the knowledge necessary to answer my unknown questions, and relied heavily on the experiences of others gained through conversations and the internet’s early forums. Much of it was valuable, much of it was suspect. I had to sort out a lot of chaff.

Finding My New Home

In April of 2002 I arrived at the Maryland Marina on a reasonably warm Saturday. In hand were color printouts of several boats they had for sale via their business webpage, a small toolkit with tape measure and flashlight, and a notebook. Sadly, digital cameras were not really as available, and I may have brought my super awesome Canon ELPH with drop-in film.

I asked the manager if I could spend a few hours looking over the sailboats in question. No worries, he said, and tossed me keys to each of them. The entire afternoon was spent crawling over each of three offerings, probing the recesses of bilges and under lockers. I learned a bunch that day, including:

  • Finding a sailboat under 30 feet with headroom for a tall guy was practically impossible.
  • Finding a sailboat in my price range over 30 feet was also unlikely.
  • The smell of musk in a locker would be ingrained in my mind forevermore.
  • While it would eventually feel much smaller, a 28 foot sailboat on stands looks huge.

After noting as many of the features as I could during my personal survey, I returned the keys and asked for contact information for two vessels. The Cal 28 had risen to the top of my short list.

A Cal 28 on the hard; similar to the one I found in Maryland

A Cal 28 on the hard; similar to the one I found in Maryland

cal 28 (4)

The Cal 28 sailing (note the dodger over the companionway; something I always wanted but never got around to)

 

After two phone calls and another afternoon going over the boat with the owner, I made the decision to buy SeaWitch for the sum of $8500 (2002 dollars).

Resources for those interested:
Stirling Law’s Cal 28 webpage; still the most comprehensive of any on this model

The Next Step of My Future

Back to the factors listed above, I financed my first liveaboard, so thought of things in terms of both monthly and total costs. SeaWitch was sold to me for $8500. Taxes and registration came out to around $400. I was responsible for the launch fee, since I would liveaboard on land for several months due to my work schedule. $400 for launch and getting the mast back up. The seller paid the seller broker fee, and I was not represented by a buyer’s broker, so no fee there. Total initial outlay: $9300. My note was for slightly more, with a monthly payment of $230.

At 28 feet, my per-foot costs remained pretty reasonable. My slip in Charleston, SC, was around $10/ft plus metered electricity. This averaged $30-40 per month. Cable TV was included (although I’m a proponent of doing without that burden), and for internet I needed a telephone line for dial-up, adding another $30/mo. Total cost to have a slip, parking spot for my car, electricity, water, phone and cable: $350/mo. This is $4200/yr

My plan was to haul out every other year to do maintenance on the bottom and tackle any odd jobs. Asking around the marina, I reasoned the total cost for haul out, storage on land for a week, and launch, would be around $500. There was a yard I could do my own work at (becoming rarer these days), which would have saved me some money. Including bottom paint, total bi-annual cost: ~$1000.
If you amortize that, I needed to save about $40/month for that cost.

Lastly, upgrades. All the normal items came with the boat: sails, engine, safety gear to pass a USCG inspection, and some interior accouterments. But to make her a liveaboard, I needed a number of “home” items, including dishes and kitchen ware, bedding, painting the interior, some rugs, and several small pictures and knickknacks to call it a home. I was also moving to the South, and I quickly realized living without A/C there was trouble. Then it turned to winter, and I needed to buy a couple of heaters. These small costs can add up quickly; like several hundred dollars in the first couple of months. I also had a running list of marine upgrades to better the boat itself: changing out from a portapotti to a marine head, adding better sail controls, and the worst offender: maintaining, and then replacing, the Atomic 4 inboard engine.

By the end of the first year aboard, I had spent an average of $300/mo on these kind of “extras” that ballooned out of control. Again, I hope to cover some of my “lessons learned” in future posts to discuss items I purchased, why they did or did not work, and the actual value of them.

One of the Best Decisions of My Life

Ultimately, the decision to move aboard was probably one of the best in my life. Some of the reasons were tangible, but most were related to those influential experiences a young man or woman can have.

  • I learned very quickly what a spending plan was and why I needed to keep to it. Owning your own home has costs and they must be managed.
  • I learned to become more self-sufficient and a generalist. You can’t call the landlord and complain about a broken water pipe; you need to fix that quickly or else you’ll sink! Living aboard provided many opportunities to learn new skills, practice new abilities, and make decisions that had significant consequences.
  • I learned to ask for help. While I tried to do as much as possible on my own, I also had a community of sailors surrounding me who were readily available for help and advice. I learned more that first year from them than anyone could possibly gain through reading magazines, books, or articles online.
  • I learned about myself. During a handful of significant experiences, such as grounding the boat, a fire aboard, several near-sinkings, and facing the choice of sending my delivery crew home and continuing on solo, I had more opportunities to grow and learn about who I was than every before. These seminal experiences ultimately helped shape who I am today, and continue to be a source of positive influence on my life.

In a future post I’ll detail the same process that led to shifting resources away from the Cal 28 and towards a new future with our Tartan 37, Persephone, over on the island of Guam.

Note: Due to the poor timing of technology, most of my pictures of SeaWitch were either on film or my first digital camera, which were destroyed during several events later in life. I hope to recover some photos from friends or otherwise and add to this post later if possible. The glory of having a camera on every phone these days; one forgets how convenient that really is.

Photo credit: From the Stirling Law Cal 28 website, SailTexas advertisement, and my own collection

Decisions Decisions: Factors in Sailboat Upgrades and Improvements

http://volkscruiser.blogspot.com/2013/08/if-it-aint-broke.html

 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.

 Facts

 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?