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Owning a boat is a big commitment that should bring no end of satisfaction for the owner as well as the owner’s family and friends. In return for bringing all that joy, a boat deserves and needs a good deal of care and attention.

Caring for your boat is not just about scrubbing the decks and polishing the hull. It is also about getting to know your boat from stem to stern. This entails understanding as much as you possibly can about what goes on in every nook and cranny and how all the various systems of the boat work.

If you shy away from the prospect of keeping a boat well maintained and in good condition then perhaps boat ownership is not for you, unless you have the significant resources required to employ others to look after the boat for you. Even then you run the risk of not being able to cope with equipment failure or a breakdown at sea as you lack the technical skills and know-how to fix the problem.

Boat ownership

Whether “hands-on” or “hands-off”, an owner is the custodian of their boat in a similar way to a house owner is a custodian of their house. While a boat or house is in their possession then an owner is responsible for its upkeep until they pass it on to the next owner at some point in its future. However, a boat owner arguably needs to act much more responsibly than a home owner. A neglected house might fall down but at least it won’t sink. A boat owner has to think about the safety of all those who are going to travel on it during their ownership. Ownership can become challenging occasionally, but as long as the rewards and benefits outweigh the effort and costs involved then you should live in harmony with your boat and get years of pleasure from it.

You will also end up with an asset that should have a good re-sale value, as it will have been well looked after. A neglected boat will not only quickly drop in value but things can then spiral downwards until it becomes unsafe to use. That said, it is no use pretending that the costs of boat ownership are negligible. It is better to be brave, be realistic and to budget for expenditure. And be prepared to be in it for the long haul as boats may be easy enough to buy but invariably they are much more difficult to sell.

Boat care fundamentals

Leaving aside the costs for a few pages, it is worth thinking about a few fundamentals of what’s involved with caring for a boat.

Firstly, there are major differences between the work involved with “maintaining”, “repairing” and “refitting” a boat. These terms are often used fairly loosely and can lead to a fair amount of confusion. For the purposes of this book and as generally accepted in boating circles, here are some definitions to consider:

  • Maintain – to keep something in good condition.
  • Repair – to restore something that is damaged, faulty or worn to a good condition.
  • Refit – to replace or repair machinery, equipment and fittings.

Your boat’s history

It helps to know as much about your boat’s history as possible. Clearly, if you buy a brand new boat then this won’t apply, however you will still need to do the checks and keep records for the future. All the various systems and equipment on board will need servicing according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. There will be plenty to get your head around in the first year or two of ownership.

For the rest of us who own older boats then knowing their history will be a help when looking after them and making plans for their future. I made the mistake of buying a boat some time ago that had virtually no records. In the end I deeply regretted this as I discovered after I bought it that it had been seriously damaged in the past and was no longer 100% seaworthy.

I am ashamed to admit I also made the mistake of not commissioning a full survey but instead only having a lift out and hull inspection done by an engineer who was not a fully qualified surveyor. Huge mistake. I later discovered that although it had been repaired the hull was no longer sound and to have it stripped back and repaired properly was going to cost thousands. I decided to sell the poor old boat as soon as I could and lost money as a result. The two big lessons I learned were:

  • Only ever buy a second hand boat that comes with detailed records as you need to know what you are letting yourself in for.
  • Always have a full survey done by a qualified surveyor.

Keeping records

A boat’s records should provide information about maintenance schedules, when major work was done and when equipment was replaced or added to the boat. Without this information you are left guessing when things are likely to need replacing in the future and also what the costs are likely to be.

Keeping detailed records will help you when it comes to ordering spare parts, buying new sails, knowing when equipment is likely to need replacing and being able to estimate what your future costs are going to be. For example, if the boat had two new batteries five years ago then they are likely going to need replacing within one or two years maximum. If you know the standing rigging was replaced 8 years ago and it appears to still be in good condition, then you can expect another couple of years life from it, but not 5 or 10 years.

If there are gaps in the records, then contacting previous owners can help you build a more complete picture of what has happened in the past.

Doing regular checks

It is a good idea to get into the habit of checking over the boat on a regular basis, throughout the boating season. It is also important to deal with any minor issues or obvious defects as soon as they appear rather than allowing a situation to worsen.

These regular checks need not take up lots of time and if you make them part of your routine each time you visit the boat then under normal circumstances a few minutes is all that’s required if everything is in good order.

For example, all owners of boats with inboard engines that have raw water cooling systems know to check whether water is flowing out through the exhaust before setting off. They should also know that doing a slightly more thorough engine check might reveal the alternator belt needs tightening, or the raw water filter needs cleaning. Both can be fixed quickly and prevent a more serious situation from arising.

Likewise, a check on deck might reveal a halyard is showing obvious signs of chafe, a hairline crack has appeared at the base of a deck fitting, or perhaps a sail’s stitching is damaged. In such cases, a quick repair will be much easier to do than leaving a potentially more serious situation to occur. This approach applies to all vessels, whatever their age and type and is really just a question of common sense.

More thorough checks

More thorough checks can be done less frequently, depending on how much the boat is being used and if, for example, it has been out in heavy seas, when things get shaken up and fittings can become loose. This can apply to the connectivity between electrical components and circuitry for example.

