Don’t Buy a Boat…


You’re thinking you want a boat or maybe a bigger boat. Are you sure about that?


Owning a boat comes with advantages and the feeling of freedom, for a while anyway. When the reality of boat ownership sets in, you had better have some serious skills, time and reliable cashflow to keep your lifestyle afloat.

Buying a boat is a steep learning curve. We research the design and try to uncover the secrets that all boats have. Secrets the designer compromised on. Secrets the builder built into the boat. Secrets those responsible for maintaining the boat allowed to happen over time.

Knowing all of a boats secrets the day it becomes your responsibility is a tall order, if not impossible.

The day that boat you decided to own is yours, those secrets start to become your reality. Your boat can become a bad dream, the kind that is difficult to wake up from.

This article is a reminder for existing boat owners and a reality check for prospective boat owners.

We are going to look at;

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    Some of the realities of owning a boat that most of us underestimate.
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    The first step you should take to ensure you have perpetual enjoyment form your purchase.
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    The alternatives to boat ownership that can save you thousands and give you more time and experience on the water.

Don’t buy a boat unless…

In the check list below I have come up with some of the realities of owning a boat. Most of us underestimate or tend to ignore those realities, because they get in the way of the dream. Next thing you know your boat is one of thousands unused and slowly deteriorating, just moored. Don’t buy a boat unless you can tick these boxes:

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    You are prepared to spend way more time and money than you think you'll have to.
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    You have set up a reasonable dedicated budget and/or separate income streams for your boating lifestyle.
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    You don’t mind parting with large sums of money to Government agencies and Insurance companies for potentially little or no return.
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    You are prepared to spend a large percentage of your time fixing or upgrading gear, when you’d rather be out adventuring.
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    You have the time to take your boat to sea or you live aboard, to get good value relative to the cost.
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    You are prepared to learn new skills, sometimes at great expense, formally or through your mistakes.
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    You have access to trustworthy and reliable tradesmen that you are prepared to reward fairly for their skills.
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    You are willing to spend money based on value rather than the cheapest available.
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    You understand the concept of “no free lunches”, a cheap boat will likely cost more in the long run.
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    You are prepared to risk owning an item that is difficult to sell for anything close to what you paid for it.
I could go on, but the picture is clear. Owning a boat has a lot of hidden expenses. The demands on your time and money are relentless. Your skills may be tested beyond what you thought yourself capable of.

If you have all of the above sorted, you can expect to live an adventurous life on the water, full of choices.

The power of the sailing dream

Never underestimate the power of the sailing dream to blind you from the obvious.

When I purchased our family yacht after years of dreaming, I already had a respectable level of knowledge about boats. 

For years I went down various paths exploring the options. Investigating the possibility of designing and building a new boat. I discussed my drawings with Brett Bakewell-White, John Lidguard and Chris Sayer. They were kind to me, happy to share their vast experience and ideals. If you want a reality check talk to a professional designer. By talking to them I formed a good picture of the yacht I wanted for family cruising.

I searched for years to find the yacht of my dreams. A yacht I could afford to buy. I was focused on various aspects of design, what I liked what I didn't.

The powerful dream of one day owning a family cruising yacht and sailing the world blinded me to the number one thing that I should have been focused on. How to fund a world sailing cruise with a family of four. That should have been the first thing a got sorted.

My wife instinctively knew funding the dream beyond the purchase of the yacht was important. She presented some great ideas on how to invest the lump sum I was about to get having served 20 years in the Navy. Her ideas fell on deaf ears. I couldn't be told. The dream was blinding me from the big picture. I thought the boat had to come first.

All I wanted to do was cruise the world with my family, give them big distant horizons.

When I was young, I read books about the great adventurers, sailing the world. How they picked up odd jobs here and there to survive. That may have been easy enough to achieve back then, but try getting a job in a foreign country now and the risks are high.

The world has changed. The very first thing I should have focused on was setting up investments or portable income streams to fund repairs, maintenance, and lifestyle.

Don’t be blinded by the boat of your dreams. The boat you end up with will be determined by how well you achieved the first step of boat ownership. 

Step one; create some way to fund the inevitable ongoing costs. If you want to travel for extended periods you should focus on setting up portable income systems.

