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

Sailboat Saturday: Columbia 29

While I’ve been delayed in writing this, the post on Craigslist continued to be available. Perusing the internets for a fun sailboat to highlight I found this ad for a Columbia 29.  The basic specifications:

$1500 o.b.o.
1964 Columbia Sailboat Model C-29
1997 15 hp Honda Outboard – runs great
Presently on the hard
Includes five jack stands

Columbia 29 sailing

Columbia 29 on the hard

Columbia 29 interior

Columbia 29 settee

What makes this a good potential liveaboard?

Well, a few things stand out to me. First, at 29 feet, this is slightly larger than the Cal 28 I lived aboard, making me just a little bit size jealous. It’s a good length for single-handing, and the layout down below appears to be usable in the same capacity.

Also, the hull form is something you won’t find being used much in newer vessels. A decently long keep with a protected rudder. See the layout drawings found at one of the Columbia 29’s owner websites here.

Some of the data on this model:

Length Overall 28′ 6″
Length Waterline 22′ 6″
Beam 8′ 0″
Draft 4′ 0″
Displacement early 7400, late and MkII 8400 lbs.
Ballast (lead) early 3120, late and MkII 4100/4120 lbs.
Fuel Capacity (with inboard) 12 gal.
Fresh Water Capacity 35 gal.
Sail Area 382 sq. ft.
Head Room 6′ 0″
Power – Concealed outboard well (standard), Inboard 8 HP Palmer (optional)

Note that last point, a big seller for me: an outboard well. In this case the specific boat had an outboard mounted on an external bracket. Not bad, but not great either. In my estimation the outboard well is one of the most unappreciated features in these 1960-1970’s era sailboats. Check out James Baldwin’s excellent builds over at Atom Voyages for examples of this feature being added in after market.

Factors to consider:

Certainly lots of things to wonder about with this specific boat, such as:

1) Price: given the low selling price ($1500 at the time I’m posting this) my spidy-sense is kicking in. Part of the price is due to a desire to sell quickly, but this also likely means there’s equipment missing or in need of replacement. Much like the Watkins 27 we looked at early, I’d look into what basic equipment is already provided and the state/health of these things. If I had a fictional budget of $8000-$10,000, there’s probably a lot that could be done. Such as:

– Buy a good gallon of epoxy and fillers to tackle any fiberglass projects that would crop up. It’s easy to learn to use, and given the vessel’s age there’s likely a number of holes and areas which could benefit from some structural loving.

– Electronics: I’d like to think I’d be cautious, but given the age and potential budget, there’s probably a lot that could be done to add some modern conveniences where they are absent. A good depth sounder, compass, and maybe a small chart plotter wouldn’t break the budget and could be found used on eBay or with further Craigslist searching.

– Propulsion: given the low price, I might consider changing out the engine. The 15hp would likely fetch something when sold, but a newer model high efficiency/high thrust long shaft would be a nice-to-have feature and probably better mileage. Brand new with controls and such it may run into the $3000 range, but is worth the money.

– Liveability: Much like the Watkins we covered, some self-sustaining gear to provide a better liveaboard situation, such as solar or wind power, possibly an additional deep cycle battery or two for house loads, and maybe a DC-powered freezer/fridge unit.

Of course, the trouble with low-price fixer-uppers is being honest about the need-want decisions. A diligent owner could really stretch their dollar and get a lot of boat for their money. At the same time, it’d be easy to sink a bunch of cheddar into low-priority fixes or conveniences which don’t improve the value or utility of the vessel.

In closing, there are a few other Columbia 29 resources I found. Given this one is on the hard, in a perfect setting to give it a good survey and dig into any problem areas, there’s a lot of potential for this particular vessel and this model in general. Sta y tuned for the next installment.