At the end of the boating season, when the boat comes ashore and before it goes back in the water are the times to do still more thorough checks. This is time when rig and hull inspections can be carried out by professionals where necessary. Engines need more thorough inspections at this time, when heat exchanger tube stacks can be cleaned and exhaust elbows checked for corrosion blocking the flow of the raw water cooling.

Research and advice

There is plenty of reference information out there on boat maintenance. In fact, you could spend your entire life reading boating magazine articles, manuals, books and watching how-to videos about refitting boats on YouTube. The challenge is to find the specific piece of information you may be searching for that is relevant to your particular boat plus all its equipment and fittings. If you come across articles that relate directly to your boat and its equipment, hold on to them. Examples of these might include how to service a winch, bleed a diesel engine fuel system, service a seacock or trouble shoot a faulty vhf radio.

Operator manuals prove very invaluable and if your boat does not have copies aboard, then it is normally possible to download pdf copies and print them out for your files. Having the correct manuals will also be a help when ordering spare parts.

Reading up all such information is one thing, but when it comes to fixing and mending a boat then don’t be afraid to ask others for advice about how best to deal with a challenging job. By talking with others who have dealt with the same problem it can help you to decide whether this will be something you can do yourself or not.

 Being informed will also help when getting quotes to do the job and ensuring you will be getting a fair deal.

Calling in the professionals

Knowing when to call in the professionals is a case of knowing your limitations. If you are honest with yourself and know you can’t do a job as well as a pro can, then don’t be tempted to go it alone, as you might end up in a worse situation that you started with. Ask your boatyard and other boat owners for recommendations and make an effort to meet everyone who works on your boat. This is not always easy when your work commitments get in the way but do your level best.

Owners associations

If you own a class of boat that has an owners association, then it is a good idea to join the association. Most associations organise sailing rallies and social activities for their class, but with boat care in mind they also host forums to promote exchanges of information, experience and advice.

The forums can really help if you have a technical question you need an answer to, especially if the manufacturers of the boats are no longer in business. Many owners are more than happy to share their experiences with others and advise on the best course of action for you to take. This information exchange is especially useful when it comes to replacing specific parts but more general questions can lead to some conflicting answers that might leave you guessing as to what is the best way to proceed.

What does maintenance work involve?

Maintenance involves keeping something in good condition, as close to its manufactured state as possible. The maintenance of a boat involves things like cleaning, varnishing, painting, polishing, antifouling, servicing the engine, servicing the seacocks, and maintaining the gas and plumbing systems. It all amounts to a fairly considerable amount of work that can’t be ignored if you are to keep your boat in a safe and good condition.

Much of this work can be done by someone with basic skills, but even so there are usually right and wrong ways to do all these tasks, as we will see later in the book. When maintenance work is done by a yard, you can expect to pay a significant hourly rate for their time. However, if you are prepared to do some or all of this comparatively low skilled work yourself and can do so to a high standard, then you can save yourself a good chunk of money, provided you have the time and inclination to do so.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to do the work yourself then you will need to arrange to pay for the routine maintenance to be done by others. Most yards will have people on site who are able to do this work for you. It is always best to check with a yard before lifting out what maintenance work they are able to arrange for you and what their rates are going to be. There is no harm in asking other boat owners about their experiences with the standards of workmanship of local yards.

Repairing and refurbishing

In the end, almost every part or piece of equipment on a boat either wears out or breaks and at some time will need to be replaced. Certain items, for example running rigging, engine hoses and interior fittings, are easy enough to replace while others, such as the standing rigging, cutless bearings or through hull fittings are not so straight forward, even when replacing like for like. While it may be tempting to carry out these more complex tasks yourself, for peace of mind most owners tend to have these more demanding types of job done by professionals.

Much will depend on your experience and DIY skills, plus whether you have the time available and in some cases access to specialist tools. Another issue that creeps in here is the matter of sourcing spares, especially those which are no longer manufactured. This can take a prohibitive amount of time, depending on the age and class of your boat.   

Refit

A complete refit is usually a complex and lengthy process that requires a carefully planned project timeline, the drawing up of a realistic budget and experienced project management. Whether the project manager is the owner or a professional, their job is to ensure that both the project timeline and budget are kept on track. Some owners like to take on this role themselves, but in order to do this they need to have the time, resources and expertise to see the project through.

Some prospective boat owners go in search of old and neglected boats in need of complete refits in the hope that they will pick up a bargain. The boat market is swamped with such boats that can take years to sell. Many of these are virtually worthless as the costs of refitting them and making them seaworthy again will be likely to exceed the market value of the repaired boat. That said there are bargains out there for those who have the experience, resources and desire to renovate an old boat. This is good news for boatyards, as these boats often remain ashore indefinitely as they are painstakingly renovated.

Advice on refitting

There are plenty of trained shipwrights who have the experience to advise on whether a neglected boat is worth refitting or not. Some offer a service to help prospective buyers investigate a boat’s condition and to estimate what a refit would cost. While these services are not free, they are a safeguard against buying a boat that could turn into too big a project.

The rewards of boat ownership

It is no secret that the costs of running a boat soon mount up and these need to be factored in from the outset.

Not wanting to end this chapter on a downer (hard work, costs, more hard work, more costs) caring for your own boat brings a great deal of satisfaction. While being able to stand back and admire a well looked after boat in all its sparkling glory in the boatyard is one thing, I hope you will agree that the real rewards are to be enjoyed out on the water.

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