Even if you have a bank load of money saved, the sight of the bank balance dropping faster than you expected is emotionally draining.

The Proof is Everywhere

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself, or a live-aboard boat owner next time you dock walk.

Ask “how often do some of these boats around here leave the dock?” Then ask "why is that"? Keep asking why enough times and you will get the answer "The owner doesn't have enough money" or "they don't have enough time". The two go hand in hand really. Most of us trade our time for money.

You can pick the boats where the dream has died or been put on the back burner. They have been stripped of furling sails, their canvas work is becoming faded, the stitching failing. The decks have a dull layer of dirt over them and the paintwork is getting chalky. They look unused.

These boats become an opportunity for someone with the right resources, skills and systems in place, but they're a trap for the next dreamer that comes along.

As you walk around Marinas and gaze out over mooring areas, do a bit of soul searching. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Ask questions of yourself;

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    Am I willing to commit to the responsibilities surrounding owning a boat?
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    Do I have the skills,  or time to learn the skills I need to maintain a boat?
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    Can I manage the daily operation of the vessel without breaking or damaging expensive components?
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    Do I really have the ability to set aside sufficient funds on a regular basis to cover costs, even when away cruising?

If you answer no to any of those questions, maybe you should look at the alternatives first.

Alternatives to Boat Ownership

In my ​podcast with Istvan Kopar here, he strongly advises not buying your own boat until you have made sure that sailing is really your thing.

...if you are dreaming about cruising around the world or living like a sea gypsy and moving on sea, first I think you should test yourself and get the taste of it. You can do this in a charter situation, you can do this to hook up with the right people who owns boats and so on. I think that would be a major thing because I saw the pain of the guys – actually they became my friends thanks to these special deliveries, but they realised that it’s a different story to own a boat and be responsible in its maintenance and keep it up, and not to mention it’s very different to live on board. It’s a very confined area, very small. It can be really very satisfying for the right people who are a kind of created for this lifestyle, but it’s not for everyone.

Here are some alternatives to boat ownership;

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    Join a Sailing Club - Virtually all clubs have the desire to grow sailing comunities. They have systems and courses to help new sailors learn the basics and can help with crew placement. 
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    Charter a  Sailboat - With some basic knowledge or certification you can maximize your time on the water without the hassle of maintenance issues.
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    Cross oceans as volunteer crew - You don't just learn about sailing on an ocean passage, you also learn a lot about yourself, some of which you may not like. Stay calm and do your share.
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    Pay to be part of a race -  Major races like the "Clipper Round The world" or local events like those available through sites like "Performance Yacht Race" are great ways to fast track your learning and gain experience.  These businesses deliver practical and theory learning for a reasonable fee.
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    Get qualified and get paid - If you are relatively young, the super yacht industry is a great option. You work and learn alongside professional mariners. Many of your living expenses will be paid for. 

These options don't give you the same freedom you could expect on a boat of your own.

They do free you from hidden costs and time lost on the water due to maintenance and repairs.

Joining a yacht club is perhaps the best value for beginners. Boat owners need a good supply of casual crews. Yacht clubs often have systems in place to help owners crew their yachts. It's a win win situation. The easier it is for owners to get a crew together, the more likely they are to race in club events, then it follows that the club is able to provide it's members with facilities and management of events. If you want to get a better feel for how it all works, listen to the Podcast I did with my cousin, Roger Cook.

The closest alternative to owning your own boat is hiring a charter yacht. When you charter a yacht you'll have the choice between Bareboat [self-drive] and professionally crewed charter boats.

Nearly every country in the world that has a significant navigable water mass has a charter fleet these days. There are so many options within the charter boat industry, that to do this subject justice I’d need to dedicate a whole blog article to this subject.

For now, all I will say is,if you were to put aside the cost of marina mooring fees for the boat you don’t own yet, in 12 months those funds would go a long way to paying for a significant charter yacht holiday, without the maintenance costs, [time and money].

Or you could cross oceans as volunteer crew on other people’s yachts. The best way to get access to boat owners looking for crew is to join a web service dedicated to matching crew with boat owners. Often no prior experience is needed. Just google "find crew for an ocean yacht" and up they pop, websites dedicated to helping you with this.