Sailboat Data basic coverage

Write-up at Bluewater Boats

7 Reasons Living Aboard in 2013 Rocks More Than A Decade Ago

Photo Credit: b316728 on Flickr

Loran-C circa 1970: Photo Credit: b316728

In the summer of 2002 I purchased, moved aboard, and sailed my new home, SeaWitch, to Charleston SC. A Cal 28 flat topper was certainly an interesting choice of living for a young naval officer, but it opened up some of the best years of my life. But that’s not to say it was all easy; far from it. The learning curve was sharp! I’ve thought about this often in the last few years, and what the differences might be in living aboard today vice then. Ten years doesn’t seem like a lot, but our society has made huge advances in some areas in that time. Let me preface this list with some context. This comparison is made against my live aboard lifestyle. I think it applies to other lifestyles as well, but maybe in different ways. It’s all perspective.

– Relatively small sailboat living (say under 35 feet in length)

– A working professional career (i.e. still going to work regularly)

– Desire to stay in contact with folks easily

– Staying on the U.S. East Coast conducting local cruising In not particular order….

1) Cell Phones Are More Advanced!

In 2003 I left Charleston for a short training program in Connecticut I knew I was moving farther south to Amelia Island at the end, so I was looking for a new cellular provider to support me down there. And provide service in CT. And a phone to possibly be a modem for my laptop while aboard. And be small. And do awesome things. I spent an unseemly amount of money for a Cingular candy bar style phone, that with a super-expensive cord (sold separately) could possibly tie my laptop to internet for an outrageous rate. And it didn’t work. Fast forward to 2013. How common are smart phones? Heck, they are computers. Bottom line. I can do more on my Motorola Droid2 Global than I could on my entire computing suite in 2003. And for about the same monthly price. The networks have changed since cellular became popular in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, which means better choices in providers and wider coverage. And there are several independent marketers trying to level the playing field, such as Ting. Better choices here would have meant better connectivity in more locations.

2) Tablet Computers

Sometime after moving down to Amelia Island, I left my laptop under a leaking hatch when it rained. Sure enough, my very enjoyable Sony Vaio laptop was a goner .. I found an auction for a View Sonic tablet, the V100. I think it cost me close to $500. Ran Windows XP. Had a huge 40gB hard drive and wifi. And needed a magic stylus to write on the screen (that also cost $50 to replace). It wasn’t bad, just…old. Again, fast forward to January 2012 when I decided to consolidate my electronic empire into one(ish) device: a Motorola Xoom tablet. No more portable DVD player, netbook., or Kindle. It was the closest to “the one thing” that I’ve gotten. I can’t describe all the ways a nice tablet like this (and the great apps running these days) would have benefited me living aboard. Entertainment station. Small-form computing with a bluetooth keyboard. Chart plotting. Inventory. Managing my finances on Mint. Photos on projects or memories. Everything stored, synced, and backed up in Evernote. Shelf space saved by having books on there. Sigh… And all for less than I paid for that V100, and no pen required.

3) The Internet Has Grown

One advantage folks have in 2013 over my old self is the vastness of the internet and its exponential growth. The availability of knowledge and information is substantial In 2003, I was spending several hundred dollars a year on books, both for reference material (how to do certain skills or activities) and motivation (what were other people doing.) Fast forward to 2013 and there’s plenty of both, online, and mostly free. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay folks for their time and experiences. But, no one needs to go to Barnes & Noble and shell out significant sums just to learn whether this lifestyle is of interest. Instead, the avid reader can find numerous blogs of those already out there doing it. Many sailors keep well-maintained websites detailing improvement projects and repairs; YouTube videos exist for practically anything, and the variety of formats means there’s information available in some media for everyone. Are you interested in a particular design, or constrained to look for a new-to-you vessel in one geographic location? Great! Head onto Craigslist or eBay and set alerts for what you’re looking for. Read the numerous reviews many designs have received. Classifieds? If you want to, there are several online platforms selling boats, so paper is practically a thing of the past. Or shout out on Facebook and see who you know that knows a guy who knows a guy. The barrier to entry has never been lower.

4) Social Connect-ability

While not a game changer, social tools like Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we connect with others, and that is certainly applicable to the sailing sphere. If you’re a coastal sailor, it’s not unheard of to do check-ins with family via Twitter on your phone. Keep up with that couple you met on the docks in North Carolina via Facebook. Reach out to like-minded individuals on a topic or location via various forums and Facebook pages. Heck, one could even keep up a sailing resume via LinkedIn for potential clients. The danger of these tools is the enticing seat of the armchair sailor. It’s also never been easier for the critic to come home from work, sit at his or her desk, troll the forums for someone seeking inspiration or practical advice, and proceed to kill dreams. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes innocently. I’ve frankly avoided forums lately due to my hiatus from cruising. I don’t want to become that guy. Just keep in mind that there’s a place for everyone in this community. Some folks have earned their stripes; some are still earning them. And some will never earn them and sit on the side and spout ignorance.

5) Depreciated Boat Value

I purchased my first big boat, a 1970 Cal28 flat-top, in 2002 for the whooping price of $8500. Sailboats up to the lower 30’s were going for as low as $10-15K. What’s funny is these same boats haven’t really changed value too much. If anything, some prices have gone down due to the depressed economy. Bob, over at Boat Bits, described a reader’s story that if you find a good used boat it’s likely to be snapped up quickly, so come with cash in hand. That said, in my opinion the market has only gotten better for someone interested with getting in. A five digit budget of $10K to $30K will yield an amazing amount of quality used vessel. Even under $10K there’s lots of availability. And since inflation has theoretically reduced the value of my 2002 money, the deals are even better today.

6) Lifestyle Design Is In

I’d like to say that cruising sailors defined this term before the likes of Tim Ferriss got a hold of it. But, the increasingly visible segment of society who are shaping their careers and lives with flexibility, mobility, and freedom make this idea something important to incoming live aboard sailors. The perfect example of lifestyle design was my neighbor in Charleston, SC. He was an A/C repairman. He had the capacity to do much more (education, credentials, grit) but willingly chose to be content with his limited (by most social standards) role in society. He would find an employer, who provided tools, truck, and jobs, and work for a period of one year. In his spare time during the evening he free-lanced doing A/C repair on our marina’s boats. After that one-year period, he’d quit, sell off anything too bulky to carry around, and took his liveaboard sailboat, a well-maintained O’Day 25, down south to the Caribbean for one to two years. Then he’d come back to a new location in the U.S. and repeat. He’d even move around during the year if it suited him. While the fantasy of simply writing about your adventures in a blog and earning a six-figure income is highly unlikely, there’s plenty of opportunity for folks to take advantage of the changing face of business to combine sailboat living with a career, or leverage existing technology to make traditional cruising careers more efficient and effective.

7) Digitized Media

Not that it was debilitating, but in 2002 the collection of stuff aboard SeaWitch was pretty substantial. I had a hearty set of VHS tapes, a growing DVD selection in both cases and CD sleeves, the music family of your typical college student, and an appetite for reading. Space was a big problem. In 2013, I’m on a mission to downsize our media footprint, which is helpful in our home but makes me feel confident we could shift to the boat easily without a lose of lifestyle. Many of my books are purchased via Kindle, and I have plans for a digitizer in the near future to keep all of my favorites near at hand. Most all of our music is in mp3 format and on our computers and phones. Even our DVD collection is largely backed up on an external hard drive in mobile format. With little effort, my laptop and two hard drives could find their home easily aboard (and I tend to keep accessories aboard so I need not think of them.) and we’d be 90-95% established. With a handheld scanner and small-form printer, we have a tiny office ready to go! So much different than my set of four file boxes aboard a 28′ sailboat…

Convenience In Line With Simplification

Not that one needs all of these things to live aboard. Hardly. But, for those who enjoy some of the conveniences and comforts of modern living, the shift to a water-based lifestyle is much easier these days. Consider your options and feel fortunate we’re living in a Golden Era of life!