Or you could do what I did in 1987, put notices on marina notice boards where seasonal cruising yachts do repairs and maintenance prior to an ocean passage. This is how I sailed my fist ocean passages [9000 miles] at the age of 28. Often the only cost is a contribution to food.

Another great way of getting knowledge is to get friendly with a Delivery Skipper or two. If you have a lifestyle where you can drop everything and disappear for a few weeks, helping to deliver yachts is a good option.

Antione Cousot talks about how he went sailing for the first time in our pod​cast. He didn't have any experience. Here is some of his story.

The first time was I actually went to Caribbean to see some friends and the father of my friend was a skipper – was a professional skipper and he said, “Antoine just come with me. We’ll take a boat from St Martin and we go to Martinique one of the French island.” I say, “Yeah. I’ve never been on a sailing boat,” and he said “No worries. Just come along.” I spent a week doing that and it just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe that it was so cool. Of course, with the Caribbean you get palm trees and sandy beach, blue water and everything. The lifestyle – it was just crazy.

Maybe by investing in yourself you could get qualified and get paid.

Get some qualifications that are recognised by the super yacht industry and earn while you learn.

There is a huge industry hungry for young motivated people with a good work ethic. People that are free from personal commitments, willing to live a transient lifestyle. People like this are ideal for work in the super-yacht industry.

My son Hamish talks about his pathway to working in the super-yacht industry in this podcast. He’s only been in the industry for just over a year as I write this. Already he has travelled to France, Germany the Caribbean, transited the Panama Canal, visited the Galapagos Islands, then the South Pacific Islands. He left Samoa this month for a 21-day passage back to America, through the Panama Canal again. many of the skills you learn in this industry will transfer perfectly to a life of boat ownership, later in life when you have the all the boxes in my check list ticked.

Many people pay to be part of a race.  I hinted before about major offshore races like the "Clipper Round The world" or local events like those available through sites like "Performance Yacht Race". These options appear to be great value, giving you an adventure to talk about for years into the future. 

If you think the cost of paying to race around the world is high, you truly underestimate the cost of owning an ocean going boat.

If you still feel that owning your own yacht is the only option for you The Royal Yachting Association and American Sailing Association are leaders in the industry when it comes to learning. They have a wide range of both practical and theory courses available.

This is the approach Will Calver took prior to buying his family yacht, then sailing half way around the world from England to New Zealand. You can listen to his  full story here. Here's a wee snippet of what he said.

I suddenly thought, “Jeepers if I’m going to take the family out and we’re going to be in all sorts of conditions, I really wanted to be able to sail professionally I guess.” That’s where I took a sabbatical from work pretty much for six months and I did a full-time, seven days a week course which ended up with me getting a yacht master ocean certificate. They call that a zero to hero course kind of thing. I’d already done quite a lot of sailing prior to that, but what it enabled you to do is sail an awful lot of different boats up to including seventy-two foot boats which is not something you get the chance to do, and to skipper them as well.

We’d sail constantly. I think we did a twenty-one day, non-stop, and I say non-stop twenty-one days on the boat just sailing in and out of the UK to France, to the channel islands and that’s an invaluable experience for sailing because it’s some really adverse conditions you can get in that area. Everything you get in sailing crossing oceans is pretty straight-forward – kind of set off and you arrive three weeks later, but if you’re sailing around the coast and it’s a big tide, and you’ve got to navigate and you’ve got shipping, and you’ve got all the other dangers that are involved. The dangerous bit is when you get close to the land, it’s not when you’re out in the middle of the ocean.

I hope all this gives you a bit of a reality check.

Owning a boat is not all palm trees and trade winds.

The day you buy a boat, you buy the whole package, expenses, time lost on the water doing maintenance, educating yourself to become knowledgeable enough to cope with a raft of problems that will surely come your way. All this can consume the years, sap your motivation and kill the dream. Next thing you know time is running out to achieve half of what you planned to do.

Seriously consider the other options if you can't answer yes to the questions in my check sheet towards the beginning of this post.

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1 comment
Dianne Jewell says October 30, 2017

I love this post! You are the boat-master Lindsay! Great advice and even better Checklist.

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